Book review: Inglorious Empire - What the British did to India
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Book review: Inglorious Empire - What the British did to India

The history of British imperialism still holds lessons for public administrators.

At the apogee of Britain's occupation of India, the London-based College of Heralds turned its mind to the status of the Aga Khan. After due deliberation, they concluded that "the Aga Khan is held by his followers to be a direct descendant of god. English dukes take precedence."

Aggrieved affront at such cant animates Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India (Scribe, July 2017). Tharoor's career as an Indian politician, United Nations bureaucrat and cricket organiser has been distinguished and distinctly colourful. Google can provide the requisite gossipy detail. As for me, I have always found Shashi to be intelligent, witty, superior and whimsical. As one proof of those attributes, he finds room to devote two pages in his indictment of British imperialism to a robust defence of P. G. Wodehouse (who broadcast on behalf of the most inglorious of empires, Adolf Hitler's).

In this picture taken on August 15, 1947, crowds of Indian revellers begin to gather in Delhi to celebrate independence from Britain.

In this picture taken on August 15, 1947, crowds of Indian revellers begin to gather in Delhi to celebrate independence from Britain.

Inglorious Empire is at once a moral indictment and a moralistic polemic, both intended to expose the "totally amoral, rapacious imperial machine" the British devised to plunder India. In Tharoor's version of history, "a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks", was cruelly and callously destroyed. British "motives and methods were, on the whole, much more reprehensible than those they had overthrown". "Loot" was a Hindustani word, which the British "took into their dictionaries as well as their habits". British dominion was maintained "with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol and a lot of gall". "Cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of organised resistance on the part of the vanquished" supported Britain's venal ambitions.

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As Tharoor has it, the British expropriated "the glittering jewel of the medieval world", a country which, at the beginning of the 18th century, accounted for 23 per cent of the world economy. When they scuttled, the British left behind "a society with 16 per cent literacy, life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90 per cent living below what today we would call the poverty line".

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No-holds-barred, go-for the-jugular critiques of British imperialism remain relatively rare. The Irish tend to assume British iniquity as a given, a state of nature needing no elaboration. South Africans pride themselves on having fought hard against an enemy that invented a rudimentary form of concentration camp. Descendants of English settlers in Canada regard the British record as essentially benign, even though their Québécois compatriots harbour bitter grudges dating back as far as 1763.

For my part, I would focus more on the end, the way the British, three times last century, chose the default response of partition when confronted with the wicked problems their colonial rule had not addressed. With India and Pakistan, as with Israel-Palestine and Ireland-Ulster, partition not only caused immeasurable suffering but created geopolitical crises that bedevil us still.

Tharoor is scathing about any whiff of "self-exculpatory justification" for British rule in India. He argues that apologists for the raj have "performed an intellectual Indian rope trick: they have climbed up their own premises". Mind you, Tharoor toys with the odd rope trick himself, musing about possible Indian golden ages without the British, with Marathi warlords extending their conquests under the auspices of a titular Moghul emperor or "something like" Japan's Meiji restoration coming to pass. As we say here, tell him he's dreaming.

Opponents of empires would do well to note the acerbically dry rebuttal in Monty Python's Life of Brian to the proposition that the imperial power (in that case the Romans) had done nothing for the locals.

In the case of India, Tharoor concedes tea, cricket, joint-stock companies and Asia's oldest stock exchange. Apart from those, the "jewel in the crown" was, for Tharoor, a monstrous blood-sucker.

What lessons does this tale hold for public administrators? To state the obvious first, empathy and sympathy are plainly virtues, while complacency and cant are sins. Britain's India bureaucracy "was all-pervasive, overpaid, obtusely process-ridden, remarkably inefficient and largely indifferent to the welfare of the people". Exploitation requires the odd constraint: in 1901, the salary of Britain's secretary of state for India (paid for by Indians) exceeded the annual income of 90,000 locals. The merit principle retains therapeutic value. The British refused to appoint one malcontent to their civil service, despite his placing second among several thousand applicants, on the spurious grounds that he was deemed to have failed the riding test.

"Sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror." Using that mirror, Tharoor concludes that the British should feel obliged to pay token reparations, to the tune of one of their devalued pounds for each year of occupation. In addition, he wants a British leader to display enough will and spirit to apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre. That leader would drop to her knees in front of walls pock-marked with bullets, next to a well where dozens suffocated, in front of the eerie pieces of topiary depicting British soldiers standing, kneeling or lying down. Giving no warning, those soldiers murdered hundreds of entirely innocent people, then denied the survivors any medical care. Amritsar in 1919 was the site where the British Empire in India lost its way and lost its mind.

Turning to Australia, European colonisers were willing instruments in dispossessing Indigenous Australians, appropriating the land and exploiting its resources. Cupidity and opportunism were lessons easily taught. If we want to emancipate ourselves from Britain's colonial record, to put aside childish things, we might start with a few baby steps. Seven suggest themselves.

  1. The British coat of arms could be prised off the front of Old Parliament House.
  2. The ludicrous anachronism, "royal", could be removed as a prefix from golf clubs and automobile clubs alike.
  3. We could begin eating Christmas dinner in the more congenial temperatures of mid-year.
  4. The name of our greatest state could be brought up to date by removing a laughably inaccurate and inappropriate reference to, of all dreary places, South Wales.
  5. Statues of British monarchs and worthies could be removed from their plinths. Smashing those statues seems a step too far; they could merely be reduced to human scale, standing and walking among us as Bob Menzies and John Curtin already do in Canberra.
  6. Cricket warrants two mentions. We could begin to schedule five Test series against teams other than England; India would draw bigger crowds and provide a better contest.
  7. Finally, we could work on our tribal chants and songs at the cricket, not conceding ground to England with the lamentable "oi, oi, oi" but composing some spirited insult in verse, or even an antipodean version of Jerusalem.

Amritsar in 1919 was the site where the British Empire in India lost its way and lost its mind.

After those baby steps, we might occupy ourselves – as the Indians quickly did – with the questions of what design should go on our flag and who should live in our Government House(s).

Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.

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