Career diplomat and former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor took part in a debate at the Oxford Union recently, arguing for the motion that put to the house whether Britain should pay reparations for its colonial excesses. The Thiruvananthapuram MP tore through the myths of any "benevolence" by British colonisers, and eloquently demolished the arguments routinely made to whitewash the excesses of the island nation's colonial past.
"British aid to India is 0.4 percent of India's GDP," said Tharoor. "The government of India actually spends more on fertiliser subsidies, which might be an appropriate metaphor for that argument."
At the debate, which Tharoor's side won by 185 to 56 votes, the 59-year-old former UN official unearthed a series of statistics to point India's financial decline due to Britain's ill-gotten gains.
"Britain's rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India," he said, referring to India's slide in its share of the world economy from 23 to 4 percent due to British colonisation. "It's a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it. We were denied democracy, so we had to snatch it, seize it from you."
Describing how Britons irretrievably damaged India's cloth trade by smashing handloom weavers' thumbs, and "flooding the world's markets with what became the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England", Tharoor said colonialists "bought their rotten boroughs in England with the proceeds of their loot in India, while taking the Hindi word loot in their dictionaries as well as their habits."
"We literally paid for our own oppression," Tharoor said, describing how India became Britain's biggest cash cow — by becoming the world's biggest purchasers of British goods and exports, and also the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants.
He dismissed all notions that the British were trying to do their colonial enterprise "out of enlightened despotism", referring to Winston's Churchill conduct in 1943 as "simply one example of many that gave a lie to this myth".
"No wonder that the sun never set on the colonial empire," he said, "because even God couldn't trust the English in the dark."
Giving the examples of Indian losses that went towards fighting for the British Army in the two world wars, as well as financial strain that the building of the Indian Railways put the country through, Tharoor said that "all these came as British private enterprise in Indian public risk."
Should Britain Pay?
While Tharoor conceded that perhaps today's Britons are not responsible for some of these reparations, he said there was a "moral debt" that needs to be paid. Alleging that many of today's problems in colonised countries — "including the persistence and in some cases the creation of racial, ethnic, and religious tensions were the direct result of the colonial experience" — he said many countries had indeed paid reparations. Germany had paid Israel and Poland, Italy paid Libya, Japan paid Korea, he said, adding that indeed Britain had also paid, to New Zealand's Māoris, since the 1970s.
"So this is not something that is unprecedented or unheard of that is somehow going to open some nasty Pandora's box," he said.
Denying that such reparations were to empower anybody, he said that Britain should use it as a tool to "atone for the wrongs that have been done." He urged Britons to accept they had to pay reparation "on principle".
"As far as I'm concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry will go a far long way than some percentage of GDP in form of aid," he said. "What is required, it seems to me, is accepting the principle that reparations are owed."
Well said, Mr Tharoor.
The debate landed in controversy over a cocktail it served at the event named "Colonial Comeback".
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Shashi Tharoor as India's former external affairs minister. He was minister of state for external affairs.