Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s new book “An Era of Darkness” turns the spotlight on Britain’s 200-year rule in India, and argues that it destroyed the Indian economy and pushed the country back by several decades.
Tharoor spoke to Reuters about the book, his research and why he thinks the British owe India an apology.
Here are edited excerpts:
Q: What prompted you to write “An Era of Darkness”?
A: In fact, it was my publisher’s idea because I made the speech at Oxford. To be honest I almost tossed it off - it didn’t require a whole lot of research. I was basically saying things I thought every Indian who had been educated more or less knew. But when the speech went viral the publisher called me and said, “Do you want to write it as a book?” I said, “Doesn’t everyone know this?” He said, “No. If they did, the speech wouldn’t have gone viral.” - which was a valid point.
Q: How challenging was it to write this book? What kind of research did you undertake?
A: Plenty of research is necessary because it’s one thing delivering a 15-minute speech and another writing a 333-page book. And for the latter there were two things I needed to do. One was to actually just substantiate my own arguments. I mean my arguments are based on years of reading and before that years of study at university and high school, but nothing more recent. And I felt I needed to make sure the facts were correct, the figures were right, the dates were accurate, and so on.
And the second thing was to catch up on the latest scholarship in the field because after all professional historians, which I’m not one, had been working in these areas and done scholarly articles. And even if I’m not writing for scholars, to be unaware of what scholarship is there would have been foolish … So there’s a lot of insights from the last 15 years of serious scholarship of British colonialism that have gone into this book, which I would not have been familiar with otherwise.
Q: Was there any new information or anecdote or data that you came across and found interesting or startling enough to include in the book?
A: I found everything interesting, but was there anything that surprised or startled me? I think a couple of things. For example, the whole section on “Divide et Impera” - “Divide and Rule”, which was a conscious British policy after 1857-58. I was always very aware of the very conscious efforts of the British on fomenting separation between Hindus and Muslims, but some of the details were fascinating. For example, reading about the episode when the British tried to partition Bengal in 1905 and the Nawab of Dhaka who was a Muslim leader from eastern Bengal said this was beastly and opposed it, whereupon the British slipped him a 100,000 pounds and he changed his tune. Now this was something which had been reported by a British journalist in 1908 but I hadn’t read it. That detail was fascinating. I had a number of details like this … So in some cases my own knowledge was deepened and widened by reading a lot more contemporary material than I was able to do in undergraduate history before the internet was invented and you couldn’t go into so much scholarship and documents from the 18th-19th centuries that are now easily accessible to all of us on the internet.
The second thing, however, was new insights. So I had understood about, say, the Hindu-Muslim divide being encouraged deliberately. But I had never fully understood the extent to which, as modern scholars have demonstrated, caste as we know it today was a British invention. Caste is something we’ve all been taught to believe has been there for thousands of years and we have always practised it. But in fact the practice of caste before the British came was much more relaxed, much more fuzzy; there was much more permeability between caste and much more movement of caste up the social chain. So what is striking is that it was the British who made people far more self-conscious of caste identities and separation and distinction amongst them.
Q: Why have successive British governments refused to apologize or even properly acknowledge the kind of damage that that they caused to India, its economy and its people?
A: I think partly it’s because the British were successful, too successful at the self-justifying mythologizing that has taken place since the 19th century of their mission. They’ve managed to portray to themselves and, to some degree to the world, certainly to the western world, the British Empire as some sort of benign exercise in altruism, which is far from being the truth … The fact is that it was neither benign nor altruistic; it was deeply rapacious, and deeply self-centered and self-benefiting. But people don’t know that. So the British to a large extent are unaware there is anything to apologize for. And on top of that, that belief is sort of reinforced by these misty-eyed television dramas like “Indian Summers” and even ”The Jewel in the Crown”, which as books were actually much more balanced and aware of Indian points of view. When they were televised, all this sort of Indian nationalist stuff was left out and it became a very two-dimensional portrait of a British point of view.
Q: Do you think the people of India and its rulers could have done anything differently to tackle British rule in India? If you could go back in time, what advice would you give them?
A: I have a lot of respect for the odds that the Indians had to overcome to get there. And you know the fact that even by the early 19th century, which was just a few decades of British rule, we had, for example, the Bengal Renaissance. We had people sitting, learning the colonist’s language in order to challenge them in it. Both to reform our own society as well as to challenge their handling of it. All of that suggests that we were fairly early by comparison with many other colonies … And then many who tried to make change from within the structure and failed. Because after all the so-called mutiny - the revolt of 1857 - demonstrated the superior power of the British arms and that we couldn’t overcome them through that. So then we tried intellectual arguments. The whole question of working within the British system - Dadabhai Naoroji was a fantastic example of that. The man who started off as an Anglophile and then went ahead to become someone who actually worked on the most devastating critique of what he called un-British rule, its creation of poverty in India, which people forget. There’s this image painted by the British about India always being a poor land - it wasn’t. It was one the richest countries in the world when the British moved in and they reduced it to one of the poorest.
Q: There is this notion that the British quit India because the empire was anyway in tatters post World War Two, and so it was difficult for them to hold on to India and other colonies.
A: If there hadn’t been a nationalist movement, the British would not have been too exhausted to keep the empire. It’s because there was a nationalist movement that had gained in strength despite the British that they had managed to prise more and more freedom from the hands of the reluctant colonists … As late as 1940 I have quoted British people saying they expected the rule to last another thousand years.
Q: Do you think the British could rule India for as long as they did because they could effectively convince people back home they were doing a great service to the people of their colonies?
A: No. I think that was self-justification later. The principal advantage back home for Britain was that the benefits of colonial rule were visible to the British daily. The transformation of London thanks to money looted from India, the vast buildings that came up in London, the institutions that were created on the basis of colonial money- not just India, also the West Indies, the money from sugar in the West Indies plantations and so on. Gold Coast in Ghana, rubber from Malaysia. It’s not as if we were the only place, but definitely the British did very well out of India.Similarly, everything that was done for the British employment. The British became the biggest beneficiaries because it was an extremely good career to be in either the army or the civil service. The civil service was the highest paid civil service in the world … so it wasn’t as if there was any particular lack of benefit for Britain, the British could see it.
Q: What do demands for reparations or the Koh-i-noor mean to the modern aspiring Indian citizen?
A: At one level the modern aspiring Indian is likely to say, “Look, let’s move on. This was the past. How does it matter anymore? Let’s focus on the future.” And it’s a point of view which I have a lot of sympathy with. I mean I remember a very memorable argument over dinner one night with late Israeli president Shimon Peres, in which he said he hates history, he doesn’t want his grandchildren to learn history because history only teaches you to hate and that to focus on the future you need to forget the past. It’s a valid argument for some in some circumstances. Israelis know they can’t forget the past because it’s there staring them in the face in the present.
In my case in India, I would say that the reason to know history is because if you don’t know where you are coming from, how will you appreciate where you are going? If you don’t know the condition in which the British left us in 1947, how will you take the measure of the accomplishments of this country today and the directions in which it can and cannot go? We were deprived of 200 years of possible industrialization. How on earth are we going to necessarily catch up with China or any other part of the world? Some things we could have done perhaps differently and those are valid political arguments today, but there is a past that explains itself in the present.
But I’ve never been a major proponent of reparations. When Oxford used the word reparations in their topic, I spoke of reparations but I spoke of a symbolic one pound a year for two hundred years. Now truthfully I know as a former bureaucrat and former minister that that’s not possible to administer. No finance minister will take on such an obligation or even receiving it as an obligation. So it’s not going to happen either.
What I would prefer is two things. One is an apology. And I had even suggested in my book the right time for it would be the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which is a completely inexcusable, indefensible, unprovoked act of brutality.
Number two is the need for the British to show some atonement by actually teaching the truth to their school children. I find it shameful that they’ve perpetrated this historical amnesia.
Q: You have tried to bring in some progressive legislation in parliament in the form of private member’s bills on transgender rights, decriminalization of homosexuality and sedition, which are all a legacy of British colonial rule. Don’t you think you had a better chance of pushing these reforms when your own party was in power?
A: Strictly speaking for me that would not have been possible, because in our system you don’t interfere in any other minister’s domain. For example, as the Minister of State for HRD all I could do was give suggestions on HRD to my own minister, but that was about it. It would have been inappropriate, for example, to propose abolition of sedition bill which was the prerogative of the home minister.
Paradoxically, it is easier for me as an opposition MP. I’m not similarly constrained. And that’s why I was able to move across ministries and across a range of issues. I have seven private member’s bills pending, not counting the one which could not be introduced because of the vociferous opposition of the ruling party, namely the 377 one.
But one of the things that I have pointed out is it is somewhat ironic that a party that claims to be the party of Hindutva and Hindu values is betraying all Hindu values in order to uphold colonial standards that were reflecting the Victorian morality … And for the most part these are things the British don’t have or have abandoned. For example, sedition law in India was worse than the equivalent law in Britain because it was written explicitly to oppress the colonized people.
So I blame all governments of India since 1947 for not removing it, given that Nehru wanted to and said that it was a pernicious law. Similarly, when it comes to 377 the British wrote it reflecting Victorian attitudes to alternate sexuality, which were never present in the ancient Hindu texts. India has always had a very relaxed and permissive attitude toward sexual deviancy. But instead, we have now adopted Victorian morals wholesale. And the so-called proponents of Hindutva are now busy bashing liberals on the grounds that the law must be upheld.
Q: Is this an attempt to cater to popular sentiment?
A: But I don’t know how true that is, because I find in public sentiment there’s a lot of acceptance.
Q: Have you noticed a significant change in attitude?
A: Yes, even after my unsuccessful 377 attempt, there were so many LGBT demonstrations in our country - some explicitly in support of my bill. There was a big demonstration in Bangalore. There was hardly anybody standing there opposing them. There are gay pride marches in the national capital. Has anyone said that this is somehow wrong? You participate if you want to, you don’t participate if you don’t want to but let them be - that’s most Indians’ attitude. Let them be - that’s the Hindu attitude … This is not about sex, it’s actually about freedom. The freedom that Indians have always enjoyed that the colonists took away is the freedom that I’m trying to expand in our constitution practice.
Q: You have written 16 books - that’s a lot of books considering your busy schedule. How do you manage to find the time?
A: Those who say they can’t find the time are people who've lost it in the first place. You need to find something when you've lost it. I don't lose it. I hold on to every second that God has given me and use it as best I can. And some have criticized me saying I stretch myself too thin, try to do too much - my own mother is in that school of thought. She feels I need to eliminate some activities and sort of focus more narrowly but somehow this is the way I have been made. But inevitably I asked myself why and it's because I'm a human being with a number of reactions to the world, some of which I manifest in my work and some of which I have manifested in my writing. It's tough and I admit that I'm sort of not sleeping enough and not having enough entertainment and not seeing as many movies or plays I would like and not having enough fun at parties with friends and not seeing enough cricket matches.
Q: What was the last movie that you saw?
A: It’s been a while since I have seen a film actually. I think I had one very quick period of seeing "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" and "Baahubali"in the same weekend, so I was actually treating myself to two films a weekend, but otherwise to be honest it’s been a while. I do sometimes catch movies on planes but very often I spend long flights reading rather, because that's also the only spare time one has to read without being interrupted.
Q: Which book are you currently reading?
A: Well, I took along with me on my last flight Aravind Adiqa's "selection Day" which sounds fascinating. But I haven't been able to begin it on this flight because of other distractions. But I think my next flight I’ll start on that.
Q: What can we expect from you next in the form of the book?
A: Well, my publishers have been talking to me about doing something for the 70th anniversary, sort of a relatively semi light-hearted take on Indian-ness and on the Indian people. Then I want to go back to fiction. Let’s see. Fingers crossed.
(Anupriya Kumar is an Online Producer with Reuters India in New Delhi. She has earlier worked with Bloomberg UTV as a features reporter, covering real estate, before switching to online media. She did her postgraduation in Radio & TV journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.)