A stellar cast of speakers assembled in London to debate the motion ‘The Indian sub-continent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism.’ All the speakers were in swashbuckling mode under strict instructions from the chair, Keith Vaz, MP, to stick to time. Mr. Vaz, who is well used to keeping order in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs, warned that speakers risked the humiliation of being cut off in mid-sentence if they exceeded their allotted 5 minutes. There were sparks and glints as speakers reveled in verbal swordplay. The debate took place in the imposing Supreme Court, the highest appellate court in the United Kingdom.
First to present the case for the motion was Nelofar Bakhtyar, Newsweek (Pakistan), who chose to focus on the long-term agricultural benefits to undivided Punjab from the elaborate canal irrigation network set up by the British. She made the point that Punjab’s strong economy today, on both sides of the border, owed its prosperity to the British Empire. She said the textile industry, the largest in Pakistan, was dependent on the canal network.
Arguing against the motion, celebrated historian, critic and broadcaster, William Dalrymple, pointed out that India and China were far richer and more powerful long before the arrival of the British in India. He said Britain’s main contribution was to plunder and destroy India’s economic base and institutions. Britain’s colonization of India, he declared, began and ended with the gun, through violence. He cited the case of Robert Clive who single-handedly looted Bengal bringing back his ill-gotten wealth to Britain.
Martin Bell, ex-BBC correspondent and former MP, spoke next to defend the British contribution to India by presenting scenarios if the British had not conquered India. He posed a series of questions: Would India prefer to have Shakespeare or no Shakespeare, be with or without cricket? With or without the transport system set up by the British? The Judiciary? Education? With a triumphant flourish he pointed to his debating opponent, Shashi Tharoor, as the embodiment of the best of colonial heritage, a man who spoke English better than the English and an outstanding product of an education system introduced by the British.
Shashi Tharoor airily dismissed Martin Bell’s compliments. He listed all the damage wrought by the British. Indian weavers had their looms destroyed and thumbs broken by the British, food was diverted to Europe and famines devastated parts of India. As for the English language, this was not a deliberate gift but an instrument of imperialism. He argued that change would have come to India anyway – without the Empire. He described cricket as an accidental discovery of the British. His sentiments were echoed by Nick Robins from HSBC and author of The Corporation that changed the world: How the East India Company shaped the modern multinational.
The final speaker for the motion Kwasi Kwarteng, British MP and author of Ghosts of Empire (about the legacy of the British Empire) pounced on Dalrymple for praising the Mughals and implying that they were better than the British. He challenged Dalrymple by highlighting the flaws under Mughal rule. The Mughals he said were not known for democracy and an open society.
At the outset of the debate, Keith Vaz had called for a show of hands from the audience to indicate which side of the argument they favored. The majority was in favor of the motion. At the tally at the end of the debate there was a clear swing in support for the No camp. So it was a clear victory for those who made their case passionately that the Indian sub-continent DID NOT benefit more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism’
What gave the occasion added significance was the fact that the debate was taking place on the day when the Scottish people were making their historic decision whether to break away from the UK. (Some of us reflected that no such referendum was held in India in 1947!) The venue of the debate also had symbolic value since it was held at the Supreme Court – the apex of Britain’s imposing edifice of law on which India’s legal institutions and practices are still based.
The debate was organized by the Indo-British Heritage Trust which is marking 400 years of historical links between Britain and India. The overall view after the animated debate appeared to be that the British did not leave their institutions as a gift to India, it was the people of India who turned what British colonial rulers left behind to their advantage. The real winners of the debate were the speakers who rose to the occasion clearly enjoyed the cut and thrust of the exchanges and entertained the audience with their knowledge, sharp wit and fiery eloquence.