Sixty years after the independence of India and Pakistan from Great Britain, the United States has much to learn about the horrors of colonialism.
At midnight, Aug. 14 and 15, 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from nearly two centuries of rule under the British Empire, unraveling a system built on economic exploitation, misrule and racism.
Strangely enough, some commentators have advised the Bush administration post-Sept. 11 to use the British Empire as a role model.
Max Boot, a former editor of The Wall Street Journal, has asked the United States to take as its model "self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." The Atlantic magazine's national correspondent, Robert Kaplan, has also urged the United States to establish an empire.
But British colonialism was so noxious that the effects still linger more than a half-century later.
Take India, for instance. The country (then comprised of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was supposed to be Britain's "jewel in the crown." Yet 60 years after independence, the region is ranked near the bottom in socioeconomic indicators, in good part because of the legacy of the empire.
During the entire 190 years of the British presence in the country, there was no increase in the per capita income of the average Indian, according to Professor Angus Maddison of the University of Groningen, Netherlands.
In fact, the effect of British rule in India was so destructive that per capita food availability actually declined by 25 percent between 1900 and 1947. At the time of independence, a mere 14 percent of the Indian population was literate and life expectancy was barely 30 years.
Before the British came to India, the standard of living compared favorably to that of Europe. Robert Clive, who led the British conquest of India, remarked that Murshidabad, a city in the Bengal region, was "as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London."
Prior to the advent of the British, in 1700, India's share of the global economy was 22.6 percent, according to Maddison. When the British left, it was a minuscule 3.8 percent.
As Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, wrote, "Nearly all our major problems today have grown up during British rule, and as a direct result of British policy: the lack of industry and the neglect of agriculture; the extreme backwardness in the social services; and, above all, the tragic poverty of the people."
The damage that Britain did was not confined to India. For example, when Britain left Tanzania, one of its bigger African colonies, the country had only 13 college graduates.
In order to keep control over its colonies, the empire implemented a policy of "divide and rule" that instigated tensions among its ruled populations. This often brought about bloody and tragic partitions as a result.
To top it all, the British colonial enterprise was built on the edifice of racism. Indians were declared off-limits to portions of their own country, from prime urban and agricultural land to the upper echelons of the administration.
The British Empire is an example to avoid, not to emulate.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive (www.progressive.org) magazine in Madison, Wis. He can be reached at The Progressive Media Project.