Daanish Bin Nabi
Indians, described as “nigger” by Lord Curzon, has emerged as one of the intellectual breeds of the modern times. One among millions of these “niggers” is the astute Congressman – Shashi Tharoor. He is among India’s finest politicians, authors, and intellectuals. In 2015, Tharoor delivered a speech at Oxford Union titled does ‘Does Britain owe reparations to India?’ His speech went viral on social media networking site and within no time Tharoor was forced to transform his speech into the book by his friend and publisher David Davidar. The book is titled “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire In India”.
The book is a masterpiece on the British loot in India and has been meticulously researched, exploring how British decimated India brick-by-brick socially, economically, politically and religiously. It has been written in the backdrop of the un-divided India when only few thousand colonisers were successful in ruling over swathes of land with millions of inhabitants by simply dividing the various sects, ideologies and religious groups.
Hindustan (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was a thriving economic hub of the world before the British colonised the subcontinent. Shashi Tharoor says so thriving was Hindustan, that it contributed 23 percent to world economy at the beginning of the 18th century. The author writes that under Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1700 AD, India contributed to 27 percent to world economy after Aurangzeb’s treasury raked in 100 million British pounds sterling in tax revenues alone.
The author has talked in detail about the events of ‘Battle of Plessey’ in 1757 and how the British transferred 2.5 million British pounds sterling of Nawab’s treasury to East India Company’s coffers in England as spoils of war.
Not only the hard cash, the author writes, even raw material was systematically destroyed by the British so that Indians get completely dependent on the British goods. Tharoor writes that the value of Bengal’s textile export alone was around 16 million rupees annually in 1750s and when the British colonised Hindustan they deliberately destroyed India’s textile manufacturing and exports.
Likewise, the destruction and loot of cotton, silk and the ship building industry is very well detailed in the book laced with figures. The author writes that the Indian ship building industry which was thriving before the advent of British was deliberately exploited and by 1850 the industry was virtually extinct.
One of the astronomical figures the author has quoted in the book is about the hard cash and raw material. Tharoor writes that each year between 1765 and 1815, the British approximately looted 18, 000,000 British pounds sterling from India. Taking the figures further, the author says the British loot by 1901 had reached to its pinnacle with a loot of 4,187,922,732 British pounds sterling – what Tharoor described as “economic drain” of India.
Fortunes of Lord Clive
The loot of Lord Clive, one of the first Britishers directly involved in plunder of Hindustan, has been described in the book. A detailed account is provided about how Lord Clive made fortune. The author writes that after Lord Clive returned home for the first time after the Battle of Plessey he took 234,000 British pounds sterling from Indian exploits which is 23 million British pounds sterling in today’s money. Tharoor says that it made Clive one of the richest men in Europe during that era.
Repressive revenue system
The author talks about the introduction of Permanent Settlement of land revenue in 1793 as part of the Zamindari System which proved repressive for the Indian economy. The author says the Permanent Settlement systematically destroyed the Indian agriculture. The book talks in detail how these repressive revenue systems led to migration of many of Indian peasants from their native place. Tharoor says the tax cruelty on masses was awful and it depleted India of its own resources and made the people vulnerable to famine, poverty and sufferings.
The author’s punch line - “We literally paid for our own oppression” – needs to be mentioned here as the author writes that by the end of 19th century India was Britain’s biggest sources of revenue.
Gandhi and World War I
Tharoor has described Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as “Saint and a Strategist”. Gandhi, writes Tharoor, supported the Britain’s war efforts in World War I, thinking that the British would grant self-rule to India after the war ends. However, Gandhi was disappointed as the British did not keep their promise even after India contributed far more than other colonised nations in terms of men animals, rations supplies and money.
The book sheds light on the forgotten war heroes of World War I. As many as 74, 187 Indian soldiers died during the war. The author writes the Indian soldiers were dispatched oversees either to protect or expand the British Empire. The Indian soldiers were deployed to China, Ethiopia, Malaya, Burma, East Africa, Somaliland, South Africa and Tibet. Tharoor says there was also disparity in ranks, pay, promotion, pension amenities, and ration between the European and Indian soldiers.
Press in India
A detailed account about the genesis of printing press and newspapers has also been sketched in the book. The first British printing press was established in Bombay in 1644. However, only books and pamphlets were published at the printing press. He writes that it was only in 1780 that first newspaper ‘Bengal Gazette’ was published in India.
Talking about the censorship of newspapers in India, Tharoor writes, it was Lord Wellesley who introduced the censorship of the Press Act in 1799 – out of fear of French which could have used it to disadvantage of the East India Company. Providing details of many other newspapers, the author writes that majority of the newspaper were catering to the readership of small European communities. He says only few newspapers were serving the nationalist interests and were pro-Congress.
Tharoor has given credit to the British for establishing the first newspaper in India. He says the newspapers were unknown to the Indians before the colonial rule. By 1875, it was estimated that there were 475 newspapers in India.
Press and Kashmir
Writing about the freedom of press in India, author writes, it was due to freedom of press that the people of Jammu Kashmir were able to choose the dominions at the end time of partition. Sharing an anecdote, the author writes, in 1891, a journalist from Amrita Bazar Patrika was able to read a letter torn-up from the dustbin of the then Viceroy Lord Lansdowne. The plan to annex the State of Jammu Kashmir was scribbled on the letter. Next day, Amrita Bazar Patrika, published the letter on the front page prompting the Maharaja of Kashmir to use good offices in London from taking such a step.
Tharoor writes that had such an expose not taken place, Kashmir would not have remained a princely state free to choose the country at time of partition and would have been a province of British India and “subject to British pen during the partition.”
The injustice system
Among the many ills of the colonialism was the justice system in India. The author says there were “two justice systems” one for the natives and other for the whites.
Quoiting number of such examples, the author writes how white were simply let go for worse crimes and the natives given rigorous imprisonment for petty crimes by the colonial masters. He says many Indians suffered from enlarged spleens due to certain diseases. He writes when a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach, the natives enlarged spleen would rupture causing immediate death.
The author writes the “jurisprudential question” was did the fatal kick amount to murder or criminal misconduct? He says in London it was handled as ‘causing murder’ while in India it would be only charged as ‘causing hurt’. This practise, says Tharoor, caused death to thousands of the natives.
Taking a reader further, the author writes how Lord Curzon who had no love for the Indians also denounced the injustice prevalent in India. The scale of injustice prevalent in India can be gauged from the sympathetic statement of Curzon.
Divide and rule
To strengthen its foothold in India, the author writes the British adopted the old mantra of Romans of divide and rule. He writes that Lord Elphinstone, the Governor of Bombay, advised London that the old Roam maxim (divide and rule) “should be our fundamental point” to rule the Indians.
Sharing an interesting anecdote the author also writes how Governor General Warren Hastings hired Pandits to ‘Ordinations of the Pandits’. He writes it resulted in an ‘Anglo-Brahminical’ text that violated the actual practise of Hinduism in both letter and spirit. The author says it also served to magnify the problem of caste hierarchy in present day India.
"The book is a must read for the contemporary generation as to know how the seeds of acrimony were sown in Hindustan"
The author writes that while conducting census in India it differed significantly from the conduct of the census conducted in Britain. The census in India was led by British anthropologists seeking to anatomize Indian society. Tharoor says that the census led to an identity creation of different groups and sects in Indian society.
About the religion, the author writes that the British only interfered when they felt necessary. Religion became a useful tool of divide and rule. Quoting Peter Gottschalk,the author writes religion became a ‘deliberate tool’. Providing many examples of religious bonhomie between Hindus and Muslims, Tharoor writes the acrimony between Hindus and Muslims only began under the colonial rule.
The author writes that it was British who instigated a Dacca Muslim noble man to start a rival party (only of Muslims) to Congress which sowed the seeds for the disintegration of the India. Tharoor says that the British did not help Muslim League out of love but only to keep the Indians divided. The book also briefly talks about how the British created the tensions between Shias and Sunnis which never existed before under Shia Nawab, especially in Lucknow.
Author writes that the last large scale famine that took place in India was under British rule. Calling the deaths a British colonial holocaust, the author provides a staggering figure saying 30 to 35 million Indians died of starvation during the British rule. He says these deaths were the result of the policies of the British regime.
The author says there were around 15 famines in India under British rule; out of which 11 were major famines in which millions of Indians died. During the great famine of Orissa in 1866, instead of providing rations to the famine stricken people the British exported 200 million tonnes of rice to Britain.
The author also touched the topic of diseases that spread due to these famines. He also says that there were no great hospitals established by the Raj anywhere in the country during their tenure.
A chilling account of the Mutiny of 1857 is given in the book. Tharoor writes that people were murdered in droves across the length and breadth of Hindustan even when hundreds surrendered before the colonial forces. The colonial forces also reduced the once bustling city of New Delhi to rubble to collectively punish the mutineers. The sons of last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar were also brutally murdered even after surrendering peacefully.
Tharoor has called the Indian Railways a big “British Colonial Scam”. He says that the railway was built only for the benefits of the British and they used the railways to plunder Hindustan of its raw material. He argues that the railway were intended only to transport resources, coal, iron ore, and to the “ports of the British to ship home to use in their factories”. He says the railways also witnessed discriminatory hiring policies as no Indian was employed in the railways. From directors of Railway Bord to ticket-collectors all were white-men laments Tharoor.
Author has also discussed in detail the impact of colonialism and the subsequent decimation of the education system what Tharoor has called as – “Dismantling of traditional education”. The book gives detailed account of the genesis of tea and cricket in colonial India. It also talks in detail about the impeachment process of Lord Hastings and how he was acquitted. It also talks about the brutal taxation and how thousands died during famines as they could not afford to buy food grains. It talks about the Indian Imperial Civil Service, discrimination of Indians in imperial services, birth of Indian National Congress (INC), Indian convicts and the forced migration of countless Indians to the other colonial states.
The book is a must read for the contemporary generation as to know how the seeds of acrimony were sown in Hindustan on the basis of religion. As the book suggests that whether it was a Hindu king or Muslims emperor, they took care of the other community. Barring few kings or emperors, the people of Hindustan were non-communal, happy and wealthy at the same time. It was only when the British colonised the subcontinent things started to go downwards in this part of the world. The need is to go back to our roots and look at a roadmap which will be a win-win situation for all the ideologies of the subcontinent.
About the Book
Book: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Genre: History and Politics
ISBN: 9789383064656, 938306465X
Edition: 1, 2016