‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’ by Shashi Tharoor


2017, 261 p. plus notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time dabbling around in 19th century Colonial Office papers, albeit only between 1825 and 1848. The correspondence files to and from the colonies in the British Public Records Office are bound in huge volumes, arranged alphabetically by colony for each year, in fading brown (previously black) copperplate writing, with fascinating little side notes scribbled in the margins from various Colonial Office officials at different levels of the hierarchy. But you won’t find the Indian correspondence in these volumes: instead, it was dealt with and bound completely separate from the other Colonial Office mail. Within the Colonial Office bureaucracy, there was an ‘Indian’ track and an ‘Other Empire’ track, and never the twain did meet. It struck me as strange at the time, but I can understand it a little better after reading Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Although there was a template to all British-colony interaction, in India the expropriation and British-centredness of policy outstripped that of other colonies, and no doubt it suited the Colonial Office for that particular corporate approach and memory to remain corralled away from other colonial exploits.

This book had its genesis in a 2015 debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that ‘Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies’. Tharoor, speaking on the affirmative side, argued that – yes, reparations were owed- but given the impossibility of calculating them and the passage of time, they should be set at one pound per year for each year of British colonization. His arguments during the debate, he thought, needed little repetition, but when his contribution to the debate went viral, he realized that indeed, many people were not aware of the deliberately rapacious colonial policy that underpinned Britain’s treatment of India.

“Ah, but we gave India its railways, its facility with English, its bureaucracy, its parliamentary and legal system, tea and cricket!” those nostalgic for Britain’s Greatness – including historians Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James – protest. One by one, Tharoor unpicks these claims, although conceding the tea and cricket.

In Chapter 1 ‘The Looting of India’ he points out the financial rape of India’s economy through exorbitant taxation, manipulation of currency and the forced payment of pensions for Europeans who spent time in India before returning ‘home’ (a practice that settler colonies also had to comply with, although some Colonial Office appointees did remain in their adopted colonial home). The British government protected its own industries – the fabric industry, the steel and ship building industries – by insisting on the importation of  British manufacture by its colonies and using excises to decimate the Indian export industries. It wasn’t, he claims, that India “missed the bus” of industrialization: instead, it was thrown right under it.

Chapter 2 explores the question “Did the British give India political unity?” He argues that there had already been several empires that had united the landmass of India, and veering somewhat into speculation, that there was no reason why it could not have happened again without British interference. He points out that, unlike in the settler colonies, there was never any intention to give India self-government. The entire focus of the famed Indian Civil Service was British-focused, providing no route for Indian-born employees to progress, and forming a pool of eligible, bored British bachelors who were snared by the ‘fishing fleets’ of Englishwomen looking for European husbands with whom they would return to England after fulfilling their requisite period of luxurious exile.

Ch. 3 turns to ‘Democracy, the Press and Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law’ – those features that Niall Ferguson describes as Britain’s “gifts” to their colonies. Certainly, India adopted (blindly, Tharoor asserts) the British parliamentary system and form of democracy.  Certainly, there was a lively press in India, but it was subjected to far more scrutiny than the Anglo-Indian press which often promoted violence and prejudice. Certainly, India adopted the British ‘rule of law’ but this law took no heed of the existing traditional legal system (just as happened with indigenous law in Australia) and it was overwhelming used against Indians. He points out that India still has laws on its books, especially in regard to sexuality, that have since been repealed or abolished in Britain.

Chapter 4 ‘Divide Et Impera’ argues that it was the British was conceptualized and reified the idea that religion and caste divided India. Tharoor concedes that religion and caste certainly existed before the British arrived, but they were not the monoliths that Britain claimed and there was more interaction between them than Britain conceded. There had been intra-religious violence among religious and caste groups, but he suggests that this violence occurred at times of political crisis. During the grudgingly-conceded Independence and the disastrous Partition, Britain favoured Jinnah and the Muslim League, and Congress allowed itself to be imprisoned and sidelined.

Ch. 5 returns to ‘The Myth of the Enlightened Despot’. He points out that the Spanish Flu affected 1/3 of the population – 125 million cases- and caused 12.5 million deaths (out of the estimated 50 million world wide). During the Raj, there were famines in 1770,  1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. There have been no famines since Independence. British history remembers Peterloo (18 deaths 400-700 injuries) and the Boston Commons ‘massacres’ (5 deaths, 6 injuries) but these pale into insignificance against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre  where British troops fired on a crowd of Indian men, women and children in a confined space, killing at least 376 people and wounded 1137.

Ch 6 ‘The Remaining Case for Empire’ looks that those other Good Things that Britain is said to have gifted India: the railways (they were exorbitantly built for freight, but not people), language (yes, but the literacy rate was only 16% and it was certainly not intended to be a route to equality), tea – yes and cricket -yes.

In Chapter 7 ‘The (Im)balance Sheet’ Tharoor turns particularly to Niall Ferguson and to a lesser extent Lawrence James and other apologists for the British Empire, refuting their arguments and pointing out the moral consequences of colonial policies. He continues this into Ch 8 ‘The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism’ which deals with imperial amnesia (or even more chillingly, its resurrection as part of Brexit yearnings). Although not calling for financial reparations, he does look to Kohinoor Diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels collection.  He points out that colonialism, not just in India, has a long afterlife with arbitrary national divisions drawn on maps as in the Sykes-Picot carve up of the Middle East, spurious racial claims as with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and the militarization of Pakistan.

Certainly, taken together this is a damning record. There was much that I had glimpsed from my studies of settler colonies, but had not really understood when drawn to its extremes in India. This is of course, a polemical book, following a single argument as fits its genesis in a debate, but it is well written, measured and draws on a lot of recent research. However, his excursions into speculative history unnerved me, and I wonder whether the current COVID tsunami in India, the increasing inflexibility and belligerence of  Narendra Modi’s BJP, and the prickliness on the Kashmir border support or challenge his argument.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

3 responses to “‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’ by Shashi Tharoor

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