Get the best of Monitor journalism in your inbox.

Indian PM endorses opposition lawmaker's call for British reparations

Shashi Tharoor, a member of the Congress Party, argues Britain owes India an economic and moral debt. 

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to the media on the opening day of the monsoon session of the Indian parliament in New Delhi, India, July 21, 2015.

It has almost been seven decades since Britain withdrew from India following the disintegration of the British Empire. They have never paid reparations.

Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, who recently spoke at an Oxford Union Society debate on whether Britain owes reparations to her former colonies, has not forgotten.

“India’s share of the world economy when the UK arrived on its shores was 23 percent; by the time the British left it was down to about 4 percent,” Tharoor said at Oxford. “Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.”

Tharoor noted the economic and military power Britain absorbed from India: he said by the end of the 19th century, India was the world’s biggest purchaser of British goods. One-sixth of British forces during World War I were Indian. 2.5 million Indians contributed to the British military effort during World War II.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was one of more than 1.5 million viewers of the 15-minute speech, available on YouTube, according to The Guardian. He recently endorsed the politician’s argument in a rare show of transcending party lines; Tharoor belongs to the opposition Congress party.

“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 Guardian reported.

“It’s a bit rich to oppress, kill, maim and torture people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they’re democratic at end of it. We were denied democracy, we had to snatch it, seize it from [the UK],” Tharoor said.

Indian news outlet Firstpost reported Shashi Tharoor was “very touched and grateful” for the Prime Minister’s praise. 

The Guardian notes Minhaz Merchant, a columnist and publisher, calculated approximate reparations due to India at “close to $3 trillion.” The total annual budget for Britain is just over $1 trillion.

But Merchant and Tharoor both acknowledged it was difficult to attribute a monetary value to some costs.

“In the Great Bengal famine, 4 million people died because Winston Churchill […] diverted supplies from civilians in Bengal […] to be used as reserve stockpiles,” Tharoor said in his speech.

He accused the British empire of harboring a “moral debt” and directly creating racial, ethnic and religious tensions that persist today.

The lack of a clear figure, however, should not overshadow the principle behind owing and apologizing, according to Tharoor.

He noted it wasn’t unprecedented for colonizers to pay the colonized and cited Italy’s 2008 payment to Libya and Britain’s reparations to the New Zealand’s Maori population as proof.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister at that time, said the nation agreed to pay Libya $5 billion for its 32-year occupation of the country, because “it is a material and emotional recognition of the mistakes that our country has done to yours during the colonial era,” The Associated Press reported.

Modi is due to visit Britain later this year, according to The Hindustan Times.

When British Prime Minister David Cameron last visited India in 2013, he “expressed regret” for the “1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where hundreds of non-violent pro-independence protestors were shot dead at the behest of British colonel Reginald Dyer,” but did “not formally apologize,” The Guardian reported.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.