Blog | Does Britain really owe India anything?
Dear Mr. Tharoor…
In the past few days, thanks to social media, I could not help notice Shashi Tharoor’s recent speech about Britain owing India reparations. That it went viral as quickly as the news about his wife’s death a few months ago, is no surprise – after all, the public is non-discriminant when it comes to gossip. As a result, the same person who was ‘probably the guy who did it’ has overnight become the most eloquent orator India has ever produced. Media has indeed ensured people are as good as their last media-appearance.
Well, if you are wondering, I am not a Shashi Tharoor basher. Not even a Congress-beater. However, Mr. Tharoor’s speech and its radical embracement by the Indian media and populace largely reflects on our attitude as a country. So now we don’t just agree that Britain owes us – and owes us money or an apology? what difference does it make? – but we are also completely oblivious that its been more than six decades since things ended badly between the two nations.
Although it is to be noted that Tharoor has very cleverly chosen points to talk about and also presented them intelligently; to me, the argument of ‘reparations due’ sounds very flimsy and superficial. He may have been doing justice to the side of the argument accorded to him (for the debate) but should that also mean that we agree with just anything ever uttered against the British Raj? I remember how my history teacher corrected the attitude towards Aurangzeb as a ruler by telling us things that were not there in the history books. The British, I reckon are the current Aurangzeb. I feel there needs to be a shade more serious thinking about what is being proposed here.
First of all, why money? Each time there is a railway accident in the country, the Railway Minister is paraded by the media and held accountable fo
r every single technical glitch till the moment he or she announces lumps of money to be paid to the victims. I have often heard people questioning the move with a sound rhetoric – how do you put a monetary value on a person’s life? Such questions are often raised with regard to sex traders, farmer suicides and even victims of certain lawsuits. There can be no way to price a human life or an experience such as suffering. There just isn’t! Yet, it now seems like a logical thing to ask Britain to ‘pay us’ for what we think they did to us.
It will be really interesting to come down to an agreeable figure – agreeable by not just the two countries – but also agreeable to the point that the sum fairly accounts for the suffering endured by our nation for two centuries. I would not dare venture into listing the sufferings that we should be paid for (or even the rate card for the same); but purely from a financial standpoint, it will be even more interesting to see the calculations proceed. First, thanks to the time-bound value of money the value of a rupee, which was nearly the same as a dollar in 1947, has now skyrocketed 60 times. Add considerations like inflation rates, exchange rates, gold standards and pay revisions among others. Not to mention the possibility of this being asked if the exchange ever happens, “Err.. Sir, how would you like money, then? Cash or cheque? Euros or Pounds? For the Government or for the people?”
India? What India?
Besides the financial angle, what I find more intriguing is the usage of the term ‘India’ in such references. When the first foreigners came to India around 327 BC, there was no ‘India’. The subcontinent was a collection of kingdoms and tribes that were constantly warring with each other. Remember the stories of Alexander, Ambhi and Porus? Even eighteen centuries later when the more modern Vasco deGama touched the southern coast, we were still not ‘India’. We were still kingdoms and tribes when Sir Thomas Roe met the Mughals and sparked off the British rule’s beginnings. Geographically, there were no divisions of ‘countries’ then. Culturally, the similarities and differences stretched from frontiers in Afghanistan to areas around the Bay of Bengal and Burma (which was a part of the empire till 1937). Whether Sri Lanka was ever a part of ‘India’ is also dependent of the version of history you subscribe to. And what about Nepal?
We were “British India” for the two centuries they ruled us. Even the name ‘India’ is a reference borrowed by the Greek and popularized by Modern English in the 17th century. With so many confusions about the geography of ‘India’ as a country and as an identity, the calls for reparations seem shaky – was the ‘India’ that was ruled by the British same as the country today? If not, on what basis are we going to calculate the amounts in question? What about parts of the British Empire that are not in India anymore? What about Pakistan? Or Bangladesh? Or Burma? And what about Kashmir – who gets the money there? And will China intervene if Arunachal is considered Indian territory?
And do we deserve it?
Not only in terms of geography, but even culturally, aren’t we at a wrong corner to make such demands? The leader fighting the British then was a noble figure compared to the questionable politician today. The masses had a sense of patriotism that went down to remotest gullies and youngest of kids. Today the most patriotic fervor is seen in during cricket matches (ironically, cricket is a British sport) and Pakistan-bashing movies. As a country we are ready to ignore thousands of farmers killing themselves each year and even more housewives committing suicides with their children. We don’t pay any heed to lakhs of children that die each year due to lack of healthcare and to the thousands who fall off the Mumbai locals each year. And yet, ‘lost lives’ and ‘endured struggles’ are things which the British should pay for.
And what right do we have of demanding anything from the British for the struggles that we have not even seen? So, we want compensations to be paid for the lives lost during the freedom struggle – which lives? How many of us know which lives were lost and what pains were endured? The closest that this generation has been to ‘struggle’ was the final of the 2003 Cricket World Cup against Australia! As a country, we inherited a structured administration and high moral standards from the British – yet where do we stand now? A tattered democracy and morality dismissed as a Sooraj-Barjatya-syndrome?
Almost two decades ago, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar wrote that during the Raj, the police caught criminals, the courts convicted them, and the civil service was both civil and rendered service. Alas, those days are gone. The police now seem incapable of catching influential criminals and the courts of convicting them. The civil service seems incapable of either civility or service. Political loot has reached such a stage that routine inspection of treasuries has ceased, the comptroller and auditor general in many states complains that papers and files are simply not available. State public sector undertakings have not submitted audited accounts for years on end. According to a senior bureaucrat, politicians now just dip their hand into the treasury and take out whatever they want, and no civil servant or policeman dares intervene. The years since our freedom have been a saga of lost opportunities and lost morality. On the economic side the opportunities lost are immense, but at least we can claim to have moved forward in absolute terms, even if we have slipped in relative terms. On the moral side, however, our decline has been absolute. If people are asked what they are most ashamed of after 50 years of independence, many will point to the political class.
What a difference from the heady days of 1947. At that time we were justly proud of our politicians. We had won independence after a principled struggle based on nonviolence. We had triumphed over the might of the British Empire not through armed force but moral force. It mattered little that we were poor in material terms. We felt rich in moral terms. And so we held our heads high and were proud to be Indians. Today, that pride is gone. We stand exposed as poor in material terms and even poorer in moral terms. In 1947 we could claim to be fighting an epic battle to improve global morality. Today, according to Transparency International, India is the eighth most corrupt country in the world. A study conducted by them in year 2005 found that more than 62% of Indians had first-hand experience of paying bribes or influence peddling to get jobs done in public offices successfully. Imagine if the British did pay us – how much do you think will reach the average man?
Yet, we are so sure that behind all the problems plaguing our country today, the British were villains and we need payback! Great, what’s next? We go to Iran and ask him to pay up for Nadir Shah. Or chronologically, do we go to the Greeks first? And if we can trace them, then Ashoka’s descendants must also pay back the families the ruler had uprooted? And while we do all of that, let Kashmiris lose lives and endure struggles as they always have… maybe their time for reparations has not dawned yet.
About the British dragging us into wars
Tharoor also points out the two World Wars that India was dragged into. But was it really that way? Interestingly, the 2.5 million soldiers who turned up to fight for the British in WWI, make the largest volunteering army in the history of mankind. Fighting made sense in terms of better income and food – incentives no different from today. Similarly in WWII millions of Indians lined up to go to battle – the British did not drag anyone to war, only incentivized participation just like Obama did to control falling number of soldiers for Iraq.
Tharoor also points out the fall of textile trade in India during the British time. Again, to put it in the right context, the upgradation to machinery was a technological upgrade experienced worldwide – so the Europeans suffered as much as the Indians. Although I agree that before industrialization of things, the British had anyway exported away valuable resources. But does it sound logical to give every episode an intentional-touch on behalf of the British? Was the control of our resources (in a time of shredded kingdoms) so heavily responsible for the downfall of the country? Some colonies did nationalize their national resources after getting independent but failed to either revive themselves or prevail over their erstwhile rulers. (Sri Lanka and the nationalization its tea plantations in vain is the closest, though not the only, example)
So let’s weigh it again
I believe that we are wrongly looking at events that happened centuries ago, with today’s lens. Democracy, World Trade and evolving lifestyles are concepts for this age – centuries ago, when the two geographies crossed paths, it was an Empire encountering a collection of kingdoms. The Indian subcontinent was still getting civilized while the British were an imperialistic superpower. Natural selection and human behaviour prevailed enabling the stronger to prevail over the weaker – enabling the victor to script fates.
India as a nation has never initiated an attack on foreign soil (although it is debatable what’s ‘foreign’ and what’s not). But the fact is that it has never been in a position to make that choice! It was the British who came and organized as a country, as a nation. Although if we do consider the then-existing kingdoms as Indian kingdoms, then we must agree that Indians were attacking other Indians. Wars have always allowed the winners to do as they please – be it the World Wars, the Vietnam or the series of recent wars by the US. Why should we be any different? And are we sure we would have done things differently had we been a colonial empire?
Considering both sides of the coin that the British rule in India had its ups and its downs and that we have gained as much, if not more, as we lost. While the lost lives and families are simply beyond bracketing, the struggles and the fights with the rulers have also stitched us together as a nation. From communication to education, infrastructure to geographical connectivity, we only have the British to thank for! Granted that they built it for themselves, but eventually weren’t we beneficiaries nonetheless? While we take credit for “Indian-origin” foreign nationals doing wonderful things across the globe, we can at least give the British some credit that is due to them. Social upliftment and ideas of liberty and equality were alient to us. Today we preach broad-mindedness.
As for an apology
In my perspective, no one really wins. No one needed to. It was just how it happened (a few days ago another article reflected similar sentiments in parts). It was a case in history where things ran differently and that we can’t judge what happened yesterday, with today’s set of understandings and perspectives – if nothing else then just because we simply weren’t there. I genuinely believe that there are more important matters at hand than even bothering with Britain’s apology. (There’s been a lot of chatter by politicians before and after Tharoor’s speech about this – in both countries, worth looking into )
Morality comes higher on Maslow’s Heirarchy. There are plethora of ‘needs’ to be taken care of internally, before we look to get ‘moral’ emancipation – which doesn’t solve problems for two thirds of the population still struggling to make an end’s meet… While arguing about apologies, what are we looking to achieve out of this anyway? Feel good as a country? So if Britain says it was ‘wrong’, then what? What does it change for us? Except making us ‘feel good’..? Or quenching some political egos?
The British Perspective
From the British perspective, it was a not a win-win affair throughout either. While they also warded off other foreign powers from the subcontinent, coming from small islands and administering the length and breadth of such a large landmass and population must have been a struggle in itself. The British ably negotiated cultural extremes and pioneered modern lifestyles and luxuries. They were also drained out economically after the World Wars and maintaining colonies like India was not a child’s play or pay! Not to mention, they will forever be reminded of their histories and atrocities for as long as the British isles surface out of the waters. Cities in Britain were destroyed by Germans. Yet they have lifted themselves from it. Japan after the war chose to do the same. However, we still have an eye on the British treasury!
This should not be confused as chants of praise for the British might. I am only trying to level things down from the way we see the British. They were ‘cruel’ for the way they treated us (or at least cruel according to the depictions in movies and textbooks). But how is it any different from the way urban Indians look at people from rural and remote areas? We have slangs for people from every culture in the country, yet the British are the historical bad-mouths! And financially, the 10% of the country today is doing the same to the rest of the population (especially the three-quarters below poverty line) that the British did to their colonies.
Summing it up
History does not forget. However, history – or the way it has been written – should not also license anyone to look at things from a selective attitude. In my books, the stronger tribe prevailed over the weaker one and enjoyed the spoils of war like any other instance. Although, in the longer run, we might have gained more than we lost – Architecture, education, police, legal-systems, language and so on…
To think of it, it could also be argued that we benefited more out of the rule than we lost. Or perhaps that we may been better off still under them – or at least as a dominion. Notions of reparations like these only encourage feelings of laziness and dynamics of a blame-game. The logical thing is to learn from history and do the best with what you have at the present.
As for the British…They came. They saw. They conquered. They have also moved on. And surged ahead.
Are we Indians still waiting for their cheque?