“There is a point after which we are supposed to leave the history in the past”: A (short) conversation with Shashi Tharoor
When Shashi Tharoor is talking, there is almost never a moment of breakage of ideation or a pause for better scrutiny of vocabulary for a better word. He’s mostly eye to eye, incessant and almost inside your space. So much so you forget to check your notebook for the next question.
It is a sticky 32 degrees celsius outside the venue: an air conditioned dining room at Fortune Inn, Valley View. This reporter finds himself in a tight thirty minutes squeezed out of a hurried lunch with four representatives from one more organisation and of two more agendas. Tharoor starts with the MIT post, answering straight in the eye as usual, the carpet’s embroidery or the interesting shadows the curtains throw unable to distract him even a bit.
He soon has to leave for his keynote address. I am given time for just one question. I have on myself at least three. So I do what would turn most off: I get honest.
“Sir, I am allowed to ask just one question, but I have waited nine years to meet you. So I am going to ask you three at once, which you will have to keep in order in your mind and answer.”
A belly-laugh follows but he entertains all three of them. Here are the three questions in order, separated (please keep in mind the questions were asked together in one go):
“António Guterres took over as the United Nations Secretary General recently, he was the High Commissioner for Refugees before that. You have worked with the UNHCR, in fact you started working for the UN in Singapore with the ‘boat people’ crisis i.e. the Vietnamese refugees. Today we have another ‘boat people’ crisis: the Rohingyas, about which the Indian government seems to be doing very little.
You also brought out the Asylum bill in 2015, but that got quashed. Now, what more can you, as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, or the Indian Government for that matter, do to mitigate the Rohingya issue?”
A slight thing here, I did not begin in Singapore but in Geneva, and I did not work with Guterres himself because I left in 2007 after my race for the Secretary General’s post and he only started working there in 2006. So our overlap was very minimal. But I think highly of him and I wish him well for the job.
As far as the Rohingya issue is concerned, I am one of the very few MPs (Member of Parliament) who have raised his voice on this issue, writing to the Prime Minister and others. The Foreign Minister in response announced a grant of $1 million, but to the Government of Burma (Myanmar). The Government of Burma ironically are the ones driving this crisis! *Laughs and shakes head*.
The Indian Government has not been living up to its humanitarian record in this matter. There are Rohingyas in Delhi working for the same, and I do believe the Asylum bill was of importance to their cause.
Strictly speaking the standing committee cannot do much about it; the granting of asylum is a Home Affairs issue. But I am exploring options and trying to sensitize the polity of this issue, and all I can say for now is watch this space. I have not given up on this issue at all.
“You talk of atonement for the sins of the British Raj in your book The Heart of Darkness (I apologize, Joseph Conrad. I like you too much for my own good).”
You mean An Era of Darkness? Laughs.
“Sorry. An Era of Darkness. And you also talk about the same in your speech at the Oxford Union debate. I would like to talk of the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, who have admitted that their history textbooks have been dishonest in their recital of the past.
Do you think our history books are dishonest in the same way? Would you like to see more about the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka or the Kashmiri issue making it into our realm of history? Do you see an Indian Prime Minister going to Aizawl (the capital of Mizoram) and apologizing to the people for the IAF bombings of 1966?”
*At this question he shakes his head and smiles again but lets me continue on to the next question*
On atonement, I do believe that we must teach the truth to our children. About the time my book came out, a Pakistani journalist wrote an article in the Guardian about how her children, who had been brought up in the UK and went to a private school in Westminster, were taught very little about colonialism.
The British are in denial about their past, a kind of historical amnesia, and all of the grandeur that is Britain today came from places like India, the Caribbean etc. So I am in favour of atonement on their part.
As far as your specific question about India is concerned, I have no problem with any Indian ruler apologising to his own people. I was in favour of an apology to the Sikhs about ’84 much earlier, or any other riots for that matter. I do not think any Prime Minister apologising is an acknowledgement of personal guilt. I mean, it is just an apology for those who feel it is needed.
I do not know if in Aizawl there is such a demand, if yes then the first time a Prime Minister or a senior Indian minister goes there they should assuage the pain of the victims, though mind you it was fifty years. (and the British left yesterday, didn’t they?)
Also, we may not apologise for acting against insurgency, in the interest of national unity, but for any wrongs done and any atrocities committed we should certainly apologise. I would have no difficulty demanding that myself if it comes to that.
In this context I would like to stress that history should be faced in its own terms and for itself. Learn the past, appreciate it and understand it but leave it in the past.
This brings to my mind the historian Ernest Renan, who argued that one of the most important things in nation building is not just memory, but also forgetting. He argued that if the French people had not forgotten the murders and the massacres that took place in the forging of what became the French nation, French unity would have been impossible.
I think there is a point after which we are supposed to leave history in the past.
That is also what I have said to the people in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. I do not argue if there was a temple or not, but if it is right for you today to act out the consequences of the destruction of that temple on people 600 years later, people who had nothing to do with what may or may not have happened at that time.
At the end of the second answer he has forgotten the third question, and I am required to remind him again:
“In your speech at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in the aftermath of the Kanhaiya Kumar issue, you exemplified ancient Kerala as an example of tolerance, a society that took in persecuted Jews, Muslims or Christians all the same. You talked of how the Indian society, when you went back in time, was a very pluralistic and accepting one.
What I find disturbing is a parallel to the Right wing ideology’s tendency to go back in time and find ourselves in a better place than we are right now. So while you talk of secularist ideas being integral to Indian thought, I look back and I see my grandfather discriminating against Dalits. I look back and I see maybe my uncle discriminating against a Muslim. I do not see any acceptance of plurality in my older India.
Do you think it is better for us to take the German example of understanding that we have too many sins to atone for and start off fresh, rather than go ahead with telling them of a past that may not be shared by the whole of the country?”
You are, frankly, being very cynical. *We both laugh*
The India that I talk about is just as true as the India that you talk about. I often joke that whatever I say of India, the exact opposite might also be true. The room erupts in laughter.
Like, we are the country that has done more to oppress women than you can imagine. But we are also the country that produced the first woman lawyer to graduate from Oxford University. She had to wait thirty years after her graduation to get a degree as Oxford had no provision to give a woman a degree. Some of the first female doctors were Indians. Some of the first female pilots were Indians. Some of the first female political heads were Indians. So are you going to look at only the good facts and say women had a great time in India? Or are you going to look at only the bad parts and say the opposite?
You have to say that ours is a large country where both the tendencies have been allowed to prevail, and we have to choose and promote the one we deem right.
What I say of Indian secularism has been said by Swami Vivekananda, by Jawaharlal Nehru, and so there are multiple narratives for every issue in this country. It is up to us to decide which narrative we want to celebrate, and I choose to celebrate and promote the narrative that good too exists in our society.
I find him waiting for his car at the end of all the hullabaloo about a photo op. Fishing out a copy of An Era of Darkness (not The Heart of Darkness) that I borrowed from a friend for the interview, I ask him for an autograph. He inquires me of my name; I tell him that it is not for me to which he retorts “So you don’t read my books?”
I flush. For all my journalistic ethics and professionalism, and all our disagreements, it’s The Shashi Tharoor after all.
Photography by Shivang Singh
Edited by Prajwal Bhat