I am both amused & bemused by the recent brouhaha on various Social Media networks about Shashi Tharoor's arguments for the motion, 'Britain Does Owe Reparations to India', made in the Oxford Union debating society, to which ostensibly he would have been invited.
Now, don't get me wrong. Shashi Tharoor is a professional debater who has won many accolades for his debating skills since his school days and later. Personally, I have been witness to his winning inter-college debating competitions and I have no doubt that during his days at St. Stephen's and later, he would have walked away with the top honours in most such contests that he may have participated in.
As I recall, he has spoken on the same topic on at least a couple of occasions before and may even have suggested the topic to the Oxford Union in this case, together with his willingness to argue in favour of the motion. Given the fact that his personal and political fortunes have been under a cloud for sometime now, he would have relished the opportunity to showcase not only his debating skills but also his ability to put one across the British who colonized India for over two centuries, right in their own lair, as it were. Tharoor has been one of the earliest adopters of Social Media among Indian politicians and still has one of the largest followings on networks like Twitter & Facebook and he would have relished reaching out to a global audience and particularly his fellow-Indians by sharing this clip on various Social Media networks.
That he did so, is perfectly normal, more so given the fact that he is today a public figure and a politician. That it should start circulating on SM so widely, often to the accompaniment of jingoistic chest-thumping by many Indians, is a phenomenon which somewhat bemuses me and bears closer scrutiny. More than Tharoor's debating skills, the admiration from most people seems to be on account of the fact that he 'put one across a predominantly British audience' and that he 'bearded the lion in its own den.' That the points he made, which incidentally I am not disputing, wouldn't have made the slightest difference to anyone on either side of the Suez, Britain and India included, is hardly of any consequence. What matters really is the joy in the hearts of many Indians on account of the fact that the British have been told where they get off and the hope that henceforth, some of them at least may labour under a guilt complex and stop preening about the glorious days of the Raj, during which the sun never set on the British empire. There is, of course, little evidence to suggest that present-day Britons indeed do so.
What is one to make of all this? My take is that, more than anything else, what this indicates is the colonial hangover and the deep-seated insecurity, particularly w.r.t. Anglo-Saxons and Caucasians, that most Indians still seem to labour under. That U.K. and Europe are not greatly influential in the global economic order currently, gives the insecure Indian vicarious pleasure. Finally, it would appear, he has avenged his ancestors who had possibly suffered and toiled silently under the 'Gora' boss or owner who called the shots.
Just like the typical Chinese mainlander some years back, Indians love to wallow in the feeling that they continue to remain the underdog and happen to be people who have been repeatedly cheated and wronged. This persecution complex, if one may call it that, is greatly exploited by Indian politicians of all hues, either by resorting to various 'wag the dog' scenarios, or, as was customary even a couple of decades ago, generally referring to a 'foreign hand' spreading disquiet and sowing the seeds of dissension among otherwise perfectly 'happy and contented' Indians.
As a corollary of this general psyche, criticism of any kind is often deeply frowned on and railed at. I recall the storm in a teacup some years back when this clip of historian Patrick French, eloquently detailing the failures of the Indian democratic model, went into orbit. Though the spread of Social Media, particularly among Indians, was far more limited at that time, Patrick French was widely denounced and painted as a backstabber for spilling the beans about India's internal realities to an international audience. For those in the know, the fact that he had been domiciled in India for sometime, had written a couple of books on India's contemporary and pre-independence history and had married an Indian lady, if anything, made his speech even more objectionable.
An American ambassador to India, sometime during the late 1970s, expressed his puzzlement about the fact that the U.S.A apparently was the country most Indians loved to hate, despite the fact that it was clearly the numero uno overseas destination for most ambitious and well-heeled Indians. Even a couple of decades later, not much has changed, despite the unusually large number of Indians who have made their way to America during the 1990s and the early years of this century, owing to the boom in the I.T. software and services industries. An erstwhile Minister, who had himself done his masters at M.I.T., summed up the whole dichotomy well by describing it as one of 'Yankee go home - and take me with you'.
References to India's glorious and wholly mythical past, at times referred to as the 'Vedic Ages', when India had apparently invented everything from complicated surgical transplants to commercial flights, still elicits a sense of pride and wistfulness among a large number of Indians, quite a few of them being the urban educated kinds. That all these impressive discoveries and bodies of knowledge got dissipated and buried somewhere over the centuries, is attributed to the doings of various marauding invaders who came into the country and ruled parts of it at various points of time. When N.R. Narayana Murthy, a co-founder and erstwhile chairperson of India's homegrown I.T. giant, Infosys, lamented the fact that India had no invention to speak of in the sixty odd years since gaining independence, rather than introspecting on the probable causes, much of the discussion on SM networks was about how wrong it was, on the part of Narayana Murthy, to articulate such facts publicly, rather than reliving and holding up for the world the glory days of the mythical 'Vedic Ages'.
Over the years, as more and more Chinese mainlanders started going overseas for academics, business or pleasure, they managed to shed some of their pet peeves about their past and became more confident, assertive and surer of their place in the global scheme of things. Gone were most of the chips that they carried around on their shoulders, even a couple of decades ago. That a similar change of mindset has not yet happened with large numbers of Indians can be squarely blamed on India's venal, manipulative and divisive politicians.