Shashi Tharoor: Inglorious Empire

I was surprised by Shashi Tharoor’s criticism of India’s parliamentary democracy in his book, Inglorious Empire. He himself is a member of parliament, elected to the Lok Sabha (the Lower House) from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala on a Congress party ticket. But Tharoor, who had been a minister of state when the Congress was in power, says the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy is unsuitable for India. He advocates a presidential system.

Tharoor comments on Indian democracy while analysing the legacy of British rule in India. “It is remarkable that when the Indian nationalists, victorious in their freedom struggle, sat down to write a constitution for independent India, they created a system based entirely on British parliamentary democracy,” he writes.

Inglorious Empire is the painful story of how the British bled India dry and looked down on Indians. Millions of Indians starved to death during famines that the British did little to alleviate. They adopted a “divide and rule” policy, setting Muslims against Hindus, encouraging Jinnah and his Muslim League to press for separation from India. So India had to be partitioned at independence when a part of the sub-continent became the new Muslim nation of Pakistan.

Tharoor recounts how India, which had been far richer than Britain, was impoverished by the British, who grew wealthy at India’s expense:

In 1600 when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8 per cent of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23 per cent. By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10 per cent of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine.

Bengal’s handloom weavers

He recalls how the East India Company destroyed Bengal’s handloom industry:

For centuries the handloom weavers of Bengal had produced some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially the fine muslins, light as “woven air”, that were coveted by European dressmakers. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, Bengal’s textiles were still being exported to Egypt, Turkey and Persia in the west, and to Java, China and Japan in the east, along well-established trade routes, as well as to Europe… But when the British took power, everything changed.

In power, the British were, in a word, ruthless. They stopped paying for textiles and silk in pounds brought from Britain, preferring to pay from revenues extracted from Bengal, and pushing prices still lower. They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a Company monopoly. As British manufacturing grew, they went further. Indian textiles were remarkably cheap — so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and, according to at least one contemporary account (as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief) breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft.


Tharoor writes about the terrible famines during British rule:

The fatality figures are horrifying: from 1770 to 1900, 25 million Indians are estimated to have died in famines.. The famines of the twentieth century probably took the total well over 35 million…

The British tended to base their refusal to intervene in famines with adequate governmental measures on a combination of three sets of considerations: free trade principles (do not interfere with market forces), Malthusian doctrine (growth in population beyond the ability of the land to sustain it would inevitably lead to deaths, thereby restoring the “correct” level of population) and financial prudence (don’t spend money we haven’t budgeted for).

Writing about the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, during World War II, four years before India became independent, Tharoor notes the heinous role played by the then British prime minister Winston Churchill, who let Indians starve to death:

Nearly four million Bengalis starved to death in the 1943 famine. Nothing can excuse the odious behaviour of Winston Churchill, who deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere. “The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious” than that of “sturdy Greeks”, he argued.

The British were in India only for the money, from what Tharoor writes. They sent off their children to schools in England and went back home themselves after service in India. While the British mixed with the Indians in the 18th century when there were rich and powerful Indian potentates, they held aloof in the 19th century when they became the paramount power in the land. They felt racially superior. Tharoor recalls:

The British horror of diluting their own, idealised English identity, to which their colonial subjects were not allowed to aspire. In this respect they were quite unlike the French, whose policy of cultural assimilation went so far that little African and Asian children could be found dutifully reciting “not ancetres les Gaulois (Our ancestors the Gauls)” in their schoolrooms in Senegal or Vietnam. Indians were always subjects, never citizens; throughout the days of Empire, no Indian could have presumed to say “I am British” the way a French African was encouraged to say “Je suis francais”.

Brahmin ascendancy

Tharoor maintains British rule benefited the Brahmins, the highest caste of the Hindus. He writes:

In the late eighteenth century, when the East India Company was establishing its stranglehold on India and its senior officials included some with a genuine interest in understanding the country, the British began to study the shastras, or Sanskrit treatises covering law and much else besides, in order to develop a set of legal principles to help them adjudicate disputes in Indian civil society. Governor-General Warren Hastings hired eleven pandits (Brahmin scholars) to create the Code of Gentoo Laws or the Ordinations of the Pandits. As the British could not read or interpret the ancient Sanskrit texts, they asked their Brahmin advisers to create the code based on religious Indian texts and their knowledge of Indian customs… the pandits took advantage of the assignment to favour their own caste, by interpreting and even creating sacrosanct “customs” that in fact had no shastric authority. This served to magnify the caste hierarchy in the country…

The Brahmins enjoyed British patronage over other groups and began considering themselves above all other castes, whom the British, internalising Brahmin prejudice, thought of as lower castes.

The result was a remarkable preponderance of Brahmins in positions of importance in the British Raj. Brahmins, who were no more than a tenth of the population, occupied over 90 per cent of the positions available to Indians in government service, except in the most menial ones; they dominated the professions open to Indians, especially lawyering and medicine; and they entered journalism and academia, so it was their voices that were heard loudest as the voices of Indian opinion.


Indian lawyers, doctors, journalists and academics received an English education but were not accorded the same status and position as their British counterparts in India. Tharoor writes:

By the late nineteenth century, English education had indeed created a class of Anglophone Indians well-versed in the literature, philosophy and political ideas of the British; but… when they began to clamour for rights, and access to positions that they believed their education had qualified them for, they met with stubborn resistance.

“Racial discrimination was pervasive in the ICS (Indian Civil Service),” says Tharoor. Even if Indians passed the ICS examination and entered the civil service, they were discriminated against. The Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian ICS officer, inducted in 1863, could retire only as a judge in the provincial Maharashtra town of Satara after 30 years’ service.

The second Indian ICS officer, ”Surendra Nath Banerjea was initially barred from the service he had entered in 1969, on allegations of misrepresenting his age,” Tharoor recalls. “He appealed this successfully and was posted to a minor position in Sylhet, but not forgiven, and was dismissed from the service altogether for a minor infraction (an inadvertent procedural irregularity in requesting accommodation in the civil lines equal to that given to Britons)… He went on to become a distinguished academician, journalist, editor, orator (one English journalist hailed him as the finest orator he had heard in English since Gladstone) and twice president of the Indian National Congress.”

Tharoor adds: “It was only when World War I drove thousands of young British men to officer duty in the trenches rather than service in the Empire that the British grudgingly realised the need to recruit more Indians, and the numbers of Indians in the ICS slowly inched upwards in the last three decades of the Raj.”

Parliamentary democracy

Indians wanted independence but emulated Britain, adopting the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. Tharoor writes:

I am far from convinced that the British system is suited to India, The parliamentary system we have adopted involves the British perversity of electing a legislature to form an executive: this has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only to wield (or influence) executive power. It has produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance… It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of individual interests rather than the vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. It is time for a change.

Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of its major weaknesses. India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas they increasingly promote drift and indecision. India must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power. The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it could do; it was from the start unsuited to Indian conditions and is primarily responsible for many of the nation’s principal political ills. This is why I have repeatedly advocated a presidential system for India not just for the federal government in New Delhi, but a system of directly elected chief executives at the levels of villages, towns, states and the centre, elected for fixed terms and accountable to voters every five years, rather than to the caprices of legislatures and the shifting majorities of municipal councils or village panchayats (councils).

The parliamentary system devised in Britain — a small island nation with electorates initially of a few thousand voters per MP, and even today fewer than 100,000 voters per constituency — assumes a number of conditions which simply do not exist in India, It requires the existence of clearly defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next, whereas in India a party is all too often a label of convenience which a politician adopts and discards as frequently as a Bollywood film star changes costume. The principal parties, whether “national” or otherwise, are fuzzily vague about their beliefs: every party’s “ideology” is one variant or another of centrist populism, derived to a greater or lesser degree from the Nehruvian socialism of the Congress.

The English language and Wodehouse

Although Tharoor denounces British colonial rule, he loves the English language: “I delighted in the language on its own terms, as a pan-Indian language today, and not as a symbol of colonial oppression.”

The English humorist PG Wodehouse, whom he admires, was loved by the Indian nationalists, too, he notes:

If anything, Wodehouse was one British writer whom Indian nationalists could admire without fear of political incorrectness. Saroj Mukherji, nee Katju, the daughter of a prominent Indian nationalist politician, remembers introducing Lord Mountbatten to the works of Wodehouse in 1948; it was typical that the symbol of the British empire had not read the “quintessentially English” Wodehouse that the Indian freedom fighter had.

Wodehouse’s (characters) existed in a never-never land that was almost as unreal to his English readers as to his Indian ones. Indian readers were able to enjoy Wodehouse free of the anxiety of allegiance; for all its droll particularities, the world he created, from London’s Drones Club to the village of Matcham Scratchings, was a world of the imagination, to which Indians required no visa.

But they did need a passport, and that was the English language. English was undoubtedly Britain’s most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and educated Indians, a famously polyglot people, rapidly learned and delighted in it — both for itself, and as a means to various ends. These ends were both political (for Indians turned the language of the imperialists into the language of nationalism) and pleasurable (for the language granted access to a wider world of ideas and entertainments).

Tharoor explains: “I am grateful, in other words, for the joys the English language has imparted to me, but not for the exploitation, distortion and deracination that accompanied its acquisition by my countrymen.”

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