Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?


December 5, 2016

Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?

Shashi Tharoor’s speech to the Oxford Union on whether Britain should pay reparations for colonial-era attrocities went viral online. Photo: AFP

A speech to the Oxford Union by Indian former UN Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor appears to have hit a nerve online

By Shashi Tharoor

At the end of May 2015, I was invited by the Oxford Union to speak on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’. The event, in the Union’s impressive wood-panelled premises, was a success and I left pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.

In early July, however, the union posted the debate on the web and sent me a video copy of my own speech. I promptly tweeted a link to it and watched in astonishment as it went viral.

Within hours it was being downloaded and replicated on hundreds of sites, sent out on WhatsApp and forwarded by email. One site swiftly crossed over three million views while others did not keep track, but reported record numbers of hits. Even the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, congratulated me publicly for having said ‘the right things at the right place’. Hundreds of articles were written for and against what I had said. For months, I kept meeting strangers who came up to me in public places to praise my ‘Oxford speech’.

This is why my publishers persuaded me that the arguments outlined in my speech needed to be turned into a substantial book. It has just been published in India and is already the number one bestseller on several lists.

Should a work of engaged amateur history have aroused so much passion? Seventy years after independence, shouldn’t we just forget about the past and move on? Is there still any moral urgency to explain to today’s Indians why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be? A lot of the popular histories of the British Empire in the last decade or two, by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have painted colonialism in rosy colors, and this needed to be challenged. Historical material is available to everyone who’s willing to look for it, but perhaps, in the rush of modern materialism, we’ve stopped looking.

In three months’ time, the book will also be published in Britain, which has been suffering from a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism. As the book emerged from the press in India, an article by a Pakistani writer in The Guardian pointed out that the Brits simply don’t teach their own schoolchildren the truth about their colonial past. Many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign boon to the ignorant natives.

There’s been a lot of self-justificatory mythologising in Britain about the colonial era. Popular television shows tend to focus only on the romanticised aspects of the Raj. All this explains Britons’ ignorance, but does not excuse it.

British rule deindustrialised India, created landlessness and poverty, drained our country’s resources, exploited, enslaved, exiled and oppressed millions, sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the country’s partition into two hostile states, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 35 million people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines as well as of thousands in massacres and killings. That just skims the surface of the havoc wreaked by British colonialism. The British conquered one of the richest countries in the world and reduced it to one of the poorest. At the beginning of the 18th century, India accounted for 23 per cent of global GDP. When the British left it was down to barely 3 per cent. A country where landlessness and poverty were virtually unknown before the British, found itself at independence with 90 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.

Of course, many see lasting benefits from British rule. But each of these supposed benefits in turn – political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket – was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British.

But I don’t in fact ask for reparations, as the Oxford debate did. How do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? There’s really no compensation that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. The symbolic pound-a-year I’d suggested would be a nightmare to administer.

Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by the British would signal true atonement. Imagine a British prime minister, on the centenary of the notorious Jallianwala Bagh masssacre, apologising to the Indian people for that atrocity and by extension for all colonial injustices – that would be better than any sum of reparations. The British could also teach the harsh truth about colonialism to their schoolchildren instead of allowing them to wallow in romanticised ignorance about their own past misdeeds.

An Indian man takes a photograph of a painting depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. The massacre took place on April 13, 1919, when British Indian Army soldiers on the direct orders of their British officers opened fire on an unarmed gathering killing at least 379 men, women and children. Photo: AFP

Yet the book is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects. Indeed, British Prime Minister Theresa May has just concluded a visit to India seeking investment from here in her post-Brexit economy. You don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?

  1. LOL… Serious? Hmm… okay, Britain should pay, but on a ‘pay when paid’ basis. That is when the Romans, Normans, and Vikings pay the UK.

    Britain will fund it by the compensation they get from France for the 350 years of colonization by the Romans, plus the reparations from France to compensate for the colonization, destruction and theft of land wrought by the Normans, and the compensation from various Scandinavian countries for the cruel invasions by the Vikings.

    Hey, come to think about it, this reparations industry could be quite a lively carousel! This should keep those unemployed lawyers and aggrieved politicians trying to make a name for themselves in work for years and years….

  2. I would concede to the logic of Dr. Tharoor’s argument but wait – was not India also on a path of conquest vis-a-vis the countries of the Far East in the early centuries? Travels through Burma, Thailand, Cambodja, Indo-China, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Bali, provide irrefutable proof of her rapacity! Argumendo – India should make reparations to these victim-countries! Yes?

  3. In this Internet Age the mind should be used to find ways and means to unlock the cash that is outside the banking system and to use it to uplift the people who are in the bottom half of the societies in the Third World. Collecting compensation may feed us for a year but unlocking the cash outside the banking system will feed us for ever.

  4. India’s foray into the Far East was largely limited to the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism and cultural practices – not occupation of land, over lordship over people and exploiting native resources – far different from what was sequestered by the British Empire from its colonies. So, compensation is a moot point here, relatively speaking.

  5. With due respect, even if it makes a sound academic argument, will truth and logic prevail? Not a chance, in this case. The most propable outcome, after much arm twisting, will be a reluctant apology at best.

    Realistically, what are the odds that reparations will be granted when the ICJ cannot even pull Tony Blair or George Bush Jnr., et al, up to answer for crimes they had committed against humanity that happened in the 21st century?

    Heck, it will set a precedent for the Native Indians to justify their claims against the US government for the atrocities committed against them.

  6. Six points in this article should clear up any doubts about this question of reparations – well clear up if one is rational , that is – and Tharoor’s reasons for making the argument. The last point of course , being the most important.

    (1) Many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign boon to the ignorant natives.

    (2) There’s been a lot of self-justificatory mythologising in Britain about the colonial era.

    (3) British rule deindustrialised India, created landlessness and poverty, drained our country’s resources, exploited, enslaved, exiled and oppressed millions, sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the country’s partition into two hostile states, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 35 million people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines as well as of thousands in massacres and killings.

    (4) Of course, many see lasting benefits from British rule. But each of these supposed benefits in turn – political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket – was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British.

    (5) Yet the book is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects.

    (6) History is its own revenge.

  7. My parents having originated from Kerala, I’ve travelled most of the world – to S.E. Asia , India from N. to S. and E. to W. and seen, studied and learnt from the vast sub-continent. I still prefer to live in England. It is the best.

  8. After aitze: On a grand, national scale, does Spain owe reparations to Peru after Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors had decimated the Incas and stolen their gold? Or should Russia now make the reparations on behalf of Spain for having commandeered Spain’s stolen gold during Spain’s civil war? Stalin was reputed to have laughed to his grave promising, “The Spaniards will never see their gold again, in the same way they do not see their ears now”; please read, now, Putin paying on behalf of Stalin: the Theft of the Bank of Spain gold reserves by Stalinhttp://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=17220

    After Tharoor himself: on a minor, personal scale, who now owe/s reparation to Tharoor’s late wife Sunanda Pushkar’s family? A murderer or murderers from Dubai or even India?. It’s a personal tragedy which does not, should not, diminish in any way the articulate Tharoor’s narratives. I have immense respect for scholarship coming out of Kerala, and I have worked with very competent software professionals from this State; not without reason did I pick a friend whose father came from Kerala to be my bestman almost thirty years ago: Police in India Say Politician’s Wife Was Murderedhttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/world/asia/shashi-tharoors-wife-sunanda-pushkar-was-poisoned-police-say.html?_r=0

    History is its own revenge” – the Chinese would certainly agree with this absolutely vis a vis the chaps to its East. Thank you Shashi Tharoor!

    Now what about us, Malaysia?

    We received a small reparation, sort of, years ago, in the shape of an outsized, second-hand ‘ocean-going’ sampan, the Bunga Raya (?) from Japan, thanks to the very accommodating Tunku Abdul Rahman. Being the reparation it was not, the Bunga Raya dutifully and duly caught fire and sank, thank God, in home waters — TL Man, can’t agree with you more, your variation of “teach a man to fish . . .”

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