Conspicuous by its Absence: “Inglorious Empire” by Shashi Tharoor

NOTE: It appears that Shashi Tharoor has made mid-April 2018 headlines regarding his wife’s death back in January 2014 and his recent arrest regarding such. The fact that I am writing a review of his book INGLORIOUS EMPIRE at the same time is nothing more than happenstance, although it does make one wonder at the Universe’s sense of humour.

INGLORIOUS EMPIRE (subtitled “What the British Did to India”) is a book that has long been wanting in the sphere of post-British colonialist non-fiction. And you’ll see why I say “British” as opposed to mere anti-colonialism later. In page after page, INGLORIOUS EMPIRE excoriates the British for their deliberate neglect and plundering of India during two centuries of corporate and later imperial domination. The text is heart-rending and infuriating in its examples and copious references and lays bare the unmistakable hubris and arrogance of many British as they plundered and pillaged a great power with utter greed. On p 175 of INGLORIOUS EMPIRE, Tharoor quotes the start of Alex von Tunzelmann’s book INDIAN SUMMER: The Secret History of the End of an Empire and it nicely illustrates the tone of his book:

In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an underdeveloped, semi-fedual realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. (p 175, INGLORIOUS EMPIRE)

This is a book that everyone should read, if only to get a sense of what all those brown- and black-skinned people around the world are getting so hot under the collar about.


But, but, but.

Let me build up to my main criticism while listing the lesser ones first.

A secret admiration for the United States. As a child of colonialism myself (Portuguese and British), my antennae are quite sensitive to covert “passes” given to certain nations and Tharoor does this throughout the book. Not content with having British atrocities described by Indians in their own words, he somehow feels he must also bring in white North American voices, just to give more punch to his prose. As if Indian voices by themselves aren’t powerful enough; surely they should be? Is there really a need to highlight the moral bankruptcy of a has-been empire by using the words of people from a presently declining one? Can Tharoor not see the irony in this? He does give the United States a slight slap on the wrist by mentioning Iraq (and the Desert Storm Adventure) near the end of the book, but goes no further.

The deification of Mahatma Ghandi. Tharoor is a member of the Congress Party. I get it. But Ghandi also gets bouquets with no brickbats, and what muted criticism there is for a man who lauded Hitler and let his wife die due to principles that he himself was willing to give up when his own life was threatened (use of antibiotics, in case you were wondering) is swept aside as nothing more than the (ha! ha!) eccentricities of a great man. I need to delve into my military history readings and quote Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the WWII ace, on this one. Boyington memorably said, “Show me a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum”, and I can’t think of a single instance when this hasn’t turned out to be true. Tharoor is eager (and correct) to expose the calumny of Winston Churchill, but does not apply an equal standard to Ghandi, and this ends up looking like nothing more than dishonesty.

The deification of the Indian people. I recently read a personally uncomfortable book. It was entitled THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF MALAYA: 1941-1945 (Paul H Kratoska, 1997). Despite my wanting to believe that the people of Malaya (my people) banded together to collectively and heroically resist the Japanese during WWII, it is a fact of life that there were not only collaborators but others who thieved and murdered in/discriminately in the environment of chaos that typified wartime in south-east Asia. This from a personal recollection:

When news of the [house] looting reached the ears of the Japanese, they announced that anyone caught with stolen goods would be beheaded. The culprits across the road who had seen too many heads stuck on poles knew that the Japanese meant what they said … The thieves could hardly return the things to their rightful owners. If they did not get beaten-up [sic] for their pains, the irate owners would certainly report them to the Japanese … So the only way out was to dispose of the things as best they could, and the cheapest, fastest and most effective way was to burn the lot.

When we saw what was being done…we did not dare do anything. We could have told the Japanese, but then, who wanted to be responsible for the life and death of neighbours, even if they were thieves. So we stayed on our side of the road, gnashing our teeth in frustration, watching in silent rage as our…[belongings]…were stacked in a huge pile and set alight. (p 95, THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF MALAYA)

There is a critical, previously unspoken truth in this vignette. A truth that shows that human situations can rarely be so neatly divided in two: this side, the good guys; that side, the villains. And yet that’s what Tharoor attempts. The Indians are always highly principled, honest, long-suffering and respectful, and Tharoor demeans his own thesis by insisting on this demarcation throughout. His descriptions do not portray real people suffering under real repression, but mythical saints willing to always turn the other cheek due to their innate and superior goodness. If one wishes to talk about the cruelty of the British, then it is honesty to also talk about the cruelty of the Indians during the same time period instead of devolving to convenient bromides: Persians bad; British bad; Pakistanis bad (then again, maybe that’s what Tharoor liked about Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar, with whom he allegedly had an affair); on and on, down through the millennia.

There can be no true dialogue without absolute honesty, and Tharoor cravenly sidesteps this opportunity for a concrete step towards real rapprochement by insisting that the Indians were only ever victims throughout history and never at any time perpetrators. He even labels the time of the Raj the “British Colonial Holocaust” (p 150), so it’s obvious whose model he’s basing his pure-as-the-driven-snow narrative on.

Colonialism is dead; long live colonialism. On page 245, Tharoor tells us quite categorically that:

The colonial era is over.

Really? Let’s look up Mr. Dictionary, shall we? Chambers (13th Edition) tells me that colonialism is defined as:

the policy or practice of obtaining, or maintaining hold over, colonies [further defined as: a name vaguely applied to a state’s dependencies overseas or abroad; a military settlement planted in subject territory], esp. with the purpose of exploiting them.

I wonder if you approached the inhabitants of, say, Haiti, whether they’d agree that the colonial era is over? How about Tibet? How about—and let me blow your mind a little here—Europe? Because if Europe isn’t a collection of USian colonies, barely able to voice a squeak of protest without getting cuffed around the ear and threatened with Balkanisation, I don’t know what is. Speaking of “military settlements”, the United States has more than 800 around the world! (And really, shouldn’t they have left Japan by now? Seriously?) France has nine. And despite “India’s civilizational impulse throughout history…towards greatness” (hoo boy; p 220), India has four. So, “[t]he colonial era is over”? Not so much.

But all these are small irritations, mere pinpricks next to the Really Big One. The one glaring hole in Tharoor’s narrative. And it has nothing to do with history.

Imagine that someone breaks into your home and steals your most prized possessions. It’s only natural that having found the thief and tracked down your goods, you would first want to know what the thief did with your belongings, would you not? Did they sell them to buy drugs? Use them? Trade them in for something else? Break them up for scrap? This is the obvious question that I kept hoping that Tharoor would finish his book with.

What happened to the modern-day equivalent of trillions of pounds that the British took out of India?

Beyond a weak “who benefited from British imperial rule? The answer is evidently Britain itself” (p 230, INGLORIOUS EMPIRE), there’s nothing but vacuum. For such an intelligent thinker and talented writer as Tharoor, this is a wholesale cop-out. One example from his own book is sufficient to illustrate my point.

Let’s talk textiles.

On page 6 of INGLORIOUS EMPIRE, Tharoor points out that:

Indian textiles were remarkably cheap—so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated.

He emphasises the point on page 8 by adding that “the lower wages of Indian workers would always have given them a comparative advantage over their European competitors on a level playing field.” And yet we are led to believe that in 1870 alone, a billion yards of British textiles were imported into India, the equivalent of “more than three yards a year for every single Indian, man, woman or child” (p 7). In fact:

[B]ales of cheap British fabric—cheaper even than poorly paid Bengali artisans could make—flooded the Indian market from the new steam mills of Britain [my emphasis] (p 7, INGLORIOUS EMPIRE)

So British textiles, after paying for the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution plusthe wages of the British workers plus the upkeep of the new technologies plus the costs of transportation plus wholesaler and other margins plus a guaranteed rate of return to the small cadre of wealthy British investors, were still cheaper than Bengali pauper weavers could make? Does that sound like the normal state of affairs from a rich, higher-cost-of-living country to you?

It’s all very well to quote GDP figures and point out that the GDP of England went up in tandem with the GDP of India going down during the colonial era, but GDP is nothing but one figure. It lacks nuance and so can hide a multitude of sins. What do I mean by this? Tharoor himself gives the game away on p 26 of INGLORIOUS EMPIRE, but has to quote someone else to do it:

The British empire in India was the creation of merchants and it was still at heart a commercial enterprise, which had to operate at profit … Behind the epaulettes and the jingle of harness, the levees and the balls at Government House, lay the hard calculus of the City of London. [my emphasis]

and he never returns to that small sliver of illumination ever again, not for the next two hundred and fifty plus pages.

If I have called Tharoor dishonest before, then he becomes downright culpable on this point. As much a child of post-colonialism as I am, and as much as I dislike Anglo culture in general as I do, there is one hard and immutable truth that INGLORIOUS EMPIRE glosses over to such an extent that this single omission is enough to damn the entire book for me.

Just as the people of India suffered under British rule, so did the people of Britain.

The average Briton saw no benefit from the ransacking of India. They didn’t go from a semi-feudal state as von Tunzelmann put it to, say, Luxembourg in the space of two centuries. They could have.

England, despite Ireland, despite its “empire”, did absolutely nothing for its own white-skinned citizens, who still laboured and fell ill and died, discarded, exploited, transported, wheezing, orphaned, starving, bleeding and impoverished, gathering rags for pennies, suffocating in coal dust, getting crushed to death in the mills, being excluded from the Commons, shovelling dog shit for use by the leather tanners of London (LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR, Henry Mayhew, thanks to the Terrierman’s Daily Dose for the reference, or you can just remember what you were taught during History class).

Yes of course all this unadulterated magnificence, well-documented by many writers of the time, awaited the average Briton, because that’s exactly how you’d expect the beneficiaries of colonial plundering to live their lives, wouldn’t you? No? All that messy, pathetic and tortured dying here, there and everywhere doesn’t quite fit your image of what life was like for plunderers living high off the backs of their slaves?


So if the slave nations of the British Empire didn’t benefit from British colonialism and the average Briton him/herself sure as shit didn’t benefit from British colonialism, then—my dear reader—who did? What exactly did those thieves do with your precious ransacked possessions? Wouldn’t you like to know?

Tharoor knows and he’s not talking. I know he knows and a skim of his booklist proves it. At his website, a look at the Non-Fiction books he’s written will give you:

  • An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India
  • India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time
  • India: The Future Is Now
  • Shadows Across The Playing Field: 60 Years Of India-Pakistan Cricket
  • The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India – the Emerging 21st-Century Power
  • Nehru: The Invention of India
  • Kerala: God’s Own Country
  • India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond
  • The Five Dollar Smile And Other Stories
  • Reasons of State

All pretty self-explanatory, you’d think. Except for one thing. According to his bio, as helpfully supplied by publisher Penguin Books (aka Random Penguin…sorry, that’s a publisher’s in-joke):

Shashi Tharoor served for twenty-nine years at the UN [United Nations], culminating as Under-Secretary General.

And he was named “a Global Leader of Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum in Davos. Of course he was; I don’t doubt it for a second, because that’s exactly what every progressive person yearns for—a self-serving title from a group of ultra-rich unaccountables who live it up in Switzerland every year while insisting that all they’re interested in is what’s good for the planet. Oh, and their own unimaginably extensive bank accounts. But it’s really about our ecologically suffering globe and the poor grandmothers and skeletal children ekeing out a living collecting trash in far too many cities around the world; they care about all of that just so much. Their personal limo drivers, helicopter pilots, airplane mechanics, assistants, chefs, maids, hangers-on (I’m looking at you, Paulo Coelho) and bodyguards have told me so.

You’d think that with those credentials and considering his three decades of experience in the very halls of worldwide diplomacy, Tharoor would have something to say about his old job, wouldn’t you? Aren’t twenty-nine years walking the corridors of the United Nations enough to give someone, especially a natural writer like Shashi Tharoor, some ideas on…oh, I don’t know…how the United Nations operates? How billionaires think? Who influences who in the international zoo? His own bio touts his UN stint:

Following his long career at the United Nations, which included key responsibilities in peace-keeping after the Cold War and serving as senior adviser to the Secretary-General, in addition to his role as Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information…

Did you get that? Peace-keeping? Senior adviser [sic]? (Oh yeah, loved all the Americanised spelling in your book, Shashi, just in case I didn’t mention it before. Big thumbs up.) Communications? Public Information? Yet not one “searing”, “insightful”, “blistering” book on a job that encompassed more than half of his working life? No insights at all into how the world really works from such a consummate intellectual and political analyst? How about that.

Why am I beating this dead cow? And I use that metaphor specifically because I believe that what Must Not Be Touched Upon is sacred to certain interests. If you have been paying any attention at all to global politics over the past couple of decades, you would have been as perplexed as I about certain, shall we say, self-limiting moves on the parts of our elected representatives.

It is not a conspiracy theory but a fact of life that politicians get bribed. Major corporate interests (e.g. Apple, Facebook, Alphabet and its octopus child, Google) trump sovereign states. Rich unelected people (yes, even ex-Nazi collaborators, eh George [Soros]?) get to have private conversations with heads of state, and not one word of what transpires ever gets recorded. Monied interests threaten underdeveloped countries then move on to threaten developed countries, albeit in nicer restaurants, bit-champing armament deployers with aerial bombing support on iPhone speed dial. Ah, don’t you love the sweet, sweet smell of democracy? So many other countries don’t have it, doncha know?

Where did all that money go? All those trillions?

Start digging into that piece of dirt and perhaps all of us—all of different colours and yet every single one of us subjugated by people we didn’t elect and who don’t have our interests at stake; all of us will start uncovering the real truth of fraud, murder, appropriation and the contemptuous and wholesale disregard of human life (us “useless eaters”) by a small, tightly-woven group of out-of-touch arrogant elites who truly are above the law and yet able to so expertly manipulate it to our detriment.

Granted, what Tharoor gives us is a creative and delicious hors d’oeuvres, but that’s all it is. An intriguing, shallowly satisfying petite bouche meant to distract us from the blood-splattered global-sized abbatoir beyond. His easily digestible titbit is not to be sniffed at—it contains a narrative that demands signal boosting—but it will pale into insignificance once a book describing the real state of affairs, in all its gluttonous, horrifying, rapacious, stomach-churning detail gets thrown into the world’s collective faces.

Believe me, I’m waiting for someone brave enough to write that book, but I already know it won’t be Shashi Tharoor.

(Saw you ignoring repeated questions on your arrest on a The Times of India video. Very honest; very classy. Good luck dodging prison, old chap…er, sorry…pal.)

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