Respected American historian and philosopher, Will Durant, in his book The Case for India (1930) had this to say about India, when the British arrived and set about systematically plundering its wealth, deliberately de-industrializing Indian economy and impoverishing it by looting its resources:
The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and “legal” plunder which has now  gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years, and goes on at this moment while in our secure comfort we write and read. When the British came, India was politically weak, and economically prosperous. The Mogul dynasty, which had so stimulated art, science and literature in India, came to the usual fate of monarchies in 1658, when Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal, was succeeded by his fanatical son, Aurangzeb. For almost fifty years this Puritanic emperor misgoverned India; when he died his realm fell to pieces, and petty princes set up their rule in numberless divided and “sovereign” states. It was a simple matter for a group of English buccaneers, armed with the latest European artillery and morals, to defeat the bows and arrows, the elephants and primitive musketry of the rajahs, and bring one Hindu province after another under the control of the British East India Company. Those who have seen the unspeakable poverty and physiological weakness of the Hindus to-day will hardly believe that it was the wealth of eighteenth century India which attracted the commercial pirates of England and France [emphasis added].
According to another empathetic view, American Unitarian Minister, J. T. Sunderland, noted what India had to offer and the main reason Europeans were drawn to its shores in India in Bondage: Her Right to Freedom and a Place Among the Great Nations (1929). Unfortunately, India was ill-prepared to repel successive waves to invaders. Its last, the British, found a treasure trove and set about meticulously plundering and transferring India’s wealth to the U.K. He observed:
This wealth was created by the Hindus’ vast and varied industries. Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilized world-nearly every kind of creation of Man’s brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty- had long, long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia. Her textile goods- the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk-were famous over the civilized world; so were her exquisite jewelry and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, color and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal-iron, steel, silver and gold.
She had great architecture – equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest ship-building nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilized countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came. It was this wealth that the East India Company proposed to appropriate [emphasis added].
To say East India Company wanted to ‘appropriate’ is much too nuanced: the British colonialists/invaders were nothing if not ruthless bigots, racists and invaders/looters/thieves of the worst kind. Sadly, they left the country, as they did nearly all their former colonies, in the hands of local elites turned liberation leaders, mostly Cambridge or Oxford educated, who continued to plunder the wealth of their nations; picking up from where the Britishers had left off, resulting in most countries, to this day, unable to realise the dreams of their independence struggles. India, too, remained an insular, backward-looking, socialist polity for over four decades before it was able to unshackle itself from its colonial past. English-educated Congress Party functionaries and elites, paid scant regard to the stated aims for the Party’s existence, and ruled unhindered for much of the past 70 years. But they only managed to enrich India’s elites whilst immiserating its masses; thus, further worsening the conditions wilfully imposed on the poor by the British – they suffered terribly during an utterly vicious and despotic colonial regime. The British did not practice democracy, so how could they have bequeathed democracy to India? An example of how lies are concocted by history’s winners.
In a collection of essays published by Columbia University Press in 2018, renowned Indian Economist and Professor Emeritus of JNU, Utsa Patnaik, for the first time attempted to make a comprehensive estimate of India’s wealth stolen by the British – not counting the religious artefacts, works of art, literature, diamonds and museum pieces, etc. illegally shipped to Britain. She estimated that, over roughly 200 years, the East India Company and the British Raj were responsible for siphoning off some £9.2 trillion (equivalent to $45 trillion) taking into account of the fact that the exchange rate was $4.8 per pound sterling throughout much of the colonial period.
Indian writer and congressman, Shashi Tharoor’s book An Era of Darkness (2016) should be compulsory reading for all Indians. In it, he meticulously encapsulates the key events which forced the English to quit India, provides a snapshot of how the looters impoverished Indians, and debunks many of the myths about British Raj’s contribution to modern India. He also quotes above writers but makes the salient point that, in 1700, India accounted for 23% of the global economy, which was even higher – up to 27% – under the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It is hard to believe but when the British departed, it had dropped to a mere 3%! India was governed to enrich the British and impoverish the Indians. And, they want credit for it?
The greater crime against a large section of humanity by a most racist, greedy, barbaric, amoral and ill-mannered Empire the world had seen, was its concoction of a version of history that continues to exalt the misdeeds of its criminals and villains, who either self-exonerated themselves or were officially recognized, pardoned or honored by their foreign Kings or Queens, equally complicit by simply declaring sovereignty over lands they had no right to. As if that was not enough, their arrogance and hubris knew no bounds: a two-bit island in the channel become ‘Great Britain’. To add insult to injury, the now ‘Not-So-Great Britain’, after quitting India, continued to undermine India and its global interests at every opportunity. It found solace in denigrating India and its people, in global fora, in media, in western products of mimetic art and literature that have not gone unnoticed. Empowered by the western dominance, Britain hang on the coattail of Uncle Sam, and aided by the hegemony of western media, the denigration of India continued unabated for much of last seventy years (their feigned sympathy and apologies aside).
To quote from Shashi Tharoor again, a few more statistics speak for themselves: when British arrived uninvited, India was a prosperous country with a standard of living better than that of any in Europe; it was ‘the leader in of Asiatic civilization and the undisputed centre of light in the Asiatic world. Japan was nowhere.’ India was stable, peace-loving and civilized for thousands of years when the successive waves of invaders who came, were too busy killing each other – hardly ‘an inferior race’ that needed governing from barbarians. What it did not possess where superior weapons of mass destruction – the main reason it was conquered. Thankfully, Indians have forever reversed this possibility from taking place again. It did so under sustained pressure from western countries, and without any external help. India’s dubious friends and chief destroyer turned a blind eye to Israel but insisted India was not entitlement to possess nuclear weapons.
It is a staggering realization that by the time British left, India controlled just 3% of global wealth, literacy rate was reduced to 16% (and female literacy rate of 8%), the life expectancy of its citizens a mere 27 years, with hardly any infrastructure (other than railways to cart resources to UK from the ports), and some 90% of Indians living below the poverty line. Quite an achievement for an arrogant, barbaric cohort of thieves and looters who boasted they knew best how to govern ‘inferior races’, backed by their warped Christian fundamentalist zeal to ‘civilize’ the world! Who gave them this right? They still do what they have always done but their methods have become more sophisticated.
Two other events are worth mentioning here: according to Tharoor (2016) during WW1 the estimated total Indian contribution was 146.2 million pounds sterling (or 50 billion pounds sterling in todays money). India supplied 1,215,318 personnel for war efforts in Europe, Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, North Africa and East Africa. The known deaths stand at 78,187 with about 101,439 casualties and missing in action. But India’s reward was yet more tyranny: the discredited and fraudulent Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918, the oppressive Rowlatt Act which was introduced in 1919, and the ultimate British malfeasance that culminated in Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April 1919 of uninformed/unarmed Indians assembled for a prayer meeting.
Corresponding figures for WW2 are not available but one can get a sense of what it would have cost the Indian people to pay for, support and participate in its own oppressor’s second war, in which 2,581,726 personnel participated, making it the largest volunteer army in the world. India’s contribution far exceeded the combined input from all white settler colonies of the Empire. Some 87,000 died and civilian casualties alone stood at 1,500,000. There are few monuments to the fallen Indian soldiers and, until recently, there was no official recognition of India’s tremendous contribution. In terms of recent research, mostly by Indian scholars and writers, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that British funded their two wars with India’s wealth. Is it any wonder they did not want to leave?
In my youth, I was told Indians were traitors because they were less than enthusiastic in supporting the British war efforts (even though our forebears were not free or British citizens, and nor was it their war!). The distorted history we were taught glorified white men’s wars, their victories and their bravery whilst we were made to feel ashamed and inadequate. The truth and (his)tory are often the first casualties of any war.
My own research suggests that the British deliberately undermined India’s enormous contribution because they did not want to share their victory and they felt humiliated at losing their ‘cash cow’. They did everything to destroy India by partitioning it into three and sowing the seeds of sectarian divide. British officials and Churchill pontificated that India would fall apart in a few years but it defied all odds. India has emerged as a successful, stable, vibrant, secular democracy despite the enormous challenges it faced, and continues to face surrounded by hostile neighbours. Whether it would have realized its full potential by now, had Congress Party governed sensibly, remains a matter of conjecture but it is headed in the right direction.
As outsiders and as part of the Indian diaspora, we want to see a strong, progressive India that leads and is capable of making a greater contribution to global peace through its economic, strategic and social development objectives. Its cultural heritage is precious. It is something worth preserving at a time of rapid decline in western culture, its traditions, and all that it asserts to be sacrosanct but is incapable of protecting.
For far too long Indian history was outsourced to its invaders and colonizers. It is time for Indian historian to reexamine the historicity of India’s past, jettison off its colonizers’ lies, omissions and misstatements and rewrite its true history. History is much too important to be left in the hands of one’s oppressors. The pusillanimity of Indian scholars is major obstacle to redressing the wrongs of the past. They must eviscerate past errors deliberately inserted in our history by Indologists and ill-informed westerners to demean our heritage, and demand immediate corrective action from academics, based only on credible research. Whoever said that ‘those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it’ got it exactly right.
Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney based writer and commentator. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not represent the views of the publisher(s) – Sydney, 19 February 2019