Mau Mau to Midnapore: Confronting the brutality of empire

A jittery UK government reveals itself before potential claims of former victims of the empire’s brutality.

The British government's reluctance to recognise the claimants of the Mau Mau atrocities are reminiscent of the justice denied to those that suffered under the brutality of the British Empire in Midnapore and elsewhere, writes author [AFP]

In August 1995 I wrote an article in The Spectator in Britain which the magazine titled “Enough Guilt for Everyone”, with the tagline: “The British demand apologies for Japanese atrocities, but never examine their own misconduct in Asia.”

I had been driven to write the article by the avalanche of media coverage that year in the United Kingdom about the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which endlessly claimed that Britain had been fighting for freedom and democracy during that war, and that the Allied victory was nothing short of the triumph of good over evil.

The fact that a country which held a quarter of the world’s population in colonial subjugation could not possibly be fighting for the principles of “freedom and democracy” eluded most British commentators, who seemed high on a rush of patriotic fervour. It was unclear why so many in the UK were still clinging to this level of hypocrisy, which was both absurd and unnecessary.

It would be far healthier for the British to confront the realities of their imperial past. That would allow today’s generations to have a better understanding of their history, acknowledge that their values have changed and move on to a different future.

Media coverage of the case brought against the UK government by survivors of atrocities during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion reminded me of the reaction to my article all those years ago. I am struck by how much of that article could easily be re-published today as though time did not pass.

There are certainly some Britons, including academics, journalists and human rights lawyers, who are aware of the realities of colonialism. However, in the society as a whole and in the media in the UK there are still far too many who seem strangely reluctant, even after so many decades after the end of the British empire, to come to terms with the true nature of colonialism or learn from the perspective of former subjects who had rebelled against it.

Downplaying the wrongs

One of the themes that persist in this chronic self-delusion about imperial glory is the notion that the British empire was a relatively benign phenomenon, especially compared to rival colonialists of the time. A related reflex reaction is that whenever an atrocity is proved to have occurred and can no longer be denied, it is portrayed as an exception – a regrettable lapse in the otherwise high standards of morality and humane conduct. This mentality denies any systemic problem with colonialism, including the role of brute force in establishing, consolidating and holding on to the largest empire the world had ever seen.

“Focusing solely on individual incidents distracts from recognising that brutality was an essential feature of imperialism. Nobody acquires or retains an empire by being nice.

The idea of brutality as an exception or aberration was reinforced in iconic British cultural depictions of the “Raj”. Though most school-children in India would know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in the state of Punjab in 1919, many in the rest of the world became aware of this infamous incident only after its depiction in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi.

Though Ben Kingsley’s performance as Gandhi is excellent, as a film Gandhi suffers from historical inaccuracies, slanted portrayal of characters, misleading depictions of events and curious omissions. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was one of the most memorable scenes of the film, and especially shocking to those in the West who had not heard of it before.

Afterwards, the man who ordered the shooting, General Dyer, was shown being questioned at a tribunal, all the members of which appeared to be shocked by what he had done. The scene left the audience with the impression that a “rogue” individual who had committed a monstrous crime was taken to task by his fellow colonisers.

In fact, Dyer was not a “rogue” killer. He was supported by the then Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, exonerated by his superiors and received wide public support in Britain where a substantial sum was raised as a reward for his actions. The other major “Raj” nostalgia of the 1980s was the television serialisation The Jewel in the Crown, in which the villain – Ronald Merrick – was depicted as a sadistic deviant who happened to come from a lower middle class background, was a grammar school boy and a closet homosexual as well.

The number of dead in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is disputed, but even official figures put it at around 400. However, apart from misleading depictions in movies, focusing solely on individual incidents distracts from recognising that brutality was an essential feature of imperialism. Nobody acquires or retains an empire by being nice. Once the empire was well entrenched, the real test was what happened when some of the “natives” started protesting.

The ‘Quit India’ movement

In my aforementioned article, I had mentioned some of the atrocities perpetrated by the British in India while suppressing the “Quit India” movement in 1942-43, referring to academic research by independent scholars. The Quit India movement was the last mass movement launched by Gandhi against the British in August 1942. It appeared to mark a shift in Gandhi’s adherence to non-violence as a political tool.

“I think many of them genuinely did not believe that the British were capable of such crimes, having been raised on a diet of the British empire as a relatively benign phenomenon and a false sense of high standards of human rights.

As the American historian Paul Greenough observed in his work “Political Mobilisation and the Underground Literature of the Quit India Movement 1942-1944”, the day before his arrest Gandhi had said in a speech, “The mantra is ‘do or die’. We shall either free India or die in the attempt.” Earlier in the year he had publicly stated, “… my attitude has undergone a change… We have to take the risk of violence to shake off the great calamity of slavery.” The Quit India movement is not mentioned in Attenborough’s film Gandhi.

It is hard to convey to those not familiar with the Indian nationalist movement quite how preposterous this is: perhaps a bit like making a movie on the last days of the American war of independence and failing to mention Yorktown.

Gandhi and most of the leadership of the Indian National Congress were arrested as soon as the Quit India Movement was launched, leaving the participating masses leaderless. As is well-known, the movement turned violent and was savagely repressed by the British, who deployed 57 army battalions to put it down. According to Greenough, “… the severity of this challenge to public order would see the government making arrests and imposing collective fines on a large scale, opening fire frequently to disperse crowds or halt determined saboteurs, and resorting to arson, whipping, torture and even aerial attacks against its opponents.” More than one thousand people were shot between August and December 1942.

I remember that from some of the letters received by The Spectator in response to my article it was clear that the letter-writers simply did not believe what I wrote about British atrocities in India, even though I was reporting the findings of non-partisan academics. I think that many of them genuinely did not believe that the British were capable of such crimes, having been raised on a diet of the British empire as a relatively benign phenomenon and a false sense of high standards of human rights. It is this mentality – the product of decades of denial – that prevents Britain from emerging from the “empire” hangover and forging a new identity for itself in a changed world.

One of the things that Spectator readers found hard to believe (as did I when I first heard about it) was that the British had attacked civilians in India from the air. Yet several scholarly works state that the British used air attacks against civilian demonstrators.

Greenough wrote: “Collective fines, rewards to informers, machine-gunning of crowds from the air, special detention legislation, arson of Congress supporters’ houses, etc were all employed by the police, army and security forces to discourage mass actions.” In his book Modern India 1885-1947, the Indian historian Sumit Sarkar wrote: “As early as August 15, Linlithgow had ordered the use of ‘machine-gunning from air’ against crowds disrupting communications around Patna, and aeroplanes were used also in Bhagalpur and Monghyr in Bihar, Nadia and Tamluk in Bengal, and Talcher in Orissa.”

“The repression in Midnapore was particularly severe, and included ‘house-burnings, seizures of property, insults, rapes, beatings, torture and illegal detention, all heaped on the rebels by ordinary police, by Intelligence Branch police forces and by army units stationed in camps all over the district after September 1942’.

In her recent work on the Bengal famine, Churchill’s Secret War, Madhusree Mukerjee reported eye-witness accounts of aerial bombardment in Tamluk in Bengal, recounted by interviewees: ”’As we were leaving, two fireballs suddenly appeared in the sky,’ Kumudini Dakua remembered. The authorities, unable to send reinforcements by road, had dispatched two aircraft to drop incendiary bombs on the crowd. ‘We were so excited at that moment, we didn’t care,’ she said. The bombs passed over the police station and fell into a flooded field nearby, exploding in a shower of fire and water.”

Sumit Sarkar identified three phases of the Quit India movement. The first was a massive upsurge all over India in urban centres, which was quickly and brutally suppressed. In the second phase the rebellion moved to the countryside. The major areas of revolt were north and west Bihar, eastern United Provinces, Midnapore in Bengal and some areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Orissa. Several local “national governments” were installed at this time, mostly short-lived. In the third phase, “weakened by brutal repression”, the movement only comprised limited “terroristic” activities. A few national governments continued, notably in Tamluk in Midnapore district in Bengal, Satara in Maharashtra and Talcher in Orissa.

By the end of 1943, 91,836 people had been arrested, the highest numbers in Bombay Presidency, United Provinces and Bihar. Sarkar quoted the diaries of RH Niblett, district magistrate of Azamgarh in eastern United Provinces, recounting a policy of terror, in which the British torched villages for miles and imposed collective fines as a form of “official dacoity” (banditry). Sarkar wrote: “Free use was made of public flogging, as well as of refined methods of torture like inserting a ruler inside the rectum.”

In his article on political mobilisation during the Quit India movement, Greenough focused in particular on Midnapore district in Bengal, where a rebel national government had been set up by local activists of the Indian National Congress. With strict press censorship in place, their “underground” newspaper Biplabi was a record of the calamities, both natural and man-made, that befell Midnapore at that time. The district was known to be particularly rebellious and three British administrators had been assassinated there in the 1930s.

The repression in Midnapore was particularly severe, and included “house-burnings, seizures of property, insults, rapes, beatings, torture and illegal detention, all heaped on the rebels by ordinary police, by Intelligence Branch police forces and by army units stationed in camps all over the district after September 1942.” In addition, the Bengal famine – now also known to have been man-made by British state policies – hit Midnapore hard.

The claims of the rebel newsletter could not, of course, be accepted without question, any more than official claims. Greenough wrote: “In the absence of official records, it is still impossible to say whether or not the police and army units stationed in Midnapore after September 1942 were deliberately ordered to terrorise the populace. But from the hundreds of accounts of police zulum – oppression, outrage and torture – recorded in Biplabi, it is difficult not to believe that terror was official policy.”

While torture in detention seemed to have been rampant, what Indians feared most were the raids on suspects’ homes, which exposed their families to “beatings or worse”. Property and jewellery were stolen and homes were set on fire. This pattern was not limited to Midnapore district or to Bengal. Greenough wrote: “… it was not in Tamluk alone that such imagery and allegations appeared during the Quit India movement.”

Referring to Francis Hutchins’ Spontaneous Revolution, Greenough pointed out that “rebels throughout India were concerned about the problem of rape… Similar accounts were published well into 1944, the alleged villains being usually British soldiers, but also, with increasing frequency, Muslim policemen or sepoys” (it should be noted that the underground rebel groups were typically Hindu). Greenough considered whether such atrocities actually occurred or were fabricated to fan the flames of rebellion, but concluded: “In the case of Bengal, there seems little doubt that numerous rapes actually occurred.”


The British government’s handling of the ongoing Mau Mau case reflects the same problem as the reaction among those who found British atrocities in Midnapore hard to believe. The continuing reluctance to confront the realities of history continues to hinder a better public understanding of what empire was all about and prevents a speedier process of moving on from the past. In the Mau Mau case, three Kenyan survivors of atrocities committed during the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency recently won the right to claim damages against Britain in the High Court in London (a fourth claimant died before the conclusion of the process).

Kenyan Mau Mau want Britain
to admit torture, other abuses

According to the now elderly claimants, the abuse included being stripped, beaten senseless, held in chains, whipping, castration and sexual assault. Those who lived through the Quit India movement in Midnapore in Bengal would probably be unsurprised by the catalogue of abuse exposed by the court action.

The UK government twice tried to have the case thrown out on technicalities. First it argued that the Kenyan government was legally responsible for the torture of detainees in the colony; this was rejected by the Court in 2011. Next the Foreign Office’s lawyers admitted that the three claimants were tortured by the British colonial authorities, but argued that too much time had passed to enable a fair trial. This too was rejected by the Court, which noted the voluminous documentation available.

Newly declassified archival documents have lent additional support. For instance, official correspondence about autopsy results revealed damage limitation attempts about the fact that several prisoners in a Kenyan camp were beaten to death, and did not die by drinking contaminated water as initially claimed. Yet, instead of accepting the reality and offering redress, the UK government chose to contest the High Court ruling, a decision described by the British lawyers representing the Kenyan victims as “morally repugnant“.

One of the reasons for the UK government’s intransigence is likely to be the fear of how many other former subjects from around the world who had suffered brutality might still be alive and be encouraged by this case to bring claims. Endless delays on technical grounds might ensure that nobody is left alive to make a claim.

The current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has given contradictory signals on confronting the dark legacies of Britain’s imperial past. On the one hand, upon the publication of the Saville report on the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland, he declared with refreshing candour that while he was “deeply patriotic” and did not want to believe anything bad about his country, given the shocking conclusions of the Saville enquiry he was not going to defend the indefensible.

Accepting that “some members of our armed forces acted wrongly”, he said, “The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

However, for some unfathomable reason, Cameron has resurrected a national honour named “British Empire Medal”, which had been scrapped by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major. Cameron even announced his revival of the award at a Commonwealth summit meeting. To this one might ask “what British Empire”, quite apart from questioning what the empire actually symbolised and whether that is worth embracing today.

If the government insists on handing out honours (whether or not it should is a separate debate), surely it would be better to give the awards names that suit contemporary Britain and its changed values? Clinging to the label of “empire” for national honours today is not so much offensive as ridiculous.

Today’s Britons are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. However, they are responsible for learning about the reality of empire and rejecting its ugly aspects as incompatible with their values today.

Anniversaries of historical events and actions such as the claim brought by the Mau Mau survivors offer opportunities to publicly re-assess the history of empire. Unfortunately, too many with the power or influence to do so seem still unable to come to terms with, let alone atone for, the realities of Britain’s imperialist past.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.