Colonial legacies

An era of darkness

by Hans Dembowski

In brief

Indian soldiers serving the British armed forces in France during World War I.

Indian soldiers serving the British armed forces in France during World War I.

Shashi Tharoor refutes the idea that, as a colonial power, Britain was on a civilising mission in India. Imperialism was driven by narrowly understood self-interest, he argues in his new book.

Tharoor is a prolific author. His new book convincingly proves that right-wing apologists of the British empire are wrong. The colonialists were not on a civilising mission; they brutally exploited the 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 and soon controlled most of India. 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 basically reduced to a raw-material producing colony. 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”. The revenues generated in India served many purposes, including the funding of the colonial army, which relied on Indian soldiers and was sometimes sent to fight wars in other world regions. Corruption was a permanent issue, as British officers happily mixed private business and government duties. 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. The colonial power neglected primary education, so India’s literacy rate at independence in 1947 was a mere 16 % (eight percent for women). Moreover, some 17 million Indians died of hunger in the years 1891 to 1900. In 1943, the Bengal Famine killed another 4 million people. At the time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill blamed the victims, arguing that the suffering resulted from “breeding like rabbits”. The brutal truth is that the colonial power exported food from India during the crises mentioned. Tharoor admits that some British legacies – such as the rule of law – prove useful today, but he insists that they are unintended side-effects of colonial authoritarianism. He points out, for example, that the colonial courts were racist. Masses of Indians died at the hands of their white masters, but Tharoor knows of only three cases of Britons being sentenced to death and executed for murdering Indians.

Britain’s policy of divide and rule proved so successful, according to Tharoor, that India was partitioned when colonial rule ended. Today, India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed enemies. Indian society is known to split along lines of caste, faith and language. What is less well known, how­ever, is that the colonial power systematically entrenched such divides. Cultures always evolve, but the British-controlled government did its best to define various communities, codify their traditions and freeze their evolution. It claimed to protect traditional ways of life, whilst pitting one community against the other.

Tharoor is an interesting person. He is a former UN under-secretary-general and human-resources minister of India. He has written fiction and non-fiction books. He was affected by scandal too. His wife Sunanda Pushkar was found dead due to poisoning in a hotel in Delhi in 2014. 

It cannot be repeated often enough that Indian culture was shaped by several religions and a multitude of traditions. In most places at most times, peaceful coexistence was the norm. Tharoor assesses these matters well, but he could have argued even more forcefully. He only mentions in passing that the ideology of the current Hindu-chauvinist government, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is rooted in the colonial propaganda that emphasised the differences between Hindus and Muslims. The sad truth is that the lasting authoritarian legacies of British rule are worse than Tharoor spells out. It is telling, nonetheless, that an intellectual of such standing has written such an anti-British polemic.  

Tharoor, S., 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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