Dr Shashi Tharoor was recently in the UK to promote his new book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. While visiting LSE, he spoke to Sonali Campion about the need to challenge existing narratives about the British in India, the uniquely exploitative nature of the Raj and the legacies of Empire.
You write that the need to temper British nostalgia with post-colonial responsibility has never been greater than in the wake of Brexit, can you just expand on what you mean by that?
Over the last 15-20 years, there’s been a spate of very popular and well-reviewed books – best sellers in many cases – that have sought to glorify empire all over again. For example, Professor Niall Ferguson suggests that British played the indispensable role of laying the foundations for post-colonial economies to take advantage of 21st century globalisation. I found this argument intellectually somewhat suspect as but at least had the merit of being original.
Some others offer more fatuous pronouncements, such as Lawrence James who described the British Empire was an exercise in benign altruism. A lot of this glamorisation has gone largely unchallenged in the popular domain. I’m sure there’s serious scholarship that would undermine specific aspects of these claims, but the overall picture painted in books that the average intelligent reader might pick up has been rather positive about the British, buttressed thereafter by all these gauzy romanticised television shows which view the Empire through rose-tinted spectacles.
It is not surprising that a YouGov poll in 2014 showed 59 per cent of English people thought the Empire was a good thing, they were proud of it and they’d love to have it back. I wasn’t aware when I was writing that there was a subsequent YouGov poll in 2016 which brought that number down to 44 per cent but that is still a significant number. The only explanation is that there isn’t enough information, awareness or education around this topic, and that needs to be addressed. It’s a bit of an embarrassment that you can get a History A Level in this country without knowing anything about colonial history. However, I will go even further by saying you shouldn’t be reading the likes of Jane Austen without realising that the lifestyle she’s depicting was paid for by the slaves toiling away on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. There is this invisible presence throughout the last 200 years in Britain and that ought to be corrected.
How does the Mughal Empire fit into your narrative? Early on in the book you note that the British were very different to previous invaders of India.
The British were different in the sense that they had no commitment to the country. The Mughals were invaders who had come to India previously and then they stayed on and assimilated. For example, every single Mughal emperor (with the exception of the first one) was the offspring of an Indian woman. And the Mughals saw India as home: they never went back, nor did they send all their assets and resources back. They invested in India, they brought in artists and architects, doctors, musicians and painters and enriched the civilisation of this new territory.
The British sadly chose not to do that. The Raj focussed on extracting money and resources from India and sending them back to England. It’s estimated that even the British Civil Servants in India sent 80 per cent of their salaries went back to England. Luxury goods industries around the courts in Delhi, which had thrived on providing fine silks, jewellery and comforts for the aristocratic elite, collapsed because the British ruling caste were not interested in Indian luxuries they were sending their money off to buy luxuries in London and Paris.
You criticise the argument that the British gave India democracy on multiple fronts, and specifically refer to the parliamentary system as the source of many India’s political ills. How do you think it needs to be reformed?
I would replace it with a