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

Posted on July 21, 2015 in GlobeScope

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.