UK must pay India reparations for its colonial plunder. Germany offers lessons

Updated on Jun 09, 2021 07:49 AM IST

In apologising unambiguously and agreeing to pay such a high sum as reparations, Germany’s actions stand in stark contrast to the approach adopted by its European neighbours, many of whom maintained vast colonial empires in the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries

The National Salt Satyagraha Memorial, Dandi, Gujarat. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
The National Salt Satyagraha Memorial, Dandi, Gujarat. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
BySiddharth S Aatreya

In May 2021, the German government announced, in an unprecedented move, that it had agreed to pay €1.1 billion over 39 years to the Herero and Nama people of present-day Namibia as reparations for the genocide it perpetrated there between 1904 and 1908. As the colonial administrators of what was then called South West Africa, the German military caused the death of nearly 80% of the Herero population and 50% of the Nama population at the time.

Calling it “the darkest period in our shared history”, German foreign minister Heiko Maas stated that Germany has a historical and moral responsibility to pay reparations to and seek forgiveness from Namibia and the victims’ descendants for its horrific past crimes. Maas stated that the amount would be channelled towards “reconstruction and development”, with the local community playing a critical role in determining how these resources will be deployed.

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In apologising unambiguously and agreeing to pay such a high sum as reparations, Germany’s actions stand in stark contrast to the approach adopted by its European neighbours, many of whom maintained vast colonial empires in the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries and have staunchly refused to even apologise for their past actions as colonisers.

Thus, while the issue of seeking a formal apology and reparations from India’s past colonisers, the United Kingdom (UK), has received widespread attention in India over the past several years, Germany’s renewed approach to the issue should trigger a re-evaluation of India’s position on this.

The case for reparations

Briefly, the case for the payment of reparations by the UK to India rests on three planks.

One, the British engaged in the deliberate, systematic de-industrialisation of India, destroying Indian cloth, steel and shipbuilding industries, among others. They did this for their own benefit, building administrative, agricultural and infrastructural mechanisms designed instead to extract Indian natural resources to the maximum possible extent. They then used these resources to fuel the rapid industrial growth in Britain and treated India as a captive market for British-made goods.

This was coupled with high tariffs and barriers to trade that resulted in the sustained draining of capital from India, leaving a country that contributed to more than 20% of global trade before British colonial rule in a crippled economic state when it achieved independence in 1945. As William Dalrymple explains in his recent book, The Anarchy, this was part of a deliberate plan to drain India’s wealth for British profit – India’s initial coloniser, after all, was a for-profit corporation (the East India Company) and not the Crown.

Two, the British visited extreme violence, famine and suffering on the Indian people to achieve this goal of draining India’s wealth. Unfortunately, there are innumerable instances of such cruelty. Some prominent examples include the ghastly Bengal Famine of 1943, in which more than 2.5 million Indians were killed due to artificial food shortages created to meet growing British demand during the Second World War and the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre of 1919, in which hundreds of people peacefully celebrating the festival of Vaisakhi were murdered in cold blood by British General Dyer, who faced little to no repercussions for his actions.

Across the 200+ years of Company and Crown rule over India, there are many such examples of deliberate actions taken to sacrifice Indian lives to serve British economic, political and strategic interests.

Third, the British sowed the seeds of communal tension and division in India, culminating in the bloody partition of 1945. This was achieved through what were called “Divide and Rule” policies, strategically allying with some caste and religious groups, and pitting such groups against each other, to consolidate their power. Indeed, through actions such as the creation of separate Hindu, Muslim and Christian personal laws and separate Hindu and Muslim electorates from 1909 onwards, the British played a central role in the creation of the distinct “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities that continue to be at severe loggerheads in India today.

The case for reparations argues that the cumulative impact of these three planks was the economic devastation and social fragmentation of India, coupled with the concurrent enrichment of Britain. This has led to the vast disparities between India and the UK seen today. These actions always have been and always will be morally reprehensible – indeed, it is said that as far back as 1788, graphic descriptions of the Company’s treatment of Indians in Warren Hastings’ impeachment trial in Westminster Hall caused many in the audience to “swoon and faint”, prompting backlash against the Company’s cruel actions in India.

The continued perpetration of these moral wrongs over hundreds of years, therefore, warrants an expression of guilt and remorse by the UK through the payment of reparations.

The renewed case

The most prominent proponent of this current case for British reparations to India is Congress parliamentarian and former minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor. His viral speech at the Oxford Union in 2015 arguing for such reparations even triggered a rare instance of cross-party political agreement, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsing his view that the British owed reparations to India.

In his speech, however, Tharoor concluded that since the damage sustained by India was so vast and unquantifiable, the amount of reparations paid by the UK to India did not matter. In his view, even an annual payment of £1 by the UK government to India would be enough, as it is the sentiment of taking responsibility for past crimes committed by the British in India and the expression of true guilt and remorse by the British that would go a long way in healing the persistent wounds of colonialism. This is the view Tharoor has since maintained, including in his book on the subject, Inglorious Empire.

Germany’s approach to Namibian reparations, however, should trigger a re-appreciation of this view. Notably, Germany did not simply express remorse and apologise – it acknowledged the economic and social impact of its colonial rule, particularly its heinous genocide of the Herero and Nama people, and committed to paying a sizeable sum towards the “development and reconstruction” of its former colony.

The principle underlying Germany’s actions, therefore, goes a step further in establishing that a former coloniser owes a unique and significantly heightened obligation to materially contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of its former colony. This does not warrant fresh interference in the former colony’s affairs – Germany has, importantly, left decisions on how to use the money it will pay to Namibia to the Namibian people.

Applied to the UK-India context, this principle means that India must not stop at just demanding a formal apology and tokenistic reparations from the UK. Instead, it must remind the UK of the significantly heightened obligation it has to contribute to India’s economic, social and cultural growth compared to any other member of the international community.

Set against the recent decision of the UK government to slash its foreign aid budget, the importance of this new principle becomes clear. Foreign aid given by the UK to its former colonies is not a benevolent handout. Instead, it must be viewed as part of the ongoing discharge of Britain’s obligation to materially contribute, in a unique and significantly heightened fashion, to India’s economic, social and cultural growth.

Of course, Tharoor is right in saying that the actual economic impact of British colonialism in India is unquantifiable, and any reasonable estimate of this impact would be far too large an amount for Britain to pay to India in today’s terms. However, this unlikelihood of full compensation does not mean that India should abandon its rightful claim to a significant material contribution to its growth and development from the UK. The actual amount so paid will likely be the subject of much debate and discussion, but these difficulties in arriving at a reasonable sum do not nullify India’s principled entitlement in this regard.

The lesson from Germany

From the then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt sinking to his knees at a memorial to the thousands of Jews who lost their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto as a sign of German atonement for its role in the Holocaust to the payment of record reparations to Namibia, Germany has set a remarkable benchmark for how other former colonisers and nations that have perpetrated ghastly crimes should apologise and atone for these crimes.

Germany’s approach, including its continued payment of Holocaust reparations, represents the best-possible way of achieving true reconciliation between the present-day descendants of former perpetrators and victims of mass crimes and systems of inequality, like colonial rule.

And so, while a formal apology from a senior member of the British government or even a member of the British Royal Family would go a long way in repairing India’s lingering wounds from colonialism, India must not stop there. The precedent of Germany’s approach to Namibian reparations tells us that India must continue to rightfully demand what is materially owed to it by its former coloniser and ensure that Britain plays a role in remedying the devastating impact of its avarice in India.

Siddharth S Aatreya is a lawyer based in London and Bengaluru

The views expressed are personal

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