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At one end of King Charles Street are steps leading to a statue commemorating Robert Clive, or Clive of India. It is a landmark location: next to Churchill War Rooms, Clive’s statue is at the end of the street parallel to 10 Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister. It is within walking distance of Whitehall, with its row of statues of military commanders who fought and won battles for the British Empire. At one end of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square, which celebrates Lord Nelson, and at the other, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Clive’s statue is an integral part of imperial grandeur.

I have often gone to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street, and seen the statue each time—a constant reminder of the story that began in Arcot and laid its foundation in Plassey, where Siraj ud-Daulah was defeated, and which transformed a trading company into a colonial power.

Few have spoken of removing Clive’s statue from this pride of place.

I have talked about Clive’s statue with British friends, who politely listen and are apologetic and yet perplexed about how they should deal with such a legacy. I thought about it again as I read about Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African Rhodes Scholar, who has demanded that Oxford atone for its colonial thinking and remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. A plaque at the entrance may be the first to go.

The move at Oxford is not original; in Cape Town earlier this year, students succeeded in getting a statue of Rhodes removed from their campus. “Rhodes Must Fall" has become a rallying cry. The South African campaign had some logic—Rhodes was an architect of and beneficiary of the policies that created apartheid, which kept the majority black and other non-white ethnic groups subjugated to the white minority. The mining industry generated wealth for Rhodes and other white people but it impoverished the blacks. It also disempowered them, especially after the National Party came to power in 1948 and blacks were forced out of urban areas, their movements severely restricted under the Group Areas Act, and their voting rights denied.

Apartheid ended only in the early 1990s, after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and once African National Congress leaders negotiated a peaceful transition with the ruling National Party.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was remarkable and it was assumed that the past was accounted for. But some stains of the past ran too deep and needed to be removed, even if the gesture was symbolic.

Activism in South Africa brought focus on the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College. But it is not so simple: The Rhodes Trust funds prestigious scholarships, which more than 6,000 students, including blacks, have received over the years. (Women were allowed only in 1977, 75 years after the scholarships were instituted). Those scholarships cannot atone for the injustices of the past; if the central purpose of the trust is to seek exoneration, then it is a deeply flawed and morally questionable effort.

To be fair, the trust acknowledges the Rhodes legacy and says: “The current vision and ethos of the Rhodes Scholarship programme stands in absolute contrast to the values and world view propagated by Cecil Rhodes and much of his generation."

That phrase, “and much of his generation", raises uncomfortable questions for Britain. Rhodes was not alone in harbouring racist views. In a nuanced response, the classicist Mary Beard (who teaches at Cambridge) said: “My worries are about the narrower historical point: that history can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds. We need to face the past and our dependence on it and do better than it… that’s what the past is for."

What would be the logical end? If it is wrong to honour Rhodes, is it right to honour Clive? And if it is wrong to honour Clive as well, what does one make of Churchill?

Britain celebrates Churchill’s heroic leadership during World War II—his powerful oratory, the clarity with which he opposed Nazism, and the way he worked with allies Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin to defeat Hitler. But Britain rarely discusses Churchill’s colonial views—the contempt with which he held Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement, or the callous disregard he showed towards the Bengal Famine of the 1940s, which occurred not because there was too little food, but because it was diverted for the war effort.

India figured out a way to deal with colonial monuments. In New Delhi, there is a graveyard of colonial-era sculptures of kings, governors, viceroys, earls and viscounts. Those decaying statues are a permanent reminder of the fragility of power.

The British Empire did not last Churchill’s “thousand years", and many of its hours were far from the finest. That reckoning has simply not happened. The controversy at Oxford over the Rhodes statue will have served its purpose if introspection and re-examination begins.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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