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Monday, August 10, 2020

From the discomfort Zone: Colonial supremacy

British colonisation actually spread bacteria that infected everybody in our country to unwittingly become slaves to a culture alien to us.

Published: January 19, 2014 12:07:59 am
This was a prison built to torture and demoralise inmates. (AP) This was a prison built to torture and demoralise inmates. (AP)

Adolf Hitler had expressed his strong admiration for the British Emperor’s supremacy in colonising large parts of the world to make Britain an “Empire where the sun never sets”. In planning to establish the colonial empire of the Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation, he hoped that Germany would emulate the “ruthlessness” of the British and their “absence of moral scruples”. I better understood Hitler’s appreciation very recently while visiting the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It’s known as Kala Paani (black water) for the mental and physical nadir that Indian political prisoners were jettisoned into when exiled to darkness here.
Aside from other problems, the immediate trigger for India’s 1857 First War of Independence was the tallow grease cartridge for the new pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, in which Indian soldiers had to bite the cartridge to release the powder. The grease used was rumoured to be beef tallow (that offended Hindus) and lard derived from pork (that was offensive to Muslims). It could be argued that as there were 3,00,000 Indian sepoys — numerically higher than the British army of 50,000 soldiers — the British could quell this revolt only with the severe punishment of solitary confinement in Kala Paani. Although the prison was constructed between 1896 and 1906, revolting soldiers had been packed off to this penal colony since 1789.
The political prisoners who opposed the British with violence throughout India’s freedom struggle suffered life imprisonment at the Cellular Jail. They suffered degrading conditions, compounded by torturous hard labour. Many were sent to the gallows. Others died of disease, starvation, or committed suicide as they could not take the indignities heaped on them. Professor Pramod Srivastava of Lucknow University, who recorded the oral history of Kala Paani from 19 erstwhile prisoners, revealed unknown horror stories like prison cells teeming with scorpions. When a revolutionary complained of eye pain, the jail doctor poured alcohol, resulting in vision loss. Yet imagine, in spite of the heinous treatment the British meted out to our freedom fighters, we still continue to call the capital city Port Blair, the name that was given to honour Lieutenant Archibald Blair of the British East India Company who first annexed the islands.
When you see the solid, five-pronged jail structure, it seems like the British had planned to stay forever. Movements on all sides can be watched from the central tower. This was a prison built to torture and demoralise inmates. Compare it to the temporary-looking Auschwitz concentration camp built by Hitler to exterminate innocent Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals and gypsies as part of his Final Solution in his strategy of 1,000 years of the third Reich. The other famous prison it can be compared to is Alcatraz, isolated off San Francisco bay, ostensibly for the correction of crooks.
The mass of Indian tourists at Kala Paani displayed no compassion as they stomped up and down the huge building. I saw them laughing, taking turns to pose as convicts behind the bars of the dingy cells, or making mocking faces of being hurt and injured, while putting an arm around the statue that depicted a freedom fighter being flagellated. They were visiting it as though this was the beautiful Taj Mahal.

The problem is that British colonisation actually spread bacteria that infected everybody in our country to unwittingly become slaves to a culture alien to us. Our simple masses did not understand how the British manipulated the Indian upper class to retain British culture as the supreme culture. The Indian politicians who were against violence for gaining Independence, were alleged to be collaborators of the British. So the rest of India never understood the history of British viciousness at the Cellular Jail. Today, when people pay Rs 10 to enjoy the prison visit, you don’t see any reflection of horror at what was perpetuated, much less hatred for the perpetrators.
In contrast, when I visit the Auschwitz concentration camp I feel a sense of solemnity and the sorrow among individuals from different countries who condemn the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Of course, when you go to Alcatraz in San Francisco you hear different stories of incredible bandits. The guides explain the prison in two ways — the notorious prisoners and the ingenious rebel techniques they used, and the cruelty of the security wardens.
Ambiguity of Indian society is phenomenal. Like slow poison, British culture was injected into the Indian bloodstream through the 200 years they colonised us. The method was so refined that consciously, or unconsciously, we swallowed the medicine of Lord Macauley, who was the inaugural member of the first Supreme Council of India that governed in 1834-38. His objective was to break the moral fibre of Indians by subjugating them as otherwise the British were not in a position to dominate India. He advocated building “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect… Who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern.”
So from the British Raj, ten commandments were surreptitiously handed down to Indians: (1) Respect your superior, don’t challenge, (2) Compromise, adjust to every situation without revolting, (3)  Be content to be a second category citizen, (4) Become the most competent clerk, (5)  Speak proper English, imbibe British manners, (6) Don’t take responsibility, be a subordinate, (7) Use manpower rather than automation, and be dependent on Great Britain to provide modern means of productivity, (8) Play with caste, religion or other ways to perpetuate social turmoil, turning attention away from the ruler, (9) Marginalise the existing Indian education system, propagate English medium schools especially for elite Indians, (10) Speaking fluent English is the first criterion to get plum jobs.
The impact of these colonial commandments is very high in India even today in the areas of business, education and politics. Hopefully the coming generations of Zappers, those born into the liberalised era who follow no traditional role models, will nullify these 10 colonial commandments. But that may take another 60-70 years.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top
management. Reach him at

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