Book Review: Inglorious Empire

For the entirety of the 19th century, and leading up to the mid 20th century, the British Empire had the world in its iron colonial grip, pillaging, murdering, and subjugating in order to amass scores of wealth and comfort for the Englishman. The most egregious of these inflictions however, across the entirety of the Empire, was probably dealt to South Asia. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliament member, gives a fantastic explanation as to why he holds this position in his book “Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India”. This work is a truly stunning riposte to any would-be apologists for the Empire, and is an excellently presented example of the horror, disappointment, and chaos which came as a result of mankind’s foray into colonialism.

A map of the religions of the British Raj, used as a baseline during partition when determining the borders of Pakistan and India. Image Credit: John George Bartholomew.

As a Pakistani-American, the contents of this book struck a particularly relevant chord. Tharoor points out that many people alive today have tangible recollections of a time before Pakistan, before India, when the subcontinent was unified under the Union Jack. I myself have grown up around these people. As I’m sure is the case with many others, I vividly recall hearing about the days of the British from my own grandfather, a member of history’s largest migration which occured as a result of the partition. The sheer recency of British rule helps point out that the Empire and all it’s failings are not yet a thing of the past, as Pakistan and India only gained independence in 1947. The repercussions of many colonial policies that were present back then still plague the region. The Raj was a police state in every sense of the term, and the British administration of the Raj seemed to specialize in developing ways to rob the subcontinent of its legendary historical wealth. Many colonial apologists who seek to reconcile British rule point out the infrastructural developments of railroads, post offices, etc. as revolutionary improvements, yet these people, as Tharoor points out, fail to account for what this infrastructure was used for: Streamlining the looting of Pakistan and India. Tharoor states passionately in the opening of his book, that the extent to which the subcontinent was robbed and crippled by the insatiable greed of colonialists can never be adequately recompensed.

Indian Muslims migrating en masse to the newly formed country of Pakistan (1947). Image Credit: Bettman Archive.

British administrators over South Asian lands were, objectively, not the right people for the job. This fact makes itself very clear when looking at the marginalization and manipulation of the Native community’s social dynamics. Tharoor claims that the British carefully designed divisions between the inhabitants of the subcontinent. They set Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists at odds with eachother, when previously, under the Muslim Mughal Empire that dominated the subcontinent, religious diversity was welcomed, with the top minds from each culture being invited to disseminate their knowledge amongst one another in spirited debates and academic rapport. According to Tharoor, the British even inflamed the divisions within the ancient Hindu caste system, creating a society that vigorously shunned those that were born into a lower caste as opposed to the pre-existing, more harmonious Hindus of India who were much more tolerant of these differences in socioeconomic status. These divisions are painfully prominent to this day, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all fighting multiple wars with one another despite being quite literally cut from the same cloth. The conflicts that have arisen since, such as the illegal Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir, the several Indo-Pak wars that saw the largest tank battles since World War II, and the persecution of minorities in India today have been engineered to a serious degree, unintentionally or otherwise, by British overseers. Tharoor says that if South Asia was allowed to come into the modern world naturally, without interference as Europe was, it would probably be tied as the world’s most powerful and influential society.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, and Mahatma Gandhi have a passionate discussion (1944). Image Credit: Kulwant Roy

Overall, it is quite important to be able to look back on the tragedies and wrongdoings of history because they provide painful yet valuable lessons as we look toward the future. In this book, Shashi Tharoor makes an excellent case against colonial and imperial policy, powered by emotionally significant and statistically powerful arguments that can not be refuted. I myself am optimistic about the future of our planet, but again, we must never forget where we, as humans, have gone in our lust for power. I seriously enjoyed Inglorious Empire, and I would recommend it to anyone else who values a deeper understanding of human history.

 

 

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