Shashi Tharoor proves apologists of colonial rule wrong

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von Hans Dembowski

Inglorious empire – What the British did to India

Shashi Tharoor has published a new book. It is well argued and refutes the idea that the colonial power was on a civilising mission, a claim which is made by Niall Fergusson, a right-wing historian at Harvard University, for example.

Tharoor is an interesting person. He is a former UN under-secretary-general and human resources minister of India. In his free time, he has written three novels as well as several non-fiction books. He was affected by scandal too. His wife Sunanda Pushkar was found dead in a hotel in Delhi in 2014. She died of poisoning, which may have been suicide or murder.  

Tharoor’s new book convincingly proves right-wing apologists like Fergusson wrong. The British colonialists were driven by narrowly understood economic interests and brutally exploited the subjugated subcontinent. From the start, the British East India Company was a profit-driven enterprise. It was set up in 1600 to trade in silk, spices and other goods. Expanding its influence from its port cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, it soon controlled most of India. It was the de facto government of the entire subcontinent. So called princely states were nominally run by monarchies which, however, depended on the colonial power and had to pay for “protection”. The East India Company was the sovereign power until 1858. At that point, the British state took over after having quelled an Indian uprising. 

The British blocked India’s industrial development, as Tharoor shows. A world region that had been known for making textiles, steel and ships was reduced to a raw-material producing colony. Exploitation was brutal. As Tharoor points out, even the British themselves estimated that “taxation was two or three times higher than it had ever been under non-British rule, and higher than anywhere else in the world”. Some eight percent of South Asian GDP was transferred to the “mother country” every year. On top of that money, revenues generated in India were used to fund the colonial army, which relied on Indian soldiers and was sometimes sent to fight wars in other world regions. Corruption was a permanent issue, and worries were expressed even in London that newly looted wealth from India was undermining established norms.

It is often argued that, in spite of all hardship, Britain ultimately provided a kind of enlightened despotism. Tharoor proves that notion wrong too. A government is not acting in a benign way if it not only tolerates mass starvation, but actually keeps exporting food from a famine-afflicted colony. India suffered repeated famines. Some 17 million Indians died of hunger in the years 1891 to 1900, and in 1943, the Bengal Famine killed about 4 million people. At the time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill blamed the victims themselves. In his eyes, the suffering resulted from “breeding like rabbits”.

But didn’t the colonial power establish some worthy institutions? What about the rule of law, the railways and education? Tharoor agrees that some legacies prove useful today, but he insists that these impacts were only unintended side-effects. In colonial times, moreover, things were bad. Core arguments include:

  • The colonial courts were racist. In only three cases were Britons sentenced to death and executed for murdering Indians, even though masses of Indians died at the hand of their white masters. If however, an Indian harmed a Briton, no mercy could be expected.  
  • The railways primarily served British interests. Third-class passengers were charged so much that their fares subsidised freight carriages (today, it is the other way round).
  • The colonial power neglected primary education almost completely, so India’s literacy rate at independence in 1947 was a mere 16 % (eight percent for women). Higher education, however, was reduced to rote learning that stifled independent thinking. After all, the  colonial universities and colleges were designed to provide a foreign-run government with English-speaking clerical staff.

Tharoor implies that India would probably have modernised faster and more successfully without foreign rule. I find his arguments convincing, but the claim is counter-factual and cannot be proved. What is obvious, however, is that Britain did not facilitate national unity. The policy of divide and rule proved so divisive that India was partitioned when colonial rule ended. Today, India and Pakistan are nuclear armed enemies. As defined in 1947, moreover, Pakistan proved not to be a viable state so Bangladesh claimed independence in a bloody liberation war in 1971.

Indian society is known to be divided along lines of caste, faith and language. What is not well understood, however, is that these divides were systematically deepened and even created by the colonial power. The truth is that there was a lot of syncretism, with local traditions and norms often cross-cutting religious lines and caste definitions. Anthropologists know that cultures always evolve. In colonial India, however, the British-controlled government did its best to define various communities and codify their traditions. It claimed to protect the traditional ways of life, whilst pitting one community against the other.

Tharoor assesses these matters well, but he could have argued even more forcefully. He does mention that the ideology of the current Hindu-chauvinist government, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is rooted in colonial propaganda which emphasised the differences between Hindus and Muslims. It cannot be repeated often enough that Indian culture was shaped by both faiths. In most places at most times, peaceful coexistence was the norm.

As an Indian patriot and leading member of the main opposition party, Tharoor probably did not want his book to become an indictment of the current government. He could have elaborated more clearly on how colonial authoritarianism still permeates Indian institutions and politics (full disclosure: The Calcutta High Court censored my book “Taking the state to court” by the dubious means of keeping contempt-of-court proceedings pending indefinitely without even formally notifying me of the matter). Corruption in state agencies, for example, still reflects the double standards of the colonial era, when officials of the East India Company, for example, happily blended official duties with private profiteering. Tharoor’s book, however, focuses on proving apologists like Ferguson wrong – and that is obviously a worthy cause too.


Shashi Tharoor, 2017: Inglorious empire – What the British did to India. London: Hurst (first published by Aleph Books, New Delhi in 2016 under the title “An era of darkness: the British empire in India”).

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