Decolonising the Anglosphere

Alex at Red Fort

A guest post from Alexander Davis, who is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Alex holds a research MA on India’s international colonial history from the University of Tasmania and his PhD dissertation is a postcolonial examination of India’s relationship with the Anglosphere, supervised by Priya Chacko, Kaniskha Jayasuriya and Carol Johnson. This post provides an outline of his critique of the ‘Anglosphere’, which follows from previous discussion on The Disorder of Things by our own Srdjan Vucetic, and acts as an introduction to the themes of his forthcoming dissertation. Alex can also be found over at Twitter.[1]

Why India? Why the Anglosphere?

The term ‘Anglosphere’ refers to a distinctly murky combination of states, peoples or cultures with an implication of both cultural superiority and closer international relationships on the basis of a shared identity. Even dictionary definitions of the term illustrate the difficult. For some, Anglosphere is based simply on the English language, for others it includes the ‘cultural values’ associated with the political development of Great Britain. Srdjan’s recent book on the Anglosphere shows excellently how the idea of the Anglosphere is rooted in its colonial history and is an expression of Anglo-western superiority. Because of my previous research and teaching interest in India’s colonial history, the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ struck me as an assertion of cultural superiority and dominance, suspiciously similar to colonial justifications for imperial rule. Once we realize this, India, just as it was central to the British empire, becomes central to understanding contemporary discourse on ‘Anglosphere’. The first question I asked, sensibly enough I thought, was ‘is India in the Anglopshere?’ I have since realized deep inadequacies of this question, which in turn has led me towards to believe in need for a decolonisation of the Anglosphere subject.


Thinking the Anglosphere through India

In order to understand contemporary Anglosphere discourse, and the position in which India fits within the concept, we first need to understand its historical context. An early form of contemporary Anglosphere debates on India can be in England on the future of the British empire at the turn of the 20th century which turned into a discussion on the concept of ‘Greater Britain’. This idea was to be federation between Britain and her colonies might look like. Some thinkers at this time saw India as central to the empire, and therefore central to any ‘Greater Britain’. Sir Charles Dilke originally began to use ‘Greater Britain’ as shorthand for the British empire as a whole, but later argued it should only be the ‘English-speaking, white-inhabited, and self-governed lands’. Others, such as historian John Seeley, took up the idea, initially including India on the inside as a territory of the Crown. However, later, in the same book, he argued Greater-Britain needed to be racially homogenous, declaring India to be ‘…all past and, I may almost say, has no future’.

Winston Churchill’s work on the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’, itself an echo of Alfred Taylor’s ‘English Speaking Races’, emphasizes the supposed superiority and unity of these peoples. Conservative historian Andrew Roberts has recently taken it upon himself to follow up on Churchill’s work. Roberts cuts down the magnitude of his chosen topic by ignoring English-speakers outside the geographical centers of the Anglosphere. His approach to India and colonial history is revealed by his depiction, and ultimate defense, of General Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar. This is the worst example of ‘imperial’ history I can think of. Roberts goes so far as to defend Dyer from the propaganda of the nasty Indian nationalists. Even the British government no longer defends this event, though on a recent trip to India, David Cameron declined to apologize for it. Roberts defends the massacre even though many of Dyer’s victims were English-speaking. Leaving the victims out of the ‘English-Speaking peoples’ is a final act of humiliation and dehumanization.

Just as the debaters over ‘Greater Britain’ were unsure of where India might fit with the concept, contemporary Anglospherists are unsure of what to do with India. Richard Kimball includes India to show how post-racial the Anglosphere is, but emphasized how ‘exotic’ India is within the space, thus spectacularly undermining his point even before he’d finished making it. James C. Bennett’s work The Anglosphere Challenge provides a visualization of his Anglosphere, with three tiers of membership. On the top are the US and the UK, in the middle are the settler-colonial societies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and on the bottom are educated elements of ‘Africa’ and India, and English speaking parts of the Caribbean and Oceania. India is on the ‘outer’ edge of the Anglosphere: among ‘English using states of other civilizations’. This is literally identical to the colonial hierarchy: empires on the top, settler colonial societies in the middle and colonized people on the bottom. It differs only from Greater Britain through its re-incorporation of the US.

Bullet marks of the Amritsar Massacre, 1919

Bullet marks of the Amritsar Massacre, 1919

In the UK, Daniel Hannan MEP argues for the superiority of the Anglosphere vocally, particularly using the concept against integration with the EU. In Australia, the Anglospherist now-Prime Minster Tony Abbott wrote in 2009 of India:

Despite its caste system, India has some key advantages – democracy and the rule of law besides the English language – and already looks as though it will become an important member of the anglosphere.

Here, what holds India back is its caste system, but its advantages are the rule of law and the English language. This is a common orientalist trope in which when India shows economic dynamism, it is necessarily ‘acting western’: a theme notable in political discourse on India’s ‘rise’. Abbott had included India in his understanding of the concept, but relegated it to a position of unimportance, saying India might one day become an important member of the Anglosphere. Discourse on India in the Anglosphere context rarely escapes such orientalist assumptions, as they emphasize as positive in India only that which reflects the Anglosphere Self. Interestingly, in 2011 then-Foreign Minister Bob Carr depicted Abbott a colonialist child clutching at his mother’s dress for a feeling of safety. John Howard fared somewhat better when discussing the Anglosphere and ‘the advance of freedom’ with the Heritage Foundation: he more subtly suggested that India ‘would not identify herself unconditionally as a member of the Anglosphere’. For contemporary Anglospherists, the inclusion of India makes the space postcolonial and racially unproblematic. From my perspective, however, including India and arguing for superiority is equally problematic, as it relies on a narrative of India’s colonial history as being essentially a positive experience.

Echoing the debtors of Greater Britain, today’s Anglospherists all emphasize ‘culture’, values, democracy, liberalism, governmental systems, the rule of law and the English language, rather than emphasizing ‘race’. Why, then, is India so neglected? India shares all these traits to some degree, yet remains marginalized at best, at worst, ignored entirely. Still, as Srdjan has already shown, racialized identities are still firmly in the genealogy of the Anglosphere’s special relationships, and so this is not surprising. And yet, the inclusion of India in this space, relies still on narratives of the superiority of England’s colonial expansion as influencing India to make India better. The economics of the Anglosphere are also problematic, as a moralized understanding of ‘free trade as freedom’ is a key element of the Anglosphere’s identity. Victorian-era free trade, however, was also directly responsible for the catastrophic famines suffered by India under British rule – a problem that barely existed in pre-colonial India, and has since dissipated post-independence. The question cannot be then, whether or not India is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Anglosphere. India cannot be inside the Anglosphere, but it equally cannot be outside of it. As there is no satisfactory answer to this question, I must conclude that it is the question and not the answer, which is wrong. To my mind, the debate over the positioning of India inside/outside of any culturally or morally ‘superior’ Anglosphere only serves to highlight the need for a decolonisation of the concept. And so, the study of India-Anglosphere relations becomes an opportunity to examine the ways in which colonial echoes and postcolonial identities (of both colonizer and colonized) continue to shape contemporary global politics.

Thinking India through the Anglosphere

If India reveals the colonial flaws of the Anglosphere, what, then does the idea of an Anglosphere say about India? When we consider Indian foreign policy and identity through the idea of the Anglosphere, we come up with a distinct and new means of understanding of Indian foreign policy. Much like the remarkable continuity between US-UK-Canada-Australia relations, India has had difficult and ambivalent relationships with all of these states suggesting that, using the concept, complete with its colonial genealogy, to understand India-Anglosphere relations may be a particularly fruitful endeavor. In order to understand these issues, I look in my (still forthcoming) PhD dissertation at four efforts of Anglosphere states to engage India on the basis of particular narratives of the Anglosphere, and consider the Indian response.

Immediately post-independence, India outlined its foreign policy position of non-alignment. The Anglosphere states all tried to form new relationships with India, all emphasizing democracy, liberal values and, in the case of the UK, Australia and Canada, shared history through the British empire and Commonwealth. That India was willing to join the Commonwealth and maintain good relations with the UK was something of a surprise to many at the time. The decision, though, depended on what type of organization the Commonwealth might be. Girija Bajpai, secretary general of the MEA, relayed to Canadian diplomat John Kearney that he believed it would be impossible for India to remain part of the Commonwealth as a dominion. It would be possible, however, to remain as a republic, but it was politically difficult. Or, as Kearney relayed of their meeting back to Ottawa:

There are certain obstacles which if not removed, might make even this latter arrangement impossible, the chief of which is the immigration policy of some of the other Commonwealth nations, more particularly Australia and Canada.[2]

Canada was willing to bend on this matter, and negotiations followed. Australia’s racialized identity, however, did not prove so flexible, and no discussions took place, leaving Nehru to only hint at his irritation with Australia’s immigration policy. Open attack would not have brought the two countries together. The experiences of an idealistic former Indian Army General Kodandera Cariappa, as Indian High Commissioner to Australia reveal much about India’s relationship with the racialzied Anglosphere. Cariappa had spent his life in the Indian army and honestly believed in the ideals of a post-racial Commonwealth, and went so far as to set up a ‘commonwealth club’ in Canberra, which still exists to this day. Cariappa’s experience in Australia left him depressed, asking the MEA to be send him home as all he heard from the Australians was how they had to protect their way of life from non-white immigration and invasion. Cariappa eventually voiced his disapproval publicly and unofficially, framing his offence around the fact that Germans (against whom Australia and India had been fighting together as recently as 5 years ago) could emigrate to Australia, but Indian army veterans could not. Cariappa stayed in Australia, hoping to ‘educate’ the Australian people about India. Clearly, the racialized narrative of the Anglosphere severely inhibited Australia from forming a strong relationship with India.

Field Marshall Cariappa

Field Marshall Cariappa

Often considered in Australian scholarship to be the ideal version of the Australia-India relationship, however, was Canada’s relationship with India, particularly under Louis St. Laurent and Jawaharlal Nehru. Canada emphasized a post-racial liberal-internationalist approach to world politics in its efforts to engage India. Under the guidance of St. Laurent, and particularly under the term of deeply idealistic diplomat Escott Reid, Canada tried to tie India closer to the West by acting as a ‘bridge’ based on the belief that a post-racial, flexible, inclusive Commonwealth could be crucial in this regard. In Reid’s mind, India held a hybridity: a stable democracy that might share the values of the West, but needed to interpreted by Canada to the rest of the world, particularly to the US. In doing so, Reid believed India to be the most important place in the world, in which its relationship with Canada was pivotal. Reid tried desperately to convince both a reluctant Lester Pearson and the Indians to follow his prescriptions for world peace. Despite this, disagreements over the USSR invasion of Hungary, the Suez Crisis and the war in Indochina nagged at the relationship. Essentially, different postcolonial worldviews over what looked to India like neocolonial misadventures undermined the relationship. By the time Reid left India, the ‘special relationship’ between Canada and India was looking somewhat shaky. While far more successful that Australia’s overtly racist approach to the Anglosphere, Canada’s liberal internationalist narrative could ultimately not engage India to anything like the extent that Reid desired.

As Reid pointed in his farewell speech to India, the trouble with bridges is that they ‘are meant to be walked on’[3], and India’s relationship with both Canada and the Anglosphere was about to be thoroughly trampled. Indira Gandhi’s choice to set off a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ both confused and enraged diplomats from the Anglosphere. Australian diplomat Bruce Grant summed up the Anglosphere’s response after consultation with colleagues in the UK, the US and Canada thus:

Not untypically for India, what she has done does not fit in to generally accepted categories. There is a feeling of annoyance with India for begin so tiresome. ‘Why doesn’t she simply say she’s built a bomb?![4]

In his estimation, Canada was particularly irritated with India, as decades of trust over civil nuclear cooperation had been undone. India had thoroughly transgressed the norms of behavior expected of Anglosphere states, leading to the feelings of confusion and annoyance with India referred to in Grant’s dispatch to Canberra. That India’s action was so perplexing to Anglosphere observers serves to illustrate how India has not acted within this ideational space. Recently, Jarrod Hayes argued here (and elsewhere) that India’s democratic nature made it difficult for Richard Nixon to construct India as a geopolitical threat. I do not seek to disagree. However, my research suggests that, historically, ‘shared democracy’ has not only failed to create close relations between India and the Anglosphere states, but may even have proved an impediment to constructing closer relations. India’s postcolonial forms of liberalism and democracy served to create expectations of ‘Anglosphere’ behavior, which India was never going to live up to for its postcolonial ambivalence. Amid their confusion, Canadian and Australian diplomats (the Australians particularly so) fell back on colonial stereotypes of the irrational ‘third world’ where they had initially hoped the Commonwealth might created shared expectations of behavior. We might consider if it may be easier to engage a dictator you can comprehend, than a democracy you cannot.

Following 1974, all four India-Anglosphere relationships were muted. India drifted towards the USSR in the Cold War, and this did not begin to shift until 1991 when India liberalized its markets. Trade between India and the Anglosphere has boomed, and foreign policy alignments have begun to grow, albeit slowly. Since 2001, perhaps due to 9/11, discourse on India began to shift towards the discursive signifiers associated with the Anglosphere: the rule of law, democracy, shared values, history and Westminster institutions. Following India’s nuclear test in 1998, Bill Clinton termed South Asia ‘the most dangerous place in the world’ due to India and Pakistan’s newfound nuclear arsenals, but in just a few years this turned into ‘the world’s largest democracy’, a term now repeated ad nauseam in Anglosphere discourse on India. This discourse is used by policy makers and appears in bilateral agreements. The external perception of India has shifted away once again from its position as an ‘irrational’, ‘dangerous’ actor, back towards an emphasis on its Anglosphere characteristics. Given the historical failures, I am strongly inclined to believe that the attempt will likewise fail.

Bush and Singh

Aside from this shifting external perception of India, however, has been a shift from India’s foreign policy makers towards this identity in certain contexts. In a speech accepting an honorary degree from Oxford University, Manmohan Singh stated in 2005:

It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. I am afraid we were partly responsible for sending that adage out of fashion! But, if there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of the English-speaking people, in which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component.

Singh was arguing more broadly for his audience that India’s colonial experience had given many positives, and should help to create closer India-Anglosphere relations. This speech certainly received a mixed reaction within India, provoking sharp criticism from several corners. Arundhati Roy went so far as to argue that Singh had ‘officially declare[d] himself an apologist for the British Empire’. Singh’s approach was at its strongest in the many India-Anglosphere nuclear agreements, which I have discussed recently in The Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, and will refrain from returning to it here. However, these relationships continue to disappoint liberal observers who hope to create new strategic partnerships and ‘special relationships’. Despite his lofty rhetoric tying India and the US together in Washington in 2005, in the domestic context Singh had no choice but to emphasize a non-aligned, postcolonial narrative of Indian history and identity, arguing that India’s independence was not undermined by the agreement as ‘Our right to use… our independent and indigenously developed nuclear facilities has been fully preserved’. The effort to engage India on this basis, despite the shared fears of radical Islamism, despite the rise of a shared rival in China, despite the growth in trade, Anglosphere narratives have still failed to engage India even as they animate some cooperation. Singh will no longer be India’s Prime Minister following the upcoming Indian election, and will likely be replaced by the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. Though previous Hindu nationalist governments have seen India and the Anglosphere as ‘on the same side’ in the War on Terror, the Anglosphere will still have lost its most approachable Indian Prime Minister since Nehru. The construction of closer relationships appears deeply unlikely – indeed, the attempt may have already failed.

Decolonising the Anglosphere

To think the Anglosphere through India serves to problematize and decolonise the space as it reveals the colonial heritage of Anglo-Saxon claims to superiority. To think India through the Anglosphere allows us to reinterpret India’s continued postcolonial identity through a renewed emphasis on how India understands its own colonial experience, and the limits it places of relations with Anglosphere states. Furthermore, taking up the idea of an Anglosphere as a space for critical analysis allows us to consider, expose and ultimately attempt to undermine the colonial elements of contemporary world order, as well as to understand the role that these continuing complexities of postcolonial identity play in India-Anglosphere relations. Given the impossibility of placing India on the inside or outside of the Anglosphere, an Anglosphere, or a future repetition of the concept, will always be an expression of colonial power and superiority. Srdjan has already shown how its close relationships are the product of colonial, racialized identities. We can further decolonise the concept through analysis of its so-called peripheries, to expose and undermine its continuation of colonial hierarchy. To fully decolonise the Anglosphere would be to disassemble it entirely, and move towards embracing more plural visions of modernity through finally ending the Anglo-western pretense to cultural, moral and political superiority.

[1] I would like to thank Erin Zimmerman for her helpful comments on the first draft of this piece and Srdjan Vucetic for suggesting I write it.

[2] John D. Kearney, ‘Dispatch to Ministry for Eternal Affairs’ May 27, 1948, at Libraries and Archives Canada, RG26-A-1-c, file 127, part 1, p. 2

[3] Escott Reid, ‘After Dinner Speech by Mr. Escott Reid’ at Library and Archives Canada, MG26-L, no. 185, file number I-17-2, pp. 1-4.

[4] Bruce Grant, ‘Indian nuclear test’ (1974) at National Archives of Australia, A1838, 919/13/9, part 4, ‘United Nations – Nuclear Weapons – Testing – India’.


5 thoughts on “Decolonising the Anglosphere

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