Trevor Grundy reviews a book that seeks to explode any sentimental view of Britain’s role in India
INGLORIOUS EMPIRE – What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor. Published by Hurst & Company, London, 2017, £20.
Soon it will be the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain. Expect a tsunami of memoirs, newspaper articles, television and radio plays and feature programmes crafted for listeners and viewers in Britain who probably know next to nothing about their own history, let alone the events in India that led to that vast sub-continent’s ‘tryst with destiny’ at midnight on August 14/15, 1947.
Amid all the Raj nostalgia, Shashi Tharoor, India’s celebrated historian, politician, author and erstwhile human rights activist, has provided a necessary antidote. Inglorous Empire catalogues his belief that Britain underdeveloped India to its own advantage, from the time of the East India Company in 1615 to the end of the Raj 332 years later.
The eight chapter headings detail some of the pros, but most of the cons, that led to the economic destruction of India. Among them: The Looting of India; Divide Et Impera; The Myth of Enlightened Despotism; The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism. His direction of travel is clear, but it would have been a great deal clearer if the publishers had seen fit to include a single map or picture in a book crying out for many of them.
A member of the Indian National Congress, Tharoor has written 15 best-selling books, including a biography of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, seven non-fiction works and two books of photographs about India. Until he entered politics in 2009, he wrote a weekly column that was syndicated in 80 newspapers worldwide. Nearly 2.7 million people follow him on Twitter, so he knows a thing or two about the media and marketing, yet the way his latest book came to be born surprised even him.
At the end of May 2015, he was invited by the Oxford Union to speak on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’. He spoke for eight minutes. When the Union posted the debate on the web, it went viral.
He writes: ‘Right-wing critics of mine suspended their ‘trolling’ of me on social media to hail my speech. The Speaker of the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, went out of her way to laud me at a function attended by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who then congratulated me for having said ‘the right things at the right place’. Schools and colleges played the speech to their students; one university, the Central University of Jammu, organised a day-long seminar at which eminent scholars addressed specific points I had raised. Hundreds of articles were written, for and against what I had said.’
His publisher saw the opportunity, and much of this interesting book is an expansion of what he said at Oxford two years ago. He told wide-eyed students that India’s share of the world economy dropped from 23 to four percent during the centuries that began with the cruel arrival of merchant pirates from the ‘Honourable’ East India Company and ended in 1947.
He asserts that Britain owed a debt of £1.25 billion to the Indian government at the end of the 1939-1945 war for the 2.5 million Indian volunteers who had fought the Axis powers, a debt that was never paid. The respected historian Patrick French commented: ‘Like a surface-to-air missile, he locked onto the spot where he knew his well-heeled Oxford Union audience would be most vulnerable: post-colonial guilt.’
This book continues and expands the themes Sharoor first aired at the Oxford Union. One example: ‘Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries. Textiles were an emblematic case in point: the British systematically set about destroying India’s textile manufacturing and exports, substituting India’s textiles by British ones manufactured in England. Ironically, the British used Indian raw material and exported the finished products back to India and the rest of the world, the industrial equivalent of adding insult to injury.’
He adds: ‘Indian textiles were remarkably cheap – so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and, according to at least one contemporary account (as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief) breaking their thumbs, so they could not ply their craft.’
Tharoor’s short but devastating chapter,The Looting of India, is the platform upon which the rest of this book stands. But he should have stuck to what he does best – making difficult economic problems easy to understand. His version of the various Indian uprisings, the advent of Benjamin Disraeli (who coined the phrase ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ and raised Victoria’s rank to Empress to rival the title of the Russian Tsar, who was casting envious eyes on the British in India), the creation of the Indian National Congress (by an Englishman, not an Indian) and then the endless conferences, promises, half-promises and agreed sets of lies that make up official histories, have all been told before.
But this at times ragingly anti-British book will certainly do its author no harm among India’s young and ambitious men and women who watch, with fixed smiles, as the great grandchildren of the long-gone Raj line up and beg for a special economic deal with their surprisingly wealthy country. Wealthy for some, that is.