This book, somewhat unusually, began as a speech.
At the end of May 2015, I was invited by the Oxford Union to speak on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’. The event, in the Union’s impressive wood- panelled premises dating back several centuries, was a success and I left pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.
In early July, however, the Union posted the debate on the web, and sent me a video copy of my own speech. I promptly tweeted a link to it—and watched in astonishment as it went viral. Within hours it was being downloaded and replicated on hundreds of sites, sent out on WhatsApp and forwarded by email. One site swiftly crossed over three million views; others did not keep track, but reported record numbers of hits. Right-wing critics of mine suspended their ‘trolling’ of me on social media to hail my speech. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha went out of her way to laud me at a function attended by the Prime Minister, who then, in his own remarks, congratulated me for having said ‘the right things at the right place’. Schools and colleges played the speech to their students; one university, the Central University of Jammu, organized a day-long seminar at which eminent scholars addressed specific points I had raised. Hundreds of articles were written, for and against what I had said. For months, I kept meeting strangers who came up to me in public places to praise my ‘Oxford speech’.
The fact that my speech struck such a chord with so many listeners suggested that what I considered basic was unfamiliar to many, perhaps most, educated Indians. They reacted as if I had opened their eyes, instead of merely reiterating what they had already known. It was this realization that prompted my friend and publisher, David Davidar, to insist I convert my speech into a short book.
However, the book differs from the speech in some crucial respects. It is not about reparations, for one thing. This book is also not about British colonialism as a whole, but simply about India’s experience of it. There is a third respect in which this book differs from my speech. At Oxford I was arguing one side of a debate; there was little room for nuance or acknowledgement of counter-arguments. In a book laying out the evils of Empire, however, I feel duty- bound to take into account the arguments for the British Raj as well. This I have done in each chapter, especially in Chapter 2, and in chapters 3 to 7 in which I consider and reject most of the well-worn remaining arguments in favour of the British empire in India.
This book has no pretensions to infallibility, let alone to omniscience. There may well be facts of which I am unaware that undermine or discredit some of my arguments. Still, the volume before you conveys in essence what I understand of my country’s recent past. As India approaches the seventieth anniversary of its independence from the British empire, it is worthwhile for us to examine what brought us to our new departure point in 1947 and the legacy that has helped shape the India we have been seeking to rebuild. That, to me, is this book’s principal reason for existence.