SHARE >>>  

Book Reviews - INGLORIOUS EMPIRE by Shashi Tharoor

By Fraser Cameron

5 April 2017


Hurst Publishing, London (2017)

£20 hb, pp 295, 9781849048-88


Theresa May’s first overseas trip was to India hoping to start the process of an UK-Indian FTA. But she and the Brexiteers who are calling for ‘Empire 2’ should read this well written, detailed account of British rule in India to try and understand what India really thinks about the UK. Playing on the UK’s alleged benevolent colonial role in India is unlikely to win friends. With a mass of detail and statistics, Shashi Tharoor, a former senior UN official and foreign affairs minister for Congress, demolishes the still-widespread view in the UK that British rule brought numerous benefits to the sub-continent.


The India that the British gradually conquered in the middle of the 18th century was responsible for 23% of global GDP. When the British departed in unseemly haste 200 years later this percentage had dropped to just over 3%. The British industrial revolution was built on the back of India’s thriving manufacturing, especially shipbuilding and textiles. India’s booming textile sector was destroyed by imposing punitive tariffs so that ‘the dark satanic mills’ in England could profit. The forced de-industrialisation of India meant that millions had to resort to subsistence agriculture thus worsening rural poverty.


Britain treated India as ‘a cash cow’ extracting huge revenues in taxation that helped maintain the UK’s global empire. Tharoor takes aim at the notion of ‘Clive of India’ as if he belonged to the country ‘when all he did was ensure that a good portion of the country belonged to him.’ Huge numbers of Indians were forced to move and work in other British colonies, from Uganda to Malaysia.


More than a million Indians were mustered to help protect the British Empire in the First World War with a 10% casualty rate. They had been promised progressive self-rule, a promise quickly forgotten. Instead of a path towards democracy and self-rule, the British passed the infamous Rowlatt Act vesting extraordinary powers in the government to deal with ‘sedition.’ Public protests against this draconian legislation were quelled ruthlessly, most notoriously in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) massacre.

Tharoor demolishes other assertions that the British brought democracy, a free press and the rule of law to India. In fact the British pursued a continuous policy of divide and rule, muzzled the press and dispensed one form of justice for the white man and another for Indians. Racism was endemic, apartheid practised and any fraternising discouraged. There was no path to the top for Indians working in the Indian Civil Service.

There was little sign of enlightened despotism, an argument made by some apologists for the British in India. The British presided over several terrible famines, forced opium on India and built the railways to move goods and troops.

Although Britain emerged ‘victorious’ from the second world war, again with massive help from India, it was seriously weakened and despite Churchill’s pretensions, it could no longer sustain its presence in India. But far from an orderly withdrawal it scuttled out in a matter of months engaging Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a civil servant, who had never been to India and had no understanding of the country, to draw partition lines with the result that millions of Hindus and Muslims were killed in an orgy of violence.

Tharoor admits that there were some decent British officials such as Sir Arthur Cotton who built a dam across the Gadavari; and the British did introduce tea, cricket and the English language to India. But the overall balance sheet was extremely negative. He holds the benefits of Empire thesis by Niall Ferguson in particular scorn noting that while the British proclaimed the virtues of free trade they destroyed the free trade that Indians had carried on for centuries. The British left India with a literacy rate of 15%, a life expectancy of 27, almost no manufacturing industry and 90% living in poverty.

While much of his critique is justified Tharoor might also have cast a more critical eye on how the Indian elites treated their own people and the invidious caste system that still prevails today.

That said India has enjoyed remarkable growth in recent years and made an enormous contribution to global security simply by ensuring domestic stability, not an easy task in a huge, multi-national, multi-religious state like India. It should long ago have had a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The colonial era is often misrepresented in Britain as indeed it is in other countries with an imperial past including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Spain. If the EU, or a post-Brexit UK, is to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with India then a proper understanding of the imperial past is a necessity. This book is thus essential reading for all those involved with or interested in the most populous country in the world.

Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre