In our schools and colleges, we are told how British rule was an unmitigated disaster, how our imperial rulers looted us. It is time we examined these claims.
The theory of imperial loot is predicated upon the belief that things were much better before and after the British than those prevailing during the Raj. But is the belief grounded in reality? Let’s focus on facts.
It is best to begin with eyewitness accounts. There is an excellent series called The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts 18th-19th Centuries. The volume is edited by Meenakshi Jain, a Delhi University academic. Francisco Pelsaert, the merchant with Dutch East India Company who stayed at Agra during 1620-27, wrote about “the utter subjection and poverty of the common people—poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling place of bitter woe.”
For the workman, wrote Pelsaert, there were two scourges, the first of which pertained to low wages. The second scourge comprised the governor, nobles, the Diwan, the Kotwal, the Bakshi, and other royal officers.
The condition of peasants was worse. Another Dutch, Wollebrand de Jongh Geleynssen wrote about Gujarat in 1629 that “the peasants are more oppressed than formerly [and] frequently abscond”. Fray Sebastien Manrique (1590-1669), a Portuguese missionary and traveller, also made similar observations: “[The peasants have] no possessions or assets from which to pay…[and are] beaten unmercifully and maltreated… They are carried off, attached to heavy iron chains, to various markets and fairs [to be sold], with their poor, unhappy wives behind them carrying their small children in their arms, all crying and lamenting their evil plight.”
Jerome Xavier (1549-1617), the Spanish Jesuit missionary in the courts of Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Jahangir (1569-1627), wrote about the conditions in Kashmir in 1597 that “it is very much uncultivated and even depopulated from the time this King [Akbar] took it and governs it through his captains, who tyrannize over it…and bleed the people by the their extortions…”
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89), a French gem merchant and traveller, also painted a grim picture of the countryside: “I should say en passant that the peasants have for their sole garment a scrap of cloth to cover those parts which natural modesty requires should be concealed; and they are reduced to great poverty, because if the governors become aware that they possess any property, they seize it straightway by right or by force.”
Francois Bernier (1620-88), a French physician who stayed in India for 12 years (1658-70), was doctor to Dara Shikoh and then Aurangzeb. He also described the dilapidated dwellings of the poor, their miserable lives, the glaring disparities between a small number of rich people and the indigent masses, and the rapacity of the Mughal state. The tax collector was universally detested, for he grabbed half of what the farmer produced and any belonging of traders he could lay his hands on. While merchants and shopkeepers hid their wealth, it was the peasant who bore the brunt of the predatory state.
It is important to note here that the accounts of foreigners are generally regarded accurate by prominent historians. Even Satish Chandra, a Marxist who has done much to downplay the bigotry and barbarity of Muslim rulers, had to accept: “Foreign travellers who visited India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries present a picture of a small group in the ruling class living a life of great ostentation and luxury, in sharp contrast to the miserable condition of the masses—the peasants, the artisans and the domestic attendants. Indigenous sources do not disagree; they often dwell on the luxurious life of the upper classes, and occasionally refer to the privations of the ordinary people” (The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol I, 1200-1750).
Chandra’s Marxist fellow historian Irfan Habib also wrote: “To astute observers like Bernier, the Indian peasants, laboureurs, appeared an undifferentiated mass, all living miserably under a blind and increasing oppression.”
The oppression and exploitation knew no bounds. As Abraham Eraly wrote in The Mughal World: Life in India’s Last Golden Age: “Mughal society was starkly unequal and pitilessly exploitative. In the reign of Shah Jahan…at least about a quarter of the gross national product of the Mughal empire was appropriated by less than 700 persons out of a population of over 120 million!” Yes of GNP, not revenue!
Pre-British rulers were clearly leeches. Have post-British ones been any better? Let’s have look at some figures and facts. In December 2012, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington-based research and advocacy group, came out with a study which said that the Indian economy lost $123 billion in black money between 2001 and 2010. In 2010 alone, the money flown out of India was in the region of $1.6 billion, almost half the amount that the country spent that year on the entire social sector including healthcare and education. In June 2016, GFI estimated an outflow of $505 billion, or about Rs 34 lakh crore, black money from India. It needs to be mentioned here that GFI estimates are just about the money sent abroad; it is anybody’s guess the amount spent in India.
Going by the number and the magnitude of scandals—and both the number and the magnitude are rising—GFI numbers don’t appear to be heavily exaggerated. In recent years, some of the frauds were of astronomical proportions; the 2G spectrum allocation (Rs 1.7 lakh crore), the coal mining scam (Rs 1.86 lakh crore), and the 2010 Commonwealth Games scandal (Rs 70,000 crore) are some of the biggest ones. But these are some of the biggest ones, the ones which the media covered extensively and which had political repercussions.
There have also been flood scams—that is, the money supposed to be spent on flood victims getting pocketed by politicians, bureaucrats, and others. If the poorest and the disaster-affected are not spared by the venal, others can scarcely expect a better treatment.
All these have happened in the presence of a plethora of bodies and mechanisms to check corruption—the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, parliamentary oversight, an activist judiciary, a vigilant media, myriad good Samaritans, et al. All these institutions are the products of the system that the British or the Indians educated by the British created. Imagine what would have Indian rulers done in the absence of any oversight!
In other words, facts don’t support the nationalist theory that Indians would have been spared exploitation had the British not ruled India.