Why Britain Needs to Teach Colonial History in Its Schools

We spoke to Indian MP and author Shashi Tharoor about his new book, 'Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.'

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May 26 2017, 6:45pm

An illustration of British Empire servicemen circa WWII. (Illustration: William Little)

The Indian member of Parliament, diplomat, and author Shashi Tharoor is professionally charming. His voice—patrician and commanding—is clipped like the grass of an elite university quad. He has the worldly demeanor of a man who spent 29 years at the United Nations, rising to the position of under-secretary-general.

These qualities prove disarming. See them on display in the speech he delivered last year at the Oxford Union, in which he argues for the motion that Britain owes reparations to India for its 200-year colonization of the country:

That speech, which went viral, ricocheting between every Indian family's WhatsApp group, has been developed into a book, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. It is structured around the most common apologies made for the British Empire—"But we built them trains!"—giving lucid, succinct, and well-sourced rebuttals for each. The book is an effective primer on the British imperial project, which de-industrialized India, turning it from a global economic power in the early 18th century—when it accounted for 23 percent of the world's economy—into an impoverished and dysfunctional state. By the time the British left in 1947, India's share of the global economy had dropped to a mere 3 percent.

But charm can be deceptive—and there's nothing more suspicious than a politician who finds the time to write books. So I spoke to Tharoor about the historical amnesia of an empire in the British imagination, but also tried to push him on the relationship between the anti-imperialist spirit of his book and contemporary India: a country that is heavily militarized, encouraging ruthless economic exploitation of its own resources, and arguably engaged in the same violence against its people that Britain once was.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: You've taken your anti-imperial argument to major news media across the country to promote the book. How has it been received?
Shashi Tharoor: The arguments have been surprisingly well received, in the sense that a number of Britons, including Conservatives, have reacted with sympathy to the arguments and with a certain amount of chagrin about the record of their forebears. All of the few negative reviews there have been come from Indian Brits, who seem to be anxious to justify the empire to justify themselves, perhaps—I don't know.

It's one thing to get a positive reaction, but I think it's more important to get a concrete result from it. I would like someone in a position of influence and authority in this country to take my demand for atonement seriously. By atonement, I mean two things. Teaching colonial history in the school system—you can pass history with flying colors without learning a word about colonial history, which I think is an absolute disgrace. The second thing I feel Britain could do would be an apology, and I feel the perfect opportunity comes up at the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre in April 1919.


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Could British people survive a reckoning with their history? I can't imagine them swallowing the truth about Churchill—who was basically a racist mass murderer.
Well, every nation needs its own myths. The myth of Churchill rests essentially on his great speeches, but he was actually quite a disastrous leader. He made some horrendous decisions as war secretary in the First World War—Gallipoli was a Churchill-made folly—and talked about dropping chemical weapons on the Iraqis during the Mesopotamian uprisings in the 1920s.

What happened was when he took the reigns of government during the Second World War he was the perfect figure for the mood of the nation—embodying the bulldog spirit with some mighty fine speeches. But when you think of the man's record, it's really quite appalling. And when you look at his record in India, it is absolutely horrendous: "Racist mass murderer" is polite in terms of what he actually said and did.

The Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, congratulated you on your Oxford Union speech, saying you said: "the right things at the right place." You, of course, are a member of the opposition, center-left Congress party. This raises the question of whether one can write an anti-British history of India that cannot be appropriated by the Indian far right for its own ends.
There has been a bit of a simmering debate between my brand of nationalism versus Mr. Modi's. To begin with, I speak of 200 years of foreign rule [under the British]. He speaks of 1,200 years of foreign rule because, for his [Hindu right-wing] party, all the Muslim invasions and rulers of India over its history were also foreign. They may have been foreign when they came, but they came and assimilated into India. I argue that the whole nature of India is a country to which various people have contributed at various times. To my mind, therefore, to call [the Mughal dynasty] foreigners is to denigrate the place in Indian society and history of a people who are as Indian as you or I am today.

The second major difference is that I have an inclusive nationalism, which I believe is a nationalism of the freedom struggle, and the nationalism peddled by many members of the [Modi's] party is much more sectarian, and seems to see India as some sort of pristine, Hindu land that has been violated by influences from outside, and their nationalism is about reasserting Hindu pride.

Modern-day India is heavily militarized and engages in arms deals and military exercises with colonial states like Israel. Is there a tension between the anti-imperialism of your book and India today, which has wandered so far from the emancipatory spirit of the nationalist struggle?
Not really, because I think a lot of Indian militarism has been thrust upon us by an unfortunately hostile neighbor [Pakistan]. I would argue that the earlier approach of India, when [the first prime minister of an independent India] Nehru kept slashing the defense budget every year—until the Chinese came [in 1962] and gave us a wallop that India had to reverse course—suggests that the instinct of the nationalist movement was to not be a particular militarist country, but it was forced upon it by circumstances.

Similarly, with Pakistan, Indian leaders, including Mr. Modi, have been quick to try the peace path. But, in every case, have been rebuffed by the undoubted reality that the civilians they are trying to make peace with having no clout in Pakistan. It's the Pakistani military that calls the shots: They've ruled the country indirectly for half the country's independence, and the other half of the time they've ruled it indirectly by curbing how far the civilians can go… So my view is that until [that] changes, with more space for civil society in Pakistan, then there is not a real prospect of India being able to demilitarize.

Shashi Tharoor taken at TED Mysore, 2009. Photo: TED

You write that the East India Company, which ruled India before the British government officially did, created the first landless peasants in India. But there are activists in India today who see Indian and foreign mining companies doing the same thing to millions of tribal people living on valuable land.
Well, the big difference is, first of all, whatever is happening today is happening in a democracy with due process and the rule of law. The tribal people have a voice, they have political support and representation, they have legal representation with cases in courts, they have the laws and so on. So it's a different context from when the East India Company came at the point of a gun and imposed its view, and proceeded to rape and pillage the countryside and send the proceeds off to England. None of which is happening today—or, not much of which is happening today.

Your book is a fortuitously timed intervention in Britain since it plays into all the imperial nostalgia that has accompanied Brexit.
One of the things that is often mentioned to me is people speaking about "Empire 2.0." I find that quite astonishing, given that Empire 1.0 was such a bad idea in the first place! But if that's the kind of thinking that is going on then I'm afraid those who are advocating it are in for a rude shock. The empire has no desire to be reconstituted, and the terms of trade that were imposed at the point of a gun in Britain's favor during the empire will not be available in the 21st century. If Britain wants something like a Commonwealth free trade area, there's going to have to be a lot of give and take. Britain is going to have to reach out and offer, say, more student visas or work permits for workers in return for buying goods. In many of these countries, their best resource is people.

Is Brexit partly happening because Britain didn't come to terms with the empire, which is what kept Scotland, England, and Wales together over the years?
The Empire did keep them together through the prosperity it engendered. The Scots, for example, were failed colonists before the Act of Union [which created the United Kingdom.] They had tried to colonize parts of Central America and the Caribbean and failed. And when the union was formed and they joined England, they suddenly had access to India. It's interesting that, as a proportion of the population, three times as many Scots came to India as English. The end of Empire meant the end of that huge benefit. Then the Scots began to look at themselves in relation just to each other and say, "Why are we here?"

There must be some kind of passive enjoyment in watching this crisis unfold from India…
Oh, I don't know. You know India is a curious place; there is not much bitterness or resentment of Britain. I don't know too many Indians, for example, who go around rejoicing when Australia beats England in cricket—if anything, the tendency is to sympathize with the English. But among some of us who've followed and studied all this, one can't help feeling a sort of small frisson, if you like, of consciousness that there is a historical reckoning taking place.

Inglorious Empire: What The British Did to India is out now through Hurst Publishers.

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