Few questions on Shashi Tharoor’s Oxford speech
Shashi Tahoor’s speech in Oxford or wherever was indeed very good as it was laced with excellent humor and rhetoric. But as an inveterate and incorrigible skeptic some concerns raise their ugly heads in my mind.
- Before the British came there was no monolithic political entity called India. Instead we had a unruly group of hundreds of kingdoms, chieftaincies, fiefdoms, principalities etc, ever at war with each other. For example there was Kerala, one of the smallest of present-day Indian states with at least three kingdoms which were ever at each others’ throats with little or no prolonged period of peace between them. It wasn’t much different elsewhere. The major victory that Clive won and which laid the foundations for the British rule in India was the outcome of internecine conflicts in Bengal and elsewhere between Indian princes. So it is ridiculous to speak of India as a monolithic political entity when the British came. It is also ridiculous to assume that we were prosperous when in reality we were fighting each other most of the time. How can warring nations prosper? It was the British who brought some semblance of peace to India and thereby laid the most important infrastructure for wealth production in India – sustained periods of peace.
- In slamming the British, Shashi also forgets that it was the British who welded together India into what it was at the time of independence. After independence we split up into Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Burma etc. So which is the India that Shashi speaks of in his speech? Shashi also speaks of reparations or at least a ‘We are sorry’ statement from Britain.’ If so should Britain apologize to Pakistan, Bangaldesh, Sri Lanka, Singapore and dozens of other places they colonized?
- Shashi starts with the statement that India accounted for 23% of GDP. Did this India include Pakistan, Bengladesh etc too? How did he arrive at the conclusion that India accounted for 23% of world GDP at a time where there were no statistics at all about world economy? In fact there are many claims ranging from 23% in Tharoor’s case to 75% in some Sanghi propaganda reg India’s contributions to world GDP in the past. When I raised this issue on our discussion forums, one RB Kaul cited some google employee as the source of this claim. So I looked up this source and it turned out that what the google employee had said was that in those time India accounted for x% of the world population and so must have accounted for x% of the world GDP. This only assumes that per capita income was the same everywhere in the world which in turn means India was not richer than other nations in living standards.
- Shashi Tharoor goes on reiterating about the British impoverishing India for 400 or more years and gives instances of it extended over centuries until the WWII. How can any man or nation be impoverished for centuries on end when they were too poor to be impoverished any further?
- Tharoor goes on to point out the case of the Bengal famine as an instance of British exploitation of India and Indians. If so I do not understand how the famine was limited mostly to Bengal only. Amarthya Sen won his Nobel mainly for the work he did on the famine in Bengal. In it he presents page after page of statistics to show that it was not scarcity of food that led to the Bengal famine but the breakdown of the distribution system. Now whom should we believe in such matters – Shashi or Amarthya?
- Tharoor describes how the British broke the hands and fingers of Indian weavers to avoid competition with British weavers as a result of which the cloth industry migrated to England. It was not only the Indian weaving industry that migrated to England, but weaving and cloth industry from France, Italy and from all over migrated to England since England was the first country to mechanize the textile industry as a result of which they could produce better quality cloth at lower prices than anyone else. It may also be pointed out that the British brought the textile industry to India and it was as a result of this that Bombay is what it is now – the commercial capital of India. Then came Datta Samant and the cloth industry migrated to Gujarat and elsewhere. But thanks to the British, Bombay still remains the commercial capital of India.
- As pointed out above, Tharoor speaks of the British breaking the hands and fingers of master weavers in India to avoid competition. The Mahabharath speaks of Dhrone asking Ekalavya to chop off his thumb in order to avoid competition between Ekalavya and Dhrone’s own pupils. Similarly Ram chops off Shabuk’s head as Shambuk offered Pujas hanging upside down from a tree just because Shambuk was a Sudra who was not supposed to do Pujas. In fact it is reasonable to assume that the whole caste system was formulated to avoid competition.
- The British did exploit us in many ways for 400 years or so. In comparison the high castes in India exploited the low castes for thousands of years and trod rough shod over their rights and still go on doing that. If the British should atone for their sins in cash or words is it also not fit that the high castes make reparations in cash or in words for the atrocities committed on the low castes? Why one yardstick for foreigners and another for ourselves?
- Human rights and other matters of morals and ethics of the present age came to the fore only after WWII. Before that might was right. Slavery was abolished by the UN only in 1963 or so. But even after that there was slavery in many places and India was no exception. Thus we had slavery and bonded labor as late as ten years ago and for all we know it may still be practiced in many parts of India. So, as I have reiterated, it is not right sins of the past by present-day yardsticks of ethics and morals. Lets bury the past and work towards a bright future instead of mulling over the real or imagined iniquities of the past. Remember Singapore. It went though the same process of colonization and exploitation by the British. It also gained independence long after we did. But now it have the third highest prosperity in the world after Qatar and Luxemberg whereas Britain which exploited them is in the 27thplace and we with all our rhetoric and scapegoating is in the 125thposition among 127 nations and with the kind of sentiments whipped up by Tharoor we still have room for a free fall.