Shashi Tharoor, a member of the Parliament of India and former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations on May 5, 2023 participated in a discussion and responded to a wide range of topics including India’s digital and economic progress, UK-India relations, Britain’s colonial past in India, and ongoing global crises, while inaugurating the third annual DC South Asian Literary Festival at the Jewish Community Center.
Thanking the founders of the DC South Asian Arts Council, Manoj Singh, and Geeta Singh, for their incredible work in promoting the Arts in Maryland, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Aruna Miller said, “I am more excited to have an individual like Dr. Shashi Tharoor, who is here all the way from India. What an incredible orator he is – an author, and a humanitarian. He’s everything that we should all aspire to be. So, I am so honored to welcome him to the state of Maryland.”
During a 90-minute Q&A discussion, moderated by immigration attorney, Sheela Murthy, Tharoor talked about the positive influence his parents had on his life, his sisters’ support, views on Hinduism – his admiration for the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, and his experience in writing fiction and non-fiction books among other topics. He also answered questions from the audience.
Tharoor, who is the longest serving Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, said the top three areas of concern for him are the Russia-Ukraine war, China-Taiwan tension, and the India-Pakistan issue. He fears that if there is “temptation” by Russia to use nuclear weapons against the Ukrainians, and the growing China-Pakistan relationship and their coordinated attacks against India.
He noted that India is the fastest growing major economy in the world, and that it cannot to be distracted by conflicts with bordering neighbors. “I would say that the potential is just enormous,” noting India’s progress on tech horizon, such as Unified Payments Interface, mobile revolution, access to internet, and Artificial Intelligence.
According to Tharoor, “unemployment is a huge worry,” and India needs to focus on education and technical skills for youngsters. He said India can still serve as a workforce for the world given the median age of India’s population is just 29.
While recalling his May 2015 debate at Oxford Union, where he spoke about “Britain owes reparations to her former colonies,” Tharoor noted “The opportunity to actually lay a case against colonialism in Britain to a British audience, was what I thought was worth doing.”
In particular, Tharoor pointed out in the preceding 10 to15 years, British writers and historians in their books argued that colonialism was a good thing and went on to quote Neil Ferguson saying that, “India’s success in the world of globalization was entirely due to the underpinnings of the British… and Lawrence James saying the British Empire was the greatest experiments of altruism in human history.”
He said a few weeks later the debate was posted on YouTube, and it went viral. “I was astonished when Prime Minister [Modi]… actually stood up in a public forum and said that this speech was an example of the right person saying the right thing at the right place, which was for me, immensely, immensely surprising, as well as gratifying.”
According to him, his speech caused some concerns since Modi was to travel to the United Kingdom on his first ever official visit in November 2015. So, there was some nervousness on both sides “as to whether this might actually cast a blight on his visit” but the visit went well.
Tharoor said he again visited England to speak about his book in 2017, and this time he made “a fuss about the absence of an apology” from the British. “And I said, I’m not looking for reparations, but I’m looking for atonement. And they said, what’s atonement, and I said three things that Brits could be doing,” noting they should teach their kids colonial history, setup a museum to colonialism, and tender a “simple apology” on April 13, 2019. It was the Centenary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre where the British massacred 1600 unarmed protestors on the occasion of Baisakhi in Amritsar.
He reminded that the massacre was a result of nonviolent protests by innocent people against the Rowlett Act which was a “really rigorous infringement on human freedoms,” at a time when the British had promised a Dominion status for India for its support during the First World War, and eventually broke their promise. Tharoor also recalled how the British massacred 100,000 innocents in 1858, “after the so-called mutiny” including women and children in the streets of Delhi to teach Indians a lesson.
About issuing an apology, he continued, “I said, if a government or politically elected government finds it difficult, doesn’t matter. Send a minor member of the Royal family because everything was done in the name of the Crown. I had thought they might send Meghan [Markle] there…” and the audience burst into laughter.
Then, six months before the Centenary, he heard from a senior British official that a note about apology had made it through the Cabinet to the Prime Minister. Tharoor said, “I was waiting with bated breath for the 13th of April 2019… And then Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in Parliament,” adding she only expressed “regret” and not an “apology.”
To a question about India’s relationship with Britain, he said “I think that it’s getting better. It certainly had ups and downs,” while noting there are still issues on the trade front. He praised Britain for electing Rishi Sunak as its Prime Minister, and commended the recent announcement of King Charles, that India is one of the first countries he would like to visit after his Coronation. Tharoor said somebody recently asked him whether he [King Charles] will apologize, and Tharoor continued “Who knows he’s somebody who thinks enough outside the box to be able to surprise us.”