What would Britain be like if it was at peace?

Since 1945, Britain has almost never been at peace. These conflicts have preoccupied the military and legitimised spending and facilities that would cause major problems if we stayed away from war.

It may be a little peculiar to speculate on this on a balmy British summer day. The Proms are in full swing, the Edinburgh Fringe is getting under way and there has been no summer riot so far - if one ignores the Northern Ireland marching season. About the most bellicose anyone is getting at present is over the Ashes, and for once the Australians have done the right thing and allowed themselves to be licked.

So why this quixotic preoccupation? I wonder just how often most readers give a thought to the British troops who are still serving and dying in Afghanistan? There are some 9,500 members of the armed forces in the country, to be reduced to 5,200 next year and to be fully withdrawn by 2015. That is the current intention.

Even if the Afghan war (which has been going on for the past twelve years – far longer than either World War) sometimes makes the headlines, what is seldom recalled is just how regularly Britain has been at war since 1945. In fact, the country has almost never been in some conflict or other, declared or undeclared.

At the bottom of this blog is a table kindly supplied by the Ministry of Defence, with the warning that it should not be considered ‘official’ since there was in the past no central record of every military action, and that until recently the Army, Navy and Air Force each held their own records. What it does indicate is that Britain has been involved in fighting of one kind or other almost every year.

The National Memorial Arboretum records the names of some 16,000 servicemen and women who have died for their country since 1945. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence says there has been only one year since that time when they did not lose someone in ‘combat operations’ – and that was 1968.

Even this almost certainly does not record the total number of conflicts in which Britain was involved. Some, like the SAS operation in Oman and Dhofar between 1969 and 1976, is not officially recorded. There may well be others.

All of which brings me back to the question I first raised: what would Britain be like if it was really at peace? George Orwell declared in “England Your England” that: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.”

He argued – rightly, it seems to me  - that “all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.” Even Godfrey Bloom and his ‘Bongo-Bongoland’ outburst is no more than quaint and mildly embarrassing, rather than threatening in any way.

Yet Britain at peace could be a very different beast. What exactly would the country do with its armed forces? Some, no doubt, would continue to be stationed on the 9 bases Britain maintains around the world (not forgetting that Diego Garcia is British, even if it is leased to the United States and its ownership is disputed by Mauritius.)

But the rest would have to come home and then what would be done with them then? They might gradually moulder away, exercising in the Brecon Beacons or in Borneo from time to time. They might be even more rapidly run down. How would the public cope with so many troops regularly going about their daily business, on the streets and in shopping centres?

Peace – real peace – would pose as many questions as most conflicts for the military. A member of the Royal Navy once pointed out to me that getting rid of Gaddafi in 2011 provided a golden opportunity to fire off all the obsolete ammunition that had been accumulating since the Falklands, with the Treasury picking up the bill. Without a conflict the military would have to find money from its budget for this kind of thing. Officers would lose combat experience, squaddies could become soft.

But all this may be premature. Syria could easily suck in British forces (who knows if some are not there already?) and the world is by no means at peace. Memories of Afghan casualties will fade, just as the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839 – 1919 gradually left the public mind. Some incident or hostage situation will, no doubt, escape the grasp of the Foreign Office and spiral out of control. Who, after all, would have thought that London would nearly come to blows with Paris over the village of Fashoda in 1898? Who can even point to it on a map?

It seems to me that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 Britain will take a short breather and then get back to its natural condition: it will find another war to become involved in; preferably a small one. 

British military action since 1945

Greek Civil War 1944-49 (direct UK involvement was more in the earlier years)

India, prior to independence and partition 1945-8 (both traditional colonial policing and incidents such as the Indian navy mutiny)

Palestine / 1st Arab-Israeli War 1945-48

Corfu Incident 1946

Malaya 1948-60

Yangtze Incident 1949 (not pictured)

Korea 1950-1953

Canal Zone 1950-54

Mau-Mau in Kenya 1952-1960ish

Cyprus 1950s until Treaty of Establishment in 1960

Suez 1956

Borneo 1960s

Aden 1964-67

Radfan (Yemen) 1960s (not pictured)

Northern Ireland 1969- present day (last military fatality was L/Bdr Restorick in 1997)

Dhofar late 60s to mid 70s (not pictured)

Iranian Embassy 1980 (no military fatalities)

Falklands 1982

Gulf campaign 1990-91 (bear in mind that although “combat ops” did not start until Jan 1991 we lost several aircrew in training accidents in theatre during the build-up of forces in the autumn/winter of 1990)

No Fly Zones Iraq 1991-2003 (no fatalities, but emphasis on 1999-2003, when Iraqi air defences attacked Coalition aircraft routinely and fire was returned)

Bosnia 1992-5 (and continued operational deployment with IFOR/SFOR for years after the cessation of hostilities)

Desert Fox Iraq 16-19 December 1998 (no fatalities but “combat” op) - not pictured

Kosovo 1999 (then continuing operational deployment with KFOR afterwards)

Sierra Leone 2000

Afghanistan 2001 to present

Iraq 2003-9

Libya 2011 (no fatalities)

All photographs: Getty Images.

British troops in Afghanistan - a conflict which has far outrun both world wars. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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