The undergraduates of the Oxford Union had proposed that “Britain owes reparation to her former colonies”, a motion no doubt prompted by recent publicity given to the claims of Kenyan veterans of the Mau-Mau struggle of the 1950s.
Shashi Tharoor didn’t mention the Kenyans, nor did he find time for any other surviving victims of colonial oppression. He had a bigger, much staler fish to fry. The UK must apologise and offer compensation for the injuries and injustices sustained by India’s millions during what he called “200 years of colonial rule” in South Asia.
As the nearly-man of the UN Secretariat and then the Congress, Tharoor cited “the principles of reparation” and “a moral debt that needs to be repaid”. He was presumably thinking of international human rights law and the deliberations of the International Court of Justice. Yet, neither body existed during most of Britain’s overseas rule. The conduct of states, as of individuals, can only be assessed by the standards of their age, not by today’s litigious criteria. Otherwise, we’d all be down on the government of Italy for feeding Christians to the lions. The Mexican economy would be in hock to the Aztecs and the Mongolians would be eternally atoning for Ghengis Khan.
With all due deference to Tharoor, there exists no principle under which a race or people may be held to account for the conduct of its deceased forebears. Nor does “a moral debt” devolve down the generations like original sin. Culpability is not heritable, and collective atonement is no panacea. The slate cannot be wiped clean by apologies plus hush money; nor should it be. History is a grubby business; if we are to right present wrongs, we need to be haunted by its uglier episodes. Exorcising them by buying absolution for long deceased culprits is just a big red herring. Far from being “a tool for you [that is, the British] to atone”, as Tharoor would have it, reparations are meant to compensate surviving victims of injustice, not posterity.
Moving effortlessly into undergraduate register, the floppy-haired Tharoor first told a few jokes, then trotted out a string of statistics. In British-ruled India, famine claimed “15-29 million” lives; war added a few hundred thousand more; livelihoods were lost, industries depleted, freedoms constrained, peoples humiliated. His figures sounded extravagant but his facts are not. They are indeed what happened; they need to be remembered. But not by harping on the horrors of the past as a substitute for grappling with ongoing injustices. Logically, Tharoor would have us all—including those complicit in caste oppression, female infanticide and sectarian violence—down on bended knee, proffering apologies for the accident (or what should be the accident) of our gender, our antecedents, our co-religionists or our nation. He asks a lot, and he presumes a lot. Proverbially, it is only the blameless who may cast the first stone. Tharoor’s lineage must be one to be envied.
The Oxford debate caught me immersed in Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajahs (Simon & Schuster, 2015). It’s a book from which Tharoor might take comfort. Somewhat long but impeccably written, Mount’s narrative takes the form of a quest to discover the truth about his ancestors—mostly Lows, Thackerays and Richmonds—who achieved distinction in 19th century India. All were admirable in their way; some got rich; many died young. But Mount’s concern is how to reconcile these thoroughly decent men and women with the discrimination they practised, the tendentious policies they enforced and the appalling bloodshed for which they were often responsible. What was their motivation, he wonders. Were they so fired by the certainty of their civilising mission that nothing could be allowed to stand in their way? Or were they in fact plagued by doubts about the whole imperial enterprise?
Take John Low, an army officer who made good as a political agent and whose Indian career spanned half a century. Mount writes of him: “He took an active part in deposing three kings, each of them rulers over a territory and population the magnitude of a middle-sized European state. He deprived a fourth raja, perhaps the grandest of them all, of a large portion of his kingdom. He survived three shattering mutinies. Yet at no time do you have the feeling that he was spurred by a sense of imperial mission. He wanted, if possible, to do his duty, that was all. But what exactly was his duty? That too was shadowed in doubt and mired in misgiving.”
Much the same could be said of the whole British Empire. Supposedly “acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness”, the empire remained shadowed in doubt and mired in misgiving until it evaporated. The British were not natural imperialists. To them, the idea of ‘empire’ usually conjured up absolutist regimes in continental Europe that were anathema to their own constitutional traditions. Anciently a colony of Rome and lately at war with Napoleon’s empire, Albion preferred ‘dominion’ to ‘empire’, long after empire had become a reality. There was no prior rationale, no imperial blueprint, no duty-defining text, and least of all for India.
Until the 1960s, India was not even considered a former colony. It had not been colonised nor was it ever the responsibility of the Colonial Office. It was run by the much bigger India Office. A trading company had spent over a century acquiring it, and not until 1874 was sovereignty transferred to the Queen-Empress. Queen of all Britain’s other territories, she was empress only of India. For the British, India was the empire—just as it was for the Mughals, the Guptas or the Mauryas. (And who is going to make reparations for them?)
Quite rightly, Tharoor rubbished the idea that de facto reparation had already been made in the shape of the world’s largest railway network, or that it is still being made in the form of government aid. The railways were not built to oblige Indians; nor were the roads and bridges. Their prime purpose was to shift troops, weaponry and merchandise, most notably raw cotton. Likewise, irrigation schemes were designed to increase production rather than mollify farmers. Even aid can hardly be seen as a form of payback, more as a sweetener for inward investment. Other sweeteners, like schools and hospitals, ought to have been an imperial priority but weren’t.
Tharoor didn’t mention this neglect, preferring to stress India’s losses in two world wars. Heavy as these were, and incurred without consulting Indian opinion, he might nevertheless have reminded his audience that in India, unlike in Britain, there was no conscription. Recruitment was voluntary, and some of the heaviest casualties were sustained in defence of India itself during the Burma campaigns. Tossing into the reparation scales the casualties suffered by the two million Indian combatants rather diminishes their sacrifice, while begging the question of what price non-Indian casualties in the same campaigns.
If British rule did anything for India, it is to be found not in the railways or the army but in the civil service. Tharoor correctly lambasted Clive and his 18th-century cronies for milking Bengal with one of the most corrupt administrations the world has ever known. He failed, however, to note that this state of affairs lasted only a couple of decades. Thanks to Hastings, Cornwallis and their successors, it was succeeded by what became one of the least corruptible and most cost-effective administrations ever devised. Universally admired in its day, the old ICS is still fondly remembered and not least by many of today’s Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
The other obvious bonus of British rule was the reconstitution of India itself. Without the imperial bullying, it is difficult to see how the late Mughal fragmentation of South Asia might have been reversed. The likeliest outcome would surely have been a return to the multi-state configuration that had characterised the subcontinent throughout most of history. This being the case, today’s British government might think it a bit rich for modern India to be demanding reparation for an intervention to which, arguably, it owes its existence.
In Nehru’s words, freedom, when it finally arrived, came not “wholly or in full measure but very substantially”. The price, the deficiency, was of course Partition. Herein lies a real and present injustice for which reparation may indeed be owing, not least because many of the victims still survive, while the ongoing rancour still skews progress throughout the region. But who was responsible for Partition? Not Clive or even Curzon, but certainly Mountbatten and the British government of Clement Atlee, and above all, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Pandit Nehru. Perhaps Tharoor’s skills would be better deployed in addressing this digestive challenge rather than dishing up a rechauffage of rotten fish.
(John Keay is the author of India: A History, among other popular historical books on colonisation.)