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Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
by Shashi Tharoor
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nglorious Empire is a bracing, polemical work that spans both the company and imperial phases of Britain’s involvement in India. Its author, Shashi Tharoor, was for years a senior official at the United Nations. In 2006 he came second to Ban Ki-moon in the contest for the secretary-generalship, after which he returned home to become a Congress MP, junior minister, and unflagging presence on social media. The book is the byproduct of a debate he took part in at the Oxford Union in 2015, in which he argued that Britain owed India symbolic reparations for the wrongs it had inflicted on its colonial subjects. Atonement, not money, is the point; “a simple ‘sorry’ would do as well.” The Oxford debate got a lot of attention online (Tharoor has more than seven million Twitter followers), and he was congratulated even by his most prominent political opponent, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, for saying “the right things at the right place.”
Tharoor’s arguments in Inglorious Empire reflect a consensus, shared by many current Indian and Western historians, on the iniquity of colonial rule. He is critical of the late Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly’s contention that the schools, newspapers, and courts of British India allowed the Congress Party to build a liberal democracy after independence, and he vigorously rebuffs the argument of Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian with professorships at Stanford and Harvard, that the British Empire bequeathed its colonies such laudable precepts as free trade and democracy. Tharoor draws instead on research into Britain’s exploitation of India’s wealth and on the work of Nicholas Dirks, a former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, who has written that class-obsessed British bureaucrats helped change the caste system from one measure of identity among many into the pervasive agent of social stratification it became.
Colonial India was a captive market for British products and services. British-made rails carried British-made rolling stock the length and breadth of the subcontinent; British ships offloaded Indian cargoes at British ports after rules were introduced that discriminated against ships that had been built in India. In the 1750s India had a commanding global position as a producer of textiles, yet by 1870 it was importing more than a billion yards of British cloth and woven fabrics. As Britain’s home secretary put it in 1928, “It is said in missionary meetings that we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Britain.”
Recalling the economist Amartya Sen’s dictum that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Tharoor notes that between 1770 and 1900 some 25 million Indians died in famines, the mortality rates aggravated by colonial officials who viewed with Malthusian detachment nature’s solution to the problem of overpopulation. (In support of Sen, on the only occasion since independence that mass famine has threatened, in Bihar in 1967, the government of Indira Gandhi stopped it in its tracks using food aid and public works.)
To modern eyes the most odious aspect of British rule was its racism. A color bar denied talented Indian civil servants access to senior jobs, and for British judges the color of the defendant was sometimes the most important factor in a verdict. “The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident,” Tharoor writes, “and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime.” The relative cultural intermingling of the 1780s gave way to a British horror of miscegenation. Whether in the bedroom, the club, or the railway carriage, the separation of the races was the outstanding feature of British rule that distinguished it from that of earlier colonizers, notably the Mughals, who married Indian women and were quickly submerged in the local gene pool.
In 1890 just six thousand British officials presided over 250 million Indian subjects; Stalin later found it laughable that India was kept down by so few. While many British officials strove honestly to promote harmony among India’s many racial, religious, and linguistic groups, a policy of divide and rule informed the British decision in 1905 to split Bengal into two provinces, a Muslim-majority one and a Hindu-majority one. That policy also influenced the constitutional reforms of 1919, which introduced a limited franchise while reserving seats in the new legislative assembly along religious lines.
As independence approached, the implications of minority status in a free India alarmed many Muslims; they looked in vain to the British to protect them from Hindu majoritarianism before adopting the idea of a separate state, which had first been mooted by a Muslim law student at Cambridge University in 1933. Mahatma Gandhi’s unavailing efforts to bind communal wounds ended with the country’s bloody partition in 1947, which created Pakistan, resulted in the deaths of at least one million people, and led to Gandhi’s murder at the hands of a Hindu chauvinist.
Inglorious Empire is an impassioned indictment of an alien government whose true interests lay in an imperial capital five thousand miles away. And yet for all the rapacity of the nabobs and the unrealized reforms and investment—which, when applied by Meiji Japan in the 1870s, turned a closed monarchy into a modern nation-state—Tharoor’s assessment of British conduct is too uniformly negative to do justice to a multifaceted engagement that lasted well over three centuries. While the premise and ethos of British rule seem ever more suspect with the passing years, its consequences for the people of India were more mixed.
In the 1750s the roughly 200,000 Indians who flocked to live in British Calcutta (just a thousand or so of whose residents were European) were drawn not only by the city’s wealth but also the prospect of security from the Marathas. (A recent Maratha invasion of Bengal had caused as many as 400,000 civilian deaths.) An affluent and literate class of Bengalis, the bhadralok, prospered alongside the company’s employees, while in the boom of the 1780s laborers’ wages rose 50 percent. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Bombay’s impressive public works and thriving Parsi and Jewish minorities attested to intense pockets of dynamic wealth creation and multiculturalism. Nor was the empire’s record of indigenization always as bad as Tharoor maintains. Having been a supplier of raw jute to the mills of Dundee, by 1914 Calcutta had eclipsed the Scottish port city as the world’s leading manufacturer of jute products, and Indians owned 60 percent of shares in the jute companies.
Tharoor is frustrated by the “cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of organized resistance” that his compatriots exhibited toward their colonial masters. Only after World War I, and intensifying after a British massacre of hundreds of protesters in the northern city of Amritsar in 1919, would polite requests for more Indian representation in the government harden into the independence movement. But no Indian empire in history had ruled as large a territory as the British Raj. That the fantastically diverse peoples whom the British had coerced into their Indian domain might voluntarily unite as a modern nation wasn’t as obvious to the Congress Party in 1885, the year of its foundation, as it seems now, seventy years into India’s independence. And when the republic’s founding fathers, Gandhi and his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, brought about this miraculous feat, the loss of Pakistan amid the violence of Partition proved to be surmountable traumas; the Republic of India is a sovereign state in good standing and has never been threatened with revolution or internal collapse. Ironically enough, the unwillingness of the British to set down roots in the countries they colonized made withdrawal more straightforward than it was for the French, for example, in Algeria. As soon as the economic and psychological reasons for keeping up the empire were exhausted, the British simply went home.
Well into the late twentieth century a residue of India clung to postimperial Britain. To “have a dekko” (from the Hindi verb dekhna, to see) meant to take a look at something, while kedgeree and mulligatawny persisted on the menus of coastal guest houses. That residue has since flaked away along with memories of the Raj. No longer do national museums mount the kind of glittering exhibitions that were common into the 1990s, celebrating the scope and splendor of British rule; more representative is the recent exhibition “Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company” at the Wallace Collection in London (curated by Dalrymple), which featured deftly done ornithological pictures by hitherto little-known Indian painters in the company period. Gone, too, are the days when pupils at the nation’s schools were taught the heroics of “Clive of India.” Ten years into a government of Conservatives who brought the country out of the European Union amid grandiose talk of a return to greatness, the history syllabus that British schoolchildren must follow remains virtually silent on the empire, save for the iniquities of slavery, and few young people have any idea who Clive was.
Amnesia isn’t the apology that Tharoor and his compatriots arguably deserve and will probably never receive. It is a national elision, an unstated decision not to interrogate ourselves about awkward aspects of the past. For India, living with the consequences of the events Tharoor writes about, its Gandhian template of communal amity trampled on by Hindu nationalist rule, there is no such comfort.
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