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

What is the difference between lies and post-truth in politics? A philosopher explains.

If I wrote “The first sentence in this article is a lie”, is this sentence true, or is it a lie? And, if a liar declares “I am lying”, is the liar telling the truth? In philosophy and logic, this is known as the Liar’s Paradox: the liar is a liar, and if the liar is indeed lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied.

Lies are part of the DNA of modern society, though we often now refer to them with the more dignified terminology of marketing, advertising, propaganda or spin. From unscrupulous sellers of used cars to prime ministers making unsubstantiated declarations about weapons of mass destruction, it seems that many people now make a living from lies.

In the public imagination politicians are professional liars par excellence, or as the writer George Orwell once put it: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

In her essay Truth and Politics, published in The New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. But even Arendt was aware that not all lies are the same. There are lies that are minimal forms of deception, a micro-tear in the fabric of reality, while some lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, a shift to another reality. In today’s terminology, Arendt was alerting us to the difference between a lie, and the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year – “post-truth”.

One way to understand the difference between lies and post-truth, which I’ve written about in a new paper, is that a liar denies specific facts that have precise coordinates in space and time, whereas post-truth questions the very nature of truth. A liar knows the truth, and, by trying to persuade us of an alternative narrative, a liar is paradoxically honouring the truth, whereas post-truth allows no last refuge for the truth.

Clinton versus Trump

This distinction between a lie and post-truth becomes clearer by comparing two recent American presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. At a White House press conference on January 26 1998, Clinton famously said:

I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never.

Clinton’s statement, given the subsequent revelations and a semen-stained blue dress, is disconcerting. It’s possible that Clinton did not consider his intimate interactions with Lewinsky as a “sexual relation”, but that is unlikely – it would require a phenomenal effort of self-deception, or ingenuity, to defend that position with honesty and integrity. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, but he was ultimately acquitted in a Senate trial.

Subverting truth itself

Clinton lied, and that was inexcusable. But Trump’s relationship with truth is even more disturbing, and dangerous. Trump’s incessant accusations of fake news against the main media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN, reflects a longstanding disdain for the truth. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not simply denying certain facts, instead he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about the truth.

Trump’s response and demeanour to the impeachment allegations made against him is a typical example of post-truth. By spurning the impeachment proceedings as a “charade” and a “witch-hunt”, his strategy is to create an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, where theoretical frameworks necessary to make sense of certain events are scorned, and where scientific truth is delegitimised.

This is the major difference between a lie and post-truth. While a lie subverts a specific truth, post-truth tries to subvert truth itself. Trump’s abhorrence of truth is reflected in the remarkable claim by one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, that “truth is relative”. Giuliani was talking on NBC News about the request by special counsel Robert Mueller for an interview with Trump regarding the Russia investigation. Giuliani raised concerns that Trump could perjure himself because “truth isn’t truth.”

Post-truth is a murky concept, but it should not be confused with a lie. Post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society. The prefix “post” in post-truth refers to the claim that a specified idea has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. Post-truth is the belief that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete.

We can cope with politicians lying, but we cannot afford the risk of allowing politicians to delegitimise truth.

The author, Vittorio Bufacchi, is a Senior Lecturer at the Dept of Philosophy, University College Cork, Republic of Ireland. (From: The Conversation, January 24, 2020.)

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

Cultural and National Identity

Most of us have differed often enough with one another on what precisely constitutes culture. That is hardly surprising in view of the fact that it is common for even erudite philosophers to disagree and debate with each other on the raw definition and nuances of culture. The way we perceive culture is very much a mirror of our philosophy in life and of our view of the society we live in. It is but natural that we differ. But does it really make any material difference to a society on what exactly a culture is or on what a particular cultural guru enforces the cultural attributes of a society at a particular point in time and space?

Culture is more like the free-flowing water in a river. It takes on the colour of the alluvium soil it flows over at any particular moment. Culture of a people is anything but static; it changes, it merges, it meanders, it evolves like the life on earth.

The so-called Calcutta Book Fair fiasco had prompted certain coteries of vested interest to make mountain out of a mole hill. At the forefront was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had donned the mantle of the keeper of Muslim Bengali culture. It had self-proclaimed the distinctiveness of Muslims to create a separate identity for Bangladeshi culture.

The party was founded by a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh or Bangla nation. But the Kakul trained former Pakistani army officer who spoke Bangla with a distinct Urdu accent, due to his long stay in the western wing of Pakistan, ultimately took on the role of a Trojan Horse. When he assumed the charge of independent Bangladesh in the aftermath of a series of coup d’etats and assassinations (which many people claim may have been through his acquiescence), he took upon himself the task of rebuilding the nation in the model of “Pakistan.” Thereby, he failed to live up to his glorious deeds during the days of blood and thunder. The unholy coalition that he forged with the religious right had made him to rehabilitate those hated anti-Bangladeshi forces in the independent Bangladesh. It brought back the ghost of Pakistani oppression in Bangladesh.

The Bengalis in Pakistan had made sacrifices to found a modern state based on secular ideology. The Sufi tradition had deeply influenced the Islam in Bengal. Its tolerant ethos was a far cry from the religious intolerance of West Pakistan that would later spawn into Taliban movement.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was a struggle against the hard-line exclusivist tradition of West Pakistan that was trying to supplant the liberal tradition of the eastern wing and turn it effectively into a colony. Under the guidance of the Pakistani junta from the west, the Islamist parties made it their goal to eliminate religious minorities and to discard the secularist strands from the composite culture of Bangladesh. They cried “Islam is in danger.” to garner supporters for their invidious goals.

It was a national goal in certain quarters during the Pakistani era to erect a psychological barrier between West Bengal and East Bengal in the guise of championing the cause of Islam. There was a crack in that barrier for a brief period during 1971-75. But, after 1975, for the next two decades, that barrier was restructured and reinforced to mirror the prejudices and predilections of the past. The master architects of that barrier were the Pakistan trained officers of the Bangladesh army who continued to look back to the pre-liberation days towards Islamabad for political inspiration.

The balance of power in Bengal in the era of Permanent Settlement had indeed tilted disproportionately in favour of the Hindus. The 1947 partition did serve to restore the balance. But it can just as easily be argued that East Bengal got rid of the over-lordship of the local Hindu zamindars only to embrace the colonial shackles of West Pakistan. Furthermore, it was demanded by its new masters to sever all ties with “Hindu” West Bengal with which it shared many common cultural heritage and where at least a quarter of the population was Muslim.

The Bangabhumi of yore was today’s East Bengal. It had always been the core of Bengali language and culture. West Bengal was the Rarhbhumi which was part of Greater Bengal and had, till the coming of the British, looked up to East Bengal for cultural inspiration and sustenance. So, in a sense, Bengal’s cultural heritage had its root in East Bengal. The proponents of Bangladeshi nationalism had their own agenda. It was to erase West Bengal from the canvas of Greater Bengal with a view to turning Bangladesh into a puppet in the hands of Islamabad’s rulers, who would only be too happy to use Bangladesh as the cat’s paw to further their own interests.

Then there were those who had vested interests in declaring, “Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of Bangladesh are two distinct peoples; they have absolutely nothing in common” Inevitably, proponents of this delinquent ideology ignore the cultural affinities of West and East Bengal to emphasise only on religious differences. That was the only way they could erect a barrier between the two Bengals. But even that was not easy because a quarter of West Bengal’s population was Muslim. Would the religious fanatics disown Poet Nazrul Islam because he was from West Bengal?

There are some differences between the inhabitants of the two Bengals. But it is not simple to cut off West Bengal from our cultural canvas on the basis of these differences. Religion, ethnicity, dialect, and regional characteristics, all play an important role in defining our cultural ethos. It is as disingenuous as it is dishonest to try to define it in terms of religion alone.

Consider the regional component, for example. The immigrants in Calcutta from East Bengal, from long before the 1947 partition, had indulged in their regional pride by cheering for the East Bengal team on Calcutta’s football fields. And to this day they continue to do so. It pleases them no end when East Bengal defeats Mohan Bagan. The Islamists in Bangladesh
will be hard put to explain this exultation in the football fields of Calcutta in terms of their mindset of seeing everything with religious lens.

Region-based differences indeed seems far more significant than religion-based ones. A Muslim Bengali from West Bengal is likely to feel more at home with a Hindu Bengali from West Bengal than with a Muslim Bengali from Bangladesh. The age old Ghati-Bangal issue has always transcended religion to give primacy to geography instead.The cultural tradition of the subcontinent kept apart the Hindu migrants from East Bengal to India from the Hindu natives of West Bengal. Even some half a century after the partition of India, Calcutta newspapers continue to conspicuously mention the ancestral roots of prospective brides and grooms in matrimonial columns. One may attribute that to the discriminatory practices of the natives or to the exclusivist practices of the immigrants. But the fact remains that ancestral district can come in the way of tying matrimonial bonds between the Hindu natives and the Hindu immigrants in West Bengal. In fact, even among the Hindu immigrants themselves, a Baidya from Jessore or Bikrampur might find it beneath his dignity to have matrimonial ties with a Baidya from Sylhet or Comilla!

Many a nation state in the world exhibits regional variations in dialect and culture. The regional dialect and the local customs give the nation a “salad bowl” cultural milieu. Thus, Bavarians in Germany have the image of hillbillies. After the reunification of Germany, the people from the former East Germany were often perceived by their newfound compatriots as third worlders! Belgium and Switzerland have people speaking different dialects and even entirely different languages.

In USA, the Mecca of multi-culturalism, people speak of the East Coast, the Mid West or of the deep South with very specific cultural connotations. Let me narrate a personal anecdote. I took a speech course in an American college. During a discussion session, one student was frank enough to admit to her cultural bias based on regional accent. She told the class that Jamal has a non-American accent which is okay with her. But if she hears somebody with a southern accent, she seems to struggle with the thought that the person is of inferior intellect!Most religionists in Bangladesh take a victimological stance to justify their prejudices. They blame the arrogance of the Hindus from West Bengal or of the Hindu zamindar of yore from his own East Bengal for their antagonism toward all Hindus. But if they were honest enough, they would have readily admitted that there could be just as much a tradition of arrogance among the Muslims of Bangladesh. For many years, educated Bengali Muslims inhabiting the central part to the north western part of Bangladesh were extremely reluctant to enter into matrimonial ties with people from Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet. Similarly, many
Chittagongians and Sylhetees never could harbour the thought of marrying “foreigners.” I know of people from Noakhali who feel ashamed to disclose their roots. Many of them feigned to be from Comilla or Chittagong to get accepted by the Dhaka-centric “Bhadrolok” culture.

I was still a school kid when my father got transferred to Chittagong. It was a big cultural shock for me. I was afraid that I would never master the Chittagonian dialect, which is significantly different from the standard Bengali language. To my relief, I finally learnt to not only understand the local dialect but even speak in it after a fashion. A few years later, my father was transferred to Sylhet where I stoically withstood the scorn of my classmates who called me a “Bangal.” Needless to say, it was a pejorative. It was then that I learnt that the Sylhetees considered themselves to be from Assam. They were telling me that they did not think I was worthy of being a friend because I was nothing better than a “Bangal.”

I am sure I will have far less of a cultural shock if I visit Nadia in West Bengal. If I visit the Calcutta metropolis, I may cross path with some Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims alike) who may turn out to be somewhat different. But I doubt they will find me as different as I was found by my Chittagongian and Sylheti classmates. But then I have to bear in mind an
important aspect of social anthropology – many a person I will befriend in this old city have had the advantage of a college education and of urban living for many more than a generation or two. So, there is bound to be some difference between them and those I had encountered in Chittagong and Sylhet who were of rural background and may have belonged to the first generation in the quest of college education.


Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. The original article was published on March 19, 1999 in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH in its Commentary Section.

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

Frailty in our ubiquitous Democracy

In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.

The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.

Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.

The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world.  Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.

But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?    

A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.

The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?

The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.

For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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

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