British Empire in India: Historians and journalists debate

Historians in the News
tags: British Empire, India



A stellar cast of speakers assembled in London to debate the motion ‘The Indian sub-continent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism.’ All the speakers were in swashbuckling mode under strict instructions from the chair, Keith Vaz, MP, to stick to time. Mr. Vaz, who is well used to keeping order in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs, warned that speakers risked the humiliation of being cut off in mid-sentence if they exceeded their allotted 5 minutes. There were sparks and glints as speakers reveled in verbal swordplay. The debate took place in the imposing Supreme Court, the highest appellate court in the United Kingdom.

First to present the case for the motion was Nelofar Bakhtyar, Newsweek (Pakistan), who chose to focus on the long-term agricultural benefits to undivided Punjab from the elaborate canal irrigation network set up by the British. She made the point that Punjab's strong economy today, on both sides of the border, owed its prosperity to the British Empire. She said the textile industry, the largest in Pakistan, was dependent on the canal network. 

Arguing against the motion, celebrated historian, critic and broadcaster, William Dalrymple, pointed out that India and China were far richer and more powerful long before the arrival of the British in India. He said Britain's main contribution was to plunder and destroy India's economic base and institutions. Britain's colonization of India, he declared, began and ended with the gun, through violence. He cited the case of Robert Clive who single-handedly looted Bengal bringing back his ill-gotten wealth to Britain. 

Martin Bell, ex-BBC correspondent and former MP, spoke next to defend the British contribution to India by presenting scenarios if the British had not conquered India. He posed a series of questions: Would India prefer to have Shakespeare or no Shakespeare, be with or without cricket? With or without the transport system set up by the British? The Judiciary? Education? With a triumphant flourish he pointed to his debating opponent, Shashi Tharoor, as the embodiment of the best of colonial heritage, a man who spoke English better than the English and an outstanding product of an education system introduced by the British...




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