Indian state planning law to 'erase' all remnants of 'cruel and humiliating' British colonial rule

Rahul Bedi
Supporters of India's main opposition Congress Party celebrate after learning of the initial poll results of Punjab assembly elections in Chandigarh - REUTERS

India’s northern Punjab state is readying legislation to ‘erase’ all remnants of ‘cruel and humiliating’ British colonial rule in the province through a Historical Memory Law, similar to the one enacted by Spain in 2007.

“It (the law) will make Punjab the first state in the country to formally condemn British rule and destroy its remains” state finance minister Manpreet Badal from the newly elected Congress Party, who is spearheading the anti-Colonial campaign told the Indian Express yesterday.

Ironically, the 54-year old minister is an alumni of India’s renowned Doon School, modeled on British public school lines and whose first two of three English headmasters were from Eton and Harrow.

Badal declared that the Colonial era that ended with independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 ‘has to be formally condemned as the single most unfortunate phase of Punjab’s history’.

Badal proposes to do this by readying legislation that duplicates the Spanish Memory Law condemning General Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorial rule over that country till 1975.   

It would be tabled in the state assembly’s forthcoming monsoon session in July, and considering the comfortable majority the Congress Party enjoys in the assembly, its passage would be a fait accompli, local legislators said.

Activists of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front (AIATF) shout patriotic slogans holding Indian flags as children hold portrait of Indian martyr Bhagat Singh  Credit: EPA

Alongside, Badal said the predominantly Sikh state would ‘destroy any vestiges and anything that [celebrates] that [colonial] era’. Instead, it would ‘glorify and exalt’ the greatness of Punjab and its local heroes.  

This list features Bhagat Singh, a charismatic socialist folk hero of India’s independence movement who assassinated a British police officer in 1928, and was hanged three years later for it, aged 23.

The other hero awaiting further adulation is the fabled Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of Punjab’s Sikh empire that stretched up to Kabul in Afghanistan.

Singh died in 1839 after a 40-year reign in which he adroitly kept the ‘rapacious’ British East India Company at bay. But in 1849 the Company annexed Punjab and along with the rest of India transferred its control to the British crown in 1858 till partition of the sub-continent 89 years later.    

Badal, however, is willing to cut the British some slack.

The Prince of Wales in India, 1876 (1906). The future King Edward VII embarked on an eight month tour of India in October 1875 Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images

Punjab, he said, would not demand compensation from its many wrongs or seek justice for the descendants of civilians killed in the horrific Jallianwala Bagh shooting by the army in Amritsar in 1919 nor would it ask for the Kohinoor diamond to be returned.   

Meanwhile, local municipalities across Punjab are readying to rename roads, buildings and public places like parks named after British officials who were close to Sikhs and Punjabi’s, in a relationship that was largely symbiotic.

The Indian Army, a large proportion of which is based in Punjab, too traces a lot of its history and traditions back to the colonial period besides continuing to foster associations with families of soldiers who had served earlier in India through frequent regimental reunions.  

Several Punjab historians like Malwinder Singh Waraich have ridiculed Badal’s proposal as a waste of time and energy and one that reflected a ‘narrow mindedness’. “It will serve no purpose,” he said.

Others have criticised the government for dwelling on ‘inconsequential’ matters at a time when Punjab faces far more critical problems like bankruptcy, raging drug addiction among its youth and frequent farmer suicides. 

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