Published by C Hurst & Co on March 2nd 2017
In the eighteenth century, India's share of the world economy was as large as Europe's. By 1947, it had decreased six-fold. In Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor tells the real story of the British in India, from the arrival of the East India Company in 1757 to the end of the Raj, and reveals how Britain's rise was built upon its depredations in India. India was Britain's biggest cash cow, and Indians literally paid for their own oppression. Britain's Industrial Revolution was founded on India's deindustrialisation, and the destruction of its textile industry. Under the British, millions died from starvation--including 4 million in 1943 alone, after national hero Churchill diverted Bengal's food stocks to the war effort. Beyond conquest and deception, the Empire blew rebels from cannons, massacred unarmed protesters and entrenched institutionalised racism. British imperialism justified itself as enlightened despotism for the benefit of the governed. Tharoor takes on and demolishes the arguments for the Empire, demonstrating how every supposed imperial 'gift', from the railways to the rule of law, was designed in Britain's interests alone. This incisive reassessment of colonialism exposes to devastating effect the inglorious reality of Britain's stained Indian legacy.
In this engaging and eloquent book, Tharoor sets forward to expand the argument he first put forward at the Oxford University Debating Society in May 2015 on whether the UK should pay reparations to former colonies. As a Member of Parliament in India and a well-known author, Tharoor provides a passionate and at times damning critique of Britain’s role in the destruction and plunder of India. By his own admission, none of the criticisms made in the book are new or unique and combined with his argumentative style, there are times when the book can become repetitive. Rather, it is the force of his argument and the passion behind his work that contributes to its overall success. The accessibility and ease with which non experts can engage with his arguments is a credit to his style, and Tharoor has used it to aim his argument to the mainstream conservative British public; which for many is likely to be one of the first popular case studies in exposing the myths around the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
Tharoor starts his argument in framing India (in the premodern sense, this encompasses the later nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) as an economic powerhouse with advanced systems of manufacturing and large amounts of surplus wealth which was deliberately and systematically looted by the British East India Company and then by the British Raj. Such was the level of extraction that by the time of Independence in 1947, India was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Not content with stripping India bare, the British justified the exploitation by framing their colonial rule as one which united the entire sub-continent (chapter 2) and endowed India with Democracy, a free press, the Parliamentary system and the Rule of Law (chapter 3). It is here that the argument begins to weaken, as discussed below.
None of the institutions of Colonial power would be have been successful had it not been for an enforced policy of divide and conquer used by the British (encompassing the rules of The East India Company and the Raj) which is explored in chapter 4. Chapter 5’s focus is a sustained critique on the idea that whilst British colonialism wasn’t ideal, it was nonetheless a benign despotism; an argument Tharoor rips apart by highlighting the consistent and deliberate state policies – epitomised by their response to large scale famines and culminating in the 1943 Bengal famine. A lesser focus is given on the systems of indentured labour to replace slavery in African colonies and the general brutality of the colonial state towards Indians generally, and to peaceful protesters in particular.
Chapter 6 shifts focus to explore the remaining arguments on the benefits of Colonial rule – such as the legacy of tea and cricket. Chapter 7 winds down the arguments presented elsewhere in the book and chapter 8 looks at the British legacy in shaping the lead up to independence and partition.
To find this book novel would require a considerable degree of shelter from the growing power of writers and academics inspired by the post-colonial and revisionist readings of history and politics (and to a lesser degree economics and law). At its heart the book struggles with a contradiction in exposing the systematic exploitation of colonial methods and yet adhering to and valuing the liberal framework which is the basis of modern nation state of India.
Furthermore, the framing of the argument itself renders the vast Indian population as passive victims, and features very little of the consistent attempts to resist the imposition of British rule – the only exceptions of course are made for the 1857 rebellion and Gandhi. This can be seen in Tharoor’s bypassing the systematic destruction of the complex Islamic Shariah inspired legal system, despite its continued existence over the entire period, and its profound influence over Muslims in the all the modern nation states of the region.
It is when using modern comparisons between India and its neighbours that Tharoor’s nationalism is given preference at the expense of nuanced academic analysis. The clearest example of this is in the depiction of Congress as being ‘the nice guy’ who was cheated and outwitted by the nefarious British and the untrustworthy and cunning Muslim League in chapter 4; although other examples are littered throughout the text in reference to Pakistan in particular. This tarnishes his entire argument, because all the countries in the region share the legacy of British colonialism (albeit rather unevenly), but all have significant differences in how they have forged national identities and dealt not only with the aftermath of colonialism but also with each other.
Finally, Tharoor is liberal in his use of historical statistics to bolster his argument, drawing from a range of different authors – however, he gives no indication as to the reliability of the data behind the statistics. Whilst it is fair to say that broadly speaking the Indian sub-continent suffered a large loss of wealth during the rule of the East India Company and the British Raj, it would be misleading to consider the statistics he uses as being anything more than guestimates. Whilst some figures, such as tax revenues are relatively more reliable than other forms of historical projections, others are more dubious – such as the percentage of world trade in 1700 compared to 1947.
In conclusion, this book is ideal for its target audience and for those unfamiliar with any form of British history outside of the Tudors and WW2. Whilst the argument can feel repetitive at times, it is still worth reading, especially as an introduction. The liberal nationalist approach is fundamental to Tharoor’s success – both in this work and as an MP, and as such, it is easy to see why this book presents such a problem to those who identify as liberals and patriotic Britons. For those coming to the book as a person of colour, or living with the legacy of British colonialism, the book provides much evidence to support a decolonial reading of history.2