Book Review: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor

In Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, politician and author Shashi Tharoor articulately exposes the destructive effect of the British Empire in India. Although the book is not necessarily a new analysis and suffers from weak referencing at times, Jaskiran Bhogal finds the book an accessible, eye-opening read suitable for anyone wanting to learn more about the hidden past of the Raj and the British legacy in India.

This review was originally posted on the South Asia@LSE blog. Shashi Tharoor was in conversation with Mukulika Banerjee at the South Asia Centre in February. Listen to a podcast of the event here.

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Shashi Tharoor. Hurst. 2017.

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Aptly timed to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of India and Pakistan’s independence, Tharoor explores the supposed mystery of the British Empire in India. A writer and politician born in London and educated at English-language schools in India, Tharoor aims to shed light on the real impact of the British Empire in India.

The age-old justification is that British imperialism took place as enlightened despotism for the benefit of those it ruled, but Tharoor annihilates this view. He shows how every so-called ‘gift’, including the railways and the implementation of a legal system, was designed for the ruler and not the ruled. He argues that Britain’s Industrial Revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialisation and the destruction of its textile industry. Whilst this re-examination of colonialism is not necessarily a new one, it exposes the destructive effect of the inglorious British legacy in India in an accessible manner. Given the high profile of the author and the articulate writing style, the book is well situated to reach an audience in both Britain and India and beyond. Overall, the book is an eye-opening read which is suitable for anyone wanting to learn more about the hidden past of the colonial empire and the impact on its colonies. The book is well argued, but does suffer in a few places from a lack of solid source referencing.

According to a YouGov poll in 2014, almost 60 per cent of Britons were proud of the British Empire and almost 50 per cent thought it had made the colonies better off – an expression of what scholar Paul Gilroy has termed ‘postcolonial melancholia’. This selective nostalgia and explicit ignorance are likely fuelled by the fact colonialism is not a part of the history taught in most British schools. Children therefore have no basic knowledge rather than simply the wrong idea about the two centuries of exploitation that financed the British Empire. Remarkably, even the descendants of the victims of Empire have little knowledge of the horrors inflicted during the colonial period. In this context, it is important to present alternative interpretations of British imperialism, which highlight the negatives and interrogate the supposed positives.

Tharoor’s evidence comes from British and US historians as well as Indian thinkers. He lays out the decimation of pre-colonial systems of government by the British through their ledgers and rule books; the excessive taxation of farmers and mismanagement of famines in which millions died; the implementation of laws against homosexuality and sedition which are still used to this day by Indian governments; and finally, the extreme protectionism, including textiles and shipbuilding which led to a crippling end to India’s world-class manufacturing sectors and its pre-existing international trade networks. He writes: ‘Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries.’

Image Credit: India Gate in Delhi, a memorial to the sacrifices of the Indian Army for the Empire, 1914-21. Credit: Sonali Campion.

Some of the most staggering details of the book include the statistics that are presented. 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 developed 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’. It is significant to note that at the time of independence, India’s share of world GDP was 3 per cent, whilst Britain’s was three times as high.

Tharoor goes on to give a detailed account of how India was drained of its resources. One of the main examples is the textile industry, which used to be a nationwide cottage industry. The British refused to buy in British pounds, but largely paid with forced ‘revenues extracted from Bengal […] pushing [textile] prices even lower’. In addition, they ‘drove Indians to agriculture beyond levels the land could sustain’ and Indian rulers were made to pay for British protection at inflated costs. Tharoor provides a different perspective on the idea that the British brought stability and administrative structure to India. For example, he says, the Indian social structure was very different from that of British society, and he explains that rather that giving power to Indians, they were simply given ‘positions’. In doing so, the colonial rulers transformed India’s agrarian society into one of ‘tenants, employees, and bondsmen’.

Tharoor places an emphasis on factors which created the difficulties that India faced post-Partition. Perhaps his most provocative argument is that the British policy of divide and rule and the colonialist obsession with classifying Indians into defined categories introduced rigidity to previously nebulous distinctions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as within these communities between Hindu castes and between Sunni and Shia Islam. In the account presented in the chapter titled ‘Divide et Impera’, Tharoor examines the motives of the British census, arguing that the exercise was not to study India’s demographics but to enable the colonialist administrators to divide and rule. He claims that the British exploited religion and were the cause of Hindu-Muslim animosity, and contends that this was the source of the violent ‘shambles of that original Brexit’ after Britain left India and the militarisation of the new nation of Pakistan. The decision in 1905 to partition Bengal along religious lines is a prime example:

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.

Tharoor also sets his sights on undermining the myth of ‘enlightened despotism’, instead pointing to a ‘British colonial holocaust’ given brutalities such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, with soldiers ’emptying their magazines into the shrieking, wailing, then stampeding crowd with trained precision’, and the up to 35 million who died unnecessarily in famines. He argues that London ate India’s bread while India starved, and in 1943 nearly four million Bengalis died because the British failed to respond to the crisis. He also underscores the explicit racism of Winston Churchill:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion […] Let the Viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample Gandhi into the dirt.’

According to Churchill, the Bengal famine was the Indians’ fault for ‘breeding like rabbits’.

Tharoor also demolishes the British boast that it left India in 1947 a functioning democracy, and views the commonplace argument that Britain is responsible for modernisation in India as ‘particularly galling’. In response to the claim that empire laid the foundations for eventual success in a future globalised world, he snaps back stating that ‘human beings do not live in the long run; they live, and suffer, in the here and now’. He writes that although the ‘gift’ of the English language cannot be denied (‘I am after all using it as I write’), there was only a 16 per cent literacy rate at the time of Indian independence and English education was only encouraged for a minority to support the British administration. This links back to the earlier claim that any positives that came out of the Empire were intended solely for the governors, not the governed.

Despite this destructive story of the history of India, Tharoor maintains that India in the twenty-first century is rising. Whilst the aftermath of the colonial era is unlikely to ever dissipate, India is now in control of its own fate. Tharoor tells the story from an unknown source (which is a common problem throughout the book), in which the Prince of Wales in 1921, pointing to buildings and cars, said to an Indian, ‘we have given you everything here in India! What is it you don’t have?’ The Indian replied, ‘Self-respect, sir.’

As Tharoor says, ‘if you don’t know where you have come from, how can you appreciate where you are going?’ The book is one to be read to help the initiation of a conversation about a history which has been long suppressed.


Jaskiran Bhogal is a PhD student in the LSE Department of Anthropology. She works on Sikhs and making religion public in the UK. Kiran is preparing for her ethnographic fieldwork with Sikhs in the West Midlands.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

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One Comment

  1. Giorgi 06/16/2017 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Colonialism is never a ‘gift’. I, too, agree with a matter of ‘self-respect’, which is another axiom for any sovereign nation, but the cited statistics is used out of the historical context. The British Industrial Revolution was of a different, previously unseen type, so the cited comparative statistics makes no sense, or rather, it only hides the difference, and generally, ignores the history of political forms, production, socioeconomic forms and relations, technology etc. In my view, it is a poor reading, moved by a bias, which is not a good adviser.

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