Un-Romanticising the Colonial History | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 17, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:25 PM, April 01, 2018

Un-Romanticising the Colonial History

Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor, C Hurst & Co. 978-1849048088, 2016

Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017, Hurst: London, 296 pages) does not tell any untold story. The book reiterates long-standing criticism of the British colonial exploitative activities in the then-British India, which Tharoor himself acknowledges, “I honestly did not think I had said anything terribly new” (p. xxii). What he does brilliantly, however, is to have synthesised the existing literature thoroughly with regard to economics and politics, enough to make his case persuasive with telling examples and scathing statistics. The book is not about “reparations” unlike its predecessor – Tharoor's Oxford Union debate of 2015 that went viral, rather, the author felt a “moral urgency” to throw light on the horrors of colonialism for “today's Indians and Britons” (ibid.). The book thus underscores the need to start “teaching unromanticized colonial history in British schools,” as “the British public is woefully ignorant of the realties of the British empire” [in British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's words, qtd. in Tharoor, p. xxvii]. I am well aware that India does not loom large in the history taught in most British schools, but my experience of teaching colonial education policies to first year undergraduates in Britain, notably in Cambridge, Reading and Canterbury, tells me that young students are not as “ignorant” or uncritical about the two centuries of exploitation that financed the British empire and many of its wars. In this age of internet, even young readers are capable of doing quick research on the Raj and its disturbing legacy of iniquity when needed to. I have no doubt, however, that the book is a timely and helpful antidote to other contemporary works (in the vein of the so-called 'postcolonial melancholia' or 'empire nostalgia'), such as Niall Ferguson's 2003 book Empire, which righteously defends colonialism as a force for free trade, rule of law, representative assemblies, liberty and democracy.

The evidence that Tharoor presents to debunk the myths about Britain's 'civilising mission' in India is staggering. Tharoor recounts (in Chapter 1: “The looting of India”) how the British East India Company maintained a private army of 260,000 to enforce merciless taxation, de-industrialised India slowly and systematically and fed the British industrial revolution. “To stop is dangerous; to recede ruin,” enunciated Robert Clive, commander in chief of British India in the mid-18th century, and consequently, India that led the world in textiles, agriculture and metallurgy dwarfed into a mere exporter of raw materials and an importer of goods manufactured in Britain. India's share of world manufacturing exports, as Tharoor conservatively estimates, fell from 27 per cent to a paltry 2 per cent by the end of the colonial rule. The statistics are revealing as in comparison, at the point (in 1600) when the East India Company set its foot on the Indian soil, Britain accounted for 1.8 per cent of global gross domestic product and India for 23 per cent! Did the British give India political unity? –successive chapters scrutinise the claim that India was left with a functioning democracy with established building blocks of a free press, an incipient parliamentary system and the rule of law. Tharoor felt these claims were undone by colonial censorship efforts, such as Lord Wellesley's Censorship of the Press Act (1799). He argues further in the “Democracy, the Press, the Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law” chapter that the civil service set up by the Britishwas “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service” where about 6,000 British officials ruled 250 million Indians (by 1890). However, Tharoor does not explain further to what extent the pre-colonial village self-rule was ideal to bring home the contrasting picture. Similarly, Tharoor's assertion that “stories abound” of Hindu and Muslim communities “habitually working together in pre-colonial times” is loose because of its over-reliance on anecdotes (for instance “The story is told – I cannot pinpoint the source”; “There is a story – perhaps apocryphal”).

Tharoor's most damning argument, although a rehashed one, is that the shrewd policy of divide and rule entrenched various forms of inter- and intra-religious contentions all over India. Colonialist obsession with classification and distinction between Hindus and Muslims, between Hindu castes and between Sunni and Shia Islam etc. sets the stage for the violent “original Brexit” — the departure of the British from India. Subsequent chapters, including “The Myth of Enlightened Despotism”deals with man-made famines particularly in 1943 when nearly four million Bengalis died. Notable omissions from the book, however, are the death toll in the 1769-1770 Great Bengal Famine and deaths in a decade of British reprisals after the 1857 Rebellion. Collectively, all these famines amounted to a “British colonial holocaust,” Tharoor points out. London ate India's bread while India starved (during the World War II), and Tharoor reminds us Winston Churchill's vile racism: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” and the famines were their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. Tahroor describes the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, with soldiers “emptying their magazines into the shrieking, wailing, then stampeding crowd with trained precision”, but fails to mention Churchill's parliamentary condemnation of the mass shooting as “a monstrous event.” Similarly, he does not give the context for the comment of William Joynson-Hicks, home secretary in the 1928 Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin, that “I am not such a hypocrite to say we hold India for the Indians.” Further, Tharoor, throughout the book, has ignored that even during the colonial rule, several Britons did in fact question fundamental aspects of imperial policy and practice and, at times, the project of empire itself (Gopal, “The British empire's hidden history is one of resistance, not pride”, 2017). “But what about the railways?”, Tharoor replies to the modern empire apologist enquiry, “the railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories.” The English language, Tharoor contends in the same vein, was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the British. Only tea and cricket, “but only as by-products, and not because they were intended to benefit Indians,” writes Tharoor, were unadulterated benefits to the Indians.

To conclude, then, Tharoor argues vociferously, that the British colonial rule, despite the empire apologist claims to the contrary, intentionally impoverished India economically for Britain's benefit. Echoing William Dalrymple's laments over the colonial looting and the rise of British racism in the 19th century, Tharoor's Inglorious Empireun-romanticises the colonial delusion of 'victor's sovereignty' (as Jon Wilson says).But, at the same time Inglorious Empire can not claim to be immune from 'romanticised interpretations of pre-colonial traditions and cultures' (Berger, 2004) in its bid to oppose western colonial visions of modernisation and development. Tharoor is also wary of the criticism that his “recitation of past injustices” and “attacks on Britain's colonial cruelties” are invalidated by India's postcolonial political and economic failings, understanding the prefix 'post' as a temporal marker denoting years after decolonisation. The book, Tharoor wants us to understand, serves a greater need “to temper British imperial nostalgia with postcolonial responsibility,” understanding 'post' here as a condition that continues to yield economic, social, political, and cultural effects of colonialism.



Berger, M. T. (2004). 'After the Third World? History, Destiny and the Fate of the Third World', Third World Quarterly, 25(1): 9–39.

Dalrymple, W. “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders.”The Guardian. 4 March, 2015.

Gopal, P. “The British empire's hidden history is one of resistance, not pride.”  The Guardian. 28 July, 2017.

Wilson, J. (2016). India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire. Simon & Schuster, London.

(Manzoorul Abedin teaches Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is a Research Fellow working across several educational projects)

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