To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the British presence in India—King James I’s envoy, Sir Thomas Roe, arrived at the court of Emperor Jehangir in 1614—the Indo-British heritage Trust held a debate, in the chamber of the UK Supreme Court, on the motion “This House believes that the Indian subcontinent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British colonialism.” Needless to say, I spoke against, alongside two Indophile Brits, authors William Dalrymple and Nick Robins. The proposers were Pakistan’s Niloufer Bakhtyar, an editor, Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondent, and Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative Party MP of African descent.
It was a lively affair. As the debate began, its Chair, Labour MP Keith Vaz, called for an initial vote, which went 35 to 28 for the motion. When it was over, voting took place again, and the needle had moved dramatically: 26 to 42 against. The anti-colonialists had carried the day.
Why was our case so compelling? At the beginning of the 18th century India’s share of the world economy was 23%, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time we won independence, it had dropped to less than 4%. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.
Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the de-industrialisation of India—the destruction of Indian textiles and their replacement by manufacturing in England, using Indian raw material and exporting the finished products back to India and the rest of the world. The handloom weavers of Bengal had produced and exported some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially cheap but fine muslins, some light as “woven air.” Britain’s response was to cut off the thumbs of Bengali weavers, break their looms and impose duties and tariffs on Indian cloth, while flooding India and the world with cheaper fabric from the new satanic steam mills of Britain. Weavers became beggars, manufacturing collapsed; the population of Dhaka, which was once the great center of muslin production, fell by 90%. So instead of a great exporter of finished products, India became an importer of British ones, while its share of world exports fell from 27% to 2%.
Colonialists like Robert Clive bought their “rotten boroughs” in England with the proceeds of their loot in India (loot, by the way, was a word they took into their dictionaries as well as their habits), while publicly marveling at their own self-restraint in not stealing even more than they did. And the British had the gall to call him “Clive of India,” as if he belonged to the country, when all he really did was to ensure that much of the country belonged to him.
By the end of the 19th century, India was Britain’s biggest cash-cow, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants—all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.
As Britain ruthlessly exploited India, between 15 and 29 million Indians died tragically unnecessary deaths from starvation. The last large-scale famine to take place in India was under British rule; none has taken place since, since free democracies don’t let their people starve to death. Some four million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and European stockpiles. “The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious” than that of “sturdy Greeks,” he argued. When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the Prime Minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill’s only response was to ask peevishly “why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that it was enlightened despotism, conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill’s inhumane conduct in 1943 gave the lie to this myth. But it had been battered for two centuries already: British imperialism had triumphed not just by conquest and deception on a grand scale but by blowing rebels to bits from the mouths of cannons, massacring unarmed protestors at Jallianwallah Bagh and upholding iniquity through institutionalised racism. Whereas as late as the 1940s it was possible for a black African to say with pride, “moi, je suis francais,” no Indian in the colonial era was ever allowed to feel British; he was always a subject, never a citizen.
What are the arguments FOR British colonialism benefiting the subcontinent? It is often claimed that the British bequeathed India its political unity. But India had enjoyed cultural and geographical unity throughout the ages, going back to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC and Adi Shankara traveling from Kerala to Kashmir and from Dwarka to Puri in the 7th century AD, establishing his temples everywhere. As a result, the yearning for political unity existed throughout; warriors and kings tried to dominate the entire subcontinent, usually unsuccessfully. But with modern transport and communications, national unity would have been fulfilled without colonial rule, just as in equally fragmented 19th century Italy. And what political unity can we celebrate when the horrors of the Partition (1 million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed) were the direct result of deliberate British policies of “divide and rule” that fomented religious antagonisms?
The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to as a benefit of British rule, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries have built railways without having to be colonized to do so. Nor were the railways laid to serve the Indian public. They were intended to help the British get around, and above all to carry Indian raw materials to the ports to be shipped to Britain. The movement of people was incidental except when it served colonial interests; no effort was made to ensure that the supply matched demand for mass transport.
In fact the Indian Railways were a big British colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed extravagant returns on capital, paid for by Indian taxes. Thanks to British rapacity, a mile of Indian railways cost double that of a mile in Canada and Australia.
It was a splendid racket for the British, who made all the profits, controlled technology and supplied all the equipment, which meant once again that the benefits went out of India. It was a scheme described at the time as “private enterprise at public risk.” Private British enterprise, public Indian risk.
The English language comes next on the credit list. It too was not a deliberate gift but an instrument of colonialism. As Macaulay explained the purpose of English education: “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 opinions, in morals and in intellect.” The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. That we seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation was to our credit, not by British design.
The day we defeated the motion, Scottish voters rejected the proposal to leave the United Kingdom. But it’s often forgotten what cemented the Union in the first place: the loaves and fishes available to Scots from participation in the exploits of the East India Company. Before 1707 the Scots had tried to colonize various parts of the world, but all had failed. After its Union with England, a disproportionate number of Scots were employed in the Indian colonial enterprise, as soldiers, sailors, merchants, agents and employees. Earnings from colonialism in India pulled Scotland out of poverty and helped make it prosperous. With India gone, no wonder the bonds are loosening … dead ones.
Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century. This article was first published on NDTV.