Shashi Tharoor's unromantic history of the British Empire in India

by Sally Blundell / 08 October, 2017
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A painting of Colonel Mordaunt watching a cock fight in Lucknow, India, in 1790. East India Company officers and administrators are under the canopy. Photo/Getty Images

The 200-year story of Britain’s domination of India is anything but romantic, says former UN Under-Secretary-General and YouTube sensation Shashi Tharoor. 

At a lavish lunch piled high with fruit and jellies, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury leans in to Queen Victoria: “There is another famine in India,” he mutters, “and more trouble in Ireland.” The 81-year-old monarch sighs. “Prime Minister,” she admonishes, “you really are terribly depressing.”

So Stephen Frears’s new film Victoria & Abdul glibly passes over Britain’s appalling lack of response to India’s famines to focus on the enduring friendship between Queen Victoria, played by a reliable Judi Dench, and her devoted and unwaveringly loyal Muslim munshi (secretary or teacher), Abdul Karim, played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal.

Although Abdul’s colleague rails against the British “barbarians” and the Queen scolds advisers and family members for their bigotry, Frears’s latest outing is part of a wellspring of on-screen nostalgia for the exotic landscapes, sumptuous costumes and gin-soaked soirées of Britain’s Imperial Era, a time when school maps were tinged with  red and young Englishmen tested their mettle on the Empire’s wild frontiers.

“In Britain, there is a lot of this gauzy romanticism, which, in many ways, is impossible to justify,” says Indian politician, writer and former UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, whose impassioned 2015 Oxford Union speech on the subject of British reparation has been viewed on YouTube more than four million times.

“In India, the attitude has been much more one of forgive and forget. I have no problem with the forgive part – rancour is a useless emotion that hurts the person who holds it far more than its target – but although forgive is all right, forget is not.”

Seventy years after a war-torn and indebted Britain walked away from the jewel in its battered crown, Tharoor’s latest book, the self-explanatory Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, shows the 200-year story of Britain’s domination of India to be anything but romantic.

In 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I incorporated the East India Company by royal charter to trade in silk, spices and other commodities, India was one of the world’s richest economies. When the first British ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, presented himself to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615, he was, writes Tharoor, a supplicant to “the world’s mightiest and most opulent monarch”.

Agra, with a population of about 700,000, dwarfed all Europe’s cities; Lahore was larger than London, Paris, Madrid and Rome combined. As a nation of shipbuilders, metallurgists, architects, artists and artisans, India had a reputation that stretched across much of the known world.

In his fast-paced and lucid account, Tharoor outlines the crimes, misdemeanours and misadventures by which the East India Company was able to commandeer India’s wealth. Taking advantage of a weakening Mughal empire, it established trading posts along the Indian coast. These became forts, merchants were replaced by armies and within just a few years, a commercial operation had become a business of conquest.

A starving family in Calcutta. Photo/Getty Images

A starving family in Calcutta. Photo/Getty Images

“Unstable sociopath”

In 1765, the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam was browbeaten into replacing his revenue officers in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa with English traders. Thus, an unregulated international corporation headquartered in London, with its own private army, and managed in India by Robert Clive, a British officer, governor of Bengal and – in the words of historian William Dalrymple – “unstable sociopath”, became a revenue-gathering enterprise. India, writes Tharoor, “would never be the same again”.

Under this “fig leaf of revenue administration”, the East India Company drained India of its riches. Principality by principality, nawab by nawab, the company’s men ransacked the country’s coffers and claimed its territories. Yes, there was Indian complicity, but for the Indian princes, says Tharoor, on the phone from Australia where he is speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival, it was “a Faustian bargain to protect their wealth in exchange for mortgaging their integrity to the British”.

A painting of Colonel Mordaunt watching a cock fight in Lucknow, India, in 1790. East India Company officers and administrators are under the canopy. Photo/Getty Images

Between 1847 and 1855, the company annexed nearly 65 million hectares and extracted vast amounts of loot (ironically, a Hindustani word for plunder). Under a punitive taxation system, it demanded money from even the poorest farmers, regardless of their income or seasonal returns. Every year between 1765 and 1815, writes Tharoor, wealthy colonists, or nabobs, pocketed about £18,000 from India, returning to England as a new and not particularly admired nouveau riche class, unashamed “of their cupidity and corruption”.

Concern in England was growing. Playwright Richard Sheridan likened the East India Company’s operations to “the meanness of a pedlar with the profligacy of a pirate”. Irish statesman Edmund Burke accused the company of “cruelties unheard of and devastations almost without name”. But the British Government refused to rein in the company’s blatant abuse of power.

“There is a slightly exotic idea that the company was merely a corporation that ran the world,” says Tharoor. “But in many ways it was just a mask for British colonialism. There is no question that, as far as the British Establishment was concerned, this was an emanation of British rule abroad. If you look at the governors-general, as they were called, they were all leading illuminati of the British Establishment, with often a direct line to Her Majesty’s court and the Prime Minister.”

A coloured lithograph c1900 of the Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the Great Indian Mutiny, a major rebellion against British East India Company rule, that shows sepoys attacking a British magazine in Delhi on May 11, 1857. Photo/Getty Images

Brute force

With the Crown at its back, the East India Company used duties, tariffs, trade monopolies and brute force to crush India’s thriving industries. To prop up Britain’s fledgling textile industry, it destroyed India’s prolific textile manufacturing and exporting activities. India’s long-established shipbuilding industry was “strangled to the point of irrelevance” as the company gained a monopoly on trade routes, imposed duties on Indian ships entering Indian ports and lobbied British lawmakers to legislate against Indian-made ships.

Although India’s expertise in steel production dated back to the 6th century, British specification standards made Indian steel too expensive for the international market. A requirement to trade only in sterling locked India’s independent commodity growers out of lucrative tea and jute markets.

The destruction of India’s manufacturing industries, says Tharoor, was a deliberate policy that largely funded Britain’s Industrial Revolution: “British industry flourished and Indian industry did not because of systematic destruction abetted by tariffs and regulatory measures that stacked the decks in favour of British industry.”

Although the formal transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown did not occur until 1857, after the unsuccessful Sepoy, or Great Indian, Mutiny, “in practice, the British Government had been very much implicated in all that was going on for at least 80 years before that”.

By the end of the 19th century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest buyer of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers, all at India’s expense.

Until this time, Britain’s motivation was unmistakable. In contrast to the crusading Christianity of the Spanish or the cultural zeal of the French, it had no moral, religious or edifying agenda. Rather, its control of India was driven simply by the desire for pecuniary gain.

“They didn’t see this so much as a mission or a cause; they saw it as a profit-making enterprise. After all, why would you go to one of the richest countries in the world in order to despoil it if it weren’t in order to improve their bottom line? That was all they really cared about,” Tharoor says. “Unlike in New Zealand, the sense of any values being at stake, or the even more fatuous idea of a civilising mission, really only comes a good 100 years into the enterprise in India.”

It was not until the late 19th century, with the rise of liberal imperialism as espoused by John Stuart Mill, that the British felt it necessary to at least be seen to justify colonial rule as a civilising enterprise for the greater good of the colonised.

Tharoor says, “They admitted to themselves what their motives were, but they did a good PR job for the world at large by claiming to be there for the benefit of the Indians. Even while they were making these claims, the claims were looking increasingly hollow, given their performance on the ground.”

The Home Secretary of the time, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, would have agreed. “I know it is said at missionary meetings that we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians,” he declared in 1925. “That is cant. We conquered India as the outlet for the goods of Great Britain. We conquered India by the sword and by the sword we should hold it.”

Which they did, benefiting from Indian labour and channelling resources offshore even at times of overwhelming hardship. Between 30 and 35 million Indians starved to death during the period of the Raj, while millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain.

Sir Winston Churchill: made his racist views known. Photo/Getty Images

Absolute loyalty

Why did Britain not do something to alleviate the suffering? Tharoor blames free trade (we don’t interfere with market forces), Malthusian doctrine (natural adjustment to overpopulation) and financial prudence (we didn’t budget for a famine). In the 1943 famine, as four million Bengalis starved to death, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the diversion of food from India to well-supplied British soldiers and to top up supplies in Greece.

As he said, “The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis” is less serious than the needs of “sturdy Greeks”. Churchill made no bones about his racist sentiments: “I hate Indians,” he trumpeted. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Moves towards self-rule were stymied at every turn. Mahatma Gandhi saw World War I as an opportunity for securing home rule by proving absolute loyalty to England, but despite India’s support for Britain (more than 74,000 Indians lost their lives in the war), there was little attempt to dismantle British imperial power. Instead of moving India towards dominion status, as the “White Commonwealth” countries had done, the 1918 Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms retained all real power in British hands.

As British MP Vickerman Rutherford declared at the time, “Never in the history of the world was such a hoax perpetrated upon a great people as England perpetrated upon India, when in return for India’s invaluable service during the war, we gave to the Indian nation such a discreditable, disgraceful, undemocratic, tyrannical constitution.”

In the lead-up to World War II, the nationalist Indian National Congress party demanded post-war independence before it would help Britain. London refused, turning instead to the Muslim League for support. On August 7, 1942, Gandhi adopted a resolution moved by Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru calling on Britain to “Quit India”. Within 36 hours, Gandhi, Nehru and many other Congress leaders were jailed, leaving the Quit India movement to the “young and hot-headed”.

By the end of the war, Tharoor says,  Britain was battered, bombed and largely bankrupt, with huge debts to the US and India itself. “It simply didn’t have the resources or the spirit to keep a people down against their will. And it was very clear that it was against their will. Britain could divide, but it could no longer rule.”

By this time, Tharoor writes, British colonisation had turned one of the world’s richest and most industrialised economies into a poor “Third World” country, destitute, starving, largely illiterate, a global poster child for poverty and famine. A population of merchants, artisans and farmers had been reduced to a country of landless peasants and moneylenders. A nation that, at the beginning of the 18th century, enjoyed a 23% share of the global economy (compared with Britain’s 2%), had, by 1947, only a 3% share of world GDP.

As part of its messy and hasty exit from India, and in recognition of growing friction between the Muslim League, under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the Hindu-dominated Congress, Britain’s last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, presented a plan to transfer power to the provinces rather than to central government, paving the way for the creation of the separate Muslim nation that is Pakistan. “Geography was to be hacked, history misread, tradition denied, minds and hearts torn apart,” writes Tharoor.

As the new Prime Minister of India, Nehru reluctantly agreed to partition. What he thought of as a temporary secession of certain parts of India, says Tharoor, “hardened into the creation of two separate and hostile states that would fight four wars with each other and be embroiled in a nuclear-armed, terrorism-torn standoff decades later.”

Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru during the 1942 All-India Congress Committee Session when the “Quit India” resolution was adopted. Photo/Getty Images

“A mission of rapacity”

The story of British colonisation in India, writes Tharoor, does not absolve India of the need to do things correctly today. Nor is it his intention to discredit everything the British did in India. “It is not a black and white picture of rapacity all along; there were some colonial administrators who did good work.”

He points to Sir Arthur Cotton, who built a dam across India’s second-largest river, the Godavari, which irrigated more than 600,000ha of previously arid land, but such people, he writes, “alleviated, rather than justified, the monstrous crime that allowed them to exist”.

“Overall, it is a mission of rapacity, loot and depredation somewhat leavened by some of the more decent, humane people who were sent out to administer it. They were still serving the larger cause of the Empire and the oppression of those in whose name the Empire professed to rule.”

Over the past few decades, however, the extent of that oppression has been downplayed by growing Raj nostalgia and a rereading of colonial history. A YouGov poll in 2014 found almost 60% of Britons were proud of the British Empire and almost 50% thought it had made the colonies better off.

Within academia, assertions that Britain was a benevolent colonial power are growing. Tharoor quotes English historian and writer Lawrence James’s claim that, although the East India Company became a “sort of Frankenstein’s monster”, the British imperial rulers of India were “humane” men: “In return for its moment of greatness on the world stage, the Raj had offered India regeneration on British terms,” he wrote.

According to Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, “No organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. … For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.”

Although Ferguson admits British imperialism was not without blemish, the question, he writes, “is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity”.

Lord and Lady Mountbatten as the Viceroy and Vicereine of India in 1948. Photo/Getty Images

Of course there could have been, argues an appalled Tharoor. He says there’s no reason to believe India, historically at the forefront of innovation and industrial progress, would not have adopted new technologies, had its scientific, technological, industrial and civic development not been interrupted by 200 years of British imperialism. He gives as examples the invention of zero, the discoveries of mathematician Aryabhata and the father of modern surgery Suśruta.

Yes, cricket was part of the Raj’s civilising mission, quickly adopted by the Maharajas, the affluent classes and anglicised Indians as a marker of social status. And yes, the British did invest in ambitious public works – roads, canals and railways – and instigate new forestry ventures, tea plantations, opium cultivation and hunting for sport.

But many of the latter came at a cost, says Tharoor. Wildlife habitats were destroyed, tribal lands confiscated, fertile lands suitable for growing food were turned over to export markets (by 1930, about 16,000ha of fertile land had been given over to opium growing). As recreational hunting took off, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and lions were lost from vast parts of India.

And although Britain left India with a functioning democracy, a free press and legislative and political systems based on its own, these were hard-fought for at the time, and criminal penalties were much harsher for Indians than for their European rulers. India is still riddled with antiquated laws (homosexuality is a criminal activity, which it wasn’t before colonial rule) and a parliamentary system that is simply not right, argues Tharoor, for a country where people tend to vote for individuals rather than coherent party policies.

“It is a bit rich,” he writes, “for the British to suppress, exploit, imprison, torture and maim a people for 200 years, then celebrate the fact that they are a democracy at the end of it.”

And rather than supporting unity, as many claim, the colonial powers chose to pursue a process of divide and rule (divide et impera) to ensure Britain’s position was not threatened by a unified India.

In putting judicial and executive powers into the hands of a tiny educated elite of “complicit amateurs”, they undermined the important role of self-governing village communities. In categorising the population with their maps and censuses, they turned a complex but fluid caste system into an inflexible social hierarchy. In imposing new boundary lines between Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, and between Sunni and Shia Muslims, they laid the groundwork for conflict. In supporting the youthful Muslim League, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, over the more popular and representative India National Congress, they pitted Muslims against Hindus, and paved the way for a two-nation treaty that would eventually pull the country apart.

As Tharoor writes, “The project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the horrors of partition that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority.”

British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, nicknamed the Butcher of Amritsar. Photo/Getty

Historical amnesia

Inglorious Empire grew out of his talk at the 2015 Oxford Union debate on the proposition that the British pay reparations to its former colonies. Speaking on India, Tharoor argued in the negative, beyond a symbolic £1 a year for the 200 years of misrule.

“My larger point was that we need atonement, rather than reparations. Atonement is about morality – it is a moral debt that needs to be paid, far more than a financial debt.

“What I would like to see is a conscious effort to end the historical amnesia, the conspiracy of silence about the colonial enterprise that we see in Britain. The fact that you can do your A levels in history without learning a line of colonial history is simply wrong.”

As a model for such atonement, Tharoor looks back to the “Willy Brandt moment” when, in 1970, the Chancellor of Germany sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto to apologise to Polish Jews for the Holocaust. He says the 2019 centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh (or Amritsar) massacre, when British forces deliberately fired on 10-15,000 unarmed civilians on April 13, 1919, killing at least 379, would provide such an opportunity.

“I, for one, dearly hope that a British prime minister will find the heart, and the spirit, to get on his or her knees at Jallianwala Bagh in 2019 and beg forgiveness from Indians for the unforgivable massacres that was perpetrated at that site.”

INGLORIOUS EMPIRE: WHAT THE BRITISH DID TO INDIA, by Shashi Tharoor (Scribe, $38)

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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