by Bhaskar Menon
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain began his three-day visit to
India by invoking the "huge ties" between the two countries of "history,
language, culture and business."
One wonders which particular aspect of the shared history of the two
nations he found supportive of his current quest for broadened economic
Could it be what the East India Company did after bribing its way to
control of Bengal, the richest province of Mughal India? Within a decade of
the so-called "Battle of Plassey" (Pilashi) in 1757, Bengal lay in ruins.
The destruction of its economy was so severe a third of the population, some
five million people, died of starvation in the first of the great "man-made
famines" British rule spread across India. A conservative estimate of the
overall toll of such famines is 100 million.
Or perhaps Mr. Cameron found inspiring the theft of the fabled Kohinoor
diamond after the British defeated the Sikhs almost a century later.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh's 11-year old grandson went with the diamond to
Britain where it became part of the "Crown Jewels" and he was
comprehensively debauched with drugs and sex to disable his potential as a
Or maybe the Prime Minister is enthralled by the post-1857
"pacification" that involved the indiscriminate slaughter of some 10 million
civilians, men, women and children.
Mr. Cameron's historic admission that the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh
massacre was a "deep shame" does not begin to address the long line of
British atrocities in India, most of which remain officially unacknowledged.
They are systematically ignored or downplayed even in works of history by
British scholars supposedly engaged in the pursuit of truth.
That is true not just of the colonial era. There is no honest British
account of the cold-blooded manipulation of communal violence that led to
Partition, the killing of well over a million people and the biggest
migration in history as 14 million people were forced from their ancestral
Nor is there admission that Britain created Pakistan as its proxy in
South Asia and that it is the real sponsor of the terrorist "war of a
thousand cuts" against India.
Such denial is not to safeguard national pride and honor. It is to hide
the fact that Britain has maintained its imperial interests in the region,
and indeed, globally, without benefit of the apparatus of colonialism. This
has been achieved primarily by keeping control of the illicit trade in
drugs, which Britain pioneered in the 18th Century by exporting Indian opium
to China. It is now far and away the most lucrative sector of the world
economy, with revenues of over $500 billion annually.
In South Asia the control of the drug trade has involved the use of the
ISI, Pakistan's notorious spy agency established in 1948 by a serving
British Army officer, to godfather Al Qaeda and the Taliban.Together, they
have kept Afghanistan as the lawless badlands necessary to produce opium; it
now supplies over 90 percent of the world's illicit supply.
Where Britain does not maintain operational control of drug trafficking,
as in Latin America, it provides money laundering facilities. Last year
American authorities slapped a $1.98 billion fine on HSBC, Britain's largest
bank, after investigators discovered that it had been laundering billions of
dollars of Mexican drug moneyinto the United States. The fine made not a
blip in the stock market value of HSBC shares because investors have known
of its primarysource of profit since traffickers established the company
during Britain's 19th Century "Opium Wars" to force the drug into China.
An interesting sidelight to the increased American pressure on British
money laundering is that the terrorist "Left" insurgency in Colombia that
has for decades provided the cover for drug running, has sued for peace and
is now engaged in talks with the government.
The global money laundering system Britain put in place as its colonies
dwindled is the core element of its new Empire. It consists of a string of
tax havens around the world operating with London as a global hub. The
system now caters to all sorts of criminals, ranging from super-rich tax
evaders and corporate bigwigs hiding the proceedsof mis-pricing of trade to
mafiosi engaged in garden variety organized crime.
The tax haven system washes an estimated $2 trillion annually into the
"legitimate" world economy. According to a recent report from
Washington-based GlobalFinancial Integrity, an NGO headed by a former World
Bank economist, it also drained about $6 trillion out of poor countries over
the last decade . Adding up the estimates made by a number of experts
indicates that the total of illicit assets in tax havens is some $30
trillion, double the GDP of the United States.
That massive pool of money generates the multi-billion dollar "hedge
funds" that have made a travesty of free market mechanisms, especially
commodity markets. Indians struggling with the ever increasing cost of
petrol and diesel can blame it on hedge fund manipulations that have kept
oil prices over $100 per barrel amidst the worst recession since the Great
Depression of the 1930s. They can also blame the system for India's pandemic
of mega scams: without a convenient way to stash black money the corrupt
would be far less prone to steal on such a scale.
All this is becoming generally known because Germany and the United
States, increasingly irate at the loss of billions of dollars in revenues to
tax havens, have begun to push for change. Mr. Cameron's recent threats of a
referendum that might take Britain out of the European Union is a response
to pressure from Germany for uniform application of EU banking standards on
all its members. The announcement last week that the next head of the Bank
of England will be a Canadian is probably the result of pressure from the
United States to clean up the City (financial center) of London.
Against this background, Mr. Cameron's push for India to open up its
financial sector to British investment should be seen as an invitation to
national suicide. His vision of a string of "business centres" round the
country to facilitate British-Indian trade should be seen in the same light.
So what is the future of the British-Indian "partnership"?
It is difficult to see how we can build one when Britain is using its
proxies to subvert and destabilize India. Perhaps the only way to make a new
beginning is to be utterly blunt about Indian perceptions of and
expectations from Britain.
Britain should stop whitewashing its colonial record and consider the
grim reality that its Empire was the bloodiest construct of power the world
has ever seen. In Africa, Asia and the Americas no nation has been as
oppressive of other races. Britain was by far the leading slave trader out
of Africa and transporter of indentured labor out of Asia. It has killed
with famine, sword and fire more people than Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun,
Hitler or Stalin. In the defense of its imperial interests it has
precipitated two World Wars and is now presiding over an empire of crime
that drains the poorest countries of their hard earned wealth. During the
days of Empire and now, treachery has been a staple in Britain's
How can Britain respond to such criticism?
At the minimum it can review its history books and initiate
soul-searching among academic propagandists of the imperial record like
Niall Ferguson, touted by The Times of London as the "most brilliant British
historian of his generation." A "Truth Commission" such as the one that
eased South Africa out of the apartheid era might help. So could a national
discourse on the value and meaning of life.In that journey of mind and
spirit the British might find useful guides in the Sermon on the Mount, the
Eightfold Path and the Bhagavad Gita. In terms of state policy, a renewed
British-Indian relationship will require Britain to withdraw support from
terrorist groups and insurgencies, wind up its involvement in the drug
trade, and stop running the global black market.
If all this seems a very tall order, it indicates how far Mr.Cameron's
proposals stand from Indian perceptions of reality.
Bhaskar Menon spent four decades covering world affairs. His latest book is
Things Every Indian Should Know."
Enver Masud, "Holocaust Remembrance Veils
Criminal Policies," The Wisdom Fund, April 22, 2001
Luke Harding, "Heart of Darkness,"
Guardian, September 15, 2003
Rama Lakshmi, "Embarrassing
Revelations on U.S.-India Nuclear Pact, Outcry in India Over Secret
Deal," Washington Post, September 4, 2008
"Grandson of Indira Gandhi Targets Indian
Muslims," ibnlive.in.com, March 17, 2009