How Britain made India poor

Shashi Tharoor


At the beginning of the 18th century India's share of the world economy was 23%, as large as that of all of Europe put together. By the time we won independence, it had dropped to less than 4%. 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.

Britain's Industrial Revolution was built on the de-industrialization of India, the destruction of Indian textiles and their replacement by manufacturing in England, using Indian raw material and exporting the finished products back to India and to the rest of the world. The handloom weavers of Bengal had produced and exported some of the world's best fabrics. Fine muslins, some as light as "woven air".


Britain's response was to cut off the thumbs of Bengali weavers, break their looms and impose duties and tariffs on Indian cloth, while flooding India and the world with low quality fabric from the new satanic steam mills of Britain.

Bengali weavers became beggars, Indian manufacturing collapsed; the population of Dhaka, which was once the great centre of muslin production, fell by 90%. So instead of a great exporter of finished products, India became an importer of British products, while its share of world exports fell from 27% to 2%. 

Colonialists like Robert Clive bought their "rotten boroughs" in England with the proceeds of their loot in India while publicly marveling at their own self-restraint in not stealing even more than they did. And the British had the audacity to call him "Clive of India", as if he belonged to the country, when all he really did was to ensure that much of the country belonged to him.

By the end of the 19th century, India was Britain's biggest cash-cow, the world's biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants, all at India's own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.

As Britain ruthlessly exploited India, between 15 and 29 million Indians died tragically unnecessary deaths from starvation. The last large scale famine to take place in India was under British rule; none has taken place since. Free democracies don't let their people starve to death. Some four million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to the already well supplied British soldiers and European stockpiles.

"The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks", Churchill argued. When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the Prime Minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill's response was to ask "why hasn't Gandhi died yet?"

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretence that it was enlightened despotism, conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill's inhumane conduct in 1943 gave the lie to this myth. But it had been battered for two centuries already: British imperialism had triumphed not just by conquest and deception on a grand scale but by blowing rebels to bits from the mouths of cannons, massacring unarmed protestors at Jallianwallah Bagh and upholding iniquity thru institutionalized racism. Whereas as late as the 1940s it was possible for a black African to say with pride, "moi, je suis François", no Indian in the colonial era was ever allowed to feel British; he was always a subject, never a citizen.

What are the arguments FOR British colonialism benefiting the subcontinent? It is often claimed that the British bequeathed India its political unity. But India had enjoyed cultural and geographical unity throughout the ages, going back to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. In the 7th century AD Adi Shankara travelled from Kerala to Kashmir and from Dwarka to Puri, establishing his temples everywhere. Throughout India the yearning for political unity existed. Warriors and kings tried to dominate the entire subcontinent, usually unsuccessfully.

Eventually with modern transport and communications, national unity would have been fulfilled without colonial rule. Just as in the 19th century it happened in equally fragmented Italy. And today what political unity can India celebrate when the horrors of Partition (1 million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed) were the direct result of deliberate British policies of "divide and rule" that fomented religious antagonisms? 

The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to as benefit of British rule, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries have built railways without having to be colonized to do so. Nor were the railways laid to serve the Indian public. They were intended to help the British get around, and above all to carry Indian raw materials to the ports to be shipped to Britain. The movement of people was incidental except when it served colonial interests; no effort was made to ensure that supply matched demand for mass transport.

In fact the Indian Railways were a big British colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed extravagant returns on capital, paid for by Indian taxes. Thanks to British rapacity, a mile of Indian railways cost double that of a mile in Canada and Australia.

It was a splendid racket for the British, who made all the profits, controlled the technology and supplied all the equipment, which meant once again that the benefits went out of India. It was a scheme described at the time as "private enterprise at public risk". Private British enterprise, public Indian risk.

The English language comes next on the credit list. It too was not a deliberate gift but an instrument of colonialism. As Macaulay explained the purpose of English education: "We must do our best to form a class who will act as interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect." The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. That we seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation was to our credit.

The day we defeated the absurd claim that India benefited more than it lost under British colonialism; Scottish voters rejected the proposal to leave the United Kingdom. What is often forgotten is that it was the loaves and fishes available to Scots from the exploits of the East India Company that cemented the Union between England and Scotland.

Before 1707 the Scots had tried to colonize various parts of the world, but all had failed. After Union with England, a disproportionate number of Scots was employed in the Indian colonial enterprise, as soldiers, sailors, merchants, agents and employees. Earnings from colonialism in India pulled Scotland out of poverty and helped make it prosperous. With India gone, no wonder the bonds are loosening...

*Being texts from a debate held on the floor of the Chambers of British Supreme Court, by Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Foreign Minister, November 2014.