The British Empire Library

The Making of British India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise

by Kartar Lalvani

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Gordon Bridger (Development Economist, Central African Federation, UN, ODA, Crown Agents, 1957-97)
For those who think that Britain's imperial record has been badly traduced, maligned and misinformed the acquisition of this book for 20-25 pounds will be a good investment.

Dr Lalvani, OBE, DSc, founder and Chairman of one of Britain's most successful biotec companies and an Indian who settled in Britain five decades ago, has produced a very readable and hugely informed book which in his own words "seeks to recognize the positive side of the imperial coin and to set the record straight". He was spurred to write this book on how British enterprise transformed India because in his many decades of residence in Britain, "I have not encountered a single native Brit who has stated any form of belief that the British benefited India".

He starts by seeking to give a perspective to the performance of the East India Company which is widely believed to have looted India. He points out that by the time the EIC came, in 1757, to control the richest part of what had been the Mughal Empire it had already been comprehensively looted by the most savage invasions ever known; by Persians and then three Afghan invasions. A French traveller records of this area "poverty, plundering and anarchy as result of the perfidy of the nobles". "Delhi", says Lalvani, "the richest city in the world, was ransacked and emptied of all treasures and antiquities, while 20,000 Indian soldiers were killed and a far greater number made slaves".

It is against this background that the actions of the EIC need to be assessed. While the EIC did make enormous profits they laid the basis for a central state and a unified country, and when they entered this long devastated city of Delhi in 1803 it was restored - as was also the Taj Mahal. They then abolished the "iniquitous tax" on non-Muslims. They also enacted important social reforms, eradicating thuggee, prohibiting infanticide and banning suttee (burning widows on the husband's funeral pyre). "After more than 2,000 years during which not one Indian ruler intervened - it took foreigners, at great personal risk, a commercial enterprise with a huge amount to lose, to make punishable by law a centuries-old practice", from which they had nothing to gain financially.

The practices of the EIC were not immune from Parliamentary scrutiny as Warren Hastings found out. His trial demonstrated that Britain was the only imperial power which had a Parliament that could and did call to account the excesses of colonial administrators. Parliament intervened because EIC business "became increasingly rampant and unethical". Revoking its monopoly in 1813 did not lead to outright Government control until the Indian Mutiny (or "War of Independence" as Dr. Lalvani does not name it). Despite EIC shortcomings, "It revolutionized Indian life and its development of an infrastructure was responsible for creating millions of jobs".

Dr. Lalvani is keen to emphasise the importance of investment in railways, canals, shipping, ports, power, bridges, mail services, roads, industries and the huge contribution that enterprising British engineers and other professionals made to the emergence of India as a significant economic power. Indeed over half the book is an account of how British investment and enterprise developed Indian infrastructure and he records the names and achievements of these long undeservedly forgotten professionals and heroes.

He does not overlook the many educational institutions, historians, archaeologists, surveyors, botanists who built schools, established national parks and who recognized and indeed discovered India's once great history, and restored much of its forgotten great cultural heritage. Lord Curzon is praised for his support for the research by scholars into India's past. Curzon said "There are no countries with such precious arts, antiquities and monuments as India." It was an archaeologist Sir John Marshall who discovered the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro cities, established in the third and fourth millennia BC, which were found to be more advanced than any cultures of their time.

Among Britain's great institutional legacies, according to Dr. Lalvani, was the Indian Civil Service which was properly established after the Mutiny, and whose "unselfish and ceaseless toil" enabled fewer than 1,000 to govern a country of 500 million people. He goes onto make a quite remarkable statement: "The ICS was by any measure the most efficient bureaucracy in world history". High praise indeed but difficult for anyone to substantiate. However it will thrill those still around to read such praise and will no doubt please their descendants. My own experience, not as ambitious, but relevant, having worked in many countries since the end of the war, has been that British colonial administration possessed a competence and integrity unmatched by any other public service in the world in the 20th century.

The other institutions which merit Dr Lalvani's admiration include the judiciary, which abolished many of the unpleasant aspects of Sharia law and left a wholly secular legal system based on the Magna Carta and is the basis for Indian law to this day. The Constitution has copied the British system of governance. He also makes the interesting point that the Indian army and police were staffed by recruits from all castes and cultures without fear of favour and left behind a formidable army.

There is little or nothing in the book which is critical of British rule although the author is not naive enough or dishonest enough to claim British rule was perfect. Its detractors will no doubt be keen to point this out. He does not deny that there are many histories which are highly critical of British rule, especially of the EIC. Nevertheless in the post-war world there has been such a negative picture of Britain's colonial history, that this book, written by one of the products of the Empire, is an important step to help restore a more balanced, fairer view of Britain's colonial rule.

Let me finish with a quote from the last sentence from Dr Lalvani's introduction: "What would India be like today if the British had stayed at home?"

British Empire Book
Kartar Lalvani
Bloomsbury Publishing Pic