That remnants of the British empire are still within and around us is obvious. But the havoc that the Raj wreaked in India, argues politician and author Shashi Tharoor in his passionate new book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, seems to have been brushed under a carpet of misconceptions over the last few decades.
This dawned on him when the video of his 15-minute speech at the Oxford union on whether Britain owed India reparations hit the public imagination in 2015. It seemed there was a ready audience for a book that would set the account straight in a single, cogent narrative – and here it is, a year later.
An Era of Darkness categorically attacks what Tharoor calls the many popular myths about the so-called benign rule of the empire. In his trademark eloquent style, he mounts a persuasive polemic covering a wide spectrum from the destruction of India’s thriving industries to designing deep caste and communal divisions in Indian society, and the self-serving justification of it all. In an interview, Tharoor explains why this book needed to be written now and where it figures in the current climate of shrill “nationalist” pride. Excerpts:
Your book takes one back to history class in school, except the tone here is far less clinical, far more intriguing and passionate. To start at the beginning – the speech that led to this book – what do you think made it so popular?
The beginning actually goes back to my own school days, since you mentioned it. I happened to be one of the inconveniently good students coming first in every subject, but the subject that really impassioned me was history. I would not only follow the lectures avidly, I would also read more than the school textbooks to find out more. I would write history essays that were not required by the teacher simply because I was so fascinated by the subject.
I did well very well in the exams and still insisted on studying History in college at a time when everybody with my marks was looking to study Economics. Though I would not at all presume to call myself even an amateur historian, the engagement with history has been life-long and therefore the book was easy to write.
Coming back to the speech at Oxford, when I was asked to make it, I didn’t bother to do any serious scholarship. These were all things I knew or believed I knew and in a sense had read all my life. So I put together some points that to me were basic, that one would call Nationalism 101. But when the video of the speech had the impact it did, publishers called to say I should write a book.
But I said, doesn’t everyone know this? They said, no, everyone doesn’t know this, and if they did, the speech would not have gone viral. Then I talked to a lot of people and realised that perhaps no one had quite put together all of this material in one cogent argument before.
I didn’t want it to be a conventional textbook thing that didn’t turn tables around. I wanted to do a polemical and substantial argument that tried to confront bestsellers written over the last decade or so, particularly in Britain and America, by authors like Niall Fergusson and Lawrence James that look at the empire with rose-tinted spectacles and see it as the forerunner of globalisation, a wonderful creator, or what Ferguson calls “killer apps” that have made modern civilisation and progress possible and all of that.
What is popularly being read is not true of the scholarship, which is much more objective and critical. I actually think that the empire set back development in large areas in the world and that the hypocrisy and self-serving arguments made in favour of colonialism needed to be dealt with. That’s why this book.
What impact did these popular beliefs that you attack in your book – from the empire being termed relatively constructive, imparting a sense of political unity, laying down the foundations of democracy, an intricate network of the railways, etc. – have on the psychology of Independent India?
I think the British were very good at myth-making. They spun these stories about themselves which were difficult for others to dispel which even Hollywood played along, with films like Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer which helped create a romantic aura of the British empire in India.
I still know Indian children who have been brought up to believe that Winston Churchill was a good guy whereas for me he was one of the most appalling human beings to have had political influence in the twentieth century. The fact remains that because Indians are largely a forgiving people, we don’t hold grudges very long. The nationalist movement itself was not full of bitterness, they sort of won freedom for us in a gentlemanly manner.
As you know, India chose to remain in the Commonwealth after independence. That absence of rancour meant there was no systematic effort made to undo any of that myth-making, and that remained pervasive even while other accounts of nationalism were available and taught at universities and schools. Nevertheless, the popular image remained what the British insidiously built up over a century or so.
At the same time, lack of rancour is a good quality. There is an anecdote which I wasn’t able to verify but which I used in my book about when Nehru met Churchill in the 1950s and Churchill, in what seems an uncharacteristic, moment said: “I’m surprised after all the years we put you in jail, the way we treated you folks, you seem to bear no ill-will towards us.” And Nehru is supposed to have replied: “I was taught by a great man (naming Mahatma Gandhi) never to fear and never to hate.”
It’s one of those stories that have acquired strength in the retelling. It captures a lot of the issue of the attitude. Once we said we were not afraid of the British, we had no reason to hate them either as long as we had won the freedom we thought they had unjustly deprived us of, and it was in that spirit that we dealt with them thereafter.
You emphasise that an apology is due from British leaders to India.
I think it will be a cleansing of the soul. After all, look at what (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau did on Komagata Maru, which is a far far lesser wrong, if you like, than Jallianwala Bagh. At least the Canadians didn't kill the people on board Komagata Maru, they just sent them away, and in many cases they succumbed to British action.
But in the case of Jallianwala Bagh, the British General actually ordered the killings, ordered the mistreatment of the bodies lying in the field, and on top of that the British tried to exonerate him in the official commission of inquiry and raised what is a vast sum of money by today’s standards for this killer. Now this is something which is a blot on their civilisation’s history. And for a successor to that history to renounce it would be a very fine thing to do.
But the right time to do it is perhaps not during her (British Prime Minister Theresa May) upcoming visit, where she will obviously be introducing herself to Prime Minister Modi and reasserting India-Britain relations on a normal keel. A better time would be on the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when some British Prime Minister should make it a point to visit Amritsar, be on their knees begging the Indian people, or the souls of the departed, for forgiveness.
You write extensively about the “native deficiency” that came about as the British dismantled Indian textiles, shipbuilding and steel-making industries, agriculture, where no Indian enterprise could thrive merely for the benefit of the land – it had to be serving British interests overseas. That’s a notion that continues today, doesn’t it, that we are lagging behind in most fields, that we are not “good enough” to compete with global industries?
It’s a fair point and I think the echoes can be felt today. The dismantling of our industries meant that the rest of the world took a huge leap that we are still catching up on. We missed the bus because we were thrown under its wheels. For us now to pick up and catch up is undoubtedly very difficult.
Many of the arguments you make, like you say, are not terribly new. Any striking discoveries you made during your research?
There were several cases where my own views were amplified and strengthened. For example, the Divide Et Impera business. I knew that the British had designed, even by bribery, the Hindu-Muslim divide. There were some anecdotal details I found – like when the Nawab of Dhaka first opposed the Partition of 1905, the British quietly gave him a £ 100,000 and the Nawab changed his tune. I was quite astonished, but this was in a contemporary 1908 account of a British journalist I found.
But one thing I didn’t know as much about was the extent of the British culpability in accentuating the caste divisions. We have all grown up thinking that caste is something that is deep in our society and certainly our people have internalised it but the scholarship is almost unanimous in pointing out that caste was much fuzzier (before the British). The British solidified caste as it is known today in a way that it had never been before.
The other thing that I found striking, which most Indians don’t know, is how good we were at steel-making (before the British hampered it). What was ukku (wootz) steel became the gold standard, the best in the world. The Arabs took Indian technology to make what became Damascus Steel. The British soldiers would dismount after killing Indian soldiers and steal their swords because Indian swords were so much better. Such details added to my awareness.
You say the greatest failure of the empire is the shambles of the “original Brexit” – the way it all ended in 1947.
Partition was a completely botched-up job. The British were in very bad shape. The shortages were crippling. They didn’t have the heart, let alone the resources, to carry on with the empire. And that’s probably why they couldn't care less about the glorious talk of responsibility towards the well-being of Indians. If they genuinely were interested they would have made some arrangements before their departure, but they just cut and ran.
Does this book feed, or stem from, what is being called hyper-nationalism?
On the hyper-national argument, there is very little in this book that the Left and Right can’t agree on. My critique of British colonialism is not very different from the Left’s except there is no Marxist jargon in it. It so happens that our past is something the Left, Right and Centre can all agree on. I’m proud to call myself a nationalist, as indeed was Jawaharlal Nehru and the entire freedom movement’s leadership.
The only difference is that our view of nationalism is inclusive and accommodative and some of those who see themselves as “hyper-nationalists” have a much more narrow and divisive and bigoted view. That to me is a betrayal of nationalism. It’s not real nationalism because nationalism must take the entire nation along with it. Otherwise I don’t see why this book would, as some people have suggested, serve only one section. On the contrary I think this serves all political viewpoints in India.
Is history is being reinterpreted under the Modi leadership?
Yes, there is no doubt that history is used and abused. The way in which society looks at the past says a lot about how we look at the present and clearly a lot of the Hindutva dominance of our political space has also coloured, to some degree, our view of the past.
When a BJP leader stands up and talks about 1,200 years of foreign rule, and I talk about 200 years of foreign rule, there is a difference. To my mind, the Muslim rulers who may have come from elsewhere but assimilated into India, who may have looted India but spent their loot in India, are different from foreigners who did not assimilate and took the loot back to their country and spent it there. That perception is what sets me apart from Hindu historians.
Is there a disconnect between millennials and history?
I don’t know. My kids, though born in 1984, are young enough to qualify as millennials, but have been as crazy about history and read even more searchingly and seriously than I have, so it’s difficult for me to generalise from them. But at the same time if you tell me that a lot of that generation has been disconnected from our history, I’m prepared to believe you because I certainly was surprised at how successful my speech at Oxford was to the extent that one university in Jammu had an entire day-long seminar on it, which I thought was unprecedented.
You haven’t written fiction for a while. Is that something you will go back to?
This is true. One of problems I faced with fiction was that it is not interruptible. You have to create an alternative universe which is populated with people who are as real to you as those you may encounter in daily life. To keep up that illusion, to create a tense or a romantic scene without the spell breaking, without the phone ringing or an important meeting to attend, is what is hard to sustain. With every novel I tried to write in the last 10-15 years, after Riot, the glass palace of illusions got shattered. I said forget it, it’s easier to write non-fiction because it is interruptible.
Now, Aleph and I are talking about a short book for the 70th anniversary of India. The next project after that will be fiction – I can’t keep spending all my energies on non fiction because I have lots of interesting plots bubbling up at the back of my head that I want to put down on paper soon.