British historian, author and Labour MP Tristram Hunt joins with Dr Shashi Tharoor, former UN deputy Secretary General and a senior Congress politician, to debate the legacy of British empire at Jaipur….reports Vikas Datta
How should we view the British Empire and its legacy for its former colonies? Was it one of the world’s greatest modernising forces, as some historians claim, or was it only a destructive bane? The latter, says Congress politician Shashi Tharoor who maintains the only two benefits for India were cricket and the English language.
Tharoor contested the contentions of co-panellist, British historian, author and MP Tristram Hunt, that the benefits included rule of law and an effective parliamentary system, saying he was not sure how good the latter has been for India.
“The system of governance of a small island nation was sought to be transplanted to a nation where there were not only ideological differences, but a bewildering range of diversities,” he said, at a session titled “Empire” at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
On the idea of rule of law, Tharoor contended it was part of the normal evolution of society and India could have achieved it for itself.
“You don’t need foreigners to come and oppress you for benefit of development,” he asserted.
“(Historian) Niall Ferguson (who has termed the British Empire a great modernising force) has not questioned for whose benefit it was done. I only accept cricket and the English language,” said Tharoor.
Hunt, who had stepped in for Ferguson who wasn’t able to make it for the event, contended that there was renewed interest in the Empire in his country — where it had been absent for years from the school curriculum — as Britain took decisions on its place in the world.
The author of “Ten Cities that Made an Empire”, which seeks to chart the changing nature of the British Empire through 10 (formerly) imperial cities spread though out the world, Hunt said the empire had had an influence on his country too — and still has.
“British politics are becoming like Indian politics. The centralised system is shifting to a more federal system… we are willing to take coalition partners,” he said.
On the question of financial compensation for the damages to the former colonies’ social and economic fabric, Tharoor, who had made headlines by making the demand at a debate in Oxford, said it should be a token amount, say a pound for every year of rule, rather than a ridiculous amount as had been calculated and would be “an exercise in absurdity and futility”, could never be paid and besides, “India couldn’t even know what to do with all that money”.
Hunt noted that such a demand was more advanced in the former Caribbean colonies, but they instead of money, had sought help in education and development.
On whether bygones should be bygones, Tharoor said he agreed. “History cannot be undone. But it haunts our past and affects the future. By all means let bygones be bygones, but never forget it… we must remember it.”
Hunt said he agreed. “We must interrogate, analyse and reinterpret the bygones,” he said, adding he was quite sceptical of official apologies for historical wrongs.