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Coloniser’s conundrum

Do the British owe reparations to India for having subjugated and exploited it?

It was being said once upon a time that the sun never set on the British Empire. And why would it not be said? At its peak it was the largest empire in the history of humankind. In terms of figures, it had 23% of the world population under its rule by 1913 and 24% of the earth’s land area by 1920. It was even being said, with a touch of exaggeration of course, that the British brought civilisation and modernisation wherever they ruled, and opened up free trade to the colonies. Although such is the view held in most of the western countries, the people who suffered the hegemony of the English underwent torture, mass killing, man-made famine, race supremacy and what not. 

Although many raised their voices against the repression they or their ancestors suffered under British rule, it is only in recent times that Britain has started recognising and apologising for its behaviour in different parts of the world. The decision of the British government to compensate 5,228 Kenyans for the torture and abuse they suffered while being detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s is testimony to this. The amount offered may be meagre, but the precedent has been set and the point made. From the official apology tendered by the government for the “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972 to the expression of “regret for the loss of life” shown by Prime Minister David Cameron, proved the point.

Be that as it may, not every apology that is due has been tendered. And no matter how much is acknowledged, the sufferings can never be accounted for and history cannot be re-written. On similar lines, the sufferings that numerous people went through can never be smoothened. I believe that reparations are not a way to settle what was done by earlier regimes.

There are many reasons to it. The first and foremost is that a value cannot be ascribed to the sufferings of millions of the suppressed, no matter what the amount. Each and every life is precious, and everyone deserves the liberty to live with self-esteem and breathe in a free regime. This the empire failed to provide. The British were of the view that every person they colonised was of an undeserving race and that the white ‘masters’ were only helping them and, in a way, doing a favour to them by ruling them.

What they excluded from their reasoning was that every human being is created equal. No matter how different one’s opinion is from others, others don’t have a right to suppress or try to change the way one lives or thinks. Such were the repercussions of the intransigent and supremacist nature of the British that they created a not-so-conducive environment for the indigenous peoples and harassed them, without weighing their actions on the balance of the moral and ethical aspects of humanity. Hence, no matter how much money is offered now it only results in an insult to those who revolted or suffered under the British raj.

Wrong gesture

Secondly, no amount of money can change whatever happened in the past. This is not to say that the British did nothing wrong and whatever happened can be forgiven. On the contrary, the very act of payment of reparations can create a sense of contentment in the present generation. There might be a sense that whatever their forefathers did had been repaid in the form of money given to the victims.

But this will not result in any real change in the mindset of the new western generations, of remorse or guilt. On the contrary, it will result in their feeling that whatever wrong was done had been compensated for. But that will not be true since a few thousand or million pounds cannot make up for the losses that the families of the victims suffered.

There is no doubt that the freedom fighters who gave up their lives for the collective dream of an independent India did so for their love of the nation and they never had anything coming in the way, be it their family or their friends. Bhagat Singh even went to the extent of terming the soil of the nation as his real mother, in a letter written to his own parents. But their death and killings did create an economic and emotional vacuum in the lives of those left behind by the daredevil freedom fighters that our country was fortunate enough to have. No amount of money, given in hindsight, can create a difference to what that vacuum did to those families, economically or emotionally. Had it been given when it was really needed, it would have made some difference.

Believing that it can compensate for the inhuman things done a century ago with wicked intent, will be the biggest mistake one can make. It is necessary for the present generations of Britons to realise what their ancestors did and learn from it. Reparations can dilute the effect of that remorse and the learning that will come out of it.

Infeasible suggestion

Third, from a totally economic standpoint, it is not possible to compensate for the loss that was caused by the empire. Taking just the Indian example, when Britain arrived on the shores of India, this country had a whopping 23% share of the world economy. But when the British left, it was reduced to a meagre 2%.

Now one thing is certain — that the loss the Indian exchequer suffered is massive. And in real terms it will be infeasible for Britain to even contemplate to compensate for it. They may not be able to do it, even if it deploys all of the taxpayers’ money, foreign reserves and every other source of wealth that their treasury boasts of. Extrapolate that for every country that Britain ruled, it will be insufficient not only for Britain’s sterling, but in all likelihood, all the money circulating in the world economy, to compensate for that loss. Experience is behind us. The reparations imposed on the Germans in the aftermath of the First World War only worsened the economy of an already weakened German economy, leading to anti-Allies sentiment, which in turn led to the rise of the Nazi regime and eventually led to the Second World War. At a time when countries are barely able to maintain their fiscal accounts, expecting reparations is not only economically unfounded but could prove to be a deterrent to world peace, considering that right-wing expressions are already on the rise in Europe.

I believe the true value of reparations will be difficult to estimate. Even if figured out, it can never be repaid and if some token amount is attached to it, that will only undermine the struggle our ancestors went through and will give a sense of contentment to the present generation of Britons that they have fulfilled their duty and have done enough to alleviate the sufferings of victims, which will certainly not be the case.

What is required is the acceptance of the wrongs done and an acknowledgement and expression of the regret and a small apology, as was suggested by Shashi Tharoor in his eloquent speech at the Oxford Union. I believe this will instill a sense of responsibility among the youth and the ruling class of Britain. They will realise that some wrong was done at their end and that this very sense of guilt will bring a change in the thinking of the citizens of Britain that not everything was right from their ancestors’ end.

Also, the one-sided story of the British Empire’s glory and humanity in the textbooks written by the British should be changed and an impartial tale told so that the coming generations are not misguided by just the one end of the story and are empowered with the means and resources to judge the actions of the past. They should be able to decide for themselves how they perceive their past and what difference they can make by not following the footsteps their forefathers took, wherever they were wrong.




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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 2:11:48 PM |

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