“Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India” by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford (via YouTube) Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford (via YouTube)

It is not surprising that writers in the Indian sub-continent should seek to redress the balance in accounts about what happened there when it was part of the British Empire.

Recent years have seen a spate of popular histories lauding the achievements of the Raj, kicked off in 1997 by Lawrence James’s Raj: the Making and Unmaking of British India. These helped the Empire, at least in Britain, become a subject of nostalgia. The trend has been continued by works such as Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, which, in 2003 told us how the British built the infrastructure of the globe; Andrew Roberts’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900, which, in 2006, once more took up the white man’s burden; and Nick Lloyd’s revisionist account in 2011 of the Amritsar massacre.

To any Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi sensitive about his country’s past, all of this must have been a sore provocation.


Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor (Hurst, March 2017; Aleph Book Company, October 2016)
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor (Hurst, March 2017; Aleph Book Company, October 2016)

Dr Shashi Tharoor suffered much of this in the western press and television during the twenty-nine years he served as a career bureaucrat at the United Nations in New York, particularly during George W Bush’s neocon years when Andrew Roberts was the toast of the administration. After he left the UN and entered Congress Party policies in New Delhi, holding the post Minister of State for External Affairs from 2009 to 2010, Tharoor would have watched Niall Ferguson advising a string of American Republican politicians and being named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Invited by the Oxford Union in 2015 to support the motion that “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies”, Tharoor took the opportunity to redress the balance by listing what he believed were the ills the British had inflicted on his country. A year later, he published a much expanded version of his speech as Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (published elsewhere as Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India).

Tharoor makes no claim to impartiality or that he is writing history in this book, and indeed makes little claim that he is seeking to arrive at a balanced view. The book, much as his original speech had been at the Oxford Union, is an argument, and, like all political arguments, and indeed like much of the popular histories of the heralds of empire whom he attacks, gains its strength from the omission of almost everything that would damage his case. That in no way implies that all, or most, of what he writes is factually wrong. Tharoor has employed a team of researchers to get his facts right, and mostly does. If you want to read a very long list of the harm done in and to India in the 400 years of the East India Company and the Raj, then this is the book for you.


Columnist and author of four published works of fiction and twelve of non-fiction, Tharoor is both well-read and an accomplished writer, and Inglorious Empire is smoothly and persuasively written, littered with apposite quotations, often by British figures damning themselves.

He cannot, however, quite hide his anti-British prejudices, and they pop out of his text at telling moments. I write “anti-British” when actually I should write “anti-English”, for when the Scots make an appearance in his text it is as imperial hangers-on, whose support for the Union between England and Scotland was seemingly based solely upon the riches they could jointly loot from India; he writes:


It is often forgotten what cemented the Union in the first place: the loaves and fishes available to Scots from participation in the colonial exploits of the East India Company.


Scottish independence seems, to Tharoor, to follow naturally from the loss of the Indian Empire. One is left with the sad feeling that some Englishman was rude to Tharoor in a railway carriage.

Tharoor’s views lead him to some bizarre conclusions. Almost all the ills of the Indian sub-continent, past and present, are laid at the door of British colonialism, including the dismal failure of his own Congress Party to develop his country in the seventy years since independence. Caste and communal conflict, he seems to think, were harmless before the British showed up and their sad prevalence nowadays is due, in Tharoor’s view, almost entirely to British policies of divide and rule. Even the intra-Muslim conflicts between Sunni and Shia are “British-sponsored”. How much better, he postulates, had the Marathas, the roving bands of Indian marauders who laid waste and terrorized central and northern India in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, been left to rule the land. “This would,” he implausibly claims, “have led to an inevitable transition to constitutional rule.”

In his attempt to denigrate everything about British India, Tharoor even attacks one of its most well-known and effective critics, the novelist EM Forster, who wrote A Passage to India in 1924 in part to pillory Anglo-Indian attitudes and behavior. Forster, according to Tharoor, possesses


a stultifying and limited vision, which never arises [sic] above the mystery and the muddle that this well-intentioned Englishman saw India as.


This is a tendentious and unfair interpretation revealing only the little that Tharoor understands of the novel. A glaring instance of this is where Tharoor utterly misses the point of a famous passage from the novel which he cites at length. The two protagonists, the Englishman Fielding and his Indian friend Dr. Aziz, part.


“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other […] but the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart […] they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said “No, not there.”


It was not the friendship of an Englishman and an Indian that is not wanted here, but the love between the two men.


In his final chapter “The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism”, Tharoor concludes:


In looking to understand the forces that have made us and nearly unmade us, and in hoping to recognize possible future sources of conflict in the new millennium, we have to realize that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.


In other words, even India’s future will be the fault of the British. As his popular historian opponents have done, Tharoor has made his case by citing evidence that backs up only one side of the argument, and his book is neither a real study of the effects of British colonialism, nor a full account of the past. As a guide to the future it has no value.

Nigel Collett won the 2017 Hong Kong History Book Prize for A Death in Hong Kong. His other books include The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and Firelight of a Different Colour, a biography of Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung.