Well, of course: The sun never set on the Union Jack! In the sunset of that empire – as is inevitable for all empires – chaos and turmoil were destined to follow.
“The world is reaping the chaos the British Empire sowed,” Amy Hawkins recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “locals are still paying for the mess the British left behind in Hong Kong and Kashmir.” The author left out Palestine, chief among places around the globe, where the British empire spread discord and enmity to ease its rule and prepare the ground for disaster after its exit.
Indeed, the anticolonial uprisings in the Indian subcontinent, China, the Arab world and elsewhere did not result in freedom or democracy for the nations ruled by the British Empire.
In Kashmir, the British left a bleeding wound amid the partition of colonial India.
In Palestine, they left a European settler colony and called it “Israel” to rule in their stead and torment Palestinians.
In Hong Kong, they left a major cosmopolis that is neither truly an independent entity, nor a part of mainland China.
They picked up their Union Jack and departed, leaving behind a ruinous legacy for decades and generations to bleed. Those consequences are not just historical and buried in the past. They are still unfolding.
When the sun finally set
Ironically, today the United Kingdom is struggling to hold itself together, as the Brexit debacle tears it apart. One looks at the country and marvels at the poetic justice of wanton cruelty coming back to haunt the former empire.
The UK finds itself face to face with its imperial past, with the Irish and Scottish once again defying English nationalists and their schizophrenic belief in their own exceptionalism. How bizarre, how just, how amazing, how Homeric, is that fate!
We may, in fact, be witness to the final dissolution of the “United” Kingdom in our life-times. But there was a time when, from that very little island, they ruled the world from the Americas in the west to Asia and Australia in the east.
The terror of British imperialism – wreaking havoc on the world not just then but now as well – is the most historically obvious source that unites Hong Kong, Kashmir, and Palestine as well as the many other emblematic sites of colonial and postcolonial calamities we see around us today. But what precisely is the cause of today’s unrests?
In Hong Kong, Kashmir, and Palestine we have the rise of three nations, “baptised” by fire, as it were – three peoples, three collective memories, that have refused to settle for their colonial lot. The harsher they are brutalised, the mightier their collective will to resist power becomes.
Britain took possession of Hong Kong in 1842 after the First Opium War with China. It transformed it into a major trading and military outpost, and insisted on keeping it long after its empire collapsed. In 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong over to China, conceding to the idea of a “one country, two systems” formula that allows for a certain degree of economic autonomy for Hong Kong. But what both China and Britain had neglected to consider was the fact that a nation of almost eight million human beings throughout a long colonial and postcolonial history had accumulated a robust collective memory of its own, which was neither British nor mainland Chinese – it was distinct.
Kashmir came under British influence shortly after Hong Kong – in 1846, after the British East India Company defeated the Sikh Empire that ruled the region at that time. A century later, Kashmir was sucked into the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the British departure from the subcontinent, with both post-colonial states having a mutually exclusive claim on its territory. Here, too, what India and Pakistan forget is the fact that almost 13 million Kashmiris have had a long history of countless troublesome colonial and postcolonial experiences, making Kashmir fundamentally different from either one of them.
The same is the case with Palestine, which fell under British rule in 1920 after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Before the British packed their colonial possessions and left almost three decades later, they installed a successor settler colony in the form of a Zionist garrison state. Decades of unrelenting struggle against the barbarities of the British and the Zionists have left Palestinians in possession of one of the most courageous and steadfast histories of resistance to colonial domination.
Memories of resistance
In revolting against China, India, and Israel, these three nations in Hong Kong, Kashmir, and Palestine have become three nuclei of resistance, of refusal to let go of their homelands.
They have narrated themselves into a history written by powers who have systematically tried to erase them and their collective memories. “Homeland” is not just a piece of land. It is a memorial presence of a history.
Those memories, corroborated by an entire history of resistance to imperial conquest and colonial occupation have now come back to haunt their tormentors.
China, India, and Israel have to resort to naked and brutish violence to deny the veracity of those defiant memories, now evident as facts on the ground. In doing so, these powers have picked up where the British empire left off.
They too seek to terrorise, divide and rule, but by now those they try to subdue have mastered resistance; their struggle has outlived one imperial oppressor, it can surely survive another.
In other words, no amount of imperial brutality, settler colonialism or historical revisionism can make the distinct identities, memories and histories of these people disappear.
Today people in Palestine, Kashmir, and Hong Kong see themselves as stateless nations ruled with brutish military occupation. In the postcolonial game of state formation, they have been denied their national sovereignty.
The more brutally they are repressed and denied their sovereignty, the more adamantly they will demand and exact it.
Neither China in Hong Kong, nor India in Kashmir, nor Israel in Palestine can have a day of peaceful domination until and unless the defiant nations they rule and abuse achieve and sustain their rightful place in the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.