You Can Always Blame the British

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
by Shashi Tharoor
Scribe, 2016, 295 pages, $32.99

shashiAt its height in the 1920s, the British Empire was the largest and most populous empire in world history, with up to a quarter of the world’s landmass coming under the British flag. A central component of the empire was the Indian Empire or Raj, which contained the bulk of Britain’s imperial subjects, estimated at over 300 million people in 1914. It was situated between the borders of Afghanistan and Thailand and included the present-day states of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma. What began from extremely humble beginnings—a cluster of isolated trading posts and “factories” along the coast—had by the late eighteenth century turned into a huge, sprawling Asian empire and the “jewel in the crown” of Britain’s overseas possessions.

The Raj has often been seen as one of the most impressive examples of imperialism in modern history. Winston Churchill called the Raj “the finest achievement of our history” and remained steadfast in his admiration of how India had been “defended against invasion from the north; famine has been gripped and controlled … Justice has been given—equal between race and race, impartial between man and man” and, most impressively, how science “has been harnessed to the service of this immense and, by themselves, helpless population”. Even those who were not so staunchly imperialistic could still recognise the enormous achievements of British rule in the subcontinent, particularly the introduction of a modern system of law and order, state bureaucracy, railways and communication networks, an impressive civil service, and a professional and non-political Indian Army.

Not so, argues Shashi Tharoor, in a new book, Inglorious Empire, which is based on a speech he gave at the Oxford Union in May 2015 on the subject of whether Britain owes reparations to its former colonies. Tharoor—a Congress MP and former minister in the Indian government—who spoke for the motion, has converted his argument into a lengthier summary, although it has lost none of its bite. Tharoor believes fervently that the British (or “Brutish”) Empire in India was a catastrophic and evil imperialism for which Britain should make some kind of amends. In one stinging phrase he longs for the day when “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 in the name of his or her people for the unforgiveable massacre that was perpetrated at that site a century earlier”.

It is a book filled with Tharoor’s outrage at “what the British did to India” and his determination to expose imperial rule. Much of the book continues in a similar vein and all the old Indian nationalist criticisms of the Raj are recycled with aplomb. So Britain looted India’s economy. It adopted a merciless policy of “divide and rule” that ultimately sowed the seeds of partition. It relied on ruthless and bloody repression to terrorise the Indian people into submission. It did nothing to prevent famines from ravaging India’s population, and so on. All this adds up to a detailed and seemingly overwhelming critique of British rule that has impressed reviewers and tapped into a deep seam of postcolonial guilt in Britain and the West. In one particularly vicious swipe, Tharoor claims that British schoolchildren should be taught what he calls “the lessons of empire”—“just as German children are shepherded to concentration camps”.

The comparison of the British Empire in India with the Nazi death camps is just one of many deeply offensive, and frankly bizarre, statements that pepper the book. Famines in India in the late nineteenth century are compared with the deliberate policies of mass starvation and collectivisation in the Soviet Union and China. Railways were nothing but “a big colonial scam”. British education had “very little to commend it”. The British grew tea for themselves, “not for the locals”. British colonial rulers “had no interest in the well-being of the Indian people”. Nothing escapes Tharoor’s wrath, not even cricket. “Yes, the British brought it to us,” he admits, “but they did not do so in the expectation that we would defeat them one day at their own game …”

punkah wallah

Heat-afflicted Englishmen enjoy the dutiful service of their punkah wallah.

Tharoor indulges in repeated counter-factuals to “prove” his point about British iniquity. So had the British not conquered India in the late eighteenth century, then he contends that the Marathas would have extended their power “under a titular Mughal emperor”, which “would have led to an inevitable transition to constitutional rule, just as England transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy”. Such sleight of hand is used repeatedly throughout the book alongside a strange form of moral reasoning. Because British motives in India were (in Tharoor’s assessment) always self-interested and based on exploitation (whether building railways, hospitals or an impressive legal system), they can be swiftly rubbed out from the ledger on the benefits of British rule. If anyone in India benefited from British rule, then it can be safely ignored as an unintended consequence.

The problem (among many with this book) is that India and the Indian people did benefit from railways and better communications, whether Tharoor likes it or not. They did benefit from the massive irrigation projects and dams, the work of forestry conservation and disease control—and even Tharoor admits that the British introduced a free press into India. Gandhi famously went around India on the railways, which gave India a tangible unity it had never had before. Indeed, very few of these examples benefited British rule directly. Irrigation cost money and resources. So did building dams. Trying to control the outbreaks of cholera or plague in parts of Bombay or Calcutta was even unpopular and resulted in outbreaks of anti-British violence, mainly because of misgivings about what the British were trying to do (which had been deliberately spread by Indian nationalists). Perhaps Tharoor thinks that it would have been better if the British had kept their knowledge of infectious diseases to themselves—and left Indians to die in the streets.

Moreover, what Tharoor fails to understand is how in the latter stages of imperial rule, India was increasingly being run for the benefit of India. The Government of India repeatedly came into conflict with the British government over a host of issues, including the deployment of the Indian Army and the nature of tariffs on imported goods (particularly cotton). It was clear, at least by 1917, that India was increasingly to be run, not as a colony for the benefit of its imperial rulers, but as a self-governing entity with its own interests that sometimes came into conflict with what the government wanted back in London. But Tharoor sees none of this. He lambasts the British for “betraying” India after the First World War (by not giving full self-government) and then berates them again for leaving India too quickly in 1947.

The lop-sided nature of the book continues in Tharoor’s discussion of the violence of empire, always a favourite subject of Indian nationalists, past and present, eager to dwell on alleged “imperial terrorism”. For example, when discussing how the British put down the Mutiny of 1857, Tharoor details the incidents of British brutality, but without making any mention whatsoever of the violence that sparked the Mutiny. There is nothing on how European women and children were butchered, nothing on Cawnpore, Lucknow or Meerut. This is combined with the crudest caricatures of British officials and soldiers, while Indians are—without fail—honourable, truthful and committed to nothing but the highest ideals.

One of Tharoor’s favourite subjects is the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, an event that, he believes, sums up British violence and oppression. His interpretation of the massacre largely repeats Indian national myth and avoids asking awkward questions about the origins of what were known as the “Punjab Disorders of 1919” and the wave of anti-British violence that it produced. General Dyer, the man who committed the shooting, is condemned as an “efficient killer”—despite significant evidence that he was surprised and panicked—and whose actions were blindly supported by his superiors. That he was denied the right of a court martial and became the subject of an exhaustive official inquiry, which then accused him of an “error of judgment” and ended his career, Tharoor oddly describes as a “whitewash”.

Throughout the book there seems to be little understanding of the reality of law and order in India, either historically or in the present. Tharoor’s claim that British rule in India was based on overwhelming and unnecessary violence is simply not true. While the British certainly did not shy away from resorting to (short-lived) repression if they felt it was necessary (as every other state, imperial or otherwise, did in the same period), the level of violence visited upon the Indian population between the Mutiny and the Partition of India was remarkably low. The Indian Army was tiny (just 250,000 before the First World War) and was clustered almost exclusively in the north-west of the country and rarely used on internal security matters. When it had to be deployed it was always done reluctantly and under the clear understanding that “minimum force” was to be used.

It is worth bearing in mind how often the Indian government has engaged in violent repression since 1947, which helps to put the British period in context. For example, throughout the 1980s, the agitation for a Sikh homeland of Khalistan provoked a vicious response from New Delhi. This culminated in the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar; an action that resulted in over 500 dead. Moreover, at this time the Punjab was placed under a far more extensive and rigorous form of martial law than anything the British had ever put in place (particularly the much mythologised “imperial terrorism” of 1919). Thousands of troops, police and paramilitaries were deployed to the province and there were reports of widespread beatings, extortion and looting. About 25,000 people were eventually killed in the violence and up to 45,000 were illegally detained. An Amnesty International report of 1992 criticised the Indian government for failing to acknowledge what was going on and turning a blind eye to the extensive use of torture and intimidation in the province.

It was not only in the Punjab that the Indian government has shown itself willing to use force to control dissidents. Against the Naxalite insurgency in the east of the country, New Delhi has been accused of engaging in “extrajudicial execution of alleged Naxalites”, unfair and prolonged arbitrary detention without trial, the deployment of heavily-armed paramilitaries, and the clandestine support of armed vigilante groups.

Thus the claim that the British period of Indian history was more violent than others, and that British rule was based upon little more than the sword, seems highly suspect. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Indian army (not including the armed forces of Pakistan, Burma or Bangladesh) is currently one of the largest in the world, with over three million active and reserve personnel and another million members of paramilitary units. If British violence could perhaps be justified as a necessary result of very limited numbers of troops, the Indian government has no such excuse.

Because Tharoor’s history ends in 1947 we lack any kind of meaningful comparison between how Britain ran the subcontinent and the successor states. Simply listing everything bad with the Raj is meaningless without an understanding of the historical context, either with contemporary empires or their successor states. Tharoor gets around this by talking about the “messy afterlife of colonialism”; blaming the problems that many post-colonial states in Africa and Asia have experienced on their period of imperial rule. “We have to realise,” he says, “that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.” Therefore, according to Tharoor, countries can never really escape their past—perhaps the most depressing sentence in the entire book.

This idea of the inescapable and enduring impact of imperialism seems to be particularly noticeable when discussing the economy. Tharoor is keen to dispute any attempt to show that imperial rule developed India or provided economic assistance. Using statistics plucked from the internet, he claims that in 1 AD India accounted for 33 per cent of global GDP, while the UK, France and Germany “scored barely 3 per cent”. However, by 1870, India had (supposedly) been reduced to 12.5 per cent, while the three European powers countries hit 22 per cent, which fits in with Tharoor’s argument about India’s “impoverishment” under colonial rule. But this is, frankly, nonsense. Tharoor seems unaware of the fact that Britain, France and Germany did not actually exist at the time of Christ, nor were there legions of trained economists dutifully recording economic data and trade figures. But even if we forgive Tharoor this statistical alchemy, they point not so much to the destruction of India’s economy, but to the monumental transformation that European powers underwent during the Industrial Revolution. Such basic misunderstandings (not to mention a somewhat cavalier use of sources) scar much of the book.

Tharoor neglects to mention how British rule provided India with a series of significant economic benefits, including the creation of an integrated market, the promotion of private property (which did not really exist across large parts of India), low taxes (which were significantly lower than their predecessors), an efficient system of communications, and extensive irrigation. The case of the Punjab, which by 1900 could boast one of the most impressive irrigation schemes anywhere in the world, with highly productive agriculture and rapidly rising land values, finds no mention in the book. Yes, it is true that the British could have done more to develop the Indian economy and fight poverty, but this overestimates the time and resources available and the extremely limited number of officials who could dedicate their time to developmental work, which in any case might not have been appreciated by those whom it was supposed to help.

Famines are another subject that reveals Tharoor’s incomplete grasp of Indian history. He argues that during the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 Winston Churchill deliberately starved Bengal because of his crude racism. Here Tharoor (as he tends to do) largely repeats the claims of prominent South Asian critics of British rule (in this case Madhusree Mukerjee) and recycles their arguments uncritically. Yet such a blanket condemnation of Churchill’s actions shows an unfamiliarity with the historical context (a world war and a shortage of shipping owing to operations in the Pacific and Mediterranean) and with recent research that has shown how badly the local (Muslim League) administration handled the famine and how damaging the actions of local traders (who hoarded rice) were to the Bengali people. In Tharoor’s eyes, the British, and only the British, were at fault.

Such simplistic judgments are evident when Tharoor turns to the end of British rule. Partition is, he claims, the greatest indictment of British rule and “the direct result of the deliberate British policy of communal division”. Blaming the horrors of Partition solely on the British is an old Congress tactic and one that has been repeated regularly since 1947. But, ultimately, it doesn’t stick. Tharoor shows no appreciation of the dynamics of political violence in India, the growth of non-cooperation that had brought with it growing antagonism and violence since the 1920s, or the difficulties of controlling communal violence (which was very different from dealing with non-cooperation). By the 1940s, Indian nationalist leaders had been undermining law and order for decades and, to suddenly turn around and demand that Britain suppress widespread communal disorder (which was being directly stoked by India’s political leaders), was hypocritical and unhelpful.

Such misunderstandings stem from Tharoor’s partial reading of Indian history. He tends to rely on published secondary sources—there seems to be no original archive material here—and cites anyone who has ever criticised British rule. While this might be justifiable in places, Tharoor tends to quote well-known opponents of the Raj uncritically. For example, he quotes Jawaharlal Nehru on the evils of British rule, or Gandhi on how the railways spread plague, and expects the reader to simply accept this at face value. There is no nuance here; no understanding or acknowledgment of bias. Ultimately Tharoor attributes too much to the British, who are presented as almost superhuman: being able to dominate an enormous subcontinent at ease, to reconstitute and recreate Indian society at will, and to divide a people that were (supposedly) unified and economically vibrant. Needless to say, such a contention is wildly inaccurate, totally unrealistic, and deeply paranoid.

The problem is that Tharoor (like many of the critics he relies on) shows little or no understanding of how the Indian Empire actually functioned. He repeats Indian nationalist myths about the “non-violent” non-cooperation movement, the Muslim League’s apparent betrayal over Pakistan (helpfully fostered by the Machiavellian British), without ever really appreciating how the British ran India and the motivations of those who did so. His attempt to smear the reputation of the Indian Civil Service—the “heaven born” “steel frame” of the imperial state that carried out all the administrative functions and was never more than 1200 strong—makes all the old criticisms of the organisation, but fails to mention how important it was to Indian unity and how it was deliberately maintained after 1947 because without it—in the words of a leading Congress politician, Vallabhbhai Patel—“I see nothing but a picture of chaos.”

Inglorious Empire is riddled with serious problems including a lack of balance and fairness. More interesting perhaps is the reaction it has received. Reviews have been laudatory and many general reviewers have accepted Tharoor’s accusations without quibble. The Financial Times calls it “well-argued” and urges “nostalgic Brexite[e]rs” to “examine the blood-soaked history of their country’s relationship to India” if they think trading with India “will in some way compensate for the costs of leaving the EU”. Similarly, for the Irish Times it is “a timely reminder of the need to start teaching unromanticised colonial history in British schools”. Tharoor “should be applauded for tackling an impossibly contentious subject” (Literary Review) and Matt Ridley in the Times says that it “makes very uncomfortable reading for Brits”. History Today finds his argument “persuasive … with telling examples”.

Many of the reviews of Tharoor’s book refer to Britain’s recent decision to leave the EU, and reviewers have not been able to resist making connections between Brexiteers and the general positivity among the British public (if various surveys are to be believed) towards the British Empire. For Tharoor, Brexit is just another example of how the British people have failed to understand their place in the world and accept a subordinate position. They should (in his opinion) have a worldview that is suffused with a sense of remorse, sadness and contrition for Britain’s sins. In the book, Tharoor talks of “history’s revenge”; as if Britain’s currently reduced circumstances are somehow justice for its history of overseas expansion.

Why reviewers have singularly failed to bring out the lack of balance and the serious problems of interpretation in the book is disappointing, although perhaps not unexpected. The Indian nationalist critique of the Raj has become deeply entrenched in Western and South Asian academia and continues to be recycled regularly. It is also dominant in the presentation of the empire in films and movies, not least in the recent movie on the Partition of India, Viceroy’s House, which was based on the conspiracy theory that Britain partitioned India to use Pakistan as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. This has meant that Tharoor’s criticisms, like many others, have not been subjected to the scrutiny they deserve.

Far from being a daring and far-reaching argument, Inglorious Empire walks a well-trodden path, essentially recycling a series of stale arguments and playing to the gallery of contemporary views on imperialism. Thus it tells us little about Britain’s empire in India and much more about its author. It is sad that such bitterness should still be indulged; India has no need of it now; Britain even less.

Nick Lloyd is Reader in Military and Imperial History at King’s College London. Among his books is The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day (2011).


3 thoughts on “You Can Always Blame the British

  • padraic says:

    I did not watch Q&A last week. In fact, I have stopped watching it. It is one thing to look at the facts of history which can be quite disturbing for both the colonizer and the colonized but another thing to wallow in fanciful theories as it appears Mr Tharoor appears to be doing. It is very popular these days to blame the past for today’s inadequacies at a national level and previous generations at a personal level. Blaming colonialism is currently all the fashion for some modern ex-colonial countries to excuse their lack of progress. It was not always thus. In 1988 I was visiting Canberra and picked up the local paper and read an article by a guest journalist from an Indian newspaper. In it, he was quite frank and said that when the country was recently celebrating its 40 years of Independence some people suddenly realized that they could no longer blame the British for the socio-economic problems they were facing and it was about time they took a good look in the mirror and did something about it themselves. You usually find that the first generation of politicians in newly independent ex-colonies are still in the “battle for independence” mode and keep out younger people who want to develop the country, instead of wallowing in past glories (vide Cde Mugabe). A few years back I was speaking to a Kenyan health professional working in Australia and he told me that his father’s generation “never saw political power” because the old Independence brigade were denying them the opportunity. But India has been independent for years now and has atomic weapons so I think a bit of mirror checking is in order for Q&A participants.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    QOL=SOL (Sassenach on line)

  • ianl says:

    Shashi Tharoor also omitted to impugn a particularly vicious colonial British incursion into deep Hindu culture by outlawing the quaint but honourable tradition of suttee – burning widows alive on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre. I mean, just who did those meddling, insensitive Pommy oafs think they were ?

    The late 70’s Monty Python film Life of Brian was spectacularly accurate in its’ portrayal of the various guises of hypocrisy (What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us is the apt sequence here). This film was (still is) so precise in the destruction of its’ targets (prominent amongst these was Christianity, of course) that it would not receive even risk investment funding today to make it. Disagreement, let alone satire, is now regarded as “hate” speech *if* done by white peoples.

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