Two individuals have argued for reparations in two very different contexts in the recent past. There was Ta-Nehisi Coates making an arresting case on reparations to African Americans for slavery. Then there was a slightly more gimmicky Sashi Tharoor making the case that Britain owed India reparations for colonialism.
Coates’ basic premise is indisputable. America is what it is today because it was built on slavery. And for 350 of the 400 years its existence, African Americans have been targeted and exploited and not let to realize their potential in a systematic and state sanctioned manner. That as late as 1960s the rules of federal and local governments were such that African Americans could not really get to own property takes a while to digest. If a community does not own property, of course its social capital is going to be so limited. And then add to it all the other forms of continuing discrimination.
Coates’ second book, Between the World and Me, is the kind of polemic that one wishes a Dalit writer in India wrote. Viewed through this prism, Britain owing India reparations seems insignificant both as a moral and economic debt compared to what India owes its own Dalits. The African American, after all, had been enslaved only since 1619. The Dalit has been denied property rights and consequently generational growth for millenia. The social ostracism’s cost on culturally influenced personality aspects, such as perseverance, may be even higher.
Repairations to Dalits raises an important question on the construct of civilization. In recent times, a lot of liberalism has been explained by outcome. For example, having a diverse classroom that includes Dalits we are told improves the overall learning outcome. That may well be true. But what if it isn’t? What if paying that moral debt is not additive in civilization’s continuous arc of greater consumption? What if liberalism is not utilitarian? Coates never gives up on that arc of ever greater consumption.
A Dalit writer approaching this topic may well give that assumption up. I wish to read that.