British children never read a line of (cruel) colonial history

‘Let’s forgive, but let’s not forget’ – Tharoor

Rajeewa Jayaweera (Island)

The Sunday Island edition of April 30 carried an article by this writer titled ‘A Sugar Quoted Caveat from India?’ title=164275 . It was a critique of the keynote address delivered by the indomitable Indian international civil servant, politician, intellectual and author Dr Shashi Tharoor (ST hereafter) at the launch of Dinesh Weerakkody’s book ‘Ranil Wickramasinghe: A Political Biography’.article_image

Having served at the United Nations for twenty-nine years, which included a stint as Under Secretary General, his credentials are impressive. ST lost the election for the post of Secretary General to Ban Ki Moon from South Korea in 2006, due to lack of support for his candidature from United States. He opines, “US did not want a strong Secretary General after their Kofi Anan experience”. Returning to India and entering politics, he was elected to the Indian parliament, Lok Sabha, from Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala in 2009. ST was Minister of State for External Affairs and subsequently, Human Resource Development in former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. He currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.

ST delivered a brilliant fifteen-minute argument during a debate titled ‘This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’, at the world famous Oxford Union Society, debating society, in July 2015 which went viral. He was commended for his speech by Prime Minister Modi.

On January 04, 2017 ST launched his latest book ‘An Era of Darkness’. The book is a more detailed version of his delivery at the Oxford Union Society. It delves into the depredation of India by British rulers over a period of two hundred years. During his address, claiming the British invented various methods to justify the looting of India, ST highlights the writings of an American historian, Will Durant, who visited India in 1930, researching for his book ‘The Story of Civilization’. Having realized the injustices being done by British colonialists, Durant interrupted his project to produce a powerful screed titled ‘A Case for India’ in which he had said, “the ongoing loot of India is the greatest crime in all history’. Readers who wish to listen to the entire speech may do so by accessing the link

In a subsequent interview, ST did not mince his words. He debunked the various theories of apologists of the great contributions made by the British Raj such as the Indian Railways. Freely admitting, Britain did lay the foundation to the Indian railways, he vehemently argues, it was not for the benefit of Indians, but to facilitate the transportation of what was looted from India. He pointed out, when trains were just being invented and coming on line in England in 1843, Lord Harding, Governor General of East India Company in India, had written a memo stating “Railways would be beneficial for the commerce, government and military control of the country’. He further quotes the next Governor General Lord Dalhousie who, ten years later in 1853 stated, “The important role that India could play as a market for British goods and as a source for agricultural raw materials for Britain would be facilitated by the railways”. Based on these historical facts, ST argues, “from the very beginning, the British wanted to build railways for their own purposes”. ST called the Indian railway project a “gigantic scam” as “Indian tax payers paid for the entire construction of the Indian railways but the profits were all made by the English”. The first Indian railway was introduced in India between Bombay and Thane in 1853. ST claims, whereas Indian passengers paid amongst the highest passenger fares in the world for third class travel in sub-human conditions, British traders paid the lowest freight rates in the world to ship freight on the Indian railways”.

ST laments of “a historical amnesia about the colonial experience”. He opines, British children “never read a line of colonial history” and suggests such attempts to brush the past under the carpet need be confronted. British children need to be taught, what Britain did to the many countries around the world to finance the many beautiful buildings in London and the industrial revolution.

First the East India Company and then Britain ruled over many parts of modern India for two hundred years. They left nearly seventy year ago. ST in his speeches and latest book endeavors to coherently lay out the economic and other depredations suffered by Indians, in an orderly manner. Freely admitting his objective is not to stir hatred towards the British and Britain who is an important trading partner for India, he claims Indians of today need to know their past in order to appreciate where they are headed.

Then comes the clincher. ST concludes by stating, “I have no problem with the Indian willingness to forgive and forget. But all I can tell to all my fellow Indians is; by all means, let us forgive but let us not forget. Memory and memories are very important. Let us know what our country went through for 200 years so that it can never be repeated to us. In other words, let us forgive, but let us not forget.” His short interview could be viewed by accessing the link

In yet another interview titled ‘The Buck Stops Here’ in NDTV prior to the visit to India by Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, ST stated “British PM must ask for forgiveness at Jallianwala”. “British PM should sink to her knees at Jallianwala & say sorry”.

Theoretically, present day leaders seeking atonement for misdeeds and injustices committed by their predecessors is a noble concept. Practically, it is a non-starter. The only leader to do so was Chancellor Willy Brandt when he went down on his knees in Warsaw in 1970, as a gesture of humility and penance towards the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during Nazi occupation. Japan has apologized to both China and South Korea for atrocities committed. Both Germany and Japan are both defeated nations. President Obama did not apologize for American atrocities committed in Vietnam, when he visited that country in 2016. Neither did Prime Minister Theresa May offer any apologies during her recent visit to India. Indian Prime Minister Modi offered no apologies for all what India did to destabilize Sri Lanka, during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015 nor is he expected to do so, during his current visit to Sri Lanka.

There is much for us Sri Lankans to learn from Dr Tharoor’s words of wisdom. We have in Sri Lanka too, groups of persons, suffering from ‘historical amnesia’. They have forgotten of what transpired from the late 1970s, especially between 1980 and 1990. In as much as Britain does not accept its questionable presence and unacceptable conduct in the sub-continent between 1614 and 1947 which is ST’s bone of contention, India too does not own up to its role in the destruction and depredation of Sri Lanka over a period of thirty years.

Modi is currently visiting Sri Lanka as the Chief Guest at the UN Vesak Day celebrations. In addition, he is due to declare open a hospital valued at Rs 500 million gifted by India for the benefit of Sri Lankan tea plantation workers of Indian origin in Dickoya. He is also due to address the said community at a public gathering, which will further enhance India’s ‘God Father’ image within that community.

Our Prime Minister, his Foreign Minister and a few other ministers champion unfettered relations with India. Free trade and economic cooperation between nations undertaken in a balanced and mutually beneficial manner no doubt contributes to the economic prosperity of nations involved.

As Dr Tharoor advised his fellow countrymen concerning the British, let’s forgive India for its role in the thirty-year civil war and move forward with the various projects outlined in the recently signed MoU. But let’s never forget what India did to us, also bearing in mind, no assurances have been given, to quote ST, “it will never be repeated”. Its relevance increases tenfold in the back drop of the Trincomalee oil tank farm and the Mannar-Trincomalee highway projects.