Historical Amnesia

Shashi Tharoor

In May 2015 Shashi Tharoor, a former UN undersecretary-general, gave a speech to the Oxford Union.

Tharoor was there to comment on the proposition that ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’.

In the South China Post he describes public reaction to his speech when he posted a video link on Twitter and ‘watched in astonishment as it went viral.

Millions viewed the speech and Tharoor even got congratulated by Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, for publicly saying the ‘right things in the right place’. It sparked fierce debate with hundreds of articles written for and against what he had said.

“For months, I kept meeting strangers who came up to me in public places to praise my ‘Oxford speech’.”

Tharoor posed the question “Seventy years after independence, shouldn’t we just forget about the past and move on? Is there still any moral urgency to explain to today’s Indians why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be?

He cites popular histories of British Empire from the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James that have ‘painted colonialism in rosy colours’.

jallianwallah massacre
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre or “Amritsar massacre”, took place in the Jallianwala Bagh public garden in the predominantly Sikh northern city of Amritsar. After days of unrest Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer forbade public meetings and on Sunday 13 April 1919 fifty British Indian Army soldiers commanded by Dyer began shooting at an unarmed gathering of thousands of men, women, and children without warning. Casualty estimates vary widely, with the Government of India reporting 379 dead, with 1,100 wounded. The Indian National Congress estimated three times the number of dead. Dyer was removed from duty but he became a celebrated hero in Britain among people with connections to the Raj. Historians consider the episode was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India. (Image and text Wikipedia)

His argument that Britain suffers (maybe conveniently) from ‘ a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism’ seems to ring true.

Take the UK today, how many of its citizens really fully understand the exploitation and atrocities of the British in India? That goes for even reasonably well read citizens, white and Indian descendants living in the UK. The older generation still bang on about how great the British railways built in India were and revere everything to do with the Royal Family. While the younger generation have a vague sense that it was a bit messy until Gandhi sorted things out. But arguably that’s the extent. I suppose it’s hard pointing the figure and owning up to dark times and exploitation when it’s closer to home ‘a kind of say it isn’t so’.

Tharoor highlighted an article written by a Pakistani writer in the Guardian who pointed out that “the Brits simply don’t teach their own schoolchildren the truth about their colonial past. Many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign boon to the ignorant natives.”

In the most damaging reflection of the British involvement in India he cited how:

“British rule deindustrialised India, created landlessness and poverty, drained our country’s resources, exploited, enslaved, exiled and oppressed millions, sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the country’s partition into two hostile states, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 35 million people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines as well as of thousands in massacres and killings. That just skims the surface of the havoc wreaked by British colonialism.

The British conquered one of the richest countries in the world and reduced it to one of the poorest.

At the beginning of the 18th century, India accounted for 23 per cent of global GDP. When the British left it was down to barely 3 per cent.

A country where landlessness and poverty were virtually unknown before the British, found itself at independence with 90 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.”

Shashi Tharoor latest book An Era of Darkness: the British Empire in India will be released in the UK next year.

Buy An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India


Read the full article at the South China Morning Post

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