Such is the vampiric power of empire to return from the dead, that more than 75 years after European colonizers were largely kicked out of Asia and Africa, there is a new effort to delegitimize the terms “decolonization” and “anti-colonial.”
Just 20 days into the genocide Israel unleashed on the people of Palestine, The Atlantic, now edited by a former Israeli prison guard, informed us “the decolonization narrative is dangerous and false,” and the term colonization “does not accurately describe … the foundation of Israel.” The magazine followed up with another op-ed piece, in which the author implied that professors like me who teach about anti-colonial struggles, hide the fact that “decolonization necessarily entails terroristic violence.” The New York Times, which has had staff members and contributors resign over the paper’s bias against Palestine, followed up with an essay that charged “the left” with using an “ill-fitting model of colonialism to explain what’s happening in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.” Why was it ill-fitting? Because to name Israel as a colonizer was to borrow “from antisemitic tropes, leading to a cruel and dehumanizing view of Israelis and Jews,” the essay argued. Elon Musk, characteristically, tried to have the last word. “Decolonization … and similar euphemisms,” he proclaimed, “necessarily imply genocide.”
I have been teaching about the crimes of the British empire now for 21 years. I experience these efforts to misrepresent decolonization as taking aim at not just my scholarship, but also my family’s experience as refugees when the British partitioned India in 1947. For my grandparents who had to start over in unfamiliar cities in their middle age, and for my parents who grew up in tenement blocks sharing two rooms with 10 adults and children, I owe Elon Musk and his friends a response.
Empire Past and Present
The state of Israel is the final bastion of active settler colonialism. It is the last museum where the West can view its own past. Soweto, Jallianwala Bagh and Sétif are all watermarks on Israel’s various massacres of Palestinians, each past colonial violence putting their imprimatur on Israel’s present brutality.
But the West is not merely the funder and cheerleader of the present colonization of Palestine, it is also its progenitor. British imperialists were the first to offer Palestine on a platter to Zionist settlers in 1917; this is why serious historians date the colonization of Palestine from this year, rather than from 1948. They also did not simply aid and abet. The British created sturdy infrastructures of occupation whose legacy and utility continue to this day. This story may best be told through the career of one man. Let me introduce you to Charles Tegart, the police commissioner of Calcutta from 1923-1931.
When I started writing the history of women revolutionaries in India who took up arms against the British state, Charles Tegart became a regular presence in my archives. “Revolutionary Terrorism,” a self-described branch of India’s nationalist movement, was very popular in certain parts of the country in the 1920s and ’30s, especially in Bengal. Disappointed with the lack of progress made by mainstream nationalist politics and faced with the increased brutality of the colonial state, young men and women, sometimes as young as 13, took up arms and targeted high ranking British officials, or particularly brutal ones, to make their case for freedom in a spectacular way. One such officer, who managed to survive multiple assassination attempts, was Charles Tegart.
Tegart was renowned, in both revolutionary and government circles, for his violent counterinsurgency methods. All the leading revolutionaries of this era — from the Chittagong revolutionaries to Binoy, Badal and Dinesh who attacked the Writer’s Building — tried to assassinate him. Jatin Chakrabarti, later a government minister in West Bengal, recalled Tegart’s “very, very notorious reputation” and how he “went out of his way to try out methods of torture on the revolutionaries.” So of course, in 1937, to great fanfare, Charles Tegart was sent to Palestine.
1936 to 1939 saw a mass grassroots uprising by Palestinians, frustrated by 15 years of timidity of their leaders, continuing Zionist expropriation of Palestinian land, and most importantly, steadfast British support for what historian Rashid Khalidi has called “the expansion of the Zionist para-state,” in order to turn Palestinians into “strangers in their own land.”
Into this maelstrom of popular uprising from below and imperial and Zionist violence from above came Charles Tegart, hailed as an expert on “Indian terrorism,” in a mission to reorganize the police. The empire not only circulated personnel but also forms of expression of colonial power in openly acknowledged ways. The Palestine Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, who had earned his stripes as secretary of state for India, identified the Palestinian uprising as mirroring other insurgencies: “As in Ireland,” wrote the commission, “in the worst days after the War [of Independence] or in Bengal, intimidation at the point of a revolver has become a not infrequent feature of Arab politics.” Tegart, then, was not the only cross-colonial imperial presence in Palestine. Indeed, he followed Herbert Dowbiggin, inspector general of the Ceylon Police Force, who had been sent to Palestine in 1930 also to restructure the police. Tegart was unhappy with Dowbiggin’s recommendation for a civil police force. Instead, he wanted a “police strike force” and its attendant security paraphernalia that would make Palestine a deadly place for revolutionaries.
Of Walls and Histories
Three chilling aspects of Tegart’s “reforms” in Palestine were borrowed from India and have managed to survive the test of time, as an apartheid state succeeded a colonial one.
First, Tegart proposed the construction of a security fence along the Palestinian border with Syria and Lebanon, and a series of 70 fortified security posts all over Palestine. Known as Tegart Forts, at least one of the surviving ones was captured by Israel in 1967 and served as the local headquarters for Israeli military administrators until 1994. The historical legacy of the wall is too obvious to bear repeating.
Second, Tegart institutionalized and normalized brutal interrogation tactics, having employed them “successfully” on Indian revolutionaries. He imported Dobermans from South Africa, where the use of dogs on “suspects” had earned them the name of “witch dogs” by Africans. Further, he established a center in Jerusalem to train his fellow officers in interrogation techniques, involving a range of innovative methods, including an early form of waterboarding.
Finally, the use of collective punishment to “pacify” Indians was a fundamental technique of British repression in India. Initially it was applied in the production of census categories such as “hereditary criminals” and “criminal tribes.” Later, such knowledge formed the basis of policy making. In Chittagong, for instance, when the British were hunting for the Chittagong revolutionaries, collective fines were slapped on entire villages for allegedly sheltering them. Tegart had learnt his lessons well. In Palestine he pushed for the Palestine Defense Order in Council law of 1937, which allowed widespread use of collective fines, demolition of houses and press censorship — a range of tactics that the British generously donated to the Israeli settler colonial project that followed them.
Such are the antecedents of empire, visited upon us in new forms and new deaths.
This explains why, all over the world, people recognize these same watermarks of violence that unite their own memories with the histories of Palestine. When I look at the partition of Palestine in 1947 and 1967, the ghosts of India and Pakistan rise like smoke from charred buildings of Karachi and Kolkata. When U.S. police forces are trained in Tel Aviv, Black activists in Ferguson raise their fists for Gaza.
It is true that the sun never set on the British empire. This is why from Cape Town to Calcutta we are the children of those whom the Tegarts tortured. This is why we stand for the decolonization of Palestine.
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