Samir’s Selection 03/19/2017 (p.m.)

  • A combative history of the British in India swats aside notions of benevolent imperial rule… Tharoor convincingly demolishes some of the more persistent myths about Britain’s supposedly civilising mission in India, echoing William Dalrymple’s laments over the looting of the country by the East India Company and the rise of British racism in the 19th century, and rejecting Niall Ferguson’s defence of imperialism as a force for free trade and the rule of law.Summoning evidence from British and American historians as well as Indian thinkers, Tharoor charts the destruction of pre-colonial systems of government by the British and their ubiquitous ledgers and rule books; the punitive taxation of farmers and mismanagement of famines in which millions died; the imposition of laws against homosexuality and sedition used to this day by authoritarian Indian governments; and the extreme protectionism (in everything from textiles to shipbuilding) that crippled India’s world-class manufacturing sectors and its pre-existing international trade networks. “Britain’s Industrial Revolution,” he writes, “was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries.”The statistics are worth repeating, the more so because India is now often neglected in favour of China when historians recall the economic dominance of Asia. When the East India Company was established in 1600, Britain accounted for 1.8 per cent of global gross domestic product and India for 23 per cent. India was one of the richest and most industrialised economies. In 1750, India and China together accounted for nearly three-quarters of world industrial output, but India “was transformed by the process of imperial rule into one of the poorest, most backward, illiterate and diseased societies on earth by the time of our independence in 1947”. By then, India’s share of world GDP was just 3 per cent, while Britain’s was three times as high. “The creation and perpetuation of Hindu-Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the horrors of Partition that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority in 1947.”This is a grave charge, and a well-argued one. If the more nostalgic Brexiters think trading with former colonial nations will in some way compensate for the costs of leaving the EU, they should first examine the blood-soaked history of their country’s relationship with India. It could be a revelation.

    tags: bookreview India-history UK imperialism colonialism Raj ShashiTharoor WilliamDalrymple

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