By: Cyril Pereira

The backstory is the Oxford Union Debate of July 2015, on whether Britain should pay reparations to its former colonies. Shashi Tharoor’s team won handily, arguing that Britain should. The YouTube segment of his speech went viral, downloaded a stunning three million times. Hence the book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, published in 2017.  

Asia Society Talk

Tharoor took the lectern at the Asia Society in Hong Kong on Dec. 2, not fully recovered from mobilizing relief in Kerala forr victims of Cyclone Ockhi. Beset by coughing fits, his practiced recitation of the ruination of India by the East India Company and the British Crown was matter-of-fact. He spoke without notes.

The result is a bitter indictment of colonialism and an argument that the UK gained far more from India than India ever gained from colonialism. Narratives of British rule in India, he said, rarely dwell on the rapacity of the 80-90 percent tax levied on farmers, the substitution of food crops by opium for export to China, the massacre of 1,800 unarmed civilians by General Dyer in Amritsar, or the systematic wrecking of then world-class native steel, ship-building and textile industries.

Choking Local Industry

Indian swords were forged from a special high-carbon crucible technique developed in south India in the 3d Century BC. Seaborne trade with the Middle East exported this knowledge, where it gained fame as the “Damascus Sword.” British troops were known to retrieve the superior sabers of the Indian warriors they shot in battle, Tharoor writes.

The Raj closed India’s iron and steel furnaces on the grounds that they constituted a threat of armed native revolt, Tharoor said. The techniques and the knowhow flowed into British steelmaking which boosted the Industrial Revolution. There is a repetitive pattern of appropriation of Indian techniques, while suppressing the local crafts and trade.

The textile cottage industry spun fine fabrics which were the rage even of the fashionable ladies of the ancient Roman Empire. As the industrial looms began to roll in England, Indian hand looms were smashed and in one tragic case, the thumbs of the master weavers were sliced off – recorded by a Dutch observer. Indians had to purchase Lancaster cloth imported tax free, while stiff tariffs were imposed on Indian textiles.

Indian teak and the tar derived from burning it, along with jointing techniques, outlasted European ships constructed from oak by at least five times seaworthy life, the former diplomat charges. Alexander the Great commissioned Indian ships to ferry his retreating army to Greece. Ma Huan, interpreter on Ming Admiral Zheng He’s voyages of the 15th Century, studied boat construction in Bengal. Historically, Indian shipbuilding was globally recognized.

In 1675, the East India Company built a shipyard in Bombay to use Indian teak. The British Navy commissioned hundreds of ships for its fleet. Indian ships, Indian loot, Bengal saltpeter (gunpowder), piracy, the slave trade from Africa, opium dealing in China, and the sugar canes of the Caribbean, enabled Britain to rule the waves.

When the industrial era of steamships began, punitive tariffs were imposed on Indian shipbuilding. Investment in modern development was blocked by British shipbuilders and the colonial government. The shipbuilding industry was forcibly strangled too. Eliminating competition to monopolize trade was standard colonial policy.

It is sometimes suggested that India would have fallen behind anyway, even without the destructive British policies, overtaken by the industrial revolution. To that, Tharoor asked: Why do you think Indian merchants experienced in international trade of textiles, steel and shipbuilding, wouldn’t invest in and adopt modern techniques from anywhere?

Rich Archives

The compulsive shopkeeper habit of the British, afforded a ready reference of dates, events, imports and exports. About 300 source documents are annotated in the book. “The task of validation was straightforward as the British maintained detailed records of policy, trade statistics, and parliamentary debates,” Tharoor said.

When the East India Company arrived in the 1600s, India’s global GDP share was 25 percent while Britain’s stood at 1.8 percent. Over 350 years of the Company and 200 years of the British Raj, Indian revenues financed the Industrial Revolution and critical maritime supremacy. By the middle of the 20th Century, the British GDP share had risen to 10 percent while India’s shrank to 3 percent.

Tharoor dismisses the hagiography and apologia of historians like Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World; Lawrence James (1997), Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India; and Andrew Roberts (2006), A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900. He exposes the  vile larcency of colonial rule.

Alex von Tunzelmann’s 2007 book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, has this passage: “In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.”

Vexed Legacy?

There are widely held positive appraisals of the legacies of British rule: the railway network, the civil service, the rule of law and a free press. Tharoor concedes these with ambivalence. Through his lens, these were incidental residuals of the Raj imperative to stamp efficient colonial rule – not gifts from a benevolent monarch.

Railway investors were guaranteed a minimum 5 percent return by the Indian taxpayer. In its first two decades, each mile of Indian rail cost nine times that of the UK & the United States. Public exposure of that scam lowered the cost to five times. The railways extracted raw material from the hinterland, and deployed soldiers inland to maintain order.

The civil service was a classic formula of British ingenuity: the clerical bookkeeping, stock tally and labor supervision were left to English-educated Indians, while policy direction and enforcement rested with British sahibs. The education system, supplemented by mission schools, supplied local recruits for the administration.

Law and order was imposed to further East India Company operations and for the greater glory of the British Raj. Laws were framed to ensure compliance to rules and regulations for opium cultivation, plantation management, land tax collection and to enforce subservience of all subjects to the British Crown. It was a tool of colonial oppression.

The press (in English) grew in the port cities as commercial information vehicles to facilitate trade. When indigenous newspapers sprouted in response to rising nationalism after WWI, repressive sedition laws were used to detain editors and ban publications. Pro-establishment English press flourished. Press licensing tightened media control.

‘Let them starve’

On the historic scale of mass murderers, where Stalin ranks at 20 million, Mao at 15 million and Hitler at 6 million. Tharoor reckons British colonial rule killed 35 million Indians over recurring famines. He is particularly scathing of Winston Churchill, who misappropriated food grain during the infamous Bengal famine of 1943, causing five million deaths. Churchill scribbled in the margin of his cabinet papers, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

Tharoor attributes such callousness to three factors: the ‘free trade’ principle, the Malthusian sustainable-population theory, and the rigid colonial practice of disallowing humanitarian assistance as fiscal prudence. Mercy shown could be misinterpreted as weakness, and such indulgence would make the natives lazy anyway.

Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary General, author of four fiction and 12 non-fiction books, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, roasts British colonial rule to counter the contrived amnesia and disinformation, about what the experience really meant for India and Indians.

Should Britain pay reparations? Tharoor suggests, tongue-in-cheek, a token One British pound sterling per year over the next two hundred years, plus an apology. He urges colonial history be taught in British schools honestly. Colonialists vamp noble narratives about their mission, mostly fake.

Cyril Pereira is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel