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Should We ‘Celebrate’ The British Empire’s Colonial Legacy?

There is an ill-conceived notion among the citizens of many ex-colonies of the European empires that they would have been better off under the foreigners’ rule. In any case, many of us (formerly the colonised) feel proud of identifying with symbols and legacies left behind by our former foreign masters. Many Pakistanis and Indians also live in barely disguised nostalgia for the time when the British ruled in the subcontinent, and when our part of the world supposedly made huge advances in the way of progress and modernity.

Whatever its reasons, a kind of colonial hangover remains among people who have far more reason to be enraged by the treatment they were subject to by conceited and unapologetic foreign powers. This article is merely a transcription of a video available on YouTube with the title “How Britain Stole $45 Trillion from India with Trains | Empires of Dirt”, produced by Vice News and presented by Zing Tsjeng. I am putting it here, firstly, for the benefit of those who haven’t come across it yet; secondly, for those who would rather read the text than watch the video; and, most importantly, for the purpose of awareness regarding the brutal reality of imperial rule behind all the justification, fanfare and glamor attached with it.

Below is a transcription of the video in text form:

There is a kind of half-as*ed liberal idea that while colonialism wasn’t great, at least Britain gave India the trains. And maybe that’s something they should be thankful for. After all, trains are pretty useful, especially in the seventh largest country on Earth.

So, colonialism, may be not all that bad?

Unfortunately, Britain also stole $45 trillion dollars from India, all the while exploiting religious divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities, and further turning them against each other.

And those beloved railways? They became the sites of mass slaughter, while Britain sat back and watched.

“Why India shouldn’t thank Britain for their Trains?”

Britain first got involved in India through the East India Company, which had its headquarters right here on Leadenhall Street [London].

A private company owned by London stockholders, the East India Company grew over the next 300 years to become a quasi-governmental body with its own army and laws, responsible for trading spices, cotton, silk and tea all over the world.

By 1858, ownership of the East India Company had been transferred to Queen Victoria after the failed Indian rebellion.

Trains were the brainchild of British engineers. The East India Company would use railways to transport exploited resources, like cotton and coal more efficiently around India. And it worked.

Between 1853-1924, a railway network was created to help Britain extract from India relentlessly. And It’s not like we gave India the railways either, by the way. We made India pay for them, and we ripped them off in the process. Despite Indian mechanics having their own efficient, cheap designs, Britain made India buy trains from them. Between 1854-1947, over 14,000 locomotives were imported from the UK to India. Initially, Indians weren’t even allowed to work on the trains. They were staffed entirely by white people, from the board directors to the ticket collectors.

The railways made little profit, but British shareholders who invested in its construction made vast returns, guaranteed at the expense of Indian taxpayers, who had to pay for it. India’s railways were basically like someone burgling your house, building a ramp to wheel all your stuff out, sending you a bill for that ramp, and expecting a round of applause at the end of it.

Now that the railways were built, Britain could get down to the task at hand: squeezing India for every last ounce of profit.

They were really good at it. In the 1600s, when the East India Company was established, Britain accounted for less than two percent of the world’s GDP, while India accounted for almost a quarter of it.

By the 18th century, Britain had become one of the most powerful empires in the world, while the prosperity of the Mughal Empire was fading fast. Britain relentlessly squeezed India for every last bit of resource for its own uses.

In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death, partly because their food was diverted towards British soldiers during World War II. Winston Churchill said, “the famine was their own fault, for breeding like rabbits.”

After it was no longer profitable to remain in India, and after receiving huge pressure from the Indian Independence Movement, the British finally left in 1947.

Before they went, they split the country into two, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, in an act that became known as Partition. But in their haste to get out of the country, British diplomats arranged a shoddy partition agreement that ignored the fact there would be inter-religious conflicts.

Cyril Redcliff, the British lawyer assigned to draw the borders of Pakistan and India, was given 40 days to do it.

After partition, millions of Muslims trekked to Pakistan and what is now known as Bangladesh, while Indians and Sikhs headed the other way. Violence between Pakistan and India ensued. Within a year of the British leaving, 15 million people were displaced, and between 1 and 2 million people were dead.

Trains became the sites for mass murder during the migration. Trains filled with refugees crossing the border on each side were stopped, and everyone on board was murdered. Women were captured and raped. Carriages were set on fire with petrol, with people still inside. The only ones spared were the drivers, so they could transport their trains full of dead bodies to the final destination.

The British knew about the train massacres, but they had already washed their hands clean of India. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, writing to Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India in 1947, said, “keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out.”

Despite all this – the four million starved to death, the careless partition, the 45 trillion dollars they stole from the Indian people – many don’t think that the British did anything wrong in India.

A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of respondents thought the British Empire was “something to be proud of,” and only 19 percent were ashamed of its misdeeds.”

Trains, cricket, empire. What could possibly be wrong with that?

This video is part of a series “Empires of Dirt” produced by Vice News.

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