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Shashi Tharoor on the politics of colonisation and an overdue British apology

Sanjana Ray
posted on 9th March 2017
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It is often forgotten that while India is an ancient civilisation, it is still a young nation. But nearly 70 years after Independence, we are still dancing to the tunes of the erstwhile British Raj. Our political system reflects the one in Great Britain, and a number of laws have been left untouched since their implementation before Independence.

Shashi Tharoor has a point: why shouldn’t we demand an apology?

Recently, Tharoor had announced his wish that one of India’s most renowned heritage spots, the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, be converted into a museum that displayed the truth of the infinite atrocities administered by the British in India. This famous monument, built between 1906 and 1921, stands testament to what Tharoor has been rallying against – the glorification of the British Raj.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

But as individuals who grew up in an independent India, haven’t we all studied about what the British did to us? Surprisingly, large sections of our countrymen and women still remain unaware of the extent of these crimes against humanity. This became evident when in 2015, a speech he gave at an Oxford debate, on whether Britain owed her former colonies reparations, went viral. While Tharoor himself stated that financial reparations would do little good, he made it crystal clear that Britain did owe India a significant moral debt, a point that is hard to contest.

Tharoor later confessed that he didn’t think much of his speech and was pleasantly surprised at its popularity in India. He felt that he hadn’t said anything that hadn’t been said before. But as his publisher, David Davidar, explained to him, the reason his speech had struck a chord with so many Indians was that a lot of what he had described was news to them. Davidar persuaded him to write a book on the British Empire in India. What followed was An Era of Darkness, which was released in the latter half of last year.

In it, Tharoor passionately details how the British ‘looted’ India of its former grandeur – its rich resources, culture, and polity. He says that while the concept of ‘divide and rule’ are familiar to all, the hard-hitting realities of brainwashing and subterfuge that the British orchestrated to meet their ends is still largely swept under the carpet.

In one of the most famous lines from the book, he writes:

“They (the British) basked in the Indian sun and yearned for their cold and fog-ridden homeland; they sent the money they had taken off the perspiring brow of the Indian worker to England; and whatever little they did for India, they ensured India paid for it in excess. And at the end of it all, they went home to enjoy their retirements in damp little cottages with Indian names, their alien rest cushioned by generous pensions supplied by Indian taxpayers.”

Having worked for 29 years in the United Nations, even serving as the Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, Tharoor has witnessed, first-hand, the dynamics of international policy-making and global power-play. As an eminent author and Member of Parliament, he has also written extensively on history and politics in India.

With the shoulder-strength of expertise on the subject, Tharoor has explained why it is crucial for Indians to tell their own story. And a brief overview of his arguments is enough to convince us to do so.

The Parliamentary system of democracy

“When Indian nationalists, victorious in their freedom struggle, sat down to write a Constitution for independent India, they created a political system based entirely on British parliamentary democracy and their experience of what they themselves were deprived of. The Westminster model of democracy is not suited to our reality.”

While Tharoor doesn’t attempt to discredit the efforts of any Indian Government, he still believes that India cannot be run effectively by a Parliamentary system of governance. To him, this structure is most effective on countries with a smaller population and voter bank, like Britain itself, which has less than a lakh of voters per constituency. In insisting on replicating this system, Tharoor argues, the makers of our Constitution blindly followed the British process of electing a legislature to form an executive. To him, such a system in India paves the way for ineffective governance because the legislatures cease to be interested in actual law-making, instead looking to secure a seat in Parliament, only so they can hold a post of authority. Considering the disparate culture of India, a shift to the Presidential form of government, much like what is practised in in the United States of America.

Revaluating colonial laws

“The sedition law in India was worse than the equivalent law in Britain because it was written explicitly to oppress the colonized people…Similarly, when it comes to 377 the British wrote it reflecting Victorian attitudes to alternate sexuality, which were never present in the ancient Hindu texts.”

Tharoor expresses his ire at the fact that some laws which were introduced by the British in India to exploit the masses have remained unchallenged and actively in practice since. Out of these, Section 124-A (the sedition law) and Section 377 (which criminalises homosexuality) are the prime examples of how today’s society still lives by the outlook of its erstwhile colonial masters. The sedition law was aimed at controlling the masses through fear of dissent and Section 377 is based on Victorian ideas of morality. Tharoor has rightly explained that in ancient India, same-sex orientation was not only accepted but widely in practice. Thus, the ‘decolonisation of the mind’ is perhaps one of the greatest challenges modern day Indians have to face.

Colonial ‘benefits’ were a scam

“The Railways, for example, was a big colonial scam. British shareholders made an absurdly high return on capital. Each mile of Indian railway construction in 1850s and 1860s cost an average of £18,000 as against the dollar equivalent of £2,000 in the United States at the same time.

Many, like former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have argued that the British rule wasn’t all bad and that there were certainly some advantages to it. Whether or not this statement rings true to us today, the examples he cited could definitely be challenged by those like Tharoor, who hold the stats to back up their claim. The Indian Railways are often cited by apologists as a generous British endowment. But in reality, the railways were less of a mission to ‘help’ the Indian people than a well-calculated move to reap further economic benefits for the British. The latter ensured large sums in returns following the initial costs they invested in its construction, not to mention the countless families they uprooted in their attempt to make space for the construction.

While this may have inadvertently worked out in our favour, there is no denying the fact that it was the British who gained from it exclusively in the short-term. Speaking about the ‘drain of wealth’ that the British administered from India, Tharoor quotes eminent economist Angus Maddison, who had established that India’s significant share of the world’s trade (27 percent) prior to British colonisation had evaporated to just over three percent by 1947. Other than this, their ruthless exploitation of our indigenous textiles and raw-materials to be sold overseas for their (exclusive) profits, is no mystery to the majority of us.

Reparations?

“How do you put a price on the lakhs of people who lost their lives in the many famines that the British deliberately caused? People have calculated reparation amounts like $3 trillion which would be impossible to pay, since it exceeds the entire GDP of Britain.”

Reparations have changed the course of history at its most important. Anyone with a fair knowledge of history knows the effect of reparations Germans were forced to pay following World War I and how this led to a nation-wide economic crisis that eventually elevated Hitler to power. But the real problem was never money. Rather, it was that no value could replace the thousands of lives lost and the many homes that were destroyed as a result of war.

On a similar vein, Tharoor claims that monetary recompense will not make Indians forgive and forget, although he had half-jokingly suggested that the British pay a symbolic one pound a year for two hundred years. The only form of acceptable reparations from the side of the British, according to Tharoor, should come in atonement. To him, the nation should demand a public apology, for carrying out inhuman atrocities like the Jalliahwallah Bagh Massacre and the innumerable public floggings, shootings, and abuse at the hands of the British. At the same time, they should also teach the bitter truth behind the Britain’s domination over India.

Shashi Tharoor’s writings have rekindled an interest in India’s past, one that was perhaps long needed. An understanding of one’s past is vital to understanding our present, whereby we can secure what we can only hope to be a bright future.

“I believe in an India of pluralism and diversity, not of religious bigotry and caste politics. I believe in an India that is secure in itself and confident of its place in the world, an India that is a proud example of tolerance, freedom, and hope for the downtrodden,” he has said.

As he turns 61 today, we wish to thank him for helping us remember our history and hope to see more of it reflected in his work.

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