Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire
By Caroline Elkins
On June 7, 2022, two Baloch students belonging to the philosophy department of the University of Karachi went missing. The families and friends of the students staged a protest in front of the Sindh Assembly. Local police forcefully dispersed the protesters and arrested 28 of them.
A few days later, on June 11, police in India killed two teenagers during a protest held after two members of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Earlier, meanwhile, on April 19, 2022, police in Sri Lanka had opened fire on protesters demonstrating against increased fuel prices and killed one unarmed man.
These incidents raise some serious questions, such as why do postcolonial states use force indiscriminately against their own citizens? Why is free speech curtailed in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India? Why, when they question state authorities, are citizens tried under the sedition provisions of the law?
It is important to note that there have been cases of state-directed violence in the West — including the United Kingdom — too. However, there are two main differences when it comes to postcolonial nations: one, there are no formal legal structures that give legitimacy to the state’s use of force against its citizens and, two, the frequency and intensity of such cases are much higher in comparison to world averages.
A book elucidates how violent suppression of dissent in postcolonial states is a direct result of the inherent violence of the British empire
This boils all questions down into one simple query: why are the postcolonial states so much more oppressive towards dissidents?
Caroline Elkins — Professor of History and African Studies at Harvard University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (she was also an expert witness in a lawsuit brought against the British government by Kenyan survivors of detention camps) — addresses this in her latest book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.
Elkins’s main argument is that postcolonial societies have embraced violent legacies from the British empire’s own systematic use of violence and she dissects the “ways in which state-directed violence in the British Empire have shaped large parts of the contemporary world.” Her deep dive into the historical account of the empire’s crimes in the 19th and 20th centuries is not about whether the British empire was good or bad, but about how and why its past continues to shape its colonies’ present.
In her view, it was the British who institutionalised violence to maintain order and seek legitimacy for their rule. Though colonisation ultimately came to an end in 1997 — when the UK handed Hong Kong back to China — the structures and institutional frameworks it created continue to exist. As a serious historian, Elkins demonstrates deep connections between the past and the present and urges the reader to have an engagement with the past in order to make the future any different.
The author explains that Britain made it clear that “backward” populations and their cultures needed to be civilised. The sentiment was translated into a “civilising mission” to reform imperial subjects and ultimately led to a “coherent ideology of liberal imperialism.” This ideology found its theoretical strength in “scientific racism’s evolutionary model.”
The idea was that these children of a lesser god needed “paternalistic guidance to reach full maturity” and Britain’s “civilising mission” rendered them “rational, respectful of law and order, and prepared [them] to participate in the inviolable social contract that bound modern people and states together in the international world order.”
The “moral effect” of violence justified its severity. Take the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, for example. On April 13, 1919, Indian men, women, the elderly and children were celebrating the Baisakhi festival when British officer Col Reginald Dyer ordered his men to open fire. In 10 minutes, nearly 400 unarmed civilians were killed and 1,200 wounded.
Col Dyer rationalised this by saying: “I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action.”
Elkins writes that violence was “endemic to the structures and systems of British rule.” It was not an occasional means to liberal imperialism’s end; rather, it was “a means and an end for as long as the British Empire remained alive.”
If the native populations ever protested against the atrocities and demanded their basic rights, the response by the empire was heart-wrenching. Elkins explains that the British authorities considered nationalists and freedom fighters not merely criminals, but “terrorists barely clinging to the lowest rung of humanity.”
Any action, such as vandalism, labour strikes and riots, was treated as a political threat and disproportionate use of force was employed in response. When ordinary laws were found “inadequate”, collective punishments such as martial law and states of emergency were the options available to the colonisers. Officers on the ground were empowered to apply laws, or ask for new laws to use more force. Violence “to protect the state and preserve its laws’’ was inevitable. Elkins terms Britain’s strategy of using law as a tool to justify violence as “legalised lawlessness.”
United States-based Scottish American historian — and poster boy for the empire — Niall Ferguson tells us the story of Britain’s “noble” and “triumphant” character in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. In it, he schools the world that “the British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world.”
Elkins challenges these shameless claims and highlights the empire’s exploitative legacies. She maintains that, despite “the recurring fanfares and dramatic midnight ceremonies”, colonial independence did not “signal a shift in postcolonial states’ legal regimes.” These states either continued to use the old laws, or made new ones to claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.
For instance, in Africa, use of the colonial-era Preservation of the Public Security Act has been frequent. In Pakistan, among other provisions, Section 124A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) — which makes it punishable to express “disaffection” towards the government — is a manifestation of the empire’s legacy.
Similarly, Article 22 of India’s constitution and the Preventive Detention Act, the Defence of India Act, the Defence of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act are more examples of unchanged legal regimes in the postcolonial states. Similar laws continue to exist in other colonies of the British as well.
Whether it is about Baloch students in Sindh, or dissidents facing persecution in any part of India, postcolonial states continue to manifest the horrible legacy of the empire. Elkins’s book has the potential to reinvigorate public discourse about the state’s monopoly over the use of legitimate force and ultimately challenge the colonial-era legal regimes.
The reviewer is Presidential Graduate Research Fellow at San Diego State University, US. She tweets @anwar_saleha
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 23rd, 2022