By Amrita Douglas:
By now, everyone who cares knows that in the few short minutes he had to address the Oxford Union, Shashi Tharoor condensed decades of academic research into a spirited argument for Britain to pay reparations for the misdeeds of its former Empire – and threw in quite a few jokes as well, a winning formula that carried the motion by a vote of 185 to 56. The debate was set up for an identity-based clash, pitting Tharoor, the Jamaican High Commissioner in London, Ndombet Assamba, and Ghanaian economist Dr George Ayittey against Richard Ottaway, former chair of Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee, John MacKenzie, a Scottish historian who edited ‘Studies in Imperialism’ for the Manchester University Press, and William Roger Louis, a Texan historian who served as editor-in-chief of The Oxford History of The British Empire, and was awarded a CBE for his efforts. In the fracas that ensued, it was nearly forgotten that the three men of British descent lost the debate.
But the laudatory and viral recirculation of Tharoor’s speech, first seen on The Oxford Union’s YouTube channel in India and across the post-colonial diaspora, caused such alarm that a variety of opponents unmasked themselves rather quickly in the press, at least one debater bringing his arguments to bear well outside the chamber, and all trotting out familiar old canards about the purported gifts of Empire – the English language, the railways, the unification of India amid the gruesome sacrifice of Britons perishing from tropical diseases in the service of elevating the peoples of the world- just as if they hadn’t just heard Tharoor demolish those very arguments.
Most curiously, well placed Indian columnists came up with the lamest objection of all, and managed to do so without a trace of irony. It was our own fault for infighting, they said, and we lost our land because we were so engaged in squabbling amongst ourselves that we were taken unawares. Cue the Prime Minister stepping in, to laud the spontaneous eruption of seemingly near universal support for ideas whose time had come, followed by a swift public scolding from the CPI party chief in purdah on some other pretext.
In the wake of the debate, what most worries British and Indian opponents of reparation alike is the Koh-I-Noor diamond. The alarm has gone up that Modi wants it back when he visits London later this year, though Tharoor wasn’t seen to mention it in the popular video. Where the diamond did appear the very day before the debate, on the other hand, was at the Opening of Parliament, situated in its present perch, more or less in the position of the Queen’s Third Eye in the so-called Imperial Crown, even as HM set forth the policy objective for the coming year of limiting immigration to her sceptered isle. This diamond, now a mere one seventh of its original size, cut down the better to glitter for its new owners, clearly occupies a strongly polemical position, where it stands for might being not only right but sacrosanct. The ad hoc problem brought forth by the opponents of reparation is however that they wouldn’t know who to return it to, given the mess they made themselves of the nations involved at the time, never mind Andhra, where it came from.
In truth, Tharoor has taken on the monumental job of redefining in full view of the media what it means to be a reasonable and effective member of the Opposition, and how to be loyal to the country on the whole at the same time. This is new and unfamiliar territory for CPI members and supporters. Patriotism seems to be a mirage that has eluded the same folks lately, as they imagined a worldwide resistance to the idea of Narendra Modi, vilifying him abroad even as the massive mandate for a change of government took shape at home. Perhaps this is the leader we need to redefine what it means to inherit the true legacy of the CPI.
For the flip side of this argument, read Jonathan Old’s Why I Think Shashi Tharoor’s Speech Is Populist, Oversimplified And Ignores Problems.