Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Historical responsibility and modern myopia

It's now a long time since the end of British rule in India. Next year sees the 65th anniversary of the creation of India and Pakistan. You have to be quite old to have any significant memories of the Raj, and very old indeed to have participated in any significant way in the events that accompanied its demise. It seems likely, though, that generations yet unborn will continue to pay the price for decisions that were made then - for example, the incorporation of Kashmir in India rather than Pakistan on the say-so of its then prince.

International or internal disputes can last for generations, even centuries. The Kashmir dispute is no older than that between Israel and the Palestinians, and much younger than the tribal rivalries that still divide Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, the Caucasus and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Russians are still "paying the price" for the country's Eastward expansion of the 18th and 19th centuries, the American indians will never recover from their displacement from the West; and then there's Ireland, which seemed to be past the worst until just the other day. On the other hand, England seems mostly to have got over the Norman conquest (despite continuing disproportionate Norman prosperity) and it would be an odd sort of person who still hated the Romans. The time eventually comes when people collectively decide to stop being defined by the past, but when or how that moment comes is never predictable.

David Cameron, in Pakistan, has raised eyebrows for apparently accepting blame for the continuing bloodshed and unrest in Kashmir. It wasn't exactly an apology. But his precise words were, I think, highly significant: "I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place." Something a bit odd, there, eh? An acknowledgement of responsibility, accompanied by a refusal to get involved. "It's all our fault," he seems to be saying, "so don't expect us to do anything about it!" This isn't merely evasion, it implies that the role of the British can only ever have been to make things worse - that without our meddling, nothing would ever have gone wrong.

Historically, of course, this is absurd. The partition of the Indian Empire was a compromise drawn up between India's leading politicians. In effect, the territory was carved up between Nehru's Congress and Jinnah's Muslim League. It was a rushed job and the British - whose main aim was to get out of the place as quickly as possible - didn't exactly cover themselves in glory, but the key decisions were all made by Indians. And the massacres that followed Partition were all perpetrated by locals. The only way that the British authorities can be blamed for what happened - and thus for the continuing discontent - is by asserting that they didn't interfere enough, that they largely stood aside and allowed the leadership of the Indian people to make a mess of things. In other words, that the British accorded Nehru and Jinnah the respect due to founders of nations.

What was the alternative? To stay and fight to preserve a doomed empire? I suppose it's possible that, had it required a full-scale War of Independence to end British rule in India, Congress and the League would have sunk their differences in a united campaign. Even then, it's hard to imagine the country remaining united for long - by this stage, the fractures were too severe. Had Lord Mountbatten done a Gaddafi, blood would still have been shed - only it would have been British blood as well as Indian blood shed by the British and I can't think that sixty-five years later a British prime minister would expect his hosts to thank him for it. No, he would be apologising - and this time rightly.

Tristram Hunt, the BBC's favourite historian turned Labour MP, had it right for once: "To say that Britain is a cause of many of the world’s ills is naïve. To look back 50-odd years for the problems facing many post-colonial nations adds little to the understanding of the problems they face."

Naive and, I would say, patronising. Whatever happened in the past, the continued standoff and intermittent violence in Kashmir is not our fault, and it's not Jinnah's fault or Nehru's. The responsibility lies squarely with the people who live there now, and with today's governments in Islamabad and Delhi who continue to play political games with people's lives. That's ultimately why it would be absurd to "insert Britain in some leading role" there: it's none of our business, and hasn't been for around sixty-five years. If indeed it ever really was. (Peter Oborne has an excellent take on this subject.)

Something else that isn't our fault - last week's tragedy in Mazar-i-Sharif, superficially in response to Pastor Terry Jones's burning of a Koran. As I noted the other day, the massacre of UN staff there was not a direct or immediate reaction to the Florida stunt, and even if it had been that would not make Jones morally responsible for murders carried out by adult human beings. If you're interested in the background, I'd recommend this piece by Terry Galvin, who knows the area well. The key point is that the whole place was a furnace ready to blow - and it was not Terry Jones thousands of miles away in Florida who threw the match. It was "an opportunity that was just waiting for a pretext. What happened did not simply result from a protest march that began at the Blue Mosque and got terribly out of hand." The politics is murky, the causality diffuse.

To blame Jones, or the US generally (for being unable to stop him, for continuing to believe in that pernicious thing called free speech) is breathtakingly naive and arrogant as well as wrong. According to an absurd blogpost by Joe Klein, the pastor's action in staging a "trial" of the Koran was "as murderous as any suicide bomber's". It's increasingly clear, though, that the hotheads who incited the mob in Afghanistan - partly by lying about what had occurred and who was responsible for it - would have found some other excuse for encouraging a murder spree. So why were so many observers eager to confuse the pretext with the deeper motivation? I think for much the same reason that David Cameron wants to blame the British empire for "so many" international problems. It provides an easy explanation. It makes the world seem simpler and more controllable than it actually is.

Most importantly, it's close to home. It's only human to exaggerate the importance of things we can readily understand or for which we (as a society) seem to bear some responsibility. A long-running dispute or a sudden riot seems more comprehensible if it can be seen as somehow "our fault".