The Debate on Brit Reparations for Colonialism
by Bhaskar Menon on 27 Jul 2015 9 Comments
The Oxford Union/Social media debate on whether the British owe reparations to their former colonies is notable for the alarming display of Indian ignorance of basic facts and interesting in its timing. Items:

1] The British did not rule India for 200 years (as the Oxford debaters, including Shashi Tharoor, said repeatedly).


Consider the following time-frame: 


-        1757 The sham “Battle of Plassey” (won by bribery) began the colonial era

-        1848 Punjab fell to the British. In 91 intervening years the British did not “rule India;” they took territories in the name of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi and subjected them to rapacious exploitation. They built the railways and telegraph to loot more efficiently.

-        1857 Less than a decade after the fall of the Punjab a great national uprising almost unseated the British. In its aftermath Queen Victoria declared herself “Empress of India” and promised to be the people’s “ma-baap” but on the ground vengeful massacres continued for several years. The two decades after the uprising saw the worst famines in the country’s history, amidst which the British exported record quantities of food; they also convened a “Great Durbar” and feasted amidst the dying millions.

-        1885 To try and contain Indian fury, the Agriculture Member of the Viceroy’s Council propelled the founding of the Indian National Congress but the nationalists soon took it over. British “rule” would last just 62 years after that, with the bureaucrats in Delhi in steady political retreat most of the time. 

That timeline shows not only that the British did not rule in any legitimate sense of the word, they also did not control the whole or even most of the country for anywhere near 200 years. 

2] The British did not unify India: The British themselves recognized the reality of Indian political unity by remaining Mughal tax collectors for most of their time in India. The country was also united more fundamentally by culture and world view; that was why Gandhi’s political message resonated nationally and mobilized the people. Contrary to its claim to have unified the country is the vicious British record in creating a vicious and unprecedented religious divide.

3] Pre-British India had a range of industries: Social media scoffers at the concept of “deindustrialization” have asked what industries India had other than textiles. India had a wide range of other productive capacities.

The highest valued was diamond processing, a uniquely Indian industry through most of history because no other country mined the gems until the 16th century (when a source was discovered in Brazil). Also widely renowned was the Indian ship building industry. Arab ships were built entirely in India. The country also led in metal work of many kinds, including of course, gold jewelry. The steel pillar near Qutb Minar in Delhi exemplifies the high quality India achieved in a field critically important in making weapons. Tipu Sultan’s use of rocketry against the British also demonstrated an unmatched mastery of other advanced technologies.

4] Toll of British “man-made famines”: Shashi Tharoor said 29 million Indians had perished in British created famines. Going by figures reported by British administrators themselves, the total is over 100 million. Indian estimates go much higher. This phenomenon should not be seen as an accidental by-product of looting. As in North America and Australasia, genocide was British policy.

The Matter of Timing 

Shashi Tharoor has been a British spear-carrier for most of his career, so his performance in the Oxford debate needs some explanation. What led him to become so vocal a critic? I would like to think he’s been reading my blog, but having seen him in action for nearly five decades, that explanation is a non-starter. He has a self-serving political aim in mind.

What could it be?

Well, if we’re looking for clues, Sushma Swaraj’s current problems might be a good place to start. They originated in leaks from Britain and have led to calls for her replacement as Foreign Minister. The Times of India reported earlier this week that she had removed the label “Foreign Minister” from her Twitter account. 

The Oxford debate was held in May, just about the time when Sushma Swaraj’s problems were surfacing. Shashi did not make public the tape of his speech at Oxford in May or shortly thereafter, when I presume he had it. And now, just as it goes viral, he stirs up a hornets nest in the Congress by criticizing Sonia Gandhi’s tactics in parliament.

Am I being over-imaginative, or does it seem as if he’s preparing to jump ship and bid for the Foreign Minister’s job?

“Not so fast!” you say: “what of the unfortunate Sunanda Pushkar matter?”

Ah yes. Point well taken. But then, a few million pounds distributed in the right quarters might lift that albatross from his political neck.  

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