Striking back at the Empire

A review of Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire - What the British did to India

Conversations about the effects of colonialism in the subcontinent often play out like a Monty Python sketch. Ask  “what have the British ever done for us” and invariably you will hear  "well absolutely nothing …except of course for the civil service….and the rule of law…and parliamentary democracy” and so the list goes. In Inglorious Empire - What the British did to India, Shashi Tharoor presents a searing critique of  exactly such justifications of the Empire, and a much needed corrective to a growing revisionist colonial historiography (most notably Niall Ferguson’s Empire, and to some extent Lawrence James’ Rise and Fall of the British Empire). Building on a speech made by Tharoor at a debate at the Oxford Union, the book argues that any contributions that the British made to India’s political, legal, economic and social institutions were at best window-dressing, and at worst a means to a more efficient way to loot the country’s resources. 

Inglorious Empire is strongest when the book is focused on the economic devastation wrecked by colonialism. When British traders arrived in the subcontinent in the 17th century, the region accounted for roughly a quarter of the world’s economy. By the time the British left in 1947, the India’s share of global GDP had dropped to a paltry 3 percent. Tharoor  forcefully argues against the notion that India’s medieval economy would not have survived industrialization in the West, with or without colonialism. In his telling, the British strategically destroyed Indian textiles, stymied efforts at industrialization by using taxes and tariffs as weapons to weaken nascent Indian firms (most notably in steel), and bankrupted a superior ship-building industry. They engineered in its place a rural, agrarian economy focused on producing raw materials and food grains for the Empire.  Without colonialism, India, a sophisticated economy made up of highly prized textiles, skilled artisans, master ship builders and traders might have experienced its own process of industrialization. Importantly, it might have been spared decades upon decades of lethal famines and Imperial indifference to death and disease that killed millions.

In an excellent chapter titled “Divide et Impera”, Tharoor succinctly lists the many ways in which the British strategically played on caste and religious divisions within Indian society to limit opposition, leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. At the end of the chapter Tharoor notes:

“If Britain’s greatest accomplishment was the creation of a single political unit called India, fulfilling the aspirations of visionary emperors from Ashoka to Akbar, then its greatest failure must be the shambles of that original Brexit — cutting and running from the land they had claimed to rule for its betterment, leaving behind a million dead, thirteen million displacd, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.” 

But what of the numerous institutions the British built in India? Where people see “law and order”, Tharoor sees a legal system created primarily for the benefit of the British and actively used by them to suppress dissent amongst Indians. Where historians see the introduction of property rights, taxation (often viewed as essential for development) and an expert civil service credited as being an “iron backbone”, he sees  racist Imperial administrators and ruthless extraction. He recounts how talented Indians, who passed difficult civil service examinations, were prevented from serving at senior levels in the colonial administration because it would require white British employees to answer to an Indian. Centuries of colonialism destroyed human capital amongst Indians. 

Tharoor also discounts efforts made by the British to introduce limited self-governing institutions through the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1917 (a mere paragraph is dedicated to these reforms which he views as window-dressing).  In this way, Tharoor expertly catalogues and summarily dismisses key colonial-era “accomplishments”, going so far as to say that the parliamentary style of democracy inherited by an independent India is unsuited for its people. 

In presenting a highly critical account of late colonialism, Tharoor also presents a Congress-centric one. Take his dismissive attitude towards the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. The introduction of limited self-government and the first franchise expansion set into play competitive party politics in a number of Indian provinces. In the Madras Presidency, a region where upper-caste Brahmins dominated the British bureaucracy and the nominated Morley-Minto legislative councils, the reforms gave life to the Non-Brahmin  Justice Party and served as a means for new groups to enter politics. The political leaders of the Justice Party were acutely aware of caste-based inequities in the colonial administration, actively lobbied the British to hold elections, and refused to participate in the election boycott called for by the Congress. The Justice party went on to win all four elections held under limited franchise rules, and remerged in the post-Independence period in the guise of the Dravida Kazhagam. This period of incubation therefore enabled the development of parties with a long-term impact on politics and presented an early challenge to Congress dominance in the Indian states.  While I take on board Tharoor’s contention that the British didn’t actively design institutions for the benefit of Indians, I also disagree that they were all created in bad faith. 

Tharoor impressively brings together evidence by historians, political scientists and sociologists on the colonial manufacturing of ethnic divisions. In doing so, he takes seriously the role of the decennial census in both collecting information about a state’s subjects and in engineering its politics. But he also glosses over accounts of how upper-caste Indians were lobbying the British to adopt caste-based discrimination in Indian schools and bureaucracy.  For example, the Board for College and Public Instruction in Madras, responding to a petition by a scheduled caste student, finds:

“The Board...have not felt it right to decide of themselves whether a person of this class shall be    admitted as a scholar, in consequence of the strong repugnance evinced by the native [Brahman] headmasters to give instruction to Pariahs [depressed or scheduled castes], and the knowledge that Hindoos of caste would consider their prejudices, interfered with, were Pariahs taught in the same classes, with themselves...(Public Consultations, vol 618, January 24, 1834.)”

Contentious caste politics in his telling was a linear outcome of a caste-based census, the British obsession with cataloguing race-based physical and cultural distinctions, and their willingness to let Brahmins run amok in the British bureaucracy. But by relying on such a narrative he diminishes the impact of pre-colonial social arrangements and the active agency of the upper-castes in trying to maintain their caste-based status both within and outside the colonial state.

What can social scientists take away from Tharoor’s riveting book? First, Chapter 1 aptly titled the “Looting of India” will make an excellent addition to a syllabus on the Indian political economy. Second, the book opens up several possibilities for future research.  It reinforces the importance of taking more seriously provincial and temporal variations in colonial-era institutions. Current day political science is actively working in this area through its study of land tenure systems, tax systems, the civil service, political parties, caste politics, and elections and how they shaped development in the Indian states after independence.  The book also highlights the importance of studying how contemporaneous domestic British politics shaped colonial institutions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the next time anyone jokingly asks “what have the British ever done for us” you can throw this book at them.

Pavithra Suryanarayan is an Assistant Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She studies ethnic inequality, bureaucratic capacity, and political behavior in the Indian states. Pavi's papers have been accepted for publication in Comparative Political Studies, The Journal of Politics, World Politics, and the American Journal of Political Science amongst others. She is currently working on a book on how concerns about caste status shaped redistributive politics in Colonial India.

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Visit Dr. Shashi Tharoor's website here

Visit Dr. Pavithra Suryanarayan's website  here