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“British PM Should Beg Forgiveness At Jallianwala”

Shashi Tharoor on his new book and why he thinks the British owe India an apology

“British PM Should Beg Forgiveness At Jallianwala”
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
“British PM Should Beg Forgiveness At Jallianwala”

Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union about a year ago, where he dema­nded reparations from Britain for all the loot and atrocities they committed in India during their rule, went viral on the internet. It set off heated debates and renewed the demand to at least get the Kohinoor back. Now his new book, An Era of Darkness, goes full pelt to explain why the British owe India an apology. Tharoor spoke to Satish Padmanabhan at his elegant study in his Delhi residence. Excerpts from the interview.

What you demand in the book is a moral reparation from the British, not so much monetary. But if you were to put a figure to all that they looted from India, how they crippled the economy, as you argue in the book, what range would it be in?

Well, I don’t think you can put a figure. I have only seen one piece by the journalist Minhaz Merchant who did an elaborate piece in response to my speech quantifying the reparation due to $ 3 trillion which is more than I think the GDP of Britain and would not have been a realistic thing to ask them to pay. But in my view, how do you quantify the value of life of all those who died unnecessarily, the losses suffered by destroyed industry, the losses suffered by creation of poverty and by landlessness in rural India.

My own view is an acknowledgment and there are two things I specifically suggest. One is an apology. If the prime minister of Britain on an official visit can go to a place like Jallianwala Bagh and go down on her knees and beg forgiveness from the Indian people in the abstract, not from anyone today, for the all the wrongs done, that would go a long way. It’s very interesting that Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau delivered a public apology on behalf of the people of Canada for the Komagata Maru incident.

Do you think anyone in British politics or the royal family has this largeness of heart to offer an apology?

It will not be easy. It requires someone of the spirit of a Trudeau to ascend to the highest office in Britain. At this stage it would be foolish of it make it an expectation, and certainly not a condition. We have an independent relationship with Britain which is quite different from the colonial era and we don’t feel the need to refer to that period when we talk to them. But if it were to occur to the British to do it, it would be a very fine thing. My book is also coming out in Britain, the same text but a different title—Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India.

Is the title a pun on the Quentin Tarantino film of a few years ago?

(Laughs) Could be, I won’t try to explain it….Was it a Tarantino film…oh, yes, he used the B word.

Over the years, the British have slowly erased the brutal part of their imperialism from their history books and curricula, mostly painting their reign as benign and enlightening. Do you think books like your can correct this perception?

Yes, the curricula must include the arguments of books like this. To reduce the British Empire to its ornamentalism, as it were or to indeed ignore it altogether is a betrayal of the duty of historical memory. Britain owes it to its future generations, at the very least give both sides of the story. I am told by many parents that their children have never learnt any of this stuff.

There is this widely held belief that the British gave us the Indian Civil Service. But you demolish it as being racist, decadent and self-serving.

It’s precisely these three words. It was certainly racist, initially excluding Indians and then when Indian were admitted as a result of Queen Victoria’s proclamation, everything was made difficult for them. They were given insignificant positions, pushed off to marginal careers, and in many cases drummed out of the service for infractions so minor that an Englishman wouldn’t have been reprimanded for. There is a book by a recently retired British civil servant in the 1890s, H. Fielding Hall, and he recounts the story of an Indian who was in the civil service after studying in Oxbridge and was treated so badly. Many decisions were taken in the club and since he was an Indian he wasn’t allowed in the club, and after various such slights he ended up shooting himself. Fielding Hall goes on to say that he shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place, that it was a British thing. This is the attitude of a relatively sympathetic figure like Hall.

It was grossly decadent, most of the civil servants enjoyed absurdly comfortable lives, they were the best paid civil servants in the world, more than in the US and even the domestic civil service in Britain. For 24 years of service, including four years of fully paid holiday back home, they got a lifetime pension and able to retire in great comfort in England. And while they were here, all the parties and dances and affairs--the social life of Simla and Calcutta--was utterly decadent. The officers were seeing India as an opportunity to make a better life for themselves in England.

And the same is true of the press of that time, another British gift to India, which was highly controlled and censured?

Yes, Indian papers had to pay a very expensive deposit which they had to forfeit if they reported anything negative. No White-owned papers needed to do that. Similarly, when the vernacular press started to take off, the new Vernacular Press Act was passed which imposed further restrictions. Many papers in Bengali or Hindi had to change to publishing in English, like Amrita Bazar Patrika and The Bengali, to overcome this Act.  Sedition law was clearly written to stifle the expression of Indian opinion against British rule. All the editors who were jailed or fined, all the presses which were shut were only Indian nationalist papers. The British-owned newspapers were never touched even if they spread hatred among Indians. The world is full of places which weren’t colonized and yet have newspapers

And we are still stuck with some of those laws….

Yes, sedition is a very good example. Similarly Article 377 on the LGBT community, the way in which the laws in our country are stacked against women when it comes to marriage and inheritance, all these are colonial legacies. Macaulay wrote the penal code in 1837, the British finally enacted it only 24 years later in 1861, but the fact is that it is the thinking of 1830s that is prevailing today, 180 years later.

 You have spared cricket, is it the only good thing the English left for us, what we owe them?

Well, we do owe its introduction to them. But Indians actually transformed cricket into a vehicle of nationalism. It’s fascinating that Indians saw in this British sports something that suited their national characteristics and talents and thereby demonstrating that they were as manly as the British. In a way, the whole Lagaan things, which of course never really happened, the whole idea that we could use the British sport to show we are as good as they are, that was very early inculcated in the minds of Indians. Particularly, the Bengalis took to the sport very much with that sense, there’s a whole thesis about how cricket was a vehicle of Bengali nationalism. Similarly, it become a vehicle for Dalit empowerment. Palwankar Baalu, for example, the Dalit left-arm-spinner, the best the world has ever seen it is said, but it was before the Test era. By the time Test matches came around he was in his late 40s and it was too late for him to play.

Do you think there is the danger of the book falling into the right-wing discourse—give grist to this chest-thumping how great India was in the olden times?

I suppose any historical fact can be used or abused by people to serve their own agenda and it is difficult for me escape the risk of that, except to point out two things. One, where I talk about contrast and what was being destroyed, the economy and the industry and so on of India of the 18th century which was not exactly ancient India, but it was actually Muslim-ruled India for the most parts. Bengal was ruled by Siraj-ud-Daulah and a Mughal was sitting in Delhi. Of course, a large part of the country was controlled by the Marathas and the Mughal emperors became hostage of the Marathas. But it was not, to put it bluntly, the Hindutva notion of India, it was a composite India after many centuries of Muslim influence and involvement. Second, where I venture into counter-factuals, I don’t hark back to some idealized view of ancient India. On the contrary, I talk about extrapolating from the realities of that time. So, if the British had never come, what was more likely would have been the consolidation of the Maratha confederacy over larger areas of India, under the titular rule of a Mughal emperor. We would have had that evolving into some sort of constitutional monarchy. Something like this happened in Malaysia where the different sultans agreed to accept an elected monarch amongst them as the king. Many countries have managed to evolve politically in modern ways under ancient kingship, the Japanese being the best known example.

So, if the British hadn’t colonised, a more syncretic society may have emerged?

Yes, I go to great lengths to point out how responsible the British were for the divisions of Indian society. This is not just based on my biases but very serious scholarship by others. For instance, Nicholas Dirks on caste where he says caste as we know today is a British invention, people like Gyanendra Pandey talking about Hindu-Muslim relations in the pre-British era, Keith Hjortshoj on the Shia-Sunni relations in Lucknow. There are many such examples. The British were heavily into classification, control and division in order to rule more effectively. In that process they intensified, and solidified, large number of categories and stratification in Indian society: caste, religion, sect, region, language. On top of that you have the political objective of divide et impera after the mutiny of 1857 as they called it, or the revolt of 1857, the idea of Hindu and Muslim soldiers making common cause and rallying under the banner of the emperor to oppose the British sent a shiver down their spine. There was conscious fomenting of divisions which was promoted by the British. The clincher of course came during the World War II when the Congress went to jail during the Quit India movement and the British deliberately gave a free hand to the Muslim League, whose membership shot up from a couple of lakhs to a couple of crores in the war years. By then they were perfectly organized to fight the elections of 1946 and fulfill their demand for partition.

Stretching moral reparation argument further, would you also say there are many apologies due within the country: by the caste Brahmins to the Dalits, by the feudal lords to the poor, generally by men to women?

Yes, but my book is on the British empire and the focus is specifically on what that empire meant for India, what it undid and what it prevented, and addresses preposterous claims made by the apologists of the empire for the virtues of colonial rule in India. But I don’t disagree with you, that many of use owe apologies to our people for the wrongs that have been done. In some ways what we do in modern politics constitutes that attempt to undo those injustices. But the British have packed their bags and sailed off, so for them the only redemption is an apology. While we who live here and who have been victims of our societies for thousands of years certainly must try to redress those wrongs.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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