Updated: April 24, 2021 9:10:20 am
Sometimes, even death isn’t the great equaliser it is touted to be. For over 50,000 soldiers who lost their lives — a majority of them from undivided India — during World War I, their sacrifice was ignored by the British Empire which they fought to defend. In 2019, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) created a special committee to investigate gaps in those that were commemorated for their sacrifice. Its findings — that thousands of the fallen were ignored — has led to the British government issuing an apology for the prejudice that this implies.
It is sometimes easy to forget just how much deep, divisive racism underpinned the entire project of colonialism. An essential aspect of maintaining this orientation towards inequality has been to invisibilise the massive contributions of the colonies and their people. Take the myth of “Britain standing alone” for a significant part of World War II, with Winston Churchill standing guard against fascism single-handed. Britain was only “alone” if the significant resources and manpower from the entire empire are ignored.
The apology by the British government, however belated, is welcome. The sins of empires past, their bigotries that sought to justify systemic injustice, must be confronted wherever possible. But the unmarked graves, the forgotten names of soldiers who died for an empire in which they were not equal citizens must be just a first step. The reckoning with the injustices of history must be a constant, evolving process. And for the countries that emerged from the Raj, and kept many of its governance structures intact, they must do their best to ensure that the ideologies and politics of the day don’t need an apology a century later.
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