By Shashi Tharoor
Jul 23, 2015
When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the Prime Minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions (Great Bengal Famine), Churchill’s only response was to ask peevishly ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’
At the end of May, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Believes Britain Owes Reparations To Her Former Colonies”. Speakers included former Conservative MP Sir Richard Ottaway, Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor and British historian John Mackenzie. Shashi Tharoor’s argument in support of the motion went viral in India after he tweeted it out from his personal account. The argument has found favour among Indians, where the subject of colonial exploitation remains a sore topic. Here he gives a summary of his views:
At the beginning of the 18th century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to less than four per cent.
The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.
By the end of the 19th century, India was Britain’s biggest cash-cow, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants — all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.
De-industrialisation of India
Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the de-industrialisation of India — the destruction of Indian textiles and their replacement by manufacturing in England, using Indian raw material and exporting the finished products back to India and the rest of the world.
The handloom weavers of Bengal had produced and exported some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially cheap but fine muslins, some light as “woven air”.
Britain’s response was to cut off the thumbs of Bengali weavers, break their looms and impose duties and tariffs on Indian cloth, while flooding India and the world with cheaper fabric from the new satanic steam mills of Britain.
Weavers became beggars, manufacturing collapsed; the population of Dhaka, which was once the great centre of muslin production, fell by 90 per cent.
So instead of a great exporter of finished products, India became an importer of British ones, while its share of world exports fell from 27 per cent to two per cent.
‘Clive of India’
Colonialists like Robert Clive bought their “rotten boroughs” in England with the proceeds of their loot in India (loot, by the way, was a Hindi word they took into their dictionaries as well as their habits), while publicly marvelling at their own self-restraint in not stealing even more than they did.
And the British had the gall to call him “Clive of India”, as if he belonged to the country, when all he really did was to ensure that much of the country belonged to him.
As Britain ruthlessly exploited India, between 15 and 29 million Indians died tragically unnecessary deaths from starvation.
The last large-scale famine to take place in India was under British rule; none has taken place since, since free democracies don’t let their people starve to death.
Some four million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and European stockpiles.
“The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks”, he argued.
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?”
Myth of ‘Enlightened Despotism’
British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretence that it was enlightened despotism, conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill’s inhumane conduct in 1943 gave the lie to this myth.
But it had been battered for two centuries already: British imperialism had triumphed not just by conquest and deception on a grand scale, but by blowing rebels to bits from the mouths of cannons, massacring unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh and upholding iniquity through institutionalised racism.
No Indian in the colonial era was ever allowed to feel British; he was always a subject, never a citizen.
The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to as benefit of British rule, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries have built railways without having to be colonised to do so.
Nor were the railways laid to serve the Indian public. They were intended to help the British get around, and above all to carry Indian raw materials to the ports to be shipped to Britain.
The movement of people was incidental except when it served colonial interests; no effort was made to ensure that supply matched demand for mass transport.
In fact, the Indian Railways were a big British colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed extravagant returns on capital, paid for by Indian taxes.
Thanks to British rapacity, a mile of Indian railways cost double that of a mile in Canada and Australia.
It was a splendid racket for the British, who made all the profits, controlled the technology and supplied all the equipment, which meant once again that the benefits went out of India.
It was a scheme described at the time as “private enterprise at public risk”. Private British enterprise, public Indian risk.
In recent years, even as the reparations debate has been growing louder, British politicians have, in fact, been wondering whether countries like India should even receive basic economic aid at the expense of the British taxpayer.
To begin with, the aid received is 0.4 per cent, which is less than half of one per cent of India’s GDP.
British aid, which is far from the amounts a reparation debate would throw up, is only a fraction of India’s fertiliser subsidy to farmers, which may be an appropriate metaphor for this argument.
Britons may see our love of cricket or the English language, or even parliamentary democracy, conjuring up memories of the Raj as in television series like Indian Summers, with Simla, and garden parties, and gentile Indians.
For many Indians, however, it is a history of loot, massacres, bloodshed, of the banishing of the last Mughal Emperor on a bullock cart to Burma.
Indian Soldiers in Two World Wars
India contributed more soldiers to British forces fighting the First World War than Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa combined. Despite suffering recession, poverty and an influenza epidemic, India’s contributions in cash and materiel amount to £8 bn ($12 bn) in today’s money.
Two and a half million Indians also fought for British forces in the Second World War, by the end of which £1.25 bn of Britain’s total £3 bn war debt was owed to India, which was merely the tip of the iceberg that was colonial exploitation.
It still hasn’t been paid.
‘Return the Koh-i-Noor diamond’
What’s important is not the quantum of reparations that Britain should pay, but the principle of atonement.
Two hundred years of injustice cannot be compensated for with any specific amount.
I, for one, would be happy to accept a symbolic pound a year for the next 200 years, as a token of apology.
And maybe Britain could kindly return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the country it was taken from!