Thursday, March 16, 2017

'Atonement is the best we can hope for’


The notes and references for An Era of Darkness runs into 22 pages. Despite this, Shashi Tharoor’s work shedding light on the British rule in India is neither a heavy tome nor is it meant only for erudite scholars. In his book, the Congress MP makes a case for India’s humiliation under the British rule and insists on at least an apology from the British Prime Minister. Excerpts from an email chat:

When you say that British kids need to know of the atrocities perpetrated on the colonies that went into making of their nation, do you think our students too need to study history more neutrally? Indian students are caught in the Left-dictated historical interpretations vis-a-vis the Rightist view.
I see no harm in our schoolchildren being aware that history is often contested territory, to be exposed to a variety of points of view and to make up their own minds on it. The most important purpose of education is to teach children to think for themselves about such things.

India’s share of manufacturing exports fell from 27 to 2 per cent during British rule. In this context, do you think PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative will do Indian economy any good?
It may be a bit late to reverse the long-term effects of our de-industrialisation, but full marks to PM Modi for trying. The problem with ‘Make in India’ is that none of the major announcements, trumpeted by foreign companies so far, have actually translated into factories on the ground. And increasingly automation is making it unnecessary for Western companies to relocate to low-labour cost economies like India, something that was not true when China began its rise through manufacturing.


How would the French and Portuguese powers have ruled us, in the event, they had outmanoeuvred the British? The Portuguese rule in Goa was also brutal and ruthless.
Absolutely. What I would have wanted is for no colonial power to rule us! Kanhoji Angre taught the Portuguese a lesson or two, after all. It’s hard for any nationalist to concede that colonial rule was “inevitable”. Of course it could have been resisted, and in many places it was, but the Brits’ superior weaponry and organisation, and our own rulers’ disunity and opportunism, prevailed.
The main difference with the French (or the Portuguese, for that matter) is that the British were not interested in assimilation. No brown-skinned Indian was ever empowered to say “I am British” before 1947, the way a black Senegalese or brown Algerian would proudly say, “Je suis francais”.

In the chapter on ‘Did British Give India the Political Unity?’ you have mentioned that our epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were the cultural threads and reflect the same national idea. But now these epics are touted as an idea of a Hindu nation.
I feel strongly that the whole idea of Indian nationalism was welcoming, open and inclusive. As a secular liberal, I am proud to cite the epics with pride as a vital part of my cultural heritage. I think something corrective is indeed necessary for our excessively Western-centred education, which was itself a colonial legacy (as I show in the book) — but the chauvinists have gone too far. I am totally in favour of teaching the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the works of Kalidasa in our schools. I would also agree with offering Sanskrit, Tamil or one of the languages recognised by the Government of India as “classical”.
It’s when the Hindutva agenda wants to go beyond all this to impose the beliefs of Savarkar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in the classroom that I draw the line.

There is a larger issue here. My basic analysis of colonialism should be acceptable to Marxists and Hindutva types alike, as well as Congress nationalists. But we disagree when I speak of 200 years of foreign rule — and they speak of 1200 years, to include Muslim rulers as well.

As far as I am concerned, the Muslim rulers were unlike the British, because they stayed and assimilated here, married into Indian society and made this country their home. And even if you argue that these rulers looted India, they also spent their loot in India, whereas the British drained our resources for the benefit of their faraway homeland.

In the chapter ‘Residual problems of colonialism’, you have referred to the present day issues rooted in colonialism. Can the solutions too be found in the past?

I have argued that an apology would help: you can’t undo the wrongs done in the past but you can cleanse the pain with an apology in the present. How do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? British rule deindustrialised India; created landlessness and poverty; sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to Partition; and was directly responsible for the deaths of three and a half crore people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines.

There’s really no compensation for all this that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by their Prime Minister to India, as Canada’s Trudeau did recently over the Komagata Maru incident, would signal true atonement.

Imagine a British PM, on the centenary of Jallianwalla Bagh, apologising to Indians for the massacre and by extension for all colonial injustices — that would be better than any sum of reparations.

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