[by Nalin Mehta]
Even seven decades after Independence, the legacy of the British empire continues to define India in many ways, in terms of the institutions and regulations we inherited and chose to persist with. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP for Thiruvananthapuram and author of ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire In India’ spoke to Nalin Mehta on how damaging British rule was, why global histories must reflect this and how India must move on, extending the arguments he made in his speech at the Oxford Union in 2015, which went viral on the internet:
You have argued that the British system of democracy is not suited to India. Why?
When Indian nationalists, victorious in their freedom struggle, sat down to write a Constitution for independent India, they created a political system based entirely on British parliamentary democracy and their experience of what they themselves were deprived of. The Westminster model of democracy is not suited to our reality.
The parliamentary system devised in Britain – a small island nation with a few thousand voters per MP and even today less than a lakh voters per constituency – assumes a number of conditions that simply do not exist in India, where the appeal of individual leaders often prevails. It also involves the British perversity of electing a legislature to form an executive. So we have legislators who are not interested in law-making but seek election to Parliament only in order to get into government. Parliamentary vulnerability to legislative majorities has also produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance, just to stay in power. It is time to change to a presidential form of government.
The British left India 70 years ago. Can we still blame them for our ills? And why is studying the Raj still relevant?
The larger point of writing about the British Raj is that Indians should know the truth about our own past – because if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you’ll never appreciate where you’re going. I think we should be a little more conscious of our failings, which are a direct legacy of colonial rule, and seek to redress them, from the sedition law and Section 377 to the skewed nature of our education system.
Macaulay’s Penal Code needs to be examined afresh by free India. It was drafted in 1837, enacted in 1861 and reflects colonial, patriarchal and repressive assumptions of that time. The sedition law, Section 377 and outdated laws relating to women’s rights in particular need to be dispensed with. Even President Mukherjee, no less, has called for a revamped penal code. This should be an urgent priority for any truly nationalist government. The sedition law we have was originally enacted by the British to keep Indians under control and Section 377 was repealed in Britain itself in the 1960s.
But the British also created the civil service and the railways. Surely, their legacy wasn’t all negative?
I have examined each of these supposed boons in turn – political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket – and demonstrated how every one of them was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British. The railways, for example, was a big colonial scam. British shareholders made an absurdly high return on capital. Each mile of Indian railway construction in 1850s and 1860s cost an average of £18,000 as against the dollar equivalent of £2,000 in the United States at the same time. Even after government took over, each mile of the Indian railway cost more than double the same distance than in the equally difficult and less populated terrain of Canada and Australia.
What about reparation for colonial atrocities?
How do you put a price on the lakhs of people who lost their lives in the many famines that the British deliberately caused? People have calculated reparation amounts like $3 trillion which would be impossible to pay, since it exceeds the entire GDP of Britain. Any reparation figure that is realistic would be unpayable and anything that is payable would be unrealistic. Atonement is, therefore, the best we can hope for: like West German chancellor Willy Brandt did when he sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 to apologise to Polish Jews for the Holocaust or more recently how Canada’s Justin Trudeau apologised over the Komagata Maru incident. Imagine a British prime minister, on the centenary of Jallianwalla Bagh, apologising to the Indian people for that massacre and by extension for all colonial injustices – that would be better than any sum of reparations.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
This article was first published in Times of India on 16 November 2016