ENOUGH GUILT FOR EVERYONE
The British demand apologies for Japanese
atrocities, writes Sarmila Bose, but never
examine their own misconduct in Asia
FOR A COUNTRY commemorating vic- tory in the second world war, Britain seems to be curiously faint-hearted about facing up to its own past. The anniversary offers a unique opportunity for remem- brance and reappraisal. Remembering those who fought and died in the war is an important aspect of the commemorations, but a relatively easy one. Few, except fanatical pacifists, would grudge the veter- ans of the war the honour that is their due. A reasoned reassessment of what Britain stood for, however, has eluded the British.
The saturation coverage of the 50th anniversary of VE Day focused on the hor- rors of Nazi Germany. Britain rejoiced in its ultimate decision to fight and eventually defeat what Parliament called 'the forces of evil'. John Major declared that the wartime parliament 'symbolised the dogged deter- mination of democracy to overcome tyran- ny and dictatorship', and Tony Blair asserted that the triumph was all the more pure as it was 'a victory not so much of nation over nation but good over evil'.
With the approach of VJ Day, the emphasis has been on Japan's 'colonial aggression' and its cruelty towards con- quered populations and prisoners of war. Reports on forced labour, executions and 'comfort women' abound, and British POWs and their families have renewed their bid to win compensation for their treatment during the war. Overall, Ger- many is taken to have demonstrated an acceptable degree of contrition, but Japan is condemned for failing to apologise or atone for its past sins.
The British are therefore familiar with the inhumanity of German and Japanese occupation. Less well-known are some aspects of British colonial rule from the perspective of its subjects. In its approach to the commemoration, the British have fallen prey to the temptation to relive the Forties rather than reassess them with the benefit of the distance of time and the availability of the historical research of the intervening period. The occasion has been used to heap opprobrium on others, with- out considering Britain's own imperialist past which the war brought to an end. This is a regrettable waste of an opportunity to view Britain's history from a more bal- anced perspective and to come to terms with it, without which there is no prospect of building a new vision of the country's future.
One of the most simplistic and enduring myths propagated by Britain is the notion that the second world war was a conflict between good and evil in which Britain was on the 'good' side, fighting for the princi- ples of freedom and democracy. In fact, at the time it was purporting to fight for the cause of liberty and democracy, Britain was denying freedom and self-government to about a quarter of the world's population. By all accounts, it had no intention of allowing freedom and democracy to inter- fere with its imperial interests. On the con- trary, defending its imperial interests was central to the British war effort. Among its allies, France too was an old imperial power. The Soviet Union had imperial ambitions of its own and Stalin's excesses equalled the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Britain's view of the war was not shared by everyone else. The United States was particularly troubled by the hypocrisy of fighting in the name of freedom while defending an empire. 'One thing we are sure we are not fighting for,' wrote the American magazine Life in 1942, 'is to hold the British Empire together.' British appeals to America for help were like 'get- ting a policeman to help you defend stolen property against another thief'.
In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter which pro- claimed 'the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live', and expressed 'the wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them'. While such proclama- tions could be used by Roosevelt to assuage American public opinion, Churchill was quick to declare in the Com- mons that the principles of the Charter did not apply to India, Burma or any of the British Empire.
Nor did Japan's behaviour stir up the anger of people across Asia as the British like to claim. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, an ardent admirer of the British Empire in India, has written about the whole-hearted partisanship felt towards the Germans and Japanese by the Indian people, and the eager expectation of British collapse. Clearly, many Indians were motivated by the desire to see their immediate oppres- sors, the British, humbled.
The impact of Japanese expansion varied across Asia. The experience of the Chinese and Koreans appears to have been qualita- tively different from that of other South- east Asians. Scholars of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have found a positive impact in the Japanese invasion. Here is one view, from D.J. Steinberg's In Search of Southeast Asia:
During a period of just over three and a half years, the foundations of the colonial era were destroyed, and the peoples of the region began first thinking of, then planning on, and finally fighting (and sometimes dying) for a future that they could see as their own rather than something determined for them by colonial rulers ... Intent on freeing their societies and leading them toward a new era, many nationalists who gained power during the war did not intend to surrender their newly achieved authority. In that sense, the Japanese prophecies of 'a new dawn for Asia' and an 'Asia for the Asi- atics' came true.
Of course, Japanese claims to have undertaken the entire venture for the sake of Asian liberty from western colonialism are about as disingenuous as British claims to have fought for the principles of free- dom and democracy. Asian nationalists who took up the opportunity afforded by Japan's early successes usually found themselves in an acrimonious alliance and were aware of the danger of merely replac- ing western colonialism with Japanese. The Japanese were divided as well, some genuinely supporting the independence struggles of fellow Asians and others look- ing upon them with contempt as tools of Japanese imperialism.
Aung San of Burma (now better known as the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) arrived with the invading Japanese as the leader of the 'Thirty Comrades', trained by the Japanese to form the officer corps of the Burmese National Army. He and his men gained great status and respect in Burma for their participation in the defeat of colonial rule. In 1945, as the tide of war turned, Aung San switched sides to the British and turned on the Japanese, a course of action he felt was perfectly natu- ral: 'When Netaji Subhas Bose attempted to drive out foreign rulers from his own country during the past three or four years, it was perfectly right of him to do that as a patriot of India. When we did the same sort of thing in our country, both in regard to the British imperialist rule and Japanese fascist domination, we feel thor- oughly justified to have taken such cours- es, and we pride ourselves for such deeds.' Aung San and Bose had their own under- standing that while fighting either foreign colonial power the INA and BNA would never fight one another.
It is curious that Britain should com- plain about Japanese or German 'colonial aggression' while ruling over the largest empire the world had ever seen. The British like to console themselves that their colonialism was 'better' than others — surely nothing they did was on a par with concentration camps and slave labour. Comparing degrees of inhumanity is a moral minefield. However, the British need to confront the reality that British colonial rule was not a long spell of after- noon teas and cricket matches in warm weather. Colonialism is a nasty business, especially when large numbers of 'natives' start protesting. The British benefited from the subservience of most Indians for much of the time and the active collabora- tion of some. Their reaction when faced with resistance gave away the fact that alien rule ultimately depended on force. The `Swadeshi' movement started in 1905, the non-co-operation and civil dis- obedience movements led by Gandhi in the 1920s and 1930s were met with ruthless repression. Tens of thousands of people were jailed. Unarmed demonstrators were shot. Hundreds were killed and many more injured. Official atrocities included sen- tencing 'political offenders' to be flogged and forcing Indians to crawl in the streets.
The British took India (and Burma) into the war with Germany in September 1939 without bothering to consult the Indians. The rhetoric of freedom and democracy did not impress the Indian National Congress which resigned from all its newly won provincial ministries, declaring, 'A free democratic India will gladly associate her- self with other free nations for mutual defence against aggression and for eco- nomic co-operation, but co-operation must be between equals and by mutual consent.' Both the Europeans and the Japanese wanted to use the South-East Asian coun- tries for war material and prevent them from falling into the grasp of rival imperial- ists. Japan's 'Greater East Asia Co-pros- perity Sphere' was similar in structure to the British 'Commonwealth'.
The British in India and the Japanese in South-East Asia made wartime concessions to nationalists only when they found them- selves in difficulty: the British after the Japanese swept through Malaya to Singa- pore and the Japanese after the tide of war turned against them. The Cripps mission sent to India in 1942 had so little to offer that Gandhi rejected it with derision and launched the 'Quit India' movement, ask- ing Indians to 'do or die'. He and the entire Congress leadership were immedi- ately thrown into prison. The mass upris- ing that followed was savagely suppressed. Paul Greenough writes that, even by offi- cial estimates, more than 1,000 people were shot between August and December 1942. The British conducted mass arrests, imposed collective fines, opened fire on unarmed crowds, machine-gunned them from the air, burnt down Congress work- ers' homes and whipped and tortured protesters. Women were raped in the course of raids on homes and villages. The , nationalist press was severely censored or closed down.
Britain's war also brought deprivation and death to Indians unconnected with any political activity. While British prisoners were suffering privation under the Japanese, Bengal was ravaged by the famine of 1943. Modern scholarship has established that the famine was caused by the war effort in a year of record rice pro- duction and exacerbated by official cal- lousness and ineptitude. Three million helpless civilians died of starvation and disease.
When the war ended unexpectedly after atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese civilians, British and other European colo- nial powers were not only, as D.J. Stein- berg writes, 'militarily and administratively unready; they also lacked understanding of the strength of South-East Asians' deter- mination to resist the reimposition of colo- nial rule'. They simply expected to return as though nothing had happened, or, worse, 'roll back such meagre political reforms as they had begrudged the region's nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s'. In Burma, in spite of having switched to the British side, Aung San and his fellow nationalists found themselves shut out by the returning British governor who merely tried to restore pre-war condi- tions until massive protests and the threat of armed rebellion forced a change of direction.
Fifty years later, the British seem no bet- ter at developing a balanced perspective. It is simply not credible to claim to champion freedom and democracy in one part of the world while vigorously denying those very principles elsewhere. It is absurd for colo- nial powers to accuse others of colonial aggression. None of the main combatants in the war can claim to be the 'good guy'. Britain has found it easy to point the fin- ger at gross atrocities committed by others, but has not had the courage to confront its own imperialist misconduct. In that sense, for Britain, the anniversary of the end of the war is a golden opportunity lost.
Sannila Bose is the great niece of both Sub- has Chandra Bose and Nirad Chaudhuri. She is a senior research fellow at Warwick University.