Dr. Shashi Tharoor: Britain Must Apologise

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Dr. Shashi Tharoor: Britain Must Apologise

Learn English with Dr. Shashi Tharoor. British colonialism left devastating legacies around the world. Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, is a post-colonial reassessment, exposing the sins of an empire. From the arrival of the East India Company until the end of the British Raj, this book tells the true story of the British in India. Tharoor spent 29 years at the UN, where he culminated as Under-Secretary-General. He has written fifteen books and won numerous literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. At Antidote Festival, he spoke with Ben Doherty of the Guardian.

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Dr. Shashi Tharoor “Quote”

“India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am.” Dr. Shashi Tharoor

Dr. Shashi Tharoor | FULL TRANSCRIPT:

“One of the more insidious challenges of colonialism is the extent to which our minds are colonized as well. And that colonization of a mind takes some growing out of. For us, for some of us, we’ll never really grow out of it. I mean, I do know that there are the many who can’t help as it were the identification with things anglophone and anglophile, because that’s really what they were schooled to appreciate. I have argued in the book for example, that my fondness for Wodehouse and cricket, which you mentioned, actually is despite, in many ways. The fact that they have English origins. Of course, I’m even more fond of cricket now that we regularly beat the English at it, but…

Famously, an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, I think.

That’s a great line by a sociologist called Ashish Nandy, that it’s actually an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British. I mean clearly, our climate is far more suitable for cricket than theirs for one thing. But anyway, where were we? I’ve lost my train of thought.

That’s okay, we…

Oh yes, P.G. Wodehouse for example, obviously the delights of Wodehouse are the delights that are imparted to you by your appreciation of the English language. What he does with stylistic humor, plotting and so on and so forth, but the interesting thing is precisely because of that, you don’t actually have to have an allegiance to Britain as long as you know, but you don’t need… The passport is English language, but you don’t need a British visa to get there. You can sit in India, surrounded by a very different world from that which he describes, and enjoy the escapism that his writing represents. And so it goes. But I realize that this is self-interested pleading because obviously, I am a product of the system as you rightly point out.

And I suppose, one of the great problems with history is you can’t establish the counterfactual. It’s impossible to know what India might look like, had the British not been there. Can I take you to those more structural things? The fact that India speaks the World Language. The fact that India has a centralized unitary government, that it is a democracy. How much has India’s way in the world being made easier by those legacies?

Highly contestant… No, there’s no question that some of this has been useful to us and the English language certainly, but I want to stress, and I think you alluded to this in your introduction that all the things that apologists for Empire like to claim credit for; the English language, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the railways, you know, all of the classic clichés and for that matter, even tea. Every single one of these things was brought in by the British to advance their control of India, to enhance their profits and serve their interests. Not one was intended principally to benefit Indians and the fact that when they left, they couldn’t take this with them and we were able then to turn them around to purposes the original people who introduced them would never have intended, is something that I think is more to the credit of the Indian nationals than to the English.

I’m happy to go through the examples you mentioned. You take language for example, the British had no intention of imparting education to the masses of Indians. They made it very clear. They weren’t going to spend the money doing that. And indeed as late as 1930, the American historian Will Durant observed that the entire budgets of the British for education in India, from the nursery level to the highest University levels, amounted to less than half the high school budget of the state of New York. And that was for the entire country of India with, at that point ten times as many people as the state of New York. The fact is that the British were not interested in investing in education and even the English language was brought in just to educate a narrow class, of interpreters between the governors and the governed. People who would help the British by constituting a buffer between them and the dirty masses on their rule. I mean, that was very much the actual… Macaulay actually said this in his notorious Minute on Education. And he said that we need to create a class of Indians; Indian in skin and color, but English in opinions and tastes and morals and in intellect. Those were his exact words and it was to serve their purposes. Now, of course, Indians then used English to open up on another world of ideas, often very radical and critical ideas, and ideas that eventually made English a language of Indian Nationalism. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote his classic The Discovery of India in English. So the Indian nationalist discovered India in English, as it were. But that was our, if you like, change of what the British had intended to do.

Democracy and you mentioned political unity. Well, political unity is the one that the British point to with pride, that they came into a bunch of warring principalities and they made a country out of it. Not so. For 2,000 years before the British ever set foot on India, there have been a very clear sense of a common civilizational unity, and an aspiration on the part of monarchs to consolidate that territorially. Now obviously, they couldn’t, I mean, we had two people who came very close. There was the Mauryan Empire Ashoka and Chandragupta, who controlled about 90% of the sub-continent including Afghanistan. And then the Mughals, particularly Akbar and Aurangzeb, they controlled about 95% of the subcontinent. And that was the extent, but the fact that everyone tried to do it, aspired to do it and failed in trying, shows that if the British hadn’t succeeded, somebody else around the same time, with the advantages of modern communications and so on would have. So political unity was not a British gift.

Democracy had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British. In fact, the history of the advent of democracy in India, as I demonstrate in the book, is actually littered with the broken promises of English rulers, who keep promising responsible self-government and then yanking it away just when the time came for them to redeem their pledge. And they example after example of this, until finally, a more or less democratic system; I say more or less cause the franchise was still limited by literacy and populations. It was not a majority of the people, but still a franchise, a vote was offered to Indians properly for the first time in 1937. Before that, there’d been elections but, for example in the 1920s, only one out of every 250 Indians had the vote. Hardly a training ground for democracy. And even then, they did not allow people to vote for a national government. The national government was still the British headed by the Viceroy. It was only provincial governments that Indians were allowed to form up to the Second World War. So given all of that, it’s very difficult to point and as I say, the British did a great deal to undermine Indian unity.

When the Indian National Congress was established in 1885, by well-meaning Scotsman with various Indian supporters, it was truly a body the British could have easily co-opted. It was a bunch of largely anglophile lawyers, who wrote decorous petitions and held very civilized meetings, in which they asked the English to give them the rights of Englishmen. But the British, so even this is a threat. So far from welcoming it as a first step towards responsible self-government for Indians, what the British did instead was try and undermine the Congress to the extent of helping encourage the setting up of a rival body 20 years later, the Muslim League, which was set up explicitly on sectarian lines. But the British prodding them to say, look, these people will only represent the interests of the Hindu majority. Now you look at the first 20 presidents, and they’re Christians, Muslims, Parsis, as well as Hindus. And there’s even an Irish woman, an Irish Catholic, Annie Besant, of the theosophist movement. So it was a very open, very inclusive body. But the British had no intention of cooperating with it, had no intention of taking a serious and these are not retrospective judgments. I’ve quoted for example, a Sunday Times journalist from London, who travelled in India in 1907-1908, Henry Levinson, who attended meetings of the Congress, met British officialdom and recorded this horror, at the way in which the British were denying due process and fair rights to Indians. So, all this was apparent at the time and yet the British dragged it out as long as they could. So it’s a bit rich as I’ve said in Oxford, to, you know, arrest, maim, imprison, torture, deny rights to people for 200 years, and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.

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