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Why I Think Shashi Tharoor’s Speech Is Populist, Oversimplified And Ignores Problems

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.

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  1. SM_Rao

    This sure is an amazing article, YKA! What an interesting and ORIGINAL point of view. Come to third line and you see Mr. Old’s unbiased and highly complex critique when he says ‘…whether or not colonialism was bad…’ Beautiful article! This is the awaaz of a youth so archaic that seems to have totally missed the premise – that Mr. Tharoor had to raise OVERSIMPLIFIED (duh!) points, in 8 minutes, about how and why the British cannot justify colonizing half the world (not just India) and brutally abusing their resources – natural and human. I’m sure he could have EASILY included the complex problems that India faces today and discussed the Indian economy and the government’s mismanagement! After all, that was what the debate at Oxford was about. Tsk tsk, Mr. Tharoor. A 37 years’ career in international diplomacy hasn’t taught you a thing, I’m afraid.

    1. Jonathan Old

      1. whether or not colonialism was bad. If you, SM Rao, would read a few lines more: “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.”. Enough to be said to this point.
      2. OVERSIMPLIFIED. He didn’t have to. He has to simplify. Not OVERsimplify.
      3. justify. I never talked or wrote about justifying. It happened, it was bad, full stop.
      4. EASILY. Politicians have a certain responisibility. People tend to believe them what they say and think based on speeches like this. He could have included that not every problem of today comes from the colonial regime, which some people started believing after the speech.

      Lastly, just because he is a diplomat I personally highly respect – critizing him is still allowed.

  2. Prerna

    Whether or not colonialism is bad?
    Does that then extend to whether or not slavery is bad? Genocide is bad? Anyway, throw that out of the window. Tell me, are 70 years (better part of which was actually spent on literally starting from the scratch/rock bottom) enough to recover from 200 years of chronic, life sucking imperialism? I’m not saying our politicians are clean. But we have come a long way in those 70 years inspite of British colonialism. The British, who are actually so ashamed of what they did, that they have actually started deleting this chapter from their history books being taught in schools. Needless to say, this article is over simplifying the state of things, not Tharoor’s speech, which frankly was quite spot on, given he had just 8 minutes. Thank you very much.

  3. Peter Brewmaker

    This guy is a crook, a well educated and sophisticated crook but a crook nevertheless. Like most Indian politicians he too is corrupt. You need to look up his role in the Kochi IPL scandal. He is also under investigation for his wife’s death under mysterious circumstances.

    Having said that, this speech is impressive but too little too late. The time for talk about reparations was at the time of independence along with settlement of various messy issues which India finds itself embroiled in today. Some of these include J&K, McMahon line (Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin) and water sharing rights with Pakistan (Settled later with the Indus Water Treaty of 1960). Power hungry politicians led by Nehru dropped the ball big time on these things because they were happy to just get the reins of power, people and country be damned.
    A great example is that of the recently diseased head of Singapore – He ensured that the rights to water for Singapore from Malaysia was enshrined in the declaration of freedom papers when the British left the Malaysian peninsular. Notwithstanding the authoritative set up in Singapore he was loved dearly.

    The big question that begs an answer is – India has been independent for 70 years now and what do we have to answer to that ? At some point we (India) have to stop blaming the ‘Britishers’ and take the responsibility for the current state of affairs. Though things are beginning to look up especially in areas where the Govt. is not involved.

    1. Sandeep

      Peter, Shashi Tharoor may be a crook but a crook can be right at times. The speech made by Shashi Tharoor has to be evaluated in the context of the topic that he was invited to speak on. This discussion was initiated by Oxford University and Shashi Tharoor was invited to speak. This is not something he campaigned for. The discussion was academic and Mr. Tharoor ended by stating that it is not about the quantum of money but the moral obligation and in principle acceptance that repatriation is due. He even went out and suggested a nominal amount of 1 Pound per year for the next 200 years.

      The debate did not focus on who is responsible for the current state of India and was never addressed and never was Britain accused off. What Mr. Tharoor pointed out that atrocities were committed and the country looted and any development that was carried out was guided by British interest and not that of the people of India. Which is a fact.

      To assess his speech in any other context is not fair. While I agree that we have not reached our potential due to our politicians but neither are we a bullock cart country. Yes we have a high %age of people living below the poverty line but we also have sent a probe to Mars at a cost which was less that the cost of production of the movie Gravity. India a few weeks back also launched 5 British Satellites into orbit. So while we can kick our-self black and blue we also have reasons to pat our-self on the back. All said and done that still does not justify the 200 years of British colonial rule on India.

  4. Shobhit

    Dear Jonathan
    I believe that you have gone one step further and grossly oversimplified the picture in order to prove your point and counter Mr. Tharoor.
    Allthough one can not deny the fact that India’s journey post independence hasn’t been smoooth but the picture you have painted is grossly inaccurate. By no parameters has the situation worsened and the gains include abolition of zamindari system, establishment of panchayti raj,a green revolution, a white revolution, expansion of irrigation system greatly reducing dependence on monsoon. In fact there has been no major famine in India since 1947 which in pre-independence India was a regular problem. India’s share of world GDP today stands at 5.81% up from 3.13 % 25 years ago. In contrast to this, US has gone down from 25% to 19% & UK from 3.9% to 2.7% in the same time period.
    Ideas about Gandhi being inspired only by the west is also inaccurate, all his tools of protest and his ideas about democracy and rights of men were in equal amount inspired by the ancient indian republic systems and teachings of Mahavir & Budha as by the ideas of modern democracy and civil rights in the west.
    Yes , corruption is a big problem for us today, but it’s still nothing compared to the jungle raj ran by the british and their associates in India pre-1947. Forced land use, extremely high tax rates, dictatorial and unbashed misuse of power, immunity from law and complete disrespect for the ecosystem of the country were just some of the beautiful features of british raj. Please read about crown land ordinance and how corrupt british officers in collaboration with local zamindars and rajas sucked the life out of forests in India( Bengal Tiger & Asiatic Lion were almost hunted to extinction and vast tracts of himalayan forests were chopped off).
    Nobody can deny the contribution of English in the growth story for India but examples of China and Japan are enough to prove that it is actually quite easy to Imagine an India without English ( 89% of Indians still don’t speak english and yet communicate with their countrymen across the country). Infact English has actually helped in widening the gap between have’s and have nots over the past 68 years.
    Communalism & Casteism were the main pivots of British policies in India. Which other country in the world do you think has caste based divisons in it’s army( Inherited from the British Indian Army). The whole concept of Martial Races and Criminal Tribes stand testimony to British contribution in reinforcing Casteism & Communlisam.
    Yes India never existed in it’s current form before the british but so didn’t Italy till 1870 and Germany till 1871 and so many other nations that we know today. Infact all we know, India could have been actually bigger then what it is today had the british never occupied the subcontinent and drained it for over 200 years ( Empires stretching from Kabul to Dhaka had existed in India before the British).
    I do agree that the Indian Politicians are mostly an incompetent bunch but quite a few like Mr. Tharoor can and are more than capable of introducig the world to stark realities of their actions. As far as populism goes, he is quite a popular guy and i am sure that popularity wasn’t his intention behind this debate. Had he been looking for popularity, he would have given a longer speech in front of the Indian media at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi.
    By the same yardstick, all those british intellectuals who spoke against Mr. Tharoor can also be accused of populism as all they did was bring up the same rhetoric about how english,railways and British Raj helped India become a civilized country.

  5. Sandeep

    Jonathan, What you have state about post independence India is quite correct. However that was not what the talk about. The topic of discussion was whether Britain owed repatriation for the colonial rule and not who is responsible for the sorry state India is. Yes India is mismanaged, systems are corrupt and the political class is indifferent but that still does not compare to the atrocities of colonial India and neither does it compare to the the plunder of India by the British. There is a clear mention of how Winston Churchill diverted food supplies from India during the Bengal famine to build stock of reserve for the fighting British army.!

    You are correct India before the British was never as single country but a loose federation of kingdoms and princely states of which some were aligned to the Mughals and some were independent. It is also ok to agree that not all the rulers were benevolent. But that still does not compare to British Colonial rule which was the topic of discussion.

    You state that the British gave us the English Language that has fueled the Indian economic growth and integration with the rest of the world. I would like to point out that there have are countries like, Japan, China and Germany to name a few few whose reliance on the English language is minimal but they have been able to grow economically and well integrated with the world economy. The same goes for the Railways as well.

    You mention that Britain provided India with tools for independence and Mahatma Gandhi was actually educated in British. Two points. Number one Britain did not give us the tools, we used the tools we acquired to gain independence. Number two we would not have needed the “tools” if we were not colonized in the first place. It is like taking credit for releasing someone whom you have kept captive. India got independence because Britain could not afford to control the colonies and not because of the goodness of their heart.

    Had the British not colonized India we may have not been the modern, integrated and democratic country we are but we would not have been plundered and left poor and hungry as well. Would we be a prosperous country maybe,maybe not but we would not be in the state we were when we got independence. So many of Indians would not have died in the hands of the British and in the 2 world wars which had very less to do with India.

    Finally Mr Tharoor did not demand repatriation but pointed out that British accept the fact that repatriation is due which is a moral issue and not economic. Western world has insisted that Japan apologizes to China for the atrocities its army inflicted upon Chinese men and especially women during WWII but has refused to do so themselves for the 200 years of their colonial rule of India. While I was not there to witness colonial India first hand, I am sure Indians were not having a great time playing cricket, sipping gin & tonic in the afternoon and drinking tea in china cups in the evening with cucumber and marmalade sandwiches.

    So in the context of the topic of discussion what Mr. Tharoor said was correct which was “Does Britain Owe Repatriation to Colonies”. Yes simplified or oversimplified but the argument was not misplaced.

  6. Suresh


    You are not alone with the kind of ignorance you have demonstrated with this article, there are many in India that demonstrate the same ignorance and make the same point as you. I won’t blame you for your point of view (I bet you also believe in White man’s burden), an outsider (from a non-colonized country) will never understand this just by spending a year in India.
    But what Mr. Tharoor has eloquently stated is the true story and that speaks the sentiments of modern Indians who have just now started to understand how British have sucked the life out of India.
    Also, listen again to the speech, he is not blaming the British for the current state of India, he is just asking them to acknowledge the mess they created and apologize for what they have done to us in the past.
    Here are some answers for what you wrote:
    1) When the British left India in 47, India was on death bed, they sucked the life of the healthy India in 200 years. India was left in a divided state, no proper administration capability, with no resources and no proper infrastructure in place. It took us a long time to recover and we have just started show up again on the world economy. Yes, there is corruption in India but no looting.
    2) If Germany can have more billionaires that India. Compared to the size of the country and population of the country, I think India should have more…don’t you think ?
    3) What does the number of billionaires have to do with the poverty in the country? There are thousands of homeless people in USA and millions have a hard time to make ends meet, despite it’s billionaires.
    4) To understand India’s obsession with gold reserves you have to understand our economic history: Looks like you weren’t born yet and hence your ignorance.
    5) India’s black money is a miniscule compared to their GDP. Not worth wasting our time, if we can get everyone to pay taxes properly, that will be 100 times more money.
    6) If a small county like Japan could be so successful and be the world’s second biggest GDP for so long, without the British provided Colonialization, Western education, Modern democracy and English. Don’t you think India could have done it? Going by your argument Japan shouldn’t have been successful. India could have been 5 different countries but they could have been as successful as Japan…..we didn’t need English for that. We were already ahead of the other countries before they started looting us.
    7) Your last para was pure rubbish. We didn’t need colonialization to create WTO.
    So please stay in your dear Germany and stop writing stupid articles about things you don’t understand. Or atleast educate yourself before you write.

    Now show some respect and delete this article if you have any sense of morality.

    Good luck growing up and curing your ignorance!!

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