$3 trillion (approx. Rs 210 lakh crores) is what the British owe to India. Owe for what? For 200 years of suppression of India, driven primarily by mercantile greed and nothing else. In his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Shashi Tharoor puts forth a detailed account of greedy trespassers who went on to become rulers, and breaks down the myths of “How the British helped India by ruling over us for 200 years”.
In fact, this book does not read as a book. It reads as an argument that deconstructs commonly spread (not held) myths, with data that is difficult to argue against. Which is not surprising, given that the genesis of this book is Tharoor’s viral video of his debate at Oxford Union in 2015 titled “Britain Does Owe Reparations”. The book also is kind of book-of-books because it brings together insights and nuggets spread across other books that looked at the same theme-How British rule plundered India and, while it created infrastructure like the railways, administrative systems like the Indian Penal Code, how these were driven by mercantile greed and the need to keep the natives in control. Tharoor helps synthesise arguments from Madhusree Mukerjee’s finely nuanced Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during the Second World War. He extensively quotes from Will Durant’s The Case for India, published in 1930s, when the American writer, on a visit to India to research for The Story of Civilization, was so aghast by the horrors of colonialism, he took time out to write his account of the exploitation of India by the British.
An Era of Darkness is structured to address each of the arguments that the ‘apologists’ make in favour of Britain’s rule over India. In deconstructing these arguments, Tharoor’s favourite punching bag turns out to be Niall Ferguson’s Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World. Beginning with the popular myth of how the British gave India its political unity, then moving across to how divide-and-rule policy led to the census exercise, and then closing with the softer influences of the Empire-tea and cricket, the book picks each argument to present a strongly believable counterpoint using data. For example, in early 18th century, India contributed 23% of the world’s trade. In 1947, when the British left India, India was contributing 1.8% to the world GDP. In 1922, 64% of India’s revenue went into the upkeep of the British Indian troops sent abroad to strengthen the empire under the Union Jack. This was the highest for any army in the world. And the army was fighting the cause of its oppressor.
Colonialists across the world had different purposes to rule over natives – for the French, it was the spread of their language and culture. For the Portuguese, it was religion. In fact, the Portuguese ruled over Goa for 450 years, twice that of the British rule! But Goa did not get railways or Macaulay’s education system. Instead, Goans got Christianity, as forced conversion was an important agenda for the rulers. The British, as Tharoor rightly points out, were not interested in the spread of religion or English language, they were just interested in maximising the original intent of the East India Company-mercantile greed and profit. Railways helped build, as Tharoor says, the biggest ‘scam’ of its time, making many British businessmen rich way beyond their wildest dreams.
I revisited Tharoor’s viral YouTube video of his Oxford debate after reading this book. In these tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) times, I guess most people will prefer the 15 minutes video that has garnered more than 3 million views – at least the tl;dr generation will get the right perspective by watching the video. For all of us who love to read, An Era of Darkness is a good read.
What has surprised me is that the author, being a Congress MP, has not yet been challenged by those on the far Right, about the possible arguments for and against of An Era of Darkness under almost six decades of Congress rule over independent India.
If there was a Jallianwala Bagh during the British rule, there was Bhopal Gas Tragedy in Independent India under Congress rule, where the then state machinery actually helped Union Carbide Chairman (now deceased) Warren Anderson escape out of India without a trial. Jallianwala Bagh was an atrocity of oppression, Bhopal was a tragedy of connivance of a democratically elected government. Any ruler, whether by force or by elected mandate, becomes accountable to An Era of Darkness kind of debate, especially if the rule spreads over a reasonably long period of time.
(Views expressed are of the author.)
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Release: October 2016
Genre: Non Fiction / History
Buy from Amazon