Monday, June 24, 2013

Britain admits torture in Kenya,but no one talks of it in India

In our pre-occupation with petty politics -- like history's most pointless cabinet reshuffle -- we fail to notice the significance of some breakthrough developments around us. How many of us notice that Istanbul is not Cairo, or that Britain has done something astonishing by admitting that it used torture as policy in at least one of its colonies?

The citizens' protest in Turkey is nothing at all like the Arab Spring in Egypt which, ultimately, helped only the resurgence of political Islam, not the democracy the Tahrir Square movement was all about. The Turkey uprising is against the newfound authoritarianism of a once popular leader who was elected Prime Minister thrice in succession. It is a reassertion of liberal democracy, people saying that even a Prime Minister who took the country forward economically and strategically cannot be allowed to turn arrogant and dismissive of public opinion.

In Brazil food prices reached all-time highs while public services all but collapsed with medical costs in particular rising beyond acceptable limits. The misery caused by these reached ignition point when the Government began spending massively on preparations for the World Cup football. Even the heroes of the game came out in support of the protesting public.

Historically it is the unexpected turn of events in Britain that must engage our attention. Macaulay's country taught us that British imperialism was a civilising exercise that gave Shakespeare and the criminal procedure code to the natives with equal generosity. That picture changed for ever when the London High Court recently ruled in favour of Kenyans imprisoned during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion and, even more significantly, when the British Government agreed to pay a compensation of £ 2670 to each of 5228 Kenyans who had complained of being tortured in jail.

The case turned against the Government when some 1500 secret files became public. They showed that torture was routinely used in Kenyan jails and that the decisions were taken by the Governor himself with authorisation by the British cabinet. These records were kept for future historians to unearth. Obviously there were British officials at the lower levels who did not like what they were ordered to do and wanted researchers of the future to discover that torture orders came from the very top.

That was precisely what conscience-stricken Americans did during the Vietnam war, the Pentagon Papers being the most famous of the revealed secrets of the time. Isn't that what WikiLeaks did, too, and also the new braveheart, Edward Snowden who revealed American internet spying secrets and is now hunted by the intolerant US system? America institutionalised torture in the Guantanemo prison camp. The CIA even invented a system called "extraordinary rendition" which simply meant outsourcing torture. At least 54 countries carried out procedures too brutal to be done on US soil -- or presumed to be so.

If the law the London Court upheld in the Mau Mau case were to be applied evenly, Henry Kissinger would have to meet the punishment due to a war criminal for ordering, among other things, saturation bombing of Cambodia which was then a neutral country. Ditto with George Bush for invading Iraq on the basis of a lie -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But the world is so wired that war criminals of some countries stay above the law.

Kenya was no isolated case. At least two cases of British atrocities against freedom fighters in their colonies have become notorious -- the Batang Kali massacre of Malays in 1948 and the wholesale butchering of Yemenis in Aden in 1965.

There must be many cases in India similar to these; remember the "Moplah rebellion" in which soldiers stuffed natives into railway wagons to be suffocated to death. But no one has filed cases and no historian has unearthed incriminating files. It was a bold move when British Prime Minister Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh some months ago. But compensation? Forget it. He even refused to apologise, merely expressing "regret for the loss of lives". Perhaps the greatest legacy of colonialism is outrage against the moral law.