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BRP Bhaskar: Problems of half-baked history
July 28, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

UN bureaucrat-turned Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, who often finds himself on the wrong side of controversies, became an instant hero as video recordings of his speech at an Oxford Union debate pitching for reparation payments by Britain for its colonial depredations went viral.

Tharoor, who was born after India gained freedom, kept his audience spellbound with a narrative covering everything from the 18th century loot by English adventurers to the 20th century Bengal famine. Young Indians who secretly nurse a complex imposed by centuries of subjugation went gaga on the social media over the punches the swashbuckling hero delivered.

Heading the cheerleaders was Narendra Modi, who, incidentally, is the first Prime Minister born after Independence. His compliment was prompted partly by a desire to needle the Congress leadership which has been critical of Tharoor for praising some Modi initiatives.

When the British left, there were many in India, even among the freedom-fighters, who counted the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the army as blessings of colonial rule. Nearly seven decades later, colonial traditions still dog these institutions in varying degrees although they are now manned entirely by persons born in free India.

Actually, these institutions were created not by the British Indian government but by the English East India Company, which, like the Aryans, gained control of the subcontinent without an overt invasion.

The Company raised three armies, comprising Indians commanded by white officers, at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and brought the whole subcontinent under its control with their help. It used Indian soldiers to subjugate other lands too. Scholars have identified the army’s might, Britain’s will to rule and Indians’ willingness to acquiesce as the three factors which sustained the Raj.

The Congress launched the Quit India movement with a ‘do or die’ call by Mahatma Gandhi when World War II was raging. Released secret files of the period show that even at that time the British were supremely confident of the loyalty of the Indian army and bureaucracy. The army’s strength increased twelvefold from 150,000 to 1.8 million during the war.

The Company put justice beyond the reach of ordinary folks by introducing a costly and time-consuming judicial process. It relied upon Vedic scholars for guidance on Hindu religious practice. As a result, the archaic and unjust code of Manu gained new relevance.

Tharoor’s arguments were based on facts Indian scholars had brought out when the British were still here. In a 1901 book “Poverty and un-British Rule in India”, Dadabhai Naoroji, a founding member of the Indian National Congress, had pointed out that Britain was draining India’s wealth. India had a positive trade balance but Britain was appropriating the surplus, he wrote.

Indian Civil Service officer Romesh Chunder Dutt showed how the East India Company and the British Parliament ruined the lives of artisans and peasants who had made India a great manufacturing and agricultural country of the 18th century.

Ironically, the first to expose the exploitative nature of British colonialism was not an Indian but the Irish-born British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. As early as 1786 he said the East India Company’s regime was one of “speculation, rapine, fraud, injustice and disgrace”. He termed its rule illegitimate and corrupt. Two years later he led the impeachment of Governor-General Warren Hastings, which, unfortunately, was unsuccessful.

The story of India’s colonisation will not be complete without mention of the role of the Maharajas, landlords and caste supremacists who collaborated with the British and gained in the process.

The British had found the Indian subcontinent divided socially and politically. They brought it under a single administration only to split it into two and quit. If they are to pay reparations, Pakistan and Bangladesh will have legitimate claims along with residuary India.

Not long ago Hindu zealots pulled down a 400-year-old mosque in the name of settling an old score. How far back do we go to undo historical wrongs? Are the indigenous people of India whom later migrants enslaved or drove to the hills not entitled to reparations from them?

A good deal of India’s early history was lost or suppressed by later rulers. Part of it was reconstructed during the British period. The glorious Indus Valley civilisation and the golden rule of Asoka belong to this part.

More of India’s history remains to be recovered. Instead of approaching the task objectively, the government is now engaged in a surreptitious attempt to forge a false history based on mythical knowledge of head transplants and mass production of test tube babies.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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