Congress MP and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor is known for his oratorical dexterity. And, when it comes to the topic of colonisation, he has always given it back to the Britishers, detailing the economic and cultural toll their centuries-old rule took on India, which was once considered the richest country in the world.
At Oxford Union, Tharoor had called for Britain to pay reparations to India and other former colonies for its decades of imperial rule. Of late, while attending the Melbourne Writers Festivals 2017, the Thiruvananthapuram MP was assertive on his contentions.
When asked whether India has not benefited from the presence of British, especially while inculcating skills in the field of engineering, infrastructure and education, Tharoor was, once again, at his humorous and statistical best, demolishing the concept point by point, in an impassioned speech.
From his articulate speech at Oxford in 2015, which went viral, to the latest Australian news debate, Tharoor has vehemently argued that British industrialisation was at the cost of India's de-industrialisation. Here are a few gems.
According to a report prepared by Professor Angus Maddison at the University of Groningen, India's GDP in 1700 AD was 90,750 million international dollars, above China (82,800 mn dollar). His report says the ruthless exploitation under British colonial rule completely devastated India's economy. “India's population was subject to frequent famines, had one of the world's lowest life expectancies, suffered from pervasive malnutrition and was largely illiterate.” The figures Tharoor cited in his speech might be from a report of British economist Angus Maddison who had estimated that Indian GDP went from 27 per cent in 1700 AD (compared to Europe's share of 23 per cent) to 3 per cent in 1950.
The late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed a spate of famines in the subcontinent, with each of them claiming millions of lives. Noted British writer William Digby estimated that over 2,88,25,000 people died in British India during famines from 1854 to 1901. According to medical journal Lancet , 19 million people died of extreme poverty between 1896 and 1900, with almost all the provinces from Uttar Pradesh to Madras suffering from starvation.
There was, however, a steady increase in literacy rate during the British rule, thanks to new schools and colleges they set up. The literacy rate rose from 3.2 per cent in 1881 to 7.2 per cent in 1931 and 12.2 per cent in 1947. As per the 2011 census, over 74 per cent Indians are literate.
Colin Clark, a British economist, has pointed out that during 1925-34, India and China had the lowest per capita incomes in the world. In 2016, while launching his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Tharoor said: "The history of British era is needed to be retold as a large number of youngsters of 21st century still think that former British prime minister Winston Churchill was some sort of hero of freedom or that people died in famines in India because of reasons endemic to India, without realising that 35 million people died as a result of deliberate British policy."
Durant, in his book The Case for India, notes that there were more schools in India before the advent of the civilised British. "The British conquest of India was the destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principal, overrunning with fire, sword, bribery, murder a country temporarily disordered and helpless," he writes.
Of course, all the Indian institutes of technology were set up after independence. India's first IIT was set up in Kharagpur in 1951. Today, there are 23 IITs in the country.
However, the British had set up a few engineering colleges in the subcontinent. The first such college was set up at Roorkee in Uttar Pradesh in 1847. Thereafter, three engineering colleges were established in each of the presidencies—Calcutta College of Civil Engineering in Bengal Presidency in 1856, College of Engineering at Pune in Bombay Presidency in 1958 and College of Engineering at Guindy in Madras Presidency in 1958.
Durant in his The Case for India claims: "India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or Asia, producing textile, metal works, jewellery, precious stones, pottery and architecture. She had great merchants, businessmen, ship building—nearly every kind of manufacture known to the civilized world was already in India."
Despite being a relatively urbanised and commercialised nation in the 17th century, industrialisation, which had brought in a technological revolution in Britian and many other European countries, eluded India. Industrialisation came to the subcontinent only in the 20th century. The de-industrialisation of the country during British Raj forced people to increasingly depend on agriculture. Between 1901 and 1941, the percentage of population dependent on agriculture increased from 63.7 per cent to 70 per cent.
Tharoor further says that in the name of free trade, the British came in and destroyed the free trade that had made India a leading exporter in textiles. “The British soldiers smashed the looms, so people couldn't practise their craft. They imposed punitive duties and taxes on the exports on Indian textiles while lifting duties on import of British clothes. And they achieved the craft of market at the point of a gun. This is not exactly free trade,” he said in his Melbourne speech.