In Time, Shikha Dalmia explains why India may not want to cuddle up too closely to the idea of getting reparations from the UK:
Indian politician and celebrated novelist Shashi Tharoor caused a mini-sensation late last month when he went before the Oxford Union, a debating society in England’s prestigious eponymous university, and argued that Britain needed to give India reparations for “depredations” caused by two centuries of colonial rule. It was a virtuoso performance — almost pitch perfect in substance and delivery — that handily won him the debate in England and made him a national hero at home.
But the most eloquent point that emerged in the debate is one he didn’t make: While Brits are grappling with their sordid past by, say, holding such debates, Indians are busy burying theirs in a cheap feel-goodism.
Colonialism, without a doubt, is an awful chapter in human history. And Tharoor did a brilliant job of debunking the standard argument of Raj apologists that British occupation did more good than harm because it gave India democracy and the rule of law. (This is akin to American whites who argued after the Civil War that blacks had nothing to complain about because — as the Chicago Tribune editorialized — in exchange for slavery, they were “taught Christian civilization and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish.”)
Reparations make sense when it is still possible to identify the individual victims of political or social violence. But if paying collective reparations for collective guilt is appropriate, then how about India “atoning” for thousands of years of its caste system? This system has perpetrated “depredations” arguably worse than those of colonialism or apartheid against India’s dalits — or untouchables — and other lower castes. And despite what Hindu denialists claim, this system remains an endemic part of everyday life in many parts of India. Indeed, much like the Jim Crow south, local village councils even today severely punish inter-caste mingling and marriage, even issuing death sentences against young men and women who dare marry outside their caste.
None of this is meant to single out India. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French philosopher, who visited America in the early 19th Century, expressed astonishment at how Americans could blithely both claim to love liberty and defend slavery without any sense of contradiction. Every civilization has its stock of virtues and vices, ideals and transgressions. Moral progress requires each to constantly parse its history and present to measure how far it has come and how far it must go to bridge the gap between its principles and practices.