Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Decolonizing the Anglosphere: Part One

Decolonizing the Anglosphere, part one: postcolonial India and the ‘English speaking world(s)’
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 difficulty: 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 Vucetic’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 Anglosphere?’ I have since realized deep inadequacies of this question, which in turn has led me to believe in the need for a decolonisation of the Anglosphere subject.

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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 (found?) 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 what the 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 defence, 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 within 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.

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 as 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 Vucetic 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.

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 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 endeavour. 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. In part two of this piece, I will consider the ways in which Anglosphere forms of identity can be seen to have historically shaped India’s relationships with the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

I would like to thank Erin Zimmerman for her helpful comments on the first draft of this piece.


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