Book: Does Britain owe India reparations for its colonial rule?
As India celebrated its 72nd independence day this month, the country also debated whether Britain owes reparations to world's largest democracy for its almost 200 years of colonial rule that ended on August 15, 1947.
Actually the debate (re)started with former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor dismantling the myth of Britishers being “benevolent colonial masters” at an Oxford Union (UK) debate few years back. He then followed it up with a detailed book on the subject released early this year, Inglorious Empire – what the British did to India.
This is noteworthy and very timely, as noted by The Guardian in its review of the book. “A 2014 poll in the UK found that 59% of people thought the British Empire was something to be proud of, and nearly half believed countries were better off for having been colonised. Tharoor’s passionately argued book provides a crushing rebuttal of such ideas with regard to India. The subjugation of his people was ‘a monstrous crime’ and any positives were mere by-products of actions not intended to benefit Indians,” said the UK newspaper.
Some snippets from Tharoor’s book and his speech at the Oxford Union:
India's share in world economy fell from 23% - nearly as large as all of Europe put together then - to 4% in all these years. In fact, Britain's rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. A classic example was the destruction of Indian textiles industry and its replacement by mills in England using raw materials exported from India, which led to our share of world textiles exports falling from 27% to 2%.
Arguing against British claims of its rule being “enlightened despotism”, Tharoor noted historical events such as “Jallianwallah Bagh massacre of 1919, blowing freedom fighters to bits from the mouths of cannons and upholding iniquity through institutionalised racism”.
The human cost was immense too as during the colonial rule between 15 and 29 million Indians were starved to death.
Of these, most notable was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 during which over four million Bengalis died after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers.
“When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the Prime Minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill's only response was to ask peevishly 'why hasn't Gandhi died yet?'”, Tharoor noted.
As regards to imperialist arguments of colonialism benefiting India by providing it political unity, railways and the English language; the former minister argued, “With modern technology, transport and communications, we could have achieved all this without having to be colonized. Moreover, these so called 'benefits' were simply instruments of colonialism put in place to serve British interests.”
Meanwhile acknowledging that today's Britons are not responsible for some of these reparations, Tharoor concluded in his speech, “Just accepting the principle that reparations are owed would be enough.”