In a recent article, Amy Hawkins wrote about how the world is “reaping the chaos the British Empire sowed.” Hamid Dabashi agreed, in a piece that “connected the dots” between Palestine, Kashmir, and Hong Kong, attributing the states of turmoil in each region to the British Empire, which “spread discord and enmity to ease its rule and prepare the ground for disaster after its exit.” In sum, as both authors explained, the struggles against colonialism in each of these regions did not produce wholesome independence or freedom even though the colonial power left.
Kashmir was left unresolved after colonial India was partitioned into India and Pakistan (Snedden, 2015). Palestine was left open to occupation by what the colonial power named as Israel. Hong Kong was left behind in limbo, neither entirely independent nor part of mainland China. Colonial powers left the Kurds of with minority statuses in each country they lived in, instead of the promised provision for a Kurdish state. It is not the aim of this article to oversimplify the dynamics and intricacies involved in each conflict by equating them prima facie – but rather to identify the common thread of structural violence underlying all of them.
In each region, when the colonial powers left, they also left behind faulty structures that were held in place by power dynamics at play at the relevant time, that have only gained power as the structures were reinforced through vested interests, political power, and apathy from the international community. And the consequences, as Dabashi explained, “are not just historical and buried in the past. They are still unfolding.”
The Enduring Effects of Structural Violence
Hong Kong was under British rule from 1842 onwards, following the First Opium War. Ceded by the Qing Dynasty after the war in 1842, Hong Kong was officially established as a colony under the British Crown in 1843. The colony was extended under a 99-year long lease that began in 1898, and ended in 1997, when Britain handed over the leased area to China, after obtaining guarantees to preserve its systems, freedoms, and ways of life for at least 50 years. The transfer resulted in Hong Kong operating as part of China’s view of “one country, two systems,” wherein it enjoyed limited economic autonomy. In transferring Hong Kong, neither Britain nor China acknowledged the voice of the people of Hong Kong, their identities, and what Dabashi framed as Hong Kong’s “collective memory of its own, which was neither British nor mainland Chinese,” but rather, “distinct.” Currently, this fifty-year timeline has been thrown under the bus with the imposition of China’s bill to subject the residents of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction. No attempts were made, during the handover to China in 1997, to hold a plebiscite to see what the people of Hong Kong wanted.
After the First Anglo-Sikh War, Kashmir was ceded to the East India Company under the Treaty of Lahore, which then transferred it to the Sikh Empire. From that point onward until 1947, Kashmir was ruled by the Maharajas of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. After the partition of colonial India into India and Pakistan, both countries staked mutually exclusive claims over the territory of Kashmir – and these claims continue to date, disregarding what the people of Kashmir want. A referendum that was pledged and promised was never held. Under the Constitution of India, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed a special status under which it could have a separate constitution, a state flag, and autonomy over its internal administration, while India would handle its defense, communications, and foreign affairs. Currently, the Government of India revoked this special status for Kashmir and has declared that Jammu and Kashmir are part of its national territory.
Palestine was colonised in 1920 by the British, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In 1947, after World War II and The Holocaust, Britain declared that it wanted to terminate its mandate concerning Palestine, and a UN resolution in November 1947 recommended partitioning Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, with a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem. A civil war followed when the Arab Higher Committee rejected this proposal, and the State of Israel was declared in May 1948. The struggle of the Palestinian people continues to date, even as more and more lands of theirs continue to come under Israeli occupation.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the Western allies promised the Kurdish community a provision for a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920. Three years later, this provision was nullified when the Treaty of Lausanne defined the borders of modern Turkey, with no provision whatsoever for the Kurdish population – thus leaving them as mere minorities in every country they were in. This has resulted in several genocides, rebellions, armed conflicts, and continued efforts for cultural and political autonomy.
A common thread uniting all these regions is that the structures that were constituted in the aftermath of the colonial empire are built on the foundations of the powerful and had – and continue to have – no place for those whose lands these are. In all three regions, power continues to dictate political trajectories, and constant efforts to keep that power in the hands of those that wield it continue to be made. In this pursuit of power, then, the voices of those whose identities are tied to the land historically, ethnically, and culturally, are completely disregarded.
Keeping Violent Futures at Bay
In all these struggles for self-determination, the eruptions of violence over the years are symptomatic manifestations of the underlying structural violence that has only been in states of accretion over the years. Colonial rule left power behind in the hands of those that had already power – and in so doing, they amplified the oppression of those that didn’t. In the words of Dibyesh Anand, “…the reality is that when it comes to occupying and governing territories and peoples that have contested relations with the mainland, both…” India and China “…have adopted measures including promise of autonomy, reality of assimilation, suppression of rights, denial of self-determination, and absence of consensual rule.” In his words, what the colonial rule sparked off in its pursuit of “divide and rule” and “divide and quit” resulted in structures that would only pave the way for overt conflict later on.
It is undeniable that each of these regions have experienced trauma from the impacts of both structural violence as well as outright violence and armed conflict. Collective narratives of trauma need to be healed and communities engaged in the production of this trauma need healing and reconciliation. This is an important – perhaps mandatory – step before any attempts at rebuilding futures are made.
Taking a leaf out of feminist foreign policy, which the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy defines as “a framework which elevates the everyday lived experience of marginalized communities to the forefront and provides a broader and deeper analysis of global issues,” there may be a viable solution to what this untrammeled structural violence has created. In each of these regions in the world, voices that have remained unheard continue to pursue a quest for autonomy, independence, and at self-determination. These pursuits continue to be met with oppressive political responses because frameworks and structures in place currently do not acknowledge the every day lived experiences of marginalized communities, and forget the roles of the root cause and unresolved historical trauma in global issues and political dynamics.
It is high time that this oppressive, structural-violence-centered approach to foreign policy is dismantled. A good starting point would be the acknowledgment of this structural violence, and an attempt to heal and address trauma while also dedicating efforts toward inclusion of all relevant voices in shaping the futures of these regions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Anand, D. (2019, August 8). “Kashmir is a dress rehearsal for Hindu Nationalist Fantasies.” Foreign Policy [Online]. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/08/kashmir-is-a-dress-rehearsal-for-hindu-nationalist-fantasies/
Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (n.d.). “What is Feminist Foreign Policy?”[Online] https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/feminist-foreign-policy/
Dabashi, H. (2019, September 26). “Hong Kong, Kashmir, Palestine: Ruins of British Empire on Fire.” Al-Jazeera [Online]. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/hong-kong-kashmir-palestine-ruins-british-empire-fire-190925122530155.html
Hawkins, A. (2019, August 13). “The World is Reaping the Chaos the British Empire Sowed.” Foreign Policy [Online] https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/13/the-world-is-reaping-the-chaos-the-british-empire-sowed/
Jayakumar. K. (2019). “Redrawing the Galtung Triangle: Finding Place for Healing Trauma in Peace Work.” Transcend Media Service [Online] https://transcend.org/tms/2019/06/redrawing-the-galtung-triangle-finding-place-for-healing-trauma-in-peace-work/