Misrepresentations by Shashi Tharoor and Others to Malign the British Empire

  I had a very positive impression of British rule in India because it had brought us into the 20th century. In my engineering and MBA programs in India, we had exclusively used text books and publications authored by American and British authors in English. So the English language imparted to Indians by the British has been a tremendous boon for us. 

But the debate held at the Oxford University Union on the motion "This House Believes Britain Does Owe Reparations" challenged my thinking. The video of one of the debaters, Shashi Tharoor’s speech went viral and garnered over 3.9 million views. All the videos put together garnered more than 4.5 million views. Even India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented, saying, “Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.”  

To cash in on the popularity of his speech, Tharoor recently published a book titled An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. On hearing Tharoor's speech in the debate, my suspicions were aroused because he had reached erroneous conclusions based on the statistics he had cited to advance his argument for reparations. But I was absolutely flabbergasted at his lies and boorish arguments in his book. In addition to his misrepresentations already mentioned elsewhere on this site, here is a further sample described in "Britain Does Not Owe Reparations to Its Former Colonies":

Cutting off of Weavers' Thumbs and Smashing Their Looms

Tharoor said in the debate: The British came and smashed the handloom weavers’ thumbs, broke their looms, and imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth, and India became an importer of British fabrics.  

Tharoor offered no proof that the British cut off the thumbs of the weavers and broke their looms. Professor John M. McKenzie, a speaker against the motion, chief editor of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, answered this accusation in the debate with these words: “I am not sure of Mr. Tharoor’s source for the cutting off of weavers’ thumbs. It is not something I have heard of. What can certainly be said is that this was never official policy. If it happened at all, it must have been a localized, unofficial, and illegal activity. And if this practice had been publicized, it would have produced a storm of protest in Britain.”  

The only story about cutting off of weavers’ thumbs that I turned up, is a local legend in the small town of Mahua Dabar in Basti district of Uttar Pradesh state, which states that some of the town’s settlers in the 1830s were Bengali textile workers whose thumbs had been chopped off by the British, rendering them unable to work. Most historians believe it to be a myth. It is difficult to believe that such incidents took place in the 1830s, because export of Indian textiles had been in decline since the 1790s. What purpose would the cutting off of weavers’ thumbs have served? By that time, the courts were well established and a lawsuit certainly would have been brought against the perpetrators. The British Parliament would have heard of it and punished the culprits as well.  

There is another problem with the story. Cutting off of weavers’ thumbs could not have prevented them from passing on their knowledge and skills to their children and future generations. They could easily have guided the future generations to revive the industry. Shashi Tharoor is engaged in repeating sensational myths that lack any credibility.  

Railways Built to Carry Raw Materials from the Hinterland to Ports

Tharoor said “railways were intended to help the British get around, and above all to carry Indian raw materials from the hinterland 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.” 

That is a wretched, miserable lie. The British had laid down about 83 percent of the total railway track that exists today by the time they left India. Surely, not all of that track was meant for transportation of raw materials from the hinterland to the ports.

Nalinaksha Sanyal in her book Development of Indian Railways provides statistics on passenger growth in India on page 272. Passenger traffic on the Indian railways grew from 210 million in 1903 to 458 million in 1913–1914, to 606 million in 1924–1925. On page 43 she states, “The Indian proved to be an ‘inveterate traveler’, contrary to the estimate of the Court of Directors”  

Did the British Destroy India's High Civilization    

 Shashi Tharoor quotes Will Durant from his book The Case for India: “The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company [The British East India Company] utterly without scruple or principle…The civilization that was destroyed by British guns had lasted for 15 centuries, producing saints like Budha to Ramakrishna and Gandhi…This evidently was not a minor civilization produced by an inferior people. It ranks with the highest civilizations of history, and some like Keyserling, would place it at the head and summit of all.” 

William Digby, a British civil servant who served in India, catalogs the social evils that the British eradicated from India: 

I. Murder of Parents: (a) By suttee; (b) By exposure on the banks of rivers; (c) By burial alive. Case in Jodhpur territory, 1860. 

II. Murder of Children: (a) By dedication to the Granges, to be devoured by crocodiles; (b) By Rajput infanticide. West of India, Panjab, East of India. 

III. Human Sacrifices: (a) Temple Sacrifices; (b) By wild tribes—Meriahs of the Khonds. 

IV. Suicide: (a) Crushing by idol cars [sic.; may be carts]; (b) Devotees drowning themselves in rivers; (c) Devotees casting themselves from precipices; (d) Leaping into wells—widows; (e) By Traga. [In this practice, a person who wants to force a ruler or high official to do something, may first take some of his caste with him and hold a dharna [a sit-in] at the ruler’s premises, to harass him into compliance. If that fails, then the person’s family members may start cutting off their limbs one by one and performing progressively worse deeds to force compliance, which may ultimately lead to death by self-immolation or other means. The threat is that the people who die will come back as demonic spirits to haunt and harass the person and his family, destroying them.] 

V. Voluntary Torment: (a) By hook-swinging; (b) By thigh-piercing; (c) By tongue extraction; (d) By falling on knives. 

VI. Involuntary Torment: (a) Barbarous executions; (b) Mutilation of criminals; (c) Extraction of evidence by torment; (d) Bloody and injurious ordeals; (e) Cutting off the noses of women. 

VII. Slavery: (a) Hereditary predial (sic) slavery; (b) Domestic slavery; (c) Importation of slaves from Africa. 

VIII. Extortion: (a) By Dharna; (b) By Traga. 

IX. Support of Caste by Law: (a) Exclusion of low castes from offices; (b) Exemption of high castes from appearing to give evidence; (c) Disparagement of low castes; (d) Exclusion of widows from legal marriage.   

This is what Durant, Digby, and Tharoor call a high civilization—even superior to Christianity, even placing it at the head and summit of all. Running Christianity into the ground is a hallmark of a German masquerader (a person of German ancestry living in other countries and assuming the common name of citizens of that country and working in Germany's interests). Digby writes, “Why is India, spiritually, so little recognized, and the world, as a consequence, deprived of the advantage which the recognition would bring? Chiefly, I think, because of the existence of the Societies for the Conversion of the Heathen to Christianity.”  This is a clear indication that Digby and Durant were German masqueraders engaged in maligning  the British Empire.

Such are Durrant, Digby and Tharoor’s ideas of India’s high civilization that the British destroyed. Then add the Pindaris and Thuggee to the mix that the British utterly rooted out of India, and one can understand that Durant and Tharoor’s agenda is to tarnish the accomplishments of the British Empire in bringing civilization to its former colonies with lies.

More Examples of Fabricated Statistics 

1)  Tharoor writes on p.22 of An Era of Darkness, “Within thirty years [presumably from 1757 after Plassey to 1787] land revenue collected just in Bengal went up from £817,553 to £2.680,000. The extortion might have been partly excused if the taxes were being returned to the cultivators in the form of public goods or services, but the taxes were sent off to the British government in London.”  

Warren Hastings was governor-general during the latter part of that period. Tharoor does not cite his sources. But in 1772, the East India Company faced a financial crisis. About twenty important financial houses went bankrupt in London and Edinburgh, and for some time, the East India Company stopped making payments to the British government in Britain. On August 7, 1772, the company asked for postponement of customs duties in the amount of £203,619. On September 24, the company announced that a dividend would not be paid for a six-month period. On October 28, the company indicated the impossibility of making its annual payment of £400,000 to the government. The Bank of England refused the company a loan. The total accumulated deficit of the East India Company totaled £1,948,549. 

The Regulating Act of 1773 bailed out the East India Company with a loan of £1.4 million. In 1772, the Marathas were threatening the Rohillas, which required British intervention. In 1774, there was war with the Rohillas. In 1775, the English had to intervene in the Maratha succession struggles, and the First Anglo-Maratha War began. That conflict continued until 1782 and ended with the Treaty of Salbai. At the same time, the Second Anglo-Mysore war was being fought. Hastings had to use some high-handed methods to raise funds to finance those wars. It is difficult to understand how all [or any] of the land revenues in Bengal could have been sent to England as Tharoor claims. Since he does not cite any sources, he misrepresents as it suits him. 

2) Here is another outright fabrication on p. 25 that Tharoor borrows from Durant: “In 1922, for instance, 64% of the total revenue of the Government of India was devoted to paying for British Indian troops dispatched abroad. No other army in the world, as Durant observed at the time, consumed so large a proportion of public revenues.”  

Tharoor provides a list of foreign deployments of Indian troops, but he does not list any deployment in 1922. There was none because World War I had ended in 1918. He and Durant just make up figures. Most of their statements and statistics simply cannot be trusted. 

3) Tharoor presents another classic example of concocted statistics on p. 254 when he writes, “From 1900 to 1947 the rate of growth of the Indian economy was below 1 percent, while population grew steadily at well over 3.5 percent, leavened only by high levels of infant and child mortality that shrank the net rate of population growth to the equivalent of economic growth [1 percent], leaving a net growth rate near zero.”  

Besides the fuzzy math, Tharoor is implying that between 1900 and 1947, the child mortality rate in India was 71.4 percent, because twenty-five out of thirty-five babies died. Check any statistics for any part of India; the infant mortality rate was nowhere near 71.4 percent anywhere in India. 

4) In another example of how Tharoor uses concocted statistics to sensationalize, he quotes Digby on p. 26, “The salary of Secretary of State for India in 1901, paid for by Indian taxes, was equivalent to the average annual income of 90,000 Indians.” Sensational, indeed. But he does not provide the actual salary figure for the secretary of state. 

According to Factsheet M6 Members Series, dated September 2010, from the UK House of Commons Information Office, between 1831 and 1964, a minister’s salary remained fixed at £5,000. Using Digby’s figure for the exchange rate of Rs 15 to the pound, the annual income of an Indian works out to Rs 0.833 (less than a rupee) if the Secretary of State for India’s salary was 90,000 times the average annual income of Indians. That is the average annual income for an Indian in 1900. Digby and Tharoor’s data simply make no sense.  

This is just a tiny sample of distortions of the truth, fabricated statistics and outright lies told by Tharoor, the American historian Will Durant and British civil servant William Digby to malign the British Empire provided in this book.

Did the British Loot India?


Tharoor wrote on p. 26, “In 1901, William Digby calculated the net amount extracted by the economic drain in the nineteenth century, with remarkable (and inevitably, bitterly contested) precision at £4,187,922,732."

Digby actually calculated the total drain of wealth from India by Britain from 1805 to 1900 of £4,910,922,732 (or rounded to £5 billion) for ninety-five years. 

In my book I explain how the British actually benefited India much more. With their irrigation projects alone, the British added an estimated benefit of £104 billion to India’s economy from 1847 to 1947. Tharoor and Digby thus again fail to honestly assess the economic benefits of British rule to India.