tharoor oxford debate

On British Reparations

Recently, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician, writer and former United Nations official, made a wonderful speech during an Oxford University debate. His subject was the damage done by the British colonialists to India during their 200-year tenure and how reparations are due.

This speech has gone viral and many Indian and British publications have added to the debate with different viewpoints, ranging from praise for his rhetorical skills and persuasive arguments to attacking the facts as he had presented them. There is less signal and much noise, as usual, on this topic for two reasons: first, because British colonialism is still a festering Indian wound, particularly for nationalists; second, because this is Shashi Tharoor, a polarizing politician whose attempts to play a more professional sort of politics are often not acceptable to his own party. Still, even the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, praised Tharoor in a Parliament session address. This move, predictably, added more fuel to the fire that continues to rage between the two opposing political parties that both men belong to. Nationalists have been unable to contain their excitement while contrarians have grabbed the opportunity to sound off against Tharoor or Modi, or, confusingly, both.

Growing up in India, my generation had a mostly one-sided perspective on British colonialism due to what we were taught in our History classes. In general, the British looted and plundered India’s riches while subjecting her citizens to much humiliation and hardship and greatly reducing their progress and standing in a rapidly-industrializing world. And, the Indians rose up in, alternatingly, both mutinous revolts and peaceful protests to get them to quit the country. There is a lot of evidence to support these two basic facts. But, as with all very complicated and long-drawn out historical struggles, hindsight is not 20-20 vision, meaning we cannot place the blame squarely on the Brits or the Indians for all that happened. That an immigrant minority held such power over a resident majority for two centuries is still a phenomenon that many historians, politicians, academics and scholars the world over continue to explore and attempt to explain through different schools of thought.

The International Coalition for British Reparations calls Britain the greatest criminal nation on the planet:

Any student of world history will tell you that if he had to pick a single nation to pin all the world’s troubles on, Britain is far and away the obvious choice. There is plenty of precedent of countries paying off their victims in cash. The Nazis had to pay off the Jews. The U.S. government has settled with many Indian tribes, offering them land, lucrative casino rights, and in some cases, cash. We, the International Coalition for British Reparations, are asking that the greatest criminal nation on earth—the British—pay up as well.

While Tharoor spoke of a more symbolic reparation gesture of £1 a year for the next two hundred years, the above organization has calculated, based on extensive studies of the British Empire, a total amount of £31 trillion as the appropriate settlement to be paid to various countries/parties. Their contention is that it is important to keep this issue alive even though many of Britain’s atrocities were committed more than a century ago (though, of course, there are many that are less distant) because, they suggest, many of the world’s conflicts today are consequences of mistakes or deliberate actions of the British Empire. Britain’s colonizing past, they argue, has been prologue to many of the world’s major problems today.

Without getting too deep into the details, which, as with many such arguments, are filled with truths, untruths and that vast gray area in between, the general question worth asking is whether such reparations, symbolic or otherwise, can indeed help the oppressed or injured parties to the growth and progress that they either lost or that was destroyed. And, the more specific question, in India’s case, is whether we should then also ask all the nations or communities that had colonized India before or during Britain to do the same? Should we, for instance, ask the nations whose people became the oppressive Mughal empire (and, whose power could only be overthrown with help from the British)? Should we also, if we continue by the logic of colonization and reparations, ask the Congress Party, which had ruled India pretty much since her Independence in 1947, to pay her people back for their own looting and plundering? The deleterious and damaging effects of these two contingents, it seems to me, have continued on to this day more so than much of what the British did.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not supporting colonization. Nor am I belittling the far-reaching consequences of colonialist oppression. Yet, look around at the many problems that India faces today: violent communal/religious clashes; unapologetic class/caste discrimination; open racism; poor infrastructure; deep-rooted corruption; everyday sexism and sexual violence; high illiteracy and so on. India’s poverty and her overall standing in the world are a direct result of all of the latter. And, these were here before the British showed up. The counter-arguments that suggest that these problems would not have become so extreme if the British hadn’t showed up to set India back in her strides to world domination are based more on nationalist pride than on rigorous and factual analysis. Two hundred years ago, India was a sub-continent of constantly-warring states, each with their own rulers and armies. That Britain (and, for that matter, other European nations like Portugal, France and so on) found this sub-continent both a ripe and easy target says more about India’s weaknesses than it does about her strengths. [Note: It is worth hearing/reading the opposing arguments by Professor MacKenzie in this same Oxford debate. Again, I don’t agree with all the points, but they do give a different perspective.]

What I think the British did, more than anything, was inflict intense psychological damage in making us ashamed of our cultural traditions, beliefs, languages, skin color, and so on. They did that to break us emotionally and intellectually because, physically, we were the majority and they could not have ruled over us without making us lose our sense of belonging and our collective identity. The oppressor makes you identify with him/her so that you put aside what you value and aspire for the things he/she has to offer. This give-and-take (or, give-up-and-take-up) is how control is gained in almost all relationships — personal or otherwise. True, a lot of these cultural traditions or beliefs deserved to be given up because of how they favored the patriarchy, higher castes or classes, blind faith/superstition, etc., or were, simply, rooted in a basic ignorance of science or evolving realities. And, it is also true, that, in the process, a lot of wonderful well-founded and well-placed cultural traditions, beliefs, habits, etc., were also, sadly, destroyed.

But, let’s get back to that sense of shame that is embedded so deeply within the Indian psyche. Centuries of being made to feel inferior to another people left many unhealed, painful wounds in the first two generations of independent India. These continue to grow and fester like cancer throughout Indian society. Still, reparations from a former ruler can hardly be the magic pill to cure such pernicious and long-running collective illnesses. I think that the current young generation, the third/fourth/fifth generations since Independence, realizes that the cure has to come from within: by strengthening our own immune system rather than looking outward. Of course it isn’t easy to change values and mindsets, deeply-flawed as they may be. But, a stronger personal and communal value system is what we need to help us take the necessary leaps forward. Not yet another handout from former oppressors, symbolic or otherwise.

Look, why would we, after all the hard lessons we’ve learned, want to find ourselves beholden to them all over again? Yes, that’s what I believe will happen even though the argument is that reparations are a payment of what’s due. The balance of give-and-take shifts with any such transaction. Better, I think, to always be on the giving end of any relationship than on the taking end. In other words, it is better to look beyond reparations, symbolic or otherwise, and focus on giving the world the best that today’s India has to offer. That, more than anything else, will prove our progress and standing in more effective and tangible ways.


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