Dr Shashi Tharoor may be an Indian parliamentarian and a former minister, but he is also a globally renowned writer and orator.
Known for his astute diplomacy at the UN for nearly three decades, for his insightful views on politics, history and international affairs, and for his scholarly books on these and many other subjects, Tharoor is a much sought-after personality wherever he goes.
Which is why, it was a very special evening when Indian Link hosted Dr Tharoor for a private dinner with a select gathering of guests from Sydney’s business, social and journalistic circles on 3 September.
Dr Tharoor was in Australia to participate in the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and some events in Sydney to speak about his latest book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India.
In a freewheeling conversation with Indian Link Media Group CEO Pawan Luthra at Manjit’s On The Wharf overlooking Darling Harbour, Tharoor opened by on a wide range of topics: from British atrocities in India, contemporary Indian politics, religious polarisation across the world and his experiences as a politician.
Later, he freely mingled with the guests, signed copies of the book, posed for photographs and generally turned out to be a charming guest.
It was an evening that fully lived up to its name: Thoroughly Tharoor.
Q. This is your fifth visit to Australia. What appeals to you about Australia? Also, what has surprised you about it?
A. It’s a great country. The sun shines a lot. For me, this particular visit is special because of the interest that book appears to have generated. What has surprised me is that this has coincided with your internal debate about the legacy, the statues, in a society that is increasingly conscious of itself as multiracial, and that is fascinating. I remember the days not long ago when Australia had a white Australia policy, when politicians could openly say things like ‘Two Wongs don’t make a White,’ and where one saw Australia rather set in a particular view of itself, and which has changed dramatically in the last generation.
Q. There are obvious parallels between the colonisation of our two countries, and the issue of ‘righting’ of history is hotly debated here as well, just at the same time as your own book comes out. What are your thoughts there?
A. My part in it is entirely coincidental. I happened to be invited to Oxford University (in 2015). Somehow, the speech there about Britain owing India reparations captured the imagination of Indians and Indian diaspora. When it went up on the internet, it was downloaded 3 million times in the first 24 hours.
In England, they have agreed to teach a different version of history at the university. It’s shocking that you can do A levels of history today without learning Colonial history and I think it’s important that they do that. I have also been pointing out that a city full of museums doesn’t have a museum to colonialism. It’s shocking that there isn’t a place where school children or foreign tourists can go to see the history of the British engagement in the World War.
It’s all brushed under the carpet. And it’s replaced by these gauzy romanticised soap opera-type TV shows, which reflect a distorted view of the reality and cut out the Indians who were colonised. It’s certainly time for people to wake and smell, not the coffee, but the spices.
Q. Do you think that with Brexit, parts of this history would be even more brushed under the carpet?
A. Paradoxically, the opposite has happened. When Brexit happened, a bunch of English officials, some civil servants and some people close to the ruling Conservative Party, floated this bizarre notion that it didn’t matter that Britain was leaving the EU because they would resurrect what they called Empire 2.0. I was in the UK at the time and said that given the fact that Empire 1.0 was such a bad idea, who would think Empire 2.0 would be resurrected? Moreover, the terms of trade available then won’t be available now. When the East India Company came to India, they started trading. And then they realised that it’s far easier to trade at the point of the gun. Now this is not possible between two sovereign equals. This scuttled their case quite quickly.
Q. Much of what you have written in the book, we in India have known for many years. Non-Indian readers have been shocked at the atrocities that the British committed in India. What are some of the responses you have got from outside India?
A. It’s too early to speak about the global response, but the response from the UK and Australia is instructive in many ways. The Pakistanis seem to have related to it as well. (Former cricket captain and politician) Imran Khan called me to say how much he enjoyed the book. That kind of resonance in the subcontinent is not surprising. But in Britain, for example, what you’re seeing is an interesting paradox. There was a wonderful column in the London Times praising my book and saying that every Briton should be ashamed of its record in India. The pushback came from an Indian there. It’s interesting that the brown-skinned Britons felt more obliged to defend their Britishness. During a conversation, one person said that, “As a true Conservative, I believe we should have traded with you and not conquered you.” He said no Englishman can be anything but apologetic for what the British did to India.
Q. You seem to have set a date for possible positive action from the British for an apology, April 13, 2019, the 100thanniversary for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. For our non-Indian guests here, can you give us a background to this horrific incident in history?
A. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place on April 13, 1919, and in many ways was emblematic of the worst of the Raj. India supported the British in World War I. And it did so at tremendous cost.
Taxpayers and rajahs contributed to the war effort. 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought for the allies. 76,000 of them perished in the cause. In fact, it can be argued that without Indian help, Britain wouldn’t have been able to fight World War I. The reason nationalists supported Britain in the war is because they were led to believe that the reward for their support in the Great War would be what they called progressively responsible self-governance.
By this, the Indians assumed that they would get the same white dominion status enjoyed by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. But the British, true to form, broke their promise and reimposed on India the wartime restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and so on. This triggered protests within India and the British sent generals to various parts of India to quell the unrest.
General Dyer imposed Section 144 (prohibiting the assembly of more than five people) in Amritsar. What he didn’t realise that this was the time of the Punjabi festival of Baisakhi. Many men, women and children from Amritsar and surrounding villages had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Baisakhi.
Dyer didn’t issue them a warning, didn’t fire a warning shot. He ordered his soldiers to fire directly into the bodies of the unarmed men, women and children. The only entry and exit gates were barricaded because as he explained later this would make people easier targets. They fired 1,650 bullets that day. Every bullet hit a human being. The British claimed 379 people died. The Indians claimed 1,000. The real number is somewhere in between.
And that wasn’t even the end of the tragedy. Dyer closed the gates and forbade any relatives from attending to the injured and they lay dying. Of course, there was an uproar after this. The House of Commons condemned Dyer.
However, the House of Lords passed a resolution praising Dyer. A collection was raised to reward him. The equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds sterling in today’s money was given to him as well as a bejewelled sword. He was hailed as the man who saved India.
So, the broken promises of World War I, the brutality of the massacre, the racism and indifference to the Indian suffering that followed and then the justification of it, put together makes the Jallianwala Bagh massacre seem to me as the worst atrocity of 200 years of the British rule.
What my suggestion is that if a member of the royal family could come to Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 2019, and sink to their knees in apology and regret for what was done in that place 100 years ago, it would have a cleansing effect on these 200 years of imperial sin. Is it likely to happen? Extremely unlikely. Some very senior friends whom I can’t name have told me that ‘If we apologise to you lot, we will have to apologise to many other countries.’ But I hope some of this will create some sort of consciousness about the issue.
Q. Retrospective rationalisation is a way of agreeing/disagreeing and reviewing the past and using the narrative to suit your present position. If we were to look at this decade in a 100 years’ time, who do you think will be asking for apologies from whom?
A. (Laughs) Don’t know where the list would begin! I’m sure there are Iraqis and other Arabs who would be asking for apologies from those who intervened in their country. Many innocent human beings will be asking the Islamic fanatics to apologise for what ISIS and Al-Qaeeda have done. Perhaps there will be a largish number of Americans who will be asking the descendants of Donald Trump to apologise!
Q. We’ve just celebrated Onam, a festival that is celebrated across religions. Is there a message in it for today’s religiously polarised times?
A. Very much so. In fact, what’s striking in the Kerala context is that it is a state in which people of different religions have coexisted for long. It has the world’s oldest Jewish diaspora. It also has the world’s oldest Christian population outside Palestine because St Thomas came to Kerala around 52AD. Onam was a Hindu religious festival but today it is a festival owned equally by all communities. There is no sense among Christians and Muslims, who make up 25% each of the state’s population, that the festival has Hindu origins. For them, it’s their festival too. So, there is a lot of sharing, gift-giving and celebrating.
Does that have a lesson for the rest of India? Of course, it does. We are living in a time when those who have come to power have unleashed a set of unpleasant forces that have felt empowered by the ascent of the Hindu chauvinistic party at the centre. They are therefore preaching a very sectarian view of what India is all about and that is not at all in consonance with what it has stood for.
Q. There is a crisis of leadership all across the world, including, with respect, within your own Congress party. There is increasing polarisation in the communities in the US, Europe, India and even Australia. Surely you would expect that the more developed we get, the differences should fade away?
A. Well, it’s not happening, is it? Politics is polarised everywhere: France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Brexiteers in the UK and, of course, Donald Trump in the US. There are two kinds of backlash today. One is against globalisation; because globalisation has produced winners and losers. The losers are saying, ‘Why should we vote for the people who are sending our jobs away?’ So that’s the economic backlash. The other is a cultural backlash, which only partly overlaps with the first. It’s a rejection of the globalised, cosmopolitan, sophisticated elite in favour of a nationalism that seems more authentic and more rooted. Mr Modi, for instance, participates in the cultural backlash, but (he rejects) the economic backlash. That’s because the Indian economy needs globalisation.
On leadership, it partially depends on the system. We don’t have a presidential system and were saddled with the parliamentary system. The Prime Minister is simply the leader of the party that happens to get the most number of votes rather than the most popular individual in the country. If we talk about one leader against another, we are playing into Mr Modi’s hands, because he is this larger-than-life leader on a white horse, charging down on his stallion with his sword upraised and who knows the answer to all questions. My point is that he may be that, but why must we offer him another leader on a white horse? Why can’t we have a deep bench of qualified and experienced people who can listen to you and understand your problems, rather than a person who says he knows the answers to all questions, but hasn’t delivered much at all in the last two years?
Q. You were one of the earliest adopters of social media among Indian politicians. But there isn’t much of nuance left in the social media discourse. Is it still a valuable medium of communication for politicians?
A. Very much less so than when I started. I adopted Twitter when none of the Indian politicians were doing it. In a few years, the opposition got onto Twitter. It is almost obligatory to be on Facebook. There are 200 million Facebook users in my country and there is no question of ignoring that. But social media doesn’t have the same utility as it earlier had because initially, you were interacting with real people. You posted genuine thoughts and got genuine responses in the form of comments, banter and so on.
Now, there are so many organised hounds. The BJP has so many of the online cells. On a marching order to a cell, 400 accounts tweet the same message against you. The other phenomenon is a troll who is abusive for a politician like me who has a point of view on everything. Opening up my timeline is a deeply distasteful experience because 80% of the tweets addressed to me are abusive. So all of this has made it less useful than it used to be.
Now, even Twitter trends are manipulated where entire armies of people instruct others to tweet a particular hashtag so that it becomes a trending topic. This has made it much less useful for a person like me looking to engage with the general public.
Q. How do you strike a line between acknowledging history and not be mired in endless grievances of each side involved in that history?
A. The only way to reconcile the two is by actually finding common ground. At the Sydney Opera House and at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, people began by acknowledging the land, its traditional owners and so on.
There is a danger that this can descend into tokenism or a ritual devoid of meaning, but right now, I get the sense that it means a lot. The majority can acknowledge that there was a historical wrong done which is impossible to undo, but there is a moral case that it needs to be acknowledged. Both the colonised and the coloniser will need to acknowledge something of the other side.
Q. In a democracy, we need a strong leadership and a strong opposition. But because the opposition is not very powerful (in India), the ruling party is having its own way. Why is it that the opposition, particularly Mr Rahul Gandhi, has not been able to counter the government effectively?
A. I recognise that this is a widespread perception. As a loyal Congressman, of course, it don’t share it. I know that Rahul Gandhi is not the dumb guy that is portrayed in the media or WhatsApp.
But once a brand has been tarnished that way, it takes a long time to recover. What I do know is that it is important to have a deep bench strength. For example, the BJP had a cabinet reshuffle today and out of the nine new ministers, four are ex-bureaucrats and two had to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
It should be concerning that the ruling party that came to power with a crushing majority doesn’t have enough talent to form a cabinet of ministers. On the other hand, in the opposition, there is a galaxy of people that are experienced and have served the country.
When it comes to elections, we should acknowledge the political mathematics that the only way we can come to power (in the near future, to defeat the BJP) is through a coalition.
Q. Is there a danger of Indian and Chinese imperialism that will affect the world in the 21st century?
A. Quite frankly, we have been outpaced by China. While both started from the same place in the 1970s, China is far ahead. The race is over. My bigger worry is China and the US forming a sort of G-2 which would be a disaster for the world.
As far as we are concerned, we still have 26% of the population below the poverty line. While we have progressed from 1947 when the British left us with 90% of the population below the poverty line, this 26% is still 26% too many. As long as we can provide each citizen with proper education, health care and jobs, we should be happy. It is not a zero-sum game. India and China can both prosper in their own way.
The danger, I feel, is not an India-China imperialism but rather an unnecessary hostility between the two nations.
Q. In the 190 years of British occupation of India, what may come out as their biggest achievement is that laid the foundation of one country. Looking forward, with more than 25% of the population not understanding the language spoken in New Delhi, how do you see the future of India in the very long term?
A. I think India has actually grown closer over the years. There is more and more in common in terms of religion and culture. Look at the Indian cricket team, for example, and its uniting effect on the country. Now, you get masala dosa in New Delhi, and salwar kameez has already overtaken the sari as the most popular attire in South India. So there is much more integration now.
There was an unnecessary kerfuffle caused by some members of the BJP recently over Hindi as the national language, whereas it is the official language, apart from English. There were some calls on Twitter for a separate state to oppose this, but they quickly died down. The big advantage India has as one country, is that it’s a larger playing field for everybody, an open market, a stronger economy and military. So I don’t think it’s under threat at all. Kashmir is a protection problem, but I see greater clamour from the North-East for acceptance in the mainstream.
Q.We have adopted the democracy system and you have said that it is perhaps not the best system. What system in your view is the best system?
A. I’ve been on a bit of a campaign for the presidential system because Indians instinctively vote for individuals rather than parties. I am a big advocate of directly elected chief executives in all the levels of governance.
It strikes me as shameful that a businessman who wants to set up a factory in a town in China can go the mayor and get all the clearances. In India, however, the mayor is no more than a toothless and powerless leader of a glorified committee which has no powers either. So the businessman is at the mercy of some unelected bureaucrat for all the permissions.
I don’t agree that democracy requires us to be inefficient. We can be an efficient democracy in a system of directly elected chief executives.
Q. Do you find it easier to deliver your important messages as a politician than as a diplomat?
A. Politics is much tougher work. In my first year in politics, I found my back perforated with stilettos not only of my political enemies but my ostensible colleagues who clearly resented my entry into the fold. Some would say that I have still not fully adjusted to politics because of the way I speak my mind.
But I have to be the person I am. Because of my views on certain issues, I have been called a quasi-BJP supporter. But I speak from a clear set of yardsticks as to what is right, moral and advantageous to the country. I would continue to speak my mind. I will never tailor my words for the convenience of my party. But when it comes to expressing what I see is the right thing, I will do it. It might not always be the politic thing to do, but it gives me a clear conscience when I sleep at night.