ZEE JLF@The British Library
Roy Moxham and Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Mukulika Banerjee.
Session co-hosted by the South Asia Centre, LSE (London School of Economics and the British Library as part of the Colony as Empire: Histories from Whitehall series).
THE BRITISH should mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar in 2019 by making a public apology, commanded parliamentarian and prolific author Shashi Tharoor during a lively session at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.
Tharoor went on to describe “the betrayal, brutality and subsequent reward” of General Dyer, who was behdind the massacre, suggesting that if the British Royal Family or Prime Minister visits Amritsar on April 13 2019 “and seeks forgiveness for that, what a wonderfully cleansing act that would be.”
Tharoor explained that British troops, led by Colonel Reginald Dyer, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors; peasants who were marking the Baishaki festival. The soldiers blocked the gate to the garden at Jallianwala Bagh, and no one was allowed near the dead and dying for 24 hours. The death toll was estimated to be between 1000 and 2000 people. Dyer was later rewarded with £0.25 million.
The audience heard about a further catalogue of British policies, designed for the benefit of the British imperial aims. In 1700, India had the most sophisticated and prosperous economy in the world, with revenues exceeding those of the whole of Europe, explained Tharoor. But this rich and prosperous country was reduced in a couple of hundred years into “a destitute child of poverty.”
The British destroyed industries including the fine textile and shipbuilding industries, and imposed “rapacious taxation” which allowed men like Clive of India and Robert Pitt to build up personal fortunes, “building opulent mansion after opulent mansion.”
They were also “culpable of a deliberate policy of famine – 35 million people died a totally unnecessary death,” said Tharoor.
He described a policy of non-interference in markets, allowing people to die if the land could not sustain them, citing the example of a Mr McNinn, who was threatened with deportation if he insisted on feeding a starving man. But before the British arrived, others too had imposed their own will on India.
Roy Moxham’s book The Theft of India: The European Conquests of India 1498-1765, describes French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish incursions. One atrocity committed during Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama’s visit to Calicot in 1502, was the seizure of a ship with hundreds of man, women and children on board. Goods worth thousands and 12,000 ducats in cash were seized, before the ship and its passengers were blown up, explained Moxham. “The terror had started.”
He described a horrific incident where a Brahmin sent to negotiate had his ears cut off and dog’s ears sewn in their place, and his mouth filled with foul rubbish and sewn up too.
“Cases of exported slaves is something that has not been written much about, he added. There were lots of slaves taken from India and shipped east, to work on Dutch plantations in Indonesia; thousands and thousands captured every year.”
Moxham explained that British involvement in India started as a way to create work for the military after war with France. “You really do not want lots of unemployed soldiers around,” he noted.
Academic Mukulika Banerjee and session chair concluded that Tharoor’s call for an apology by the British would only happen if there was a campaign: “I think the campaign has to only come from British friends.”
It was not lost on the audience that ZEE JLF@The British Library is one of the first major events in the UK as part of the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017, which will showcase the cultural diversity of India in the UK.