Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Shashi Tharoor’s eight minute defense…

Shashi Tharoor’s eight minute defense…
The Oxford union debating society is one of those hallowed bodies established in 1823 to further free speech and exchange of radical ideas in a liberal environment; and its chief objective is to not cast aspersions on people and places, but rather a forum where Men and Women with reputed intellectual caliber and genuine integrity could exchange ideas impartially within the closed walls of its magnificent debating halls. Except for a few instances in its remarkable history, the society of Oxford union (the body that administrates these debates) have not found any occasion to public retract statements of speeches by its esteemed participants; and they have held debates on almost every conceivable topic that has stuck a resonant chord in national and international consciousness. Even a casual perusal of its speaker list over the decades will show that eclectic array of people: Models, musicians, sportsmen, Scientists TV evangelists and presenters, Rock stats, Films actors, novelists - and many more, have been generously invited to present their case; and almost all of them have done so in a manner befitting such a gracious invitation. And in that line Shashi Tharoor was invited to participate in a debate titled “The reparations program” which included speakers from countries who have lifted the yoke of colonialism off their shoulders and are now on their way to economic and social development.
Great debaters are those who could argue for and against with equal force, to substantiate or discredit a formally framed notion or an idea. From the time of Rome's Cicero to Modern day statesman, there is an unbroken tradition of towering intellects whose rhetoric garnished with facts have held audiences in thrall. While their individual stand may be different or diametrically opposite to what they represent, the sheer intellectual breadth and depth coupled with silvery skills of elocution could sway an audience either way - just as a snake charmer woos a snake to his melancholy tunes. And for an entranced audience in a debate, the matter that is being contested is not so much important as how it is contested: what levels of intellectual virtuosity is brought to bear by a speaker, how are “facts” bent to yield an interpretation, how convincingly true does one truly sound; style, diction, language, repartee's, rebuttals - these are the artistic elements that one relishes in a debating event. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Shashi Tharoor is profound intellectual by any standards of cerebral comparison. If there is one thing that stands out in his professional and personal life – it is this extraordinary ability to gather himself at will and speak eloquently on topics that interest and excite him; and throughout his student days at Tuft, in UN, and even after, he has continued to speak, debate, evangelize his views in different forums, writing books and publishing essays (search YouTube and you will a hundred Tharoor videos passionately arguing one cause or the other). And it is not least bit surprising to me, that on that beautiful cold day - 28th of May, Tharoor rose to speak in the austere Gladstone (Gladstone was one of the greatest prime ministers of England, a vigorous debater and a past president of Oxford debating society) hall in defense of the fact that Britain owed India reparations for the untold economic and social damage it caused during its 200 years of colonial rule. He was given, as customary, eight minutes to make his case, and what a wonderful exhibition of measured reasoning Mr. Tharoor displayed. It was spell binding, to say the least. Being the penultimate speaker, he had to rethink, rephrase and re-research (in his head) the entire case, and being the intellectual that Tharoor is - he had absolutely no difficulty whatsoever to realign his thoughts in quick time laced with sufficient wit and wisdom to leave a last impression on crowd assembled, and through the internet – almost on the entire globe.
But here is my point. If Tharoor was given an opportunity to defend Britain’s cause in another debate - he would do so with equal, if not more, aplomb. He is that capable a historian, statesman, intellectual and debater. What I am not very sure though is why Indian Media, and a lot of social chatter is revolving around Tharoor’s valorous and patriotic defense of wrongs against India, or how England now has to bow its head in shame about its unabashed exploitation of a meek country, when all Mr Tharoor was doing is acting out a role in a debating forum. I find it utterly ridiculous. While it is a known Historical fact (Few have time to read History today- that is the problem), that any country that has ever embarked upon colonization does so only with the sole objective of serving their own internal needs, and Britain was no exception to that Golden rule. That in 200 odd years, they despoiled our agricultural cycles by replacing rice and wheat with spices, jute and cotton, or they systemically tore apart the social fiber of an ancient civilization to bend it to their will; that Indian economy dropped to an abysmal 2% from a high of about 20 %; That Indians starved to death when Churchill diverted food supplies to armies - all these are known, documented, debated facts and nothing new about any of them. Tharoor was merely clothing them in a voice that suited the hour and occasion. That is exactly what a debate is all about!
Now the hue and cry on whether England has to now repair damages done in the past, or it still owes millions of pounds to India is in my opinion- is as puerile and childish a reasoning one can hope can hope to advance. No country, and I mean, No country has ever kept up its promises of reparations for colonization or for any damages for that matter. History is replete with almost every country owing a smaller, weaker continent or people moral or monetary damages. The truth is both the Colonized and the Colonizers simply move on and build their own future. And speaking about India in particular, Colonialism in the form of British (and thankfully not the French, Portuguese or others who wished to establish their dominion) had in fact given this country the pedestal to launch its freedom movement. The fact that when we eventually got free in 1947, and we did have substantial infrastructure in the form roads, railways, Post, law and administrative services in place - is something that we owe only to England. The fact that most of the senior leaders in the first wave of governance (including Gandhi) was educated in British law and inherited a lot of their customs and sense of fair play - gave India, as an independent nation, the confidence that it could govern this diverse nation. The educational system, development of arts, libraries, museums – all of which still remain as portent as ever even today in our social fabric only vindicates the fact that England’s rule did give us a solid base upon which we have only building for the last 70 odd years. The fact that in 200 years of British governance, for the first time, we had less discrimination between religions, castes and minorities, that the Indian army was formed, tutored and solidified into a good fighting unit through institutions developed in the model of Sandhurst; that the British did not allow any other nation to encroach upon Indian shores for significant amount of time gave our country its first taste of cohesiveness, nationhood - these are things that cannot be weighed or evaluated in monetary terms. Not for a moment am I defending the evils of colonialism, but all that I am attempting to point out is that the past is an enigmatic, and oftentimes a paradoxical time frame. While we would like to thump our chests and cry foul over something that happened centuries ago, we could also pause to think if things could have been any different from how it happened. One of the fundamentals that learns out of a deep study in history is that a nation’s past always seems intolerable in retrospect, and one feels things could have been better. But the sad truth is: The if’s and but’s, the what’s and why’s are conundrums that none can solve. But, on the other hand, the good news is that what we have now in our hands the glorious present, carved out of ever moving time; and we should make the best of it.
I appreciated, enjoyed Mr. Tharoor’s wonderful Ted-like speech. It had substance, style and wit. But beyond its cerebrally stimulating tactility- to be patriotically aroused by a debate held in closed room for nothing more than intellectual pleasure seems to me a knee-jerk reaction slightly overdone. I would rather, using Dr Kalam’s metaphor in a different context “We are now free country with all forces under our disposal and command; what are we going to do about it..? Let’s not talk about injustices done in the past and seek retribution now, but rather work towards learning, and moving forward.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

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