Monday, August 06, 2007

William Dalrymple's suspect economic history

William Dalrymple's article for the Telegraph is full of historical detail which makes it a pleasure to read. However, his analysis of the big picture appears weak to me.

A few criticisms:

  1. His main example of abuse under the Raj is sensational evidence given by the prosecution of a man later found innocent. A rather suspect source to say the least. The acquital suggests the evidence might well not have been accurate and even if the events did occur there is no way we can really get to the bottom of whether they can be generalised from.
  2. He talks of "the destruction of Indian political, cultural and artistic self-confidence". The question has to be, whose? The Mughal dynasty certainly took a heavy blow but they were foreign conquerors like the British. Imperialist dominance of India did not begin with the Raj. Did the broad mass of Indians suffer such a blow to their confidence?
  3. The shift in the share of global GDP produced in India and Britain is ascribed to Indian economic failure rather than, as would be more realistic, to the colossal relative success of Britain as the first industrial nation.
  4. India's relative decline is understood entirely in political terms of imperialism or exploitation. However, a classic paper by Parthasarathi showed how Britain was unable to compete with Indian cotton production before the Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation transformed Britain's competitive position in a vital industry. India's decline can therefore be seen, at least partially, as a matter of changes in economic conditions rather than as some kind of political crime.

All that makes this a dissapointing piece. Dalrymple does attest to the force of the debate over Britain's impact on India and clearly has a lot of knowledge but is not prepared to do that debate justice.

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