Everyone hates the British: How Tharoor's suave Oxford speech united a polarised India

The British Empire can do something even Narendra Modi cannot.

It can unite the country.

The Prime Minister did namaste to his predecessor Manmohan Singh and shook hands with others in the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha as he tried to turn on the charm offensive. But it did not really work to mute the chorus demanding resignations.

Meanwhile Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s video of a speech at an Oxford Union Society debate arguing that Britain owes reparations has gone viral, embraced on all sides of the political spectrum, earning Tharoor a nod from Modi-ji himself. (Though his party chief Sonia Gandhi is apparently miffed with him for not approving of the Congress’ gung-ho obstruction strategy in parliament.)

Shashi Tharoor during the Oxford Union speech.

Shashi Tharoor during the Oxford Union speech.

It proves one thing. Everybody loves to hate the British empire. Nearly seven decades after Independence age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite utility.

Tharoor is at his Oxonian best in the speech marshaling facts and figures with bon mots like the seasoned debater that he is, rebutting his opponents with witty repartee and brandishing statistics like weapons to give that perfectly-honed cutting edge to his arguments.

The British had the gall to call (Robert Clive) Clive of India as if he belonged to the country when in fact much of the country belonged to him. India’s share of the world economy by the time the British arrived on its shores was 23 percent. By the time the British left it was down to below 4 percent. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was premised on deindustrialising India.

We literally paid for our own oppression.

It’s a bit rich to oppress, torture, maim, enslave people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.

The arguments are not new. Without taking away at all from Tharoor’s unquestioned panache in a debating forum, what’s most fascinating about it all, is the fervour with which the speech has been embraced on all sides. Tharoor is not truth-telling to a stunned House of Lords in London or speaking at the UN on some resolution about reparations. He is doing what a good debater is supposed to do whether it’s at the Oxford Union or the Calcutta Club – scoring points. And he does it very well since his side won the debate.

Tharoor has given many other speeches laced with wit and erudition. Those have not gone quite viral in the same way. In fact, what has tended to go viral are the witticisms that have landed him in hot water. He made his cattle class quip in 2009 and even to this day it’s still misunderstood by people who think he was snootily calling them livestock. But this speech, which did not really make waves when the Oxford Union debate actually happened, has struck a national chord once it went online.

Even in 2015 we are still not quite past the Raj hangover. We remain the step-children of the Raj. And while nothing can excuse colonialism or whitewash its sins, the Raj is a handy whipping boy for all sides.

For the Congress and its supporters, the British Raj was always the textbook villain. Their great heroes were the ones that snatched Independence from the grasp of the British Empire. And even more convenient, dwelling on the depredations of the Big Bad Burrasahib allows the Congress to wring its hands and shrug away its own failings after 1947. As an editorial in the Times of India points out “From a contemporary standpoint, it’s disappointing that almost seven decades of independence have made little difference to India’s economic size in relation to the world. And for much of this period Tharoor’s party, Congress, was in power.” The Congress’ standard excuse for the infamous Hindu rate of growth was colonial trauma. Two centuries of colonial ravages could not be undone in two decades or six.

For the Hindu nationalist side, Tharoor’s speech resonates differently. They daydream about the India that could have been. The one that would have already been a superpower had foreign invaders not looted the country and caged the golden bird. In that narrative the foreign invader is not just Robert Clive and his merry men but Babur and his descendants. The period of colonial rule they talk about is much longer than the two hundred years Tharoor is talking about. But the arc of the argument is one that reverberates with them. A glorious India that had 23 percent of the world’s economy, an India which understood plastic surgery and genetics and television and airplanes long before the rest of the world got on board, an India that was poised on the threshold of greatness. The arrival of Narendra Modi, for them, has been a moment about reclaiming control of that narrative. Make in India is part of a dream of that renaissance because India’s rich civilisation had been left out of the other Renaissance - the one with a capital R. When Kalidasa was writing exquisite poems Europe was busy with Visigoths ransacking the flailing Roman Empire and not paying attention.

The wonder of this speech is not the person making it. This is not about the reinvention of Shashi Tharoor as the man being lionised by the same media that was hounding him even a month ago. The man making the speech is the Shashi Tharoor we have always known – suave, articulate and a consummate debater. The wonder is really the speech that has found its sweet spot in the middle of India’s fevered polarised politics without really intending to do so. It was meant for the audience at the Oxford Union but now it’s turned out to have what politicians dream of — something for everyone .

While the reparations he argues for are for the sins from centuries past, there is a bit that might have far more contemporary relevance for our politics today. At the end of the speech making a passionate case for even symbolic reparations Tharoor says “The abilty to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry will go a far far longer way than some percentage of GDP.”

Now if only some of the politicians furiously butting heads in parliament and dredging up each other’s scams to shame each other would pay attention to that bit, we could all get moving with the nation’s business.

In case you missed it, watch the video here:


Published Date: Jul 24, 2015 11:03 pm | Updated Date: Jul 24, 2015 11:05 pm