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NON-FICTION: CHALLENGING FALSE NARRATIVES

Updated May 14, 2017 10:18am
Lord Robert Clive meets with Mir Jafar Ali Khan — who betrayed Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah — after the Battle of Plassey. Mir Jafar was subsequently made Nawab of Bengal, and his rule is considered the start of British Imperialism in India | Public domain
Lord Robert Clive meets with Mir Jafar Ali Khan — who betrayed Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah — after the Battle of Plassey. Mir Jafar was subsequently made Nawab of Bengal, and his rule is considered the start of British Imperialism in India | Public domain

Shashi Tharoor’s new book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, originated with a speech he made at the Oxford Union Society. The speech — the video of which went viral on social media — was on why Britain had to own up to its historic colonial sins in India, and it may well endear him to people of all political persuasions across the subcontinent. As one of modern India’s eminent politicians and authors, he has used his intellectual heft to swing a sledgehammer at the legacy of the British Raj.

Debunking point by point any notion that Britain was a benign master, Tharoor contends that rapacious exploitation by colonial authorities impoverished what was then one of the richest economies in the world: “In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8 per cent of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23 per cent. By 1940 after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the world’s GDP while India had been reduced to a poor third-world country.”

The extensive railway network is considered a crowning achievement of the Raj, but by no means, Tharoor asserts, was it a selfless transfer of technology for the uplift of its colonised subjects. In his view, the rail links were chains that bound the subcontinent, mobilising natural resources, military apparatus and personnel to impress control. Resources were shipped to ports via trains and ferried as grist for British mills — on the back of which Britain powered the Industrial Revolution and became the premier industrial power of its day.


Demolishing the idea of the ‘magnanimity’ of the Raj


Colonial apologists point out that the English language and cricket are indelible ‘gifts’ by the Raj to its Indian subjects, but closer historical examination proves otherwise. Instruction in English and participation in the sport was open only to the British and a select few Indians belonging to the privileged elite. And even then they faced discrimination — as the infamous inscription at numerous social clubs frequented by the British read, “Dogs and Indians [were] not allowed.” There was no concerted effort for widespread public education even as universal education was mandatory in the British Isles. As Tharoor points out, it was to their credit that Indians learned and excelled at the language and sport despite the hurdles.

Tharoor contends that the representative democracy bequeathed by the British, wholly unsuited to Indian demography and diversity, disrupted India’s own natural political evolution and played no small part in the institutional bloat endemic today. That begs the question, however, of why successive governments haven’t come up with solutions more suited to their own societies. Tharoor only gives a brief hint of what the political calculus of India would have been in the absence of British intervention.

Tharoor also finds disingenuous the claim by some historians that the unity of India as an idea and geographical entity is to the credit of the Raj. He lists historical precedents going back to the ancient scriptures of the Vedas, Mahabharata and Puranas where a Bharat Kshetra — a unified geography — was explicated. Rulers of the Mauryan and Mughal empires also sought to make this ideal a political unity. Ergo, to say that the British unified India is simply not true. A similar opinion has also been voiced in Diana L. Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography.

An illustration for the poem ‘Tom Raw, the Griffin’, that describes the adventures of a cadet in the East India Company’s service, from the period of his quitting England to his obtaining a staff position in India | The British Library
An illustration for the poem ‘Tom Raw, the Griffin’, that describes the adventures of a cadet in the East India Company’s service, from the period of his quitting England to his obtaining a staff position in India | The British Library

The dramatis personae of the imperial play are held to account as being “as rapacious as Clive, as ignorantly contemptuous as Macaulay, as arrogantly dense as Curzon and as racist as Churchill.” Tharoor discusses numerous instances when these ‘valorous’ sons of the Empire aided and abetted the greed, exploitation and racism unleashed on the colonised populace. He cites examples of Winston Churchill’s patronising tone towards his colonial subjects, especially Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi whom he labelled a “seditious fakir”; the self-assured missionary zeal of ‘civilising’ Indians; and Rudyard Kipling’s supremely condescending poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’.

In World War I, a total of 1.2 million Indian soldiers were deployed to various front-lines. Hundreds of thousands died or were maimed for life. There are few war memorials or commemorations for these forgotten legions that made the ultimate sacrifice in service of the Crown. Another glossed-over atrocity Tharoor discusses is the obscure subject of Indian indentured labour — slavery all but in name. These unfree migrants — as some historians blithely call them — were ferried to far-flung corners of the Empire for resource extraction. “[Between] 1519-1939 an estimated 5,300,000 unfree migrants were carried on British ships [...] 58 per cent were slaves, 36 per cent were indentured labour [...], six per cent were transported convicts, both from Indian and the other colonies.”

An English merchant travels comfortably in a palanquin carried by Indian locals | Library of Congress
An English merchant travels comfortably in a palanquin carried by Indian locals | Library of Congress

Tharoor alleges that the famines that ravaged the Indian heartland during the British Raj (the last of which was the great Bengal Famine of 1943), were all man-made disasters (an assertion the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has also made), brought on by the confluence of free market ideals, Malthusian suppositions and the nonchalance of the colonial administration: “The 35 million who died during the Raj does remind one of the 25 million who died in Stalin’s [...] political purges, the 45 million who died during Mao’s cultural revolution and the 55 million who died during World War II.”

On its own merit, An Era Of Darkness is a work of exceptional scholarship. Most post-Independence historical scholarship oscillates between the battle of Indian or Pakistani viewpoints. Not enough importance is given to the role Britain played in cleaving the subcontinent. However, the book’s biggest flaw is that Tharoor himself is guilty of the selective amnesia he accuses Britain of having. There is not a sliver of mention of the similar inequities that successive Indian governments have heaped on their citizens since Independence, although he does take the liberty of highlighting the many failings of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Indian Muslims are feeling increasingly alienated in their own country as machinations of the Hindu right grow ever more menacing. Religious pogroms and organised violence executed with the tacit approval — and sometimes active collusion — of state authorities and clampdowns by armed forces on the country’s own citizens have become regular occurrences. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka haven’t been oases of religious or communal harmony, either. Surely one can’t blame all this on colonial legacy alone.

Indian soldiers, who made up almost a third of the British Expeditionary Force during World War I, recuperate at a military hospital in Brighton, UK | The British Library
Indian soldiers, who made up almost a third of the British Expeditionary Force during World War I, recuperate at a military hospital in Brighton, UK | The British Library

Britain may not have come to grips with its dark colonial past, but have there been earnest efforts by South Asian countries to heal old wounds with sections of society their own governments have wronged? It does take a flight of imagination to make the case for the moral superiority of a post-Independence India vis-а-vis British India. Perhaps the scale of Indian transgressions is outside the scope of this book, but such glaring omission of similar atrocities perpetrated by post-Independence South Asian governments does remove nuance from Tharoor’s thesis.

To his credit, Tharoor is not vindictive nor does he bear a grudge. He merely seeks acknowledgment and an unconditional apology for past wrongs, rightfully pointing out that if German children can be made to visit Holocaust memorials to take painful lessons from their past, why can’t British students be taught about the follies of the British Empire? As for reparations, he realises it is futile to calculate the total extent of what Britain owes the subcontinent, but feels that a small token, as a symbolic gesture to atone for past sins, would be appreciated. However, that’s a tall order since any attempt to even broach this subject is met with disbelief in the British establishment and scholarly circles: the ingratitude of the former colonial subjects that had it so good, as evidenced by the call of Portia Simpson Miller, then prime minister of Jamaica, for reparations of billions of pounds. Her demand fell on deaf ears — in an official statement Downing Street said that the prime minister does not believe reparations or apologies for slavery are the right approach.

All things considered, An Era Of Darkness holds its own against other post-colonial literature such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth. It is essential reading for anyone seeking a broader understanding of conflicts that plague the subcontinent even today. While there is no reasonable hope of reparations or even acknowledgement from Downing Street to Britain’s former colony, the book kindles a debate worth having. The past does, after all, have bearing on the present and the future; as Tharoor writes, “Sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.”

The reviewer has worked as a producer in news media and an analyst in the NGO sector

An Era of Darkness:
The British Empire in India
By Shashi Tharoor
Aleph Book Company, India
ISBN: 978-9383064656
360pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017