The University of Edinburgh welcomed Indian politician and bestselling author Dr Shashi Tharoor on its fourth celebration of India Day.
The politician gave a passionate lecture reflecting on the British Raj in India, based on his new book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India.The speech saw many University students and visitors listen to the esteemed Indian politician speak, and line up anxiously afterwards to get their book signed, and maybe even a quick selfie too.
Dr Tharoor became an internet sensation after a video of the speech he delivered at the Oxford Union on whether Britain owed reparations to her former colonies went viral. It ignited a long-needed debate on whether the British Empire helped advance or destroy the countries she invaded, as well as raising the question as to how it was possible to study history at A-Levels or Advanced Higher without learning a single line on British colonialism. Since then, Indians across the globe – as well as the British – have been re-examining the way British colonialism is approached in education.
As a British Asian who studied history all the way to Advanced Higher, it was shocking that the history of my people was virtually ignored. Seeing British colonialism in India reduced to a two-column table headed ‘strengths and weaknesses’ – the weaknesses being ‘locals did not always get on with the British’ – is not only inaccurate but has the potential to damage our perception of British Imperialism.
Britain seems to be suffering from what Shashi Tharoor calls “historical amnesia”. Many young people today haven’t even heard about the British Empire itself, let alone what it did to countries such as India. Of course, Tharoor only brought up the British Raj – what about all the other countries Britain colonised that have been lightly covered or altogether ignored in our history curriculum?
Several months ago the BBC produced a series focusing on Black history and how it has been ignored in Britain. Some focused on the slave trade in Africa, while others followed the lives of slaves who had been born and brought up in Britain, but had faded from British memory.
Two months ago, the BBC also did a series of programmes to mark India’s 70th year of independence from the British. It re-examined partition, and the British rule of India in general, as well as bringing up the question as to why so few Britons knew about it. Whilst many thought there was something unhealthy about the nostalgia the British seemed to hold towards those ‘glory’ days, the series gave a sensitive and insightful approach to these uncomfortable topics. It once again re-ignited debate, informing many that the partition was far more brutal and damaging at the time than people realised – and that one of the consequences was Indian people coming here.
In light of such successful British approaches, we have proven that we are capable of educating people on the British Raj and British colonialism in general. Once they are informed on the facts, a whole world of possibilities open up: debates, discussions, questions and answers can be exchanged. Whatever one’s view of the British Raj, the most important thing is that we talk about it.
Image: Suzanne Plunkett