Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Our oceans: The ultimate sump

Plastic pollution

Today is “World Oceans Day,” a day observed worldwide to raise awareness about the crucial role the oceans play in sustaining life on Earth. It is also a day to appreciate the beauty of the oceans that “brings eternal joy to the soul.”

The oceans are among our biggest resources and also our biggest dumping grounds. Because they are so vast and deep, many of us believe that no matter how much garbage we dump into them, the effects would be negligible. Proponents of dumping even have a mantra: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Really! In case they don’t know, garbage dumped into the oceans is continuously mixed by wind and waves and widely dispersed over huge surface areas.

There is a zone in the Pacific Ocean, called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a gyre of marine garbage twice the size of Texas. The garbage, mainly microplastics, were carried there by strong currents from other parts of the ocean. This is not the only floating garbage in our oceans. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans have their own garbage patches. Worse yet, the sheer size of the patches is making clean-up efforts an extremely difficult task.

Surely, human activities are impacting the oceans in drastic ways. Some of the anthropogenic environmental issues that are affecting the oceans are plastic pollution, oil spills, climate change and noise. One of the most dangerous threats the oceans may face in this century is radioactive pollution.

Each year, we dump nearly eight million tonnes of plastic—mostly grocery bags, water bottles, yogurt cups, drinking straws and plastic utensils—into the oceans. Recently, plastic has been discovered in the deepest part (11 kilometres) of the world’s oceans, Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Extremely elevated concentration of PCBs, an environment-damaging chemical banned in the 1970s, have also been found within the sediment of the trench.

While it takes hundreds of years for plastics to decompose fully, some of them break down much quicker into tiny, easy-to-swallow particles that can easily be ingested by marine species causing choking, starvation and other impairments.

Pollution of the oceans by oil spills has been one of the major concerns for a long time. The primary source of spill is offshore drilling. The process is inherently dangerous and thus, is prone to accidents. When accidents happen, and they do happen without warning, they cause massive damage to the environment—aquatic and shore—that persists for decades to come. Some oil spills happen when tankers transporting petroleum products have accidents.

If the layer of the oil is thick enough, it smothers creatures unable to move out from under it. Besides, swimming and diving birds become covered with oil, which mats their feathers, reducing their buoyancy and preventing flight. The insulative value of feathers is also lost and the birds quickly die of exposure in cold water.

The world’s largest oil spill was not an accident; it was the result of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The second worst disaster was the spill by BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Both incidents killed tens of thousands of birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and fish, among others.

Land and oceans together absorb slightly more than half of all the carbon dioxide emissions, with the oceans taking a greater share. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid. Various studies estimate that if we keep on pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the current rate, then by the year 2100, the water of the oceans could be nearly 150 percent more acidic than they are now. Such a large increase in acidity would upset the productivity and composition of many coastal ecosystems by affecting the key species at the base of the oceanic food webs. It would also reduce calcium carbonate, which is essential for building the shells and skeletons of creatures like mussels, clams, corals and oysters.

Because oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat that is added to the climate system, sea level is changing, albeit unevenly. It is changing unevenly as oceans do not warm uniformly across the planet, with the southern oceans warming at a faster rate. In addition, global reef systems are slowly migrating poleward as oceans around the world continue to warm.

The single most significant contribution to rising sea level is from the thermal expansion of water. Melting ice makes the second most important contribution, but only melting of land-based ice—glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets—is significant. Ice that is already floating in the water—iceberg—makes essentially no change in sea level when it melts, because the greater density of water offsets the volume of ice that is not submerged. Other factors that contribute to the rise in sea level include wind and ocean circulations, depth of the oceans, deposition of sediments by river flows and alteration of the hydrologic cycle by humans.

According to some studies, global sea level rose by about 18 cms during the last century. In the worst-case scenario, sea level could rise by two metres by the end of the year 2100. Arguably, rising sea level is among the potentially most catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change.

The oceans are no longer “The Silent World” of the famous oceanic explorer Jacques Cousteau. Today, they are being acoustically bleached by noise from seismic blasts used for offshore oil and gas exploration, marine traffic and military sonar.

Unlike plastic pollution, noise pollution does not have the visual impact that is needed to spark an outcry and force action. It is an invisible menace that is drowning out the sounds of many marine animals, including fish, use for navigation, communicating with each other, finding food, choosing mates and warning others of potential dangers.

Whales and dolphins are particularly vulnerable to noise pollution. The deafening seismic blasts and the ping of sonar are responsible for the loss of their hearing and habitat, and disruption in their mating and other vital behaviours. The disappearance of beaked whales in the Bahamas in recent years have been attributed to testing of US Navy sonar systems in the region.

From 1946 through 1993, nuclear countries used the oceans to dispose of radioactive wastes. The United States alone dumped more than 110,000 containers of nuclear material off its coasts. Russia dumped some 17,000 containers of radioactive wastes and several nuclear reactors, including some containing spent nuclear fuel.

It is highly likely that radioactive wastes would eventually leak out of the containers because of poor insulation, volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement and several other geological factors. Indeed, last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed that a Cold War era concrete “coffin” filled with nuclear waste is leaking radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. Since radiation from nuclear wastes remains active for hundreds of thousands of years, their dangerous effects will linger for a long time and will have lethal impact on marine life.

Furthermore, six nuclear submarines — 4 Russian and 2 American — lost as a result of accidents are lying at the bottom of the oceans. They represent serious threat of radioactive contamination of the oceans, too.

One of the biggest contaminations due to radiation was caused by a series of nuclear tests conducted by the USA on the sea, in the air and underwater at Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific between 1946 and 1958. The French nuclear tests carried out during 1966-1996 in French Polynesia are responsible for other cases of intense radioactive pollution of marine ecosystems.

Clearly, we are using the oceans as the ultimate sump, partly because their very immensity seems to preclude any long-term effect, and partly because they belong to no one. This cannot continue indefinitely because in order for us to survive, we have to protect the oceans. Lest we forget, life emerged from the oceans and the source of most of the oxygen we breathe are the oceans. They have been an endless source of inspiration to humankind.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Cyclone Fani and global climate change

The temperature of the Earth changes over geologic time. During periods of glaciation, it was about five degrees Celsius cooler and in the interglacial period about five degrees warmer. The last glaciation period was 100,000 years ago. Since then, there have been fluctuations of a few degrees, the period of 1430 to 1850 being one of particularly low temperatures in Europe. Although there were fluctuations from year to year, it seems evident that there has been a steady increase in average global temperature since the Industrial Revolution. According to the World Meteorological Organization, average global temperatures will reach a new milestone this year—one whole degree higher than temperatures before industrialisation.

In the early 1990s, when concern about climate change caused by the rise in temperature became widespread, the “signal” of anthropogenic effects hadn’t unambiguously emerged from the “noise” of natural climate variability. However, we now know that most of the climate-related changes observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. In fact, by burning prodigious amounts of fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide, which is the principal greenhouse gas, we humans have taken Earth’s atmosphere in general and global temperature in particular into a regime that our planet hasn’t seen for millions of years.

Although the interplay between carbon dioxide and temperatures is complex and not necessarily 100 percent predictive, nevertheless, the obvious correlation between the two variables suggests that we might expect a significant adverse climatic response to the industrial-era surge in fossil fuel derived atmospheric carbon dioxide. Undeniably, the effects of this interplay are manifested in the increase in the ferocity of storms, floods of biblical proportions, spike in the number of unusually hot days, melting of the glaciers, drought, desertification and deforestation, polar vortex, uncontrollable forest fires, degradation of the coral reefs, habitat loss and rise in the sea level, to mention a few.

Today, because of global warming, intense storms are occurring in many parts of the world. If they form in the Atlantic or Caribbean, they are known as hurricanes, and in the Pacific or China Sea as typhoons. If they develop off the coast of Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal, we call them cyclones. These storms are one of the most awe-inspiring displays of the raw power of nature. They are also among the deadliest and costliest natural disasters we have to contend with routinely.

After churning through the Bay of Bengal for several days, gathering immense amount of energy along the way, cyclone Fani roared through Bangladesh on May 4, 2019, leaving behind a massive trail of destruction—killing more than a dozen people, knocking out power, shredding roofs and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Classified by meteorologists as the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, it was one of the most intense cyclones in 20 years in the region.

Cyclones batter Bangladesh at regular intervals, mainly in April/May or October/November, when weather conditions align in a manner most favourable for storm origination and sustenance. As examples, cyclones Aila struck southern Bangladesh on May 27, 2009 and Sidr made landfall on November 14, 2007. The occurrence of these and other cyclones in close succession is a reminder of the country’s extreme vulnerability to the devastating effects of human-induced climate change.

The 1970 cyclone that hit Bangladesh on November 12 and raged the strongest on November 13 was the worst natural disaster we have witnessed so far. The resulting storm surge, more than 20 feet high and topped by huge tidal waves, washed over offshore islands and carried water from the sea many miles inland. The cyclone and flood destroyed the entire infrastructure of the country’s southern coast and killed an estimated half a million people, though some researchers estimate that the death count was close to a million. The failure of the Pakistani government to respond quickly to the crisis, among other things, contributed to the political turmoil that led to an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Tropical cyclones are influenced by many factors, but the role of warm sea-surface temperatures is the primary source of energy for cyclones. In particular, a cyclone gets most of its energy from the latent heat of condensation and the moisture generated from the sea. Thus, for the genesis of cyclones, temperature of water near the surface of the sea must be higher than 27 degrees to a depth of at least 150 feet. Additionally, heat from the sea and Earth’s counter-clockwise rotation conspire to create the cyclone’s spin and propulsion. Furthermore, rising sea levels mean that surges produced by cyclones are much more powerful, thereby increasing the risk of inland flooding.

Moreover, cyclones need to be at least 300 miles from the equator, where a deflective force known as Coriolis force resulting from Earth’s rotation begins to take effect. When cyclones reach land, or cooler water, they lose energy as the conditions necessary to reinforce them are no longer present.

As a result of global warming, temperature near the surface of the Bay of Bengal varies from 27 degrees in January to more than 31 degrees in May. The unusually warm water, together with geographical and environmental factors, make the Bay of Bengal a hot spot for cyclonic activity.

Can changes in frequency and intensity of cyclones observed so far be attributed solely to anthropogenic global warming as against long-term periodic natural variations? Cyclones are affected by natural fluctuations too, driven by external factors, such as solar variability and volcanic eruptions, natural internal variations of the complex physical, chemical, and biological systems of Earth.

Additionally, research has shown that urbanisation significantly contributes to the amount of rainfall dumped, as evidenced by over 130 centimetres of rain that fell on the Houston region during hurricane Harvey in 2017. This is because the “roughness” of the city—as in the buildings and infrastructure—creates a drag on the storm system, causing it to slow down, resulting in more rain over the city area.

Climate models predict that global warming could spawn more bizarre and violent weather, notably cyclones and severe floods in the future. Indeed, while people are trying to come to grips with the effects of Fani, meteorologists have warned that Bangladesh is likely going to experience another cyclonic storm called Vayu some time later this month.

The models also predict that by the end of this century, global warming effects could increase a cyclone’s intensity by about 20 percent, making them more destructive than ever. The amount of rainfall would also increase substantially. Other estimates predict that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration would result in a 40-50 percent increase in destructive cyclones.

So, what should we do to keep our planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone of the solar system? We have to make a concerted effort to end our dependence on fossil fuels. We have to replace them with non-polluting, renewable sources of energy. We have to develop more carbon-free energy technologies. We have to sequester carbon dioxide emissions using the available technology. More importantly, we have to shun the “business as usual” attitude. In short, we will have to build a sustainable future. Otherwise, climate change will cause our civilisation to collapse.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

February 21: International Mother Language Day

Ekushey February (21 February) was the forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements against the political and economic domination of the then West Pakistan, including the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971

More than 78 years ago, Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” It was a tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force who valiantly defended England from the relentless bombing by the Nazis during World War II.

Churchill’s tribute is equally applicable to the martyrs of the Language Movement, with the 260 million Bangla speaking people as the “so many” and Salam, Rafiq, Jabbar, Barkat and others as the “so few.” The so few were killed on February 21, 1952 near Dhaka Medical College when the Pakistani police opened fire on Bengali protesters who were demanding official status for their mother tongue.

The song ‘Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushey February, Ami Ki Bhulite Pari’ (My brothers’ blood spattered 21 February/How can I forget it?) says it all. It epitomizes the supreme sacrifice made by these few men.

A few months after the killing, a young poet and political activist from Chittagong named Mahbubul Alam expressed the grief and anger of every Bangali in a poem: Kandte ashini – phanshir dabi niye eshechhi―I have not come to weep, I have come to demand them hanged. The English translation of the last few lines is:

Today I am not deranged with anger,

Today I am not overwhelmed by grief,

Today I am only unflinching

in my determination . . . .

The demand that those who perpetrated the crime be hanged.

Every year on February 21, people from all walks of life head to the Shaheed Minar―the Martyr’s Monument built as a tribute to the martyrs of the language movement―singing the song “Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushey February” in the probhat feri, a barefoot procession starting at one minute past midnight. The monument stood tall until March 26, 1971, when it was demolished by the Pakistan army during Operation Searchlight. It was rebuilt after Bangladesh gained independence.

The seeds of the language movement were sown in 1948, when on February 25, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and its first Governor-General, said in the Constituent Assembly that Pakistan being a Muslim state, Urdu would be its state language. Four weeks later, on March 21, at the Dhaka University convocation, Jinnah once again said, “While the language of the province [East Pakistan] can be Bengali, the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really an enemy of Pakistan.” These statements by Jinnah evoked angry protests from the Bengalis who took it as an affront to their language. After all, Bangla (Bengali) was spoken by fifty-four percent of the population of Pakistan.  

On January 26, 1952, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan recommended that Urdu should be the only state language of Pakistan. On the same day, in a public meeting at Paltan Maidan in Dhaka, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Khawaja Nazimuddin, a Bengali who wouldn’t speak in Bangla, declared that Urdu alone would be the state language of Pakistan.

Both the developments were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. They sparked off a wave of agitation leading to the police firing on February 21. Bangla finally gained official status in Pakistan, alongside Urdu, in 1956.

Why do we feel so passionately about Bangla language? Bangla is an Indo-European language spoken mostly in the East Indian subcontinent. It has evolved circa 650 A.D. from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit, believed to be the language spoken by Gautama Buddha, and was the language of the ancient kingdom of Magadha.

Nineteenth century was the period when the actual literary renaissance of Bangla started. Literary stalwarts, such as Michael Madhusudan Datta (1834-1873) and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1898) were the founders of modern Bangla literature. Madhusudan was the first Bengali poet to write in amitrakshar chhanda (blank verse) and combined western influences into the essence of Bengla literature.

Then came Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore), a Bengali polymath, who gave new meaning to Bangla literature. As we all know, he was a poet, novelist, short storywriter, dramatist, essayist, lyricist, painter and literary critic all rolled into one. In short, he is the Shakespeare and more of Bangla literature. He won the 1913 Literature Nobel Prize for his epic Geetanjali. The other Bengali poets and writers who made our literature superbly rich were Kazi Nazrul Islam, a poet, dramatist, writer, musician and a revolutionary, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Jibananda Das and Bibutibhushan Bandopadhyay, to name a few.

Why are we so emotional about February 21, also known as Ekushey ? We are emotional because:

Ekushey ignited a movement where language took precedence over religion.

Ekushey was the forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements against the political and economic domination of the then West Pakistan, including the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

Ekushey is a symbol of our freedom, emancipation and independence from a repressive regime. Ekushey is the day we pay homage to the brave, young souls who laid down their life for the Bengla language. It is also a day of remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives for our independence.

Ekushey is a symbol of Bangali culture.

Ekushey means keeping our head high.

Ekushey teaches us to fight social injustice, inequality and oppression.

Ekushey is our guiding light towards a better future.

More importantly, Ekushey makes us feel proud to be a Bengali.

Every nation loves its mother tongue and so do we. We are proud of our literature, our music, our culture, our heritage. We love our poetry because the verses are so mellifluous for which there are no parallels. Examples are: Tagore’s Banglar maati, Banglar jol, Banglar baayo, Banglar phol, punnyo hauk, punnyo hauk, hey bhagoban. (The soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal, the air of Bengal, the fruits of Bengal, may be blessed, may be blessed, O’ my Lord.)

Dijendra Lal Rai’s O Ma Tomar Charan Duti Bokshe Aamar Dhori, Aamar Ei Deshete Janmo Jeno Ei Deshe Te Mori (Oh my Mother, I hold your feet in my heart. I was born in this land and I want to die here too.)

That is why we gave blood for our mother tongue. And that invariably justifies our quintessential emotion for Bangla.  In November 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. This is a matter of great pride for the Bangla speaking people all over the world, because it is a recognition by the United Nations of the supreme sacrifice we made in 1952 to defend our rights to read, write and speak in mother tongue – Bangla. Since then, the day is observed worldwide to promote peace, awareness of linguistic and cultural heritage, multiculturism and multilingualism.

The writer is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Political, Technical

Welcome to the age of climate change

Our planet is under tremendous stress now. During the last week of January, major cities in the US Midwest and Northeast were colder than some regions in Antarctica. Temperature in Minneapolis dipped as low as negative 32 degrees Celsius, with the wind chill reaching negative 47. Grand Forks in North Dakota has seen the lowest wind chill at negative 54 degrees. As many as 21 cold-related deaths have been reported so far.

Temperatures during the first week of February rose on average by a whopping 40-50 degrees. However, the reprieve is going to be short-lived as the frigid temperatures are expected to return later this month.

Although the scientifically challenged US president wants global warming to “come back fast”, someone should whisper into his ears that extreme cold spells in the Northern Hemisphere are caused, at least in part, by global warming. Under normal circumstances, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. Emerging research suggests that a warming Arctic distorts the vortex in the North Pole, so that instead of staying where it belongs in winter, closer to the Arctic Circle, the air moves down south into continental United States. Hence, the brutal cold spells. With the rapid warming of the Arctic, the effects of the polar vortex could become more frequent and severe, bringing about more intense periods of cold snaps and storms.

While we are trying to stay warm, down under, Australians are getting baked by record-breaking heat. Over two days in November, temperatures exceeding 40 degrees in Australia’s north wiped out almost one-third of the nation’s fruit bats, also known as spectacled flying foxes. Scores of brumbies—Australian wild horses—in the Northern Territory have fallen victim to the January heatwave, which soared to a high of 47 degrees. They died from starvation and dehydration. More than a million fish have perished in a river in New South Wales as the water temperature surpassed their tolerance limit.

Last summer, many nuclear power plants in Europe halted operation because overheated river water could no longer cool down the reactors. And like many Asian megalopolises, Bangkok is choking on air pollution. Water cannons are used to alleviate the smog that has shrouded the city for weeks.

A series of droughts with little recovery time in the intervals has pushed millions to the edge of survival in the Horn of Africa. Bangladesh is staring at an unprecedented migration problem as hundreds of thousands face a stark choice between inundated coastal areas and urban slums.

California saw its most ruinous wildfires ever in 2018, claiming more than 100 lives and burning down nearly 1.6 million acres. There have even been freak blazes in Lapland and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle. There is ample data to suggest that climate change is the biggest driver of out-of-control wildfires. In colder regions, an unusually warmer climate leads to earlier snowmelt and, consequently, spring arrives earlier. An early spring causes soils to be drier for a longer period of time. Drier conditions and higher temperatures increase not only the likelihood of a wildfire to occur, but also affect its severity and duration.

Typhoon Mangkhut with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour roared across the Philippines and China in September 2018, triggering landslides, extensive flooding and killing some 100 people. The ferocity of the typhoon matched that of Hurricane Florence on the other side of the globe that pummelled the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States just four days earlier. The wind speed was 130 miles per hour and the hurricane claimed 36 lives.

Cutting-edge research by climate scientists indicates that the intensity of hurricanes and typhoons is closely connected to global warming. Higher sea levels due to melting of glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheets and warm water give coastal storm surges a higher starting point. Additionally, because hurricanes and tropical storms gain energy from water, their destructive power intensifies. Moreover, as the Earth has warmed, the probability of a storm with high precipitation levels is much higher than it was at the end of the twentieth century.

Besides raising the sea level, climate change is also modifying oceans in different ways. According to a study published in Nature Communications in January 2019, as climate change gradually heats oceans around the globe, it is also making the ocean waves stronger and more deadly.

Climate change is ravaging the natural laboratory in the Galápagos Islands, one of the most pristine and isolated places in the world, where Charles Darwin saw a blueprint for the origin and natural selection of every species, including humans. Today, because of the more frequent El Niño events that have come with warming of the seas, the inhabitants of the islands are trying to cope with the whims of natural selection.

Welcome to the age of climate change! These are just a few examples of multiple weather-related extremes occurring all over the world. They beg the question: Can human beings survive the climate crisis? The answer depends on what we do in the next 10-20 years. It will determine whether our planet will remain hospitable to human life or slide down an irreversible path towards becoming uninhabitable.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “If what we agreed in Paris would be materialised, the temperature would rise more than three degrees.” He is finally seeing eye-to-eye with the mainstream scientists and essentially declared the 2015 Paris Accord a dead deal.

If global temperature indeed increases by more than three degrees, summer heat would become unbearable. In particular, temperatures and humidity levels in cities that are already scorching hot would rise to levels that the human body simply cannot tolerate, researchers warn. More importantly, it would trigger a positive greenhouse effect feedback that would eventually push our planet, according to Guterres, “dramatically into a runaway climate change….” Once the runaway greenhouse effect starts, then Paris-like accords, conferences of parties, rulebooks for adaptation to climate change, or going cold turkey with fossil fuels won’t be able to reverse the situation.

Runaway greenhouse effect is not a “Chinese hoax.” Several billion years ago, Venus was cooler than what it is now and had an abundance of water in oceans overlain by an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The current hellish condition on Venus where the surface temperature is a blistering 460 degrees Celsius was caused by runaway greenhouse effect.

Thus, without a significant adjustment to how we conduct our lives, the possibility of Venus syndrome is quite high. In this scenario, our planet would still keep on spinning, but as the fourth dead ball of rock devoid of life.


Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Tagore’s renunciation of OBE in 1919

David Olusoga has attempted to justify his honour. But surely black and Asian Britons should try to undo imperial delusions.

Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation.’ Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

A century ago the eminent Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the viceroy of India, which was awarded in 1915. The “time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation”, Tagore wrote in outrage as scores of peaceful protesters were massacred in Jallianwala Bagh. He would now “stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen”.

In accepting the knighthood, Tagore had been unfairly accused of being a colonial flunkey, partly because he had expressed justifiable reservations about aspects of Indian nationalism. The 1919 atrocities in Amritsar jolted the Nobel laureate into accepting that his Knight Commander of the British Empire (the CBE still in use today) could not be treated as unconnected to the bloodied realities of that empire’s operations.

The belief that titles such as Officer, Dame Commander or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire can be treated as purely symbolic, untainted by the gross brutalities of the imperial project, appear more plausible today, with historical distance. Accepting his Order of the British Empire, the public historian David Olusoga, who has a Nigerian father, has insisted defensively that while “the empire was an extractive, exploitative, racist and violent institution”, the fact that “there isn’t an empire any more” changes things completely.

The E-word is now a slightly retro empty term – a little bit distasteful, for sure, but happily emancipated from any historical reference. However, Olusoga’s comforting thought runs counter to the British establishment’s own adamantine but honest refusal, despite official criticism of the word as “anachronistic” and “insensitive”, to substitute “empire” in these titles with something less divisive and racially charged. It also ignores the extent to which aspirations to a resurgent imperial global grandeur have resurfaced, so explicitly and harmfully in the case for Brexit. Is the empire really over, or has it remained a virus-like sleeper cell in the British political imagination?Ms Dynamite

Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

The black scholar Paul Gilroy suggests that Britain’s refusal to accept the loss of empire has produced “deluded patterns of historical reflection and self‑understanding”. Surely it is the task of black and Asian Britons to undo, not pander to, these delusions.

The most eloquent case for descendants of the enslaved, the indentured and the colonised to refuse honours that exalt the British empire was made by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in this paper. He linked his own rejection of an OBE in 2003 not just to past atrocities or a “betrayal” of enslaved ancestors but to the very real afterlife of empire: racism, police brutality, privatisation, militarism, ongoing economic dispossession and the retention of the spoils of empire. One is either “profoundly anti-empire” or one accepts its many self-serving fictions along with the honour, including the notion that despite a few mishaps, it was a largely benevolent enterprise.

Zephaniah’s choice was based on clear principles, from a long and often forgotten tradition of black and Asian resistance to the global harm inflicted by empire, and the understanding that imperial and domestic rule were maintained by paternalism, buying loyalties heading off dissenters at the pass and ensuring that criticism was toned down. In the 1930s, the fiercely anti-colonial black British newspaper International African Opinion identified “the judicious management of the black intelligentsia, giving them jobs, OBEs and even knighthoods” as a key tactic for diffusing confrontation.

Bestowing knighthoods on African chiefs (indirect rule) and Indian princes elicited their assistance in controlling the colonised masses, though this was not always possible given widespread resistance. A select class of non-white leaders could be upheld as exemplars of a just system even as the large majority continued to face widespread discrimination and inequality.

Olusoga suggests that, by acknowledging the “incredible achievements of black and Asian Britons”, OBEs can be seen as a defeat of racism. Apart from the ways in which tokenism usually enables hierarchical and exclusionary systems to continue business as usual, the more vital question is whether OBEs actually facilitate what Olusoga correctly describes as the “need to confront” not celebrate the history of empire. The role of an officer of the empire is hardly calculated to induce that much-needed confrontation.

The British establishment, utterly reliant on fictions of imperial glory and benevolence, is not so naive as to facilitate its own undoing. Olusoga and others are fully entitled to their personal choices and private compromises. What is more questionable is the presentation of these personal decisions as politically sound choices made selflessly in the name of all black Britons.

Does having a few black names with OBE after them really signify that the British establishment acknowledges the profound historical contributions of black and Asian people to this nation, not least through producing much of its wealth? Beyond exceptional individual achievement, non-white Britons have also collectively organised for rights, fought racism challenged the empire, lobbied for legislation, run for political office, led demonstrations, produced community newspapers, and engaged in radical political education. So no: the “only options on the table” are not “to accept or decline” a seat at it. The real task is to bring this country to an understanding of what empire was, did and continues to do – and to question how a genuinely democratic decolonisation can be achieved in future.

• Priyamvada Gopal is a lecturer at Cambridge University