In 1995, I was travelling in Tierra del Fuego where I chanced to meet a middle-aged Canadian in a coffee shop. He too, like me, was travelling in South America and we ended up chatting about colonialism. It was then that he made the following astounding statement: "...you know, of all the European countries that colonized the world - France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain - it was only the English who did so with the aim to modernize and develop those backward nations. The rest were mostly out to exploit, plunder and conquer." I couldn't believe that in 1995, a Canadian man in his forties would seriously believe such a thing and even more so, articulate it to an Indian. But then, he wasn't the first man to say such a thing to me during my travels. There have been many others - often Australians and Brits - who generally believed that British colonialism was humane, fair and constructive compared to the rest. It is probably not all that surprising, because, even eminent modern-day British economists and historians like Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James have recently written books, extolling the 'good' of British colonialism and pronouncing that it was ultimately a positive force in the world. James sees the Raj as a period governed by essentially idealistic, if paternalistic, rulers who impacted India deeply. India's sustained adherence to Democracy, its Railways and the system of education are seen as among the positive legacies of British rule by Lawrence James. In the 1960s, as a schoolboy, I have heard even elderly Indians remark that 'everything has gone to the dogs after the British left India'. Can it all be really true? Or is it just post-truth?
For those of us Indians, who are tired of reading Englishmen telling us that they made us into a modern and unified nation, a democracy and law-bound society as well as that British rule was benign and considerate, author Tharoor's book will come as a welcome Indian contribution in striking back at the Empire with details of the actual lived truth of colonialism. After all, the judgement has to be made based on documents telling us what really happened in the 18th and 19th centuries in India. In recent months, there have been a spate of books by British authors as well, blowing the lid off the 'post-colonial melancholia' of Raj apologists. All of them echo the conclusions that Tharoor himself has reached through his own extensive research on the 200-year rule of India by Britain. Tharoor shows that the Raj was an era of darkness for India, where rapacious economic exploitation of India was committed on an unprecedented scale. It was a time when peasants were impoverished by punishing tax laws and driven out of their lands and forced into deportation as indentured labor to far-off lands and made to suffer and die in recurrent famines. In addition, racism, wars and bad administration was rife. Everything Britain did was for its own benefit and not for that of Indians. They broke treaties at will and looted the wealth of India with abandon. The rise of Britain during the two centuries between the 18th and 20th was financed by its depredations in India.
Tharoor has marshalled impressive arguments and facts to support his indictment of the Raj. This space is too small to outline and analyze all the arguments. But the facts tell a stunning tale of exploitation and destruction. Let us look at some of them:
- India was a prosperous nation in the 18th century as documented by even the East India company's own men like Robert Clive, Macaulay and others. India's share then of the world economy was 23%, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British left India in 1947, it was 3%.
- When Britain left India in 1947, India had a literacy of 16%, an average longevity of just 27 years and 90% of the population were in poverty.
- Between 1757 and 1900, the British per capita GDP increased in real terms by 347% while that of the Indian by a mere 14%.
- India experienced recurrent devastating famines due to the ruthless economic policies enforced by Britain. At least eleven major famines were recorded in different parts of India between 1770 and 1944. About 30 -35 million Indians died in these famines. To put it in perspective, Tharoor quotes author William Digby, who points out that in the entire 107 years between 1793 and 1900, only an estimated five million people had died in all the wars around the world combined, whereas in just ten years 1891-1900, 19 million had died in India in famines alone.
- Economist Paul Baran calculates that 8 percent of India's GNP was transferred to Britain each year.
- India exported to Britain £13m worth of goods each year from 1835 to 1872 with no corresponding return of money.
- The salary of the British Secy of State for India in 1901, paid for by Indian taxes, was equivalent of the average salary of 90000 Indians.
Tharoor deals with the known facts of Britain's 'divide and rule' policy, the destruction of India's textile industry and the ruin of its agriculture. But, India was also a great manufacturing nation before the British arrived. Its de-industrialization was systematically engineered by the British in order to capture the markets for its own producers. Tharoor shows how India's vibrant steel and ship-building industries were also destroyed by colonialism. In the early 17th century, 4000 to 5000 ships were built at 400 to 500 tonnes each in Bengal for the Bengal fleet. Between 1801 and 1839, a further 327 ships were built there, but all British-owned. Gradually, by late 19th century, both industries were only a memory.
So, how did Britain manage to bring about these horrible outcomes? It was done by employing the following methods:
- allowing tariff-free exports of British goods to India
- Fixing standards in such a way that would make Indian manufactured goods unattractive in global markets
- applying import barriers on Indian manufactured goods
- Increasing India's debt burden by manipulating the currency
- destroying competition, thereby preventing Indian businesses from challenging British ones and ensuring their monopoly
Towards the end of the book, the author looks at the question of reparations from the UK. He agrees that reparations are neither practical nor realistic or even possible. After all, if one actually computes the value of the wealth taken from India during the two centuries, it would run into trillions of dollars in today's money, much more than UK's GDP. But he says that Britain should at least atone for its devastation of India by tendering an apology. He cites the example of Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany tendering apologies to Polish Jews and the Canadian PM Justine Trudeau for the Komagata Maru incident. Tharoor goes on to point out that British society, as a whole, has never examined its colonial past critically (except for individuals) and honestly in the way Germans have done about Nazism. He gives the example of how German children are shepherded to concentration camps to see the awful reality of what their forefathers did. Similarly, British schoolchildren must be taught what built their homeland instead of showing them just the pomp and splendour of the Raj.
The book is a little bit of a grim read even for an Indian. Certainly, it would be hard-going for a 'Raj apologist'. It is written with passionate arguments, well-referenced facts, a sprinkling of wit and sarcasm and much logical reasoning. However, the book is published at a time which seems to be the season for Raj-era re-evaluation. There are more books critically analyzing the various aspects of those two centuries by Dr. Yasmin Khan, Walter Reid, Roy Moxham and Jon Wilson. I hope to read all of them so as to get a composite picture of India's recent history. This one by Shashi Tharoor is a perfect start.