21 August 2018

How about including ‘Reparations’ in school curricula?

History is version. This is true. And yet, certain versions have a greater degree of believability than others. Dominant narratives do bear upon the present and can get in the way of obtaining inter-communal resolve, but the solution is not to dump history altogether as some have proposed and others have tried in surreptitious ways.  

Dumping history is convenient for those who find it tough to substantiate. It is also convenient for those who want to suppress the inconvenient. The British, for example, have a lot to hide. So too the Christian churches of various denominations.  Some butchers and thieves are smart, some are not. Some are just brash and can't be blamed for slippages of those who would cheer them. Like Raja Raja Chola 1. 

Raja Raja Chola 1 (985 and 1014 CE) is a name associated with the ‘Golden Age of the Cholas’. Raja Raja Chola 1 and his successors were warriors. They invaded, they plundered and they bragged about their exploits. 

It is no wonder that the militant adherents to Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka (principally the LTTE), lacking a golden history on the island, borrowed from Raja Raja Chola 1. In addition to unforgiving brutality they took a flag and a name. That’s how they became ‘The Tigers’. As for name, they erred when they from the one the Cholas used for the island, ‘Ila Mandalam’. Raja Raja Chola 1 added a descriptive to the name: ‘The land of the war-like Singalas.’ There was no ‘shared-ownership’ as purveyors of Eelamist myth-modeling such as Wigneswaran and M.A. Sumanthiran would like everyone to believe.

What’s relevant is is not the carelessness of the LTTE, but the braggadocio of Raja Raja Chola 1. The Archaeological Survey of India includes reference to inscriptions at various Hindu temples built with the wealth looted from lands conquered by Raja Raja 1. Just for the incredulous, the temples in Tanjavur and Ukkal were not authored by someone who had any interest in cooking history in favour of the ‘Singalas,’ they were not the observations of some interfering, arrogant and ignorant white man, they are not taken from the Mahawamsa or 21st Century scribblings of a chauvinistic Sinhalese intent on denying property rights to Tamil Sri Lankans.

That’s not what’s relevant. The plunderers bragged and the bragging was inscribed in stone.  And thus, we know that they robbed and what they did with the wealth they plundered. 

Eelamists should study inscriptions at the temples in Tanjavur and Ukkal 

Unlike the British (or the Portuguese or the Dutch).

Three years ago, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion "This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies". Speakers included Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor and British historian John MacKenzie. Mr Tharoor's argument went viral, perhaps because it resonated with Indians, who outnumber the British twenty to one. British historian John MacKenzie offered arguments against the motion.

MacKenzie held that Tharoor was wrong about reparations. His argument was based on the contention that ‘no empires have pursued tender or altruistic policies’ and that the outcomes are a product of ‘imbalances in environmental opportunities, military and technological power, or capacities for state centralization’.

By way of defending British plunder in India, MacKenzie points out that there were elites in India anyway and they were already exploiting the masses. He talked about the benefits that the British brought to Indians such as railways, industrialization, education and a unifying language. In any case, MacKenzie argues, that ‘the calculation of reparations, their payment, ensuring that they went in the direction of the poorer in society, and their contribution to economic growth for all, would all be fraught with difficulties.’

How tough it is for the mathematically and logistically challenged, eh? 

There is a popular myth about the British.  They gave us this, that and the other and we owe them much, it is argued frequently (and typically from those whose ancestors positioned themselves to pick the crumbs the British offered).  So, we are told, they gave us a constitution, rules and regulations, roads and railways, and of course English.  

Right. Taxes and slave labor paid for everything. There was no payment to anyone for everything looted. It was not ‘education’ we got, but a particular kind of education. It is not the case that people in this country (and in other places plundered) were uneducated and ignorant. As for institutions and rule books, they were not put in place out of love for ‘the natives’ but to streamline plunder.  English: there’s a reason it’s referred to as kaduwa (sword).

Was it all bad? No. Was it all good? Hell, no. And the balance? Bad, let there be no doubt. Heavily on the bad side, let us note. Shenali Waduge has sketched out just the actions of one British subject in an article titled ‘The Crimes against humanity by British Governor Robert Brownrigg – Butcher of Uva-Wellassa in Sri Lanka’. There was genocide, ethnic cleansing, outright plunder and a clearing in these and other ways for the continued exploitation of the island’s population and the extraction of its wealth. Facilitators were nurtured through ‘education’ and placement in subordinate administrative and enforcement structures. For the record, Brownrigg was not the only butcher.  

Let’s get back to MacKenzie’s logic. It can be applied to things other than ‘empires’ and what they did. There are other situations where people not pursuing tender or altruistic policies where there was an imbalance in environmental opportunities, military and technological power and capacities for centralization.  Here are some: theft, embezzlement, resource extraction, pollution, mass murder. Any of these and much more besides can be brushed aside by citing the principle of power differentiation, which is what MacKenzie’s argument boils down to. 

So, reparations is a subject that we need to talk about and indeed include in school curricula.  There are 61 countries which were in terms of territory parts of the British Empire. Some of them have sued Britain, along with France and the Netherlands (for example 14 Caribbean countries demanding reparations for slavery).  The British won’t submit of course. They’ve always talked about ‘improving future relations through funding infrastructure projects.’ Former Prime Minister David Cameron even promised Jamaica a new prison! 

They’ve actually said ‘sorry’ but then again, talk is cheap; sorrow cannot be banked. If saying ‘sorry’ would do then all legal systems would degenerate to the ‘give-take’ of Catholic Confessionary.  Britain did at one point announce that the descendants of Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising would receive payouts totaling 20 million pounds. 

But how about the loot itself?  Yale University, Connecticut, USA recently decided to return to Peru a collection of antiquities taken from the Inca site of Machu Picchu almost one hundred years ago.  Richard Burger who has been in charge of these items for 30 years said that the situation is different from classic repatriation because it was not about stolen goods but a contract dispute; things were not clandestinely dug up’. 

That’s lovely. In our case and in most of the 61 countries where the British did their thing, there was no necessity to be clandestine.  Some of the artifacts, all stolen goods, are traceable. 

Well, we can and should talk reparations right now, especially since the British and other such powers with considerable ‘butchering-history’ lecture Sri Lanka about such things. They don’t say ‘It’s enough to say sorry and to build a few prisons’ now, do they?

Raja Raja Chola 1 and other Chola aggressors were not constrained to be cute about plunder and the investment of plundered wealth.  The wealth from all continents that ended up in the British Isles are not all congealed in artifacts that can be named.  They remain unlisted. They’ve transmogrified into capital and that, as we know, is re-transferable to countless things and processes.  

We cannot say if and when reparations will be made. But we can, when the beneficiaries of butchery and plunder lecture us, tell them ‘get us back the known loot, chum.’

‘A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) abroad,’ is the title of a book by P.H.D.H. De Silva, published in 1974.  It lists a considerable set of known artifacts stolen from this island.  There are over 15,000 items listed.  The loot it seems has ended up in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities.  The vast majority are in Britain.  Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, and Windsor all have ‘Little pieces of Ceylon’ so to speak.  

All stolen goods.  For antique and historical value, each and every amulet, the tiniest statuette, the most fragile manuscript with hardly legible lettering, is priceless. The British Museum houses artifacts and manuscripts of incalculable value.  These can be returned as a first step. We can talk reparations later.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com