The controversial Indian politician Shashi Tharoor sparks a polemical debate at the Oxford Union
LONDON — An Oxford Union debate in which a senior Indian legislator, Shashi Tharoor, made a very funny speech last week calling for Britain to make reparations to India for the sins of the Raj, ignited a social media firestorm that culminated in Prime Minister Modi echoing the call as if it were serious.
Leave aside for the moment how demeaning it would be for a nation as powerful as modern India to revel in victimhood and call for reparations from only the most recent of its many conquerors. Consider instead the sparkling performance and personality of Tharoor, the author, politician, diplomat and socialite who for three decades has cut a suave figure in salons from New Delhi to New York.
Tharoor’s speech was witty, perfectly timed, elegantly delivered, glib, historically dubious, superficial, sophistical and shamelessly crowd-pleasing in exactly the way that Oxford (and Cambridge) Union speeches are supposed to be. In other words it had all the qualities — and all the flaws — of the traditionally frivolous upper-class British intellectual style.
To challenge that speech it wouldn’t do to resort to the hoary arguments always trotted out by old-fashioned defenders of the Raj: the usual litany of railways, the rule of law, cricket, the unifying lingua franca of English, the rediscovery of Sanskrit literature and the abandoned treasures of Ajanta, the irrigation of the Punjab, the introduction of the idea of fair play, the education, medicine and roads brought to remote areas, the establishment of great trading cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, or the suppression of the abominable practice of sati. Few people today would argue that such things make up for the humiliations, hypocrisy, arrogance, exploitation and occasional cruelty entailed by British colonial rule, even if British India was hardly the Belgian Congo.
That said, Tharoor’s speech probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously by the likes of India’s prime minister or anyone who cares about history in terms of what the German scholar von Ranke called wie es eigentlich gewesen — how it really was.
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Tharoor cites India’s relative prosperity in the late 18th century to imply that an Edenic society was shattered and an imminently golden economic future was destroyed by British predation. But there is little evidence that for all the skill of its craftsmen, India would have been able to compete with industrializing capitalist countries or was anywhere near the cusp of industrialization when the East India Company took over. (Only one Asian, indeed non-Western, society has ever industrialized without being colonized and that is Japan, and it turned out to be a ruthless imperialist itself as the inhabitants of Manchuria and Nanking discovered.)
It’s also hard to believe that Tharoor doesn’t know that handloom weaving in Britain was destroyed by the Industrial Revolution almost at the same time as it was destroyed in India. Just as he probably knows that Britain was losing money on India for decades before independence, and that the deindustrialization of India by Britain is for the most part a nationalist myth with little more basis in fact than Hindu-chauvinist claims that ancient India had nuclear power and spaceships.
Push Tharoor — who after all studied history at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College, in Delhi — on whether India was really enjoying a golden age of unity, peace, stability and prosperity before the East India Company and its Indian allies defeated the French and their Indian allies and he’d probably demur. (It wasn’t as if a united subcontinent was in the offing in 1700 any more than it had been in 1500, or as if conquest by the French or Dutch would have been more benign — just compare the experience of India with Indochina and Indonesia.)
Everything about his performance was so British that it was more British than most British people could ever hope to achieve.
The strongest charge in Tharoor’s speech concerned the horrific Bengal famine of 1943. There is much serious historical debate about the causes of the famine and why it was so disastrous, and the extent to which it was caused by actual food shortages or a combination of inflation and hoarding. Tharoor’s version is rather more simplistic, and very different in its ascription of all blame to a malevolent Winston Churchill than that of India’s Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen.
Of course none of this is really the point in a debate like the one at Oxford last week. The point is to be entertaining and clever and urbane and charming, and Tharoor was all those things in spades, in an almost absurdly and ironically British way.
Tharoor may have been wearing a very smart Nehru jacket rather than black tie (the former are very fashionable among British Sloane Ranger males), but everything about his performance was so British that it was more British than most British people could ever hope to achieve.
Indeed, as POLITICO’s contributing editor Tunku Varadarajan, joked on Facebook, surely the only real reparation that the U.K. owes India is for inflicting on the world Tharoor’s astonishingly plummy English accent.
But there is a serious point implied in the joke.
Shashi Tharoor epitomizes in many ways, good and bad, the English-speaking, political, cultural and social elite that hastened the end of the Raj, assumed power in New Delhi in 1947, and then through the Congress Party misruled India for more than six decades, all the time becoming increasingly arrogant and corrupt, and seeming almost as insulated from ordinary Indians as their British predecessors had been.
There is little doubt that Britain, or at least her elite universities, must bear a healthy share of the blame for the attitudes and ideology of that party (founded of course by a Briton), and all the economic delusions, Fabian paternalism, naiveté about Soviet communism, and snobbery about business (which unfortunately meshed with Brahmin prejudices against the trader caste) that were to keep hundreds of millions of Indians in wretched poverty for decades after independence.
Although no one in Congress has ever apologized for it, it was that party with its Oxbridge-educated leaders who were responsible for the miserable “Hindu rate of growth.” Indian talent and entrepreneurship should have made it a prosperous country long before the end of the century. But because of the ruling elite’s neglect of basic education and literacy, their obsession with socialist planning, their fostering of the “License Raj,” and their corrupt deals with a handful of monopolistic business families, countries like South Korea and even Mexico overtook India in per capita GDP between 1950 and 1980.
Moreover it was British colonial attitudes to centralized power, to freedom of speech, to censorship, to the conquest and annexation of neighboring states — that were adopted and sometimes exaggerated by that elite in ways that are problematic even today.
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Of course not all of the ills of Indian governance nor the brutality of the many campaigns against separatist movements in Kashmir, Punjab and the ethnically distinct North East can be blamed on British mentorship. The first in particular has always owed much to the ways of doing business imported by the Mughal Empire — which ruled India much longer than the British.
The ongoing cultural fallout of Mughal as opposed to British rule raises an important question about reparations for empire in the Indian case. Why should reparations begin or end with the British Raj? After all, India or large parts of it, have been ruled by foreign conquerors for most of the last 2,500 years.
For reparations for the Moghul conquest and three whole centuries of occupation and exploitation, India could theoretically demand cash either from Uzbekhistan, birthplace of Babur, or, perhaps less profitably, go for the Mongol ancestors of the Moghuls and demand it of Mongolia. On the other hand, the Persian and Turkish elements of Moghul rule might well justify demands from Tehran and Ankara.
Oddly enough you never hear calls for reparations for Moghul rule, just as the occasional clamour to demolish the bungalows of Lutyens Delhi as symbols of imperial humiliation are never paralleled by calls to tear down the Red Fort, the Qutub Minar or Humayun’s tomb.
There’s probably little point in going to Athens and asking for money to compensate for Alexander the Great’s conquest of Northern India.
But I’d like to hear Tharoor’s thoughts on that… though preferably not at the Oxford Union.