Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was right on the exploitative nature of British rule, only he is not the first Indian to say so or to study it. Indeed, a large corpus of work exists, written by forgotten thinkers and scholars, on the adversities of colonial rule
The exploitative nature of British rule in India had exercised a number of minds. A large corpus of work exists, written by forgotten thinkers and scholars, long before Indians were actually allowed the ‘honour’ of discussing, in the exalted halls of Oxbridgian vintage, the adversities of colonial rule. That these were never seriously examined, post-independence, by Indian historians and social scientists, or were not deemed fit enough to be included into our educational framework for aiding in the evolution of a true and detailed understanding of the nature and spirit of colonialism, is another debate altogether.
For some strange reasons, the political entity which largely spearheaded the Indian struggle for political freedom chose to handover, post-freedom, the writing of Indian history, to those who only understood India and chose to interpret and see her under the mono-chromatic lenses of class conflict, counter-revolution and a framework of historiography that never allowed the examination of these positions and thrived instead, on a routine of habit of deconstructing anything that had not been approved or stamped in the brain control chambers of Marxist thought.
It is an interesting exercise to look at some of these works and realise the amount of detailed work on the adversities of colonial rule that had been churned out in the heyday of the empire and much long before the advent of the viral world of youtubes and social media, which, for all their positive dimensions, can at times pass-off shallow bombast for serious thought.
Apart from his path-breaking volumes on 18th century India, social scientist and historian Dharampal had, for example, collected through an indefatigable and largely unaided effort, over 10,000 pages of documents on the onset of British rule in India, the gradual decomposition and dismantling of Indian systems and structures under that rule and the acutely exploitative nature of that phase which saw India sink into the depth of despair. A variety of primary documents provide a detailed insight into the workings of the mind of the empire and of how, through a well-calculated “rodent process”, it gradually gnawed away at the civilisational foundations of India.
Dharampal’s archival compilations, among other things, contain the little known but revealing correspondences between a colonel of the East India Company, Alexander Walker (1764-1831), whose career in India spanned about four decades and James Mill, historian of British India who never visited India. Walker, a close observer and chronicler of Indian society in the 18th century frankly discussed, in his letters and notebooks, the draining nature of British rule. A few samples from his letters may evoke an initial interest in those who may perhaps someday undertake a serious study of these findings.
Writing to James Mill on April 8, 1820, Alexander Walker lamented the rapacious nature of British rule in India, “It has been computed that Nader Shah carried out of India 30 million sterling; this was besides all that was consumed, destroyed and plundered; but the spoils which we have brought from India probably exceed a hundred fold all that our predecessors have taken by fits and starts. It would be a curious calculation to ascertain the amount of wealth which has been brought by the Company and individuals from India. … The drains which we have made from India have been less violent than the exactions of other conquerors, but they have perhaps in their operations proved more destructive and deadly to the people. We have emptied gradually, but the pitcher has gone constantly to the well.”
RC Dutt’s two volume exhaustive study, The Economic History of India — Under Early British Rule in two volumes which examines not only India’s economic exploitation but also the chronic famines that wracked her apart under British rule, is another work that deserves mainstreaming. Describing the result of just 25 years of British rule, Dutt observed that “The poverty of the Indian population at the present day is unparalleled in any civilised country; the famines which have desolated India within the last quarter of the 19th century are unexampled in their extent and intensity in the history of ancient or modern times. By a moderate calculation, the famines of 1877 and 1878, of 1889 and 1892, of 1897 and 1900, have carried off 15 millions of people. The population of a faired-sized European country has been swept away from India within 25 years.”
The narrowing down of India’s wealth under British rule was what Dutt attempted to prove through his monumental effort. “It is, unfortunately, a fact which no well-informed Indian official will ignore,” argued Dutt in his statistics and figures laden study, that, “in many ways, the sources of national wealth in India have been narrowed under British rule. India in the 18th century was a great manufacturing as well as a great agricultural country, and the products of the Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and of Europe.
It is, unfortunately, true that the East Indian Company and the British Parliament, following the selfish commercial policy of a 100 years ago, discouraged Indian manufacturers in the early years of British rule in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England. Their fixed policy, pursued during the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, was to make India subservient to the industries of Great Britain, and to make the Indian people grow raw produce only, in order to supply material for the looms and manufactories of Great Britain.”
Works such as Sakharam Ganesh Deushkar’s classic Desher Katha — written and proscribed during the Swadeshi movement and which looks at the economic exploitation of India, or Pandit Sunderlal’s monumental two volume Bharat Mein Angrezi Raj a scathing indictment of the British rule, or Will Durant’s 1930 study of India’s economic degeneration under the British, The Case for India, or more recently Madhusree Mukerjee’s path-breaking work on the Bengal famine of 1943, Churchill’s Secret War: the British Empire and the Ravaging of India, could have all found place in our studies or courses on the struggle for freedom.
So disturbed was Durant to see India’s plight that he decided to put aside all other studies for a while in order to highlight her pitiable and exploited condition before the world. “I saw such things in India”, wrote Durant, “as made me feel that study and writing were frivolous things in the presence of a people — one-fifth of the human race — suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery.”
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was right on the exploitative nature of British rule, only he is not the first Indian to say so or to study it. Moreover, it would have done India and Indian thought a greater service if Mr Tharoor, instead of talking of it today could have, in his days in the Indian Education Ministry, arranged for these diverse works by various authors, many of them “non-historians” under the Marxian rubric, to be weaved into our educational curriculum. That, more than any other peroration, would have been a first step towards the actual study of India’s devilish spoliation as a colony.