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Shashi Tharoor’s Stirring Speech And The “Colonial Comeback” Of The Oxford Union

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By Anisha Padma

On May 28th, the Oxford Union hosted a “Reparations Debate,” featuring many notable dignitaries. Among them was Indian MP, Dr. Shashi Tharoor. He took part in the debate, tearing at the tendency for British dominion to be romanticized. Upon a quick scan of the discussion surrounding reparations for colonialism, it is disturbing, albeit unsurprising, to see that those speaking in favor of repayments majorly are people of color while those opposed are, more often than not, white.

Shashi Tharoor brought up many India-specific examples of the detrimental British presence and exploitation in the sub-continent. “India was governed for the benefit of Britain,” he said.

After the arrival of the British, India went from having 27 percent of the world trade to less than 2 percent. He added that India provided numerous soldiers for World War I and II, funded these wars through taxes as well as supplied ammunition and garments. He also spoke about how Britain’s industrialization was built on the labor and capital from India. “It’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it. We were denied democracy, so we had to snatch it, seize it from you,” he says in the video. Tharoor is making headlines for raising the issue, but he definitely isn’t the first person to have done it. Priyamvada Gopal, Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article in New Statesman last year titled “Much of Britain’s wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn’t it pay reparations?.” “The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money,” she said.

Tharoor argued that the demand for reparations is not outlandish but simply the payment of a moral debt. He doesn’t go into details as to what amount would be appropriate for reparations for the murder, pillage and plunder that the British empire conducted, but stated that Britain must acknowledge that a wrong has been committed. Except for reparations to a handful of countries, many colonial entities have not paid remunerations to their many former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Even despite the evidence of bodily mutilations and genocide, Germany has not indemnified the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia. Regardless, surely in part due to Tharoor’s stirring speech, the House voted 185 to 56 that Britain owes reparations to its former colonies.

What made the night ironic was that the Oxford Union featured a drink called the “Colonial Comeback” at the debating event, demonstrating that the historical legacy of imperialism trickles into present-day elitism of the university. The advertising for the drink was laden with imagery of slavery. Following the well-deserved backlash and criticism, the Oxford Union passed a motion which admitted that it was institutionally racist.

However, this incident is one of the myriad examples that makes the students feel as though the university space perpetuates imperialist norms and ideals. Natalya Din-Kariuki, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, references the title of Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Lecture, ‘The Past Must Address Its Present’, and states “it is as pertinent now as it was almost thirty years ago. Oxford was built on empires of both matter and episteme. There remains much work to be done in the way of addressing and redressing the injustices carried out by the institution, and mere tokenism is no substitute for real structural change.”

Nonetheless, thanks to Shashi Tharoor’s rhetoric and delivery, the conversation on reparations has managed to create a sort of nationalistic effect amongst Indian citizenry – who usually face political discord and divide. But is his speech enough to convince the British government to pay reparations or acknowledge the horrors of the British raj? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The British government still continues to hide and destroy colonial-era documents highlighting the activities and atrocities committed in their former colonies. Perhaps, when they truly come clean, there will be a chance to hope for reparations.

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  1. MajorBS

    We need not hope for reparations from the British, it is not even 0.4% of our GDP and that’s approximately what Indian government spends on fertilizer subsidies as Sashi Tharoor rightly said. It is more necessary for the British to feel better about themselves and what they’ve done in their colonies than what these countries including India would actually benefit from it

  2. Monistaf

    I have never believed in retributive justice since most of the oppressors and the oppressed are no longer there but his point is very well made. It is time for the current generation to acknowledge that colonization and subsequence exploitation is wrong and an apology will send the right message that exploitation of another race or country is simply unacceptable. It is even more relevant in today’s globalized economy where there are so many interdependencies amongst nations. Britain today, as much as they might not like to admit, has a very strategic relationship with India, both economically and politically. An apology from them will go s long way to show that they value that relationship more than their ego.

  3. Jonathan Old

    Dear Anisha,

    thanks for the nice article. Indeen, Mr Tharoor was successful in his speech, in the way to create a viral video (well, I am sure he did not intend to do so, however) bashing against colonialism.
    We all know that colonialism had bad effects. We know how many Indian soldiers and people died only for the benefit of the British. However, firstly Tharoor misunderstands the concepts of reparations. India had never claimed such, and now it is, unfortunatly, too late. Of course, populist Brit-bashing looks very simple, but international politics in accordance with public international law looks different.
    Secondly, I personally do not like the positive connotation “nationalist” has in many ways. Tharoor successfully created a feeling of nationalism. So what? What nationalism brought to the world does not need any elaboration here…
    Thirdly, to reply to @MajorBS, 0,4% of the GDP is not few. Of course, every number with a zero in front of it sounds very less. But it’s astonishing 32 billion Dollars (PPP).

    As it is per today, of course Britain should acknowledge the demands of the victims of their colonial policy and apologize officially for the effects of colonialism.

    But what we should never forget is, that olonial times are over since 70 years. Of course, India was structurally disadvantaged due to colonialism. But the amount of corrupion and bad governance goes far beyond that.
    Let India be our responsibility and not depend on a formal apoligy of a government in Western Europe.

  4. RK Chaturvedi

    Shashi Tharoor,s brilliant speech in Oxford Univ. Union is simply admirable. Even after six decades of independence no one has ever thought that we owe reparations from the UK. UK must say sorry for all the ills and misfortune that the 200 years of British rule brought upon this Country.

  5. Venkatesh Emani

    We may blanch at the idea of Retributive Justice but, sadly, much of what is happening today is Retributive Justice, in American Society, in the Greater Middle-East, in Revanchist Russia and pretty much in most of the global hotspots now in the news. Like Humans, even Nations demand closure. And what better way than Reparations that people readily understand in the concrete, as opposed to wispy rumours of an Apology that reeks of political correctness and Not Sincerity ?

  6. Navin Sanghavi

    It is wonderful to hear at least a feeble request, for an apology for the past colonial exploitation and looting of Indian resources as well as culture. It is not the fault of the invaders to do whatever they did with the stupid and inapt populations and leaders. They knew how to exploit and take advantage of India genetic defect of worshipping power and inferiority to invaders. Not enough guts to confront own interest.

    Consider Gazni attaching 16 times and Prithviraj Chauhan did not realize his end is near. Throughout history, India kings and leaders were only interested in their own safety and power, engaged in drug addiction and endless intigues. No greater goal of saving culture or greater good. All the kingdoms that existed during the rise of British power were capable of defeating British if they were united. All they did is fight amongst themselves and sought British help to conquer next door neighboring kingdom. British were smart they exploited our genetic weakness and got what they wanted.

    Another aspect of our genetic defect is worship white skin. During Britsh Raj populace awed by white skin and leaders, kings and religious leaders kissed their ass they were not willing to risk wrath of British. They in fact facilitated looting of India. See the example: Tharoor who is congressmen knew all along Empress Sonia Gandhi and decedents of Nehru dynasty were looting India. Tharoor did not raise a voice about it. In fact, all congress party eunuchs, including Tharoor, felt on their knees and coroneted her to be uncrowned empress. Chidambaram was number one “Chamcha” of the Empress so that he can do what she was doing, grab power and loot India.

    It is sad that Indians have this genetic defect of hero worshiping (read whiter skin), even today in India, if you are in queue and if a white skin appears behind you, the officer will make every effort to short circuit the queue and give preference to whit skin. Even after 7 decades our mentality has not changed. Officers believe white skin is superior his own skin and they deserve special treatment. This must end, there is no national spirit, there is no pride in being what we are Indian, all MPs, MLAs and religious leaders want to do is line their pockets and let the population be exploited and looted. Let the poor get poorer and of course, leaders get richer.

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