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Parthasarathi Shome: Indo-UK economic history in Space Age

Demand for reparations for colonial exploitation does not take into consideration British social reforms or previous Indian practices

Parthasarathi Shome 

Parthasarathi Shome

Controversies in Indo-British economic history appear occasionally, swinging like a pendulum. Recently, reparations to compensate for colonial actions were demanded in an Oxbridge accent while, not that long back, admiration for the same was articulated in an unmistakable home grown lilt, both at Oxford University, it is likely, to the amusement of the grand masters of irony. British swings are equally striking. There is a statue on Trafalgar Square, indisputable heart of London, next to Nelson's Column, their most revered war hero, of H. Havelock K.C.B. condoling him "And his brave companions in arms during the campaign in India 1857" thus, "Soldiers, Your labours, Your privations, Your sufferings and Your values Will not be forgotten by a grateful country". The same people have just usurped an icon and installed a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aside their Parliament not farther than a kilometre from the first, enabled by the endeavours of an English Lord of Indian origin. Gandhi is the same person whose staying alive had been openly lamented by an irritable Winston Churchill, their much venerated warlike, Wartime Prime Minister.

The objective today is to address the issue of reparations. Admittedly one reason for its impossibility is the enormity of the scale of economic exploitation. Historical works such as Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War (2010, Tranquebar Press) and Partha Chatterjee's National Thought and the Colonial World (1999, Oxford University Press) are but a couple of instances that leave an indelible mark regarding its mind boggling dimensions. Earlier economic historians such as Nabendu Sen and Tapan Roy Chaudhury authored cryptic works demonstrating the nature of constrictive trade and other economic relationships that had prevailed. Thus, while ceding land to the British well beyond reasonable reparations in financial terms for the wars they waged was commonplace, its "compensating variation" - an economist's concept to measure equivalent satisfaction - is surely not achievable in present times.

A deconstruction is nevertheless warranted, to reveal what may lie in the proverbial darkness under the lamp. The flip side of reparations - generally left unconsidered - should not be ignored. Take Victoria Memorial, that marble edifice in Calcutta commemorating the reign of the empress. It was constructed by Curzon, dissector of Bengal, with a preponderance of funds from willing (and, let us hope, some not-so-willing) Indian zamindars. In financial terms, what would be the "net" reparation for, certainly Indian acquiescence if not abetment in perpetration should be brought into the equation? Could it be denied that economic exploitation was successful substantially or partially due to Indian attitudes towards, and actions against, fellow Indians? If so, should the remaining properties of such Indian ex royals be expropriated today? Since few today would accede to that possibility even as a principle, the argument favouring reparations from Britain recedes pari passu.

Economic exploitation has many facets, consideration of which brings to light further challenges to resolution. It may be conceptually difficult to understand, leave alone convey, but egregious exploitation is often perpetrated by government itself through its misdirected tax-subsidy policies. They in effect expropriate resources away from the poor - sometimes the abjectly poor - for providing subsidies to industry that overwhelmingly benefit the middle and upper classes in the organised sector. To ensure that the social marginal productivity of such government action exceed the loss suffered by losers (at even the very last margin) is a mammoth task. Negative outcomes may be unintended or inadvertent but they do occur, mainly through a lack or failure to analyse, measure or track the ramifications of government policies on the poor. Anyway, the rich and powerful have infinitely more capacity to press government policy and action in their favour. And, indeed, the two elements become more conjoint every day.

Indeed exploitation of yet another dimension existed in our midst millennia prior to the arrival of any colonist. This is exploitation through exclusion that ensures economic benefits to excluders. Britannia cannot be exclusively crowned for racism. As early as in the Mahabharata, Draupadi refused to let Karna participate in her swayambara reflecting the uncertainty of his caste, a social and economic limitation that Karna could never surmount even from his birth mother. Catapulting to just two centuries back when, in an act of exclusion with utmost finality, the top caste burnt pubescent widows alive at the funeral pyre even as their own octogenarians married them and then died natural deaths. If modern India were to recognise the role of Bentinck and others in monetary terms who took risks to eradicate such barbarisms aplenty, what counter reparation value would that recognition represent in today's measurement scale?

Jumping to today, untouchables still are restricted from walking in front of, leave alone entering, certain temples. At the other end, shiploads of casteless Indians have been free to settle in the ex-colonist's shores and to never look back. That densely populated country has not closed its doors to space-age Indian youth from IIMs, IITs and NLUs who are found without fail in London pubs come close-of-business Friday. Wonder what causes, and continues to cause, that relentless westward march by the progeny of Midnight's Children who certainly don't seem deterred by the absence of reparations.

For argument's sake, even if reparations were agreed to as a principle, who would negotiate and how would the amounts be determined? Based on experience, India's incapacity to transparently negotiate requires no underlining even without mentioning the continuing immeasurable suffering of the victims of botched negotiations. Contrast this to the United States' recently demonstrated ability in the case of British Petroleum which will be obliged to adequately compensate for environmental and other costs of its disastrous oil spill.

Thus, reparations cannot be uni-directional. They are not practically feasible, financially calculable, negotiable, or efficiently and equitably managed. Suffice it to say that, on this soil, let in-depth analysis of Indo-British history continue while admitting that much of the data for such analysis reflects meticulous pre-independence data collection and maintenance. Keeping the issue alive and never to let it die is apt punishment, not reparations which would imply absolution. And woe to a mere statement of regret or apology which would comprise the easiest way out. But yes, if the Indian High Commissioner in London is tasked to negotiate the removal of that statue from Trafalgar Square, and he is successful, that would be acceptable expression of penance for their colonial history. Let it be known that Havelock's removal had been discussed by a London mayor who said that he did not even know who this man had been but the matter stalled due to local controversy. Since on these shores it is known who he was, it is felt that he may be removed.

History need not be expunged; neither should it be rehashed for good reason. Americans had their Boston Tea Party but did not insist later on compensation to counter "taxation without representation". Rather, they soon included their ex colonial masters in their own global aspirations and strategies, reflecting the inexorable post-independence rise in their own economic and political fortunes. History can be squeezed only to a very limited extent. The clever would use it to their advantage in charting a future course and creating new history.

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First Published: Tue, August 18 2015. 21:50 IST