This week a video upload of a debate at the Oxford Union Debating Society has been trending on the internet. I am led to believe it may be the most watched Oxford Union debate to date, with close to 2 million views.
The star of this debate is the very eloquent MP Dr. Shashi Tharoor; even the Honourable Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has showered praise on the orator (an opposition Congress politician) for carrying the house in the debate. The subject of this debate – 'Why Britain owes reparations for colonising India'. Colonisers need to acknowledge the great harm done, enslavements, exploitations, racism and the hypocrisies used to support colonisation; reparations are, thus, owed. In this world of ever converging economic interests and pragmatic politics, it is also a matter of time till reparations will be given, most probably with due heartfelt respect and symbolical pageantry being extended by previous colonisers.
However, there is an issue with the continued use of the India as the reference for “The Colony” in question that is owed reparations from Great Britain. The only “India” or “British India” that can claim to have been colonised by The Kingdom of Great Britain ended at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947.
The India of today merely shares a common English name with the “India” that was colonised by Great Britain. The debate on colonisation, in reference to India, therefore, must respect that it was the subcontinent, not India alone, which was colonised. Any debate needs to recognise India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the regional states, all having shared this colonial exploitation.
Dr. Tharoor most eloquently speaks of the horrors of colonisation on “India”, with facts that have been voiced in the same vain by many other equally patriotic and eloquent writers and historians as following:
- The terrible Bengal Famine that cost 10 million lives
- The state sponsored destruction of the textile industry
- The smashing of weavers' looms and thumbs to prevent production
- The de-industrialisation of the subcontinent
- The forced agricultural production of tea, indigo, cotton, opium
All true, and all, for the greater part, inflicted not on the modern geographical India of today but on the current state known as Bangladesh and its capital city Dhaka.
Bangladesh can in fact claim the tragic distinction to have suffered the most during the colonisation of Moghul India by Great Britain. Referencing below some documented quotes from representatives of Great Britain in the late 1700s and 1800s.
In 1793, Francis Baring, awarded a Baronet by Parliament, famed for laying the foundations of the once powerful Barings Bank and a Director of the East India Company wrote regarding the revenues of Bengal and Dhaka: “An astonishing mass of wealth has flowed … into the lap of Great Britain” from this great state.
In 1800, the commercial resident from Great Britain John Taylor wrote on the economy of today's Bangladesh and the City of Dhaka, that due to Great Britain's restriction of trade, taxation, export tariffs on textiles as high as 75 percent, commerce has fallen by an incredible 50 percent in 40 years. Spinners and weavers “died in famine”. The people of the once wealthy and industrious city Dhaka have been “reduced and Impoverished” and Dhaka “ruined and abandoned” to become a “melancholy retrospect."
In 1860, the commissioner Sir E.W.L Tower appointed to head the British Government “Indigo Commission”, wrote in reference to the forced production of Indigo in Bengal, "Not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood."
Dhaka in the 1700s was a city with a population of over a million, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with an estimated 80,000 skilled textile weavers. Dhaka, an exporter of silk and cotton textiles, steel, saltpeter, agricultural and industrial produce was reduced to a city deserted, and its inhabitants pushed to beggary and starvation within a generation. Moghul India may have had 25 percent of the world's GDP, prior to British colonisation, however over 50 percent of this was based on the State of Bengal (the wealthiest and most industrial state of Moghul India), with Dhaka as the economic centre. Therefore, the argument can be made that modern India only had a relatively small portion of world GDP, and Bangladesh approximately 12 percent of world GDP in the 1700s, which was systemically exploited and reduced to a bankrupt state, under colonisation.
The treasury of Bengal valued at approximately USD 40 billion in today's currency was looted, by Robert Clive and Great Britain after the Battle of Plassey. With the total tally of the spoils of conquest possibly well over USD 1 trillion in current values, if land grants, tax concessions, trade monopoly rights, revenue rights, mint rights are included in the accounting.
The entire established Muslim and Hindu Bengali political, military, feudal structure dismantled to eradicate any resistance, which resulted in both Bengal's political centre (Murshidabad) and financial centre (Dhaka) being stripped of power and wealth, to be re-concentrated in British India's capital Calcutta. A new Hindu dominated commercial class rose under British patronage as being politically and financially beholden to the colonisers, with no loyalties to the Moghul court in Delhi.
This led to possibly one of the harshest oppressions on any indigenous population recorded to date. As famine raged repeatedly through Bengal, it is estimated up to 50 percent of the region was depopulated, tens of millions died. However, British profits continued to increase, and taxes went from a pre-colonial Moghul tax rate of 10 percent to a taxation rate of 50 percent and higher imposed by Britain.
Bengal was forcibly de-industrialised. The production of food crops reduced, with labour forced to grow controlled crops such as cotton, indigo, tea, opium, at a fixed return of as low as 3 percent of the market value. This ensured continued famines, indebtedness, and the economic enslavement of the Bengali population.
The political leadership of Great Britain must not only agree to make reparations for the terrible famines, humiliations, oppressions, injustices, and looting that took place during the administration of British India to Delhi, but also should make these reparations in equal part to Islamabad, Kathmandu, Thimphu and Dhaka. Further, stressing that for true reparation to ever take place, a special acknowledgment needs to be made for the disproportionate suffering, impoverishment and looting inflicted on Dhaka and the people of Bangladesh from 1757 until 1947.
As Dr. Tharoor proposed in the debate, even if the reparation for colonisation is a single pound symbolically paid for the next 200 years by Great Britain to India, we would hope that Delhi and Great Britain in turn symbolically pay 45 pence of this single pound to Bangladesh, in acknowledgment of this state's suffering.
The writer is an author.