Amartya Sen has delivered a critical appraisal of British rule in India (Illusions of empire: Amartya Sen on what British rule really did for India, 29 June). Yet what is missing from his ponderings is a clear critique of the apologist arguments which underpin inquiries into the so-called “achievements” of colonialism.
Instead, he highlights an issue of methodology, namely the impossibility of envisaging an India in which British rule had not occurred. While Sen acknowledges the difficulty of such an evaluation, he finds merit in queries which seek to establish how India was lacking at the time of British conquest and how those deficiencies were met by the new rulers. He promptly embarks on such an examination.
In my view, the question of how the colonised benefited from colonialism is akin to asking how the survivors of abuse benefit from the relationship with their abusers. An analysis ostensibly seeking to obtain understanding of relationship dynamics can quickly descend into a catalogue of justifications for atrocious acts and behaviours. The argument that “it was not all bad” is one inevitably advanced by perpetrators and is insidious in either context. Meanwhile, neither survivors of abuse nor the formerly colonised are able to precisely quantify their detriment, yet profound loss is experienced by both.
The question is not what British rule did for India, or any of the formerly occupied territories. The question is what did British rule do to them?
Dr Nandini Boodia-Canoo
• There is much to agree with Amartya Sen’s interpretation of British imperialism in India. But no famines in India since independence in 1947?
Perhaps he can be forgiven for ignoring the 1974-75 famine in Bangladesh (which he analyses in his 1981 essay Poverty and Famines), but what about the Bihar famines of 1951 and 1966, and the Maharashtra drought and famine of 1970-73? Both recorded excess deaths, widespread hunger and malnutrition. Perhaps overlooked by Prof Sen as challenging his 1981 thesis of entitlement collapse rather than food availability decline due to crop failures, though both can be true and indeed interact.
Emeritus professor of international development, University of Bath
• Amartya Sen’s lucid and interesting article omits the crucial subject of religion. The mutual religious anathema of Hindus and Muslims without the restraining hand of the Raj led to the exodus of at least 3 million people from their homes, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands on both sides and the formation of the states of India, Pakistan and Bengal.
My father, PJ Griffiths, when he was leader of the European Group in the Indian legislative assembly, told Winston Churchill publicly that if Britain reneged on its promise to grant India independence when the second world war was over, he would cross the floor of the house and join the Indian Congress party.
• The answer to the question “What did Britain really do for India?” is the Hindustani ambassador, or, as we know it, the Morris Oxford. Manufactured for 66 years, it was India’s first production car and provided reliable transport for the nation. It was known as the king of India’s roads.
Englefield Green, Surrey
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