As It Happens

Indian MP accuses Winston Churchill of genocide, calls out Britain's 'deeply shameful' colonial past

Indian author and politician, Shashi Tharoor, takes on Sir Winston Churchill and the Empire in his lastest book. He explains why Britons need to re-learn their history and stop glorifying their inglorious past.
Shashi Tharoor is an author and a member of India's parliament. His latest book, "Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India", looks at the history of British colonial rule and "shameful" legacy of leaders like Sir Winston Churchill. (Hulton Archive/John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Sir Winston Churchill is remembered admiringly by many in Britain and around the world. But not by the renowned Indian author and politician, Shashi Tharoor.

Recently Tharoor compared the legendary British wartime leader to some of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th Century. He made the comparison during a panel discussion on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Tharoor about his comments and his latest book "Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India." Here is part of their conversation. 

Mr. Tharoor, as you know, Winston Churchill is regarded as a towering hero by many people, and not just in Britain. In what way are you challenging that?

As you know, Churchill was a fairly controversial personality in his own lifetime. He's been retrospectively deified in many ways, principally because of his heroic speeches during the Second World War. But he was a racist and an imperialist throughout his life, as was expressed in numerous statements.

The worst example of his conduct came during the decisions that he took that directly contributed to the deaths of 4.3 million people during what was called The Great Bengal Famine of 1943, 1944. There was a drought in Bengal and the British persisted in acquiring grain from Bengal and exporting it, not so much to aid the war effort, as apologists have suggested, but to bolster stocks in Europe in the event of a possible future invasion of Greece or Yugoslavia. When confronted with the mounting reports of the horrors this had unleashed and the deaths that were taking place, [Churchill] made remarks saying, "Oh it's their fault anyway for breeding like rabbits." On another occasion, he said, "I hate Indians. They're a beastly people with a beastly religion." You ended up, in fact, with a file reaching the Prime Minister's desk about the mounting toll after it had crossed 4 million people. Churchill simply wrote, peevishly on the margins, "Why hasn't Gandhi died yet?"

Why do you think it's important to raise this and bring this part of Churchill's more controversial history — why are you bringing it forward now?

I've not been making any particular arguments or speeches about Churchill. I've been talking about a book on colonialism and this is one of the many details in it that people have asked me questions about. I don't have any particular desire to single out Churchill other than that he is part of a rather long and inglorious record of the British Empire in India. 

"This inglorious record of the British suggests that there should be an end to the historical amnesia that prevails in Britain, where a man like Churchill can be deified without any honest reckoning of his record.- Shashi Tharoor

The book you're referring to is Inglorious Empire and there was a speech you did at Oxford. So there are a number of initiatives that you've made, in addition to what you said in Australia, to raise this issue of what the British Empire, in general, did to India, in particular. I know it's a large subject but what is it that you want Brits to understand about their history and their past?

The occasion that brought this all up is the 70th anniversary of India's independence, which was accompanied by the genocidal partition of India that accompanied it. So in that time looking back on the 200 years of British rule that had proceeded Britain's exit, one has to take stock of their record. I'm not personally an advocate of financial reparations as some are because I don't believe one can quantify the damage done by British policies, such as the value of the 35 million Indian lives lost in totally unnecessary deaths because of British-made and British-conducted famines. But this inglorious record of the British suggests that there should be, first of all, an end to the historical amnesia that prevails in Britain, where a man like Churchill can be deified without any honest reckoning of his record. Where children can do A-levels, the highest school leaving certificate in history, without learning a line of colonial history. And where there isn't a single museum to the colonial experience in a national capital dotted with museums. 

Sir Winston Churchill prepares to play Polo during a visit to India. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But when there is a discussion about it there are many defenders of the British Empire, saying that this was a glorious time, not inglorious. They point to all the things that they claim that they brought to India including political unity, democracy, the rule of law, railroads, the English language, tea and cricket. So what do you say to that? Because there is a fair bit of pushback that you are getting right now. What do you say to them?

I point out that every single one of the items on that list, without exception, is something that the British brought to India either to enhance and perpetuate their control or serve their interests. Not one of those things was brought into India to benefit Indians. The railways, for example, were brought in entirely to extract resources from the Indian interior, ship them to the ports to be taken to England or to send troops into the interior to quell any unrest. They were not meant to facilitate Indians' travel or Indians' convenience and the entire amount was paid for by the Indian taxpayer while all the profits were made by the British investor. It was only after independence that India that turned its use around to benefit Indians. So it goes, down the list of every single institution. 

Why is it that you think that so few people in Great Britain know about this history?

Well, as I said, historical amnesia. There's a convenient brushing of all of this under the carpet. There are polls conducted annually by the British polling organization YouGov, which show a startling percentage of Britons are actually proud of their empire and want to have it back. We've heard a British minister this year, in the wake of Brexit, saying that Britain is the only country in the world that has nothing to be ashamed of in its deeds of the 20th century.

And I point to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar at the end of the First World War, when after having betrayed their promises to grant India responsible self-government, as Canada enjoyed at that time, in return for India's extraordinary service to 1.3 million men under arms to fight for the British, in response to all of that, the British actually broke their promises and imposed further prohibitions on assembly, speech, freedom of press and so on. When protests broke out the British essentially sent generals to put it down and one of them, Brigadier Dyer, in the Punjabi town of Amritsar, mowed down an entire crowd of unarmed men, women and children. After this egregious massacre, Dyer was hailed as the man who had saved India. I would suggest that on the centenary of that massacre, on the 13th of April 2019, it would be very befitting for a Briton, ideally a member of the royal family, to come to Amritsar and apologize for that outrageous massacre and by extension for all the wrongs done in the 200 years before it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Shashi Tharoor.

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