World

Shashi Tharoor tells the Oxford why Britain owes reparations for colonising India in spirited speech

July 23, 2015 10:51 AM
Ex-Indian External affairs Minister and Member Parliament Shashi Tharoor

 Oxford: An Indian politician has called for Britain to pay reparations to India and other former colonies for its decades of imperial rule, in a speech at the Oxford Union.

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian government minister and Member of Parliament, made the case in a debate entitled 'This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies', which was put on by the world-famous debating society, the Oxford Union.

In contrast, Tharoor said 15 to 29 million Indians died due starvation in famines induced by the British. He cited the example of the Great Bengal Famine during the Second World War where four million people died because Winston Churchill deliberately as a matter of policy diverted essential supplies to reserve stockpiles for British soldiers. When these deaths were brought to his notice, Churchill asked whether Gandhi had died. Tharoor said India's contribution to Britain's First World War effort stood at eight billion pounds if computed now. Britain's Second World War debt stood three billion pounds in 1945, of which 1.25 billion pounds was owed to India. "They never paid it back," Tharoor said.

The main thrust of Dr Tharoor's speech was about the economic toll that British rule took on India.

He said: "India's share of the world economy when Britain arrived on it shores was 23 per cent. By the time the British left it was down to below four per cent. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain's rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India."

"In fact, Britain's industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India."

Dr Tharoor, and the rest of the speakers at the debate, were not arguing about a specific amount that should be handed over in monetary reparations, but instead asking whether there is a debt, and whether Britain does owe reparations or not.

In his speech, Tharoor pointed out, "India's share of the world economy when Britain came to our shores was 23%. By the time the British left, it was down to less than 4%. Why? Simply due to the fact India was governed for Britain's benefit. Britain's rise in over two centuries was financed by its depredation of India." In his 15-minute address as part of a debate on British colonialism, Tharoor argued that Britain's prosperity in the 18th and 19th century was built on resources taken from India.

 Britain's Industrial Revolution was based on the systematic deindustrialization of India, turning the country from an exporter to an importer of English goods. "India was Britain's biggest cash cow, biggest consumer of British goods and provider of high incomes for British civil servants. We literally paid for our own oppression," he said. However, Singh had argued that the British had had a positive impact. "Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too," Singh said.

In contrast, Tharoor said 15 to 29 million Indians died due starvation in famines induced by the British. He cited the example of the Great Bengal Famine during the Second World War where four million people died because Winston Churchill deliberately as a matter of policy diverted essential supplies to reserve stockpiles for British soldiers. When these deaths were brought to his notice, Churchill asked whether Gandhi had died. Tharoor said India's contribution to Britain's First World War effort stood at eight billion pounds if computed now. Britain's Second World War debt stood three billion pounds in 1945, of which 1.25 billion pounds was owed to India. "They never paid it back," Tharoor said.

He addressed the question of the Indian Railways as legacy of British rule by saying, "Many countries built railways and roads without needing to be colonized." He said the British built the rail network for their benefit and made India bear the cost. They have a moral debt to pay, he said.

Concluding his speech, he said: "As far as I'm concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid."

"What it required is accepting the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I'd be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years, after the last two hundred years of Britain in India."

His impassioned and articulate speech, which was received well at the Oxford Union, has struck a chord amongst Indians. The 15-minute video of his speech has been shared thousands of times, and is already the fifth most popular video on the Union's YouTube channel despite only being a week old.

Famous Bollywood actor and Indian politician Paresh Rawal wrote on Twitter that Dr Tharoor's speech was "simply mind blowing and enlightening".

Most others were similarly praising of the speech, and the video sat amongst the top trending topics on Facebook in India for several days.

The issue of the UK paying reparations to countries affected by its past colonialism and major participation in the slave trade has existed since the end of the Empire, but British leaders have typically been reluctant to address it.

David Cameron, during a visit to India in 2013, visited the site of the Amritsar massacre, where many hundreds of nonviolent pro-independence protesters were killed by Indian soldiers under the command of British Colonel Reginald Dwyer.

 

David Cameron laid a wreath at the site of the Massacre in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar
 

While Cameron paid his respects at the memorial and acknowledged his horror for what he called the "deeply shameful event", he faced criticism in India for declining to directly apologse on behalf of the UK for the massacre.

While he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown made similar comments - saying the UK should stop apologising for its colonial past, and instead focus on talking about British values of liberty and tolerance.

It was a spiritied debate over a controversial issue, but in the end Dr Tharoor's side, which also included Jamaican High Comissioner Ndombet Assamba and Ghanaian economist Dr George Ayittey, won the debate with 185 votes to 56.

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