As I mentioned in my last article about confidence, I had the phenomenal opportunity of meeting Indian MP and bestselling author Shashi Tharoor. Students, teachers and visitors from outside the University all attended the lecture, based on Tharoor’s latest book ‘Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.’ The politician went viral in 2015 after he gave a speech at the Oxford Union as to whether Britain owed her former colonies reparations. Tharoor, who believed they did (though he does not believe in reparations in the form of money as such, rather a simple acknowledgement of what happened) made a strong case and since then has been lauded as a hero by Indians across the globe. However, many of you will not know who Shashi Tharoor is – and why he’s so important.
Going to school, I hardly learnt anything about the British Empire. We did have a unit in Higher History called ‘Migration and Empire,’ though how little we learnt is astonishing. Hundreds of years of colonial history was boiled down to two columns titled ‘strengths and weaknesses,’ one of the weaknesses being ‘not getting on with the locals’ (if you want to call not getting on with the locals killing at least three million Indians in the Bengal famine – and many more in other famines the British decided to ignore – and a massacre in Amritsar that saw open fire to peaceful protesters.) Tharoor has ignited a debate in Britain, from whether it does owe reparations to her former colonies to the question of why it is being left out of the curriculum.
The fact is, my generation and many before me have little knowledge of the empire. Whether or not you believe it was a benefit is a different issue, but not to know about it at all is dangerous. Why does it matter that we know, you ask? The empire is a pretty significant reason as to why many countries, such as India, are in great poverty today. As Tharoor says, “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Many people as a result (and no, not just ‘poor people’) have emigrated from their countries and come here because their own homeland cannot give them the good life many British people can have in their native country. In addition, much of these people are well-educated already, including my own Mum who is a Dentist. It is not far-fetched to say that the immigrants you see from post-colonial countries, in short, are here because the British – or whatever other European country colonised their country – were there.
Being of Indian heritage myself, I find it astounding and almost insulting that this country has left out a significant part of its history, a part of history that affected millions of people including relatives of my own family. Hearing questions like “does it really matter now” is downright ignorant. Just because Britain is no longer living a harsh post-colonial reality, doesn’t mean her former colonies are not.
Of course, many people will still disagree on whether it still matters – including Indians themselves here and in India (I can’t speak for all of them.) I’m not saying India hasn’t made her own mistakes, because she has. Yet, the state it was left in 1947 was a poor starting point and considering this, I’d say India is doing pretty well: it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world and an emerging world power; though I think the latter is still far off. I’d urge those who think it no longer has any significance to at least think of the people still living the consequences of the empire in India, Africa and the countless other places that were colonised. So much of the wealth generated from the empire was invested in Britain and of course, can still be seen today in countless buildings and cities: including Dundee which boomed during the First World War because of Jute from India; Glasgow, which was said to be built on the empire’s wealth; industries such as Tetley tea and Tata Steel (this may be a bad example, now that it is India-owned.) Britain is wealthy largely due to the empire she had.
So what can we do about what Tharoor calls the ‘historical amnesia’ in Britain? Education is pivotal and a great starting point. Teaching children about British colonialism should be just as important as teaching them about World War, World War Two and the Romans is. In Germany, pupils are taught about the country’s ugly history with Nazi rule and the Holocaust. America teaches its children about the slave trade and disgusting treatment of black people. Why should Britain be any different?
Whatever people think of the Empire, one thing is clear; generally, people do not have enough knowledge to make an informed opinion. However much I may be against it myself, I know why I am. As Shashi Tharoor says; we can forgive, but we must never forget.