The real Raj

Print edition : April 14, 2017

The British, it is argued, not only destroyed the land and economy but also deprived Indians of their dignity.

In this photograph taken in 1943, Prime Minister Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing Street in London. He wanted to let Mahatma Gandhi die when he started his fast at the Aga Khan Palace. Photo: AFP

Millions of people died in the Bengal famine of 1943.

Shashi Tharoor counters with remarkable finesse and fairness the best arguments of the defenders of the Raj to expose the deliberate destruction of India’s industry, especially the textile industry, and the transfer of money to Britain.

AN Era of Darkness is a study in sound historical reasoning and a pleasure to read as Shashi Tharoor is an exceptionally good wordsmith. The typical coloniser and the typical colonised do not agree on the merits and demerits of colonisation. The former will argue that he was bestowing good order and modernity on a backward people by bringing them into the mainstream of history. The latter will contend that the coloniser destroyed his land and economy, and deprived him of his dignity as a human being, and that the harmful impact of colonisation has survived its end. It is indeed difficult for a student of history to adjudicate between the two sides after listening to their arguments. Patriotism or nationalism should not be mixed with historiography.

Tharoor has quoted the best arguments of the defenders of the British Raj and countered them with remarkable finesse and fairness in this meticulously researched book, written as a sequel to his speech made at the Oxford Union in May 2015. There was a debate and Tharoor spoke in favour of the proposition “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies”. In July 2015, the Oxford Union posted the speech on the Web and the author tweeted a link to it that went viral. Tharoor was “pleasantly surprised but also a bit perplexed”. He concluded that what he considered basic was “unfamiliar” to many, perhaps, most educated Indians. The publisher David Davidar persuaded Tharoor to write a book expanding his thesis.

It is a deeply distressing fact that knowledge of and interest in history continues to decline in our times. Tharoor quotes a 1979 Gallup Poll in Britain that revealed these facts: 65 per cent did not know which country Robert Clive or James Wolfe was associated with; 77 per cent did not know who Cecil Rhodes was; 79 per cent could not identify a famous poem of Rudyard Kipling; 47 per cent thought Australia was still a colony; and 50 per cent did not know that the United States of America was once part of the British Empire.

In the preface, the author states that he has no pretensions to infallibility or omniscience. As independent India approaches 70, it is worthwhile to examine what brought India to the “new departure point in 1947 and the legacy that has helped shape the India” that Indians have been seeking to build. Tharoor does not want to use history to seek vengeance, and as an Indian, he finds it far easier “to forgive than to forget”.

Every chapter carries a cartoon from Punch magazine dated December 1857 showing a huge white woman holding a sword trampling over puny black men and women. She is supposed to represent Justice.

Making historical sense

The first chapter deals with the looting of India. In 1930, Will Durant, as a young American philosopher and historian visiting India for the first time, wrote about the “destruction of a high civilisation” by a trading company “utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, overrunning with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and ‘legal’ plunder which has now (1930) gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years”. The reader will discover as he/she reads on that Tharoor shares with Durant the rare ability to gather historical facts from a variety of sources and extract historical sense out of them.

The author quotes several respectable authorities to prove that when the East India Company came, India was more advanced than any other country in Europe or Asia. Of importance is Angus Maddison’s calculation showing that India had a share of 27 per cent of world trade in 1700, which fell to 3 per cent when Britain left. The reason for the sharp fall was twofold: the deliberate destruction of India’s industry, especially the textile industry, and the transfer of money from India to Britain.

It is not true that the unmechanised Indian textile industry could not compete with the mechanised British one. The British manufacturers wanted their Indian competitors “eliminated” as they could not compete with them. The soldiers of the Company obliged by “systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers, and according to at least one contemporary account (as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief) breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft” (italics added throughout).

Taxation (and theft labelled as taxation) was a favourite form of exaction with India being treated as a “cash cow”. Few kings in Europe were richer than Directors of the East India Company, according to the Comte de Chatalet, the French Ambassador in London. Another authority has calculated that the loot from India amounted to £18,000,000 a year between 1765 and 1815.

We all have heard of the two Pitts, father and son, both Prime Ministers. The family’s wealth came from a diamond, which Thomas Pitt bought in India and sold at six times the cost to Duc d’Orleans, the Regent of France. The playwright Richard Sheridan summed it up well when he denounced the Company whose operations “combined the meanness of a pedlar [peddler] with the profligacy of a pirate…. Thus it was that they united the mock majesty of a bloody sceptre with the little traffic of a merchant’s counting house, wielding a truncheon with the one hand, and picking a pocket with the other.”

Transfer of GDP

There is a general impression that the Company was a better ruler than the average Indian prince. This is wrong. Tharoor quotes British authorities to prove that the lot of the common man was lamentable under the Company. F.J. Shore, an Indian Civil Service administrator in Bengal for 35 years, testified to this effect to the House of Commons in 1857. The permanent settlement of the land revenue introduced in 1793 as part of the zamindari system required payment based on the potential value of the land whether there was a good crop or not. Within 30 years, the land revenue collected in Bengal shot up from £817,553 to £2,680,000. In short, 8 per cent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) was transferred to Britain every year.

The public knows about the destruction of the textile industry but less about the destruction of the ship-building industry. India had a flourishing ship-building industry. Initially, the industry declined as the Company captured political power but soon the Company realised that there was money to be made and British entrepreneurs stepped in and there was a boom. But, later it became evident that the ship-building in Britain could not compete with this in India and Parliament was petitioned for a ban on Indian ships. A law passed in 1813 prohibited ships below 350 tonnes from plying between India and Britain. Another law in 1814 deprived Indian ships the right to be registered in Britain with the implication that they could not be sent to the United States or to Europe. “As the Victorian commander William Digby was to observe, the Mistress of the Seas of the Western World had killed the Mistress of the Seas of the East.”

Currency manipulation

Another mischief of Britain, which is not well known, is the manipulation of the Indian currency. During the Great Depression of 1929-30, Indian farmers found that there were no buyers for their grains. Agricultural prices collapsed but the colonial government insisted on immediate payment of tax. Fearing a fall in the value of the rupee, the rulers took out notes and coins from circulation to keep the exchange rate high. The total amount of cash in circulation fell from some Rs.5 billion in 1929 to Rs.4 billion in 1930 and to Rs.3 billion in 1931. The reader will note that British rulers took out 40 per cent of the cash in circulation over a period of two years compared with 86 per cent by the current rulers in New Delhi in a surgical strike on November 8, 2016.

The next question is about political unity. There is a general impression that the British did give India political unity. The author does not agree. “Every period of disorder throughout Indian history has been followed by a centralising impulse, and had the British not been the first to take advantage of India’s disorder with superior weaponry, it is entirely possible an Indian ruler would have accomplished what the British did, and consolidated his rule over most of the subcontinent.”

The reader will take note of the words, “it is entirely possible”. This contrafactual argument calls for some scrutiny. Contrafactual historical reasoning can be as risky as skating on thin ice. Let us look at three such arguments:

Trump & Hitler

Friedrich Trump, the grandfather of U.S. President Donald Trump, left Bavaria (Germany) in 1885 for the U.S. He made money there and returned. He married and the couple had their first baby, a daughter. Friedrich wanted to stay on in Bavaria, but the authorities ordered him to leave Germany as in their eyes he had avoided the compulsory military service by running away without informing them. He went back to America.

If the Bavarian authorities had permitted Friedrich to stay on, especially when he argued that with a sick baby he was in no position to embark on a long journey, the 45th President of U.S. would have had a different name.Article 231 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (which ended the First World War) contains the “war-guilt” clause, humiliating to Germany as it had to pay huge reparations. The reparations caused hyperinflation. The mark fell in value against the U.S. dollar, reaching the absurd level of 4.2 trillion marks to one dollar in November 1923. Hitler made use of the “war-guilt” clause and the hyperinflation to argue that another war was necessary to avenge the humiliation and carried out the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. France had sent 100,000 troops to the Ruhr to compel Germany to pay reparations.

In 1905, Hitler, who was 16, went to Vienna; his dream was to become a painter. His application for admission was rejected twice by the Vienna Academy of Arts. He stayed on in Vienna making a pittance from selling his paintings. He lived in poverty for years, and by the time he left for Germany he had become fully convinced that the Jews were singularly responsible for Germany’s woes. This conviction led to the Holocaust.

If the “war-guilt” clause had not been included in the Treaty, if Germany had been treated less harshly, and if Hitler had been accepted by the Vienna Academy of Arts, he might not have taken to politics and the world might have been spared the horrible Holocaust and the Second World War.

The famous French philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter the whole face of the world would have been different.

The first contrafactual argument about Trump is almost irrefutable. The other two are rather persuasive. All the three are more persuasive than Tharoor’s argument about giving political unity to India. It is fairly evident that if Robert Clive had not won the Battle of Plassey by bribing, Joseph-Francois Dupleix, the Governor General of French India, might have captured India. It follows that Tharoor would have spoken at the Sorbonne and he would have written a book on French colonialism in French.

Political unity

It is not true that the political unity of India was a gift from the British. The British fulfilled the material pre-conditions for such unity with rail and telegraph connectivity, not to speak of the spread of the English language. However, the British did their utmost to destroy the political unity of India by promoting a Hindu-Muslim divide and working closely with Mohammad Ali Jinnah to divide India. It was the decades-long struggle for freedom under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership against the British and the integration of the States by Vallabhbhai Patel with V.P. Menon as his principal aide that gave political unity to India. Thus, the political unity was an indirect result of the British rule.

Another claim of the apologists for the Empire is that it gave India democracy, the press, the parliamentary system and the rule of law. The author has convincingly demolished that claim. Tharoor has refuted Niall Ferguson, the author of Empire: How Britain Made the World. But, Tharoor has done it in a fair manner by quoting Ferguson at length and then pointing out the lacunae in his thesis.The press was hardly free. Lord Wellesley introduced the Censorship of the Press Act in 1799. The same Act was extended to cover all publications in 1807. Some publications were closed and some editors who criticised the Company were deported to Britain. As for the ICS, generally rated high by the public, the fact is that it is not the case that the best and the brightest came to India. Lord Asquith declared in 1909 that “if high places were given to Hindus half unfit as the Englishmen who then occupied them in India, it would be regarded as a public scandal”. Though by 1860, Indians were permitted to write the ICS examination, the attitude of the colonial rulers is best summed up by Lord Mayo who declared: “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.”

There were a few sensitive ICS men, too. After 30 years of service, H. Fielding-Hall wrote:

“The whole attitude of government to the people is vitiated. There is a want of knowledge and understanding. In place of it are fixed opinions based usually on prejudice or on faulty observation, or on circumstances that have changed, and they are never corrected. Young secretaries read up back circulars, and repeat their errors indefinitely… ‘following precedent’.”

Tharoor’s arguments have smashed to smithereens the claim that the British prepared India for a system of parliamentary democracy and laid the foundation for the rule of law. Tharoor is more contextual than textual. He examines the track record of the colonial judicial system and enumerates instances of deliberate miscarriage of justice. The system was racially prejudiced. For example, an Englishman who shot dead his Indian servant got six months in jail and a fine of Rs.100.

Tharoor gives some stunning statistics to support his thesis:

Kolkota saw the first electric bulb in India in 1879. During the next 68 years, the Raj connected merely 1,500 of India’s 640,000 villages. From 1947 to 1991, the Indian government brought electricity to 320 times the number of villages the Raj did.

The annual revenue of Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) at $450,000, 000 was 10 times that of his contemporary, Louis XIV. In 1750, Indians and the English had a similar standard of living. By 1950, the purchasing power of the average Indian was 1/10th of his British counterpart.

In 1 C.E., India accounted for 33 per cent of the global GDP, while the United Kingdom, France and Germany together scored barely 3 per cent. By 1700, the equivalent figures were 25 per cent and 11 per cent; by 1870, it was 12.5 per cent for India and 22 per cent for the three European countries; in 1913, it was 9 per cent versus 22.5 per cent; and in 1950, India had 4 per cent and it increased to 7 per cent in 2008. Britain, France, and Germany together accounted for 9 per cent. “As of 2014, Britain accounted for 2.4 per cent of global GDP, down from 6 per cent 25 years ago. History administers its own correctives.”

The Kohinoor story

The last chapter, “The Messy Aftermath of Colonialism”, deals with a few themes. There is an excellent account of the journey of the Kohinoor. Tharoor has proved that the learned Attorney General of India exhibited his ignorance when he told the Supreme Court in early 2016 that the Kohinoor was gifted to Britain and hence could not be claimed. The same Attorney General has erred by arguing that the 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act applies only to items removed after India’s Independence. He seems to think that the Act cannot be amended.

Tharoor wants the Kohinoor back, but he has put up a rather Jesuitical argument for keeping it where it is. The Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London is a powerful reminder of imperial injustice. “Until it is returned, at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation, it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder and misappropriation that colonialism was all about.” In whose eyes, will it be such evidence?

Evaluation of Gandhi

Tharoor discusses the relevance and merit of Gandhian non-violence. “The power of non-violence rests in being able to say, ‘to show you are wrong, I punish myself’.” But that has little impact on those “who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you whether you disagree with them or not”. Nelson Mandela, who wrote that Gandhi “always” had been “a great source of inspiration”, explicitly disavowed non-violence as useless in his struggle against the ruthless apartheid regime. Gandhi was “frighteningly unrealistic” in his belief in the effectiveness of non-violence. Gandhi could shame the British because they have a democracy, a free press and cared about their international image. Gandhi, “at the peak of his influence” in 1947, was unable to prevent Partition even though he considered it “morally wrong”.

The reader will wonder whether Tharoor is fair in his valuation of Gandhi. First, Gandhi did much more than practise and preach non-violence. He mobilised the masses and transformed the Indian National Congress from a meek resolutions-passing body to a powerful organisation with hundreds of thousands of Indians ready to take on the entrenched Raj as Tharoor himself says elsewhere in the book. In short, it was non-violence plus much else. Second, is it necessary to praise the British for not shooting down Gandhi, just because Hitler might have done it? Have we descended to such a low level of morality that it is enough to be different from Hitler?

Incidentally, there was at least one powerful British leader who wanted to let Gandhi die when he started his fast at the Aga Khan Palace. His name is Winston Churchill. Moreover, one of the main reasons to release Gandhi to prevent his dying in custody was prudence: the rulers did not know how the people of India would react if he died. Finally, the Gandhian method of non-violence can work only if there are human beings convinced of its rightness and prepared to sacrifice themselves in the process. In short, the non-violence of the brave. To argue that it would not have worked against Hitler misses the point as nobody tried it.

As regards the question of the Partition, was Gandhi at the “peak of his influence” in 1947? No. On April 1, 1947, Gandhi proposed to Lord Mountbatten to invite Jinnah to be Prime Minister. Mountbatten discussed the matter with his aides, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. There was no support to Gandhi’s proposal. Gandhi, too, tried to convince Nehru that it was a good idea. Finally, Gandhi wrote on April 11, 1947, to Mountbatten that having failed to carry Nehru with him, he was not going to do anything further in the matter. “Thus, I have to ask you to omit me from consideration. Congressmen, who are in the Interim Government are stalwarts, seasoned servants of the nation, and, therefore, so far as the Congress’ point of view is concerned, they will be complete advisers.” The only weapon Gandhi had was a fast unto death and he was not going to use that against his own lieutenants. Gandhi had already peaked in terms of political influence.

The essential truth about Partition is that there were three forces, the Raj, the Congress and Jinnah. The first and the third got together and wanted Partition and, as we all know, in any triangle the sum of two sides is longer than the third side. To blame Gandhi for failing to prevent Partition is unsound historical reasoning. It is even more wrong to bring in non-violence in the discussion on Partition.

A word or two about editing. The chronology right at the beginning of the book against the years 1869-1948 reads: “Lifetime of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Indian nationalist and Hindu political activist who develops the strategy of non-violent disobedience that forces Christian Great Britain to grant independence to India (1947). “Why is there a reference to Hindu and Christian? This reviewer is certain that Tharoor did not write it. On page 108, it reads, “the murderers went punished”. It should have been “unpunished”.

In conclusion, we all should be grateful to Tharoor for writing a book of enduring value, and it will be desirable to see it translated into different Indian languages as it is of interest to the public at large. A survey conducted for the National Book Trust in 2010 showed that among the age group 13 to 35, 33.4 per cent prefer to read in Hindi, 13.2 per cent in Marathi, 7.7 per cent in Bengali and only 5.3 per cent in English. However, it will not be easy to translate and retain the brilliance and fluency of Tharoor’s writing.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.