While to Indians around the world Shashi Tharoor is best known as the handsome former under-secretary-general at the United Nations who, after decades walking the airy corridors of international power, returned home to India to become the MP for the city of Thiruvanathapuram, in Britain he is most famous as an online viral video star. In 2015, Tharoor took part in a debate at the Oxford Union, Oxford University’s debating society, arguing in favour of the motion that “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies” (video below).
His speech was so electrifying that within hours of its video being posted online, his fame had spread to the furthest reaches of the British Isles and far beyond, penetrating even the palest depths of the Home Counties. Viewed millions of times, the speech sparked an impassioned global debate around whether Britain had fully come to terms with its colonial past.
This past week, Tharoor has been back in Britain, stalking British corridors of power, corridors that in the wake of Brexit (Britian’s decision to leave the European Union last year) seem to be getting narrower by the day. He has been here pushing the book that was commissioned out of that 2015 debate speech, released in India late last year under the title An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, and now in Britain as Inglorious Empire: What the British Did in India.
The change of title is a deliberate provocation, as Tharoor himself observed while here, the word inglorious these days is most closely associated with another word in the title of a Quentin Tarantino film.
While in Britain, Tharoor has been every bit as erudite, crisp and convincing as he looks on YouTube, with his well-tailored suits, cut glass accent and diplomatic nous. Doing the rounds of the television news and radio stations, charmingly stirring post-imperial anxieties and embodying the new vigour of a resurgent India, he has once again gone viral after a stirring performance on Channel 4 News that has already been viewed over seven million times in less than a week.
He has also played to packed houses at a range of rarefied venues, including the House of Lords, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Indian High Commission, the Royal Automobile Club in Mayfair, various colleges of Cambridge, Oxford and London Universities, as well as packed bookshops the length and breadth of the M40 and M11 motorways.
Call for soul-searching
Having so energetically set out his stall, calling not for reparations, which he argues would be almost impossible to make full payment on considering the extent of imperial looting, but instead for apology, atonement and introspection, will the British now accept the challenge that Tharoor sets? Will the book and the online viral fever that Tharoor’s line in charming and impassioned post-colonial knife-twisting, translate into the sort of deep soul-searching that Tharoor argues would do nobody more good than the British themselves?
Well, as ever in Britain – where the only views of ourselves we really welcome hearing are our own – it’s hard to tell amidst all the conspicuous diffidence, but there is certainly something in the air that Tharoor’s visit seems to catalyse. His timing certainly seems spot on seeing how Thursday and Friday (March 9-10) have London hosting the Inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The United Kingdom hopes to further increase intra-Commonwealth trade to $1 trillion by 2020, most crucially with India.
With the formal Brexit announcement promised before the end of the month, the firing gun will go off on the two-year period after which Britain will crash out of the European Union – whether there is a United Kingdom/European trade deal or not. So, Britain’s own view of its place in the world, and its relationship with its former colonies in South Asia, are fraught with grave economic and political implications of global significance.
If amnesia-tinted nostalgia has, as many have argued, led Britain to the folly of Brexit, could it also, with an isolationist Donald Trump in the White House, and the tone deaf mandarins of British government somehow thinking “Empire 2.0” is a sensible way to brand Britain’s new trade outreach strategy, lead the United Kingdom to medium-term failure and irrelevance?
For the moment, it’s too early to tell what impact Tharoor’s visit and book may have, but perhaps – as ever in Britain – it is more the notable silences than the visible responses that provide the best clues as to how close the country is to finally confronting versions of its own history that buck the self-defeating trend for imperial-era dress-up and make-believe.
And of notable silences there are many, from the British educational curricula that almost entirely erase Empire, to the lack of coverage among the other national newspapers, other than the usual-suspect liberal Guardian and Independent, of Tharoor’s book. (Even the BBC largely relegated Tharoor to the backwaters of its Asian Network, which is a bit like a politician of the stature and appeal of Bill Clinton being allowed only on the World Service.)
Past and future
Ultimately, whatever the future of the relationship between Britain and South Asia may prove to be – with the key and vexed issue of free movement and work/study permits for subcontinental talent looming large at its heart – the final words of Tharoor’s book, that “we have to realise that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror”, seem apt, not least because, as he said while here in London, however much the formerly colonised may forgive, they will not forget. As Brexit reminds us, and as Tharoor repeated at the London School of Economics and Political Science on Monday, the questions his book raises are of the utmost urgency, for “you do not need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge”.
Today, history has brought Britain to a juncture where it needs India as never before and Tharoor’s wise and well-crafted, if also impassioned and even at times angry, book would seem to be best heeded by those with the best interests of both countries at heart. Whether that heed will be taken will soon enough become apparent.