Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sashi Tharoor: India's Most Eloquent Demagogue

Shashi Tharoor recently gave a speech in which he demanded reparations from Britain for its colonial rule of India. With wit of a writer, and calculus of a politician, Tharoor thumbed his nose at Britain. He carefully crafted his rhetoric to appeal to young Indians coming of age in economically rising India and he delivered it in a way designed to fill their chest with nationalist pride. But he is a silver tongued demagogue whose intellectual sleight of hand is dangerous. 

To condemn the British for their colonialism morally is easy bait. To claim they did harm to Indian sub continent through their pillaging and mercantilist policies is nothing new. But all his accusations imply India as passive, subjugated monolithic. In fact, Tharoor knows better but he chooses to ignore the reality that “India” was a not a nation but a bunch of princely states locked in power struggle with a decaying Mughal empire when the British arrived. With their help, these states became active participants in looting each other and their local, agrarian people.  

In his measured response to Tharoor, the blogger Aaker Paterl writes: “ The British didn’t come to conquer India; it was a creeping takeover facilitated and encouraged by Indians. Gujarat was relieved when the British finally protected them from the excesses of the Marathas (who still squat on Baroda) and the incompetence of the Mughal rump. It was the Oswal Jains who financed and executed Robert Clive’s win at Plassey. They did so because the Mughal governors there were in power but incapable of leading them, even if they were not foreign."

But Tharoor is playing a dangerous game: he is using the moral censure of British rule to rouse his audience to agree with him on “the principle of reparations.” He wants the British to pay Indians for their colonial rule. He is not after money per se, he claims, but acknowledgment of the principle. 

 With feigned insouciance, he adds:
“What it required is the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years, after the last two hundred years of Britain in India,” he added.

So, who should the one pound a year be taken from in Britain? One might say from the grand children of British lords and soldiers who ruled India. What about the descendants of textile workers who ruined Indian exports? Or, the children of the clergy who promoted Christianity? And, who should be exempted? The British Indians of course; and the new Muslim immigrants as well. Why not the people whose grand parents were democratic liberals and protested against British rule in India? There is, of course, no single test of assigning collective, historical guilt or victimhood. This line of reasoning is simply a way to pit people against people, since this assigns to the current generation the guilt of their forefathers. Even if the burden is real, it is not earned. We don't inherit the sins of our ancestors. 

This demagoguery is even more dangerous if we apply it to the modern Indian state. Imagine if Hindutva leaders applied this nonsense of historical reparations to Mughal descendants who displaced the natives; or if the Buddhists today were made to pay to the people conquered by Asoka. The fact is, even if no payment is ever settled, it is the assignment of tribal guilt that is odious.

Reparations make sense when the victims are identifiable, harm or loss is specific to the victims and some modicum of justice is possible in reasonable time.  After the partition of India, this was the pattern of reparations and that’s why within a decade most refugees were settled in new lands. This was the case even though many killers were never persecuted and the emotional wounds have outlasted financial ones. As Aaker Patel mentions, “I would much rather these two [Indian] parties compensate Punjabis and Gujaratis for slaughtering them in 1984 and 2002 than petition the English for their crimes of a century ago. No statute of limitations bars us from that."

For collective, historical injustices, where generations have passed on, we need truth and reconciliation, not demagoguery. This is a much harder process as Desmond Tutu pointed out in South Africa than publishing rhetorical debates that go viral.