Indian diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor (from the opposition Congress Party) has recently called for Great Britain to pay reparations to India and its former colonies in a debate at the Oxford Union (that went viral online). This argument has been met with widespread praise in India where nationalism – for both the left and right – is often cast in anti-British and anti-colonial terms, influenced by the the narratives of the anti-imperialist 20th century in vogue throughout the world. These ideas have had elements of truth and exaggeration in them. Despite the appeal of these ideas, it does not make sense for Britain to pay reparations to India for reasons I outline below.
First, I disagree with the characterization of colonialism that lends itself to such calls in the first place. 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.
This is a phenomenon not limited to colonialism and European imperialism, which is why I strongly disagree with the narrative that tries to cast Western imperialism as a uniquely immoral, when in fact all imperial projects, including the Mongols, the Arabs, and other Western empires were a mixed bag. The only substantive difference between Western imperialism and what came prior to it is the fact that Western colonialism occurred in tandem with the industrial, scientific, and political revolutions, all of which eventually shook up non-Western societies in unprecedented ways relative to their tradition arrangements.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And while this proved quite shocking to many societies, it was relatively more peaceful and less rapacious than some of the actions of previous empires that literally pillaged and leveled cities and literally enslaved whole populations. The problems faced by many Asian states during the 19th century—Qing China, the Ottoman Empire, and Qajar Persia—due to Western interference can also be partially attributed to their inability to successfully adapt to changing times, something that Japan did successfully. But nobody is to blame. It is natural to expect civilizations to slowly change what had previously been long proven customs. As for the West, it did what people and states everywhere have always been doing, but got lucky to have acquired a decisive advantage in terms of technology, revenue collection methods, and social organization not shared by other civilizations. Endemic warfare is the nature of man. There is not a nation which has not conquered or been conquered.
Several Indian empires based in parts of India have conquered other Indian states in other areas of the subcontinent, or even beyond. The Maurya and Mughal Empires tried to expand beyond the Hindu Kush mountains into Central Asia, the Sikh Empire conquered the previously western Tibetan kingdom of Ladakh, and the Chola Empire conquered the Malay peninsula. India’s topography and geography make it hard for an India-based army to project power outside of the subcontinent, otherwise these conquests would have been more frequent. But within the subcontinent, interstate warfare was frequent enough.
The Mauryan emperor Asoka is said to have completely wrecked Kalinga (modern Orissa) in 260 B.C.E., but of course nobody expects the Indian state of Bihar (where his capital was) to go out of its way to help develop Orissa. Finally, many empires other than the British have conquered India from elsewhere, such as the Ghorid Empire (from Ghor in Afghanistan; Mahmud of Ghazni invaded India 17 times, each time demolishing Hindu temples and carting away gold and jewels while the British, more archaeologically oriented, actually renovated long decaying temples) and Nader Shah of Persia in the 18th century. Calls for reparations here seem to be missing, even when the connection is made. For example, Iran and Iraq widely blame the Mongol conquests for destroying the irrigation systems that sustained them and their golden age, damage far exceeding European interference in those countries, but nobody seems to ask for reparations.
Of course, Mongolia is not wealthy. Are reparations only a way of guilting rich nations into giving away more money, though they give generous aid as is? Countries that have successfully developed or are developing are doing so because of good economic policies and political discipline and not infusions of money. I am all for reparations given to individuals and countries for specific events and incidents when there is a clear wrong, like the British shooting of innocent civilians during the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar. But it is virtually impossible to translate this tangible and definable definition of reparations to loosely-defined macro-historical phenomenon like imperial rule by one group over another. The list of demands would go on and on so as to have no meaning; virtually everyone could demand reparations from anyone else, even Britain could ask the denizens of Normandy for something.
Let us consider the place of India in the British Empire and the effects of the British Raj (which was technically a separate legal unit from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland called the Indian Empire). There is no question that obviously the British ruled India first with an eye to their own advantage and benefits. There is no question that India’s share of the world economy declined from nearly a quarter to less than 5 percent. And finally, there is no question that Indians were second class citizens in their own country, who were told humiliatingly that a “single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
These are all the downsides of British rule that justified the independence of India. But the narrative that casts the British as rapacious savages who physically carted away wealth from a utopian society is wrong. The majority of Indians lived in rural India barely above sustenance levels before, during, and after the British Raj, with little changes to their daily lives and social structure, as had been the case during the empires of previous Muslim and Hindu rulers. India’s GDP did not decline in raw terms during the British Raj, but simply did not grow at a rate comparable to those of Western countries because of a lack of industrial and scientific infusion. This of course, was a policy of the British that was negative for India, but is different than outright “looting,” a term that Indians love to use.
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 far as privileged elites go, many Indians forget that as a whole, they were the secondary elite of the British Empire. The all-volunteer British Indian Army was the force that protected not only India but was stationed, in a colonial capacity throughout the Indian Ocean littoral from Hong Kong to Mombasa. Indian merchants followed the British to places as far-flung as Uganda and Burma where they became a wealthy money-lender class. Indian bureaucrats administered much of the empire, and some Indian people, especially upper-caste Hindus, like Tharoor himself are the product of an elite Indian class that thrived under the British (and continues to neglect most Indians) that really wanted to join the British elite. So Indians in many ways were beneficiaries of the British imperial system as well as its victims. There is nothing wrong in saying that India inherited the mantle of British imperialism in the Indian Ocean while also saying that it needed to go its own way; it is a great power that deserves to throw its weight around but also a unique and deep civilization that suffered humiliation.
Finally, there is the matter of the Koh-i-Noor (it means mountain of light in Persian) diamond, a British crown jewel acquired from India that every Indian politician would like returned. And while it would be an excellent gesture of reconciliation for the British to actually do this, it would not matter much if they didn’t. To whom exactly would the diamond be returned? The British acquired it from Lahore (now in Pakistan) after the conquest of the Sikh Empire. Pakistan and India are both successor states of British India. The diamond itself was never really the property of the Indian state, but always a prize fought for by conquerors. Virtually every possessor of the diamond seized it from its previous owner.
The diamond was found in the 12th or 13th centuries in the territories of the Kakatiya Dynasty of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and then probably seized by the Khilji Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in a raid in 1310, before passing to subsequent dynasties in Delhi. Finally, during his conquest of India, the Mughal Emperor Babur acquired the diamond in 1526. It remained with the Mughal Empire until the Persian conqueror Nader Shah seized Delhi in 1739 and, as part of a treaty with the Mughals, he acquired most of their crown jewels as well as the famous Peacock Throne. More Indian crown jewels are in fact locked in a vault in the Central Bank of Iran in Tehran where the National Jewelry Museum is located than in Great Britain (and they were seized by force too) but it is odd to hear no calls for their return in India. After the death of Nader Shah in 1747, his Afghan lieutenant Ahmad Shah Durrani seized his erstwhile master’s treasury including the Koh-i-Noor and departed to Kandahar. Finally, his descendent Shah Shuja was forced to give up the diamond to the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s.Given this history, one wonders if anyone can be said to truly be the rightful owner of the diamond.
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.