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Should We Atone for Our Ancestors’ Sins?


Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union debate (May 2015) on the proposition “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies” garnered a lot of attention. His argument for the motion was quickly followed by his recent book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India in which he dwells upon the issue of reparations and apology in a greater detail. He writes that, “I, for one, dearly hope that a British prime minister finds the heart, and spirit to get on his or her knees […] and beg forgiveness from the Indians.”

Tharoor’s book is essentially a historical narration of India’s colonial encounter, but the question of paying reparations or apologising for historic “wrongs,” involves a philosophical enquiry as well. Let me highlight five interesting and philosophically-enticing dimensions of the debate, which, perhaps, have been somewhat eclipsed by the historic tenor of the book and the Oxford debate.

First, the basic question that underlies the debate on reparations is: Should we atone for the sins of our ancestors? If Britain does so, an argument can be made that the present British generation is paying an undeserved penalty for the acts of their ancestors. Similarly, if the present generation of Indians receives reparations or accepts an apology for atrocities inflicted on their ancestors, an argument can be made that the present Indian generation is reaping unmerited benefits.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has investigated the issue in his book Justice. He rejects the body of opinions descending from John Locke to John Rawls, that he collectively calls “moral individualism,” which argues that each individual is a free moral agent and, therefore, not morally responsible for the actions of any other individual.

Sandel argues that moral individualism leaves little space for collective responsibility, collective morality and solidarity, without which societies and nations would be torn asunder and collective group identities would become meaningless. Therefore, Sandel may agree with Tharoor that the British people, as a collective, bear the moral burden of historic injustices they have inflicted.

Second, Tharoor, like Sandel, argues that rendering apologies for the historic injustices is irrevocably linked to the sense of national and collective moral responsibility and hence, to national identity. However, it must be argued that the ideas of nationhood and national identity are based, apart from a shared collective history and culture, on collectively “forgetting” the acrimony and injustices of the past and the selective elision of historic atrocities. Tharoor’s book fails to recognise this aspect.

Third, if Britain must apologise for colonising India, must India apologise to large parts of Asia that the historic Indian rulers, Guptas, etc, had colonised? History and culture are like a fabric of several interknitted strands. When one strand criss-crosses another, fragments of history are born. When the British criss-crossed with the Indians in the colonial context, colonial Indian history was born. The same can be said for the history of any country in any period. Tharoor’s demand for an apology is tantamount to fraying the fabric of history by separating its interwoven strands.

Fourth, it is interesting that Tharoor opens his book by citing American philosopher–writer Will Durant’s criticism of British colonialism. In a different context, Durant once wrote in his acclaimed book Pleasures of Philosophy, “Morals that change slowly, are changing today like clouds before the wind.” If morals are like clouds before winds, then can moral standards of the present age be the yardstick to judge the moral worth of actions in the past? Liberal democracy and sovereignty are the morals of the present just as colonialism and imperialism were, more or less, accepted norms of the past.

Lastly, there is the question that if India did not have had its colonial experience, how would have Indian history paved? Tharoor has made an appreciable effort to argue that the British colonisation of India was its “age of darkness” and India would have been much better off without it. There are others, like Nirad C Chaudhary, who see India’s colonial encounter as a watershed that transformed it into a modern nation.

Historians attempt to explain events of history through reason, rational arguments, and cause-and-effect. But, the fact remains that these are all speculations because the “laws of motion” that govern the movement of history are beyond rational comprehension. Irrespective of the rational merit of these historical arguments, it is impossible to speculate with certainty, what trajectory Indian history would have taken without its colonial encounter. Historians cannot be omniscient cosmic observers.

Suyash Saxena


Updated On : 14th Apr, 2017


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