Open Essay

In Defence of the Empire

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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Shashi Tharoor misses history for the sake of wounded national pride

THE PLACE WAS crammed. I had queued for over an hour, and reckoned myself lucky to get in. Eventually, the star took the microphone, and as he warmed to his theme, the audience became increasingly noisy. Line after line from the platform was greeted with cheers, as the speaker rained blows on the government, skilfully exposing its rottenness and its injustices. It was as if a downtrodden people were finally rising up against their oppressors.

But I felt no sense of triumph. Nor could the audience be looking forward to imminent liberation. For the year was 2017, the venue was a lecture theatre in the British Library, and the iniquitous regime was the British Raj.

Not a lot at stake then, and not exactly topical. Amusingly ironic too, sitting as we were in a great imperial institution. Less amusing was the fact that the noisiest members of the audience appeared to be of Asian descent. I hoped that no one, in our post-Brexit Britain, was recording the spectacle on a phone. Edited highlights of this, I thought, would be manna from heaven for the anti-immigration lobby. See? They don’t integrate, they hate us, they’ll never be properly British. Here was Norman Tebbit’s cricket test on steroids, and some of my fellow audience members were failing it large style.

The speaker, of course, was Shashi Tharoor, promoting Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (published in India last year as An Era of Darkness) , his anti-imperial polemic, recently published in the UK amid extensive media coverage. It is a romp of resentment, full of easy, knock-about debating points that revisit 19th century controversies with a 20th century attitude. His main point—that Britain colonised and dominated India primarily for her own benefit—must willingly be granted. But this is a hollow victory, for it would be hard to find anyone who would now contend anything else. If we take Tharoor at his word, he seems to be replying not so much to the empire of Disraeli and Curzon but to Empire by Niall Ferguson, another polemic, this time in favour of free markets. The only supportive British voice for empire would nowadays be found in the comments section of right-of-centre organs such as The Spectator, not in government or academe.

What, we might ask, is the point of stirring up anyone against the memory of empire, either in India, and even less in the Indian diaspora? And especially not against the parody of empire that Tharoor describes. India is being run by Narendra Modi, and anti- imperial invective will neither hurt nor help him. He is dealing with 21st century controversies.

Tharoor is, of course, a class act. He speaks with authority and writes with vigour. Above all, he engages and entertains an audience, with an act so highly polished you could probably see your face in it if you tried.

But why the rallying call 70 years after the struggle ended? Especially with all the twisted logic and half-truths that support the argument. It reminded me of a magician sawing his lady assistant in half—an entertaining illusion performed with zest, for a paying audience in search of a transgressive frisson.

There is no statute of limitations that governs assaults on national pride, but can time be thought to increase the severity of the offence? Giants of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru never exhibited rancour, even after spending long spells in prison. Sadly, this new sour tone from a moderate national figure does so much to diminish the astonishing story of the Anglo-Indian link—its creativity, its complexity and its enormous effect in the development of both countries. After all, it sired the first stable liberal democracies in both Europe and Asia.

Tharoor is, of course, a class act. He speaks with authority and writes with vigour. Above all, he engages and entertains an audience, with an act so highly polished you could probably see your face in it if you tried

But a further sadness creeps in. Tharoor refuses to relate or appreciate the huge contributions made by Indians all through the story, because his narrative of exploitation only permits him to see Indians as weak and excluded. This is unkind to the many great names on both sides. By rendering Indians powerless, Tharoor heaps all the blame on the British. And why would he do that? It is, I suggest, because Indians were complicit all through, but to admit it would make for a poorer, less satisfying tale. So many of the heroes of early modern India— Bankim, Gokhale, Naoroji, Ranade and several generations of the Tagores—all worked with the British. There were some who did not, such as Tilak and Savarkar, and Tharoor might reflect on what he is doing to the balance of the record here.

And the history he relates is decidedly shaky. Misrepresentations are legion. The British did not conquer India with ‘superior weaponry’. They had more or less the same weapons as their opponents till about 1850; the victories were down to deeper financial resources, better battlefield tactics, and the loyalty and bravery of thousands of sepoys. Nor is it fair to represent the whole British nation as supportive of General Dyer, ‘the butcher of Amritsar’, because a collection was made for him by a Tory paper. The readers subscribed because they feared that ‘the saviour of India’ was about to be deprived of his pension. He wasn’t, but he was dismissed, and publicly condemned by every senior soldier and politician in the empire, including Churchill. No serious writer has since defended him.

Tharoor also seems unaware of the danger of using economic statistics. He may have forgotten that economics was invented to make astrologers look good. Quoting Angus Maddison, he sets India’s share of world income at 22.6 per cent in 1700, and a little over 3 per cent in 1947. Pretty bad, if we imagine that all the difference was carted off to Britain. But it wasn’t. In 1700, India had a quarter of the world’s ‘wealth’ because she had about a quarter of the world’s population, and the global economy was overwhelmingly agricultural. What changed was the productivity of Western countries after industrialisation. India admittedly was under- stimulated and restricted, but the gap does not represent depredation.

And that 3 per cent figure is not unproblematic to Tharoor’s case. It now stands at 2.8. He didn’t mention that. As a further aside, China had a quarter share of the world’s GDP in 1700, also based on population. Now in the 21st century, China and India are still the world’s two most populous countries, and still the largest producers of agricultural goods. Taken all together, these statistics would seem to suggest that the purely British, as opposed to the general global effect on India, was either neutral or slightly beneficial. It wasn’t, but surely the numbers can’t lie. Can they?

Next, omissions. Tharoor complains about the discrimination against Indian businessmen, but completely fails to mention one of the most successful, Dwarkanath Tagore, the ‘prince’ of Bengal, who made a huge fortune in the 1830s and 1840s—in partnership with the British. The firm of Carr, Tagore and Company, founded 1834, never appears.

Nor, amid all the outrage about famines, is there any mention of the 1873 famine in Bengal and Bihar, in which only twenty-three lives were lost, but at a cost of £6 million. This was because of the lessons learned in the Orissa famine of 1866, when dilatory action caused high mortality. In its aftermath, the Secretary for India, Lord Salisbury—yes him, later the great Tory imperialist prime minister—declared that lives would be saved henceforth at all costs. His policy, however, was caught up in global and political developments, and was abandoned by Lord Lytton, who refused to pay for the distress in Madras Presidency in 1876, believing that high local prices for grain would induce merchants to make better margins there. He was wrong, and another policy rethink prompted the preparation of provincial Famine Codes which, when activated through the next twenty years, assured no loss of life. To imply that the British did not care about famine is simply not true. That their famine policy was only intermittently successful is true, and anyone wishing to understand the complexities involved should read Famines in India by BM Bhatia.

The history Tharoor relates is decidedly shaky. The British did not conquer India with ‘superior weaponry’. Nor is it fair to represent the whole British nation as supportive of General Dyer, ‘the butcher of Amritsar’

Now we come to fallacies. The central crime here is that the book knows what its conclusion is, then goes looking for the evidence. Balance is dispensed with, and the results are so giddying that the book should come with a health warning not to operate heavy machinery after reading it. Anything and everything is brought in, and I was surprised not to encounter the story about the old man who couldn’t forgive the British because they made him put milk in his tea.

The other, subtler fallacy is the catch-all rhetoric that condemns the British no matter what they did. The conquest was wrong, therefore everything that followed was wrong too. For instance, set up education—imperial brainwashing; don’t set up education—neglect. Teach English— arrogance; don’t—exclude Indians from government service. Make reservations for Dalits—divide and rule; don’t— sustain social injustice and reveal liberal principles as a sham. Take an interest in Indian wildlife, languages and history—create ‘colonial’ knowledge; don’t—remain aloof and ignorant, haughty, uncaring, isolated.

This trick might be called Catch-1757. It’s facile stuff, which can be made to look more grown-up by importing fancy French theories, and by using words like ‘hegemony’ or ‘discourse’, neither of which ever set foot on Indian soil during the Raj. Tharoor uses it to discredit imperial rule in the most bizarre ways, while constantly claiming credit for Indians. He makes the British responsible for the bad princes—the sodomites, idiots, and sots—but not the good ones, in Baroda and Travancore. The truth is that the British left all of them alone except the very worst, and they did replace the sadists and madmen—with other princes. Tharoor cannot see, or will not allow for selective interference, as part of a fairly consistent post-1857 mixture of incompetence and neglect that became the Raj’s chief political virtue. To guide without provocation—that was the style.

Lastly, to absurdity, where we can start with Tharoor’s belief that justice would be served if the serially looted Koh-i-Noor were to be returned to the thief before last. We can continue with a question he poses: if India has managed to get to Mars after all the devastation wrought by empire, then how much further could she have got if left alone? This is such faulty logic that I am astonished his computer let him write it. Does he really believe that the pesky East India Company is the only thing that has prevented India from ruling the moons of Jupiter? The lesson here is that if counterfactual scenarios are to have any credibility, it is imperative to isolate one single factor in order to see how important it might have been within a chain of causation; say, what if the British had let Gandhi die in prison in 1923? Or Churchill had won the 1945 election? This can be a potentially instructive exercise—and I might modestly point out that I offered 10 examples in my first book on India. But if you just pile up a series of wildly speculative, emotionally pleasing possibilities, what we enter is fantasy without structure, which has no conceivable utility.

Speculation is always weaker than invective, but what Tharoor provides here is decidedly creaky. He challenges the notion that Britain gave political unity to India by floating the extraordinary idea that the Subcontinent would have come to national unity and ‘an inevitable transition to constitutional rule’ anyway, under the leadership of the Marathas. Fine warriors though they were, it is eccentric to cast these fierce, proud, quarrelsome, horse-riding feudals as democrats in waiting, and it is vanishingly unlikely that they would have thrown out the British in order to make India like Britain.

Two major objections may suffice to burst this lovely think bubble. One: the Marathas never managed to conquer all of India, or even get close. Two: they could never agree among themselves, even when faced with the urgent and obvious threat posed by Generals Lake and Wellesley between 1803 and 1805. If the Maratha ship of national unity was ever to have sailed, surely it was dashed on the rocks of Panipat in 1761.

Now, lest we all disappear in a puff of modern self-righteousness, or open a Pandora’s Box of noxious nationalism, it might be worth adding a little balance to the debate. We can all accept that the Raj failed repeatedly in detail, and it had a pronounced bias towards British interests. But there was humanity and concern, too, in the various self-serving devices used to catch the eye at home and to recruit support in India. Independent India adopted every one of the Raj’s published ideals.

The true history of British India, the one that needs to be written— that is free of carping and calumny, and of present political purposes—is a complex and fascinating tale of how the British attempted to find ways to hold India by means other than the sword. The whole high imperialist package is precisely this.

Inglorious Empire relies for its force on the way that it completely bypasses the issue of Indian collusion and collaboration. There is no other explanation for the longevity of the Raj, and Tharoor is not willing to address it. When questioned on stage, he simply shrugged and claimed that all colonial governments had their compradors. No, not really. In India there was an entire ruling class willing to compromise with intruders, because those intruders were smart enough to leave them alone. There is no clear line between external and internal exploiters in Anglo-Indian history.

YES, THE BRITISH supported injustices in India, but it was with the support of—and for the benefit of—classes of wealthy and powerful Indians. Claiming that injustice in India is the fault solely of the British is to offer the old schoolyard excuse: a big boy did it then ran away. The British defended the areas of industrialisation, and to some degree of modernity, for themselves, and left the rest to their social allies. The result was the rural poverty and undercapitalised industry that India possessed at independence. The British never solved the problems of rural production; they never managed to create a surplus, despite repeated efforts at stimulation and manipulation.

None of this should be a mystery to a careful observer, but Tharoor misses all of it for the sake of wounded national pride, for it can only be pride, not lack of intelligence, that drives his unwillingness to criticise Indians to the point of eliminating them from the story almost entirely, except as victims. For him, Britain’s inglorious Indian empire was an empire without rich Indians in it.

Finally, one thing Tharoor never touches upon is the issue of internal disarmament, which I would say is the one thing Britain gave to India that Indians could not give themselves. Demilitarisation was an act born of self-interest, but it had massively beneficial consequences. The brightest and best that India had to offer learned to trust each other in the space it created. They also adopted peace as a method, a method that allowed the least violence in demission—not a shot was fired in anger—and the fewest scores to settle afterwards.

The British made the peace and the Indians made modern India.

Peace, friend?