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Modern Indian History in 15 Minutes with Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor passionately debated the topic, “Does Britain Owe Reparations?” at the Oxford Union society. The Youtube video has more than 2 million likes. BrainGain magazine brings you a brief summary of his winning arguments.
BY Skendha Singh |   30-07-2015

“No wonder that the sun never set on the British Empire! Even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark!”
Shashi Tharoor

In May, Shashi Tharoor led a debate on the topic Does Britain Owe Reparations? at one of the world‘s oldest debating societies – the Oxford Union. Tharoor argued for the topic and led his side to a resounding majority.

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

While the topic might be a subject of passionate debate, in terms of quantifying reparations, and their results; it was interesting that the debate also raised questions about the very nature of colonization. In the fifteen minutes that Tharoor was given, he passionately argued for what we have long believed a universally accepted, and economically verified, fact – colonialism was an oppressive, extortionist regime.

The main points of contention were: it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by the experience of British colonialism; the depredations could not be quantified; colonization also had its benefits, such as creating infrastructure (railways, roads, etc); democracy and law were the final result of colonial rule; lastly, that reparations would not prove useful.

Tharoor brought both mighty wit and erudition to the floor. He began with a smile, “I rather feel like Henry the Eighth’s last wife, I more or less know what is expected of me but I’m not sure how to do it any differently!”

Offering the Indian example, Tharoor took his place among the long ranks of Indian statesmen who have decried Britain’s depradations of India. One would like to imagine the Grand Old Man of India – Dadabhai Naoroji nodding in solemn assent to many of the points Tharoor raised.

Tharoor began by describing exactly how Britain had systematically pulverized the Indian economy. India’s share of the world economy, when Britain arrived on her shores, was 23%. After 200 years of colonial rule, it had shrunk to 4%. Near annihilation of local and cottage industries, (smashing the thumbs of handloom weavers who could create fine muslin “light as woven air”), transforming India into a market for finished goods, were all Britain’s doing.

Tharoor easily connected present circumstance to historical fact subtly implicating all who stand in between. He spoke about how, when slavery was abolished in 1833, a compensation of 20 million pounds was paid, not to those who suffered under slavery, but to those who had lost their property. “I was struck by the fact that your Wi-Fi password at this Union commemorates the name of Mr. Gladstone, the great liberal hero, well, I’m sorry but his family was one of those who benefited from the compensation,” a statement which received great applause from the house.

On Robert Clive, whom the Britons sought to title “Clive of India”, Tharoor commented, “(A)s if he belonged to the country, (a)ll he really did was to ensure that much of the country belonged to him!”

To arguments that the drain of wealth couldn’t be quantified, Tharoor responded, “The total value of everything that was taken out of India, and India by the way suffering from recession at that time, and poverty and hunger, was, in today’s money – 8 billion pounds. You want quantification? It’s available.”

On the benefits bestowed by the colonizers, including infrastructure such as railways, Tharoor said wryly, “Many countries have built railways and roads without having had to be colonized in order to do so.”

With similarly hard hitting points, Tharoor built an unassailable position in the course of the debate. About Britain’s aid to India, a meagre 0.4% of its GDP, Tharoor said, ‘The Government of India spends more on fertilizer subsidies, which might be an appropriate metaphor for that argument,” forcing even the most tight-lipped of the audience to grin sheepishly.

The speech came to a close with Tharoor citing reparations paid by countries like Germany (Israel and Poland), Italy (Libya), Japan (Korea) and even Britain’s reparations to New Zealand’s Maori, to reiterate that reparations were neither an unjust demand nor an unpredented offer.

He ended on a high note: “(R)eparations are not a tool to empower anybody. They are a tool for you to atone for the wrongs that have been done. . . The proposition before this house is the principle of owing reparations, not the fine points of how much is owed, to whom it should be paid. . . As far as I’m concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far (longer) way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid. What is 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 200 years, after the last 200 years of Britain in India.

Thank you, Madam President! ”

Tharoor's side won 185 - 56.



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