Indian history speaks volumes of how British rule in India was marked by almost two centuries of unrestrained loot and plunder. In this context, Shashi Tharoor, a Kerela based Indian politician has even authored two books. He highlighted how this period was a ‘dark era’ in India’s history.
There is no doubt that there was immense wealth drained from the country. Strike a conversation with any modern ‘patriot’, and he or she will regale you with how the railways were built primarily for the purpose of taking commodities out of the country. And they are not wrong in their ‘single track’ outlook. But is there some part of the story being deliberately omitted to suit one’s argument?
Weren’t the Indians also looting their fellowmen?
Allow me to elaborate. If one is to read about the goings on prior to the arrival of the British, the plight of the ordinary person, or the peasant, was no different. He or she was at the mercy of a heavy-handed landlord or zamindar. The landlord usually took as much as half of all agricultural produce. To place into perspective, what has always intrigued me is the fact that the royal courts and zamindars, who preceded the British, were equally brutal capitalists too.
Indian maharajas, meanwhile, were an extremely wealthy lot. They built remarkable palaces for themselves, indulged in shikaar or hunting, and when automobiles came around, they amassed enviable collections.
India was, in fact, one of Rolls Royce’s most important markets. Several maharajas even ordered custom made models for themselves. There were still others who would buy several at once. At its core, this was wealth being drained out of the country by Indians themselves.
The Nizam of Hyderabad, meanwhile, was considered the richest person in the world for a brief while. Now let’s take a step further back and examine how big Hyderabad was. The city was possibly home to no more than a quarter million people in the early 20th century. How does the leader of a tiny princely state become so wealthy, well before technology-based companies made multimillionaires?
The answer, I would think, was disproportionate amassing of wealth, at the cost of depriving the masses.
The same was true in Rajasthan too. On the one hand, the royal families led a life of sheer opulence. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the ordinary peasant lived hand to mouth. When the British ruled India, they followed the same approach.
The European colonisers, however, seem to be the only ones who receive all the flak. And according to Shashi Tharoor, India is owed reparations by the British for the ‘darkness’ they cast on the subcontinent. But the Indians who followed the same approach have been let off easy. Don’t these royal courts owe reparations to the people they claimed to govern?
The blurring of lines
Several of India’s freedom fighters were also of zamindari lineage. Their fathers and forefathers controlled vast tracts of land and were also actively involved with the British in trade and commerce. Tagore’s family, for example, were shipping magnates. Their ships would even travel up the Brahmaputra and dock at Bishnauth Chariali in Assam. These vessels would ferry tea to Calcutta, from where it would be exported to the UK. Interestingly, this is precisely the kind of British ‘loot’ that Tharoor refers too.
As I see it, there is a dichotomy here — a blurring of lines between what is referred to as looting, and what was part and parcel of regular trade and commerce. Did Tharoor conveniently leave out the back stories?
British bashing is common place. It is almost viewed as a prerequisite to prove one’s unwavering devotion to the motherland. If one so much as broaches the subject of the positive remnants of the Raj, one is looked at with suspicion.
Personally, I am on the fence. I can relate to the viewpoint that the British looted India. They were mercenaries, no doubt. However, when I look at Assam, where I trace my recent ancestry to, its core economic pillars have remained oil and tea for the past 150 years. Both sectors were established by the British. In the seven decades since independence, there are no other economic pillars,as formidable as oil and tea, for this northeast Indian state.
Were British atrocities only concentrated in certain areas?
I have actively quizzed old timers of any British atrocities they recall. The bulk of my questions were directed at my grandmother, who is of 1929 vintage. Her memory is still razor sharp and I am captive audience for her stories. I have asked her on several occasions, “Dadi, do you recall facing the brunt of any ill from the British?”
There is not one negative story. The only remotely discriminating episode she shared was the need for locals to close their umbrellas when walking past a sahib’s bungalow in the tea gardens. Dadi said she was astonished when her grandfather asked her to close her umbrella when they were walking past one such bungalow on a hot summer’s day, in the late 1930s.
When I dug a little deeper, this hint of discrimination had a positive outcome. She said she made up her mind then that she would, one day, stay in one of those sahib bungalows.
To this end, Dadi was successful. Her son–my father–went on to pursue a career in tea. Looking back on my growing up years in the tea gardens, discriminatory practices carried on even when the brown sahibs took over. So much for British bashing.