A Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor has been vocal in his criticism of the government’s demonetisation policy, calling it an “ill-conceived” strategy. The standoff led to a complete washout of the Winter Session of Parliament, with the Opposition insisting on a vote. While the former diplomat has been critical of disruptions in Parliament, he says it has “unfortunately become a part of our political culture”. His speech at the Oxford Union debate last year, debunking arguments that justify British colonial rule in India, went viral, prompting Tharoor to write his latest book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India
Pratik Kanjilal: You make a case for almost the entire period of the British Rule as a systematic method of extraction and extortion.
There is a lot of looking back at the Empire through rose-tinted spectacles. There is a lot of self-justificatory writing as well. You’ve read Neil Ferguson, for example, who argued that the British Empire laid the foundations for India and other colonies to participate and benefit from the globalisation of the 21st Century… And even on TV, all you get is the romanticised stuff. There is a lot of research on colony literature, which I have cited and sourced in my book, including a lot of up-to-date research going on in Indian and foreign universities of this time period, but in terms of popular reading and writing, there is very little out there that makes this case.
Pratik Kanjilal: In an interview, you said much of this came as a surprise to Indian readers. Why was that, considering that a lot of this material has been around for a long time?
In fact, I wrote in the preface of the book how my publisher, who called me after the 2015 Oxford debate (when he made a speech demanding reparation payments by Britain to India), asked me to write a book on this. When I said “everyone knows this stuff”, he replied that everyone didn’t, because if they did, the speech wouldn’t have gone viral. And that’s what started me off. In fact, much of what I read goes back to my high school days in India. I did not have any particular advantage but for my passion for the subject. So maybe we don’t teach history very well or maybe we don’t retain what we studied in school.
Prateek Kanjilal: You have referred to the Railways as a gigantic scam. How do you think the role of the Railways will change over the next few years?
Well, it has already changed significantly from the days of the British. The current government seems to be trying to bring in further change. What the British did was naked exploitation; they mainly used the Railways to bring raw materials and labour from the hinterlands to the ports and had no desire to serve the needs of the Indian public. When passengers had to be moved, they brought in third-class wagons with their wooden benches and no toilets. At that time, Indian passengers paid the highest passenger rates in the world whereas the British companies paid the lowest freight charges in the world. It was the single-most profitable investment in the entire British market… It ripped India off at every stage. And on top of that, they treated India in a racist manner too. Right up the 20th Century, every official (in the Railways), except the most menial, were British. It was only after they ran out of Europeans during the First World War that they started hiring Anglo-Indians as they were the most European they could find in India.
What India did was to nationalise (the Railways) and transform it, reversing the pricing policy. The Railways then ended up with the cheapest passenger rates in the world and had amongst the most expensive freight charges. This had other negative consequences — too many business have shifted to shipping goods on lorries over our congested roads, which is not good for the environment or accident rates. But that’s another story. The fact is that India transformed the Railways into serving Indian interests. Today there seems to be an interest in the government attracting a billion dollars in it but no one is going to invest unless they see some profits coming… We in Parliament would like to see the proposals before we bless the government to go ahead.
Prateek Kanjilal: The establishment of the Railways was always held up as a flagship project in altruism.
There was one specific justification that do-gooders expressed – that at least famines can be dealt with more efficiently (with the railway network), that you could transport food faster. In fact, the worst famines continued to occur in the very areas where the railways were. Famines killed Indians because British policy killed Indians; not because of lack of transport. The British had a policy on famines. First of all, they said, the free market principle should not be violated. Second, they believed in the Malthusian population doctrine so if land can’t support the population, let them die. And the third was a very Victorian thing, fiscal prudence — let us not spend money that we have not budgeted. So they deliberately did not help during famines… So the railways helping deal with famines is a complete lie.
Sheela Bhatt: Do you think the communal divide is a legacy of the British?
Very much so. In fact it was not even seriously debated. There is a minute (a note) by Lord Elphinstone in 1858, in which he wrote: “’Divide et impera’ was the old Roman motto, it shall be ours.” The British had been appalled to see Hindus and Muslims fighting beside each other in 1857 under the enfeebled Mughal monarch but against the British. They said clearly we cannot sustain ourselves against a future revolt unless we divide. So a very conscious policy was adopted to instill communal separatism, particularly in the Muslim community. This is extensively documented.
What surprised me more is the extent to which the caste system is a legacy of the British. In the pre-British days, the caste system was much more fluid and fuzzy. Entire castes could move up the ladder. A shudra could leave a particular kingdom or village, start elsewhere and acquire a different caste. The British made the mistake of trying to codify. I have written in the book how codifying, classifying and categorising were central to the instruments of control the British needed in the country. So the map, the museum and the census were all instruments of communal exploitation.
Prateek Kanjilal: So you say the British left behind a deeper impact on India that the Mughals did?
The Mughals, and most other rulers, by and large, left things undisturbed. Even much of the violence against religious places has been analysed by scholars as being essentially part of the destruction that accompanies an advancing frontier. Remember, none of the frontiers amongst the various princely states were set in stone. It was not like the modern map with a line on it. People did attack temples as they were often associated with the presiding king. You had to attack the temple to undermine the power and authority of that king. But once the ruler captured the place, they usually show utmost respect. In fact, many Muslim monarchs paid for the building of temples. Take Tipu Sultan, for example, who is being reviled today in many ways as somebody who forcibly converted Hindus and Christians and killed people and so on. That was part of his conquest. But once he consolidated control, he was an extremely generous benefactor. All his ministers were Hindus. So Tipu is a more complex character and we are trying to apply a retrospective understanding of all these rumours. Frankly, Hindu kings also attacked temples to undermine a ruler who was believed to be protected by the deity of the temple. There was never a communal thing per se.
Sheela Bhatt: What do you think of the demonetisation exercise? Was it an unwise move considering ours is a cash economy or could it have been better implemented?
We will never know how good it might have been. It has been implemented so badly and in such an astonishingly incompetent manner that at the end of the day, the flaws are inherent in the way in which the idea was unleashed upon us. The problem goes to such basic elements of planning such as not having enough currency before you spring this on the nation, when 86 per cent of your currency would become illegal in three-and-a-quarter hours. That’s astonishing. Nobody in the world has done this. Secondly, even the lack of planning in something as basic as making the new notes the same size as the old so that they can fit in the ATM is mindboggling. Then you scramble to find 55,000 engineers to recalibrate 2.5 lakh ATMs. This makes the government look amateurish.
Thirdly, the repeated changing of the goalposts. You announce an intention and then four days later you backtrack. It’s as if they just don’t know what they are doing… There has been a complete disavowal of responsibility and culpability in these failures, which is also troubling. Then there are these mysterious raids where they are unearthing vast quantities of brand new notes in the hands of all sorts of people who shouldn’t have them, while the ordinary public has been queuing eight hours a day and in the end, are being told that there is no money in the bank.
Then there is the talk of a cashless society which may be an admirable goal in the long term but look at the complete absence of digital infrastructure to support it… This is the reality in our country — digital infrastructure is not there and even electricity is not there in many places. I suffer five power cuts a day at my home and Piyush Goyal (power minister) says we have surplus electricity, but I would invite him to sample the joys of those living in Lodhi Estate. Truth is, there is a big gap between intention and delivery… It seems the government is trying to put the cart before the horse. Our ambitions are exceeding our ground work and our ability to fulfill it. We must first build significant infrastructure.
Abantika Ghosh: While the British must take the blame for India’s communal problems, how much do you think did the Congress’s policies add to the divide?
Communalism was inherited from the British in 1947. I am sure none of us wanted to come to freedom in the conditions that the British left us with – a communal system, Partition, the huge refugee crisis, life expectancy of 27 years, eight per cent literacy rate of women and so on. Who would want to start from there? But we did and we had to do the best we could of what we had. While we must be self critical, but the truth is that we have come an astonishingly long way and we should not completely overlook that. Having said that — and I have said that in the book — this is not intended to absolve today’s rulers of any of the mistakes, deficiencies. I have written on many of our errors in judgment. I think the Congress’s record with regard to communalism, with the exception of the 1984 riots, has been rather good. The party has tried to stand up for a secular and plural vision of India.
Abantika Ghosh: But some call the Congress’s policies appeasement…
The alternative is to disenfranchise the minorities. Perhaps neither should be there but certainly, given that in any society, the majority has some inherent advantages, appeasement would be preferable to bigotry and contempt coming out of some voice in our current political space.
Harish Damodaran: There are many communities who seem to have come out of their backwardness thanks to the British.
There should be. Mine is only a view – an Indian view, a point of view… At the same time, who is to say that some of these changes would not have occurred under enlightened rulers, just as I believe you didn’t need to go to the trouble of being colonised to get the railways. We had some bright maharajas, it is entirely possible for us to have progressed. Travancore, which was not part of British India, opened up its temples to Dalits in the 1930s but before that, it had extremely backward practices… when Dalits could not even walk on certain streets.
An indigenous reform movement, which had nothing to do with the British, led by (social reformer from Kerala) Mahatma Ayyankali, had the maharajas of the day agree with him and abolish the discriminatory practices. Then there was Sree Narayana Guru who spoke of one caste, one religion and one god for mankind and so on… So I am not prepared to concede the argument that only the British could have brought about this (change). …Make no mistake, the British had no intention of reforming India. These Indians by their own reading and diligence used the ideas to advocate change — widow re-marriage was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s. Raja Ram Mohan Roy needed someone in power for abolishing sati, but it was essentially him.
Manoj CG: In the past, you have voiced your disapproval of disruptions in Parliament. With winter session coming to an end, has your party’s strategy to disrupt Parliament served any purpose?
My personal views remain strongly opposed to disrupting Parliament. My voters did not send me to Parliament to disrupt it. They want me to represent them in Parliament. To that degree, I think it is deplorable that this has been part of the political culture of our country. But to blame only the Opposition is equally unfair because very sadly this has seeped into the political culture. Sometime before I entered politics, the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somanth Chatterjee, invited a few so-called eminent persons, which included me, to a round table discussion on how to make Parliament function better. When I naively asked, why can’t you suspend those disrupting Parliament, he said it cannot be done without the consensus of all parties, which is not available. Subsequently, when Meira Kumar became Speaker, I asked the same question to which she gave me the same answer. Disruptions have become deeply engrained in our parliamentary practice.
Unfortunately, to change it at any one point of time gives the advantage to the government of the day, something the Opposition will not be willing to concede. Today the golden rule of politics is: do unto others what they had done unto you. Since the BJP had done it to the UPA constituents for 10 years, the UPA constituents are like, let’s give it back to the BJP… Of course, if the entire Opposition is suspended because they are all standing in the Well, what do you have in terms of democracy? So something has to be done by the Parliamentary floor manager and the ruling party to defuse the crisis.
Shobhana Subramanian: Shouldn’t the Congress have forced the government to defend itself in Parliament?
Well, frankly, what just happened, as has happened when the BJP was in Opposition, is that a lot of this public discourse has moved to the media. You folks are the Speaker of the LS and Chariman of the RS now because it is in your forums that these arguments are being made. Many from the Congress – from Manmohan Singh to me – have written op-eds. But Parliament is supposed to be the forum. To begin with, it is extremely unusual for such a major policy to be announced outside Parliament just a week before Winter Session. The convention is that major policy decisions are discussed and adopted in Parliament. Okay, the PM thought it necessitated secrecy. But a week later, come to Parliament and tell us. But the fact that the PM hasn’t take the initiative to present this, or even to ask his FM to present this, is shocking for anyone who knows parliamentary conventions. Having said that, yes, we got hung up on this thing that the Opposition, not just the Congress, wanted to have a debate and also a vote. And the government, for reasons best known to itself, has consistently refused a debate that led to a vote. Indira Gandhi was never afraid of a vote because she knew she had the numbers and there were rich debates.
In fact, I remember one such debate in which Vajpayee, after losing a vote, said with an air of resignation, “We have the arguments, you have the votes.” We too might have been reduced to saying the same in the end but at least you would have heard the arguments and the government could have prevailed on the basis of votes. There has also been the issue of the prime minister’s absence because it was seen
as his policy and therefore, he should be present.
Maneesh Chhibber: The general opinion seems to be that people like Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal have taking the lead in rallying the Opposition on demonetisation. Has Congress lost its leadership position in the Opposition?
No. What we have is a plural Opposition with the Congress in the lead. So when the united Opposition went to meet the President, it was Rahul Gandhi who spoke for us and led the delegation. Indeed, we are the largest Opposition party but there are others with approachable size and it is natural that they find space on this. Certainly, other parties may have their own style but I don’t think this means we are lacking in visibility. If you want to use disruptions as the yardstick, there have been as many Congressmen shouting slogans as there were others… To this day, the co-ordination meetings of the Opposition are led by the Congress. Mallikarjun Kharge occupies, though he does not have the title, of the leader of the Opposition and he plays that role in co-ordination and concert with other Opposition floor leaders. In the Rajya Sabha, Congress is much larger than all other parties.
Do you think there has been an erosion of PM Narendra Modi’s goodwill after the November 8 demonetisation announcement?
To some degree, yes, but to what degree remains to be established. One of the things that this government has unfortunately succeeded in doing — and I say ‘unfortunately’ for reasons broader than political — is to identify a lot of its work and policies with patriotism. Everything that the government is doing is being described in terms of national interest. A Facebook post after the demonetisation move asked if soldiers could stand at the border for 24 hours, why not for this. And I think that has worked to some extent. So common people have given the government the benefit of the doubt. But how long will it last? Modi had asked for 50 days. I do hope the media will remind the government of its 50-day deadline. But I am sure that goalpost will also be shifted. To my mind, this is a severe test of the nation’s goodwill. So far, the government has stayed afloat because people still have the sense of sacrifice for the nation. But eventually, when all the lessons sink in, will it remain? I have my doubts.
Manoj C G: Be it Nitish, Mamata or Kejriwal, the perception is that all of them are taking up positions keeping the 2019 elections in mind. With the Cong in such a bad shape, is it possible for the party to accept a non-Cong candidate as PM candidate in 2019?
This is far too premature to talk about. Even when we got clobbered in 2014, we were the only party to win from the Northeast, Southwest, Southeast and Northwest. We may have done much much worse than we have ever done before, but we have won something from everywhere. This is a party that remains the alternative to whoever is in power in most states. Whatever other parties are aspiring to do, none of them come close in terms of national-level credibility.
Anand Mishra: Some parties claim not to be opposed to demonetisation but its implementation. Do you think that’s a sustainable position? There are inherent flaws in the policy, in the way in which the policy has been unleashed. Where is the policy skeleton? Where is the impact assessment?
The classic elements of a policy are missing because it seems to have been devised by a small group of people who haven’t discussed it widely and not taken larger things into account. So it is not just an objection to the process. Find me one credible writer, economist, magazine, think-tank who has said this is a great policy and that these are minor inconveniences that can be overlooked as the government today would like us to believe.
Aaron Pereira: What is your view of the recent instances of online hacking, including of the Congress account and Rahul Gandhi’s?
I don’t know enough to suggest that there is any sort of political motive behind it, but very clearly, it’s a sophisticated job. For example, when Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account was hacked, I know from my sources that every attempt made to change the password and restart the account was again hacked. I don’t know if you read this interview of one of the hackers. It could be a very clever disinformation job or it could genuinely be one of these hackers… There is nonetheless something curious as all those targets seem to be people who are somehow seen as critical of the government. Whether it is Mr Rahul Gandhi, Mr Ravish Kumar, Barkha Dutt – these are all people who have not been particularly sympathetic to the ruling party or are, at least, willing to be critical of the ruling party and the government. If this enterprising hacker wants to convey that he’s just doing it as a freelance thing against people in power, then who could be more powerful than those who are actually exercising power in the country? At this stage, you have to accept that some people have their suspicions.
Aaron Pereira: This also poses a grave threat to Modi’s Digital India campaign.
The point I made on Twitter, and I think others have done the same, is that while we are moving more and more rapidly towards digital India, are we moving safely? Part of the problem is that the backbone of our basic infrastructure is so weak. For all these technologies were are so proud of, it is embarrassing now that we are about the only country in the world where a landline telephone represents a more reliable way of making a phone call than a cellular telephone. We have one of the slowest connection speeds in the world today. All of these things have to be improved before we can seriously fulfill these dreams of a cashless India, digital India, and all of that. At the moment, you know, we talk about Startup India and Digital India and so on, now we’ve gone to Queue Up India, because that’s what we’re all doing – lining up at banks, ATMs, lining up to get services that everywhere else people are able to take for granted.
Maneesh Chhiber: As a writer, politician and a Congress leader, what is your view on the recent Supreme Court order asking all of us to stand up when the national anthem is played?
I’m a proud patriot… I was born in a foreign country and I’m entitled to that country’s passport, but I’ve never exercised it. I’ve been an Indian from birth to now. I proudly wear the country’s lapel pin wherever I go. So I don’t feel that I need to be explaining myself before I articulate my position, but in today’s atmosphere, I find it necessary to do so. I believe in showing respect to the symbols of the nation – the national anthem, the national flag… I carried it to such an extreme at one point that I put my hand across my heart when the national anthem was being sung after 26/11, and got taken to court for the next four years for my pains. (Tharoor had in 2008 interrupted the singing of the anthem and asked the audience to respect it by placing their hands on their chest. He was later exonerated.) So this is the sort of price that one is willing to pay for standing up for the national anthem.
But I do so as an expression of my own love, loyalty and affection for my country, not because some government or some court has told me to do so. And where I get very troubled with the Supreme Court judgment – it is only an interim order – is it turns patriotism into a command. And to my mind, that is fundamentally flawed. Either you feel loyalty to a nation inside you, or you don’t. A cinema theatre is a place to show films, not to show patriotism.
Because a person reluctantly standing up because he doesn’t want to be arrested or fined, or whatever else he is afraid of, doesn’t love his nation any more than if he were sitting down.
Srijana Das Mitra: You have taken a position against colonialism, but Manmohan Singh went to Oxford and said that colonialism had a “beneficial consequence” for India. Have you ever discussed this with him?
As far as Dr Manmohan Singh is concerned, we had a brief word about my book. A visiting prime minister in a foreign country has an obligation to show a certain amount of diplomatic courtesy. What he said was that colonial rule had beneficial effects. The truth is, it had unintended beneficial effects. None of these things that the British have left behind in our country, that may have done us some good, were intended to do us any good. The “rule of law”, for example, which Manmohanji mentioned at Oxford, there was no such thing in any meaningful sense under the British. Rule of law was brought in, yes, for their own purposes… Fortunately, I was able to quote Pranab Mukherjee calling for a complete review of the Indian Penal Code which desperately needs to be revised. We should not be adopting a Victorian-era model code, which in many respects was intended and written to oppress us.
In particular, the sedition law, which was specifically written to be nastier and tougher than the sedition law prevailing in England, because it was meant to oppress a subject people… After my Oxford speech went viral, and Prime Minister Modi made the remark that I said the right thing at the right place, there was a bit of anxiety in certain circles about his visit a month later to Britain, his first visit to UK in September 2015. His speechwriters spoke to me and we agreed that this was not an issue for the PM to take up on his first visit and that, at the same time, it would be awkward for the PM to act as if nothing had been said. So a wonderful formula that was found was to come up with a very, very good line in the PM’s speech: “Others have addressed the question of historical wrongs and rights, but I prefer to focus on the future”. And this formula was what the PM delivered in London. So what Dr Manmohan Singh did 10 years earlier was essentially the same approach that Narendra Modi took when he went to London in September. Be courteous to your host.
Sheela Bhatt: How different do you think Manmohan Singh and Modi are, and how similar?
I know Manmohan Singhji so well that I would really presume to express a certain personal affection for him. Mr Modi, I don’t know so well. So I have a very correct relationship that an Opposition MP would have with the PM. Whereas Dr Manmohan Singh I do know very well, and I speak of him with great fondness, great respect, great affection. I think he’s an outstanding human being… He takes an interest in various topics, not just governance, but world affairs, reads extensively. I don’t think a day has gone by when he has not turned into bed with a book by his side to read a few pages… He just doesn’t want to do anything that would compromise his integrity, which is why I find it remarkable that anybody should take even remotely seriously this business about the AgustaWestland thing.
People have, I think, judged him unkindly. I don’t necessarily believe that a vehement style is often the most effective, but perhaps in today’s day and age, you have not only got to be able, you have to be seen to be able. So again, I think that he has taken what the Americans call a bum rap on alleged indecisiveness… Mr Modi has the credit of being decisive, when I have not seen too many new initiatives for the past few years in Parliament… Our PMO today, in which files seem to get stuck forever, where even the appointment of the Army Chief is now unprecedentedly late… So where is policy paralysis? Where is decision-making paralysis? Not in Mr Manmohan Singh’s government.