Power will go the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fights amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India – Winston Churchill
Shashi Tharoor, the enfant terrible of Congress party, has done the unthinkable. He has brought together Indians on a common platform. The subject is all too familiar and comfortable – blame the past for the present.
Speaking at the Oxford Society Debate, Tharoor eloquently presented the case for British to repair its past in its handling of India. The facts were there and cannot be undisputed. Presented in a charming way, laced with trenchant wit and with spirit of a criminal lawyer closing his arguments in an open and shut case, Tharoor asked the British to acknowledge their moral turpitude in their rule of India. Shylock like he asked, pay a pound and/or say sorry. Brilliant, Tharoor. Take a bow!
East India Company came into being on December 31, 1600. It was a joint stock company created to trade with East Indies but ended up trading in Indian subcontinent and China. The company eventually grew into ruling India through private armies and instigating one royal state against another. Company Rule in India came into being after Battle of Plassey in 1757 and British Crown eventually took over after the failed 1857 Indian Rebellion, which is popularly known as “sepoy mutiny”.
Of course the British cannot defend the indefensible. Colonialism is wrong on moral grounds. To exploit, suppress, divide and rule another country by force is wrong. The British are thanked in many parts for what they left behind – railway network, universities, communication systems, banning of sati and systems of administration like constitution and parliamentary democracy apart from English language and cricket. Before we thank the British let’s be reminded of what another Englishman called Adam Smith told us- benevolence is not the motive for the acts of a businessman, but profit. What the British took from India, is definitely more than what they gave, the difference is profit. A look at the activities of the Company in neighbouring Quang China substantiates the argument.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Chinese silk, tea and porcelain was much in demand in western world. Chinese had nothing of interest to import from the western nations creating a great trade imbalance. East India Company started growing opium in India and started exporting to China much to the peril of Chinese people as addicts grew in number. In 1839 the Chinese Emperor ordered seizure and destruction of opium imports and much quantity was destroyed. Enraged Britain (on behalf of East India Company) attacked China and defeated it in a quick war. In 1842 a second opium war was fought after Treaty of Nanking (which lead to creation of HongKong island under British rule) was a failure. The power that MNC’s exercise through their governments has a bloody history!
Before dismissing EIC as a residue of a barbarian era, one needs to remind the influence big corporations have on people in the modern era. United Fruit Company (UFCO) was a US based company which produced and traded fruits, mainly bananas. It owned large tracts of land in many countries, especially Central America and any agrarian reform required UFCO’s consent though being a US company. The nexus was deep and corruption was steep. In 1954, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán‘s democratically elected government was toppled by an armed aggression aided by US government. UFCO, whose large tracts of land were under threat under Guzman’s government, played a big role in the incident. It convinced the powers of Washington that the Guzman was trying to align with the Soviet bloc. Guatemala to date is a country that is being ripped apart by sectarian divide, the seeds of which were sown by a banana trading company! The phrase ‘banana republic’ owes a lot to companies such as UFCO. Such is the power of money and commerce.
Back to India and British. To blame the British for the present state of India is right, wrong and misplaced. Seventy years may not be a very long time, but definitely not a short time, to build a better India. British may have divided India and Indians to rule, but to rule with the tools of division is a self-inflicted crime. Handloom did not lose to power loom because of the British, but due to the winds of change .Even today, a hand woven Kanjeevaram saree commands a premium over its power loom version. British did not teach rest of India to label all those living below the Vindhayas as Madrasis. British did not ask us not to expand our railways, improve our education systems and perpetuate our caste systems. In our eagerness to point fingers at others, we are hurting our hands.
Thailand, is a perfect case study. It is the only country in Southeast Asia not to have been colonised. A mix of smart kings, location and sheer luck prevented it being colonised. Applying the British baiters argument, Thailand should be a leading economic power in Southeast Asia or Asia if not the world. Singapore and China which were colonised have achieved much more than Thailand did. Japan followed a policy called sakoku (closed nation) after it was partly colonised and then became coloniser on its own. Bombed out in the second world war, Japan dropped its imperialist ambitions and built itself into a technological and soft power.
Catharsis is the psychological word that describes the purging of emotions like pity and fear through art which results in restoration. Argumentative Indians that we are, we accepted debate- especially one in which blaming someone of past deeds and seeking reparation – as an art. Purging of emotions does not lead to enlightenment, growth or a better society. Robert Clives and General Dyers are amongst (and within) us. Happy that a good speech has gone viral and has opened an opportunity to relook at past. What needs to go viral is positive change, casteless society and equality. The words of Churchill needs to be repatriated.
No debate about that!