Literary Review

Shashi Tharoor debunks the rose-tinted view of the Empire

‘The British never freely gave democracy to India; whatever they conceded was prised from their grasp.’ Photo: Sandeep Saxena  

Congress MP and former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor’s latest book ''An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India'' seeks to debunk what he terms the rose-tinted view of the Empire that distance and time is according it. Excerpts from an interview:

It has been 70 years since India’s independence, and a copious amount of literature has been produced on colonialism and its effect on the colonised. What was the push for this book?

Essentially that was a question I asked my publishers when they asked me to write this book. Their argument was that the reaction to my speech at the Oxford debate necessitated this book. Later, when I read more of what had been published in the last decade and a half on this subject, particularly in the midst of what we now see as a post-imperialist hubris, with the U.S. trying to reshape West Asia through Iraq and Niall Fergusson writing that it was the Empire that laid down the pillars of globalised trade etc., I realised that distance from the colonised era helped apologists of the Empire to get a free pass. This rose-tinted view of the Empire was completely glossing over the atrocities, the injustices and cruelties of the period.

A significant portion of your book is devoted to debunking the myth of the ‘gifts of British rule’, including democracy and political unity.

Indian history has been full of impulses towards political unity and it is naïve to imagine that it wouldn’t have happened without the British. In fact, when the British started making inroads into India, the Maratha Confederacy in Central and northern India exercised de facto control over large swathes of territory. The Mughal Emperor was still emperor but more or less their hostage. In those circumstances you can well imagine the evolution, gradually, of a constitutional monarchy on a larger scale. The British never freely gave democracy to India, and whatever they conceded was given most reluctantly and prised from their grasp. At every stage, be it the Minto-Morley reforms, which were mealy mouthed, or the Montague-Chelmsford reforms, they went short of what they had promised in return for supporting the War.

Your book says that it was the Congress’ inability to read the tea leaves correctly in 1939 that resulted in the Muslim League getting a disproportionately large space in Indian politics, and contributed to the manner in which the British left India.

Quit India resulted in the entire Congress leadership and a large number of their political workers going to jail, which allowed the Muslim League to occupy a huge space in the public discourse. They went from a membership of a few lakhs to two crores, which was astonishing. It also gave them the opportunity (after the Congress had quit the legislatures in 1939) to occupy offices they had not won by elections. They used patronage, they used money to build up their strength, which because of the vast numbers of the Congress’ leadership being incarcerated went unchallenged for three years (1942-45). This was a tactical mistake for the Congress to make. When its leaders came out of jail in 1945, they were caught completely unawares. They didn’t take the Muslim League seriously, and didn’t realise the economic wreck that Britain had become after the war. They thought the Pakistan resolution was just a bargaining chip. At every stage, therefore, they were taken aback — from when Jinnah declared Direct Action Day in Calcutta, to things like the actual negotiations in Shimla. They were unprepared for the extent to which things has gone out of their grasp. So, it was basically 1939-45, especially 1942-45, that the narrative slipped out of the Congress’ hands, a narrative that they had seized earlier through free and fair elections in 1937. That is a mistake I reproach them for.

Why did Indian leaders opt for the British (Westminster) system, unlike the Americans who created their own democratic system?

I think that those colonised by the British tend to think that they must have the best system because it was denied to them. “They fought for the rights of Englishmen” was famously said about the American revolutionaries, who devised their own system. In India, however, we practically replicated the British system right down to the practice of shouting ‘aye’ rather than ‘yea’ or ‘yes’, for a vote. It’s quite startling the extent to which we replicated it. As I have mentioned, part of being colonised is the colonisation of the mind. We had a myth about Britain, that the British had assiduously cultivated, such reverence for the Empire that it became the embodiment of aspiration instead of tyranny.

In your book you say that the caste as we know it was created by the British through the cartographic exercise of the Census, ossifying social categories. The 1931 Census, however, is still the only data set on which a lot of our welfare calculations are based. What do you make of that?

I view it with regret. To my mind it is somewhat retrogressive to reduce the issue to who you are because of your birth. Second, it ossifies the system. In earlier times, there was some mobility between castes, as is evident from the example of the Kayastha community and their success under the Mughals. That kind of mobility can no longer be possible in an environment where your caste locks you into a particular set of benefits and categorisation in the government hierarchy that will ultimately determine all sorts of opportunities and advantages in a situation of potential scarcity. It also locks you into a mindset where you look at your birth as determining your chances in life and limits your chances of going forward. We have an advantage; unlike in South Africa or America, caste is not visible. One cannot look at someone’s skin and know what caste they belong to or typecast them. Yet, unfortunately, this man-made construct has not only persisted but is being made to hang around people’s necks in ways good or bad, in a way that I think will hold us back from being a truly progressive, modern, cosmopolitan society.

You say that Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence would not have been possible under another colonial power.

Gandhiji was able to shame the British because they were claiming that they were a democracy and, at least for themselves, had a free press. Gandhiji used their own instruments against them; he could have possibly done this against the French, may be not against the British before 1857, but he couldn’t have done it against Hitler or Pol Pot. There was a significant amount of hypocrisy by the British in their advocacy of democratic values, and Gandhiji called them out on it.

You suggest that the British Prime Minister apologise for Jalianwala Bagh in 2019, the centenary of the massacre.

I was very touched by Justin Trudeau’s apology for Komagata Maru. He and his brand of politics had not been responsible for the tragedy but as a representative of the country (Canada) he tendered that apology and expressed contrition. Similarly, despite the fact that the current population of Britain is not responsible for Jalianwala Bagh, an apology would be in order. After all, the British rewarded (General) Dyer, ran a collection for him, he was called the ‘saviour of India’ by (Rudyard) Kipling and he died of natural causes; no one killed him or gave him the noose that he deserved for psychopathic behaviour. The truth is that there never has been justice for Jalianwala Bagh and it seems to me the perfect symbol of possible atonement.

nistula.hebbar@thehindu.co.in


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