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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Students deface Kipling poem in UK racism row

The protest is just the latest to target imperial-era figures on university campuses

Manchester students are not impressed by Imperial era Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)
Manchester students are not impressed by Imperial era Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Students have defaced a mural featuring Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If in a protest against his “racist” work.

The protesters painted over the poem on the wall of the newly refurbished Manchester University student union and replaced it with ‘Still I Rise’ by US poet Maya Angelou.

The protest was an attempt to reclaim history by those who have been “oppressed by the likes of Kipling for so many centuries, and continue to be to this day,” according to Sara Khan, the liberation and access officer at the student union.

In a Facebook post, the student official said Kipling’s works “sought to legitimate the British Empire’s presence in India and dehumanise people of colour”.

Kipling and his works have long been the subject of debate. Writing in 1942, George Orwell described Kipling as a “jingo imperialist” and “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”.

However, a host of academics believe that Kipling had a deep affinity to India where he was born and which informed much of his work. Rana Miller, professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, said that Kipling was “very respectful of India as a culture and society”.

The student union apologised for the “inappropriate” Kipling artwork and said it should have gauged student opinion before putting it up.

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If, written in 1895, contains no reference to race, and its lines are seen to advocate self-discipline and hard work in young people. But his other works such as ‘White Man’s Burden’ were cited by the student protesters which was written in 1899 during the Philippine–American War and could be read as a call for white men to “civilise” black and Asian people through colonialism.

The defacement is the just the latest in a series of attempts to remove historical figures from university campuses across Britain because of their associations with the slave trade and white imperial rule.

In 2016, students protested for the removal of a statue of 19th century businessman and South African politician Cecil Rhodes from in front of an Oxford college.

Last year, students at the University of Bristol – a city that was at the centre of the slave trade - tried to rename a building dedicated to the university’s first chancellor, Henry Overton Wills III, because they said he financed the university using “slave-profited money”.