British Empire loses trial in UK Supreme Court!

Last Updated 21 September 2014, 14:41 IST

The British Raj did more harm than good in the Indian subcontinent, this was the conclusion of a historic debate that put the mighty empire on a mock trial at the Supreme Court here.

The Indo-British Heritage Trust organised the debate as the inaugural event to mark the 400th anniversary of formal relations between India and Britain back in 1614.
The motion before the house was, "The Indian sub-continent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism".

The team against the motion, eloquently led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and including fellow authors William Dalrymple and Nick Robins, clinched a decisive victory.

"No wonder the sun never set on the British Empire, even God couldn't trust the English in the dark," said Tharoor as part of his arguments which focused on the economic ruin of India at the hands of the East India Company.

"The might of Britain was built in the 18th and 19th centuries on the ruination of India – where India went from a 23 per cent share of the global economy to 4 per cent," he added.

Dalrymple, author of 'White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal', echoed the sentiment from the perspective of a prospering Mughal Empire which 'haemorrhaged' under the British.

"It is impossible even to consider this motion seriously without noting how far behind the West was for 90 per cent of our history...the British went to India to get a bit of action in the Mughal Empire which was then immeasurably richer than anything London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Milan put together...Britain, with its mastery of cannon and artillery, drained India and the money came to Europe," he said.

The debate, which coincided with the Scottish referendum vote on Thursday, was chaired by senior Indian-origin MP and chair of the House of Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz, who deftly managed proceedings for and against.

Speakers for the motion included arts editor of 'Newsweek' Pakistan Nelofar Bakhtyar, former British politician and BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, and Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative Party MP and author.

Their side failed to win over the audience with their arguments in favour of the English language, rule of law, railways and cricket as positive legacy of the Empire.
"The fact that we seized upon the English language for our own liberation is to our credit and not by British design," countered Tharoor, who ended on a lighter note saying, "Cricket was an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British".

The debate is the first in a series of events to be organised by Project 400, an initiative by the Indo-British Heritage Trust, founded by historian Kusoom Vadgama.

It was 400 years ago in 1614 that King James I dispatched Sir Thomas Roe as ambassador to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir to arrange for a commercial treaty and obtain security assurances on behalf of the East India Company.

In the same year, the first Indian man set foot in Britain – an unnamed worker from Surat who was brought over in an East India Company vessel by a company chaplain and christened "Peter" by King James I.

Vadgama launched Project 400 alongside her co-chair Michael Blacker to mark this official start of the India-UK relationship 400 years ago.

"Project 400 is a monument to the 400-year-old Indo-British relationship. It is also an opportunity to put on record the much neglected history of India in Britain to the same level of detail as that of the history of the British in India," she said.

"No history of the British Empire is complete without the history of its people. I never thought that one day I will put the mighty Empire on trial of all places in the Supreme Court," she said.

(Published 21 September 2014, 14:41 IST)

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