Why claim reparations only from the British?

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Colonial compensation Shashi Tharoor makes his Oxford University speech
Colonial compensation Shashi Tharoor makes his Oxford University speech

The British came too late and left too early. — Chandra Bhan Prasad

India sees another Independence Day come and go. It is nearly seventy years old as the longest-surviving democracy in the developing world. Nevertheless, the government and the Opposition cannot even agree on basic ideas of democratic governance as demonstrated by a washed-out session of the parliament. It is in these putrid waters of post-colonial elite politics where bipartisanship is a nonexistent word in the dictionary, and parliamentary exchanges resemble barroom brawls that the prime minister magnanimously endorses an opposition politician’s speech as “reflecting the feelings of patriotic Indians”.

It was not just the Prime Minister who applauded Shashi Tharoor’s demand from Britain for reparations for colonialism at an Oxford University debate last month, but the entire social media and press too. Ironically, a public sphere otherwise marked by petty and superficial political battles and a base form of majoritarianism which strangles any form of dissenting opinion, unites to make Tharoor’s speech “viral”.

The further irony is that when Modi agrees with Tharoor, as the historian Rohan D’Souza has pointed out, the reparations argument itself is built on the seminal scholarship of Left-nationalist and Marxist historians whose material and secular history tradition the Hindu Right is otherwise trying to viciously demolish. However, behind the unity lies the mythology of nationalism which papers over serious cracks of caste, class, religion, gender, language etc. This homogeneous and essentialist view of the nation is a feature of both colonial and postcolonial nationalisms.

The horrors and costs of colonialism and imperialism and the “psychological damage” as outlined by Tharoor now and countless others like Aimé Césaire, Amílcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon decades ago can only be denied by the most fanatic of Empire worshippers. How can the colonised reorganise their present without recovering their history mutilated by the coloniser? As an African proverb has it: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Despite this, what the speech and its reception demonstrate is a staggering application of different moral standards when it comes to the question of reparations. If India deserves reparations for the injuries inflicted during colonialism, why not the Dalits, who have suffered centuries of caste oppression and in addition, slavery in regions like Kerala? Slaves, who have suffered the grossest form of violations have a bigger moral claim to reparations than Indians. Why is it that we continue to plunder, pillage and oppress Dalits and Adivasis without a moral dilemma while believing that they do not even deserve reservations?

The same upper caste, educated classes who are enthusiastically affirming the demand of reparations to correct a historical wrong are the ones who symbolically protested against reservations by mimicking “degraded” occupations like sweeping the floor or shining the shoes. While the prime minister affirms the patriotism of the reparations demand, his government refuses to publish the caste data from the socioeconomic census. One kind of exploitation demands reparations, but not the other; the logic of this differentiation is merely that in the first, the oppressor is external, and in the second, internal. The first is morally repugnant and the second is not. This is what Frantz Fanon had warned about: postcolonial national consciousness, instead of being an “all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people” becoming “only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been”.

In India, this is more complex as it has to contend with the unique nature of caste oppression. That is why the binary of India versus Britain is hardly enough to understand colonialism or the issue of reparations. Jyotirao Phule, Ambedkar and a whole range of anti-caste revolutionaries have seen British colonialism in a different light from that of the nationalists and even the Left which critiqued the nation from the point of view of class, but ignored caste. For them Brahminical colonialism is a bigger colonialism than that of the British. As Ambedkar famously told Gandhi, “Mahtamaji, I have no country.”

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