Colonization & Reparations


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Social media in India is going gaga over Shashi Tharoor making impassioned  debating points over the issue of reparations for the damages that colonization wrought.  The video has gone viral all over India.  The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also got into the act by publicly praising Tharoor, who belongs to the party which is in opposition.

Tharoor’s speech gelled with the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and also shows what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place

There is no doubt that the speech was impassioned and based on lots and lots of data. It was made at the Oxford Union which is a premier debating society which has hosted world leaders over the last many decades.

I saw the video and liked the way in which Shashi Tharoor made his points. I liked the topic for debate as well. It is a good intellectual exercise. I am not sure it is a topic for a negotiation between governments.

What would happen if India made this claim at this moment? In all probability, Britain would ask India to take a hike? May be not in so many words but that would definitely be the result of the ‘request’ / demand. I think this may be the response even if the demand is symbolic, as Tharoor put it, £1 per year for 200 years. 

Also, I am not very sure whether there should be any reparations. Not because I do not believe that colonization was damaging but other reasons altogether.

First, it is quite silly to keep going back in history and try and look at real or imagined crimes and try and get compensation today. Where does it stop?

  • The whole of central Asia and Europe asking compensation from Mongolia for the loot and pillage by Genghis Khan?
  • Half the world seeking compensation from Greece for the loot and pillage by Alexander? and mind you the Greeks today cannot even pay their own costs. 
  • England seeking compensation from Italy, Scotland, France etc for centuries of invasion / wars by their leaders?
  • In India, Odisha seeking compensation from Bihar for the loot and killing of millions by Emperor Ashoka?

Second, there is the ethical question of making the present generation bear the brunt of the ‘crimes’ of the earlier generations. That is neither right nor just. Plus in any case it is not going to set anything right.

Third, I think that nations asking for compensation for past atrocities is a great example of whining.  I do not think that India should do that. Not when it is trying to portray itself as a emerging world power. Tharoor himself rubbished talk of British aid by placing it in context of Indian GDP.  From the Indian point of view, instead of coming across as foolish and / or stuck in the past and / or beggarly, it is best to look at the present and future and see what they can do better.  They cannot change the past but they can shape the future.

I am more than happy to laud Tharoor for a wonderful debate but not at all excited by the heightened jingoism it has brought about. To me it appears as if we Indians are thumping our chests and wallowing in a feeling of inferiority at the same time. I mean, what is glorious about being reminded that a few foreigners came over to a strange land and ruled over millions for so long?