Theresa May, who arrives today , won’t be aware her visit coincides with the launch of Shashi Tharoor’s book An Era of Darkness, which argues British rule was disastrous for India, but if she responds he’s only half right she’d be correct and Dr Manmohan Singh would agree. Shashi’s book began as a brilliant speech at the Oxford Union but now it’s easier to spot where his argument succeeds and where it’s unconvincing.
Shashi presents a devastating case on the Raj’s economic impact. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, India’s share of world GDP was 25% and Britain’s 1.8. When the British left, India’s share had fallen to 3% whilst Britain’s had risen to 10. The Raj made Britain prosperous by impoverishing India.
Shashi provides enormous detail. Let me pick two points. The first is what happened to Indian textiles. In the early 18th century, India had 25% of global trade. By 1947 this was lost and, instead, the Indian market was flooded with British cloth.
The second is the railways. They’re often viewed as a great achievement of the Raj. However, the cost was so exorbitant it was, actually, a form of loot. Each mile built in the 1850s and 1860s cost an average of £18,000. At the same time a mile of US railway cost just £2,000. The money, of course, went into British pockets.
Quoting the British writer William Digby, Shashi says in the 19th century alone Britain extracted £4,187,922,732. In 1857, FG Shore told the House of Commons: “The fundamental principle of the English has been to make the whole Indian nation subservient, in every possible way, to the interests and benefits of themselves.” In 1928, Sir William Hicks, then home secretary, admitted: “It’s said … we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Britain.”
It’s Dr Manmohan Singh who first pointed out where Shashi’s argument is unconvincing. Speaking in Oxford in 2005, he listed the benefits of the Raj: rule of law, constitutional government, a free press, a professional civil service, modern universities, the judiciary, the army, the police and, of course, the English language.
Shashi’s unwilling to accept the press was free under British rule. But the facts in his book prove it was. In 1989, the Bengali paper Halishaher Patrika called the lieutenant governor “the baboon Campbell with a hairy body”. In 1891, an Amrita Bazar Patrika journalist rummaged in the viceroy’s wastepaper basket and put together fragments of a torn-up letter which the paper published, thus thwarting British attempts to annex Kashmir. Imagine how the government would have responded if either had happened today. The British accepted it.
At times, Shashi’s argument is bizarrely counterfactual and entirely guesswork. Asserting British rule wasn’t necessary to make India a democracy, he claims if they hadn’t come: “The Marathas would have ruled the country under the nominal overlordship of a weak Mughal monarch … this would have led to an inevitable transition to constitutional rule just as England transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.” Really? Or would we have ended up like China, Thailand or Nepal, which were never colonies but aren’t democracies either or barely?
Shashi insists the Raj gave India an “oppressive legacy” through Section 377 and the crime of sedition. What he forgets is at the time these laws were also enforced in Britain but whilst independent India has retained them Britain has not.
Finally, the English language. If the British hadn’t ruled India we wouldn’t have Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai or Aravind Adiga. Indeed, Shashi’s book would probably have been written in Malayalam and limited to Kerala.
My guess is his indictment of the Raj will get its best reception in Britain. That would be good reason for Mrs May to smile.
The views expressed are personal.