In 2015, Shashi Tharoor’s brilliant speech to the Oxford Union on the motion ‘This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’ went viral, receiving coverage across the world. Tharoor, an MP for the Indian National Congress, former senior United Nations official, novelist and scholar, has now expanded the argument he made at Oxford into Inglorious Empire.
Justifications for the supposedly benign and wise British rule of India – including how the colonialists encouraged a parliamentary system of democracy, development and generously set up the railways – are set out and then eloquently demolished.
At the start of the 18th century, India’s share of the global economy was 23 percent – the size of all of Europe combined. By the end of nearly 200 years of British rule, first under the proto-multinational corporation East India Company and then, after 1858, direct governance by the British crown, India’s share had dropped to just over 3 per cent, following the deliberate destruction of thriving local industries by the British.
Indians were effectively barred from senior positions in the civil service, meaning there were more statues of Queen Victoria in India than there were Indians in the higher echelons of the government administration. Given that ‘the British had no intention of imparting democracy to Indians’, Tharoor argues, ‘it is a bit rich’ for the British to try to take credit for the fact that India is now the world’s largest democracy.
Perhaps most shocking is the section detailing the 30-35 million Indians who needlessly died in the series of famines under the British Raj, the most recent of which was the 1943-4 Bengal Famine. Tharoor calls these ‘British colonial holocausts’, comparing them to the 25 million people who perished in Stalin’s collectivisation drive and political purges.
Well-referenced and full of fascinating facts, quotes and anecdotes, Inglorious Empire is a scorching indictment of British rule in India, and of British imperialism more broadly. Tharoor supports Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to teach unromanticised colonial history in British schools – a timely idea when one considers a 2014 YouGov poll found 59 per cent of respondents thought the British empire was ‘something to be proud of’.
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