Print Edition - 2017-02-04  |  On Saturday

Empire of darkness

  • Pulverising arguments about the benefits of the British rule in the Indian Subcontinent, Tharoor in his latest book systematically reveals the organised loot and plundering that transpired under the Raj
- Atul K Thakur
The subject has perhaps never been dealt with in such candid form before—a candid and sane attack on the lapses of an ‘insane regime’

Feb 4, 2017-In his latest book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Shashi Tharoor offers a strong nationalist polemic. The book’s roots can be traced back to a passionate speech that Tharoor delivered at the Oxford Union Speech that went viral on YouTube, as he brought memories of British Empire’s dark chapters in India alive. Factually well-proofed and balanced in opinion, the new book does well to lay bare the misdeeds of the British Empire in India and the sub-continent.

Tharoor, who has written this book as an Indian with a great empathy for those who were exploited by the British Empire, pulverises the arguments of Western and Indian apologists for the Empire on the erroneously claimed benefits of British rule, including democracy and political freedom, the rule of law, and the physical infrastructures that were left behind. With his well-reasoned arguments, while reading the book, it is hard not to side with the author’s lament that the British rule was at its core a blatant robbery over people that they viewed as fundamentally inferior to themselves. 

As a leader of the Indian National Congress, a party that was born and then organically developed during India’s independence movement, Tharoor thoroughly and often vehemently counters any claims of benefits from the colonisation, save for the English language, tea, and cricket. Tharoor then rightly brings forth his counter-argument that proves these all were never actually intended for the benefit of the colonised masses, but introduced to serve the interests of the colonisers. 

The book is written in a manner that reveals step-by-step the organised loot and systematic plundering of natural resources and people by the British Empire, alternatively also known as the Raj. It examines the many ways in which the colonisers exploited India, ranging from the draining of national resources to Britain, the destruction of the Indian textile, steel-making and shipping industries and the negative transformation of agriculture.

In Tharoor’s own words, with this book, he has “taken all the arguments conventionally made in favour of Empire and systematically countered them”. He clearly aims to hammer the ‘soft view’, the popular narrative while dissecting the history written about the British Empire. While the author has his own way to describe the intent, for a reader with an open mind, Tharoor’s new book remarkably examines the legacy of the British rule in India. The subject has perhaps never been dealt with in such candid form before—a candid and sane attack on the lapses of an “insane regime.”

Among the other vociferous Indian critics of British Empire is Pankaj Mishra, whose seminal work, A Great Clamour (Penguin), includes a significant commentary on contemporary China, an examination of the contradictions and potency that shape and define the country. The book, once more, challenges the burden of western influence on Asia.  In an earlier work, titled From the Ruins of Empire (Penguin), Mishra had conducted an effective analysis of the western model and presented reasons why he believes that Asia has a better chance in the new world, set free as it was from the complex constructs of its colonial past. 

Mishra’s last two books had aimed to highlight the apathy of Asians towards their own history, and investigated why it is that the western model—ridden with crises of ideas and direction—is still being religiously adhered to in Asia. His forthcoming book, Age of Anger (Juggernaut, 2017), is going to be another substantial counter of the flawed western notion of modernity. As the fear of de-globalisation becomes more real with every passing year, this book’s timing seems completely justified. 

‘I wrote Age of Anger out of the conviction that history, far from ending, took a dangerous turn in the age of globalisation, and that we have to re-examine the modern world, this time from the perspective of those who in the previous two centuries came late to it, and felt, like so many do now, left, or pushed, behind,’ says Pankaj Mishra.

Even before Tharoor and Mishra, Amitav Ghosh, a critically acclaimed post-colonial writer deeply committed to unearthing lesser-known plots of the British Empire, had added a new dimension to the disturbing colonial phases of the Indian sub-continent in his work of historical fiction, the Ibis trilogy (Penguin Random House). The trilogy is derived from and centred around the ship Ibis, which also provides a setting where most of the main characters meet. Ghosh came out with the first volume, Sea of Poppies, in 2008, probably without knowing that he would spend the next seven years completing the sequels, River of Smoke (2011) and Floods of Fire (2015).

But unlike Mishra and Ghosh, Tharoor’s approach is more pointed.  He constantly reminds the readers of how the British rule de-industrialised India; created landlessness and poverty; drained India’s resources; exploited, exiled and oppressed millions; sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the Partition; and was directly responsible for the deaths of three and a half crore people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines, as well as in thousands in massacres and killings. 

But, what then is the goal of the book? Tharoor puts it in these words, “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 do them a lot of good!”

He, probably, echoes the sentiment of a sizable part of South Asia who were mis-ruled by British Empire and calls for a ‘symbolic compensation’, “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?”

Thakur is a New Delhi-based 

journalist and writer. He can be reached at

Published: 04-02-2017 08:32

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