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Beyond Tharoor’s Oxford vintage

In a passionate debate at the Oxford Union Society, Shashi Tharoor, Congress member of Parliament, made a case for the British paying reparations to India for the many ills caused by colonialism. It is a fact of life that the Britishers ruled India for 200 years and made a deep and lasting impact on almost every aspect of Indian life, including the political, economic, social and cultural dimensions. One of the most important consequence of this was on the economic front on India. It is true that some of the legacies of British rule like infrastructure and western system of education have aided in Indian development, although most of them were undertaken with an attempt to serve British interests. As B.G. Tilak famously said with respect to the Railways that “It’s was like decorating some one’s else’s wife”.

Even though there were some important and positive contributions like construction of railways, telegraph, development of modern industry, which happened only in second half of 19 century and rise of Indian capitalist class, most of the impacts had a deep adverse and negative impact. This is where Shashi Tharoor was absolutely spot on in his analysis. Some of the most important and negative aspects of the British rule were as follows. A deliberate deindustrialization—a process which brought about the ruin of artisans and handicraftsmen. A gradual impoverishment of the peasantry, consequential pauperization of migrant rural labour. However, the most lasting impact has to be the emergence of repressive new Land Relations, commercialisation of Indian agriculture. This led to the stagnation and gradual deterioration of agriculture. There were some positive and enduring legacies as well. The current administrative and judicial system, primary among them is Indian Civil Services is a legacy of British rule. The British also left behind solid infrastructure — primary among which includes Railways. Then there was the institutionalization of Law and Order which includes important acts like Indian Police Act and Indian Penal Code.

The majority of money acquired by taxation in India was spent in and on India; again, as Tharoor pointed out correctly, often to the advantage of British economic and military interests. But not all the infrastructure built in India hurt Indians (and yes, Indians could have built their own railways had they been independent but not every British-build railway is the product of malice; even in Britain itself, railways were laid out where it made sense economically) and the British secured the strategic space around the subcontinent in a way so as to end the constant deprivations originating from Central Asia. 

As with imperialism and empire building, many of these issues cannot be anachronistically read into as matters of justice or right or wrong but are simply the products of politics and human nature, the constant human drive for glory or the tendency of states to seek their advantage. History, is among other things, the story of the rise and fall of states and empires. And by their nature, politics and state-building always help and hurt certain groups. In an empire or after conquest by an empire, there are always privileged elites, collaborators, people whose lives don’t change at all, and groups that have the worst of it.
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