British raj
Snapshot
  • Tharoor’s book is a hard-hitting one-sided debate and the reader should be watchful in not completely succumbing to its message

Shashi Tharoor. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Aleph Book Company. 2016

Shashi Tharoor’s latest book originated in a debate at Oxford on whether Britain should pay reparations to its erstwhile colonies. The YouTube clip of Tharoor systematically demolishing the opposition, his brilliance evident in the thrust and parry of debate, has been watched by more than three million viewers. But the author says he felt a “moral urgency” in informing the “layman and students” in India and in Britain, about the “horrors” of colonialism and hence this book.

The book is conveniently divided into eight chapters. Unusually, each provides a review of the entire set of arguments regarding the British empire in India and its aftermath. The difference across the chapters is of emphasis on specific topics, as for example the extent of the loot; dividing, rather than unifying India; subverting Indian diversity in ersatz modern British institutions; the policy of divide and rule; the absence of enlightened despotism et al. Whilst this stratagem of comprehensive rendition adds to the length, it facilitates selective speed reading. There are also 295 helpful references to other works—both Indian and foreign, a veritable treasure trove.

The author deploys the familiar nationalist tactic of talking up the wealth and virtues of pre-British India, while playing down the inadequacies of much of post-independence India, to book-end the “horrors” of the Raj. The benefits from the Raj are dismissed as few and that too, unintended, barring the development of a pan-India modern press and media; development of canal irrigation; scattered electrification of towns; and the railways. Oddly, the planning and building of regulated, urban settlements for the British, expanded versions of which, subsequently, also became the refuge of India’s political, business and professional elite, goes unacknowledged.

The litany of colonial woes is expectedly long. Nothing attracts instant attention than stories of loot and rape inserted early on. The British drained 8 per cent of India’s GDP as per Paul Baran’s 1957 estimate. Annual outflows are separately estimated by William Digby at 4.2 billion British pounds during the 19th century. Extrapolating this trend onto the first half of the 20th century, the additional outflow was 2 billion British pounds. Huge as this cumulative sum seems, consider that Indians are estimated to have amassed $500 billion of illegal wealth abroad in less than seven decades of India’s independence as per the CBI in 2012. Consider also, that against the less than 10,000 British subjects employed in India, the Report of the Indian States Committee of 1929 lists a total of 562 princely states, each with a retinue of vast numbers of relatives of the ruling family living off the state treasury. There is no corresponding account of how much these effete rulers and their families cost the ordinary Indian.

Yes, the British used India as a source of capital and raw material for their industries, which stilted Indian industrial development. Yes, they helmed organised commerce in India via the Managing Agencies. But just as surely, Jamshedji Tata’s dream of establishing a modern steel mill saw fruition because British India guaranteed the off-take of steel and built the railway to link the steel mill with raw materials and markets, thereby making it India’s first Public Private Partnership. The author cites the regulations forcing Indian mills to produce only British Specification Steel as a low stratagem to make them uncompetitive. But it could also be viewed as the first step towards internationalising standards in Indian industry. Not producing to international standards was our failing till we liberalised industry and opened our markets to competition in 1991.

Of course, the British, as a colonial community, were rapacious, openly racist and self-serving. But the evidence is thin that they were any worse than the long line of Indian rulers that preceded them. Admittedly, it mattered where you lived. The princely states of south and west India were generally better managed and more progressive than those in north and eastern India.

Tharoor’s view that neither the political unity of India nor the adoption of democratic norms was a direct outcome of the pan-India political architecture of the Raj is inadequately backed up with evidence. The mere fact that Arabs refer to all Indians as “Hindi” is hardly evidence that pre-British India was already integrated. By this logic, all those living south of the Vindhyas are “Madrasis” because that is what ignorant North Indians called them and all of Arabia is one because we refer to people from there as “Arabs”.

The author ignores the greatest accomplishments of the Raj—the decimation of the old order of inherited privileges and rights; kindling of the spirit of democracy and incubation of the great Indian middle class via government jobs in the railways, the army and in civil governance.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by abolishing privy purses in 1971, ended what the British began—the consigning of India’s numerous Maharajas to the dustbin of history. By institutionalising the common law and opening up vacancies—admittedly too few—at the very top, the Raj inspired millions of young, ordinary Indians to aspire to be literate and professionally qualified. That three generations of Indians had to serve as clerks to British superiors, not necessarily more accomplished than themselves, is a regrettable but possibly an inevitable consequence of gradual transition.

The Indian Constitution is a direct outcome of the groundwork done over the previous four decades, since the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, to implement consultative democracy by including the professional middle class in the process. Ask any Dalit, backward caste, tribe or other minority and they will ascribe their liberation from traditional shackles to the modernist, reformist social and economic thinking which emerged, possibly as a nationalist response, to British rule.

It is not for nothing that Babasaheb Ambedkar wore a suit and a tie rather than a dhoti. For him the suit was a symbol of liberation from the oppressive rule of India’s traditional, upper caste elite and the Constitution was his guide to a more equitable future. Mayawati, Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Modi are the organic outcomes of the much-needed, albeit self-serving, prising open, by the British, of India’s dormant, traditional cleavages—a black box of competing religions, castes and regions. Consolidation of these traditional identities at the national level via democratic institutions is what has changed the social landscape of India.

Tharoor speculates that if only the East India Company had not been as successful as it was, India would have found its own way to modernity. But what if we had remained hopelessly Balkanised instead? Why would we have not succumbed instead to the romance of Communism and gone the Chinese way? Would bloody revolution, social upheaval, the end of private enterprise, de-legalisation of religion and cultural diversity, unrelieved even by the constitutional promise of human rights and freedoms, have been better?

Tharoor speciously links our inward looking, anti-business attitude in the first four decades of independence till 1991, to our bad experience with the East India Company. This looks awfully like a red herring. It would be more instructive instead to examine the role played by our ineffective brand of ersatz intrusive socialism, used by the elite as a cloak, to retain domestic privilege. The ordinary Indian has looked westward for higher education and advancement, primarily because the professional choices at home have been too narrow and the glass ceilings too low.

Even the author accepts that the British Raj was more efficient than the domestic institutions it replaced. He is right that the rapacity of the Raj was exaggerated, precisely because its extractive capacity was greater than the loosely regulated Princely States. Consider the establishment of land records and the uniform and regular assessment and collection of revenue.

Tharoor bemoans the high rates of taxes and the resultant penury for landowners since the burden of taxation fell on land and not trade. Yes, indeed. But that very system also bequeathed an embedded practice of recording individual property rights and updating transactions thereof, which is fundamental for development of private enterprise and for access to bank finance. The British left us with a treasure chest of land tenure, revenue and demographic data and an entire community of rule-bound “babus”. Better this than the institutional anarchy many other developing countries faced, post-independence.

Tharoor packs in masses of information and opinions around the British Empire in India. It is a hard-hitting, one-sided debate and caution is advised in succumbing to its mesmerising message, that the Gora (white man) is to blame.

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