The lies Brits tell themselves about how they left behind a better India

Quartz india
Quartz india

In May 2015, Shashi Tharoor, a former undersecretary general of the United Nations and a current member of India’s parliament, gave a stirring speech at a debate in the Oxford Union. He was speaking for the proposition that “Britain owes reparations to her former colonies.” The speech went viral, and Tharoor was perplexed.


“Though I had spoken well enough for my side to win the debate by a two-thirds majority, I knew I had made better speeches that had not acquired a tenth of the fan following,” Tharoor recalls in his latest book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India published in India in late 2016 and the rest of the world in early 2017. “I honestly did not think I had said anything terribly new.”

What he may not have realised then is that he had managed to provide not just very succinct and persuasive arguments against the empire but also quantify the scale of its ills. Following which, in a world where nearly two-thirds of Britons believe that the empire was “something to be proud of” and where many Indians seem to think that its overall effect on their country may have been positive, Tharoor felt he could not turn down the “moral urgency of explaining why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be.”

The speech, thus, evolved into Inglorious Empire, in which Tharoor dissects most of the arguments made by apologists for the empire with hard facts and deft writing. On India’s 70th Independence Day, we have selected four of those arguments to remind the world of the cruelty unleashed by British greed. For a detailed read, we highly recommend Tharoor’s book.

1️⃣ Without British rule, there wouldn’t have been a political union called India.

The East India Company was created in 1600 to cash in on trading with India, which at the time accounted for more than a quarter of all the trade in the world. It soon realised, however, that its ambitions would be better served with a permanent presence in the country, and from then on the trade took off. As the company’s men grew prosperous, they began dreaming of expanding their territory and found little opposition. In some 100 or so years, through a series of conquests and some clever politicking, the company created a rival empire on the subcontinent among the already warring ones (such as the Maratha, Mughal, and Awadh regimes). Today, the argument goes that, had it not been for the British, those rival factions would not have coalesced into a single entity.

This argument stands on two pillars. First, that the British created the idea of a political union called India. Second, that they provided Indians the tools and institutions needed to hold the union together and run it.

The first one falls when you consider history. Indian epics, such as the Ramayana, which culminates in prince Ram’s battle with the demon-king of Lanka, describe India as a single cultural entity. Even in reality, under emperor Ashoka, about 300 BCE, large parts of the subcontinent enjoyed cultural and administrative unity. When people of the region traveled to foreign lands, like those performing the Haj, the hosts considered the travelers, regardless of their religion, to be “Hindi”—Hind being the Persian/Arabic name for River Sindhu or Indus.

The second pillar collapses when you consider what the British did to India.

In their entire 200-year rule, they made up no more than 0.05% of the population. And, yet, for most of that period, no Indian was allowed to join the Indian Civil Service, in part because the British could not bear to take orders from a brown man. When they were finally admitted, more direct racism was in store. High scorers in the civil service examinations were accused of cheating, for how else could brown men do so well. The few who survived the cheating charge, then faced discrimination back home by being barred from the gentlemen’s clubs of the districts they governed.

In fact, Britain’s policy was not to unite but to divide and rule. Under the British, Tharoor shows that, the Hindu caste system became more rigid, and communal lines, particularly those between Hindus and Muslims, deepened. Nowhere was the application of that singular ethos clearer than when, on their way out, the colonialists partitioned the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

2️⃣ The British gave India democracy, a free press, and the rule of law

“However strongly they denied to Indians, as they had to Americans before 1776, ‘the rights of Englishmen’—the British did instill sufficient dose of the ethos of democracy into their former colonies that it outlived their tutelage,” Tharoor writes. “But the actual history of British rule does not suggest this was either policy or practice.”

A democracy cannot function without a free press and just law. Neither truly existed under the Raj.

The British were the first to establish newspapers in India, catering to a small English-educated elite first, and large audiences in the vernacular languages later. However, alarmed by their proliferation, the East Indian Company passed the Censorship of the Press Act in 1799, subjecting all newspapers to scrutiny before publication. In 1807, all other kinds of publication, too, were brought under this rule.

Once bitten by the bug and with strict adherence to the law not being insisted on over time, Indians continued with the enterprise. By 1875, there were some 475 newspapers in the subcontinent, mostly owned and edited by Indians. Alarm bells rang again, bringing another round of censorship in the form of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and the revised Press Act of 1910. Under the latter, publishers were required to provide a hefty security deposit, which they would forfeit if the publication carried inflammatory or abusive articles. The racism of the British-owned press was not subject to the same restrictions.

“The press was free, but some newspapers were freer than others,” Tharoor concludes.

The justice system in India was even more discriminatory. For instance, an Englishman who shot dead his Indian servant got six months in jail and a modest fine. But an Indian convicted of the attempted rape of an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years. “The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime,” Tharoor writes. “The imperial system of law was, pure and simple, an instrument of colonial control.”

Worse still, the legacy of the British legal system has left India with an unenviable judicial backlog. There are still cases pending that were filed during the days of the Raj. “The court system, the penal code, the respect for jurisprudence, and the value system of justice—even if they were not applied fairly to Indians in the colonial era—are all worthy legacies,” Tharoor writes. “But in the process Britain has saddled us with an adversarial legal system, excessively bogged down in procedural formalities, which is far removed from India’s traditional systems of justice.”

Indeed, if a pluralist democracy were a British legacy, how is it that neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh have pulled off a similar feat?

3️⃣ British rule was no better or worse than the despots of earlier empires

Few kings ever rule to benefit their people. And, yet, what the British did to India was decidedly worse.

Consider, for instance, India’s famines during the Raj: Between 1770 and 1947, the oppressed suffered at least 11 major ones and many minor ones, resulting in 35 million deaths. For comparison, Stalin’s purge killed 25 million, Mao’s Cultural Revolution killed 45 million, and World War II killed 55 million.

How can we be sure that the British were to blame for those hunger deaths? Simple. There’s been no major famine in India since independence. Worse still, the British notion at the time was that governmental interference to prevent a famine was a bad idea. The Economist, for instance, attacked an official for letting Indians think “it is the duty of the government to keep them alive.” (The Canadian author, Malcolm Gladwell, has a great episode of his podcast Revisionist History looking at how the worst Indian famine, between 1943 and 1945, was precipitated by British prime minister Winston Churchill.)

The empire’s record of forced migration is no better. On one route, between Kolkata to Trinidad, the proportion of deaths of indentured labourers on ships reached appalling levels: 12.5% of all males, 18.5% of females, 28% of boys, 36% of girls, and 55% of infants. “To make an admittedly invidious comparison, the death of slaves on the notorious ‘Middle Passage’ [the Atlantic slave trade route] was estimated at 12.5%” writes Tharoor. “To be an indentured Indian labourer was to enter a life-and-death lottery in which your chances of survival were significantly worse than those of a shackled African slave.”

Finally, there’s the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre. If you were to believe official figures, the British troops fired 1,650 bullets at innocent civilians, killing 379 and wounding 1,137. “Barely a bullet was wasted, Dyer noted with satisfaction,” Tharoor writes. Those who were killed had no idea that suddenly their gathering was suddenly deemed illegal and they received no warning to disperse.

Worse still, Dyer was only found guilty of “grave error” and relieved of his command to retire with a handsome pension. Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, hailed him as “The Man Who Saved India.” Britons ran a public campaign to honour his cruelty and gave him the equivalent of £250,000 in today’s money (about $325,000). The victims of the massacre received £1,500 in today’s money for each human life.

“It was no longer possible to claim that Dyer did not represent the British in India,” Tharoor writes. “They had claimed him as one of their own—their saviour.”

4️⃣ Surely, though, you can’t deny that the British gave us railways, tea, cricket, and the English language

Yes they did, but as you’ve guessed the theme, they were all unintended gifts.

Railways. The British built the railways primarily for themselves, using their own technology and forcing Indians to buy British equipment. Each mile of the Indian railway constructed cost nine times as much as the same in the US, and twice that in difficult and less populated Canada and Australia. The bills were footed by Indian taxpayers and British investors received a guaranteed return on their capital. Freight charges were dirt cheap, and Indians who traveled 3rd class paid for expensive tickets.

Tea. The British desire to end their dependence on Chinese tea prompted them to set up plantations in India. Following many failed attempts, they managed to find a local version that worked. For this, the British felled vast forests, stripped the tribals who lived there of their rights, and then paid Indian labourers poorly to cultivate the cleared areas. Once the tea was ready, it was shipped off to Britain or sold internationally. The little bit left in India was too expensive, until the Great Depression when weak global demand finally let Indians enjoy the delights of the drink.

Cricket. “Yes, the British brought it to us,” Tharoor writes. “But they did not do so in the expectation that we would defeat them one day at their own game, or that our film-makers would win an Oscar nomination for an improbable tale about a motley bunch of illiterate villagers besting their colonial overlords at a fictional 19th-century match (Lagaan, 2001).”

English language. The British made it absolutely clear that it was only taught to serve their own purpose. Lord Macaulay wrote: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.” (This is the same Macaulay who also said, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”)

“That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation was to their credit, not by British design,” Tharoor writes.

The upshot of the empire, as Tharoor puts it, was that “What had once been one of the richest and most industrialised economies of the world, which together with China accounted for almost 75% of world industrial output in 1750, had been reduced by the depredations of imperial rule to one of the poorest, most backward, illiterate and diseased societies on Earth by the time of independence in 1947.”

Inglorious Empire shows in full glory how the British systematically purged India’s riches, destroyed its institutions, and created divisions among its peoples. Worse still, there has been no formal apology for what the empire wreaked on its subjects. Instead, there is rising nostalgia for the empire as nationalism surges in a country that is now three ranks below India in the size of its economy.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search