Interview: MP Shashi Tharoor on his new book 'An Era of Darkness'

The Kohinoor is never coming back to India, and Dr Shashi Tharoor doesn't mince words, when he spells it out for us. Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram, who whipped up a storm last year with his speech about Britain owing reparations to India at the Oxford Union, is out with a new historical non-fiction, An Era of Darkness (Aleph Book Company), where he hopes to expose the cruelties of the 200-year-rule of the Empire. In a tell-all interview with mid-day, Tharoor says why a book of this nature is indispensable to our time, even if Britain is not going to be sorry.


What prompted you to work on this book? Did you feel that the history being fed to Indians about its colonial history was misinformed or lacking?
Well, I've always been fascinated by Indian history, and had passionate views about it. So, though the idea came from David (Davidar), I didn't need much persuading. 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. Historical material is available to everyone who's willing to look for it, but perhaps it's been taught inadequately, and that's why it might be useful to people to have the arguments in one place, both to read and subsequently to refer to.

From the title of the book, it appears that you describe the British rule in India as 'An Era of Darkness'. If that's true, why?
If I could answer that in one sentence, I wouldn't need to write a 333-page book! British rule deindustrialised India; created landlessness and poverty; drained our country's resources; exploited, exiled and oppressed millions; sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to Partition; and was directly responsible for the deaths of three and a half crore people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines, as well as of thousands in massacres and killings. That just skims the surface of my argu-ments, but it sounds a lot like darkness, doesn't it?


Were there any positives to have emerged out of British capitalism? Do you think that the idea being fed to us about the Raj helping establish political unity in India is a sham?
Given the impulse for political unity throughout Indian history — witness the empires of the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals — it's reasonable to argue that if the British hadn't welded the subcontinent together, the Marathas or someone else would have. And since they were quite happy ruling under a Mughal figurehead, they wouldn't have partitioned that political unity either, as the British did. We might have had a constitutional monarchy rather like the Brits themselves! As for the supposed positives, my book examines each of these in turn — political unity, democracy and rule of law, 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.

You've been very vocal about wanting the British government to apologise for its autocratic rule in India, if not pay in kind. What in your opinion is holding them back?
Who knows? Pride, I suppose. Also many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors, and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign blessing for the ignorant natives. So, it would come as a rude shock to many to see their Prime Minister apologising to India, as Canada's (Justin) Trudeau did recently over the Komagata Maru incident. The Brits simply don't teach their own schoolchildren the truth about their colonial past, so most Britons don't know how much an apology is needed.

Do you feel that revealing the 'true' story behind India's colonial rule or rather, enlightening Indians about the messy affair, could help achieve reparation that you talk about?
I believe that Indians should know the truth about our own past — because if you don't know where you've come from, you'll never appreciate where you're going. That's more valuable than some token sum of reparation — and anything realistically payable could only be a token. An apology, of course, would signal true atonement, and that would be invaluable as well.

Asking the British to pay that 'symbolic' pound a day for the next 200 years, or getting them to apologise. What according to you is going to be tougher?
They're not going to pay that symbolic pound — and if they did, neither Treasury would know how to administer it! But an apology, one day, by a liberal-minded Prime Minister, is not impossible. Perhaps even in my lifetime.

On a lighter note, if you were to wake up one day, to the news that the British government is returning the Kohinoor to India, what would you think of it?
I'd think I was dreaming. And then I'd rush to the airport to welcome it home. But, I hate to break it to you — as I write in my book, I don't think that's ever going to happen.