The Ramayan tells us that the god Hanuman set fire to Sri Lanka and so far no one from that country has demanded reparations for the damage.
“In women’s loos
There are always queues
One may suspect
The hand of an unempathetic male architect
It leads one to guess
That females on the whole
Have far superior urinary control”
From The Bench Odes by Bachchoo
In his argument at the Oxford Union and then in his book An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor puts forward a compelling argument to prove that British colonialism, first under the East India Company and then under the Raj, exploited India for material gain. I don’t think anyone, Indian, British or even a well-read Martian, would dispute the truth of the argument, though I have heard eminent historians counter some of the facts and put others in a different context and light.
I am unqualified to take issue with any of them, and this is not a review of the book. The one argument that will deservedly gather popularity and momentum is that exploiters and conquerors should seek to balance history by paying reparations to the exploited and the conquered.
I am all for the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. One could go further. After riots broke out in London, Manchester and Liverpool and the rioters began smashing into shops and looting them, an Irish comedian appeared on TV saying: “What makes these people think they can barge in and take what’s clearly not theirs? — Have you ever been to the British Museum?”
Shashi Tharoor makes a clear case for reparations to India. On behalf of us all he now wants the Queen of England and its Prime Ministers to humbly apologise for the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of innocents. Who can disagree or dissent? But what form would such an apology take? A permanent monument with a declaration of regret? Theresa May kissing Narendra Modi’s feet at the United Nations? There are several possibilities. But the reparation issue is a bit more complicated.
Some years ago in London I was invited to chair a lecture by the Marxist philosopher and cricket writer C.L.R James, whose biography I subsequently wrote. CLR, or “Nello” as we called him, was a friend and one of the wisest men I have had the privilege to know. He was speaking on that occasion about three Afro-American women writers who are now very well known, but were at that time just beginning their careers.
The lecture was packed out and among the audience was a crew of the followers of a lady who called herself “Queen Mother Moore”. She was dressed in elaborate African robes and jewellery and was accompanied by an American gentleman who had a diadem tied to his forehead.
After the lecture I asked the audience to put questions to Nello. James answered one or two questions pertaining to the topic and the diademed gentleman raised his hand, got to his feet and, ignoring the topic of the writers, put his question. “When slavery was abolished the government of the USA promised the ex-slaves three acres of land and a mule as reparations. What are you, CLR, going to do about it as they haven’t yet paid?”
I didn’t know whether I should disqualify the question and turned to Nello, who said he was quite happy to answer and proceeded to so do.
“I am not in a position to do anything about it but I wish you all strength in your struggle and when you win I will gladly take a share in the three acres, but you can keep the mule.”
The audience, Black and White, seemed to appreciate the answer, but “Queen Mother Moore”, her prince and her retinue filed out of the hall.
There are undoubtedly those in the United States who still demand reparations from the state that allowed the brutal exploitation of their ancestors, but the practicalities of repairing history are daunting. Who pays whom, for what and how does one put more than a sentimental value on it? Another question for the reparation movement is how far back in history do we go? Would “Queen Mother Moore’s” prince concede that the native American tribes have a very strong case for reparations which precedes that of the Afro-Americans subjected to slavery?
For instance, to get personal about it, and quote the indisputable fact that the Arabs invaded Persia in 641 CE and subjected the Zoroastrian population to several forms of cruelty, forcibly converting them to abandon their faith and embrace Islam. My ancestors, the Parsis, suffered these privations and finally fled to India as refugees. I would volunteer to lead a movement for reparations from Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the movement should be called Pay All Parsis (PAP) and we should certainly invite Shashi to be its vice-president, which post I’m sure he’ll accept if he’s not too busy at the time being Prime Minister of India.
PAP could genuinely debate whether the present ayatollah-led regime of Iran should also be liable for paying reparations as their ancestors must have collaborated with the Arabs in persecuting and depriving our Parsi ancestors of their land and freedom. No doubt Shashi as our Veep will argue for making demands on Iran as, on a smaller scale than the East India Company, and in a one-off incident, Nadir Shah of Iran raided India in the 18th century and carried off vast amounts of loot and the Peacock Throne. I don’t know if the throne still exists and whether it is kept in Ayatollah Khameini’s sitting room, but I am sure Shashi wants it back.
Then of course there is the question of earlier invasions of the subcontinent. One theory certainly says that the Aryans came from Central Asia and drove the Dravidians south, taking their land. The Ramayan tells us that the god Hanuman set fire to Sri Lanka and so far no one from that country has demanded reparations for the damage. And then there was the destruction of Zoroastrian Perseppolis by the vandal Alexander, and those Macedonians certainly owe us Parsis!