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Shaming the Empire

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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There is more to the history of the Indo-British encounter than Shashi Tharoor’s polished rhetoric
There is more to the history of the Indo-British encounter than Shashi Tharoor’s polished rhetoric

Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union received fulsome praise from Indians across the globe and became a social media sensation with more than 3 million views. The author-politician wanted Britain to show moral atonement for its colonisation of India by paying symbolic reparations of £1 annually for the next 200 years. The past is more complex, and the history of the Indo-British encounter more nuanced than 15 minutes of glib rhetoric

Shashi Tharoor was unquestionably one of the best debaters that St Stephen’s College—an institution that, till fairly recently, modelled itself on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge—produced. I am reassured that even 40 years after both of us graduated from the College, those skills haven’t deserted him. On the contrary, complemented by his rich experience of international diplomacy and a second (albeit less fulfilling) career in Indian politics, his ability to charm English-speaking audiences has been honed to a fine art.

In speaking to the Oxford Union, a social club that has served as a breeding ground for politicians in the Anglosphere, Shashi was batting on home ground. He used every debating trick in the book: linguistic flourish, charm, wit, the local touch and, of course, facts backed by argument. By the end of 15 minutes, he literally had the audience of discerning undergraduates eating out of his hand. It was a masterly display of old-fashioned debating in an age when sloganeering and earnestness has taken the fun out of the gentlemanly exchange of conflicting views. No wonder the YouTube clip of his speech has gone viral on social media, registering some three million views.

The impact of Shashi Tharoor’s speech has been quite staggering. Cutting across party and ideological lines, he has received fulsome praise from Indians across the globe. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself a big player on social media, has complimented him and triggered an unwarranted bout of speculation over the next step in Tharoor’s political career. British newspapers have even wondered whether he has somehow captured the groundswell of resentment that still exists over Britain’s legacy in India. I am also reasonably certain that at this moment, there is some section head in the Foreign and Commonwealth carefully weighing the pros and cons of British Prime Minister David Cameron issuing something akin to an apology for imperial rule during Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom later this year.

Good speeches are not a rarity in public life, and certainly not in India where hyperbole notches up brownie points. However, not every display of oratory captures the (online) imagination as Tharoor’s 15-minute intervention in Oxford has done. There is inevitably a context that explains why something clicks and something is less popular. What, therefore, is behind the infectious popularity of his speech?

First, this was a speech delivered in the rarefied surroundings of the Oxford Union. In short, Tharoor was speaking on the iniquities of colonial rule in one of the foremost bastions of what is generally regarded as the British Establishment. In India’s popular imagination, Oxford isn’t merely a citadel of academic excellence; it is also viewed as a repository of social elitism, an impression that some of Oxbridge’s Indian alumni may well have fostered. The association with social snobbery may be terribly unfair, since a common complaint heard at the High Tables these days is that the University’s admission policy is more concerned with widening social representation than excellence. However, the average Indian perception of the dreaming spires and much else of Britain remains frozen in time. Despite the best efforts of British diplomacy to project a 21st century face of the Kingdom, the impression that life in Downton Abbey is unchanging has proved difficult to rub off.

The political implication of this caricatured view of British society is curious. The conviction that today’s Britons wear the badge of imperialist honour with pride and look back wistfully at the civilising mission of Empire is sheer fantasy. Contemporary Britons know precious little about Empire, don’t necessarily empathise with the Empire builders whose magnificent bronze statues dominate Central London, and, in fact, suffer from a deep sense of post-colonial guilt that in turn sustains a clumsy multiculturalism. This is most marked in universities where a sense of contemporariness involves disavowing the largest Empire in history. In the groves of British academe, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are distinctly untrendy; Greenpeace and Gaza shape youthful sensibilities.

Alas, the insidious reality of political correctness isn’t fully appreciated in an India where the popular image of Britain is still shaped by Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. I have little doubt that much of the online cheers for Tharoor’s speech stems from the belief that he bearded the British lion in the beast’s lair. No doubt, he good-humouredly—and in a plummy accent that would have invited derision had it come of the lips of a White man—delivered a few home truths on the contested legacy of the Empire over which the sun has now set. But it is worthwhile remembering that the disturbing truths were aimed at an audience that is grappling with a post-imperial future. The students at the Oxford Union didn’t really need to be shown the moral virtues of atonement for what Clive and Churchill did to turn India into a wasteland; their own sense of national self- loathing was already quite heartfelt.

That Tharoor’s achievement in Oxford didn’t also involve convincing a sceptical audience doesn’t undermine his 24-carat debating performance. The widespread jubilation over his speech in India indicates the unending importance we attach to beating the foreigner in his own game. This was akin to the pride felt by Indians whenever a ‘native’ cleared the Indian Civil Service examinations, the jubilation when Prince Ranjitsinhji wore the England cap and scored a century against Australia, and even the ongoing deification of Amartya Sen for being the only Indian to be made Master of a Cambridge college founded by Henry VIII. In Bengal, a province I am most familiar with, intense nationalism and emotional Anglophilia have always gone hand in hand, and this despite the fact that the worst depredations of colonial rule, not to mention racist taunts, are also part of the collective memory. Therefore, for Mamata Banerjee, the pinnacle of aspiration in governance is to turn Kolkata into a ‘second London’. She isn’t very different from the Communist Jyoti Basu for whom a summer holiday invariably meant a fortnight in dear Old Blighty.

But why single out the Bengali babu for lackeyism? Even 20 years ago, before the impact of TV became so pronounced, it was not uncommon for reporters to be accosted in the Hindi heartland with bizarre information masquerading as news that had apparently been heard on BBC. The end of imperial rule, Independence, the Constitution and ‘the idea of India’ notwithstanding, certification by the sahib hasn’t lost its pre-eminence in the hierarchy of values.

However, despite these social angularities, Tharoor’s speech struck a responsive chord in India for its deft packaging of history. In a few sharp, succinct sentences laced with asides, the MP from Kerala delivered a capsuled version of the ‘drain of wealth’ theory that had agitated Indian nationalists from Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt right down to Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, he questioned the over-simplistic assertion that India should be eternally grateful to British rule for the elaborate railway network that links the Subcontinent and for the country’s post-Independence democracy. In general, as befits an exhibition debate where the grey areas are understandably glossed over, Tharoor successfully painted a vivid picture of the colonial Dark Ages for which Britain should now have the grace to say sorry, by paying symbolic reparations of £1 annually for the next 200 years. The reparations bit was an add-on dictated by the motion under discussion. Even as he spoke, Tharoor seemed a bit embarrassed about being a part of the global apology industry promoted by professional guilt-trippers. No wonder he suggested that it was the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, rather than the blood money which was important.

As a debating performance, I repeat, Tharoor’s performance in Oxford was exemplary. The problem, however, stems from taking this accurate but highly selective reading of the past as a definitive history lesson. As a history graduate who took his subject seriously, Tharoor, I am aware, would probably be horrified by the mere suggestion. As a practising politician, however, he wouldn’t be averse to amateur online enthusiasts embracing it as a robust political statement.

In India, the dissemination of history has unfortunately become an instrument of some very narrow and self- serving displays of partisanship. Part of this owes to the sheer drudgery and tediousness of school-level history— the only time the bulk of Indians are exposed to the discipline. The problem is compounded by the perverse thinking of the champions of something called ‘scientific history’—an approach that treats human experiences as a set of propositions that can be lab-tested for their correctness or otherwise.

India has had an overdose of this pseudo-science, the consequence of which has been the tendency to reduce posterity to a set of either moral or political judgments. Thus, Mughal rule is deemed to be good, colonial rule horrible and the national movement the moment of liberation. Variations of this theme are played out along ideological lines, with conspiracy theories adding spice to the pot. The history of British colonialism as narrated by Tharoor in Oxford could be smugly fitted into this paradigm—as I fear may well happen given the growing importance of capsuled, instant knowledge in the social media-dictated ecosystem.

At one level, it is difficult to fault Tharoor’s overall assessment of the inherent venality of an economic order that empowered Britain and left India destitute and pulverised. What is, however, far more problematic is explaining why, despite this acknowledged pauperisation of India, so many Indians were willing to sing the praises of the Maharani across the seas, fight and die for the Empire and, after the Union Jack was lowered in 1947, migrate to the proverbial Mother Country and accept its citizenship. Why did the grim realities of economic exploitation, the unending tales of racial abuse and the high-handed suppression of all dissent not lead to the emotional estrangement of India from everything British? Indians were disarmed by the British through a series of conquests that began in 1757 and culminated in the annexation of Punjab in 1856. After the bloody suppression of the 1857 uprisings, any meaningful armed resistance to British rule was unlikely to succeed. Yet, why did the largely non- violent struggle for freedom couch its demand for Swaraj with non-antagonism towards the institutions of imperial rule and the civic culture of the imperialists?

The contradictions are far too profound to be dismissed casually as the loose ends of history. British rule, for example, speeded up the marginalisation and eventual destruction of the traditional Sanskrit-based knowledge systems that had defined our civilisation—our post- Independence rulers unplugged the life support systems. Yet, from Raja Rammohun Roy to Jawaharlal Nehru, a galaxy of ‘enlightened’ India participated in the project to re-forge the Indian mind along Western, rationalist lines, sans the Christianity. Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi were possible exceptions.

Indians were helpless in the face of military defeats that led to political subjugation. But why did they acquiesce in the negation of intellectual and emotional systems that had helped a people survive earlier political upheavals? As late as 1921, echoing other writers of the late-19th century, Professor Radhakumed Mookerji could claim that “Hindu culture has had a continuous history uninterrupted by foreign domination to which a national culture would otherwise succumb.” Yet, by the first decade of the 21st century, the Indologist Sheldon Pollock lamented that “the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts and documents of the classical era… will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the custodianship of scholars outside the country: in Berkeley, Chicago and New York; Oxford, Paris and Vienna. This would not be healthy either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India.” Was this shameful loss of inheritance brought about by a British policy of cultural genocide? Or did it stem from our own grotesque notions of post-colonial modernity?

In Oxford, Tharoor referred to the full extent of India’s participation in the two World Wars—a history that has begun to be recovered. ‘Britain did not fight the … world war,’ a recent history has observed, ‘the British Empire did.’ There was no conscription, and yet 3.5 million Indians enlisted in the forces and fought, first the Kaiser and the Ottomans and, subsequently, Hitler and Hirohito. Why? It wasn’t their war and yet—the minor hiccups involving the INA and the 1946 naval mutiny apart— they fought unwaveringly and with a sense of total loyalty to the King Emperor. There are complex questions that still need answering by both the defeated upholders of Empire and the victorious post-colonial peoples.

Some decades ago, in the course of a private conversation, the controversial Enoch Powell—a man who loved India, dreamt of becoming the Viceroy but had a grave foreboding of the consequences of a multicultural Britain—described the Indo-British encounter as a “shared infatuation”. Like most infatuations, the relationship has always had a strong irrational dimension—a possible reason why the jagged ends are so difficult to explain in a cogent way.

In his contentious dedication to his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a book that attracted fierce Nehruvian ire, Nirad C Chaudhuri tried to balance the realities of subjecthood with the unfulfilled yearnings of citizenship and ended up with the tendentious conclusion that ‘all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.’ Nirad babu’s delight was over the institutions of Empire, a transnational body that should (but alas didn’t) match up to the standards of the Roman Empire. But he was a colossal oddity as much as Lord Curzon whose dedication to the ‘sacredness of India’ put him at odds with the basest idea of Empire—to serve Britain. Amid the daunting task of governing India, there was no space for nuances and subtleties.

One day, when both countries have got over their sense of superiority and self-debasement, guilt and victimhood, and bilateral relations are conducted on the basis of a truly equal partnership, the process of identifying and tying the loose ends will perhaps begin. Till then, it is perhaps prudent to let the glibness of St Stephen’s prevail—so long as the polished rhetoric doesn’t end up being internalised as wisdom.

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