The Raj, the colony and some home truths

“The reason why history is relevant today is because it is still something we can argue about,” says Dr Shashi Tharoor, member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, former UN official and Profilic Author.

“The reason why history is relevant today is because it is still something we can argue about,” says Dr Shashi Tharoor, member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, former UN official and prolific author. One can count on Dr Tharoor’s new book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire In India, to do just that. In a free-wheeling conversation with Patralekha Chatterjee, Dr Tharoor talks about why he wrote the book, the many faces of British colonisation, and more.

In the preface to An Era of Darkness: The British Empire In India, you say that the fact that your (Oxford Union) speech struck such a chord with so many listeners suggested that what you considered basic — “Indian Nationalism 101” — was unfamiliar to many, perhaps most, educated Indians. Why What about the British There are a number of reasons. For Indians, I think it is frankly inexcusable. If people don’t know, it is either because the subject is so badly taught they don’t pay attention. Or because, as I discover when I speak to bright students, we have simply become a culture more attuned to the sciences, giving humanities short shrift, and giving very little attention to history and geography.

As far as Britain is concerned, it is deliberate amnesia. The British just don’t teach their colonial past. They talk about Britain relinquishing its imperial possessions without describing how those possessions were acquired, how they were run, what their benefits were and so on. One of the striking things about the current immigration debate in Britain — many Brits don’t understand why these black and brown people are there.

In both countries, there is a need to know. I have argued there are two things that the Brits can do — one is, of course, to apologise. And for that I have suggested that one perfect place and occasion is the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. But the other thing the Brits can do is to teach their children the truth.

The Germans went through a similar amnesia. For 50 years, no one taught about Nazis in schools healing the country was more important. Then from early 1980s onwards, they went the opposite way. They not only taught the period, they insisted on taking bus-loads of school children to concentration camps and showed them the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis.

You write, “History belongs to the past but understanding it is the duty of the present.” In India, there is an ongoing battle about history. How do we rescue the business of understanding history from political forces who want to twist history This is not new. It has been going on since the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, which started in the late 1980s. In my novel Riot, I write that history is often a battle between memory and forgetting. If you allow yourself to lose memory, you get to oblivion. But if you allow yourself to have memory distortion, then you are being partial to history.

Alternative histories have every right to exist. So the novel Riot is written about one riot, but from 13 different points of view. We ultimately arrive at truth only through multiple routes which is a very Indian idea. The acceptance that there are different ways of looking at things is integral to Hindu philosophy, Upanishads, Vedanta and so on. My argument is very much in that tradition.

In the case of this (book), it is also animated by a little bit of anger that the Brits have been able to get away for so long with such a self-justifying, mythologising of their past. In the Indian context, history is contested territory. But we have to understand the politics behind the contest.

There are some who are close to this government who speak of 1,200 years of foreign rule. I only speak about 200 years of foreign rule. Why For me, the Muslim rulers who stayed and assimilated here are not foreigners. They may have looted India but they spent the proceeds of their loot in this country. They brought their artistes, craftsmen, sculptors and architects from other countries, but they absorbed them, and left behind their monuments.

There is a difference between those who may have originally come from somewhere else but made their home here and those whose entire logic was looting this place for the benefit of a foreign land far away. To me, that distinction is very important. Clearly, this is contested ground. The Hindutva brigade obviously sees it differently.

It is fashionable today to blame Nehru and socialism for India’s economic ills. How much of today’s economic problems can also be traced to the colonial era The 47 years before we got our Independence, our growth rate was below 0.1 per cent, our literacy rate when the British left was 16 per cent, our life expectancy was 27 per cent, there were practically no schools, hospitals, universities. You can go down the list and see how denuded and bare and stripped we were. From being one of the richest countries in the world when the British came, we were reduced to one of the poorest when they left. The British created landlessness, poverty. They allowed people to die during famines.

To say from there that we have not come far enough belies a certain level of ignorance. We have made significant accomplishments. I also take pains to stress that I do not want to use colonialism to excuse any of the failings of today.

But we have to understand where we started off. Nehruji did lay a basic industrial base in India, created scientific establishments from which we have prospered. The British did not give us any IITs.

But liberalisation ought to have come sooner. If liberalisation had come in the 1970s, rather than the 1990s, we might have grown faster, prospered earlier than China, taken some of the advantages of manufacturing where we do seem to be late. But to ignore the India that we found in 1947 is ahistorical.

Any reactions from the Indian diplomatic establishment to your recent magazine article about why you believe you lost the race for the UN Secretary-General’s post To be honest, they (India’s diplomatic establishment) have not reacted to me as yet. Partly it is because I have not been here a lot since the article came out. Perhaps had I been in the cocktail or book-release circuit in Delhi, I would have run into some diplomats. But it was important for me to put this on record.

Any reactions to your new book from Empire apologists (Laughs) I have taken them head-on. But the book has just come out. Some of these historians live in Britain where they are more likely to see the British edition. It is too early. I am happy to argue with these people.

My central argument is that all the things they have pointed to as accomplished by the Empire was not done out of altruistic motives. In every single case, they were done not only to serve just British interests, but often in direct neglect and hostility to Indian interests.

But I also point out a recent study that has demonstrated that a significantly high percentage of former British colonies are democracies, more than any other colonies. That may be to the British credit. At the very least, they left behind a model showing how they run their country which many of their colonies want to emulate.