Shashi Tharoor’s new book — An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India — has recently been published by the Aleph Book Company. In Tharoor’s own words, with this book, he has “taken all the arguments conventionally made in favour of Empire and systematically countered them”. In an interview with Firstpost, the Lok Sabha MP and bestselling writer spoke about why the ‘rosy colours’ popular histories have used to paint the British Empire needed to be wiped away:
Firstpost: In talking about the book I go back to a debate that I saw you participate in on the BBC, right after the speech at Oxford, in which a lady, present apparently to speak for the ‘other side’ of the argument, began her sentence by saying ‘I have read about this’ which only implied the passable nature of the knowledge Britons have about the Empire’s history. Why do you think that is? Why hasn’t it changed, and will it ever?
Shashi Tharoor: Deliberate historical amnesia. As an article this week by the Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin points out in The Guardian, 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. 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. 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. All this explains their ignorance — but does not excuse it.
Focusing on the East India Company alone (of which William Dalrymple has comprehensively written in isolation about) it is ironic that people on the other side of the argument cite India’s corruption post-independence as justification for the Raj’s sins, despite the company’s own corrupt practices and considering the efforts it took the British Parliament to assume control of the project. But beyond that, though (history as was under the Empire), do we have a counter-argument to offer in the ‘present’? Would you agree that we have let ourselves down in that context?
First, one set of failings do not excuse another, let alone justify them. Two wrongs don’t make either one right! Second, the East India Company’s extraction and expropriation of India’s national wealth was both corrupt and destructive of India’s economy, whereas some post-independence corruption actually facilitated the growth of India’s economy. Third, despite our post-Independence failures we have achieved a lot more in 70 years for our people than the British did in 200. The British left us with 16 percent literacy, we’ve taken it to 82 percent; the British left us an India with 90 percent below the poverty line, today it’s 26 percent. From 1900-1947, the Indian economy grew at less than 0.1 percent — in effect, not at all; whereas today we are growing at over 6 percent. And so on… Given that the British took one of the richest countries in the world and left it as one of the poorest, we’ve come a long way and have much to be proud of.
For some, nothing in the book is new (as you admit in the preface), except perhaps that for once these facts have been presented with a stimulating narrative, one that is neither bereft of emotion or self-checked diction. You do in places even state the positives, like the printing presses, or the settlement of princely feuds. It is a directed, yet balanced approach. Were you extra cautious? Did you at times over-emote, or sort of draw, back to points where the sentiment got the better of you? Is that also a risk when writing a book of this nature?
No, I didn’t hold back, particularly! If anything some of my British friends are likely to be left smarting. I have taken all the arguments conventionally made in favour of Empire and systematically countered them — I’d like to think, demolished them. There’s always a risk of being too impassioned about the subject; much less, I think, of being “extra cautious”.
Apologists often purport the argument that the Empire brought a primitive people into the next age (the railways, democracy, parliamentary rule, the fraudulent ICS). Would you agree that a more anthropological temper to writing history would also help address this flawed argument? To sort of go beyond the GDPs, the economy etc? Who/what would you suggest people to read to understand the argument better?
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 organized 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. There’s a lot of this kind of detail, some of its anecdotal, in the book. As to what people might like to read to know more, they could start with the sources cited in my 24 pages of footnotes and references!
Neither of us has grown up without a colonial hangover. Why has then this debate, the one your speech started, taken so much time to be considered? Do you feel this question, could and should have been asked sooner?
I don’t know! My publisher, David Davidar, thinks the reason the speech went viral is because I put together a whole range of arguments about Empire that people hadn’t heard in that way, or at least hadn’t thought about. It certainly seemed to strike a chord that this book builds on. 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. I believe strongly 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.
You mention post-Brexit Britain as the ideal place for this question to be asked, for an answer to be considered and reparation of sorts to be offered. Is that due to the motivations behind the vote? Could you elaborate on that a bit more?
Well, the Brexit vote suggested a Britain that was in many ways rejecting the cosmopolitanism of today’s Europe for a narrower, more exclusivist idea of “Little England” — which is precisely the kind of Britain that needs to be reminded how much it owes to the black and brown people it colonised, enslaved and exploited. But I don’t in fact ask for reparations — rather, I call for atonement, principally in the form of an apology from Britain to India for two centuries of atrocities and misdeeds.
My reason is simple: anything realistically payable could only be a token, and the symbolic one pound a year for 200 years that I suggested at Oxford would probably not be feasible to administer. More important, how do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? 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. There’s really no compensation for all this that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by their Prime Minister to India, as Canada’s Trudeau did recently over the Komagata Maru incident, would signal true atonement. Imagine a British Prime Minister, on the centenary of Jallianwalla Bagh, apologising to the Indian people for that massacre and by extension for all colonial injustices — that would be better than any sum of reparations. It would shake the “Brexit Brits” up a bit, but it would them a lot of good!
Something I feel is never mentioned or discussed enough is the role of Indian population that complied and even assisted the Raj, in return for favours monetary or otherwise. Surely, that money, land etc staying within the borders can’t be the excuse to let these legacies go unconsidered. Is there a need, then, to call out for reparations or, at least apologies from this group as well? Is that something you would welcome?
No. Every colonial situation had its “native informants”, its “comprador capitalists”, its servants and sepoys. Their descendants today may have benefited from their ancestors’ collaboration with the Raj, but they have been supplanted and are now ruled by the heirs of those who resisted the Raj, and triumphed. I have long argued that you can’t revenge yourself upon history: history is its own revenge.