An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor is a succinct, well researched and crisp analysis of the effects of two centuries of British Raj on Indian society, politics, academics, industry, health and economy.
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Buy From amazon India
Price: Rs. 394.25 for Kindle edition, and Rs. 439 for the hardcover
The book is divided in to eight major chapters. The first chapter deals with the unapologetic and thuggish looting of India by the officials of the East India company. The numbers show that India’s percentage of world GDP reduced from 27 to 2 over the course of the British Raj.
The next 5 chapters unveil the truly horrifying story behind the supposed benefits of the British Raj that culminated in an ultimately democratic, politically united, law abiding, enlightened India with an extensive railway network. Let’s just say Sashi Tharoor makes it amply clear that for the most part we achieved all of this in spite of the British, not because of them.
The last two chapters deal with the lasting economic, social and political effects of British rule in India. Even today, we are reeling under the effects of Divide Et Impera with main stream and social media spewing hate speech, the bizarre British prejudice against homosexuality, and their cruel sedition laws designed to crush dissent and free speech.
Why read the book? Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones?
Because this is not yesterday’s problem. We obviously haven’t put the past to rest when it comes to partition, caste discrimination, religious differences and so much more. Even as it seemed we had made peace with the past, and hoped the new generation would carry none of the baggage, social media used its unprecedented reach to flagrantly reopen old wounds. It has become increasingly clear that we cannot meaningfully bury the past until we understand it. Here is why I think this book is a must read for Indians in particular.
Having read loads of Enid Blyton books, I learned that honor sportsmanship and an unerring sense of fairness were an inherent part of English culture. What was left out was, that such decorum was expected only in interactions with other Englishmen.
My own impressions of the Raj, were those of who Tharoor calls British apologists. They attempt to make the empire appear relatively benign. A revisionist view of the empire, completely at odds with the facts, can subconsciously undermine our self-confidence.
That’s why reading this book is important. It’s not about dwelling in a glorious past and lamenting its loss. It’s about learning what we lost and how, so we can move on.
Here are some important lessons from the book.
The British were barbarians, not gentlemen
This might make a psychological difference to how we perceive our subjugation. The British were by no means the gentlemen they like to call themselves, when it came to India. The term barbaric is more fitting. Let me give you an example, quoting from the book, the words of Edmund Burke:
they [Bengali women] were dragged out, naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the people… they put the nipples of the women into the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies
All this, for simply being too poor to pay impossibly high taxes.
Understanding the industrial revolution interms of cause and effect
The facts in the book make it clear that the industrial revolution in Britain did not cause of deindustrialization of India. In fact it was funded by loot from India carried home by the East India Company officials. The book explains how the British forcefully, through violence, oppressive taxes and reprehensible policies destroyed the textile and shipping industry in India, because Britain, unable to compete, was threatened by its success. Quoting from the book
As late as the mid-eighteenth century, Bengal’s textiles were still being exported to Egypt, Turkey and Persia in the West, and to Java, China and Japan in the East, along well-established trade routes, as well as to Europe. The value of Bengal’s textile exports alone is estimated to have been around 16 million rupees annually in the 1750s...
... During the century to 1757, while the British were just traders and not rulers, their demand is estimated to have raised Bengal’s textile and silk production by as much as 33 per cent.... But when the British traders took power, everything changed.
They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a Company monopoly. They cut off the export markets for Indian textiles, interrupting long-standing independent trading links. As British manufacturing grew, they went further. Indian textiles were remarkably cheap—so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and, according to at least one contemporary account (as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief), breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft.
Crude destruction, however, was not all. More sophisticated modern techniques were available in the form of the imposition of duties and tariffs of 70 to 80 per cent on whatever Indian textiles survived, making their export to Britain unviable.
As Tharoor puts it, even if British technology became superior without colonial rule, a rich and thriving India would simply import it, and then develop it locally.
The damage to the fabric of a fluid society
Indian social structure of those times was fluid unlike the rigidly hierarchical British society. The book informs that India had a dynamic economic and political order comprised of a network of self-reliant villages run by constant negotiation between rulers. The British imposed an abstract and inflexible system of law and order unsuited to the diversity and vastness of India. But a flexible and thriving administrative system is not all they destroyed in imposing their narrow and selfish ideas of governance. Quoting from the book:
... the colonialists’ efforts to catalogue, classify and categorize the Indians they ruled directly led to a heightened ‘horizontal caste consciousness’, and also contributed to the consciousness of religious difference between Hindus and Muslims The colonial authorities often asked representatives of the two communities to self-consciously construct an ‘established’ custom, such as by asking them what the prevailing beliefs and practices were around cow-slaughter, which prompted both groups to give an exaggeratedly rigid version of what they believed the beliefs and practices should be! Though Pandey confirms that such identities existed in the precolonial period, he believes colonial policies led to the hardening of these communal identities. ....
... At the village level, many historians argue that Hindus and Muslims shared a wide spectrum of customs and beliefs, at times even jointly worshipping the same saint or holy spot. In Kerala’s famous pilgrimage site of Sabarimala, after an arduous climb to the hilltop shrine of Lord Ayyappa, the devotee first encounters a shrine to his Muslim disciple, Vavar Swami. In keeping with Muslim practice, there is no idol therein, merely a symbolic stone slab, a sword (Vavar was a warrior) and a green cloth, the colour of Islam. Muslim divines manage the shrine.
The British even imposed religion based separate electorates on us forcing the various religions to compete with each other to have voice, in order to prevent them from unifying against the British. Divide Et Impera was the British mantra.
Were they any worse than the Mughals?
In recent times, there has been a tendency to vilify the Mughals and expect Muslims of today to share in their blame. The Mughals are potrayed as ruthless harsh despots. But what many of us are unaware of is, that even the Mughal despots, let alone enlightened emperors like Akbar, were angels in comparison to the British. Let's take a look.
The British tax rates reached 70 to 80 percent and even in times of famine such taxes were extracted from starving farmers using brutal and cruel methods of torture such as locking them naked in metal cages and leaving them to bake in the hot tropical sun.
The gory details of Jallianwala Bagh massacre we were taught in schools, were just the tip of the iceberg. Indians were ordered to stay off the streets for 24 hours so not even a cup of water could be brought to the wounded. I quote from the book the aftermath of the massacre the words of an American, Will Durant:
General Dyer issued an order that Hindus using the street in which the woman missionary had been beaten should crawl on their bellies; if they tried to rise to all fours, they were struck by the butts of soldiers’ guns. He arrested 500 professors and students and compelled all students to present themselves daily for roll-calls, though this required that many of them should walk sixteen miles a day. He had hundreds of citizens, and some schoolboys, quite innocent of any crime, flogged in the public square. He built an open cage, unprotected from the sun, for the confinement of arrested persons; other prisoners he bound together with ropes, and kept in open trucks for fifteen hours. He had lime poured upon the naked bodies of Sadhus(saints), and then exposed them to the sun’s rays that the lime might harden and crack their skin.
These are just a couple of the many examples of British cruelty and barbarism in the book, but that’s not all. Tharoor explains, that if the taxes of Mughal emperors were high, at least they spent that money in India, patronizing artists and craftsmen in India, putting it back into the Indian economy. Most of the British on the other hand, left after a short stint in India when they made obscene amounts of money, and then returned to England where they spent their ill gotten fortunes, thus leaving India impoverished 200 years later.
So why is it, that today some of us hate the Mughals and the Muslims more than the British?
Divide Et Impera, an imperial legacy. The British ensured that sections of Indian society hated each other far more than they hated the British. It was necessary for British rule to succeed with a meager few ruling a vast country. That is why it is imperative we get the facts of British rule straight, so we can bridge the divides they created, and move forward. The outrage against the recent Tanishq ad makes it clear, that we haven’t yet conquered the insecurities, the British so deliberately instilled in us.
Concentration camps, Churchill and racism
Indians were deliberately starved during famines to ensure that the profits of the East India company were not affected by such disasters. Quoting from the book:
Though the British created ‘work camps’ as a form of famine relief (so the starving could use their labour to earn their bread), the most significant legacy this official left behind was the ‘Temple wage’ which, in Mike Davis’s words, ‘provided less sustenance for hard labour’ in British labour camps during the famine than the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp inmates would receive eighty years later.
Things got worse in the 20th century.
While comparisons of human deaths are always invidious, the 35 million who died of famine and epidemics during the Raj does remind one of the 25 million who died in Stalin’s collectivization drive and political purges, the 45 million who died during Mao’s cultural revolution, and the 55 million who died worldwide during World War II. The death toll from the colonial holocausts is right up there with some of the most harrowing examples of man’s inhumanity to man in modern times.
Churchill is still revered by the western world from saving us from the monster that was Hitler whose concentration camps as we have seen were less cruel than the work camps set up by the British in India. Churchill himself made no secret of his revulsion for Indians, but to deliberately cause the death of 4 million people shows just how much of an inhuman monstrous racist he really was. Again, I quote from the book
Nothing can excuse the odious behaviour of Winston Churchill, who deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere. ‘The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious’ than that of ‘sturdy Greeks’, he argued.
But such a racist attitude wasn’t limited to politicians. Even a revered writer like Kipling, best known for The Jungle Book was despicably racist. The British kicked their Indian servants with a sturdy boot aimed at their somewhat enlarged spleens often causing their death, but such murders had little or no punishment at all, so much for law and order.
Oh shut up already! Why would I want to relive this humiliation?
My review includes just a few glimpses into the unenlightened and inhuman nature of British rule in India, which is extensively dealt with in the book. But why should you relive the humiliation of your ancestors? What’s the point?
The first point is, to be able to differentiate between what is an inherently Indian identity, which even invaders that integrated themselves into Indian society have contributed to, and what we have come to believe is an Indian identity based on what the British, who never identified with us, imposed upon us from without, for their own selfish gains.
Only when we shed the Indian identity forced upon us by the British and look deeper into the structure of Indian society, can we make peace between communities based on British created rigid identities of caste and religion, and thereby shed the yoke of colonial rule, we still unconsciously carry.
The second point is when the details of the balance sheet are worked out, it is quite clear that we owe the British absolutely nothing, for we have already paid far too much, and we must stop letting the British apologists convince us otherwise.