Shashi Tharoor: ‘Today’s version of nationalism is narrow-minded and exclusionary’

Shashi Tharoor: ‘Today’s version of nationalism is narrow-minded and exclusionary’

Shashi Tharoor sat down with to talk about his new book 'An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India'.

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Shashi Tharoor (right) with Vice President M Hamid Ansari and journalist Karan Thapar at the release of the book ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’ (PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan)

Congress MP and former MoS in the UPA government, Shashi Tharoor’s new book ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’ hit the stands last week. The veteran leader sat down with to talk more about the horrors of British colonialism and its continuing repercussions in modern Indian society.

Q. This book essentially emanates from your very popular and wildly viral speech at the Oxford debate. Do you think you would have written the book if the debate never happened?

A: Probably not. The subject has always interested me but I’m not a professional historian and I have always assumed that my credentials to write this book would simply not have been there. The speech, however, suddenly identified me with this issue and a prominent voice of this entire thesis in a way that I couldn’t have bargained for. My publishers had the idea that I should do this book. I said, ‘Come on everybody knows this’ and he said nobody knows this because your speech wouldn’t have gone viral if they did.

I sort of rationally said yes not knowing how much I had bitten off because obviously the kind of preparation that you do for a 15-minute speech is not the same for a 330-page book. I had to do a lot more research to substantiate facts, figures and dates, most of which I knew but could have been coloured by my own prejudice. Touch-wood, my memory turned out be alright. Everything I said at Oxford barring one figure was 100 per cent accurate.


The other thing I had to do was keep up with two kinds of writing. One, the contemporary scholarship in the field because even if I am not a professional, I am not supposed to be unaware of what professional historians have been doing. So, I read academic journals, scholarly books which show the state-of-the-art thinking of contemporary historians, sociologists and others on this issue. And the other thing that I also read upon were a lot of the contemporary apologias for the empire, like Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James and a bunch of British writers, portraying it (the empire) through rose-tinted lenses. And I had wanted to take their claims which had gone dangerously without refutation and take them head on. That’s what I tried to do in the book.

Q. Horace Walpole said in 1790, “What is England now? A sink of Indian wealth.” Do you agree with the premise that if the British had never come to India, we would be today an affluent country on par with Europe?

A: I think so. Well, the counter fact is always difficult to prove because what happened happened. The fact is we had three industries of ours which were doing well — shipbuilding, steel and textiles. All those were systematically destroyed and dismantled by the British. The counter argument they make is modern technology would have overtaken these industries and we would have been left behind. I said, no we would have found ways for coping if we were free. You were the ones making the rules. You made it impossible to ship Indian textiles to other countries by imposing punitive tariffs and you made it easy to ship English goods to India by practically having no tariffs at all. No free country would have tolerated that.

Indians were certainly capable of acquiring new technologies. Every country doesn’t have to go to the trouble of being colonised to build a factory or railroad. Why wouldn’t an Indian who made money through old technology of weaving, invest in new technology he sees coming up in Europe? Also, our ships were capable of lasting 20-24 years, while British and European ships had an average lifespan of seven years. So, obviously they were delighted to use Indian ships for better craftsmanship and better wood. Our teak and mahogany lasted better than their fir. So the British systematically dismantled the shipbuilding, including by passing laws to make difficult for ships built in India to ply the profitable routes to London and China. So, all these deliberate policies would not have existed if we were free. Frankly, our steel was so good that the Arabs in the 7th-11th centuries had taken our steel to Damascus. Indian swords were so good that in battles the British — after shooting the soldiers — would dismount the horses and steal the soldiers’ swords, because our swords were better than the British swords. We in India don’t know these stories, but we should. The truth is, we had enough evidence to show our base was higher and better and we could have developed to move on. You could also argue that we could have failed. The truth is no one will ever know because what happened was the gross interruption of India’s natural development by British colonialism.

Q. In the book, you talk about how certain British laws have saddled India with colonial-era prejudices. Laws like Section 377 and sedition are still present in the IPC. But it’s been almost 70 years. Aren’t we to blame as well for not removing such harsh laws?

A: I agree. In this particular instance, we also share the blame for it. At the same time, we have to recognise that these laws were written in 1837 reflecting early Victorian values and enacted in 1861. A nastier sedition law was passed in India in the 1890s than that existed in England because as was explicitly expressed by the British solicitor general at that time, these laws were intended to oppress the colonised people. So here, you’ve got laws that served the anti-Indian nationalism purpose. Nehru and Gandhi were among those who denounced these laws. It is sad and inexplicable that our governments did not get rid of them.

In recent years, we have seen how easy it is for state governments to misuse the law for trivial offences that would never pass the smell test of the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the existence of the law becomes an instrument of low-level harassment. That’s why the law needs to be amended and I have introduced a private member’s bill that would do that but the present government does not show any indication of willing to deal with it.

Second, you have got the 377. The irony is the party of Hindutva is betraying all the ancient Hindu traditions of tolerance for sexual deviancy of various sorts and various forms of sexual self-expression in favour of the Victorian morality that was imposed upon India, and which was not part of our moral codes and practices. The irony of all this is compounded by the fact that they won’t even let the bill be discussed in Parliament. The truth is, we have to blame our Indian rulers well but it’s true they wouldn’t have had these laws to defend if the British hadn’t left them in their place a century ago.

Q. Do historical reparations have any real contributions to make to a country’s society and economy, or is it just a symbolic act?

A: No, I think reparations are a problem. There are a few examples of it such as the British paying the Kenyans for the victims of the persecution of the Mau Mau independence struggle. The fact is at the end of the day there aren’t many examples because they are difficult to calculate and difficult to administer. For an entire society of 1.2 billion people, how do you calculate the damage of the de-industrialisation, the murders, the unnecessary deaths and famines, the drainage of resources and loot from this country?

I mentioned that one journalist attempted a calculation and he came up with a figure that was more than the entire GDP of Britain. No one’s gonna pay that. At Oxford, I suggested a symbolic £1 a year for 200 years, but that as a former bureaucrat and minister, I know it’s impossible to administer. The finance ministry wouldn’t want to touch a deal like that. So what I said was, forget reparations in the monetary sense, but instead let’s have atonement. I mean, we should have an apology, which has many precedents, the most memorable being Willy Brandt, the social democratic chancellor of Germany sinking to his knees at the Warsaw ghetto and saying sorry to the Polish Jews who were victims of the Nazis. Now, Brandt had nothing to do with the Nazis. As a social democrat, he and his ilk were subject to persecution by the Nazis. But as head of the German government, he felt he had to speak for the German people in atonement to the Polish people. That’s the kind of thing I am suggesting to be done.

Justin Trudeau in Canada has issued a magnificent apology for Komagata Maru. None of the passengers of the ship are alive today but the fact is the Canadian people feel that they should convey to the people, to their descendants and to India that a wrong was done. That’s the kind of thing the British could do. A British prime minister going to his knees in Jallianwala Bagh if not now, at the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh in a couple of years and saying, ‘We committed atrocities and we are sorry’ would go a long way towards cleansing the entire sin of the British colonialism, at least psychologically.

Finally, one more thing the British could do is teach colonial history to their schoolchildren. Just as this book hit the stands, there was an article by a Pakistani journalist in London who had raised two children in one of the best public schools in London and said not a word of the British colonial history was taught to her children. So it is clear, the British are committing deliberate historical amnesia. And I think it’s important they should know…because the one reason Britain even has a few million black and brown people is because of British colonialism. As one protester memorably held a placard saying ‘we are here because you are there’. The Brits don’t understand that and they need to.

Q. You make an important point about the British having attempted to exclude Muslims from the national narrative that eventually went on to become the two-nation theory. Is the general animosity between Hindus and Muslims attributed to the British?

A: There’s no question that the British had a systematic policy after the revolt of 1857. They systematically wanted to create divisions between the two because, see Hindus and Muslims fighting together against the British rallying jointly under the flag of the Mughal emperor, all of these really worried the Brits. They thought the bigger threat was Hindu nationalism so they said, let’s encourage a Muslim division.

I found some interesting anecdotes like in 1905 when the British tried to partition Bengal, the Nawab of Dhaka who was a Muslim nobleman said, ‘This is beastly and I won’t agree to it.’ The British quietly slipped him £100,000 and he changed his tune. There is no question about the British role in the founding of the Muslim league in 1906. The fact is the British were playing a very deliberate game. What surprised me more was the extent to which caste has been determined by sociologists to have been much more fuzzy, relaxed, much less ossified before the British and the British forced people to identify in very, very formal caste identities that in the past had been more fluid.

Q. Your book comes at an important time when there are newer definitions being espoused for ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’. What differences do you see between the nationalism of that time and the one right now?

A: There are huge differences. First of all, the nationalism of those days was an inclusive nationalism. The nationalism that Indian National Congress spoke was of nationalism that essentially embraced everybody in this country, of any background, language, religion, caste, creed and even ethnicity. We had two or three whites who headed the Indian National Congress as presidents before independence, including two white women at a time when no British position must have been occupied by a woman. We were very open and all-inclusive. That’s not the case of today’s version of nationalism, which are much more narrow-minded and exclusionary.

Second, there is a certain historical perspective that’s different. The nationalists of those days, and therefore myself, speak of 200 years of foreign rule. Many of the so-called nationalists speak of 1,200 years of foreign rule. What do they mean? They are also criticising all the Muslim rulers who have ruled India in the 1,000 years before the British. I find that absurd. To my mind, it is simply not accurate because these foreigners may have come as foreigners to India but they stayed, assimilated and inter-married here. Even if they looted India, they spent their proceeds of the loot in India. They had no foreign allegiance.


The British remained foreign from beginning to end. They ruled here but they also drained the resources from here and sent it back. There was absolutely no loyalty or allegiance to the soil. And that difference, of who are you ruling for the benefit of where all the wealth of India has built buildings in London rather than contributing to anything significant here with a few exceptions all of which were designed to display British power. To be honest, the case is very different.