As one of a parade of speakers debating the British empire at the Oxford Union, Shashi Tharoor cannot have expected his short speech to be viewed more than three million times. Reparations, he told his audience, ‘are a tool for you to atone for the wrongs that have been done. Let me say with the greatest possible respect: it’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.’ Tharoor, an MP in the opposition Congress party, was lauded by the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who said, ‘What he spoke there reflected the sentiments of the citizens of India.’ It was an inauspicious omen for Modi’s visit to Britain later this year, the first by an Indian prime minister in nearly a decade.
Reparations for war have a long history – the British liked to impose them at the drop of a hat, for example billing the Tibetan government Rs. 2.5 million after invading Tibet in 1904. Compensation for larger and more nebulous crimes is, like many ideas now floating in the intellectual ether, American in origin. In Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he said the promise of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ was not being fulfilled: ‘It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.’ Ta-Nehisi Coates returned to the theme last year with an influential article in the Atlantic suggesting the US needed a ‘national reckoning’ over the debts of slavery. Coates has a point: anyone who passes time in the southern states of America or in the Caribbean will notice the enduring consequences of chattel slavery.
Tharoor’s demand that Britain should pay reparations to India for historic damage rests, though, on insecure foundations. He observed that India’s share of the world economy dropped from 23 to 4 per cent during the centuries of informal and formal British rule. This change had more to do with the rapid economic transformation of western Europe by the Industrial Revolution than it did with adjustments inside India: a largely agricultural economy could not match an industrialising one. His claim rests on the ‘drain theory’ — that Britain sucked away India’s prosperity — proposed by late 19th century nationalists like the Liberal MP Dadabhai Naoroji. When India gained independence and the ‘drain’ stopped, there was no sign of the promised surplus.
Tharoor argued that Britain owed a debt of £1.25 billion to the Indian government at the end of the second world war for the 2.5 million volunteers who had fought the Axis powers, but it was ‘never actually paid.’ Not only was this debt honoured, but it formed an essential part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s early economic planning. The governor of the Reserve Bank of India later complained that the new prime minister had run through the sterling balances ‘as if there was no tomorrow.’
Tharoor concluded his witty and entertaining speech by saying his concern was not monetary value, but ‘the principle that reparations are owed’ – saying he would be happy for India to be paid £1 a year by Britain for the next 200 years. It was here that he betrayed the essential frivolity of his case. He was appealing not for the rebalancing of entrenched global financial structures that date to the 18th century, but for moral victory. Like a surface-to-air missile, he locked on to the spot where he knew his well-heeled Oxford Union audience would be most vulnerable: postcolonial guilt. It did the speaker no harm that his voice is of the orotund type heard in early television documentaries about the royal family. Tharoor told an Indian TV anchor that so many of the audience trooped through the yes lobby in support of his reparations motion that the ‘swank dinner’ following the debate was delayed.
The irony of the case for compensation is that it would have made little sense to those who were actually subjects of the British empire. Indian politicians in the 21st century sometimes appear to be more anti-imperialist than their predecessors who risked their lives for independence in the 1930s and 40s. For much of his public career, Gandhi viewed the empire as a guarantor of his civil rights. Even after spending eleven years in British jails, Nehru was happy to toast the King Emperor and to make sure the Union Jack was not lowered when the Indian tricolor was raised. The Indian National Congress, the forerunner of Tharoor’s party, was for most of its existence a collaborationist movement. India’s hereditary princes were almost without exception imperialists. Only a small number of people in the 20th century sought the violent overthrow of British rule in India. Even nationalists who were infuriated by the structural racism inherent in the empire often saw empire as a progressive force. British rule in India was an act of complicity, a joint venture between the elites of the two nations. Today, all of that historical complexity has been forgotten: an attack on the empire by a politician is a risk-free way of ensuring cross-party unity and vigorous applause.
Paying a token reparation of £1 a year would be an absurdity. It presupposes that the government which might have arisen in India in the absence of the British would have been preferable to the one that resulted. Particularly, it supposes that the alternative regime would have produced comparable stability for the growth of internal trade. At the start of the 18th century after the depredations of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the subcontinent was in a state of bitter, broken conflict. In its wake, outsiders from Europe were able to pay mercenaries to assert dominance on their behalf. Looking forward towards the period after independence in 1947, there is nothing in the conduct of the Congress party during their long decades in power to suggest they might have used compensation wisely or well. The 1970s marked a growth rate in India of below 1 per cent. Nor is there the slightest chance that an expression of British remorse for long forgotten political choices, which occurred at a different time and in an entirely different historical context, would engender any respect in India, a country with no tradition of contrition. Being an Indian politician means never having to say you’re sorry.
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait (Penguin)