Why Britain doesn’t owe India Reparations

Lata Jain

Shashi Tharoor an MP in the opposition cannot have expected his short speech to be viewed more than three million times. He was among a galaxy of speakers debating the British Empire at the Oxford Union.

lata jain

Lata Jain

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Tharoor and said, ‘What he spoke there reflected the sentiments of the citizens of India. Thus he spoke” Let me say with the greatest possible respect: it’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.’ Reparations for war have a long history – the British liked to impose them at the drop of a hat, for example billing the Tibetan government Rs. 2.5 million after invading Tibet in 1904. Compensation for larger and more nebulous crimes is, like many ideas now floating in the intellectual ether, American  in origin.

Tharoor argued that Britain owed a debt of £1.25 billion to the Indian government at the end of the Second World War for the 2.5 million volunteers who had fought the Axis powers, but it was ‘never actually paid.’ Not only was this debt honored, but it formed an essential part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s early economic planning. The governor of the Reserve Bank of India later complained that the new prime minister had run through the sterling balances ‘as if there was no tomorrow.’

But here’s what Richard Ottaway, former chairman of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the three speakers in opposition to the motion, had to say” “What are the reparations for? How do you put a value on it,” asked Mr. Ottaway during his 10-minute speech.

He described the British colonial period as a “phase in world development” where those colonized suffered loss of land, livelihood and died in military encounters. But there were sacrifices on both sides, he said.

The British themselves “dropped like flies” at the hands of diseases like malaria, dengue and many died while working for the welfare of the population – building hospitals and sewers, constructing roads and railways, putting in schools and teachers, Mr. Ottaway said.

“So how can you construct a balance sheet that gives us a number that can be used in the compensation equation?”

Asked by one of the leading magazines in Britain, whether Britain should pay reparations to India and its other former colonies, readers said ‘yes.’

Out of more than 2,000 votes, 85% were cast for Britain to “give back what they took” from India. The rest said bygones should be bygones.

Mr. Tharoor, who was, incidentally, born in London in the U.K. in 1956, received his education in India and the United States. An opposition Congress party politician, he has served as India’s foreign minister and was a onetime under-secretary-general at the United Nations.

“I welcome Dr Tharoor’s speech and the endorsement of its message by Prime Minister Modi. I share their views. These are genuine grievances which must be addressed. Pursuing monetary reparations is complex, time consuming and potentially fruitless, but there is no excuse for not returning precious items such as the Kohinoor diamond, a campaign I have backed for many years,” said Vaz, who is the longest serving British MP of Asian descent.

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