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Don’t Blame The Empire

The British Empire was cruel, rapacious and racist. But contrary to what Shashi Tharoor writes in An Era Of Darkness, the fault for India’s miseries lies upon itself.

At sophisticated dinner parties in Delhi, Calcutta, or Chennai, whenever the discussion turns to politics, one can be sure that sooner or later, and usually sooner, the British will be blamed. It’s a fine parlor game, and clever players can usually find a way to cast blame for whichever side of the debate they favor. Is India’s traditional family falling apart due to internet porn? Blame the British! Are the laws against homosexuality too strong? Blame the British! The British are an easy target because much of what they did was reprehensible. But blaming British imperialism for contemporary Indian problems is also an easy way to let India’s political class off the hook.

An excellent case against the British comes from Shashi Tharoor, bestselling author, former Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations, and current member of the Indian parliament, in his 2016 book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (also published this year under the title Inglorious Empire).

Tharoor makes three claims:

  1. The British empire in India, from the seizure of Bengal by the East India Company in 1757 until the end of British government rule in 1947, was cruel, rapacious, and racist.
  2. India would be much better off today had it not been for British rule.
  3. Britain’s success and the Industrial Revolution were due to British depredation of India.

The first claim is true, the second uncertain, the third false.

The first claim is the heart of Tharoor’s book: the British empire in India was cruel, rapacious and racist. All true. But who would expect otherwise? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The theft, the famines, the massacres, the formal and casual racism, the utter hypocrisy of suppressing independence while using hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight for democracy and freedom in two World Wars—on all this Tharoor stands on solid ground. The ground is solid in part because it has been well-trod. Tharoor brings the case against the East India Company and Britain, initiated by Edmund Burke (1774-1785) and continued by the likes of Indian nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji (1901) and American historian Will Durant (1930), to its conclusion and climax with the Indian independence movement. In this, Tharoor is entirely successful and his work deserves to be widely read.

In his eagerness to blame Britain, however, Tharoor reaches for every possible argument in ways that are sometimes misleading and sometimes absurd.

Land Reform and Economics

An example is his treatment of land reform. Tharoor claims that “the British created the phenomenon of landlessness, turned self-reliant cultivators into tenants, employees and bondsmen, transformed social relations and as a result undermined agrarian growth and development.” The idea that the British created the phenomenon of landless tenants is absurd. Landless tenants were a feature of Indian agriculture before the British even knew that India existed.

More interesting and revealing is Tharoor’s claim, for which he cites support from the economists Abhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer, that “British colonial policy choices led to sustained differences in economic outcomes: ‘Areas in which proprietary rights in land were historically given to landlords have significantly lower agricultural investments and productivity in the post-independence period than areas in which these rights were given to the cultivators’. The British sins were many and lasting. “There are no victimless colonial actions,” he continues, “everything the British did echoes down the ages.”

Tharoor is correct that in north-eastern India the British gave property rights to large landlords, the zamindars, whom the British taxed while leaving it to them to find and “encourage” the peasants to actually work the land. It’s also true that these regions today have lower agricultural productivity than other regions in India. But which system is Tharoor comparing the zamindari system to? Few readers will know that it was also the British who imposed the alternative system of land taxation that Tharoor implicitly lauds.

In south and western India, the British cut out the middlemen and gave property rights to the peasants, whom they taxed directly. This second system was known as the raiyatwar system. (There was also a third, village system, used in the western plains, but this detail is not relevant to the issue at hand.) Both the zamindari and raiyatwar systems were imposed by the British. Thus, if an anti-Tharoor were to rewrite Tharoor’s brief, she could, with just as much truth, state that the British-imposed system of individual land taxation led to significantly higher agricultural productivity in the post-independence era. Everything the British did echoes down the ages.

Indeed, the anti-Tharoor argument is arguably closer to the truth, because the British tended to use the landlord system in places where landlords were already in place, and at times when the British were relatively weak and couldn’t afford to upset tradition. Only after they became confident in their power did the British start to bypass the landlord class and tax the cultivators directly. King’s College London historian Jon Wilson (2016) writes in India Conquered, “Wherever it was implemented, raiyatwar began as a form of military rule.” Thus the system that Tharoor implicitly promotes, and which is associated with higher agricultural productivity today, arose from the very same colonialism that he blames for so many of India’s current woes. History does not always tell the parables that we wish to hear.

Moreover, the superior agricultural productivity associated with the raiyatwar system didn’t show up until the 1960s, decades after the British were shown the door! Today regional differences in agricultural productivity can be attributed to variations in fertilizer use, education, and investment. Banerjee and Iyer speculate that the zamindari land-tax system of the 19th century casts a long shadow because the peasant and landlord castes harbor animosities that make it difficult for people to take the collective action necessary to increase fertilizer use, education, and investment. Once again, the details make it hard to tell a simple parable of British guilt.

Am I saying we should now celebrate British colonialism? Of course not. The British Raj might have had some good effects, but that possibility in no way detracts from Tharoor’s first claim. British rule was cruel, rapacious, and racist. The existence of some positive effects does, however, make it more difficult to make the case for Tharoor’s second claim: India would be better off today if British rule had never happened. Sometimes Tharoor even suggests that without British rule, India would by now have evolved into a developed country as wealthy as Europe’s economy. That is an extraordinary claim, and Tharoor provides little support for it beyond the following “argument”:

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together…. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to just over 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. (p. 2-3)

India’s share of the world economy was large in the eighteenth century for one simple reason: when the entire world was poor, India had a large share of the world’s population. India’s share fell because with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, Europe and North America saw increases of income per capita to levels never before seen in all of human history. This unprecedented growth cannot be explained by Britain’s depredations against India. Britain was not importing steam engines from India.

The big story of the Great Divergence is not that India got poorer, but that other countries got much richer. Even at the peak of Mughal wealth in 1600, the best estimates of economic historians suggest that GDP per capita was 61% higher in Great Britain. By 1750–before the battle of Plassey and the British takeover–GDP per capita in Great Britain was more than twice what it was in India (Broadberry, Custodis, and Gupta 2015). The Great Divergence has long roots.

Tharoor seems blinded by the glittering jewels of the Maharajas and the Mughals. He writes with evident satisfaction that when in 1615 the first British ambassador presented himself to the court of Emperor Jehangir in Agra, “the Englishman was a supplicant at the feet of the world’s mightiest and most opulent monarch.” True; but the Emperor’s opulence was produced on the backs of millions of poor subjects. Writing at the same time and place, the Dutch merchant Francisco Pelsaert (1626) contrasted the “great superfluity and absolute power” of the rich with “the utter subjection and poverty of the common people–poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted…only as the home of stark want and the dwelling-place of bitter woe.” Indian rulers were rich because the empire was large and inequality was extreme.

In pre-colonial India the rulers, both Mughal and Maratha, extracted anywhere from one-third to one half of all gross agricultural output and most of what was extracted was spent on opulence and the armed forces, not on improving agricultural productivity (Raychaudhuri 1982). Economic historian Tirthankar Roy (2011) writes:

In Mughal India, a few hundred families had access to a very large share of the gross agricultural output of the nation. A considerable part of the state income was spent on palaces, administration, and the army. Productive investments, consisting of roads and irrigation, was neither a sustained commitment nor a large one, and fell far short of the level needed to make a significant difference to rural producers.

Low agricultural productivity meant that most people had to be farmers just to survive. This was the key to the entire Indian economy. Without improvements in agricultural productivity it simply wasn’t possible to grow. High taxes gave farmers few incentives or funds to invest in productivity and as the Mughal empire fell apart, taxes didn’t even provide security from wars and banditry. In the chaos of the dissolution, local rulers taxed the peasants at ever higher rates and invested more in forts and armies and less in agricultural infrastructure. When combined with an increase in the number of drought years in the late 18th century, GDP per capita fell below what it had been in 1600 and far below British levels (Cliningsmith & Williamson 2008, Broadberry, Custodis, and Gupta 2015).

The decline of the Indian economy both in absolute terms and relative to the British should not be surprising. If Great Britain had not been significantly richer on a per-capita basis than India before British rule, it’s difficult to understand how British rule could have even begun.

The British were awful rulers but the history of India is a long story of awful rulers (just as it is for most countries). Indeed, by Maddison’s (2007) calculations the British extracted less from the Indian economy than did the Mughal Dynasty. The Mughals built their palaces in India while the British built most of their palaces in Britain, but that was little comfort to the Indian peasant who paid for both. The Kohinoor diamond that graces the cover of Inglorious Empire is a telling symbol. Yes, it was stolen by the British (who stole it from the Sikhs who stole it from the Afghanis who stole it from the Mughals who stole it from one of the kings of South India). But how many Indians would have been better off if this bauble had stayed in India? Perhaps one reason why more Indians didn’t take up arms against the British was that for most of them, British rule was a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Hindu and Muslim Divisions

Tharoor blames the British not just for India’s poverty, but also for its division by religion, sect, and caste. Most astoundingly, he blames these evils on British historians and census takers. The historians separated Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods, and thereby, in Tharoor’s view, created the very divisions they claimed to document. Moreover, “the census undermined consensus” simply by asking questions that somehow disintegrated the harmonious unity that had been Indian society:

The census takers “asked representatives of the two communities to self-consciously construct an ‘established’ custom, such as by asking them what the prevailing beliefs and practices were around cow-slaughter, which prompted both groups to give an exaggeratedly rigid version of what they believed the beliefs and practices should be!…

The facts are clear: large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule…it is questionable whether a totalizing Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India prior to the nineteenth century.

Tharoor has climbed onto a very thin branch. The idea that Hindu and Muslim divisions were socially constructed by British historians and census takers is little more plausible than the notion that male and female genders are socially constructed by the toys a child is gifted. The problem is not that social construction doesn’t exist, but that Tharoor thinks that British social construction was uniquely powerful. If Indians had a united identity before the British it was presumably social constructed through hundreds of years of family, community, and religious practice. How could all of this supposed unity be demolished by a few questionnaires? Tharoor seems to think that everyone in India was blind to religious differences until some British historian, like a troublesome little boy in a Hans Christian Andersen fable, whispered “but there are Hindu and Muslim rulers.”

Hindu and Muslim divisions run deeper than the ink marks of colonial census takers. Emperor Aurangzeb killed his brother Dara Shikoh for apostasy in 1659 and the echoes of that fratricide travel down the centuries to Partition. Aurangzeb’s tax on non-Muslims, the jizya tax, abolished in the 16th century by his great-grandfather, the third Mughal emperor Akbar, but re-imposed a hundred years later is another sign of deteriorating interreligious relations. Even some events outside of India, such as the rise of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam in the 19th century, were clearly more important for Hindu-Muslim relations than were the census takers (Allen 2005, Dalrymple 2008). The rise of Wahhabism and the decline of Sufism were bound to upset Hindu-Muslim relations no matter what the British did.

Also implausible is British responsibility for Shia-Sunni divisions. Yet, Tharoor makes this very accusation: “Thus, the British can be largely blamed for the creation of previously non-existence Shia-Sunni tensions within the Muslim population of Lucknow.” (p. 121) Did the British exacerbate divisions in Lucknow? Probably. It would be useful to test for the British influence by measuring the ethnic and religious divisions in places where British control was more powerful or more enduring. But Shia-Sunni divisions precede British rule by a thousand years, and whatever the British did in Lucknow was likely just a brush stroke in the larger picture of ages-old Shia-Sunni tension.

Caste Divisions

Tharoor also blames the British for exacerbating issues of caste. What is unconscionable, however, is how he breezily dismisses some 2000 years of slavery, abuse, and oppression of Shudras and Dalits. Thus he writes, “prior to British rule the Shudra had only to leave his village and try his fortunes in a different princely state in India where his caste would not have followed him…” (p. 108).

Even if an individual deprived of education, independence, and dignity could defy societal norms, laws, and religious practices, and throw off the shackles of caste, to do so would mean denying one’s family, one’s culture, one’s name, and perhaps even one’s face. A person who denied his or her caste would literally be an outcaste. And what would happen to a Shudra or Dalit who was discovered to be masquerading as a higher caste? The meaning of the mythological story of Shambuka, a Shudra beheaded by Rama for attempting to rise above his caste, would not have been lost on Shudras (Ambedkar 2016).

The Dharmasutras (Olivelle 1999) provides some representative punishments for lesser crimes:

If a Sudra uses abusive language or physical violence against twice-born people, the part of his body used for the crime should be chopped off. If he has sex with an Arya woman, his penis should be cut off and all his property confiscated; if the woman had a guardian, then, in addition to the above, he shall be executed. And if he listens in on a vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac; if he repeats it, his tongue shall be cut off; if he commits it to memory, his body shall be split asunder. If, while he is occupying a seat, lying on a bed, speaking, or walking on the road, he seeks to be their equal, he should be beaten.

The changing structure of the economy necessarily made the assignment of caste to occupation “fluid”, as Tharoor argues, but this kind of fluidity is measured over the generations not within a lifetime. A caste might also change occupations as a coordinated group but for an individual to change caste would have been, as Nehru (1946) argued, “very exceptional.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that in the years before Independence, Dalit leaders were warier of the Nationalist movement than were Brahmins, not because the former wanted British rule, but rather because they understood that national freedom was not the same as individual freedom. In 1936, the esteemed Dalit jurist B. R. Ambedkar (2016) pointedly asked Hindu leaders:

Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a large class of your own countrymen like the Untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public wells? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food they like?

The Dalits knew there were worse things for many Indians than British rule.


Every work of history is also a commentary about the present. By blaming so many of India’s current problems on past British rule, Tharoor misunderstands both his country’s strengths and its weaknesses. What is great to him about the Nationalist movement was that it was Indian. Post-colonial world history, however, is full of nationalist movements which replaced colonial dictators with sometimes worse home-grown versions. The true greatness of the Indian Nationalist movement was its commitment to democracy. It is democracy—coupled with market reforms—that is responsible for raising India’s per-capita income and massively improving the lives of over a billion people.

By blaming so much on the British, Tharoor also leaves India with little sense of how to progress. If the British are to be blamed for India’s poverty, for example, what can be done? The British have been gone for 70 years. How long must India wait for the shadow of history to lift? If instead one acknowledges that India has long suffered under the confiscatory taxation and economic restrictions of overbearing rulers of many colors and creeds—and that large swaths of the Indian population, including women, Shudras, and Dalits, have long suffered from social ostracism, all manner of abuses, and authoritarian control—then it becomes clearer how India might again move forward by traveling further down the road of democracy, freedom, and dignity for all.



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About the author

Alex Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok is the Bartley J. Madden chair in economics at George Mason University and the co-founder with Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution University, an online education platform. He is currently a resident senior fellow with the IDFC Institute.