In the last decade, more writers in Britain and the United States are describing colonial history and contemporary postcolonial culture, offering a rich history to balance the accounts to, at the very least, bridge the gaps in understanding between the past and how it has impacted the understanding of the present.
Since 2015 some of the books on the British Raj written by a host of authors, including William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, or Vivek Chibar’s The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital are debating some of the myths associated with democracy and state structure which are supposedly remnants of what the British left behind. The subject took a different turn in what looked like “Rebranding Colonialism” as a result after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September of 2022. Since then, a host of writers and activists, including Carnegie Mellon University professor Uju Anya and Atlantic writer and former ESPN host Jemele Hill, have expressed their views.
The temperature in the Indian subcontinent media took a wild turn when an American anchor voiced his opinion saying, “Britain had civilized India.” To any Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi not only was this untrue, but it demonstrated the very gaps of understanding of British rule of India in America.
Fazle Chowdhury, whose previous works on Iran and his recent publication of Why Ukraine Matters, sheds light on the importance of doing everything possible to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the consequences of conflict that may consume Europe and others, now is providing that sharp rebuttal in his new book With Blood and Flame: What the British Empire did to Bengal. Readers will find what happened in the province of Bengal, then the richest province in the subcontinent and after nearly-200 years, went from riches to rags. Of the fifteen chapters in the book, the fourth chapter is entirely dedicated to this subject, while other aspects that surround the issue are mentioned in the remaining parts of the book.
Chowdhury unashamedly directs a host of episodes during the British Raj as well as the present conditions that led the Tory government in Britain to not doing enough to prioritize their past colonial subjects nor providing a workable solution in the criteria of immigration. By avoiding such measures, political circumstances have worked against the Tories. The book is a shrewd analysis from just a few episodes before the 1757 Battle of Plassey to how West Bengal and more of Bangladesh are now faring better economically than they had in their earlier years after Indian independence. Chowdhury is known to be a fantastic researcher, and his facts are spot on. If you want to understand the circumstances of British colonial rule, particularly directed at India’s once richest province, Bengal and further events after Indian independence where the recovery from British occupation remained a struggle, then this is the book you can’t afford to not read.
Author of eight published works of fiction and non-fiction, Northeastern University graduate Chowdhury is an accomplished historian and novelist, and With Blood and Flame, he makes a convincing case of the horrors of British rule that was especially and uniquely harmful to Bengal unlike any other.
The opportunity to speak in respectful terms for the British monarchy is something he does not shy away from. What is apparent in his writing is his respect for King George V and his son, George VI, the late Queen Elizabeth II’s father, where the admiration shifts are directed at the British administrators and, most particularly, the Tory politicians during and after colonial rule.
Chowdhury’s complicated views do have particles of simplicity in his conclusion. As he blames the British colonial administrators for leaving Bengal sliced in two when India and Pakistan became independent, with one side going to India and the other constituting the eastern wing of Pakistan, he does not stop short of blaming the treatment of Indian soldiers in both world wars, the 1943 Bengal famine, the Indian partition, the three wars fought between India and Pakistan between 1947 and 1971 but also the genocide which Britain too should bear responsibility.
Chowdhury ends the book on a good note in his final chapter, “The New Revival,” describing how nice it is for the post colonial generation to see that if Bengal’s past is the fault of British rule, then West Bengal’s geographic significance and Bangladesh’s economic rise was unstoppable. A satisfactory reality despite the horrors of British colonial rule.
About Fazle Chowdhury
Fazle Chowdhury studied at Northeastern University and at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He has written several op-eds connected to Europe and the Middle East. He is a former contributor to Lisbon-based Expresso Newspaper, a fellow at the Global Policy Institute, an agile management consultant and currently spends his time between Montreal and Washington D.C.