Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

THE MAKING OF INDIA: The Untold Story of British Enterprise by Kartar Lalvani

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
THE MAKING OF INDIA: The Untold Story of British Enterprise by Kartar Lalvani
01 Jul
Kartar Lalvani would like everyone, Britons and Indians alike, to ‘acknowledge the positive aspects of the colonial period.’

He does not deny the exploitative excesses of the British presence in India but he also cherishes the ‘lasting legacy we inherited’, not least a ‘liberalism’ that ‘was high minded and enduring in its benefaction.’ If the two nations want a shared future based on ‘partnership, equality and friendship’ they must jettison the ‘baggage of a purely negative and wasteful interpretation of history.’ It is high time, Lalvani announces, ‘to give credit where credit is due.’

Lalvani is amazed that fewer than 1,500 officials managed to govern the Raj at its height. ‘Today, in Delhi, that number of civil servants occupies just two buildings’

On the face of things, there is compelling evidence to justify Lalvani’s buoyant analysis. He puts all sorts of present-day Indian institutions and ideals down to British influence: democracy, a free press, a credible judicial system, fine educational establishments, a decent police force, an apolitical army. There seems to be an assumption here that such treasures would never have evolved in India without the British, but I suppose we’ll never know.

Physical achievements are also easy to locate. Lalvani describes, in painstaking detail, the arrival of harbours, lighthouses, telegraph wires, electricity and many other contributions to the nation’s infrastructure. The 1,423-mile Grand Trunk Highway, begun in 1836, connected Calcutta to Lahore and was ‘grander than any scheme ever before conceived, even by the Romans.’ Those who preferred to travel by railway had access to 45,000 miles of track by 1947 and less than one per cent of villages were more than 50 miles from a railhead.

Lalvani has great respect for ‘Britain’s unsung, yet heroic, pioneers in India’ and concludes that ‘the sheer audacity and scale of such an endeavour, the courage and enterprise, have no parallel in world history.’ He is also amazed that fewer than 1,500 officials managed to govern the Raj at its height, stating ‘today, in Delhi, that number of civil servants occupies just two buildings.’

Alongside all the facts and figures, Lalvani challenges various preconceptions. He rejects the notion that everything in India was rosy before the British arrived. On the contrary, he argues, the place was in political disarray and economic turmoil courtesy of ‘barbarous invasions’ by the Persians and the Afghans. Nor, he suggests, should we think that the indigenous population was robbed of all economic opportunity under the British. Self-sufficient iron foundries sprang up, locals were able to travel to new parts of the globe as merchants and administrators, while Bombay and Calcutta were set ‘on the course of becoming the two largest industrial, business and financial metropolises east of Suez.’

The British came to make money for themselves but, writes Lalvani, they cannot be dismissed as ‘plunderers who brought India to its knees.’ Lalvani’s book must be read as a corrective to the prevailing view of India under British rule. He is pushing a counter-narrative as forcefully as possible and can’t reasonably be expected to constantly temper his argument with harrowing tales of empire. Still, how radically should our overall perspective shift? It is hard to argue with all the bridges that were built, or the engineering projects that prevented famine, but the ethical mathematics are devilishly complicated.

Lalvani is well placed to do the sums. He describes himself as ‘a patriotic Brit while also very much Indian.’ He was born in Karachi in 1931, first came to England in 1956 to further his studies, and feels ‘equally at home in both countries.’ He readily admits that, had he been old enough at the time, he would have joined the struggle for independence because of the logic of self-determination. Nonetheless, it saddens him that, over five decades, he has hardly ever heard a ‘Briton speak about the positive legacy of British rule in India.’

That is very gracious of him but it is worth remembering that India had once forged glittering empires when Britain was just a puny, isolated island. Lalvani wonders how, a little later, a ‘deeply divided and weak subcontinent might have developed were it not for the unifying effect of the Raj.’  Who knows but, because of the intruding British, India was never granted the opportunity to find out.    

This review was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Click here to purchase THE MAKING OF INDIA: The Untold Story of British Enterprise by Kartar Lalvani from Amazon

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.


Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...


by Graham Hoyland• William Collins • £20 (hardback)


by Dr Lucy Jones• Doubleday Books • £19.99 (hardback)


by Daniel Pinchbeck• Watkins • £9.99 (paperback)


by Jasper Winn • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback)


by Nathan H Lents • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £16.99…


This hard-hitting marine conservation film – part of the Ocean…


Here are the newest non-fiction offerings to satisfy that craving…


The Society’s Earth Photo exhibition captures the planet’s natural riches…


by Alanna Mitchell • Oneworld • £16.99 (hardback)


by Christopher J Preston • The MIT Press • £20.95…


by Jamal Mahjoub • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)


by Joanna Kafarowski • Dundurn Press • 15.99 (hardback)


by Peter Dauvergne • Polity Books • £9.99 (paperback)


by Mary Beard and David Olusoga • Profile Books •…


It’s hard to imagine life without the visual world upfront…


by Patrick Winn • Icon Books • £14.99 (paperback)


by Mark Nelson • UA Press • £21.99 (paperback)


by Ed Douglas and John Beatty • Vertebrate Publishing •…


by Tristan Gooley • Sceptre Books • £20 (hardback)


by Adam Weymouth • Particular Books • £16.99 (hardback)