By Jonathan Old:
Shashi Tharoor went viral. The experienced politician and former United Nations officer recently gave a passionate, rhetorically excellent speech at the Oxford Union, blaming Britain for their colonial policy and demanding reparation for the damage caused. I strongly oppose him, whether or not colonialism was bad, Tharoor’s speech gave a dangerously simplified picture of international politics and supports nationalism.
Britain sucked everything out of India, they installed a system of slavery, oppression and torture. And indeed, the colonial regime was violent and directed towards the benefit of Britain. But the colonial period ended almost 70 years ago. India gained independence, and everything became… actually worse.
Shashi Tharoor implies that the British weakened India so much that economic development is still hindered today. Defending this argument is naive, it ignores the mismanagement of the last near 70 years and puts the responsibility away from Indian politicians and towards an abstract phenomenon called colonialism.
Mass poverty spread out more, the level of inequality is higher than ever, corruption and mismanagement are widely spread. The large population, with India being home to more than a third of the world’s undernourished people, is not a consequence of colonialism, but of bad governance in the last 70 years, of politicians preferring power over reforms and communal vote banks over Pan-Indian development.
Indeed, India is not a poor country. Its gold reserves are higher than those of the USA, Germany and the IMF put together, four out of the eight richest people in the world are Indian, and the amount of Indian money parked in Swiss banks is estimated to be 2 billion Swiss Francs. Tharoor misses to explain these developments. He misses to explain the failure of Indian politics, all he does is blame history. To hear this from an active politician is sad, especially since Tharoor spoke up this May against a bill trying to bring back foreign black money to India.
What Tharoor did not mention was that the idea of India implies colonial history. Before the British, India as such never existed, neither Hinduism nor a unified country with a central government. What is even more remarkable is the fact that Britain provided India with the necessary tools for independence. The idea of a modern democracy, of a self-governed country with a constitution and the guarantee of civil rights, was brought to India by Indians educated abroad, with the most famous example being barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose contribution to independence is, well, not insignificant. Not to forget the English language, without which Pan-Indian protest and, later, communication and culture, is simply unimaginable.
For a politician, it is quite easy to find a topic on which everybody agrees. Blaming Britain for colonial history is one of these topics, and a smart move. Populism, as the name says, is an easy way to increase one’s popularity. I believe that it’s necessary to start looking at existing rather than past injustices. The world economy itself is not integrative of the Global South.
Acknowledging past injustices doesn’t go far enough. It can be a first step, but integrating former colonies into a fairer international trade system, for example, through institutions like the WTO or the Commonwealth, is a far more necessary and reasonable step towards a better world.