Britain’s plunder of India

india Famine 1876

‘The British empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen.’

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India 1899–1905

• Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India

by Shashi Tharoor, Hurst and Company 2017, 296pp, £20

Shashi Tharoor has written a searing indictment of the British occupation of India, demonstrating how the colony was looted of its wealth, its industry destroyed, its development obstructed, its people impoverished and subjected to starvation and famine. It takes the form of a polemic against latter-day apologists for empire such as Niall Ferguson whom Tharoor cites as arguing that Britain’s empire promoted ‘the optimal allocation of labour, capital and goods in the organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century... Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that Empire enhanced global welfare.’ As Tharoor shows, this ‘optimal allocation’ of resources ‘meant, to its colonial victims, landlessness, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, disease, transportation and servitude’ (p215).

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India: The struggle for independence – part 2: 1931-1947



15 August 1997 marked the 50th anniversary of the formal independence of the Indian sub-continent. In part one ROBERT CLOUGH outlined the course of the struggle to end British colonial rule up to 1931. In this issue he explains how British imperialism was able to ensure that the struggle ended with a neo-colonial solution, where political independence masked a continuing domination by imperialist rule, and how the conduct of the Labour Party was critical to the outcome.

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India: The struggle for independence – part 1: to 1931



15 August 1997 marks the 50th anniversary of the formal independence of the Indian sub-continent. ROBERT CLOUGH outlines the course of the struggle to end British colonial rule, how British imperialism was able to ensure that it ended with a neo-colonial solution, where political independence masked a continuing domination by imperialist rule, and how the Labour Party would be critical in achieving this aim.

India was truly 'the jewel in the crown' of British imperialism. From 1757, when Clive’s victory over the Mogul of India started the plunder of Bengal, India was a source of untold wealth, exceeding even that generated by the slave trade. The results were no less destructive: the imposition of capitalist relations on the Indian rural economy led to regular famines during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whilst Bengal itself was reduced from conditions of development equivalent to those in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century to the abject poverty that characterises the Bangladesh of today. If the slave trade had created a mercantile power out of British capitalism, it was the plunder of Bengal that provided the money capital to advance the Industrial Revolution.

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India: Modi visits Britain

In mid-November Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a three-day visit to the UK, meeting heads of UK corporations to urge them to invest more in India, holding talks with David Cameron and making a speech to 60,000 supporters in Wembley stadium. This was the 29th country Modi had visited in the eighteen months since he was elected prime minister following a landslide victory for his party BJP, thanks to an astute and well-funded media campaign and disillusionment over rising inflation and slow growth under the previous Congress government. Modi had been banned from visiting the UK and US and other countries in the wake of his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat state, where he had been chief minister when over 1,200 Muslims were killed. Thousands of Indian demonstrators protested against the visit outside Downing Street and other venues, and the slogan ‘Modi not welcome’ was projected on the Houses of Parliament.

The recent UK visit comes in the midst of increased communal polarisation and attacks against mainly Muslims and Dalits (the lowest and poorest stratum in Hindu society) in India. A number of secular intellectuals and freethinkers such as MM Kalburgi have been murdered and others have received death threats from fundamentalist Hindutva gangs, emboldened by the right-wing BJP government’s Hindu nationalist policies and Modi’s studied silence in the face of these events. A number of writers, film directors and other intellectuals have returned their awards to the government in protest against the rising intolerance. In BJP-ruled Haryana, attacks on Dalits have increased seven-fold. In October, two Dalit children were burnt alive in Faridabad by upper-caste Hindus. Mob attacks on Muslim men seen in the company of Hindu women under the false accusation of love jihad are now common in Mangalore and other coastal cities of Karnataka state where Hindutva forces dominate.

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India: Stocks rise as Modi-led BJP wins Indian national elections /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

On 17 May, results of the Indian national elections gave the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies an absolute majority, sending shares in the Indian stock market surging to an all-time high. The humiliation of the Congress Party at not even being able to win the minimum 10% of seats in parliament needed to secure the title of leader of the Opposition is total. The election result is testament to the complete failure of the Congress Party and the reformist communist parties – Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) – through years of attacks on workers’ rights and pro-imperialist deals. India faces greater inequality, corporate rule and communal violence.

The BJP secured a majority of nearly 340 seats in the lower house with a 31% vote share, beyond even the wildest expectations of their own supporters and unprecedented for a non-Congress party. Hit by corruption-related scandals, a slowdown of economic growth and its continual betrayals of the working class and poor, the secular Congress Party and its allies suffered a historic defeat, winning just 44 seats – the lowest since India’s independence from Britain in 1947. The BJP won parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir which it has not won before, but did not poll as well in West Bengal, Telengana, Tamil Nadu, Odish and Kerala. In the Rajya Sabha, (upper house) the BJP and allies control only 63 of 250 seats, fewer than the Congress Party. Many major structural changes require a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the BJP will need more allies. Jayalalithaa, populist leader of the AIADMK, won 37 out of 39 constituencies in Tamil Nadu, and has already indicated her interest in co-operating with the BJP.

BJP leader Narendra Modi is now Prime Minister of what is known as the ‘world’s largest democracy’. He has been accused of presiding over and condoning a pogrom of Muslims in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, encouraging police killings of Muslim youth, and misusing state machinery apparatus to target his political rivals within and outside his party. A number of Western countries including the US and Britain imposed visa bans on Modi less than 10 years ago but they have been quick to mend their bridges, with Cameron, Obama, and others quickly inviting him to visit their countries. Israel has long-standing ties to the BJP and has announced new investments in India.

The ideological parent of the BJP is a fascist organisation called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Modi is a member. Its founders openly admired Adolf Hitler and supported the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. One of its members was responsible for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 in protest against his perceived softness towards Muslims. RSS worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure increased polarisation in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and other states politically important for the BJP to win. The BJP has been transformed into a party dominated by one man and his cronies. Senior leaders of the BJP have been largely sidelined. Amit Shah, a man accused of being behind killings of Muslim youth, has become the second most powerful person in the party thanks largely to his loyalty to Modi.

The Modi election campaign saw unprecedented spending levels, with reports of over 5,000 crores of rupees spent (around £500m) financed by big business houses including Tata, Ambani and Birla. Adverts in all the national newspapers and on major TV and radio channels and billboards in prime locations in the cities, have contributed to the manufacturing of the so-called Modi ‘wave’. He travelled all over India giving rousing election speeches, in jets donated by the private company Adani. This spending by big Indian capitalists owes much to the widespread perception of Modi as a crony capitalist who will implement the economic and labour ‘reforms’ long demanded by the Indian capitalist class. Modi has in the past given land away at throwaway prices to big businesses such as Tata, Reliance and Adani to enable them to set up plants in Gujarat, where Modi has been chief minister for the last three terms, and highlighted the lack of labour struggles there in contrast with other states like Orissa and West Bengal where strikes have forced big businesses to rethink the feasibility of their industrial plants.

The Modi campaign mainly steered away from its roots of Hindutva fundamentalism and focused on claims of development, citing Gujarat as an example. This is despite the fact that it lags behind other states on human development indices such as education and health care. Modi’s statements reflecting on India’s past glory and getting back India’s rightful place in the world have stirred up nationalist feelings among much of the middle class and educated workers. Underneath the claims and hopes of a strong India and economic growth which helped to sway the middle class and educated elites, lay a campaign of intimidation of political opponents and even institutions like the election commission. In communally sensitive places such as the state of UP and Assam where recent Hindu/Muslim riots have taken place, the polarisation of Hindus and Muslims benefited the BJP electorally and was exploited to the fullest, with BJP leaders making statements such as ‘vote for BJP to take revenge against those who killed Jats in the communal riots’ (Amit Shah in UP) and ‘those who oppose Modi will have to go to Pakistan’ (Giriraj Singh in Bihar).

The BJP campaign hired a US firm called APCO to ‘cleanse’ Modi’s public image. The campaign kept the focus on development and recent scandals in the Congress-led government. The fact that some BJP allies, like Yeddyurappa, are themselves accused of corruption and that Modi has not allowed the creation of an independent anti-corruption ombudsman body or Lokayukta in Gujarat, was successfully sidelined. Modi managed to strike a chord with voters tired of rising prices and low employment, as well as tune into widespread anger at the incumbent Congress Party. Modi contrasted the ineptitude of Rahul Gandhi, the Cambridge-educated scion of the Congress Party, with his own humble origins and track record of development as Chief Minister. Focusing on the Congress Party’s dynastic politics and nepotism – which has been led by a member of the Gandhi family for most of its existence in independent India – Modi was able to turn the focus away from the BJP’s deplorable past record of communal politics.

Only militant and organised resistance, demanding a new social system, can offer a way forward for the poor and oppressed in India. On 1 May, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has long waged an armed struggle against the Indian state, announced a merger with the Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist (Naxalbari), which is active in Kerala. This is likely to strengthen resistance in the southern state, extending the established ‘red corridor’ of the Maoist insurgency from north-eastern and central India. Despite harsh state repression, guerrilla activity is rising. The CPI (Maoist) called for a boycott of the recent elections. Strikes have also been held throughout India. Workers producing cars for Toyota in Karnataka held a protracted strike in April 2014. They faced violent attacks by the police in which 150 were injured, and a betrayal by their union leadership which forced them back to work. Struggles against imperialist corporations are arising throughout India and will no doubt intensify. Communal clashes have flared up in Hyderabad, Meerut, Assam and other parts of the country in recent weeks. The new government has already given signals that it will encourage foreign direct investment in non-retail areas and remove subsidies on gas, certain to hit the poor hardest. The need of the hour is for workers to get together and prepare to fight against the new government’s reactionary and anti-labour measures.

Joy Bose