Indian prime minister praises opposition MP Shashi Tharoor’s call for UK to pay compensation for centuries of economic destruction
Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, has praised an opposition politician who called for Britain to make reparations to India for the damage done during 200 years of colonial rule in a speech at Oxford University.
A video clip of Shashi Tharoor, an author and well-known parliamentarian from the centre-left Congress party, making an impassioned argument in favour of Britain providing India financial compensation for centuries of economic destruction and extraction became a hit on social media after the Oxford Union debating society posted it online last week.
“Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place,” Modi said at an event in New Delhi’s parliament on Thursday.
The 15-minute video of Tharoor’s speech has been viewed more than 1.5m times onYouTube and was widely reported in the Indian press.
The Indian Express newspaper described the speech as “brilliant” while the Press Trust of India, a nationwide news agency, said Tharoor’s argument “gelled with the feelings of patriotic Indians”.
“Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depradations in India … We paid for our own oppression … It’s a bit rich to impress, maim, kill, torture and repress and then celebrate democracy at the end of it,” Tharoor said in the debate in May.
The former United Nations under secretary general and author argued that Indians had “literally paid for [their] own oppression”, as by the end of the 19th century they were the world’s biggest purchasers of British goods, as well as providing employment and salaries. India’s share of the world economy had gone from 27% to 4%, Tharoor said.
India gained independence from Britain in 1947 after years of bitter campaigning and confrontation.
Tharoor said he had been surprised by the reaction. “I didn’t see it as much of a departure from what Indian historians had said in the 19th century. Their analysis was the same. Perhaps young Indians have only dimly absorbed this from their studies. And so there a shock of recognition.”
He said the issue has “transcended party politics in a bitterly divided polity” and that he had been surprised by the prime minister’s praise. “I was touched. Gestures of respect across party lines are all too rare in our politics,” he told the Guardian.
The Indian prime minister, however, did not say whether he backed Tharoor’s demand for an apology.
Modi, who leads the Bharatiya Janata party, came to power in a landslide victory last year on a pledge to boost flagging growth in the emerging economic power. His campaign rhetoric fused a promise to create a new internal dynamism after years of drift under the Congress party with the prospect of a more assertive foreign policy which, he vowed, would restore respect for the south Asian country.
Tharoor, a flamboyant figure in India’s boisterous political scene, has earned a series of reprimands from Sonia Gandhi, president of the currently weakened Congress party, for praising Modi and his initiatives, and was stripped of his position as a party spokesman last October.
Tharoor said in his speech that Britain governed the country for its own benefit and its rise for 200 years was financed by plundering India.
“As far as I am concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid.
“What is required, it seems to me, is accepting the principle that reparations are owed.”
Many in India want Britain to make financial amends for the wrongs committed during its colonial rule. Minhaz Merchant, a columnist and publisher, calculated the reparations due to India at close to $3tn (£1.9tn), though he said the “atrocities could not be quantified”.
“So will India file a case in the international court of justice at The Hague to press Britain for financial reparations? Unlikely. India is a forgiving nation,” Merchant wrote.
Modi is due to visit Britain later this year. The dates of the trip have yet to be finalised.
David Cameron and his ministers have worked hard to court their Indian counterparts but without so far seeing results which match the energy of their efforts.
The British prime minister faced severe criticism during his last trip for not apologising for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where hundreds of non-violent pro-independence protesters were shot dead at the behest of British colonel Reginald Dyer.
Cameron expressed regret for the massacre during a visit to Amritsar in 2013 and laid a wreath at a memorial, but Indian critics said it was not enough.