What do we owe India for the Empire?

A recent call for Britain to compensate its former colonies has gone viral. Is it right to pay up? Simon Wilson investigates.


Is the Koh-i-Noor diamond part of the spoils of war?

A recent call for Britain to compensate its former colonies has gone viral.Is it right to pay up? Simon Wilson investigates.

Why are reparations in the news?

A speech by Indian diplomat and Congress party politician Shashi Tharoor, made at an Oxford Union debate at the end of May, which argued that "Britain owes reparations to her former colonies", has "gone viral" in India reigniting the debate about the legacy of colonialism and how much Britain should be asked to pay.

The speech has been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, and received widespread coverage in the Indian media. Last week the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, joined a long list of Indian politicians endorsing Tharoor's view as that of all right-thinking patriots.

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What's his argument?

In brief, that Britain's rise over the course of 200 years to become the world's superpower by the 19th century was "financed by its depredations of India". According to Tharoor, India's share of the world economy dropped from 23% when the British arrived to just 4% when they left. "Britain's industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India... we paid for our own oppression. It's a bit rich to oppress, maim, kill, torture and repress and then celebrate democracy at the end of it."

Instead, India is owed an apology and reparations even if only symbolic. On the face of it, it's a compelling case, and it is not just Indians who agree: this week Keith Vaz, Britain's longest-serving MP of Indian descent, endorsed the principle of colonial reparations, and said Prime Minister David Cameron should use Modi's trip to London in November to accede to one of Tharoor's demands the repatriation to India of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which currently sits in a 1937 crown made for the Queen's late mother.

Who would he give it to?

That's where it gets tricky. The British acquired the diamond from Lahore after the colonial conquest of the Sikh Empire. Given that Lahore is not in India any more, but in Pakistan, there might be at least two credible claims on it from national governments. But then, as Akhilesh Pillalamarri argues in The Diplomat magazine this week, the diamond has never been the property of the Indian state in any case, but a prize fought for by waves of competing powers.

The jewel was found in the 12th or 13th century in the territories of the Kakatiya Dynasty in modern-day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (in the south of India). It was then probably seized by the Khilji Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in a raid in 1310, taken north and passed to subsequent Delhi dynasties. The Mughal Emperor Babur seized the diamond during his conquest of India in 1526; the Persians acquired it when they seized Delhi in 1739, and it finally ended up (via Kandahar in Afghanistan) with a Sikh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 1800s.

Why is this relevant?

Because it illuminates important facets of the debate. First, who should receive compensation for historic wrongs, and who should pay? In the case of the diamond, who if anyone is its rightful owner? What rights and obligations do modern states inherit from their predecessors? In the case of imperial conquest, why is the British Raj any more morally or financially culpable than any of the previous conquerors from both within the Indian subcontinent and outside it?

India's economy did not decline while the British were in charge it merely failed to keep up with the industrial revolutions in western Europe and massive demographic-economic surges in the Americas and elsewhere. This might not have been good news for India in relative terms, but it doesn't amount to wholesale "looting" the description favoured by many Indian commentators.

What precedents are there?

The payment of post-war reparations has always been part of war. Rome imposed vast indemnities on Carthage after the first and second Punic Wars. The debate over the "unfair" nature of the post-World War I reparations regime and its role in fomenting World War II is well known, and the issue has been back in the news after Greece claimed it was owed €278.7bn by Germany; Berlin believes its World War II obligations were settled once and for all in treaty agreements signed at unification in 1990.

But the possibility of reparations being payable for macro-historical phenomena, such as "British colonialism" or "the slave trade", is more contentious (in terms of their morality and putative effectiveness) and harder to quantify. The only major recent example was Italy's bid to reach agreement with Libya.

Italy's reparations to Libya

In 2008, after decades of negotiations, Italy's then primeminister, Silvio Berlusconi, apologised for 30 years of colonialrule in Libya, and agreed to pay $5bn. The deal involved Italypaying $200m a year over 25 years, and also helping to builda 1,500-mile motorway along the north coast linking Libyawith Tunisia and Egypt. "This payment goes towards thetragic and dramatic moments of Italian occupation and forthe deep wounds that have affected many Libyan families,"said Berlusconi following the ceremony in Benghazi. "It is acomplete and moral compensation for the damage inflictedon Libya by Italy during the colonial occupation and we cannow look forward to working together.''

But three years laterGaddafi was ousted and the deal unravelled. Libya is now afailed state with two rival governments (the Islamist-backedone in Tripoli and the Western-backed one in Tobruk) and the"historic" agreement has become all but irrelevant.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.