Queen Victoria statue, Kolkata. Wikicommons/ Michael Janich. Some rights reserved.The British Empire was in the dock but the defence attorney went missing. Economic historian and Empire apologist Niall Ferguson failed to turn up at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Yet another sign of the decline of Great Britain. Not keeping an appointment was simply not done!
So the festival crowds had to forego a verbal duel between Ferguson and Shashi Tharoor, author-politician. Tharoor was recently applauded by millions who saw him on You Tube unmasking the ugly face of the British Empire during an Oxford Union debate. He demanded token reparation for the destruction of a prosperous India and of Indian lives. Niall Ferguson, on the other hand, never tires of listing the benefits of British rule, translating a Hindi booklet British Raj ke Fayed that was distributed among the colonial Indians. Ferguson also believes that “the empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before”.
William Dalrymple, writer and co-director of the festival, had looked forward to a “dust up” between Ferguson and Tharoor. William Dalrymple, writer and co-director of the festival, had looked forward to a “dust up” between Ferguson and Tharoor.Dalrymple leaves no opportunity to highlight the sins of the British Empire. He ensures that Empire runs as one of the underlying themes of the festival. That shows up the ugly side of Great Britain, but Dalrymple is not attacked back home for sullying the image of his country.
For the session on Empire, the Jaipur Literature Festival organisers hurriedly found a substitute for Ferguson. They pushed the British Labour MP-cum-author Tristram Hunt onto the stage. So the much-awaited ding-dong battle with Tharoor failed to materialise. Hunt was not there to defend the British Empire. He even dismissed Ferguson’s view that Indians should be grateful that they were ruled by the British and not by other cruel European imperial powers.
Who ran the most benevolent Empire cannot be examined since Britain has destroyed thousands of files lest the atrocities are exposed. This was discovered by an American woman historian writing on the suppression of the Mau Mau Rebellion.
The British authors who came to Jaipur including Tristram Hunt and Ferdinand Mount do not agree with Ferguson. They want their countrymen to know the real history of the British Empire. They regretted that students are kept ignorant of the horrendous record of the British Empire. The history that is taught skips the brutalities. The textbooks contain accounts of atrocities committed by other imperial powers, they pointed out.
The curriculum for English schools has enough material on the glories of the British Empire. In the same way as the Christian Crusaders were portrayed as glorious human beings!
Ferguson said at the Hay festival that children should be taught that the “big story” of the last 500 years was the rise of the western domination of the world. Strangely, in the face of such criticism, the Conservative Government in 2010 urged Niall Ferguson to rewrite the curriculum for English schools! Some British historians were outraged by the choice of an apologist for imperialism. One said: ‘It is another revision of empire – getting empire back by the back door”.
Ferguson’s visit to India would have been timely in the context of the great debate on intolerance in India. Ferguson has been charged with Islamophobia and for making up Roman history in his newspaper article on the Paris terrorist attacks. Ferguson has been charged with Islamophobia and for making up Roman history in his newspaper article on the Paris terrorist attacks.Ferguson’s main argument: Europe, as was Rome before, is in the process of decaying because it has “allowed its defences to crumble and opened its gates to the outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith”.
Ferguson wrote that most European Muslims do not subscribe to the values of equality between sexes and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of all sexual proclivities. A fellow historian said Ferguson was calling for intolerance against all because some might be intolerant.
As to European values being universal, Ferguson could have been reminded of his 2013 statement that John Maynard Keynes did not care about the future of society because he was gay and had no children. He later apologised for his remarks that linked an approach to economic policy to sexual orientation. Ferguson admitted he had forgotten that the British economist’s wife, a Russian ballerina, had miscarried. Had Ferguson come to India, he would have learnt that a childless politician gets more votes for that reason.
Some fellow academics may call him a frivolous historian, but Ferguson is sought after by American universities and think tanks. In the US, Ferguson has been busy trying to ensure that what happened to Britain should not happen to America. He wants the American hegemony to last for ever and for ever. Perhaps he dreads a time when Britain is protected not by the US troops resident in his country but by the Chinese army.
While Ferguson voted with his feet, most of his countrymen remain in the UK to demonstrate their pride in Britain’s history. On the eve of Ferguson’s listed speaking engagement in Jaipur, in an official public opinion poll in Britain, 44 per cent of the UK public said they were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism. That must have boosted Ferguson’s morale.
Even some sections of Labour have imperialism in their genes. It got reflected in one of the party conferences when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. It got reflected in Blair’s foreign policy when before the Iraq war, he offered himself as the Subedar-Major in the US project of global reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Ferguson has been criticised in British academic circles for passing off an ideology in the name of history. A layman cannot judge a complex debate but any one can check the facts presented by this history professor dignified by his association with American universities. This reporter wondered whether in Jaipur Ferguson would present a flawed account of India’s economic history in order to justify the British Empire. Ferguson had done so in America while promoting his book on Empire.
The year was 2003 and the place was Politics and Prose, a famous bookshop in Washington DC. Ferguson made a shocking comment on the Indian economy before the arrival of the British. During the question-answer session, an Indian journalist pointed out that the strength of the economy of the pre-British India has been documented well by British as well as Indian historians. Ferguson said: “I’m sorry; I’m not an expert in India’s economic history.” It validated the view that for writing on Europe, you need scholarship; for writing on India, you need prejudice.
That book promotion tour also took Niall Ferguson to the Council on Foreign Relations where he advised America how to keep its Empire going. The US must not make the mistake that the British made in Iraq, he said. America must stay there for a very long time. An American in the meeting quipped that here was a Greek advising the new Rome! Another listener was reminded of the folk tale in which a fox that lost its tail tells a fellow creature to get its tail cut in order to look beautiful!
Americans are good paymasters but they would not let Ferguson demolish what he calls “the American creation myth of a struggle against a wicked empire for national liberation”. In 2003 he noticed that unlike the Jamaicans, Americans were not wishing back George the III (the British monarch) to replace George the II (their elected President).
In the council meeting, Ferguson also pointed out that the strategy of educating Indians in British universities did not work in Britain’s favour because these Indians became nationalists. He said Gandhi studied in Oxford University! He said Gandhi studied in Oxford University!
Niall Ferguson’s praise of Empire would have caused no protests in India because his subject is not the Mogul Empire! Some in India perhaps appreciate his recent writing on the Paris attacks in which a few British commentators saw a trace of Islamophobia. Colonialism, unlike the cow, can be discussed peacefully.
Advocacy of the British Empire provokes no Indian political formation. There is one whose leaders had kept away from the freedom movement since they considered a different Empire to be the real evil. And the political party that fought for freedom was told by Gandhi not to fear or hate and to fight the sin, not the sinner.
A constituent of the Third Force till very recently believed that the Indira Gandhi Government was worse than the British Government! The party withdrew this statement because it entered into an alliance with Indira Gandhi’s Congress. Ferguson could flaunt that piece of paper at his next Empire talk in the United States where he lives.
India also has elderly Macaulay’s children who pay annual visits to Oxford and Cambridge. The young Indians care neither for the British Empire nor contemporary Britain. Instead of dreaming of the rising spires of the English countryside, they covet the UCLA T-shirts and head for a former British colony, bypassing Great Britain.
The Indian academics see Ferguson as a “popular” historian made for the TV and are never provoked by him. He could have thus gone about merrily projecting the British Empire as a force for global good. At a literary festival, he could have even cited V. S. Naipaul’s portrayal of post-colonial chaos in the newly independent Afro-Caribbean countries. Ferguson gleefully talks of a public opinion poll ordered by the Government of Jamaica at the beginning of this century. It asked the people whether they thought Jamaica would be better off if it was still run by Britain. As many as 53 per cent of Jamaicans replied in the affirmative! As many as 53 per cent of Jamaicans replied in the affirmative!
At the literature festival, Tharoor spoke eloquently, marshalling facts and figures about the brutalities and mass killings and economic devastation caused by the British Empire. He said when some British administrators sought help from London for fighting the famine in India, Churchill inquired whether Gandhi had not died of hunger.
The argumentative Indians loved the way Tharoor performs. However, generally they want bygones to be bygones. Their indifference to history is captured by an old Bollywood lyric that says if Alexander and Porus fought a war so what do we do. Indians don’t care whether the statue of Queen Victoria stays on the road-crossing or is consigned to a junkyard and whether a road named after a Mogul Emperor is given a new name! They don’t bother if a political party seeks to divide the dead or rewrite history. Generally they want bygones to be bygones.
Many Indians even agree with Ferguson that the British Empire had some plus points. Nirad Chaudhuri praised it in the dedication of one of his books. Ferguson has pinned his hope not on the revival of the British Empire but on the continuation of what he calls the American Empire. He would be glad to notice that despite having been bitten once, India has rid itself of the fear of the foreigners who come as traders end up as the rulers of the country.
When Niall Ferguson comes to next year’s Jaipur Literature festival, he must visit an Indian village temple of a dead white male who is worshipped till today. He is offered cigarettes so that he can smoke in peace in his grave.