Book Review: An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor

We must thank Shashi Tharoor for such a wonderful book which would open the eyes of the Indian public and students, largely and unfortunately disconnected with this important bit of our history.

An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor can be purchased from Amazon

Shashi Tharoor gave a fantastic speech at Oxford last year where he took apart the British rule in India. He playfully asked for a reparation of one pound a year just to acknowledge the horrors they perpetrated in India by form of the colonial rule. The amount of money which the British took from India during the two centuries of plunder is close to around 3 trillion dollars in today’s money. Some have put the value even higher. Obviously, UK cannot part with such kind of money. The speech went viral across the globe and his popularity soared. He was requested a full-length book based on that speech by his publishers; and this book is an outcome of such efforts, which goes deeper to document the absolute and total darkness of the British rule in India.

In 1750, India and China were contributing 75% of the world GDP. In 1600, Britain was producing 1.8% of the world GDP, when the East India Company was set up. When Britain left India in 1947 after 200 years of rule, Britain was contributing 10% 0f the world GDP and India was reduced to a pathetic 1.8%. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27 years, and over 90% living below the poverty line. Electricity was supplied first in the 1890’s. Till 1947 in a span of 50 years, all of Britain, US, and Europe was electrified; but the Raj connected merely 1500 of India’s 640,000 villages to the electricity grid.

India was an ‘extractive colony’ as described aptly in the book, ‘Why Nations Fail.’ India’s Kohinoor diamond mined in Guntur found its way to UK largely by deceit and it is yet to come back. India’s rich maritime trade and highly developed banking system was brought to a grinding halt under the brutal colonial rule. In 1750, Indians had a standard of living like those in Britain, but the income plummeted to a tenth of the British in 1947.

Any country is made up of two things- First, the state machinery consisting of armies, censuses, bureaucracies, railroads, hospitals, telegrams and scientific institutions; and secondly, there are the liberal norms like individual rights, freedom of thought and speech, artistic and political expression, equality under the law and political democracy. The two may not go together as in the case of China where there is an absence of the latter. But the British Raj systematically subverted each of the state machinery tools to its profit by sheer plunder and manipulation. The liberal norms benefitted only the white skinned Britishers. Britishers literally got away with murder, but Indians received punishment in far excess to the quantum of their offences. Employment of Indians was restricted to lowly clerical jobs and interpreters.

75,000 Indian soldiers were killed during World War 1 and an equal number were wounded in a fight involving the European powers. Their stories have been largely omitted from British popular histories. 588,717 Indians were sent to Mesopotamia, 116,159 to Egypt, 131,496 to France, 47,000 to East Africa, 4000 to Gallipoli, 5000 to Salonica, 20,000 to Aden and around 30,000 to the Persian Gulf to fight in World War 1 for the British. Most of the Indian soldiers were involved in battles in which there was no personal stake and honour. The backbone of British army was in fact the Indian soldiers.

In the entire 107 years from 1793 to 1900, an estimated 5 million people died the world over in all the wars combined. But, in just 10 years 1891-1900, 19 million people died in India due to famines alone. The famines were the biggest colonial holocausts; and is right at the top of some of the most brutal inhumanities in modern times, says the author. The regular famines of Bengal were the result of careless planning, Malthusian ideas, and highly racist leaders sitting in England looking the other way. Churchill hated the Indians and thought that they bred like animals. He was most dismissive of Gandhi asking why he did not die fasting. While the people in Bengal were dying due to famine, the rice from the area was being exported to feed the soldiers fighting the World War in Europe. 2,065,554 Indian soldiers were raised for the Second World War, and around 149,225 soldiers died between 1939 and1945.

Britain strangled Indian steel industry; but ironically, 7000 tonnes of steel sheet were shipped to Britain after their steel shipments were lost at sea during the war. The great argument of the pro-British Raj group goes in the form of giving political unity to the country, democracy, a free press, a parliamentary system, and the rule of law. Also, the railways, tea, telegraph, and the English language are supposed to be the significant contributions of the English rule. The author systematically rebuts each of the so called positive contributions. Many would have just evolved without the need of colonization as has happened in many countries because of globalization and the internal needs of trade. Computerization is one such example. We are the world software leaders without needing anyone to rule or subjugate us.

The railways were built more for the British exploitation of Indian resources rather than for Indians. It hardly employed Indians, but it was constructed on Indian money. It was a private enterprise where the British investors got huge returns at the risk and expense of Indian public taxation. The freight rates were kept very cheap and the passenger rates were very expensive, the reverse of what is done now. The Indians were herded in third class compartments without any amenities, and the Whites had exclusive empty compartments to travel. Indians were not employed in the railways and there was no transfer of technology, out of fear. It is ironical today that Indian Railways provide technical help to UK.

Will Durant, the eminent historian, described the British rule in India as the most terrible blow against humanity in his book, ‘The Case for India’, written in detail and depth. Here is a sample of what he Durant in his book:

“The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and “legal” plunder, which has now gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years, and goes on at this moment while in our secure comfort we write and read.”

The taxation system was brutal, and they continued despite the famines.The agrarian system was destroyed as huge lands were converted to cultivate opium, something even some Britishers felt was wrong.Lord Macaulay’s education system is something which everyone is probably aware of, as he set to create a select group of Indian elites, who would be interpreters between the few rulers and the millions of illiterate Indians. The traditional education systems were systematically destroyed.

The unity which they gave us is the biggest myth. They thrived on the policy of divide and rule. This became more so after the 1857 mutiny. Every conceivable institution and even cricket matches were polarised into various groups to create a fissure. All the policies led to the partition of the country in 1947. The horrors of the partition where millions died is another sad saga by itself.

There have been a great number of pro-Raj apologists like Ferguson and our own Nirad Chaudhary. But, it is surprising to see that Karl Marx thought on the same lines as well. Karl Marx writes in 1853:

“A country not only divided between Mahommedan and Hindoo, but between tribe and tribe, between caste and caste; a society whose framework was based on a sort of equilibrium, resulting from a. general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness between all its members. Such a country and such a society, were they not the predestined prey of conquest? If we knew nothing of the past history of Hindostan, would there not be the one great and incontestable fact, that even at this moment India is held in English thraldom by an Indian army maintained at the cost of India? India, then, could not escape the fate of being conquered, and the whole of her past history, if it be anything, is the history of the successive conquests she has undergone. Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society. The question, therefore, is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton. England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia. Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Moguls, who had successively overrun India, soon became Hindooized, the barbarian conquerors being, by an eternal law of history, conquered themselves by the superior civilization of their subjects. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindoo civilization. They destroyed it by breaking up the native communities, by uprooting the native industry, and by levelling all that was great and elevated in the native society. The historic pages of their rule in India report hardly anything beyond that destruction. The work of regeneration hardly transpires through a heap of ruins. Nevertheless, it has begun.”

And we have our lovely people swearing on Karl Marx, who can perhaps explain these Marxist thoughts to us. The British conducting of the census was an exercise in dividing people in the name of castes and Jatis; and many people were permanently fixed into strong caste affiliations. If at all, they played a hard game to create the rigid caste system, the effects of which we are still facing today.
The author does not mention it, but the crass Aryan-Dravidian theory is also a product of colonial history meant to divide the country. It was initiated by the charlatan Max Mueller, who was on the payrolls of East India Company to create an ambiguous divide in the country to give a justification to the British rule in India. Political parties have been created based on this pseudo classification. The after effects are being felt even today and the bizarre politics based on this issue are increasingly being played out without any hope of dissolving.

One could go on and on without ending. The author documents and provides evidence for each of the contending statements without any ambiguity. The result is the clear realization of the brutality, horror, and depravity of the British colonial rule in India. I had to stop reading every few pages in sadness and shock to shed a tear for the country. There were good people too, like Sir Arthur Cotton, but they were far and few; and at best could only alleviate the misery to a little extent, but in no way justified the British rule. The few good individuals should not exonerate the collective crime and guilt, the author feels, and one cannot but agree.

He starts hitting below the belt from the first page and continues till the end in the same emphatic manner. The language is very fluid, the data are unrelenting, and the impact is very dramatic. The book is a must read for all the Indians, and especially for the few romantics, who have an illusion that the British rule was good for India. The book should be read by the present generation British, who are given a sanitised version of their history; albeit, it will be a bit difficult for them to digest the facts presented in the book. What they did to the country was unforgivable; but it is perhaps the greatness of Indian people rooted in the ancient civilization that we did just that. We did forgive them, but it would be a crime, if we forget too.

Surprisingly, there is no ill-will even though every system in the country was subverted; every economic institution was plundered; and the rule of law was applied very selectively. There can be no end to the description of their perpetrated horrors, but the most brutal and cold blooded was the Jalianwala Bagh massacre led by one General Dyer. It was one of the cruellest acts against humanity and shook the Indian leaders and the world. But not the British though. General Dyer was exonerated of his act and was almost made a hero by the British law and the people. It was one of the most shameful acts of the British Raj, for which there should be a strong apology; and we shall perhaps wait forever.

The dilemma of being a Congressman comes through gently in the pages, but Shashi Tharoor handles it well. He may or may not have turned right to please the BJP as some writers have suspected; that is not relevant in the overall scheme and importance of the book. I wish he had spoken more about Subhas Chandra Bose and the revolutionaries, who were subjected to rather inhuman cruelties. They had a very important role in our independence movement, but like a true Congressman, he dwells on Gandhi and Nehru to claim the honour of getting independence to India. But, the author is an extremely well-read man and is aware of the importance of the naval mutinies of 1945, the collapse of the Quit India movement of 1942, and the role of other players too, who are conventionally omitted in our textbooks. He does go grossly wrong with the dating of the Mahabharata, 400 BCE to 400 CE, which is consistent with the Aryan theory time frames suggested by our leftist historians. The evidence is clearly against that date, but I would feel he is a man who might want to be corrected in the face of new information.

Recently, a spate of scholarly articles is increasingly questioning the role of the traditional heroes and of the Indian National Congress in the gaining of our Independence. But, the author stays far from them because of his political background. Also, there are some cringe worthy moments, when like a true left of centre politician, he quotes positively the likes of Romila Thapar, Pankaj Mishra, Diana Eck, and Amartya Sen, who are known leftists or left-sympathizers. Their views on history of India are controversial and highly debatable. Many scholars have rejected their theories outright. Of course, scholars like Rajiv Malhotra or Michel Danino cannot be possibly quoted by a Congressman without fear of repercussions. But, these are minor distractions, when compared to the gravity of the issue discussed in the book.

The book is important for every Indian who was taught nothing about all this in our history books. We must thank Shashi Tharoor for such a wonderful book which would open the eyes of the Indian public and students, largely and unfortunately disconnected with this important bit of our history.

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