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Britain once destroyed India’s economy yet we can still be friends

My Times column on Britain and India:


By 2022, India will have overtaken China to become the most populous country in the world and, growing fast, will be rapidly returning towards the dominant position it held in the world economy for centuries. It was the world’s economic superpower when imperial Rome and Han China were its junior trading partners. It still represented one quarter of the world economy when Britain began to conquer it in 1757.

And it was we British who impoverished it. So argues Inglorious Empire, a remarkable new book by the Indian MP Shashi Tharoor, a former candidate for secretary general of the United Nations who is being touted as a potential leader of the Congress Party. The book is savagely critical of 200 years of the British in India. It makes very uncomfortable reading for Brits, especially those like me who had a parent brought up partly in India.

It left me wondering why Indians are generally so well disposed towards their former imperial mistress. Post-Brexit, reaching out to the fast-growing economies of the world, we will need that goodwill, but we are currently doing too little to continue earning it. We are squandering our soft power.

The number of Indian students coming to Britain has fallen sharply in recent years, deterred by hurdles to getting visas, a ban on staying after study unless they have a graduate level job or an internship, the requirement to post a costly bond for a visitor’s visa [correction: this policy was not adopted but applicants are asked to prove they have enough funds to cover their whole visit]. Indians, such as my friend Reuben Abraham, chief executive of IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank, find this baffling. Whereas six years ago there were twice as many Indian as American students in Britain, today there are more Americans.

The result not only annoys Indians, who see Chinese students getting into Britain more easily, but diverts them to rival countries such as America, where 16 per cent of Silicon Valley’s start-ups were co-founded by Indians, and the chief executives of both Google and Microsoft are Indian born. And it is not as if our tough line towards Indians is what British people want: all the evidence suggests that people welcome students from Asia; it is unskilled job seekers from Europe that they worry about.

We know that (perhaps inexplicably in view of our weather) studying here nearly always leaves Indians with a dose of Anglophilia. As the new film Viceroy’s House reminds us, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity, Cambridge, and Inner Temple), remained eloquently fond of British culture despite imprisonment and political betrayal.

Dr Tharoor himself is as accomplished a user of the English language and British ideas as anybody alive. The Raj, rather than leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, often left Indians fond of Britain: how much more could that be true today?

In 2015 Dr Tharoor criticised British rule in a powerful speech to the Oxford Union, which quickly went viral. His book is an expanded version of the speech, which one by one addresses and demolishes the arguments that the British were benign imperialists. Many of his arguments are well known. The British were often brutal and corrupt, plundered vast wealth from India, destroyed traditions of education, enlisted millions of Indians to fight in its wars for British freedom, sowed discord between Muslims and Hindus by insisting on a form of what we would now call identity politics, and far from unifying the country, left it permanently partitioned, after encouraging the Muslim League to undermine the influence of the secular Congress party.

Other points are less well known. One viceroy, Lord Lytton, deliberately opposed alleviation of a terrible famine in the 1870s, arguing that “humanitarian humbug” would only worsen a Malthusian problem. In 1943, on the instructions of Winston Churchill, Britain diverted grain ships heading to Calcutta to Europe, when four million people were dying of starvation in Bengal.

What was new to me in Dr Tharoor’s book was the detailed evidence of deliberate economic destruction — the demolition at the behest of British business of India’s world-leading textile industry in the 18th century, its world-leading ship-building industry in the 19th and its world-leading locomotive-manufacturing industry in the 20th. British businesses built India’s railways at cartel-fixed prices far higher per mile than those Americans paid. The critics of empire at home, from Adam Smith to John Ruskin, were right that empire was a predatory racket.

It is undeniable that Britain systematically kept India poor. In the last 50 years of British rule, India achieved zero per-capita economic growth. We left India, a wealthy nation when we arrived, with 90 per cent poverty, 16 per cent literacy and life expectancy of 27. The loot we took enriched the British elite more than the masses, for whom the technology unleashed by the industrial revolution mattered more. But India could just as easily have quickly followed such a revolution. Without colonial rule, and with its rich commercial history, India would probably have advanced at least as fast as Japan did in the 19th century, let alone the 20th.

It is true, as Dr Tharoor concedes, that any imperial rulers, Hindu, Muslim or other, would probably have been cruel and parasitical too. But at least Mughals and Rajputs spent their plunder within India rather than sending it abroad.

In his Oxford speech, Dr Tharoor argued for symbolic reparations of £1 a year for 200 years. For those who say it is too late for an apology, and that the current generation of Brits should not carry guilt or Indians a grudge, he points out that Willy Brandt, as chancellor of West Germany and a man who had opposed the Nazis, spontaneously knelt at the site of the Warsaw ghetto in 1970. Perhaps in 2019, on the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where British soldiers fired 1,650 bullets at a crowd of unarmed families gathering for a festival, before refusing to let relatives tend to the wounded, the British prime minister should do the same.

After 1947, despite having a language rich in Indian words, from shampoo to hullabaloo, from juggernaut to jamboree, Britain all but forgot about India, turned its back on empire, rewrote its story as that of a plucky underdog standing up to the Nazi bully, and eventually reached out to Europe instead. Brexit could be another turning point. More than almost any other country, India will matter to Britain in the coming years: as a market, an ally, an innovator, a source of talent and — despite everything — a friend.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times