By Ujwal Batra
A video of Shashi Tharoor went viral a while back. In the speech, delivered in a debate in Oxford, Tharoor makes a compelling case for the British owing reparations for 200 years of colonial rule in India. His speech was met with much enthusiasm and applaud, being widely discussed and trending on social media.
The British rule in India, as in other colonies, was marked by oppression, racism, violence, and a denial of life, liberty and sovereignty of the people. If there indeed were any ‘gains’ from 200 years of colonialism and oppression (as some seem to suggest); there were merely incidental. No one can seriously contend that any alleged benefits can in any way offset the dark period that marked British Rule in India.
The questions Mr Tharoor raises in his talk deal with the question of historical justice. These questions are by no means easy to address and answer. Nowhere am I in significant disagreement with Mr Tharoor, but here are a couple points worth considering:
Mr Tharoor noted during the course of his talk, “We are not talking about reparations as a tool to empower anybody; they are a tool for you to atone for the wrongs that have been done.”
Can the present British state and people be held accountable for, and be made to pay for the injustices committed by their ancestors; which is to say—to pay for injustices they did not commit and were no part of? Any reparations that do come would come at the expense of the British taxpayer. While it is one thing to acknowledge that the past is riddled with injustices, it is quite another to put the price of that injustice at the doorstep of people who simply happen to be the descendants of the colonizers. One cannot atone for sins one did not commit, and one ought not to be made morally responsible for them.
The second point worth considering is whether such reparations would actually help India.
There seems to be the view that many of our present economic woes can be traced back to the British rule in India. Since the colonial rule ravaged and impoverished our economy for their gain (a point that is incontestable), it follows that it is their responsibility to help build it through reparations. Reparations then, are not merely an acknowledgement of the evils that were committed, but a means of corrective action. Just to be clear, nowhere in his talk did Mr Tharoor contend that the British owed reparations to build or aid India’s economy—he merely suggests that the British pay a token amount (he suggests ‘a pound a year for the next 200 years’) as an acknowledgement of their moral indebtedness. But it seems to be a view prevalent enough to merit consideration.
Nowhere in the world has an economy developed primarily through foreign aid or reparations. Consider South Korea. A former colony itself, South Korea had been completely ravaged in the Korean War in the 1950s. Its per capita income in the 1960s was comparable to some of the poorest nations in the world, arguably similar to the circumstances that India found herself in in 1947. Today, South Korea is universally recognised as one of the most developed nations, and its economic turnaround is hailed as a miracle. South Korea did not accomplish this through foreign aid or reparations, but through laws and institutions that respected property and allowed the market to function.
In contrast, our state and planners embarked to put in place a command economy, which while allowing some sort of private initiative, severely restricted through a labyrinth of laws, controls and restrictions. In truth, we secured sovereignty only in choosing our leaders and government, not in running our lives and businesses.
Our present poverty, even after 68 years of independence, is not due to the 200 years of colonial rule, but can be explained entirely by the policies we pursued since independence—policies that restricted private initiative and undermined economic freedom and property rights. Our historical wrongs will not be corrected by asking for token payments from the British to atone for their sins (however gratifying such a proposition may seem) but by extending rights and liberty to the people to help them secure a prosperous future.
We ought not place that sense of moral indebtedness elsewhere, but find it in ourselves. Only then will we secure true justice.