The British Empire has long been a tempting target for the left-wing assaults on European history. In 2017, an Indian voice joined the chorus: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India appeared on the bookshelves and quickly became a bestseller. The book was first published under the dramatic title An Era of Darkness. According to one of its publishers, it ranked among the Sunday Times Top 10 bestsellers on India’s experience of British colonialism and went on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2019. It also had its critics, notably historians Charles Allen, Tirthankar Roy, and William Dalrymple—who called it “written in 12 days.”
The author, Shashi Tharoor, is an Indian diplomat, former Under-Secretary General of the UN, and a member of the Indian National Congress, one of the two major parties. His political background explains his narrative style―passionate, persuasive, but also one-sided and often liberal with facts. His text is easy to read, even though he has a soft spot for complicated words. It is also lively, especially when Tharoor describes British atrocities or the deeds of his personal favourites, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But it is not without downfalls: the arguments he offers soon become repetitive, and his agenda is visible on every page. Inglorious Empire is an attempt to provide clear answers, rather than an in-depth analysis; its central question is, paraphrasing Monty Python, “What have the British ever done for us?”
Tharoor begins by telling the reader how he came up with the idea. He describes the speech he gave in Oxford, leaving no doubts regarding its extraordinary popularity, and explains that the book is meant to be a longer version of it, complete with the destruction of every remaining defence of the British Raj. Accusations follow, as well as demands suitable for a manifesto. “It is getting late for atonement,” he writes, “but not too late: I, for one, dearly hope that a British prime minister will find the heart, and the spirit, to get on his or her knees at Jallianwala Bagh in 2019 and beg forgiveness from Indians in the name of his or her people for the unforgivable massacre that was perpetrated at that site a century earlier.”
The book is divided into eight chapters, each endeavouring either to dismantle arguments usually made on the Empire’s behalf or to accuse Britain of various crimes against Indian people. The most common allegation throughout the text is stealing India’s wealth, which was allegedly the main reason behind the country’s poverty. However, it is not necessarily so. According to Allen and Roy, India’s GDP per capita in the early modern period (during the Mughal rule) was about twice as low as that of Britain, and the British drain during the Raj was statistically insignificant. There was no oppression of farmers: on the contrary, their taxes gradually went down. Neither was there a deliberate attempt to ruin the country’s economy.
In Tharoor’s opinion, the British are also to be blamed for conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. Before the “wicked” Westerners arrived, accompanied by Eris herself, no less, India knew no religious animosity. An occasional temple was burned every now and then, of course, but those attacks were “politically, rather than religiously, motivated.” The two communities mostly lived in peace, shared many customs, helped each other in times of need and exchanged knowledge. It all ended with the British “divide and rule” policy that encouraged Muslims to abandon their allies and establish their independent state, known today as Pakistan. This sounds somewhat implausible, given all the wars, conquests, unifications, and fragmentations in the region over the centuries. For example, the rule of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, whom Tharoor frequently mentions, resulted in the decentralisation that left his country vulnerable to the East India Company.
Other British sins include conqueror’s haughtiness, excluding Indians from the government, destruction of industry (Tharoor tells a story of near-perfect Indian steel that somehow could not meet the British Standard Specification), indentured servitude, adherence to the idea of non-intervention that brought on famines, and outright murders. Some circumstances he cites are true, while others are questionable at best. While painting the picture of the East India Company’s brigandage, he mentions that its soldiers were cutting off weavers’ thumbs but admitted this was an unverifiable rumour; nevertheless, several chapters later, he treats this as a fact. In Chapter 2, he claims that the Civil Service officials were poorly prepared for their positions since their tests “did not seek to establish any knowledge of India or any sensitivity to its peoples.” In actual fact, Indian Civil Service exams included Indian history, languages, and law. These are but a few examples of the book’s many inaccuracies.
Tharoor’s version of the British Raj looks like an amusing caricature. His Indians are sweet and adorable, while his Britons are seductively, shamelessly evil. What is worse, he provides little context for their attitudes and decisions, betraying his lack of interest in understanding them. Unsurprisingly, he describes almost every British statesman in the most unflattering manner. Clive is depicted as a rapacious goon, Macaulay as an arrogant and disconnected chauvinist, and Churchill as an archvillain, just a step away from kicking puppies―a petulant and ill-informed reactionary bigot, intentionally starving the colonial population.
Those Indians, who happen to be Imperial loyalists, suffer a similar fate, losing their nationality benefits. Nirad Chaudhuri, for one, is presented as a misguided intellectual with a “colonised” mind; he dared to admire the Empire’s legacy publicly, to use his Western education, and even to appreciate the British “for restraining Indians from defecating in public.” The latter is interpreted as “a curious correlation between dislike for one’s own body and a yearning for foreign rule.”
If Tharoor stumbles upon something that cannot be simply discarded―like India’s current political system, the English language, railroads, tea, or cricket―he is quick to declare that this does not count, since the British introduced it for their own benefit, not for that of the locals. Even if it is a truthful representation and not a distortion of the colonial administration’s motives, India still benefited. He acknowledges it briefly before declaring that his country would have lost nothing without Britain.
“As I have said more than once in the course of the book, there is no reason to believe that, left to itself, India could not have evolved into a more prosperous, united and modernising power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Tharoor writes in Chapter 7. Indeed, his dream of a different India keeps reappearing on the pages of Inglorious Empire, perhaps a little more than it should. As a German historian once said, history knows no “if”. India could have prospered―or it could end up occupied by another state that would have treated her worse than Britain ever did.
It is evident that the thought of the British Empire leaves Tharoor restless: he wishes to change the past, if not actually, then at least symbolically. Thus, he talks of reparations. He asks for one pound a year, a gesture of penitence. More importantly, he asks for the return of the Koh-i-Noor, along with the rest of the cultural artefacts stored in the museums of Britain. It is as if he feels that India cannot truly take her place among the nations of the world until her wounded pride is soothed.
Inglorious Empire is worth reading—but for the right reasons. It is not a history book, nor a work of literature, but a political argument, and should be regarded as such. Some people might find it persuasive; others will not, given its inaccuracies and obvious bias against Britain. Still, it may be useful to discover the opinions of all sides, assess them critically, and understand from where they are coming.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.