I just finished reading Shashi Tharoor’s book ‘An era of darkness’ (Aleph, 2016). Interestingly, the book came about from a suggestion by the publisher after Tharoor’s Oxford Union debate video went viral. The book is a wonderful and devastating critique of colonization and its effects on the people. He has been able to bring together in one place arguments from several disciplinary perspectives, and kept it readable without losing the scholarly arguments.
History buffs will recognize several familiar arguments they have read elsewhere. Some earlier books criticizing colonization that I have read include: Reginal Reynolds, White Sahibs in India (1937); and most recently, Pavan Varma, Becoming Indian (2010). It is good news that the challenge to colonial sympathizers is picking up. Roy Moxham and Jon Wilson both have books that have come out recently (I am yet to read them). Although there is no new original research underlying Tharoor’s book, he has been able to convey a powerful story.
There are several aspects of the book that require particular mention. He calls Churchill for what he was – a racist. He takes the so called benefits of colonization, including the legal system, democracy, railways, etc. and points out either the flaws in the argument, or how they were all meant to serve British needs. His most engaging parts are where he argues the case of economic devastation, how British policy caused deindustrialization, famines, and tapped into the Indian treasury for all their nefarious activities. At times he becomes poetic. Referring to the retired British officials, he writes, ‘And at the end of it all, they went home to enjoy their retirements in damp little collates with Indian names, their alien rest cushioned by generous pensions supplied by Indian taxpayers.’
Tharoor’s writing style goes into each aspect in fair depth, dutifully explicating all the nuances and provides a rich bibliography.
Much of the arguments revolve around the use of ‘divide and rule’ by the British, who took it to a fine art and practiced it in several spheres – in laws, governance, religion, electorate, and so on. (Unfortunately, we must admit that it is such an effective way of dealing with people that our governments continue to use it!)
For too long have we left the apologists for colonization have their say without challenge. The most recent being Niall Ferguson, who comes in for a fair bit of criticism by Tharoor. Even history books and textbooks shy away from calling colonization for what it is, with the result that there are people in colonies even today who occasionally mouth the ‘things were better under ..’ argument.
A must read.