Within weeks of our moving to London from Singapore, I received a note from my son’s school, saying that the students were to dress up as a character important in British history and tell the story of the character in their class, as part of History Week. We were still settling in a new country, and trying to organize the costume of a long-dead king or an author with whom my then-six-going-to-be-seven-year-old son could connect seemed less of a priority than figuring out how to register ourselves at the local doctor’s clinic. So we thought of sending him dressed in churidar-kurta with a red rose, and said he should tell the story of Jawaharlal Nehru, about which he knew what a six-year-old boy would.
The following day the teacher patiently told me that I had probably misread the note: the character had to be important in British history, not world history. I smiled and said, actually, Nehru was pretty important for British history—not only because Nehru studied at Harrow and Cambridge and later became a lawyer, but also because he turned the tables on the empire, arguing and reminding the British of how much their actions in the colonies contrasted with their sense of who they were. And he became a democratic ruler and kept India part of the Commonwealth—had India not done so, the decline of Britain would have been far quicker. She smiled politely; she wasn’t convinced.
That was more than 17 years ago. If I were to meet her again, I’d ask her to read Shashi Tharoor’s brilliant An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India, a searing indictment of the Raj and its impact on India. Tharoor’s title of course echoes—and mocks—the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s first of three books about India: An Area Of Darkness (1964) which was, to recall Mohandas Gandhi’s critique of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), like a drain inspector’s report (indeed, in a famous essay, the late Nissim Ezekiel eviscerated Naipaul’s “discovery” of India, calling it rubbish). For while Mayo, Naipaul and to some extent Nirad Chaudhuri saw India as an unmitigated disaster redeemed by the benign, benevolent hand of British rule, Tharoor forcefully argues that colonial rule not only impoverished India, it also enfeebled it.
Last year, Tharoor took part in—and easily won—an Oxford Union debate on colonialism. There, he said India didn’t ask for compensation or reparation, but it was owed an apology. The house voted with him. The speech had an electrifying effect in the age of social media, and virtually every Indian, regardless of political affiliation, cheered the former minister and diplomat, the Congress MP Tharoor. While An Era Of Darkness takes off from that debate, it does considerably more than that. It refutes British claims of superiority, questions the benefits of British rule, castigates governors and their subordinates for their profligacy and arrogance, exposes their corruption, and ridicules the conceit which has taken root in Britain—that the British rule was a divine dispensation, which civilized the natives. As Britain’s global influence has waned in recent years, nostalgic romance of the empire has taken hold among some British historians—notably Niall Ferguson, but he is by no means alone—whose writing provides a comic book version of the empire where the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was an inconvenient footnote and the hundreds of thousands of Indians who toiled on plantations, built the railways, and died on foreign fields for the empire were collateral damage, not even worth remembering by individual names. The power of that narrative is such that many in India are unaware of the extent of despair the Raj brought—it is cringeworthy to see Winston Churchill regarded as a hero in some circles in India, given his central role in creating the Bengal famine of the 1940s.
Tharoor pierces this conceited bubble with vivid prose, telling not only what made the British empire, but how. Himself deeply familiar with English literature and traditions and an unabashed fan of cricket (which sociologist Ashis Nandy called an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British), Tharoor uses facts, arguments, humour, sarcasm and logic to destroy each pillar on which the myth of the empire rests.
Far from being a pioneer in free trade, the East India Company was a private monopoly with state backing, which enabled hundreds of young Britons to get immensely rich, upsetting the pecking order of the British society. What the “company sarkar” did in India was organized looting, preventing Indian businesses from challenging British monopolies by destroying competition, placing import barriers on Indian goods, making British exports to India tariff-free, manipulating the currency to increase Indian debt, setting standards that made Indian manufacturing uncompetitive in global markets, and requiring tea estates to be run by British managers. He challenges the notion that Indian political unity is a British gift, by undermining the centuries of continuing civilization, where the Indian abroad from medieval times was known as an Indian, and not as a Punjabi or a Gujarati or Tamil. He speaks of class, which separated Indian judges and civil servants from their British superiors and the routine humiliation heaped on the subordinates who were junior to them only because of the colour of their skin. He reveals young men—and they were always men—in mid-to-late 20s administering areas the size of small European nations, performing myriad roles, acting virtually with the divine right of kings. He highlights the manner in which the much-cited “rule of law” was actually rule by laws, which the British made and which had different standards for the British and the Indians. Tharoor then turns to the familiar theme of divide and rule, traversing territory largely familiar to those who view history primarily in political terms.
Tharoor also shows how entire communities were segregated and marginalized by calling them criminal tribes, and poignantly highlights the colonial-era laws that persist in India, which have far outlived their purpose (such as the sedition law) and which should never have been enacted (such as the laws that criminalize same-sex relationships). This last part is particularly poignant; Tharoor is one of the few parliamentarians in India today who has shown genuine liberalism by trying—in vain—to overturn those colonial relics which, oddly, are being justified today by assorted swamis and gurus (besides priests and other orthodox religious leaders) as being necessary, because according to them homosexuality is against Indian culture (its outlawing was a British invention, and by resisting Tharoor’s attempt to make Indian laws more humane and consistent with modernity, it is the Hindu fundamentalists who are being the true Macaulayites). I have known Tharoor for close to two decades as a diplomat, writer, and co-panelist at literary festivals, and it is this aspect of his politics that sets him apart from many others in the Lok Sabha, which I admire deeply.
While Tharoor’s attack on imperialism is frontal and sharp, he does not exonerate Indian princes’ ineptitude, corruption and misrule. Nor does he condone inherent inequities of many Indian customs and traditions. He takes note of them, but his point is that the British empire was not the solution to the problem by any means, and in many instances, it made the problem worse. Tharoor’s thrusts are painful, and his approach is that of a shrewd debater—which Tharoor excels at—attacking each proclaimed virtue from all fronts, leaving the supporter of the empire defenceless. He shows—with facts and statistics—how post-independence India has made rapid strides in economic and social development, which were simply impossible during the colonial era, and without stressing on the point too loudly, reminds the reader how much more India could have achieved had it been able to modernize without colonial subjugation. Some might question his certitude, but then this book is meant to advance an argument—it is how the empire strikes back.
Tharoor has written or edited 12 works of non-fiction and four novels in his distinguished career. This may well be his most important work—not because he says what was not known, but the way he says it, making a strong argument for sovereignty without shrillness, a civilized response to an inhuman system, and seeking justice, not revenge—and all this with magnanimity, erudition and humour.
In an article in The New York Times a decade ago, writer Suketu Mehta recounted the story of his grandfather who was strolling in a London park. As a precursor of the kind of arguments one heard in the lead-up to the Brexit vote this June, a man asked Mehta’s grandfather: “Why are you here?” Mehta writes: “My grandfather responded, “We are the creditors.” We are here because you were there.”
In the same vein, Tharoor has now written because they have done all the writing so far.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.