The Trauma of Colonialism

Indians commemorate an important official holiday on Thursday: Independence Day. Next month, the Chinese will commemorate an equally important but unofficial holiday, national humiliation day, followed on Oct. 1 by the country’s own official National Day of the People’s Republic of China.

Independence days are important events for any country. But for India and China, they hold a significance that the West would do well to understand. They remind us that these countries are not just future superpowers. They are powerful nations with traumatic pasts that define who they are and that play a vital role in how they perceive the world.

On Aug. 15, 1947, 200 years of British rule came to a bloody end in India. Many Indians fervently believe that the colonial power impoverished their country by robbing its resources and that Britain’s policy of “divide and rule,” which pitted Hindus against Muslims, resulted in its violent dismemberment, which killed millions.

On Sept. 18, 1931, Japanese troops blew up a section of the railroad in China near Shenyang, accused the Chinese of sabotage and used the incident to declare a war that, the Chinese teach, led to the brutal Japanese colonial occupation. And in 1949, Mao Zedong proudly declared, “The Chinese people have stood up,” implying they had shaken off the shackles of colonialism. In China, the Japanese occupation, along with the long period of Western domination, is known as the “century of humiliation.”

Despite the very different experiences — continuous colonial rule in India and piecemeal foreign domination in China — their history textbooks deal with the past in similar ways. Two rich, glorious civilizations were humiliated and brought to their knees, their lands lost and borders redrawn, their people forced to endure barbarous cruelty and suffering. Today this bitter remembrance plays out in subtle but important ways in the international arena.

The legacy of redrawn borders is a key example. India and China have a reputation for inflexibility when it comes to territories that they believe were “lost” due to colonialism. Yet prior to the colonial era, the rulers of both countries had very flexible ideas about sovereignty.

In India, the Mughal dynasty controlled the subcontinent through the mansabdari system. The power of the Mughal ruler, today often called “emperor” but in truth shah-en-shah, or the king-of-kings, came through his mansabdars — conquered kings or their descendants who kept their wealth and territory but swore allegiance to the Mughals and helped defend and administer their empire.

In China, the emperor’s relationship with the “barbarians” who peopled the lands around the Middle Kingdom was based on a tributary system in which they kowtowed to his authority and received gifts in return. There were no fixed boundaries; they ebbed and flowed depending on the strength of the relationship.

The rigid stance on border issues today — India with Pakistan over Kashmir, for example, and China with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, as well as tensions over Taiwan — are seen as the result of colonial meddling. External intervention or offers of mediation are vehemently rejected because they revive memories of foreign interference.

When China asserted last year for the umpteenth time that Japan has not adequately apologized for the Nanjing massacre, or when the Indian media excoriated David Cameron during the British prime minister’s visit this spring for not fully apologizing for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, they were not merely posturing.

“Humiliation” is a word that appears over and over in the two countries — in political speeches, newspapers articles and history textbooks. Government officials are extremely sensitive to any appearance of caving in to foreign pressure and interference.

This sensitivity extends well beyond the question of borders. An international initiative like the foreign policy principle known as the “responsibility to protect” — which asserts that nations have a moral obligation to act against genocide and other mass atrocities — is treated with suspicion and is unlikely to garner their support.

People in the West may shrug at such sensitivities. The past is unfortunate, regrettable even, but it is past. After all, the United States was a colony, too.

Vice President Joe Biden, last month, underlining the common tie of colonialism, jokingly remarked to the Bombay Stock Exchange that as an Irish-American he was delighted India beat England at cricket. But this misses a vital point: The United States was a product of colonialism by mass migrations, and it was the colonialists themselves who created the country; India and China were victims of an extractive colonialism that drained away national wealth.

The history of colonialism cannot be neatly categorized for either of them. Despotic British rule in India did result in some clear benefits, such as the country’s rail system. But not long ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was lambasted by the Indian media for daring to mention this fact. Dispassionate historians will point out that the Qing dynasty, the last imperial rulers of China whose borders the current government claims today, were not Han — they were colonizing Manchus.

The statistics of traumatic colonial events such as the Nanjing massacre remain deeply disputed. But objective arguments do little to dispel the emotions incited by this bitter legacy.

As an influential Chinese academic told me recently, “Academics, think-tank people, and policy makers always have the glorious past and humiliation in the back of their mind.” When dealing with India and China, Westerners would do well to keep these sensitivities in mind.

Manjari Chatterjee Miller is an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China.

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