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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Why Shashi Tharoor’s inglorious empire is a must read?

Saleha Anwar gives a review of inglorious Empire, by Shashi Tharoor, a United Nations diplomat turned Indian National Congress MP in New Delhi, adds to a growing list of books on what the British did to India, The book arose from a speech given by Dr. Shashi Tharoor in May 2015 at the Oxford Union in support of the motion ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’, focusing on British exploitation of India.

On 28 May 2015, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, an international civil servant and a prominent scholar from South Asia, delivered a hard-hitting speech at the Oxford University supporting the motion “Britain owe reparation to her former colonies”. Tharoor is neither an ordinary politician nor an average academic from India. He is a scholar who has original ideas to inspire the world and the courage to speak up his mind. Tharoor’s wit and courage, I would say, do not belong to India alone, but to the whole of humanity. This is a reason that he is celebrated as a scholar across the world, including in Pakistan.

In 2017, Tharoor expanded his argument(s) and published a well-researched book titled Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. In a persuasive manner, Tharoor outlined how unjust and discriminatory Britain ruled India for 200 years, and apologetically demanded that Britain owe an apology to its former colony (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). The British Raj, the Raj of the “civilized”, was based on abject racism, acute economic exploitation of Indian resources and unprecedented and brainless violence against the indigenous population. This was, Tharoor, reminds all of us, ‘an era of darkness’.

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Nothing new, but historical facts and events

As a genuine scholar of history, Tharoor, at the very outset, clarifies that the book doesn’t offer anything terribly new, it mainly is a compilation of historical facts and events. But the strength of the book is Tharoor’s ability to offer strategic narration of some painful events. His analysis and contextualization of facts make the book helpful for the reader to understand that the rule was in no way justifiable but an awful period in the history of humankind.

In the initial chapters, Tharoor discusses the exploitative and self-centered nature (nothing short of a sadist monster) of British rule. He explained how the East India company destroyed Indian resources, damaged native knowledge and contributed to the increase of poverty. Shahi argues that in the 18th century, the emerging trade and growing economy of India were brutally hampered by the selfish policies of the Raj. Before the British landed in the region, India was the largest growing economy with the contribution of 27% to the world economy and during the 200-year rule of Britain, it dropped drastically to just 3%, laments Tharoor.

Incapable Indians?

Tharoor argues that it was a systematic plan of the empire through which they squeezed all the Indian wealth. He also thinks that the British policies made Indians pay for their oppression as all the extracted money was spent on the English officers instead of doing any work for the natives. He expressed it as ‘Britain rise of 200 years were financed by its looting in India’.

While boldly countering a dominant argument, chiefly developed by biased historians and beneficiaries of the Raj that Indians were incapable of developing and modernizing themselves, Tharoor, on the contrary, argues that British policies in the subcontinent in fact was the main reason behind India’s systematic deindustrialization. “Britain industrial revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing economy,” Tharoor writes.

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Beyond material loss

Britain not only root out all the material wealth from the region, but it also disturbed the social patterns and local administrative system of Indian’s which they have flourished since old times. In other words, organic institutions of conflict resolution, the justice system and distribution of political power were not only ridiculed by replaced with the Raj-led selective modernization. British abolished the traditional legal and governing system of India and instead (shamelessly) incorporated the system that benefited them more than the indigenous population.

In Tharoor’s view, during the rule locals went through a massive transformation of their living patterns and lifestyle. They were left with a confused identity at the end.

In the same manner, the book counters the empire apologist who believed that the British united Indians. He put forward very strong arguments that it was the British who divided Indians and took benefit of the divisions on various pretexts ranging from religion to ethnicity. In Tharoor’s view, the present division of India into three separate countries India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is the consequence of the British ‘divide and rule policy. Instead of uniting Indians, they made Indians conscious about their religious and ethnic division, he opines. He blames the British for the current rigid attitude of Indians towards their ethnicity, and the cast system they had.

Tharoor’s use of the word India is controversial and his disregard to explain it is regrettable. India was never a homogenized entity that can be treated as one civilization. India, a term denoting a particular geographical reality, was home to representatives of different civilizations (Read Aitzaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga).

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The hypocrites 

Tharoor also pointed out the hypocrisy of the British empire as they propagated democracy and liberal values at home but deprived its colonies of the same. He called the rule “enlightened despotism”.

While examining the cultural damage and economic exploitation done by the British in India, Tharoor did not shy away from appreciating some benefits India got from being a British colony. He talked about railways, newspapers, administrative systems and educational institutions but he stands firms on the conclusion that the damage done to India is way graver and to a large extent that justifying Raj is unfair. He explained that whatever good British Raj did to India was just the byproduct of the self-centric policies which they made during the rule and they never were intended to do so.

Beyond inglorious empire thesis?

The era of darkness, no doubt is an exceptional work that rightly demands an apology from Britain. The extraordinary description of historical events in this book makes this book different from other work done in this field. Having said this and while totally agreeing with the line of argumentation of the book that Britain had done a heinous crime and should apologize for it, this book ignores some present-day realities.

For instance, Tharoor convinces the reader that the British rule upon Indians was against the will of Indians and India experienced violence, prejudice, exploitation and racism under the Raj.  He single-handedly developed a case against despotism and forced rule. But what we see today in independent India, not under any influence of Britain, is the same nature of despotism and forced rule by Indians in Kashmir. The stories of Indian violence (state terrorism), racism and human rights violations have been the headlines of the global news now and then. How come the impunity of Indian soldiers and Indian autocracy in Kashmir (against all the international laws) is justified in the post-colonial world and the same acts of Britain done in the age of empires required reparation?

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Moreover, Shashi in his book explained how Britain introduced the sedition laws in India and used them against the native population whenever they tried to resist the Raj. But quite ironically, the same British-given sedition laws have been (mis)used many times in independent states of India and Pakistan. Who then owes an apology for using these laws today? Who is responsible for the existence of the very same laws in the contemporary independent states?

Other than this Tharoor had a very vague understanding through which he explained the unity of the Indian people. In the face of diversity and polarization, the only factor that ever made Indian people united was the resistance against the British Empire. Though there were many political differences among Indian politicians yet they were all united against British rule. Thus, it seems appropriate to say that the British empire contributed to providing unity to the subcontinent. No matter how ironic it is but even after being divided into three separate states, people of these states have one thing in common for always and that is the memory of ‘an era of darkness’.

To conclude Tharoor has built an impressive argument against colonial rule and the book is a masterpiece in terms of explaining the subcontinent’s experience as a British colony. And no amount of criticism can, I admit, undermine Tharoor’s brilliantly crafted case against the Raj.


The writer is a Lahore-based political analyst. She is interested in Political Islam, Democracy and Authoritarianism; her comments and articles appear in Pakistan’s leading English language newspapers. She tweets at anwar_saleha. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.