March 9, 2015 saw the birth of the movement, “Rhodes Must Fall”. It began with a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and politician who laid the framework for apartheid laws in South Africa, at Cape Town University. The protests received much international coverage. On April 9, 2015, the statue was removed following a university council vote but the debate around the history of colonisation and its symbols was only just beginning.
Similar movements began in other South African universities, while students at Oxford University, the University of Edinburgh and the University of California, Berkley, also joined the chorus. At Oxford University, too, students demanded that a statue of Rhodes be removed from Oriel College. These demands were followed by calls to decolonise the educational curriculum of the universities and incorporate the experiences of non-white people. In January this year, the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, demanded that the curriculum for philosophy incorporate more African and Asian names instead of focusing just on white philosophers. They further demanded the complete removal of philosophers such as Plato and Kant as part of their agenda to decolonise the education system.
Last month, a similar debate raged in Australia about the future of public statues commemorating colonial-era personalities. It was argued whether colonialists such as Captain Cook, believed to be the first European to land in Australia, whose arrival resulted in its colonisation and a massacre of the aboriginals, should be honoured in Australian history and whether their statues should be removed from public spaces. The debate arose after the Unite the Right rally (comprising Far-Right white supremacists) in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, in August that turned violent, leaving several injured. The rally acted as a catalyst for the demand of the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials dedicated to people who fought in the American Civil War to retain slavery.
Perhaps not directly linked with the movement against Confederate monuments and memorials but part of the same ideology that seeks to reclaim history was a decision by the Los Angeles City Council on August 30 to cancel the traditional celebration of Columbus Day – commemorating the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, and celebrated on the second Monday of October – and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
In India, too, in the past few months, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has been leading a debate on the role of the colonial British and its impact on Indian society. While some of his videos have been widely shared and appreciated by a segment of Pakistanis, for the most part, there seems to be complete amnesia about the colonial history in Pakistan.
Whereas the Indian state, after 1947, constructed a historical narrative around the anti-colonial struggle, in Pakistan, the need to create a new national identity, distinct from Hindu India, took the state’s interpretation and presentation of history into a different direction. The focus was not on British imperialism but, rather, on the relationship between Hindus and Muslims.
Pakistan Studies, taught as a compulsory subject in schools and colleges across the country, is designed to present this state narrative of history. With the focus on the distinctiveness of the Muslim nation from the beginning of history, this history ends up skimming over the colonial era. Its significance recedes to the backdrop as the Hindu-Muslim conflict, the Congress-Muslim League conflict take centre-stage. A justification for the creation of the country is sought out of every historical event, from the landing of Muhammad Bin Qasim in Sind to the riots of Partition.
The students, spoon-fed with this propaganda, grow up with the most twisted understanding of colonial history. Many end up believing that in 1947, Pakistan won freedom from the Hindus instead of the British. Even those who are able to identify that Pakistan got its freedom from the British do so as a regurgitation of facts learned without even a slight comprehension of what colonialism meant and what its implications were.
In popular discourse, the colonial era is remembered rather fondly as a time when state institutions functioned and the bureaucracy was the epitome of efficiency, in contrast to the corrupt and incompetent political leadership we were bestowed with after the creation of the country. The general consensus would be that the local leadership has made a mess out of a well-organised machinery that was bequeathed to them by the gora sahib.
The Army continues to take pride in its long and glorious history from the Raj era. In March 2015, General Raheel Sharif, the former chief of Army staff, commemorated 100 years of the infantry division in Lahore, raised during the first World War to fight for the British in Europe and Africa. More than a million Indian soldiers are believed to have fought for the British overseas, out of which more than 62,000 died. Rather than see it as the ultimate source of oppression by the colonial state – soldiers being forced to fight a foreign war far away from home, for an unknown cause – the contribution of local soldiers to the British victory in both world wars is today seen as a matter of pride, a sacrifice made by a loyal citizen for his state.
Throughout the country one is likely to run into symbols and monuments glorifying the legacy of these colonial officers, representative of the same kind of oppression that led to the Rhodes Must Fall movement or the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials in America. In Lahore, roads are still named after colonial officers such as Robert Montgomery, John Nicholson and Donald McLeod, all of whom played pivotal roles during the war of 1857 in putting down a nationalist uprising, while monuments and buildings named after Hindu or Sikh patrons were soon changed to remove traces of a past that the state did not want to associate with anymore.
There isn’t much hope of the situation changing anytime in the future. Unconcerned about its colonial past, the state continues to be obsessed with purifying traces of its Hindu history. While students in South Africa, Britain and the United States demand a decolonisation of their past, students in Pakistan continue to learn why it was imperative to separate from the Hindus after living together for centuries, while being completely unaware of the legacy of the colonial state.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail