Introduction of global ranking of colonial atonement should be undertaken.
Transparency International’s annual report has ranked India at number 93. In 2022 it had been ranked at no 85, so it has been backsliding. In the coming weeks, the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden will also release its annual report. In 2023, the institute, also known as V Dem, ranked India 108th on the democracy index, a drop of eight places from the previous year.
According to these reports Denmark is the least corrupt and the most democratic nation. Sweden itself performs very well. Despite such stellar rankings all is not well in either nation for both countries have seen a surge in right-wing anti-immigrant groups over the past year, particularly in Denmark. There were also riots in Sweden over the legally authorized burning of the Quran. Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee had been accorded permission to burn the holy book by a Swedish judge based on Sweden’s right to free speech. It has yet to be tested whether Swedish judges will grant permission to an applicant to burn the Bible opposite a prominent church or the Swedish Constitution for that matter based on the same right. Anyhow, such developments cast a shadow over the situation in both nations, despite low levels of corruption and being world leaders in democracy.
Should such rankings be considered significant or disregarded? Given their widespread circulation in the international media, they are indeed crucial, and nations, including India, should duly acknowledge them. What is the objective of these rankings? They evidently involve a degree of public exposure and criticism, encouraging nations to perform better.
Let us acknowledge that we are an imperfect democracy and strive to improve. Aside from the Quran burning, Sweden should remember its decision to prosecute Julian Assange not so long ago, which appeared, to many, to be a honey trap set up by or at the behest of a powerful nation. That was not very democratic, was it?
Regardless, India should respect such reports rather than ignore them. At the same time there is possibly a need for a counter narrative. It is perhaps now an opportune time for India, which positions itself as a leader of the global south, to introduce a new kind of annual report that will rank former colonial powers who so often lecture erstwhile colonies with respect to democracy, corruption, etc.
Why not introduce an Annual Report on Colonial Plunder, Reparations and Returns? During a visit to the UK in December 2023, President Mia Mottley of Barbados demanded compensation of 4.9 trillion dollars for her nation for colonial plunder and the slave trade. India, one of the most exploited countries, is due even greater reparations. Once one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, it was reduced to a symbol of third-world poverty during British rule.
Arguments may be raised against such a proposal. Wouldn’t such a report remain the same year after year? Not necessarily. While there will be a figure for overall plunder that may remain constant, there will also be separately an updated annual report on any reparations made and another similar report on the return of valuable artefacts and loot. Such elements would be updated each year based on reparations made and loot returned by former colonial powers. For instance, in July 2023, the Netherlands returned 478 culturally significant objects to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. By acknowledging that these objects were wrongfully acquired and sending back the stolen property, the Dutch would rise in any potential rankings. Such an annual report would incentivize other Western democracies, who were former colonial powers, to follow suit. It would subtly pressure the biggest plunderer of them all, the United Kingdom, to start the process of returning stolen goods, even if it does not seem to be in any great hurry to return the Kohinoor.
In this way, just as the Corruption Index and the Democracy Index encourages nations to be more democratic and less corrupt, the annual updated list of reparations made and repatriated stolen goods will encourage erstwhile colonial powers to return stolen artifacts. A colonizing nation that shows a willingness to return stolen goods will be commended in the annual report for acknowledging past wrongdoing and demonstrating a willingness to atone for it.
The involvement of eminent economists and historians is essential for such a project. The adopted methodology should be transparent and open to critique. Historians like William Dalrymple and writers such as Shashi Tharoor, who have spoken and written about colonial loot and plunder, may need to be included in the discussion and be part of an advisory panel. There is no harm in taking advice from Transparency International too on the methodology. The organisation is based in Germany, whose colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries from where much was looted. What could be more transparent than this?
The annual report could be discussed during the course of an international seminar organized each year. Powis Castle in Wales is host to thousands of priceless stolen items looted from 1600 to 1830 from Asia. Why is the United Kingdom still hanging on to all that stolen merchandise, even as it lectures its former colonies on corruption and human rights? Isn’t hanging on to stolen merchandise a particularly egregious form of corruption? The UK should also consider that India would also possibly look upon its FTA request with greater favour if it agreed to return the Kohinoor to India.
The introduction of a system of global ranking of colonial atonement should be undertaken by an institute that functions autonomously. One of the Indian Institutes of Management, or IITs would be well placed to initiate the process. Financial support for such an undertaking should not pose a problem, with potential donations from prominent Indian billionaires like Narayana Murthy, Ratan Tata, or Azim Premji.
Such an initiative would also help solidify India’s leadership in the global south and help shift the global narrative.
Are you listening, Mr Jaishankar?
Rajesh Talwar, the author of thirty-nine books spanning multiple genres. His most recent book is titled ‘The Boy Who Fought an Empire.’