What Shashi Tharoor Doesn't Understand About Colonialism

Tharoor treats colonialism as a moral phenomenon of the past, one that existed in a vacuum, while it is actually a phenomenon with an ongoing material impact on the lives of people.

Over the last few years, Shashi Tharoor has become the hero of many people in India. Besides his pop-postcolonialism (something that I shall later attempt to question), Tharoor is famous for his charm, good looks and style of argument. His general appeal, I argue, can be understood by considering the specific demographic he is most appealing to – liberal elites. While some of his claims are important – the most famous (and obvious) one being that India would have been better off not being colonised by the British – I think the politics that Tharoor embodies and promotes are shallow and dangerous.


Shashi Tharoor. Credit: PTI

To be fair to Tharoor, however, I must begin my critique by acknowledging that he did more than simply point out that colonialism is bad; he went through the trouble of researching and writing a book on the many ways in which the British exploited India (An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India). Although Tharoor definitely isn’t the first to do it, he takes the time to dispel a more colonialist view of history, for which he is due some credit.

His book might be understood as a response to the work of scholars such as Nigel Biggar – whose controversial project on the ethics of empire has recently been a point of contention within Oxford University – and Niall Ferguson – who famously feuded with Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books over his book Civilization: The West and The Rest. It should be made clear, however, that there aren’t many historians who agree with Biggar and Ferguson – or even take their arguments seriously. As such, Tharoor’s basic historical premise about the nature of colonialism isn’t particularly controversial or unique.


Shashi Tharoor,
An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Aleph Book Company, 2016

While I agree that colonialism was undoubtedly bad for India, I believe that Tharoor profoundly misunderstands the nature and legacy of colonialism. This issue comes up most clearly in his famous Oxford Union debate. During the debate, having skillfully dismantled the claims of his opponents, Tharoor demands a single symbolic rupee from the British as reparations for colonialism. In making this demand, I believe that Tharoor makes a fundamental error: he separates the legacy of colonialism from its very materiality. What this means is that he treats colonialism as a moral phenomenon of the past, one that existed in a vacuum, rather than as a phenomenon with an ongoing material impact on the lives of people.

What does it mean to understand the materiality of colonialism? Consider the families across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that have suffered since the British rule. For them, colonialism lives on in the many cycles of oppression that were either created, perpetuated, or intensified by British colonialism. Unemployment, famine, poor sanitary conditions, lack of access to education and healthcare, cast-based oppression, religious violence, gender-based violence and myriad other issues are all a part of the legacy of colonialism. The very framework of reparations denies this material legacy by assuming that colonialism existed (in the past) as a merely moral aberration – one that can be overcome through acknowledgement, remorse and punitive damages.

It is particularly disappointing that Tharoor insists on this framework because he seems to be aware of the ways in which colonialism continues to have adverse effects on postcolonial societies. For instance, in his speech, he holds colonialism responsible for “the persistence and in some cases, the creation of racial, ethnic, or religious tensions.” By accepting the terms of the Oxford Union debate and agreeing that one is either pro- or anti-reparations, Tharoor tacitly accepts an anti-materialist understanding of colonialism altogether.

What do reparations – symbolic or otherwise – do to remove oppressed peoples from the cycles of oppression that they continue to be caught in? Absolutely nothing. To ask for reparations, and symbolic ones at that, is to doubly mistreat and perpetuate the violent legacy of colonialism in India. Imagine, for example, claiming that the payment of reparations – moral or material – could somehow absolve men of hundreds of years of sexism and misogyny. As such, Tharoor’s reliance on a framework of reparations represents a fundamental mischaracterisation of the nature of colonialism and how it was and is experienced.

In his critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work Between the World and Me, R.L. Stephens makes a very similar point about the materiality of racism in the US. Stephens points out how Coates – like Tharoor – is too concerned with the supposedly emancipatory power of reparations. He highlights the ways in which oppression – across identities – is inextricably tied to material conditions and therefore class. I argue that the same can and must be said about colonialism. More importantly, Stephens also points out how a materialist conception of oppression leads to a more dynamic politics of intersectionality and solidarity. Referencing the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Stephens says:

Solidarity from below, between cafeteria workers, truck drivers, secretaries, and any number of everyday people is worth magnitudes more than special acknowledgement from elites. This solidarity through shared struggle, as Fannie Lou Hamer recognised, is the foundation for social transformation.

It is precisely politics from below, that acknowledges oppression across identities and communities, that I am advocating for. Tharoor, in contrast, valorises pre-colonial India and pretends like colonialism existed in a vacuum. He grants agency to the oppressors, implying that their moral absolution – as opposed to the solidarity of oppressed peoples – will somehow liberate India from the legacy of colonialism. Tharoor’s politics are dangerous then because they reaffirm the liberal relegation of politics to the realms of culture and debate and obfuscate the class-struggle at the heart of Indian society.

The appeal of Tharoor and his politics to liberal elites is clear. A politics of moral debt and individual action – as opposed to structural oppression and collective struggle – allows liberals to ignore their very real part in the perpetuation of the legacy of colonialism. All it takes is a click of the share button to feel like one is making a difference. Liberals aren’t just captured by Tharoor’s arguments, charm, and wit than, they are captured by the way in which all these things reaffirm their politics of elitism. While I’d like to believe that Tharoor himself would be open to these critiques, I maintain that his arguments and cult of personality in general obscure the material legacy of colonialism in India.

Rothin Datta is a 24-year-old writer and aspiring academic living in Mumbai.