Book review. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor
by Ian Sinclair
In 2015 Shashi Tharoor’s brilliant speech to the Oxford Union Society on the motion “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies” went viral, receiving coverage across the world.
Tharoor, an MP for the Indian National Congress, former senior United Nations official, novelist and scholar, has now expanded the argument he made at Oxford into Inglorious Empire.
Justifications for the supposedly benign and wise British rule of India – including how the colonialists encouraged democracy, the parliamentary system, development and generously set up the railways – are set out and then eloquently demolished.
At the start of the eighteenth century India’s share of the global economy was 23 percent – the size of all of Europe combined. By the end of nearly 200 years of British rule, first under the proto-multinational corporation East India Company and then direct governance by the British crown after 1858, India’s share had dropped to just over 3 percent following the deliberate destruction of thriving local industries by the British.
Indians were effectively barred from senior positions in the civil service, meaning there were more statues of Queen Victoria in India than Indians in the higher echelons of the government administration. Given “the British had no intention of imparting democracy to Indians”, Tharoor argues “it is a bit rich” for the British to now take credit for the fact India is now the world’s largest democracy.
Perhaps most shocking is the section detailing the 30-35 million Indians who needlessly died in the series of famines under the British Raj, the latest of which was the 1943-4 Bengal Famine. Tharoor calls these “British Colonial Holocausts”, comparing them to the 25 million people who perished in Stalin’s collectivisation drive and political purges.
Well referenced and full of fascinating facts, quotes and anecdotes, Inglorious Empire is a scorching indictment of British rule in India, and British imperialism more broadly. Tharoor supports Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to teach unromanticised colonial history in British schools – a timely idea when one considers a 2014 YouGov poll found 59 percent of respondents thought the British Empire was “something to be proud of.”
Inglorious Empire is published by Hurst & Company, priced £20.