Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Verbose and dense. If you ever doubted how bad the British Raj was in India, this book will open your eyes. This was hard to read, not only because the subject matter was so harrowing but also because of the prose style itself. It feels like Tharoor has written this with the help of a thesaurus using obscure synonyms when he’s afraid of repeating himself. He often uses words from the 17-18th centuries, even if quotes from yesteryear are ignored. He regularly repeats himself, maybe that’s his way of hammering out his points for reinforcement though.
He holds Ghandi up on a giant pedestal as the savior of India, but even he admits his powers were limited, not great enough to stop partition and without the support of the armed forces, the British would not have left. He also says non-violent resistance won’t work on an opponent who doesn’t care about being morally right or being shamed. Worryingly, there’s no mention of Ghandi’s bizarre transgressions with young girls, where he “tested his celibacy”. Though there was at least some criticism. He makes an interesting argument for leaving the Koh-I-Noor where it is, to showcase the plunder of the British Empire to the world.
It is astonishing the amount the British looted. The British got rich by running a bunch of scams on the indigenous population. Like tricking zamindaars into selling their land for loans then hiking up rents continuously. Appropriating crops and livestock then selling it back to the producer for a grossly inflated price, sending the rest back to Blighty. Don’t forget the umpteen unjust taxes too. The British were responsible for plunging Indian industry into the dark ages. A nation of adept craftsmen, seamstresses and tradesmen were deskilled. The British forced them to produce raw materials and export them to Britain where manufacturing would take place (sadly not to the high standard of India). Over time, skills were lost and forgotten and you instead had a nation of primary industry farming and mining etc. Britain promised India greater autonomy in its own affairs or ‘dominion status’ in the commonwealth, if it helped in WW1 war effort. Guess what? They reneged on their word. You shouldn’t really expect a scammer to keep their promises.
The British attitude to Empire was a lot different to that of the French, whereby in French colonies, the natives were seen as citizens of France and encouraged to assimilate. In the British Empire, they were seen as inferiors and not to be associated with, inter-marriage was taboo for example.
It is often asked why such a small group of Englishmen (6,000) could rule over 250 million Indians? Put simply, superior military technology, racial self-assurance, opportunism, greed, cowardice and lack of organized resistance. Maintaining dominion was done by divide and conquer. If the people of India remained united together they could overthrow the colonial overlords. Divided they were weak and easier to control. The British used the caste system (an always informal system prior to British interference) and really entrenched it into indian society and exacerbated the problems it caused. A good example is the partition of Bengal, where the British used redistricting to stoke ethnic tensions pitting Hindus and Muslims against eachother. Leading to sectarian violence and rape against Hindus. Naturally it was the legacy of this policy that ultimately lead to the partition of India. By a twist of fate, The Muslim league and by extension Jinnah found themselves in power after Congress resigned its ministries in protest of dragging India into WW2.
Despite a proclamation by Queen Victoria that the Civil Service reflect the diversity of the colonies, systemic discrimination and racism put a stop to that. Insofar as putting halfwit Englishmen in positions of grandeur rather than indian Oxbridge graduates.
Winston Churchill has been venerated as a hero of freedom and posthumously beatified by the UK. Sadly his legacy in India is anything but deserving of that praise. He was a despotic, racist, scumbag and drunkard. A man who was against the release of political prisoners such as Ghandi and Nehru. Thanks to his gung-ho attitude, more than 1000 indian soldiers lost their lives at Gallipoli. British mismanagement of lands and traditions caused famines and their lack of support exacerbated them. In fact, Churchill’s own policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine. In times of drought, neighbouring regions would help eachother out with food supplies. But under British rule, regardless of drought, food was collected and shipped to Britain. And despite the food shortages aid was not given to India at first. It’s curious that a country as vast and rich in resources as India rarely had famines under pre-empirical rule but under the British it became commonplace.
Advocates of the empire claim that the British gave India positive virtues, like that of freedom of speech. Well this doesn’t seem to be protected when they cracked down on talk of political activities. They also imposed rather prudish Victorian era laws on the Indians. Such as criminalizing homosexuality and transgenderism. Plus gender asymmetries in the law, such as prosecuting a woman for adultery but not the man. Another supposed benefit of the Empire to India often cited, is the railways. For starters, there was the classic price inflation scam, where railway construction cost double what it did in Canada and Australia. Then Britons made a killing on the stock market where the Indian people absorbed all the costs of the roll out but the Brits garnered all the profit. The railways weren’t useful to Indians either, their main use was to transport raw materials to ports for transport back to Britain. Movement of people was tailored to colonial interests. There was racial segregation and discrimination, Indians were only allowed into 3rd class carriages with inhumane conditions and charged extortionate fares to reduce the cost of transporting freight.
On the author himself, questions do remain over the death of his wife where he is suspected of murdering her. Ingorious Empire is well referenced, though I did find one spurious claim, where he asserts in chapter 6 that India was the third largest economy at time of publishing (which it wasn’t), oddly no reference for that one.
The Indian Civil Service, he said, was ‘neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service’
— Jawaharlal Nehru
In return for India’s extraordinary support, the British had insincerely promised to deliver progressive self-rule to India at the end of the war. Perhaps, had they kept that pledge, the sacrifices of India’s World War I soldiers might have been seen in their homeland as a contribution to India’s freedom.
But the British broke their word.
But when Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 led Britain to declare war upon it, Indians noted the irony of the English fighting to defend the sovereignty of a weak country resisting the defend the sovereignty of a weak country resisting the brute force of foreign conquest—precisely what Indian nationalists were doing against British imperialism. So Britain would fight Germany for doing to Poland what Britain had been doing to India for nearly two hundred years.
For the Savile Row-suit-wearing, sausage-eating, whisky-swilling Jinnah to go on about clothes and food was a bit rich, as was the reference to women’s habits coming from the lips of a man who had been famously indulgent of his young wife’s scandalously ‘bold’ attire.
Churchill confidently expressed the belief that the British empire would last a thousand years
Finally, the most painful question of all: what political unity can we celebrate when the horrors of Partition were the direct result of the deliberate British policy of communal division that fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule? 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 displaced, 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.
In other words, Empire had no larger purpose than its own perpetuation. No wonder, then, that it did India little good.
I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion
— Winston Churchill
The sun never set on the British empire, an Indian nationalist later sardonically commented, because even God couldn’t trust the Englishman in the dark.
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