Book review – Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor


by Shashi Tharoor, Scribe Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

201, 294 pg, Paperback, $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-9475-3430-8

by Arnold Zeitlin    10 August 2020

Shashi Tharoor is an angry Indian. He is bitter at the British as he outlines their more than two centuries of exploiting Indian resources and people, then departing hastily in 1947 to permit a partition during which hundreds of thousands died. He is angry at Winston Churchill for being an obdurate imperialist. He is angry at Rudyard Kipling for being a romantic imperialist and inventing “the white man’s burden. He is angry at historian Niall Ferguson for suggesting that the British occupation benefitted India. He is even miffed at one of his idols, Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhiism is viable at its simplest and most profound in the service of a transcendental principle like independence from foreign rule,” Tharoor writes. “But in more complex situations, it cannot and, more to the point, does not work as well.”

His Inglorious Empire (also published under the title An Era of Darkness) is an eight-chapter, 250-page indictment of the British for sucking the wealth and resources out of India for more than 200 years of plunder.

“At the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together,” Tharoor writes. “(It was 27 percent in 1700 when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s treasury raked in 100 million pounds in tax revenues alone).
“By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to just over 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Its depredations in India financed the British rise for 200 years.”

One might add, by similar depredations in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, West, and East Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, although in the case of the latter three, mostly exploitation of human resources during war. India was not the only victim.

Of course, as Tharoor points out, Indians in vast numbers died for an Empire that otherwise oppressed them in a dozen 19th-century colonial wars in Africa and Asia and in two world wars, “which,” as Tharoor writes, “had nothing to do with India and everything to do with protecting or expanding British interests.”

Tharoor documents the British destruction of the Indian textile industry to allow imports of Manchester-made fabric into a captive Indian market. He shows the British destroying India shipbuilding and blocking an Indian iron and steel industry. The British brought Indians into the lower levels of the civil service but never allowed any to fill positions of power. Under a policy of divide, conquer, and rule, Tharoor insists, Britain created the hostility between Hindu and Moslem communities that eventually led to Pakistan’s breakaway.

Tharoor does concede that “the collapse of the Mughal empire and the rise of several warring principalities contending for authority across the eighteenth century India” allowed the British to subjugate the subcontinent.

While “the gift of the English language cannot be denied,” he writes, Tharoor also noted that the British left India with a literacy rate of 16 percent, 8 percent for women, “not exactly a stellar record.”

In the course of his indictment, Tharoor raises an intriguing question:
“Why would India, which throughout its history had created come of the greatest (and most modern for their time) civilizations the world has ever known, not have acquired all the trappings of developed or advanced nations today, had it been left to itself to do so?”

To answer, Tharoor paints a broad, idealized portrait of India before the British East India Company set foot in Bengal in the seventeenth century:
“The story of India…is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, a high overall standard of living….abundant prosperity….all the markers of successful ‘modernity’ today….

“There is no earthly reason why this could not again be the case if it had the resources to do so which were instead drained away by the British.”
He also dreams that sans Britain, India might have had, like Japan, a Meiji-like restoration, neglecting to note that Japan was a single, united state under Samurai control for seven centuries, a history unlike India’s.

To prove his point, Tharoor notes India in seven decades since the British left had risen at the time of his writing to the world’s third-largest economy — as well as sending a spacecraft into Mars orbit, which no other country had accomplished. However, more recent figures show India trailing the United States, China, Japan, and Germany and vying with Great Britain for the world’s fifth-largest economy, with about 3 percent of the world’s gross national product, the same percentage India held at partition.

Would a native ruler have risen to extend authority over the entire subcontinent in the absence of the British, or would the territory have fragmented into a modern-day version of the numerous states of southeast Asia? This is a question Tharoor does not deal with.

What he does suggest in his role as a Congress party parliamentarian is a federal-state to replace the parliamentary system inherited from the British. “I have repeatedly advocated a presidential system for India,” Tharoor writes, ” not just for the federal government in New Delhi but also for directly elected chief executives at the levels of villages, towns, states, and the centre…”
He adds: “The parliamentary system…is primarily responsible for many of the nation’s principal political ills.”

As for the British, Tharoor suggests they might make up for their past depredations by teaching an “unromanticized colonial history” in their schools and, perhaps, pay one pound a year to India as a symbolic reparation.

And one more gesture: Queen Elizabeth might return to India from her crown jewels the Koh-i-Noor diamond seized in Delhi in 1739 along with the Peacock Throne by Persian invader Nadir Shah.

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