Prominent historians both in and outside the United Kingdom have posted an open letter protesting the ongoing misrepresentation of slavery, the British Empire and Colonial India in a key handbook that is required reading for migrants for a qualifying examination regarding their residency in the UK.
The study material for the ‘Life in the UK Test’, a requirement for applicants for citizenship or 'indefinite leave to remain' in the UK, is an official handbook published by the Home Office which the letter states "is fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false".
Calling for an immediate official review of the history chapter and for it to be withdrawn for correction, the letter pointed out inaccurate assertions in the handbook, including the statements, "‘While slavery was illegal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry’ (p.42). In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century, and many people were held as slaves," the historians said.
They also refuted the content of page 51 of the handbook, which read ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’.
"In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called 'emergencies' such as the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960)," they said.
The 181 signatories of the letter, many of them Indian-origin, included David Washbrook, Sujit Sivasundaram, Joya Chatterjee (Cambridge), Yasmin Khan, Jocelyn Alexander, Maria Misra (Oxford), William Dalrymple, Tirthankar Roy (LSE), David Armitage (Harvard), Shahmima Akhtar (Royal Historical Society) and Anindita Ghosh, David Olusoga (Manchester).
They added that the book was silent about prominent chapters of British history, including colonial protests, uprisings and independence movements, stating that the information gaps in the handbook were more dangerous given that it "has been approved by ministers and has official status".
"Historical knowledge is and should be an essential part of citizenship. Historical falsehood and misrepresentation, however, should not," the letter read.
"There's a huge attempt at literally white-washing of history. Unless former colonizers find a way of embracing and reconciling with their gory past, it will be difficult for them to re-engage with the new world order on ethical terms," Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project, said. The project, founded by Saxena and S Vijay Kumar in Singapore in 2014, is today an international nonprofit organisation that uses social media to identify stolen religious artefacts from Indian temples and secures their return.
In 2019, over 125,000 individuals applied for naturalisation in the UK and thousands more took the test to settle there.
The Home Office had stated, “Given the breadth of British history, the Life in the UK handbook provides a starting point to explore our past and help those seeking to live permanently in the UK gain a basic understanding of our society, culture and historical references which occur in everyday conversations”.
"The aim of the official handbook is to promote tolerance and fairness and facilitate integration. In its current version, the historical pages do the opposite," the letter stated. "The official history perpetuates a misleading view of how we came to be who we are," it added.