Window on our past: a 19th-century poem from al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Photo: British Library EAP, photoshopped by Matthew Ward
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"The memory of the world": British attempts to save endangered Middle Eastern artefacts

Rescuing and preserving Middle Eastern texts and artefacts in the "post-custodial" age.

How much history did Isis burn in Mosul’s central library earlier this year? It seems grimly appropriate that it is difficult to find evidence to verify the worst estimates of 1,500 manuscripts and 100,000 books destroyed.

We are perhaps more used to states marking their territory by taking custody of the archives of weaker powers, even when that, in effect, amounts to kidnap. The British Library has material from all over the world collected during the days of empire; by 1979, however, Philip Larkin, a librarian as well as a poet, was trying to stop the flow of British literary manuscripts to the US.

Taking custody isn’t always a protective measure. Israel holds 6,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts collected from western Jerusalem after its victory in the 1948 war, but destroyed 24,000 it considered irrelevant or hostile.

According to the book From Dust to Digital, edited by Maja Kominko and published in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), we now live in a “post-custodial” age. The programme removes nothing from its original location, so communities retain the ability to tell their own histories. Instead, money from the charitable Arcadia Fund is used to give grants to help people digitise at-risk or inaccessible material; the scanned images then go to the nearest possible institution and on to the Endangered Archives website (eap.bl.uk). The 19th-century copy of an Islamic poem printed above is one of “four million individual windows into the human past” gathered over the past decade: a photoshopping together of two of the 87,658 individual photographs of manuscripts taken in the library of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

If the numbers are difficult to comprehend, so is the history they reflect. Because the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overlay it at different angles, the land around the library is perhaps the most fought over in the world. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a few metres away, triggered the five-year-long Second Intifada, which killed as many as 4,000 people.

Al-Aqsa’s collection of Islamic manuscripts is one of the most important in the world, according to Unesco. Its newspaper archives also show the Palestinian perspective on the rising numbers of Jewish settlers, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish state, British control between 1917 and 1948 and what Palestinians call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”): the 1948 conflict that passed most of the area into Israeli control. Now they can browse its library from anywhere with an internet connection. Although the mosque is administered by a Jordanian trust, Palestinians can gain access to it only with a permit – or, during one of the many outbreaks of violence, not at all.

So far, the EAP has given out £6m in 244 grants and has received images of a vast compendium of medieval Jewish life known as the Cairo Genizah, beautiful illuminated manuscripts by Ethiopian Christians, ethnographic photographs of Soviet Siberia and scrolls that survived the annihilation of the northern Chinese Tangut people in the 13th century. There has been nothing, as yet, from Iraq. For much of the world, the “British” in the project’s title contradicts the “post-custodial” ideal.

“If this is the memory of the world,” the EAP argues, “the world needs [to be able] to access it.” Accordingly, all of the material is freely available, and captioned in five languages. It’s easy to get carried away: the UN estimates that only 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet, and, whatever the precautions, we have no way of knowing how long these images will outlast their physical counterparts. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the EAP represents a new kind of archive – a utopian monument to curiosity.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.