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Sardar Udham And The Colonial Project Of Exploitation: Then And Now

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“Well, you must really hate the British,” comments detective-inspector Swain, with a condescending smile.

The revolutionary looks up and with a calm voice and self-assured smile, rooted in a deep understanding of imperialism, replies: “No, I’ve many British friends… I don’t hate you [either]. You’re just doing your job.”

Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham Singh, an Indian revolutionary.
Sardar Udham Singh was a Sikh revolutionary who assassinated the British man responsible for Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Representational image. Photo credit: indiatoday.in

This is the scene which comes to mind whenever I think about Sardar Udham and his commitment to the Indian freedom movement. The movie is a story of a man who was so principled that even witnessing the horrific aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919) did not incite him to take revenge.

Rather, it was the systematic oppression he was protesting against. Down with imperialism!” was the slogan Bhagat Singh and his comrades chose to follow, and sacrifice their very existence for.  

This statement carries with it the rallying cry of a nation brought to its very knees. It also carries within it a desire to forego the chains of being British slaves in everything but name.

We might not be their slaves anymore, but we still care a lot more than we should about what they think. A rather blunt depiction of this is how Sardar Udham was not presented as India’s entry to the Oscars.

One of the members of the jury that finalised India’s pick for the Oscars, Indraadip Dasgupta said that:

“Sardar Udham is a little lengthy and harps on the Jallianwala Bagh incident. It is an honest effort to make a lavish film on an unsung hero of the Indian freedom struggle. But in the process, it again projects our hatred towards the British. In this era of globalisation, it is not fair to hold on to this hatred.”

Dasgupta also praised the film saying its production and cinematography lived up to international standards. To understand the impetus towards cultural and historical amnesia, we need to look at the historical significance around the colonial discourse.

The White Man’s ‘Burden’ 

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

These lines were penned by Rudyard Kipling in 1899, in the context of glorifying the US’s imperialist expansionism in the Philippines. He who was born in Bombay (now, Mumbai), India, wrote this highly controversial poem with the intent of portraying the colonial expansion project as an act of altruism on the natives.

The implications were profound although not quite out of place for that era. 

Former British prime minister, Winston Churchill’s imperialist policies led to the Bengal famine of 1943, which left millions dead. Representational image. Photo credit: historyextra.com

It was explicitly insinuated that the existence of the British empire was not for the exclusive purpose of economic or strategic advantage to Britain herself, but to civilise primitive savages.

The colonial crimes  in India alone lead to the demise of 180 crore people, let alone various other disasters like the ones in the Boer concentration camps in South Africa, or during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

The Brown Man’s Burden

One is reminded of the speech Shashi Tharoor gave at the Oxford Union. He had reiterated the past economic and cultural fallouts of the colonial project.

The impact was so devastating that a nation with 23% share in the world economy was left grappling with a mere 4% share by the time the British finally left. 

Utsa Patnaik concluded in her research paper that India was pauperised by $45 trillion by the British empire.

On the other hand, it must be noted that a survey conducted in Britain showed that one in three Britons were proud of their colonial past. Many other surveys have pointed in a similar direction.

I don’t intend to imply that the Britons of today are responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. What I am trying to imply is that the United Kingdom of today was built on the backs of brown bodies from colonial exploits of the past. 

The funny thing is British children don’t learn about any of this in school. Until they reach college, there critical thought around colonialism and the slavery it perpetrated, is not encouraged.

Seeking Justice And Accountability

Jason Hickel, a world renowned economist, showed that for every $1 of aid the global south receives, we lose $14 through unequal exchanges. The idea that imperialism and colonialism are things of the past is imperialist propaganda.

How can one not think so when confronted by the fact that the Bretton woods institutions: the IMF (international monetary fund) and the World Bank, are still governed by former colonial powers.

Accountability and reparations can’t be limited to the mere repatriation of stolen totems and insignias, although it might be an important, symbolic gesture… and a good start.

But, I believe that true accountability would mean institutionalising democracy at the core of world politics.

Some ways of doing this include the democratisation of major world institutions like the IMF and the World Bank; the abolition of undue taxes; and talking about mass murderers such as Sir Winston Churchill and king Leopold II in the same breath as Nazi leader Hitler.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: @SardarUdhamFilm, Facebook.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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