When I was born for the 7th time – The rise of Cool Britannia and the continuation of the legacy of cruel Britannia

When I was born for the 7th time – The rise of Cool Britannia and the continuation of the legacy of cruel Britannia

Released about a week after the death of Princess Diana, and three days after Mother Teresa’s,  When I was born for the 7th time by Cornershop found itself imbricated in a complicated British national culture. At once represented as radically changing, a post-Diana re-alignment of loyalties to royalty; an expressive, emotionally literate civil society; an artistic power house of Cool Britannia; and a modern, progressive post-imperial nation whose global ambitions centred on the benevolence of the Commonwealth, the trading strength and righteousness of the European Union, and the expanding peace-bringer of NATO; Britain was re-branding itself (and its history) for the new millennium to come.

Cornershop fitted this moment perfectly. Ironically named by its founders Tjinder and Avtar Singh, two Wolverhampton lads whose band’s name highlights the everyday racism of British culture. Along with David Chambers and Ben Ayres, the band garnered some cult success in the early 1990s before When I was born cemented them in the centre of the Cool Britannia post-Brit-pop world. The album was a massive commercial and critical success. A brilliant of overwhelming admixture of styles and hybrid forms, the record drew from Indi-pop, indie-pop, folk, trip-hop, hip-hop, Brit-pop, easy listening and others. Unusually, it traversed often disparate musical cultures with sales big in parts of the UK with dominant white-British communities and in areas with dominant Asian-British communities (the peculiar drift from ‘white’ as the pre-hyphen term, to ‘Asian’ as the pre-hyphen term bothers me, but that will be for another day, another project).

But while the album and its reception suggests a shift towards a more inclusive, happily multi-cultural Britain (a narrative beloved of the centrist consensus but which the perceived rise of UKIP and the rhetoric around immigration in the 20-teens has demonstrated to be false), this story occludes, and purposefully so, the on-going effects of British Imperial strategy for two centuries, and more, in different parts of the globe. Indeed, the term ‘Cool Britannia’ is a very insidious one. At best it signifies a naïve sense of the Empire as a source for global good and national pride that lauds the Victoria-Dicken-spread of civilization story while suppressing the barbarity, violence, rapes, despoliation and destruction of indigenous cultures; at worst it cynically re-narrates the politico-martial-economic exploitation of previously sovereign lands as a mere prelude to this aesthetically harnessed national amnesia.

The state of the Empire, from the perspective of the right who saw (see) its demise as both a national disgrace and a global disaster, was in one sense emblematised by the ceremony on July 1st giving control of Hong Kong back to China.. While both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon had been ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, the New Territories were leased for only 99 years in The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territories in 1898. 99 years later, and the political confusion that would have happened if the UK had returned only the New Territories meant that, despite treaty allowances, the whole of the area was returned to Chinese control.

The British Empire was truly at an end.

I shall have more to say about China in a separate post, but I want not to turn to another previous country conquered by Britain in its Imperial global expansion, namely India. 1997 should have seen India celebrate 50 years as a free and sovereign nation, but there was much unrest that has cast a shadow over the subsequent 20 years. While any discussion of a country as huge, complicated, linguistically, culturally and religiously diverse as India is always going to run the risk of simplification to an absurd degree, I want to assess what was causing the malaise in 1997, and how that has influenced things since.

A seemingly opportunistic place to start is with the death of Mother Teresa. Over-shadowed globally by the death five days earlier of Princess Diana, her death nevertheless offered a lens through which to see the fractures and fault lines that bedevil Indian society. Primary among these are the caste system and religious intolerance. Mother Teresa challenged some of these assumptions by working with the Dalit Christian communities in Calcutta. This work illustrates the massive difficulty for Indian culture of trying to accommodate a caste system that – at least in part – is enfolded into inequalities based on religion.

It is no surprise that religious differences exist in India. Its very coming into being is predicated on religion. With the determined and successful resistance to colonial rule led by the Hindhu Ghandi leading to the decision by the British to withdraw from the territories they had conquered, very real questions about how this would be effected needed to be answered. The Mountbatten plan, announced on 3rd June 1947 left many questions hanging, but essentially presented a Two Nation theory. This was based on a belief that defining factor of identity for Muslims in the sub-continent was their religion, rather than their ethnicity or language, for example. Promoted vigorously by Muhammad Ali Jinna, it was the driving principle of the Pakistan movement, and the desire for Pakistan to be created as a Muslim nation state. The Dominion of Pakistan came into being on 14th August 1947 with the Dominion of India coming in to being 24 hours later.

The Dominion of Pakistan (later to become the Islamic republic of Pakistan) had years of division and disquiet from within different groups of Muslims, most notably in East Pakistan that became the separate country of Bangladesh in 1971. 

But India has had to contend with a multi-religious society that is problematically founded on the two nation principle. For some Muslims in India who identify strongly with the two nation principle, there is a claim that Muslim majority provinces should be able to assert autonomy from India. In some cases this is in a relatively benign acceptance of peaceful co-existence between a Muslim majority and a Hindu minority. In other cases, the claim is that the two groups are so different that peaceful cohabitation is impossible and re-patriation of Hindus to India from the autonomous Muslim-majority autonomous zone is preferred.

While for many Muslims, the sense of identity based on religion might provide a sense of certainty and collectivity, it provided for right wing groups of Hindu Nationalists a position from which to assert that Muslims in India could not be real Indians. The growth of Hindu Nationalism after partition is merely a development of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Patriotic Organisation) or RSS that was formed in the 1920s as a Hindu volunteer mission whose aim was to serve India. 

It was briefly banned during British rule and has been banned three times since partition, once because one of its members assassinated Mahatma Ghandi (also known by the beautiful Gujarati term, ‘Bapu’, ‘father’) because of his tolerance of Muslims.

The RSS is widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, (Indian People’s Party). The leader of the BJP and the Prime Minister of India is Narendra Modi. First introduced to the RSS when he was 8, Modi has climbed the ranks of the BJP to lead the largest democracy in the world.

In 1997 he was the party’s National Secretary in Delhi. He is reported to have mentioned Mohanrao Bhangwat 

as a man to keep an eye on as a potential leader of the RSS. At the time Bhagwat was akhil bharatiya sharirik pramukh for the RSS, mid-ranking post in charge of physical training in India and became General Secretary in 2000. Modi’s claim was proven correct in 2009 when Bhagwat became Chief Executive of the RSS.

Mother Teresa spent much of her time working with Christian Dalits. Dalits are the people at the bottom of the caste ladder, denied access to the four-fold varna system of Hinduism, they now belong to Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and other religions. So-called untouchables they represent the on-going difficulty of a social system so vividly hierarchized and segregated. However, they are not alone in a sense of extreme isolation and alienation from mainstream Indian culture, whether Hindu or Muslim.

 The ‘tribals’ are groups of indigenous peoples who are not ethnically, linguistically or religiously involved in Indian culture and society. Often existing at the literal margins of the country or provinces within it, they make up, for example,14% of the state of Gujarat (almost 4% higher than the number of Muslims) but wield no power and have very little representation.

In 1997 Gujarat was held by the other main political party, the Indian National Congress.  Modi was developing his power base in the BJP, Bhagrat was in the process of proving Modi right in his aspirations for the RSS and in the south eastern corner of Gujarat a man called Swami Aseemanand was working for another Hindu Nationalist organisation called Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, VKA. The Dang District of Gujarat is a largely tribal one. When the British tried to steal the natural resources of the regions, the kings of five of the tribes united to defeat them and earn a compromise wherein Britain agreed payment for access to the forests and rivers. The influence of the British led to Christian missionaries working in the area, and the tiny Christian population of Gujarat had as part of its make-up some of these tribes people.

By the mid-1990s, the VKA had been undertaking a process of ‘Hinduising’ tribals across India, and Swami Aseemanand went into the Dang district of Gujarat to continue the mission. By 1998, he had developed a loyal following and was publishing pamphlets and fliers with calls to arms such as this:

“Come Hindus, Beware of Thieves …The most burning problem of Dang District is the establishments being run by Christian priests … Wearing a mask of service these Satans are exploiting the adivasis … Lies and deceit are their religion.”

The words quickly became actions and Hindu attacks on Christian churches and schools was intense over December 1998 and January 1999. Aseemanand proudly describes the violence, thus:

“40,000 Christians got converted to Hinduism…We demolished 30 churches and built temples. There was some commotion.”

I mention this because he was later and arrested and accused of a swathe of terrorist attacks against civilian targets – attacks that he takes pride in, and celebrates not least because on his arrest he was in the same jail cell as Gopal Godse, the brother and co-conspirator of the assassination of Ghandi. Inan interview, the following description and allegation is made:
"Aseemanand told me about a meeting that allegedly took place, in July 2005. After an RSS conclave in Surat, senior Sangh leaders including Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar, who is now on the organisation’s powerful seven-member national executive council, travelled to a temple in the Dangs, Gujarat, where Aseemanand was living—a two-hour drive. In a tent pitched by a river several kilometres away from the temple, Bhagwat and Kumar met with Aseemanand and his accomplice Sunil Joshi. Joshi informed Bhagwat of a plan to bomb several Muslim targets around India. According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, “You can work on this.” Indresh added, “You can work on this with Sunil. We will not be involved, but if you are doing this, you can consider us to be with you.”
Aseemanand continued, “Then they told me, ‘Swamiji, if you do this we will be at ease with it. Nothing wrong will happen then. Criminalisation nahin hoga (It will not be criminalised). If you do it, then people won’t say that we did a crime for the sake of committing a crime. It will be connected to the ideology. This is very important for Hindus. Please do this. You have our blessings."

So a rising star of the RSS, tipped for the top by the eventual leader of the BJP is implicated by a terrorist in conspiracy. The accusations have been strenuously denied, but as with the current climate in Trump’s USA, the intensification of Hindhu nationalist rhetoric both creates the conditions for more and more open bigotry and hostility, and then uses the inevitable retaliatory words, gestures and actions form groups demonised by this rhetoric, as proof of the need for more and more, harsher and harsher action.

Since 1997 there have been two decades of efforts by the VKA, the SSR and more recently the BJP to exert a Hindu Nationalist agenda. This agenda is perhaps most violently illuminated by Modi’s effective inaction and silence in the face of terrifying riots in Gujarat in 2002 that saw over 1,000 minority Muslims murdered. Initially sparked by the horrific setting alight of a train of Hindu pilgrims that killed 58, the riots persisted in parts of Gujarat for days, even weeks. Described by some as a pogrom, the event is used by those who believe Modi is using his power to create a Hindu Nationalist government.

However, for many, the real impact of Modi has not been to promote religious conflict but to aggressively impose a neo-liberal economic agenda that asserts the primacy of economic growth above all other considerations – be they religion, education, social welfare or whatever. Up until the 2008 crash, India’s economy had befitted form sustained growth but the crash saw catastrophic withdrawal of investment from the country. By 2012, as other emerging economies were pulling themselves out of the mire, an HSBC analyst famously and with a poetic distillation of post-Imperial western views of the country, described it as a ‘gasping elephant’.  Modi’s neo-liberal agenda is a direct response to these economic tribulations. In 2014, Forbes published an article announcing:

A survey conducted last summer by Ernst & Young found that 53% of more than 500 business leaders around the world planned to enter or expand their operations in India within the following 12 months. The list of multinationals that are making long-term investments in India includes U.K. liquor company  Diageo , which acquired majority ownership of United Breweries, once run by Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya; French energy company GDF SUEZ ; pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline; Sweden's IKEA; Singapore Airlines; Starbucks, which partner with the Tata Group; U.K. retailer Tesco; Unilever, Vodafone and Volkswagen all upped the ante on Modi.

The economic upturn has certainly been evident in stocks, shares, currency and GDP, but the impact on the lived experience of, for example the Christian Dalits, the tribals, minority Muslim communities in strong RSS areas is less clear to observe. And as the BJP pursues a relentless free market policy, its partners the RSS continue to stoke religious intolerance. In 2015, Bhagwat, now Chief Executive of the RSS announced to RSS followers that Mother Teresa’s work was only undertaken to convert the poor to Christianity. Much less strident than, for example, Peter Hitchens’ scathing repudiation of Mother Teresa, Bhagwat’s pronouncements fuel the already tense relations. They also bespeak the inevitable hypocrisy of the zealot in not seeing the work by the VKA in exactly the same way (his criticism is that service is good, but neutral; service that seeks reward (conversions, for example) is against the principles of serving India – Swami Aseemanand would hardly concur. And Bhagwat himself was emphatic in desiring the conversions of all non-Hindus to Hinduism when he stated that religious minorities are ‘stolen goods’ and continued, ‘I will take back my goods’.

The countries, kingdoms and territories that existed before the invaders arrived had complicated relations, histories, trade, religion, languages. British India ignored all that, and imposed a single bureaucracy, developed a single infrastructure, demanded a single language of governance. When it tired of British India and the Raj, the UK withdrew leaving a mangled, divided, distorted echo of what had been there 300 years previously, but with the recent centuries of new divisions, new structures, new inequalities to contend with.

Cornershop, with their album released three days after Mother Teresa’s death, seemed to offer a positive (if sceptical) view of a new multi-cultural cool Britannia; for those living in the remnants of the old cruel Britannia, the mixed effects of post-imperial mis-management, religious intolerance, the new neo-liberal centrist economics have meant a turbulent, occasionally violent, rhetorically divisive two decades. The Empire is alive and well, and killing us all slowly.


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