Remembering the Raj


Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Michael Dwyer and Dr Jon Wilson
Presented by Patrika Game Changers Series


By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger


The charisma of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival regular Shashi Tharoor and the passion of Dr Jon Wilson, author of India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire, are a potent combination for any panel. When the discussion centres on colonial legacies, the magnetism is amplified a hundredfold. The thousand-strong crowd waiting for the session, expected a fiery debate and that is precisely what the speakers delivered.

Apologists for the British Raj claim that India owes a lot to the Empire, including railways, cricket and tea. Shashi Tharoor commenced the conversation with a counter argument: ‘None of these were intended to be beneficial for the colonized.’ Globalization was not the result of colonialism, he said, and neither was civilization. None of these require either the trauma or the expense of being colonized. India had developed self-sustaining institutions perfectly capable of accommodating its vast plurality, added Wilson. The British Empire was merely a ‘violent intervention’ that destroyed India’s potency. This intervention, he speculated, was underpinned by a peculiar anxiety about power.

The Empire was a ‘form of power interested in power for its own sake,’ claimed Wilson. Tharoor cited the example of the ‘appalling mismanagement of famines’ during British rule to illustrate this point. Research on the famine of 1876 shows that over 5.5 million people died during the crisis, while the actual food distributed in relief camps was lower than the amount doled out to the inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Holocaust. ‘There was no civilising mission,’ said Wilson, ‘It was a kind of justificatory delusion that they participated in.’

Indian resistance to British power, too, was expressed in myriad ways, including militant, economic and cultural forms across various sections of society. Nationalists also created institutions and a public life that was considered Indian during this ‘extraordinary period of religious, cultural and political’ resistance. As an example, Wilson pointed out the large number of banks, such as the Punjab National Bank, that were created during this period.

Themes of Indian nationhood have recently been challenged by dissenting voices at centres of power. On being asked if he believed that this was due to a resurgence in Indian nationalism, Tharoor replied that he ‘will not cede nationalism to one particular political argument.’ ‘Narrow identities’ are neither part of his idea of nationalism, nor the resistance to the legacy of the Raj.

The Empire, said Tharoor, was an ‘exercise in serving its own perpetuation.’ It was utterly self-serving and ruthless, and all the good that came of it was happenstance rather than intentional systemic change. When an audience member asked about Governor-General William Bentinck’s laws regarding sati (the practice of burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyre) and widow remarriage, he emphasized the role of the Indian reformers Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the passing of those laws. For every Jyotirba Phule and B R Ambedkar who protested against cultural evils after exposure to British educational ideals, there was an Ayyankali who led campaigns against the same systems of oppression without them. ‘What the British Raj has deprived us of is our self respect,’ said Tharoor, to enormous applause. ‘That, ultimately, is the key issue of colonisation.’

The legacy of colonisation endures all over the world. Africa and the Middle East still suffer from the ‘territorial mess’ created by this process. The cultural trauma still survives in the psyche of the colonized. How, then, can they move forward? Tharoor offers a solution. The past must be consigned to the past, he says, and the future must be freed from its burden. At the same time, the only way to avoid a repetition of this process is to ensure it survives in our collective memory. ‘We must forgive,’ he asserts, adding, ‘But it is very important to not forget.’


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill



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