Is the old “empire” symbolised by the British “raj” really dead for good, or does it continue to linger on in other forms? What has been the impact of the loss of empires on erstwhile colonial powers? And what kind of challenges do former colonies such as India still face more than half a century after gaining independence?
These were some of the questions debated at a conference ‘Lessons of Empire' organised by the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, in honour of V.G. Kiernan, the distinguished British Marxist historian who spent many years in India during the second World War.
Eric Hobsbawm, a contemporary of Professor Kiernan's and the last of the great living Marxist thinkers of his generation, said that while it may not always be easy to find answers to every question, it was important to raise them.
“Ultimately it is the job of the historian to ask questions,” Professor Hobsbawm said.
Professor Kiernan — whose seminal work on imperialism had a profound influence on a whole generation of south Asian scholars, spawning what one speaker jokingly described as a thriving “south Asian branch of Kiernan society of appreciation” — remained engaged with the issues of the region, particularly India, until his death last year.
“When I last met him in 2008, he was very concerned about the rise of religious sectarianism in India, the right-wing Hindu communalism, and its impact. He wanted to know how India was going to face the challenge,” said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who first met Professor Kiernan at the University of Edinburgh as a student in 1968 and became a life-long friend.
Mr. Karat, who has edited a volume of tributes to Professor Kiernan, ‘Across Time and Continents,' recalled that at their first meeting, the latter wanted to know which part of India he came from.
“Next, he asked me my caste, which I never use. When I mumbled ‘Menon,' he joked: ‘So you'll go into the civil service as all Menons do.' I said there were two kinds of Menons — one who became civil servants and the other who became communists. I was the latter type. We both had a good laugh,” Mr. Karat recalled.
He said what drew him to Professor Kiernan was as much his Marxist scholarship as his knowledge of India.
Professor Kiernan, who lived in undivided India between 1938 and 1946, mostly in Lahore, saw the rise of Indian nationalism and the birth of Indian communism from close quarters. He also influenced progressive cultural currents on the subcontinent. He introduced Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to the English-speaking world through his translations of their works.
Criticism of Indian Left
Mr. Karat pointed out that Professor Kiernan was often critical of the Indian Left, particularly of its decision to dissociate itself from the Quit India Movement to support the “People's War” in Europe. He also “bemoaned” a lack of “theory” among Indian leftists, and thought there was not enough theoretical analysis on the Left. But he was deeply impressed by the “enthusiasm” and “optimism” of the Indian Left and the “spartan” lifestyle of its leaders.
Mr. Karat said that India was still facing many of the issues that bothered Professor Kiernan, such as a deeply-entrenched caste system and economic disparities. The challenge before the Indian Left was to find creative solutions to these problems, he said.
‘New language needed'
Professor Hobsbawm, focusing on Professor Kiernan's study of imperialism, called for a new language to analyse the post-empire west which was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of its imperial power. His contention was that the “old empire” was over and the present situation could not be analysed in “old terms.”
“Whatever be the injustices of today, they cannot be analysed in the same language of anti-imperialism that was used in the past,” he said, making a distinction between the old “territorial” empire and the new forms of cultural and economic imperialism.
Christopher Bayly, a leading scholar in Indian history, said both Professors Kiernan and Hobsbawm shared the same “inquisitiveness” and established themselves as truly “global historians” long before the term “globalisation” became fashionable.