Surely a book can have several origins. But a serious work of scholarship resulting from a video that goes viral on the Internet is novel, still. That’s precisely how Shashi Tharoor’s latest, An Era Of Darkness, came about.
Tharoor, once a UN diplomat, now a directly elected member of parliament — a relatively rare Congressman in the Lok Sabha — was on his way to the Hay Festival in Wales in May, 2005, when he stopped by at the Oxford Union to briefly debate in favour of the motion: “Britain owes reparation to its former colonies.”
The topic itself, he sort of admits, is a bit facetious. As far as reparations go, he was mainly making the case for a token but necessary apology, and a “symbolic reparation of one pound a year at best” owed to India by the British. What he concentrated on instead was the actual experience of British rule in India, and colonialism at large — debunking certain myths surrounding benevolence and imperialism.
By early June the same year, the Oxford Union had posted the debate online that Tharoor had casually retweeted from his popular Twitter handle. And before he knew it, the ‘nationalists’ were talking again about the British returning the Kohinoor (an old chestnut) thanks to his speech. Columnists were issuing rebuttals. The Prime Minister (Tharoor sits in the Opposition) was lauding him publicly for saying “the right things at the right place”. The video, being shared on WhatsApp, YouTube, and over emails, had genuinely gone viral.
If a 13-minute video can have the whole nation chattering, surely a book should do well too. Going beyond the motion before the house at Oxford House, Tharoor’s An Era Of Darkness (from Aleph Book Company) is a more detailed indictment of the self-serving nature of British domination in India that systematically led us down a road that was eventually hard to climb back up from.
Given the inspiration for his book, it was only fair that we began this email interview on his life as a debater first.
ELLE: We know you’ve been a formidable debater right from your days at St Stephen’s. Could you recall some fond or memorable instances from then—perhaps winning the Mukerji Memorial (if you did), or being Prez, Deb Soc, as I’m told you were?
Shashi Tharoor: Plenty. I debated from my freshman year, and enjoyed crossing swords with many of the formidable seniors with great reputations on the debating circuit. Travelling to places like Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay and Chennai for various IIT festivals was a highlight – and winning them all, of course! Winning the Hindu College debate was especially satisfying for a Stephanian. I never spoke in the Mukherji Memorial because I presided over it as Member for Debates in the Union Cabinet in my second year and was President of the College Union in my third. But I did win the Hindu College equivalent, as well as the big annual debates at Shri Ram, LSR and the Delhi School of Economics.
Debating taught us to think sharp, think smart, react on our feet, and use our ideas and words to impress and persuade – skills that will stand you in good stead whatever you do in life.
ELLE: From a point of pure debating flourish, where the world’s big issues get solved and poetic justice delivered in a few minutes flat, your performance at the Oxford Union was exemplary. What do you make of the standards at the Indian parliament, where there are supposed to be professional debaters?
ST: A bit uneven, to be honest. But there are many skilled speakers, especially in Hindi, who hold the House captive with the force of their oratory.
ELLE: What’s been the best parliamentary debate that you’ve been a witness to, or perhaps been part of?
ST: I’m still waiting for it to happen! There have been great occasions for set-piece speeches, such as the 60th anniversary of Parliament, but a truly memorable debate should have the cut-and-thrust of disagreement and response. And though we have had several strong speeches by Opposition MPs and some strong replies by Ministers, the latter are too secure in their crushing Lok Sabha majority to try very hard, and get away too often with not even addressing the issues raised by the Opposition speakers.
The Prime Minister, Mr Modi, is a formidable speaker but though his speeches often seek to put the Opposition down, they rarely involve the rebuttal of specific points or the laying out of counter-arguments targeting the case made by the Opposition.
ELLE: As you’ve mentioned, you essentially expanded on your arguments made at the Oxford Union to put together An Era of Darkness, a 333-page book that’s an indictment of British rule in India. I’m intrigued by the title. Was it a conscious play on VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964), which for the most part was an indictment of post-independence India itself?
ST: To some degree, yes. We first chose the title ‘A Long Darkness’ but as I started saying it aloud, I felt something was missing. ‘An Era Of Darkness’ struck me as more memorable, and the deliberate echo of Naipaul didn’t hurt, since it conveys that the book is also a refutation of what others have written (though not, in this case, of Mr Naipaul himself).
ELLE: What did you think of VS Naipaul’s criticisms in An Area of Darkness (1964), or for that matter the two other gloomy non-fiction accounts—A Wounded Civilization (1977) and Million Mutinies Now (1990)—that he wrote on the state of India?
ST: Not much. I found them disappointingly superficial, impressionist, and prejudiced. They also had some hilarious mistakes of fact and interpretation. I remember reviewing Million Mutinies Now when it came out and identifying at least 15 such howlers.
ELLE: As you point out in your book, your Oxford Union speech had your Right Wing critics stop trolling you. Could this be because the Right Wing narrative of India is based on how everything that’s wrong with this country has been caused by the ‘other’. It’s the British, where their arguments fit in. But they’ll go further back to say the Mughal rule was foreign rule too. Where does one stop?
ST: That’s where we part company. My basic analysis of colonialism should be acceptable to Marxists and Hindutva types alike, as well as Congress nationalists. But we disagree when I speak of 200 years of foreign rule—and they speak of 1,200 years, to include Muslim rulers as well. As far as I am concerned, the Muslim rulers were unlike the British, because they stayed and assimilated here, married into Indian society and made this country their home.
The fourth Mughal was seven-eighths of Indian blood; his Ferghana Valley genes had been diluted by each of his male ancestors marrying Indian women. And even if you argue that these rulers looted India, they also spent their loot in India, whereas the British drained our resources for the benefit of their faraway homeland.
ELLE: The mushrooming of a Hindu chauvinist/nationalist mindset in India, coupled with eulogizing of a distant past where we were the greatest, appears to have become the new mainstream in India, if one were to go by legacy media, or social media for sure. What do you think has led to this?
ST: I think something of a corrective was indeed necessary for our excessively Western-centred education, which was itself a colonial legacy (as I show in the book)—but the chauvinists have gone too far. I am totally in favour of teaching the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the works of Kalidasa in our schools. I would also agree with offering Sanskrit, Tamil or one of the languages recognised by the Government of India as “classical”. Our kids need to be aware of our own cultural heritage. It’s when the Hindutva agenda wants to go beyond all this to impose the beliefs of Savarkar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in the classroom that I draw the line.
ELLE: This demonizing of the ‘other’ that’s being called Right Wing opinion, for some reason, seems to have taken far stronger grip in mature democracies in the West, shockingly even America, what with the parachuting of Trump. What do you attribute this ideological shift, or even a move towards xenophobia across the West to?
ST: To a great extent it’s a revolt against the elites—the economic elite, the cultural elite, the media elite, the Wall Street establishment. With his street talk and his politically incorrect views Trump succeeded in capturing the mood and in portraying himself—a billionaire businessman totally complicit in the system—as the Outsider candidate!
His campaign also fed on the resentments that exclusion from the elite evokes in people—and a lot of that manifests itself in xenophobia, and religious and racial bigotry.
ELLE: At some level, the point of your book is also to bunkum the theory of how great the British Raj was, as perpetuated through British pop-culture, with shows like Jewel Of The Crown, or more recently, Indian Summers. Would that be correct?
ST: Absolutely. There’s been a lot of self-justificatory mythologising in Britain about the colonial era. A lot of the popular histories of the British Empire in the last decade or two, by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have painted it in rosy colours, and this needed to be challenged. Popular television shows tend to focus only on the romanticized aspects of the Raj. The truth needed to be pointed out.
ELLE: The oft quoted and probably the most popular argument you make vis-à-vis India and British rule is that at the beginning of the 18th Century, India’s share of world economy was 23 per cent. It was down to 3 per cent when the British left in ’47. These years also coincide with the industrial revolution, and a move away from agrarian economy. And there is no evidence to suggest those benefits would’ve accrued to India, with or without British rule. Would you agree?
ST: Not at all. You seem to be making the argument that it wasn’t the British who destroyed the Indian economy but the pace of global economic and technological changes that left us behind. But if we “missed the bus” of industrialization, it was because the British threw us under its wheels.
My book lays bare the specific policies, laws and tariffs that were used to break successful Indian industries like textiles, shipbuilding and steel, the British role in creating landlessness and rural poverty for the first time, and the systematic expropriation of India’s wealth and resources. Left to our own devices, in control of our own economy and tariffs, we could have industrialised, just as Japan did, without having to be colonised.
ELLE: Given Europe’s obvious advancements in modern science, technology, military hardware, and their aggressive expansionist intents, it might be fair to assume that colonial domination was perhaps inevitable. In that backdrop, how would you rate the British rule in India as compared to experiences of other colonies with other imperialist regimes, say the Dutch in Indonesia, or the French in Algeria. Is there such a thing as a benevolent coloniser?
ST: It’s hard for any nationalist to concede that colonial rule was “inevitable”. Of course it could have been resisted, and in many places it was, but the Brits’ superior weaponry and organization, and our own rulers’ disunity and opportunism, prevailed.
The main difference with the French (or the Portuguese, for that matter) is that the British were not interested in assimilation. No brown-skinned Indian was ever empowered to say “I am British” before 1947, the way a black Senegalese or brown Algerian would proudly say “Je suis Francais”.
ELLE: Everything that the British introduced to India—from tea to textiles, railways to rule of law—was to benefit themselves essentially, you argue, and perhaps rightly so. What do you make of post-independence city planning and architecture, and that our cities look like shit the moment we move away from whatever areas the Brits left behind?
ST: My book examines each of the supposed benefits of British rule in turn—political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket—and demonstrates how every one of them was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British. Even tea, which I drink many cups of daily.
It’s true that there was no organised cultivation of tea before the British. But again, they set up the tea plantations in Assam (and later elsewhere) to save themselves the costs of importing Chinese tea, not to benefit us. It was only when the Great Depression left exporters with vast stocks of tea for which demand in Britain had dropped, that they started selling tea in large quantities to Indians.
I am no expert on city planning and architecture, but there’s clearly much to be dissatisfied about. My book does not seek to suggest that everything the British did was bad and everything independent Indians do is glorious. If we screw up, at least it’s our own screw-up, not some injustice imposed upon us by foreign rulers. And don’t forget that the “areas the Brits left behind” which you mention were areas they restricted to themselves; no Indians lived in those “white towns” and “civil lines”.
ELLE: As for the Indian Penal Code with draconian laws, from sedition to homosexuality; what’s stopped our lawmakers from turning down these British legacies?
ST: It’s inexcusable. I have tried to introduce private members’ bills in Parliament to amend both these laws, but the resistance is huge. Don’t forget that one of the great successes of colonialism is that it colonized our minds too.
It’s one of the great contemporary political ironies that the party of Hindutva has betrayed centuries of ancient Hindu practice in acceptance of sexual deviancy and preferred to stand up for Victorian British morality on Section 377.
ELLE: Finally, a question that doesn’t deal with your book, which you’ve come out with in such little time since your Oxford Union speech. You’ve been through various issues—personal and professional—widely reported in the press. None of this seems to have had any effect on your productivity and political and public engagements, even winning an election while the heat is so on, on the personal front. How do you insulate yourself from everything, and just be on the ball all the time? Looking for life lessons for readers here.
ST: Focus is essential, and a refusal to let your enemies and critics define you. You know who and what you are; stand up for yourself and be the best “you” that you can be. And as Kofi Annan once told me, citing a Ghanaian proverb—If the sharks bite you, don’t bleed. Don’t give the sharks and snakes who abound in our public life the satisfaction of seeing you suffer.