Do British people feel guilty for what they have done to India?
I have a colonial link to India. My great grandfather was a soldier in the regular army and a WW1 veteran. He went on to serve in India in the 1920s as an army Sergeant, and my Grandfather was born out there, not arriving in the UK until he was around 7.
Do I feel any guilt about colonialism? Not really. For one thing, it happened in the past and I didn't have anything to do with it.
I think colonialism is sometimes judged with a biased viewpoint from both sides. On the one hand you have people who will brush it under the carpet as if there was nothing bad or unjust about it, which simply isn't true. On the other, you have people who wish to paint it in the same light as slavery or Apartheid, which is also untrue.
Way of thinking changes from ruling person and the person who is under rule. Blunders for the person under rule looks very silly and common issue for ruling person. That's the reason why British don't feel guilty about what they have done in India.
These are the few things how we look at the history and how British look at it.
1. Opinion on India
- What British used to think: Not only British, almost all the Europeans used to think India as land of snake charmers, land of tribes with unrealistic practices. Where wife will die along with husband ( it was true). Still many people think that 'Sati' is practiced in India. ( Many people asked me about that!). To reform such practices, they sent priesthood to India.
- What Indians Think: India was one of the leading country with worlds highest GDP before British entered India. India had a great culture of Vedas. But the British rule which brought blunders and that's reason for current status of India.
- British called the revolt of 1857 was just aggression of Sepoy( Sepoy mutiny ) and they call it as one of the bad incident in history. British mention about thousands of English men, women and children but they don't say anything about millions of Indian sepoys and civilians who died during this time.
No, I don't. As others have said, why should I feel guilty about things that took place two generations before I was born and that I (nor indeed, my family) had no hand in shaping? Guilty is not the right word. That said, I do feel responsible, in some respects, and certainly regret some things as I hope I can outline below. It may help you to understand my perspective by reading my other answers about India and Pakistan and, particularly, my answer here Richard Guy's answer to What is the worst thing about being British? - and read the comments and my responses beneath it.
What do I regret? I certainly regret certain notable incidents: the handing of the Bengal famines, the Amritsar Massacre, the punitive response to the 1857 "Mutiny". Most of all, I regret Partition and the way is was mismanaged. Some of these examples, however, bear greater scrutiny. Let me say first off, the Amritsar Massacre was a disgusting event and if there's anything to be said to excuse it, that is that it was largely the fault of a few deeply misguided individuals and provoked a great deal of condemnation from the British themselves. Nonetheless, this is exactly the sort of behaviour about which people can, in my view, be rightly angry about. I wish more British people were aware of such things and taught more about it in school. I shall return to the question of Partition shortly.
The punitive response to the Mutiny is more of a vexed question for me ; it has parallels with the handling of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. For me, the big question about the Mutiny is "What would I have done as a British leader in colonised India?" Or, perhaps "what would you have done?" The events of 1857 hardly cover either side in glory. The massacre of British women and children is no more excusable than strapping mutineers to cannons and blasting them into smithereens. The argument "well, the British shouldn't have been there anyway" doesn't hold any water simply because the British were there anyway and had been for a long time. So far as I can see, if you mount an armed revolt against your rulers (whether they are British, or not) you can and should expect a violent response. If you succeed, of course, then the rulers you have conquered will expect an equally violent demise. Tant pis, as our French cousins say.
I need to understand the Bengal famines rather better than I do. What I tentatively offer, however, is that famines in India were equally badly handled by other rulers before the British (e.g. the Deccan famine of 1630, under the Mughals) and I suspect that, even if the situation was badly managed by the British, the situation was almost certainly beyond the wit and ability of the British to do much about it. Was Churchill's response to the 1943 famine appropriate or responsible? No. Churchill clearly hated Indians - for what reason, I am not sure - and his language and inaction at the time was unconscionable. What we could actually have done about it mid-WWII, I have no idea. The Great Famine of 1770 certainly poses problems for anyone seeking to defend British rule in India, since East India Company policies to replace food crops with indigo and opium poppy must certainly have exacerbated the food shortages. The famines came about, as before, because of lack of rainfall, however, not because of the British. Would anyone, with the benefit of hindsight, say that the policies of the EIC were right, given the context? No, of course not. Should the British then or now shoulder all the blame for the situation? I don't believe so, not least because of the complicity of many native Indians in the operation of the EIC at the time. This is terribly important because of what I will go on to say about Partition: it is a great mistake to believe that native Indians had no agency or complicity or influence on British rule in the subcontinent.
And so we come to Partition. I'll be the first to say "I think Partition was a dreadful idea". However, I think we must acknowledge that it wasn't a British idea. As anyone with an iota of knowledge about Independence knows, Partition emerges as a "solution" from the Two Nations Theory - the notion that Hindu and Muslim Indians could not live peaceably, side by side. I'll be unequivocal about this: I think the Two Nation Theory is a pile of rot and that Partition was cooked up by leaders from both the Hindu and Muslim communities as a way of securing their own power bases. Partition pandered to the vanity and ambition of people like Jinnah and Nehru and served little purpose other than to create opportunities for the upper echelons of native Indian society. Certainly the British did a sloppy job of managing the process of Partition, not least by determining the India-Pakistan border after the date of Independence. The aftermath of Partition is certainly regrettable also and any thoughtful human being of whatever background should look at those events with considerable sadness. I feel I must though ask two questions of you about it. Firstly: given that the British were on their way out and being pushed out in a fashion that they didn't choose, why would they have invested a great deal of time and effort and expense in making sure it all went smoothly? That's the thing with independence: when you achieve it, you're on your own ; your problems are yours to sort out. Secondly: what could the British have done about it, given the global context? The British State and Empire were, by 1947, bankrupt. The armies with which the British had ruled the world were broken, exhausted and, largely, elsewhere. The USA wanted the British Empire to fail and fall and did everything they could to ensure that happened. So even if the British wanted to manage Partition better, out of a debt to humanity and sense of shared responsibility for the sake of our fellow human beings, was that achievable? I just don't think it was.
Now I shall tell you what I do feel guilty about. I feel guilty about my own bad behaviour in India (and Pakistan). I have visited the subcontinent many times and am married to a Pakistani citizen (who, being Punjabi and a Christian from a formerly Hindu family, could just as well have been an Indian citizen if the Radcliffe Line had fallen 50 miles further east). I love the subcontinent and am privileged to have met many wonderful people from there. Through various actions I hope I have managed in a very small way to do some good in India and Pakistan. I have though "done some bad things" in the subcontinent. So, to anyone with whom I have lost my temper, sworn at, argued over a few paise for no logical reason, elbowed out of the way while boarding a train, insulted, left a mess that you have had to clear up, blanked or dismissed: I am sorry. If what I have written above has annoyed you, I am sorry about that too. The lesson of history, personal or otherwise, is that rather than feeling guilty about things, we should try to make amends and do better next time and I shall try to do so. "Jai Hind!" and "Pakistan Zindabad!" I wish you all well.
As a British person myself, with a good knowledge of history, I can tell you that the only thing British people today generally feel bad about is Britain and its rapid decline and de-industrialisation during the last forty years. Not many think too much about any historical acts it has undertaken. Sadly, our society has been dumbed-down to the extent that most young British people today aren't even aware of its former empire. How then, could they feel guilty about something they aren't even aware of?
In the history of the world's present civilisation, the epoch of empire building seems to have been a natural part of its evolution. Many centres of civilisation that became powerful enough to exploit other countries did so. Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, The Ottoman Empire, Mongolia, and so on up to the British, Spanish and Austro-Hungarian empires. We don't live in that era now, and we are no longer limited in our mindset as they were. They were simple and ignorant, but today we are not. Today, we are more knowledgeable and aware. It is wrong to use our present day knowledge and awareness to judge people of an earlier age who did not have it. However, this does not excuse the atrocities committed by British forces during the 20th century, but again, it is not right or helpful to hold present generations responsible for those acts either.
The world is as it is today because of things that happened before we were born and which we had no control over. No-one should feel guilt or resentment for things they did not do and cannot change. There is never any justification for that. Instead we should look at what is happening in the world today, how we treat each other today, and what our situation is today and try to make the best of it.
If you compare India and Britain today, India is much more powerful and successful than little, broken Britain. I can tell you that many British people are depressed because of the sorry state that Britain is in. And I can also tell you that of those British people who are aware of the atrocities carried out about by British forces during the 20th century, there is no question that this is viewed (and taught in schools) as being entirely wrong and shameful.
It is very important for everyone to know that, India is not just a piece of land, it is and was always was the blend of different cultures, beliefs and traditions which are followed by Indians. Thus India is what Indians are.
The British ruled over India as well as Indians. Sucking of wealth or any other materialistic things is not they need to be sorry for, it is important to know how they influenced the people.
Today in India, fairness (whiteness) has become the mark of beauty and many ads depict the same forgetting the real meaning of beauty. We try to compare ourselves with foriegners in everything as if that is the benchmark for our living standards forgetting the situation and conditions in India. We started updating ourselves with foriegn traditions and call it modernization forgetting that modernization refers to development of thoughts, broad mindedness and understanding of humanity. ( It is our issue to deal with and I agree, but that feeling of insecurity and cravings for reaching their standard is the result of 200 years of rule.) We tend to become imposters producing a fake identity while the real us is thrown into a gutter.
When the two nation theory was enacted, it is not the land they divided, it is the people they did which created an everlasting impression of hatred among brothers.
British need not apologize publicly, but atleast should remember what happened and not behave as nothing has ever happened. True it was history but still I feel India is burning in the flames ignited by British.
Despite the fact that the British regime in India overlooked and orchestrated the death of millions and a systematic method and means of a drain in wealth and education, no British, left or right, past or present, liberal or conservative had ever believed (and probably shall never will) and acknowledge the truth.
One can not blame the people of this mentality and delusion as it stems from the way history is portrayed to them. The writers and "historians", have throughout history made sure that only those facts are presented which favors their standpoint on the subject of morality. The history of British occupation of India is no exception.
On a broader level, one can notice how the chapter of British in India is depicted and portrayed as if it were an act of redemption for the Indians. The gist of the chapter goes as "India was a land of darkness, violence, cannibalism, murder and rapes. The people knew not what being civilized means. It was the moral duty and responsibility of the White man to civilize these people." The British see themselves today as the liberators. They feel proud of their little achievements while conveniently ignoring the numerous atrocities. What makes is even worse is that most are not even told the true history or are well brainwashed into believing otherwise. The gist resonates even today with most of the answers you actually see here to this very question.
It would also be wrong to expect the British to feel guilty. While most are completely unaware of the truth, the few who know have also grown a strong attitude of "Why should I be sorry for crimes committed by my great-grandfather". So yeah, to answer your question simply, no British person would even feel sorry for what they have done to India or any other nation they have robbed and pillaged. Either they have been brainwashed well or too arrogant to acknowledge the truth.