SHASHI THAROOR’S speech during a debate organised by the Oxford Union in 2015, on ‘Britain owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’, in which he spoke for the motion, was excellently articulated and instantly won hearts.
It is generally acknowledged in India that British rule was not something that was noble. Stories about the battle of independence are taught to children very early in school. Then why has Tharoor set out to write in 2016 about the darkness of the British regime? Perhaps, because there are some anglophiles who still see the merits of the British Raj. British historian Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2005, highlighting the positivity of British imperialism, and even former PM Manmohan Singh had spoken at Oxford, extolling the virtues of British rule in India. Buoyed by the praise he received for his debating skills in Oxford, and to set the record straight with people who extolled the virtues of the Raj, Tharoor set out to pen this book. Again, there’s no doubt that he has penned an excellent book, being as gifted a writer as he’s a speaker.
Tharoor’s thesis is that Britain, indeed, owes a moral (not financial) debt to her former colonies, but being more adept in Indian history, he has confined his study to colonialism in India. He’s well aware that today’s Britons are not responsible for the transgressions of their forefathers, so why should they bear the burden of reparations of their sins? So Tharoor has made a case that the British Prime Minister should offer a genuine apology to Indians for the colonial brunt they bore for some 200 years. Says Tharoor: “When Willy Brandt was chancellor of Germany, he sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 to apologise to Polish Jews for the Holocaust. There were hardly any Jews left in Poland, and Brandt, who as a socialist was persecuted by the Nazis, was completely innocent of the crimes for which he was apologising. But in doing so he was recognising the moral responsibility of the German people, whom he led as chancellor. That is precisely why I called for atonement rather than financial aid”.
However, Tharoor has fallen prey to the same perils of history writing that he wants to debunk. His work is an attempt to prove that any positives of the British rule highlighted by its supporters, whether Indian or British, are like seeing things only partially. That whatever the British did in India, like bringing railways, English education, social reforms, democracy, etc, was not done with the purpose to uplift Indian society, but to strengthen their empire.
Indian society and polity prior to the coming of the British were fine, and had the British not ruled India, we would have certainly been better than how we are today. To prove this thesis, he provides the example of Japan.
It is here that Tharoor errs in his interpretation of history. He interprets the British rule in India well, but to indict the British, he looks for a golden period in India’s history prior to the Raj, and finds that the nation was, indeed, endowed with bliss. Barring some problems, we were doing fine. Tharoor’s party, the Congress, and many other scholars criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi for claiming that ancient India knew about plastic surgery. Ironically, Tharoor, in a much sophisticated language, has built an almost similar thesis about India’s past.
You can criticise the British with full force, but why is the criticism based on the perspective of a golden age in our past? The blame for virtually all of India’s current problems—casteism, communalism, poor education system, functioning of our polity in a parliamentary democracy—is laid at the doors of the British. If we were such a glorious people prior to the Raj, why did a 200-year foreign rule irreparably damage what we had for around 5,000 years?
Marxist historian Satish Chandra, who had written earlier versions of NCERT textbooks on medieval India, in his enthusiasm to absolve Aurangzeb’s restoration of Jaziah tax, had asked something on these lines, “So what if it was restored? It was not meant to forcefully convert Hindus to Muslims. Even if it was, was religion so cheap to the
Hindus that they were ready to change it to save a paltry sum of money?”
Since Tharoor admires Marxist historians and quotes them liberally in his book, can one ask him, “Was the Indian civilisation before the coming of the British built on such weak foundations that despite being independent for 70 years now, we are still not able to overcome the ravages of those 200 years?”
There’s another flaw in Tharoor’s reasoning. He has virtually dismissed the railways, education system, civil services, etc, as measures by the British for their own good, rather than for Indians. But shouldn’t we judge a period in the context of its times? It was an era of imperialism and imperial powers were committed to bringing benefit to themselves and not to those whom they ruled. Tharoor tries to compare earlier invasions with the British. Let’s take Babur for example—when he invaded India, the nature of imperialism wasn’t what it was in 1757. And Babur did not come with the express idea to settle in India and do good to the people here. He had lost his kingdom in Samarkand in central Asia and was lucky in his conquests in India. Subsequently, he tried to regain his kingdom, but failed, and eventually settled here. This was the norm in those times. If the British built railways and the Indian civil service for their benefit, and not for the Indian people, may one ask Tharoor that for whom did Shah Jahan build the Taj Mahal—for his beloved wife, or for the people of India?
Tharoor forgets one more thing while critiquing the British—in history, development does not always come with design. Default also has a role to play. Nehruvian socialism in early years of independence and the economic reforms unleashed in 1991 are perhaps the best examples to prove this. In this light, the British, indeed, created the railways and introduced English education for the benefit of their empire, but eventually it benefited us too.