Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Legacies of Empire

Legacies of Empire

In the first of three articles looking at the legacies of Partition, Rattan Bhorjee examines his personal relationship with the British Empire

Just over three years ago, at the start of my journey within Higher Education at the University of Warwick, I found myself in the extraordinary position of attending a university in the West Midlands, a region with one of the highest proportions of South Asians in the country, where one of the actors within the story of Partition, Sir Cyril Radcliffe QC, is lauded with a prestigious namesake building. I must admit, attending Warwick I initially had no idea that Radcliffe House was named after that Radcliffe, but after being told this fact I came to the realisation that to those within this university, past and present, a charitable contribution to this institution cancels out disastrous incompetence that led to the suffering of tens of millions of people. It was this moment of realisation that shook me deeply. I had come to Warwick University to study Politics and Sociology from a deeply political Panjabi family, so at that moment of connecting the dots, I saw how normalised and embedded the symbols of colonialism were in our institutions.

However, my oversight, in reality, was none too surprising. With the sole exception of the slave trade, I was never formally taught about British Imperialism throughout my time at school, even after my passion for history led me to take a GCSE and A-Level in the subject. Even with the inescapable impact of the British Empire, both on the ‘mother country’ and the colonies, and its reverberations today, this experience of political illiteracy is typical in British schools.

Researching Colonialism

For students such as myself with an interest in colonialism, there were only two options to come by such knowledge: First, to use your extra-curricular time to become self-taught and, second, to learn via oral history from family members. The latter is severely undervalued by the British education system; this becomes especially problematic when oral history traditions are most common within BAME communities and are slowly being lost over time over successive generations. To make the incredibly political decision of colonial amnesia to exclude the British Empire from the curriculum has very personal effects. Students whose families will have lived under colonial subjugation go through school, and ultimately their lives, knowing nothing about their personal history and where they have come from. This anomie has direct effects on their engagement with school and the curriculum in general.

During the Raj, Indians were familiar to brutal violence at the hands of the British. To name just one perhaps lesser-known tragedy, at the Malerkotla massacre of 1872, 66 Namdhari Sikhs, including children, were fired upon at point-blank range by a line of cannons on British orders. But even when considering atrocities like Malerkotla and so many others, the violence and horror witnessed within partition had never been seen. This horror and violence can still be felt today, with historical hostilities and suspicion between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims and, on a geopolitical level, between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh being a testament to this. In the next part, I will look further into Mountbatten, Radcliffe, Nehru and Jinnah's role in the partition. The link can be found here

To find out more about the impact of the British Empire on India, this Shashi Tharoor video provides further context:

Rattan Bhorjee is International Development postgraduate student at the University of Warwick and former-President of Warwick Student Action for Refugees (STAR) as well as former-Vice-President of Warwick Sikh Society.