by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group
Debate may be a sport but it is decidedly a way of communicating ideas. Buddhists did it in the past and so did ancient Romans. But with the ‘argumentative Indian’ having lately turned into ‘combatant Indian’, and parliamentary debates turning into such athletic feats as ‘rushing to the well of the House’, it is no wonder that the YouTube of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s fireworks at Oxford Union, will ‘go viral’, like an epidemic. In a debate, it is wit, argument and polish that count, but getting substance on one’s side is a long row to hoe. “Oxford debate is of a huge significance...it is good that Shahiji was there,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi complimented Tharoor.
It is another matter if Oxford debates are indeed of a “huge significance” but is it right, as Tharoor argued, that India could be a better place if the British had not occupied it? I am not sure if India’s political leaders have given the matter a thought as they must be thinking it a waste of time to ponder on what historians call “counter-facts”, or the study of the “what-if” scenarios. One doesn’t have to be a serious student of History at the DU where I studied. Even a cursory thinking could have shown the flimsiness of Tharoor’s logic, though his wit is overpowering, and his timing is like that of a Broadway actor. History is about the past which cannot be unmade, much as you cannot unring a bell. Things that are hideous monstrosities today were normal business in the past, like suttee or human sacrifice in our country. But a demand for reparation comes after a moral judgment. Could India be a better place to live if it were Clive, and not Seraj-ud-daula, who got slain in the 1757 battle of Plassey? There is yet another larger question; could there be a country called India if Clive hadn’t won in Plassey? Both these questions hinge on counter-facts.
Such a situation would obviously have left much of India—particularly territories that subsequently emerged as the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay—in the dark Middle Ages, with the lives of ordinary citizens “nasty, brutish, short”, as philosopher Locke said it would be if there were no monarch. With the rule of later Mughals crippled by court intrigue, and invasion from the west, India was in a state of anarchy in the pre-British period. Regardless of who sat on the throne in Delhi, it was the local chieftain who fleeced the people with arbitrary laws and armies of thugs. The central highway of north India, made by Sher Shah Suri in another age, had almost disappeared by then due to encroachment and disrepair. What was left of it became unusable as thuggees, or highway stranglers, roamed around. Men were so afraid of burglary that storing life’s savings in underground vaults and all sorts of hidey-holes became customary.
If Clive had lost in Plassey, there would be continuous
Muslim of Franco-Muslim rule and there would have been no
Nehru or Modi to address from the ramparts
This gruesome existence is the fabric of India’s immediate pre-British past. And politicians with no clue to their own country’s history laud a talk-show artist, such as Tharoor. Tharoor indulges in sophistry when he says India accounted for 24 per cent of global trade at the time of its British conquest, and it became 4 per cent when the British left. Apart from pre-modern age economic data being highly questionable, it is also quite silly to boast of trade share when agricultural items alone were traded, and that too produced with only human hand and animal hooves.
The West rose to the top only after the industrial revolution moved apace. India fell to the bottom of the heap not because the British pulled it down but because Britain gave India railways and steam boats only to suit her purpose, not India’s. Would Seraj-ud-daula, or his progeny, have brought India enough rail engines and metalled roads and trucks to put the country at least at the same level where it was in 1947?
It is no-brainer that all Islamic powers on the east of Turkey were in an advanced stage of decay in the 18th century, and Seraj-ud-daula’s death following his defeat in Plassey was its coup de grace in India, delivered by the British. If it didn’t happen, or Tipu Sultan, for that matter, could escape death in 1801, maybe the French would have tried to colonize India, to be ultimately trumped by the British following Napoleon’s fall in Waterloo. But fifty years make too long a gap in history. If the British returned to India in the 19th century, it is doubtful if they would have bothered to rule over the entire country. For them, it would have sufficed to build a ring of forts on the coast to control the sea lanes and use the hinterland as plantation and its people as slaves.
It is nobody’s argument that the British landed in India to rule it as ‘benevolent dictator’ or ‘enlightened despot’. Tharoor is right in saying that India gave employment to Britain’s successive generations of youngsters who could not otherwise be employed. Growing automation of her domestic industry and high wages undermined the island nation’s capacity to keep its economy in full employment. But that does not imply that keeping Europeans out of India for two hundred years could be a good idea. Tharoor is of course justified in barking and yelling at Britain in a debating hall, but political leaders should be careful in expressing their approval, or otherwise, of views aired in a non-political arena.
A theory, for that matter, is afloat that Modi praised Tharoor to win him over after friendly noises he had been making for quite some time. For Modi, volunteering to be a jury on it is an existential issue. If Clive had lost in Plassey, there would be continuous Muslim of Franco-Muslim rule, and no Hindutva, no RSS, and, therefore, little chance of his addressing from the rampart of Red Fort. Isn’t he thankful to the British for making Hindus rulers again after a millennium?
(The author is National Editor, Lokmat group)