The Dangerous Idea That British Rule Was Good for India

Imperial nostalgia in the age of Brexit.

British soldiers in India.
British soldiers in India. Pen and Sword Books/UIG via Getty Images

Update, 4:30 p.m., EST: On Monday, Tharoor was charged by police in Delhi with abetting his wife’s 2014 suicide and cruelty to his spouse. Tharoor denied the charges over Twitter.

In his new book, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, the Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor attempts to dismantle the ongoing argument that British imperialism was, in the long run, beneficial to India. The debate comes at a time of rising nationalism around the world, including in India. In the West, this nationalism played out most prominently in Britain’s Brexit vote, with its supporters’ dreams of a newly respected Britain on the world stage (or “Empire 2.0,” as it has been called) steeped in imperial nostalgia.

I spoke by phone recently with Tharoor, whose latest book grew out of a speech he made several years ago at Oxford as part of a debate on whether Britain owed reparations to its former colonies. Tharoor is the author of more than 15 books, a former high-ranking U.N. official, and a member of Parliament in India’s opposition Congress Party, which had a leading role in the fight for Indian independence. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what some people see as benefits of British rule, why it’s so important to reckon honestly with imperialism, and Britain’s greatest—albeit ironic—export.

Isaac Chotiner: Imperial nostalgia is mostly a right-wing phenomenon today, but going back hundreds of years we can find all sorts of writers, even Karl Marx, claiming that the British Empire brought various benefits to India by modernizing the country in some way and helping it transcend its supposedly backward traditions. Marx said the Empire caused “a social revolution.”

Shashi Tharoor: I think that any illusions about the wisdom with which Marx looked at the world would not survive scrutiny of his writings on India. He wrote on India without knowing anything about it, without ever setting foot in it, but as usual, being only too willing to pronounce magisterially on things he couldn’t even begin to understand. I think reading his absolutely fatuous writings on India is enough to cure you of any illusions about Marx as a thinker.

Many pro-imperialists see the railroads, which are sometimes said to have connected the country and brought forth incredible economic gains, as one undeniable benefit of the empire. What is your response to that?

The British were explicit about their motives in bringing the railroads to India, which is they wanted to extract resources from the hinterland and take it to the ports to ship to England. Secondly, they wanted to be able to send troops into the interior to quell any possible unrest, so the motives for the railways were entirely to further colonial rule.

The railways became an instrument of basically a colonial scam, in that they made indecent profits out of the construction of the railways. Actually, it was the single most profitable investment available in the London Stock Exchange from the mid-1840s to the mid-1870s, because the British made the profits and Indian taxpayers paid the costs. The result therefore was that the British spent money hand over fist, since they were guaranteed double the rate of interest of the highest-paying government security in Britain at that time on the Indian railways.

A single mile of Indian railway cost nine times what the same mile cost at the same time in the USA, because the expenditure was being borne by Indians and the profits being made by the British. It was even described at the time as private profit at public risk, except the private profit was all British and the public risk was all Indian.

It was also run for decades as an entirely racist enterprise, with every single person from a ticket collector to the chairman of the railway board, right up to the First World War, being white. Only whites were hired to do this, to work on the railways, to run the railways.

The final point is actually that you didn’t need to be colonized to build the railways. There were many, many countries, from the U.S. to Thailand and Japan, which acquired railways without actually having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonized in order to do that. You could import the technology. You could just pay for it.

A lot of imperial nostalgists point to the English language in India as one of the things that the British gave the Indians, which has in turn given them incredible opportunities in the 20th and 21st-century world. What’s your response to that?

The British didn’t give us the language. They wanted to educate a very, very small class. [Thomas Babington] Macaulay wrote about creating a tiny class of Indians who would be, as he put it, “Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” and this was going to be this very narrow class that would serve as interpreters, as it were, between the governors and the governed.

The British had no interest in mass education. They had no desire to spend money. In 1930, the entire education budget of the British in India for the entire subcontinent, then of 330 million people, was less than the high school budget of the state of New York in 1930, and that’s the peak, maybe, of the British Empire. They couldn’t have been better equipped to spend money if they wanted to, so at no point were they interested in mass education.

Most of the English-language educational institutions and universities in India were actually founded by Indians, and sure, they taught them English because that was the language that was most useful to them, but it wasn’t because the British gave us the language or financed the institutions that taught it. The British had no interest in doing that, so that’s the answer.

Of course, the Indians then went on to use the advantage of the language and the ideas and the tools it gave them access to, and the British tried to thwart them at every stage. This idea that the British benignly tried to create English-speaking Indians to take over from them is as far from the truth as is possibly imaginable.

How is the British Empire viewed in India today, especially during this nationalistic age?

Well, I actually don’t even consider what is described as nationalism today to be terribly nationalistic, because the nationalism of the freedom movement, the nationalism of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and that founding generation was an inclusive nationalism. The nationalism, so-called, that is being promoted by the ruling party today is actually very much a divisive and somewhat bigoted nationalism, which I think doesn’t deserve the name of nationalism. It’s a different sort of phenomenon.

Having said that, both sides in this debate would not look at empire with any particular regard, but both sides would also essentially be inclined to forgive and forget and move on. My contribution to the national debate on this is to say, “Yes, we must forgive, but we must not forget.” Yes, obviously resentment, hatred, and so on are pointlessly negative emotions. It usually does more harm to the hater than to the hated to hate, and so I’m not encouraging that at all, but I say that one can’t afford to forget because it is also true that if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you can’t possibly appreciate where you’re going.

For us as a society, there is this dangerous sort of historical amnesia, which in a different way is as dangerous as the British historical amnesia. Those kids in Britain who want an empire back don’t know what they’re asking for: the evil, as it were, of what they’re seeking, whereas those in India who don’t know about empire aren’t aware of how the freedoms they take for granted today were denied to their ancestors for 200 years. It’s important, it seems to me, for both sides to remember.

As an American who writes about South Asia, I’ve noticed that if you criticize right-wing trends in India or Pakistan, you’re often called a neoimperialist, which is fascinating.

It is, but at the same time, Nehru, India’s first prime minister, at the moment of independence, at a time when the flames of Partition were blazing across the land, made our equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a brilliant speech, which is known to generations of schoolchildren as the Tryst With Destiny speech. One of the things he said is that peace is indivisible. He said the nations of the world are all knit together. They’re far too knit together for any country to believe it can flourish alone or without the other, which is a very interesting idea because if you read that text today, 70 years on or 71 years on, you could reprint it without the change of a comma and it could look as it would have been delivered today.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Nehru would actually not have resented, I think, a foreigner talking about human rights in India, because to him this business of peace and human rights was indivisible, and he felt as entitled to criticize Western countries, for example, for their behavior about the colonies, to intervene in global problems here and there, and therefore would not have disagreed in principle with you sitting in California and writing or speaking about what’s going on in India. It’s ironic. It’s precisely the more narrow-minded who would actually object to your saying that.

Your book is about history, but am I wrong in reading coded messages about the current state of Britain? What message are you trying to convey about imperial nostalgists and their current political agenda?

I was in Britain when this silly idea of Empire 2.0 was being floated in some bureaucratic papers in the British government, and I was asked about it and I said, “Empire 1.0 was such a bad idea. Why would anybody try and float an Empire 2.0?” Secondly, I pointed out that Empire 1.0 rested on terms of trade that are no longer available. Now, Britain’s not going to get what it wants at the point of a gun. It’s actually going to have to give as well as take.

The other point that I have been making in Britain is the great importance of the need for atonement. I’m not a big reparations man myself, and I had suggested in fact that as far as reparations were concerned, a symbolic 1 pound a year for the next 200 years to make up for the last 200 might actually be enough. My point is a more serious one, that what was really required was a moral atonement, which I said would take two forms. One is to memorialize what the empire actually meant. London is a city of museums, most of which involve items purloined from the former colonies, but there is no museum to colonialism. There is even an imperial war museum that celebrates glorious imperial victories. There is no imperial colonialism museum that shows what imperialism did to its victims and its slaves. I thought that was extremely important for Britain to do. So just as German schoolchildren are bussed to Dachau these days, there should be a place for British schoolchildren to go and see on what their country built its prosperity in the 19th century.

The second thing I said is there should be an apology, which there has never been. India is due an apology for 200 years of exploitation and loot. As far as the loot is concerned, by the way, it’s an Indian word that the British took into their dictionaries as well as their habits.

I think we can both agree that the greatest British export was P.G. Wodehouse.

[Laughs] I founded, and hope to revive actually, the P.G. Wodehouse Society in my college, and I was made, amusingly enough, a patron of the Wodehouse Society in the U.K., which is now the closest thing we have to a global Wodehousean body. I was told by a friend a few months after my Oxford speech that there was actually a debate in London sparked by my speech, and those opposing what I had to say said, “We can’t possibly agree with him anyway, because this fellow is a famous Wodehousean. How can he possibly attack the British Empire when he revived the Wodehouse Society?” and so on.

That’s why I brought it up.

The great thing about Wodehouse is that he actually requires no allegiance, as it were, to a worldview. His is a fantasy world, which in many ways was as imaginary to the Englishmen reading him as to the Indians. Indians delighted in his use of language, in his subversion of all the literary canons and conventions that the English had taught us to venerate and that Wodehouse pokes gentle fun at. The English language was the passport to the Wodehousean world, but we required no visa, political affiliation, or allegiance in order to enjoy it.

My former mother-in-law is the daughter of a prominent nationalist in the Congress Party. Lord Mountbatten, as viceroy or possibly just as the independent governor general, came visiting and stayed overnight and needed something to read overnight, and the young girl who went on to become my mother-in-law introduced him to her father’s collection of P.G. Wodehouse, whom Mountbatten himself had not read but the Indian nationalists had.