Book Review: An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor

Book: An Era of Darkness
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2016)


In May 2015, Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor spoke at the Oxford Union debate for the motion: British owe reparations to her former colonies. In his 15 minute speech, Tharoor eloquently outlined how the British destroyed the Indian economy, amassed huge wealth, and when they departed, left India worst off.

So, as per Tharoor, the British owe reparations to her former colony, India. But instead of paying money, which anyway wouldn’t be possible, Britain could at least acknowledge the wrong and offer an apology for it.

In An Era of Darkness, Tharoor expands his Oxford union speech by collating selected accounts and sources and working them into a forceful, paced narrative. In cogently written eight chapters, he builds an impressive case against the British depredations and misgovernment that British Indian subjects suffered during 200 years of colonial rule of the South Asian sub-continent.

As Tharoor says, British Indians literally paid for their own oppression. Whatever good or positive British rule brought to Indians was not intended, but only a by-product. Extensive railway networks were not for native transport services but to carry British goods and control the vast territories; English education was imparted to groom a native elite class (‘Macaulayputras’) and impose Victorian values—Macaulay believed that a shelf of British literature was far better than entire Oriental works; the press was allowed to function, but freedom of press was curbed; the rule of law was introduced, but the judicial system was prejudicial towards Indian subjects—he cites the case of Justice Syed Mahmud, who resigned in 1892 on the grounds of “discrimination and prejudice” and later “died a broken man”.

In the preface, Tharoor admits his book is not offering anything “terribly new”, but he has written it for lay readers; and for contemporary Indians and Britons who should see colonialism for what it was, and not as something which apologists and historians like Niall Ferguson romanticise.

His book, as he says, “makes an argument; it does not tell a story”. So, in that respect An Era of Darkness is not a historical book. Yet, despite the disclaimer, it will inevitably be read as a book of history—a nationalist history.

In fact, it is already being projected like that. For example, on popular web-portal Scroll, one reviewer described the book like this:“It is the one sweeping story of independent India’s history that every Indian must know”.

In their school and college textbooks, Indians have already read about the colonial rule over the sub-continent, its causes and consequences, its positives and negatives. However, in contrast to relatively balanced accounts offered in many academic studies, Tharoor has picked damning evidences from different sources and fashioned his material into a forceful polemic against British rule.

In a no-holds barred manner, he accuses the British for everything which was (and in some cases still is) bad within India—from caste to sectarian conflicts to inefficient institutions. What British brought with them, Tharoor argues, was ruinous for India (which includes present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh). Whatever good percolated, it was not intended by but a by-product.

In short, British rule was brutish, racist, prejudicial, and utterly exploitative. Nothing redeeming can be found in it except for “the joint stock company, long experience of commercial processes and international trade, and Asia’s oldest stock exchange, established in Bombay in 1875”. And yes, the newspapers.

One of the arguments Tharoor puts forward is that if the British had not colonized them, Indians would have modernised on their own, like the Japanese did, or like those countries did who were not colonised. To substantiate this point, he takes a rather romantic view of ‘Indian history’ and refers to “great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, a high overall standard of living, economic policies that imparted prosperity, and abundant prosperity—in short, all the markers of successful ‘modernity’ today”.

Here Tharoor’s claim clearly fall within the category of what Kashmiri historian Idrees Kanth calls “response mode historiography”, which, as Kanth says, “usually operates through three tropes: difference, negation and nostalgia”. Indian historians and authors, who are invested in the political project of ‘Idea of India’, have a tendency to claim that Indian nationalism is different from western nationalism, that India’s ‘modernity’ is different and of its own making.

In terms of negation, these historians see practices of caste, class, communal identity as “decidedly […] ‘modern’, or at least markedly different from their ‘pre-colonial’ scope and praxis!”.

In other words, if there is rigidity in the caste structure today, the blame lies with the British, who introduced classificatory devices like census etc. and made people aware about their distinct identities. But, how did the Indians internalise this caste rigidity so fast and so widely? This is a significant question that Idrees poses to these historians. Finally, through nostalgia, some Indian historians attempt to construct some sort of an “original sense of Indian self-hood” and fashion an Indian nation by referring to a supposed chain of an indigenous Indian tradition, which is valorised and projected, as Dipesh Chakrabarty does, “as timeless and continuous, disrupted only by Colonialism.” As Idrees points out, these so-called alternative histories are histories of the elites; even though projected as subaltern history, it is a “national history from the backdoor”.

Hailing from the southern Indian state of Kerala, 65-year-old Tharoor comes from a privileged family and caste. He studied in Bombay’s missionary Campion school and after receiving a master’s degree (in Law and Diplomacy) from the Fletcher School in the US, he wrote a doctoral thesis on Indira Gandhi government’s foreign policy—later turned into a book titled Reasons of State (1982). Currently a member of the Indian parliament, Tharoor belongs to the Indian National Congress (INC), a centrist political party—founded by a British civil servant and ornithologist Allan Octavian Hume in 1885—which lead India’s freedom struggle against the British rule and, since independence in 1947, has governed India for nearly 50 years.

So, being very much part of the political elite and establishment, Tharoor’s perspective on Indian history reflects a view which upholds a tenuous, but popular, notion of ‘unity in diversity’. However, as he belongs to an avowedly liberal class, his views on Indian history differ from the pro-Hindutva ideologues, who propagate an exclusivist nationalism premised on the idea of Hindu identity—Hindutva sees minorities (especially Muslims and Christians) as outside the purview of the Hindu-nation because, as Vinayak Savarkar has argued, these communities have their punyabhumi (holy land) outside their pitrabhumi (fatherland) and cannot have loyalty with India.

Tharoor, unlike pro-Hindutva ideologues, does not see Muslims as historical enemies, but as equal citizens. Muslims did conquest Indian territories, but they settled and contributed to the land and made it their own. In the contemporary toxic atmosphere of India, thus, Tharoor is certainly making a valuable intervention in terms of dispelling certain negative notions about Muslims and their medieval history in the sub-continent. For example, he says how India’s share of the world economy reached impressive 27% during the Mughal period.

Nevertheless, unlike his secular-self, Tharoor’s nationalist-self has severe limitations, especially as far as Kashmir is concerned. While talking about the criticisms his speech received, he writes “several other arguments were made in response to my speech that should be acknowledged here, even though they do not fit directly into the themes of any of my chapters”.

But interestingly, he completely omits reference to the 2015 interview with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan, who asked him some hard-hitting questions. Congratulating Tharoor for his impressive speech at the Oxford union debate, Hasan had immediately asked him, “Don’t you worry though that one day, in the years to come, an independent Kashmir may ask India similar reparations and similar apology based on the same line of argument you advanced there…based on the fact that Indian government has used rapes, violence, havoc destruction in Jammu and Kashmir in recent decades?”

Tharoor’s reply was this: “I think on the purely specific economic argument that I talked about—how the British depredations deprived India economically—I think you will find that the contribution of the rest of India to the state of Kashmir exceeds economically, vastly,  vastly outstrips anything else. So, economic argument of reparations would never apply”.

In the later part of his answer, however, he faltered and found himself in a difficult situation when Hasan persistently reminded him that none of the security personnel accused of human rights violations in Kashmir have ever been prosecuted and they enjoy complete impunity. Tharoor made one lies after another, saying that “there have been court martials, jailings, convictions…” and that there is no conflict in Kashmir, the problem is with the character of the Pakistan state. So, instead of acknowledging the wrong—which he so passionately demanded from British—Tharoor resorted to statist propaganda and dismissed the well-documented human rights violations record of India in occupied Kashmir.

Kashmir is explicitly mentioned thrice in the book: pp. 4, 45, 100. At the first two mentions, Kashmir is shown as part of the geographical unity of the pre-1947 India—for example, on page 45, he claims, “The vision of Indian unity was physically embodied by the Hindu sage Adi Shankara, who travelled from Kerala in the extreme south to Kashmir in the extreme north […] establishing temples in each of these places that endure to this day”.

On page 100, an interesting incident is described related to a secret British plan for Kashmir. In 1891, Amrita Bazar Patrika published a letter on its front page which revealed Viceroy Lord Lansdowne’s plan to annex the independent state of Jammu and Kashmir. But this plan was forestalled by the Maharaja of Kashmir, who immediately went to London and got assurances that his kingdom will retain its independence.

In a counterfactual way, Tharoor writes, “Had this expose not taken place, Kashmir would not have remained a ‘princely state’, free to choose the country, and the terms, of accession upon Independence in 1947; it would have been a province of British India, subject to being carved up by a careless British pen during the Partition. The contours of the ‘Kashmir problem’ would have looked very different today”.

A careful reading of this statement reveals a paradoxical Tharoor, who, on the one hand, criticises British for denying democracy to her subjects and, on the hand, finds the Dogra autocratic rule in Kashmir acceptable, and implies that Kashmir state had a free choice in 1947 because it was not a British province but a princely state.

Ironically, a strong advocate of democracy, Tharoor is subtly telling us that if the despotic ruler took a decision on behalf of Kashmiris it didn’t contradict the democratic principles! One should also notice the inverted commas which Tharoor applies to the ‘Kashmir problem’. What does he want to imply by this? One can refer to the Al Jazeera interview for the answer.

Kashmir also comes up on page 115, but Tharoor does not mention the name explicitly. Talking about how British-given laws were being misused in independent India, Tharoor cites the case of February 2016 episode when some JNU students were arrested on charges of sedition “for raising ‘anti-India’ slogans in the course of protests against the execution of the accomplice of a convicted terrorist”.

Once again, Tharoor not only cleverly omits the details of the Afzal Guru case, but ignores the Kashmir conflict completely. He clearly avoids looking at India’s colonial record in Kashmir—the Achilles heel of liberal Indians. When it comes to Kashmir, Tharoor is as nationalist as Modi.

While there is no denying of the fact that many British laws were enacted to repress India’s independence struggle, but post-colonial India has acted much more brutally in occupied regions like Kashmir and Nagaland, where, enjoying impunity under the post-British laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Indian armed forces have massacred, raped, tortured, and disappeared thousands of people.

If state action against JNU students was not “possible without the loose, colonially-motivated wording of the law”, the oppression of Kashmiris and Nagas was also not possible without the colonial nature of the Indian state. If Tharoor cannot find the Kashmiri accounts to his nationalist taste, perhaps he could go through Partha Chaterjee’s June 2017 Wire article, where the latter writes: “Most Indians will find it hard to believe that as a nation state we have just arrived at our own General Dyer moment. But careful and detached reflection will show chilling similarities between the justifications advanced for the actions of the British Indian army in Punjab in 1919 and those being offered today, nearly a century later, in defence of the acts of the Indian army in Kashmir.”

Another problem with this book is that it virtually tars all Brits with the same brush, even while mentioning the exceptions. At many places, Tharoor resorts to borderline racism when talking about Brits—he repeatedly uses the term “perfidious Albion” to describe the character of British people. Such Anglophobic rantings does not help the narrative, which is otherwise persuasive and diligently crafted.

In addition, Tharoor negates British contributions to Indian society. For him, every Indian product, practice and idea was superior than what the British had to offer. Indian “traditional systems” were liberal even to the standards of the 21st century, if anything was regressive it was the Victorian values which British tried to impose on Indians. If British rule did any good to India, it was the establishment of newspapers. After all, and ironically, the newspaper contributed in spreading nationalistic ideas and aspirations.

In Tharoor’s narrative, colonial British Indians were merely acted upon, they were controlled in all aspects of their lives externally, and their own agency was crippled beyond relief. More than anywhere else, this is implied in the way he ascribes rigidity in the caste structure to British colonial practices. If the caste structure developed, as Tharoor asserts, “under the peculiar circumstances of British colonial rule”, then how is one to understand the ‘real’ Hinduism? And more importantly, how is one to understand the subaltern agency with respect to the colonial rule? If India was “a far more meritocratic society before the British Raj”, why did this set up dissolve so easily? And where to find the traces of this ideal set up in a non-colonialised Hindu society? In Nepal, perhaps? What is one to made of pre-colonial practices of untouchability, Sati, oppression of widows, ritual sacrifice, child marriage, etc.?

Tharoor’s claim that pre-colonial India enjoyed a priori political unity is premised on a shaky argument. He cites Diana Eck’s idea of ‘sacred geography’ to argue that people living within the sub-continent had an idea of being part of one nation; he also talks about how outsiders, like Arabs, referred to India (Al-Hind) and Indians (Hindi). In nationalism studies, this rather primordialist (or ethnosymbolist) view of nation is criticised by many scholars, like Eli Kedourie, Eric Hobsbawm, John Breuilly to name a few.

According to UmutO¨Zkirimli, “ethnosymbolism is more an attempt to resuscitate nationalism than to explain it, and that ethno symbolists are latter day Romantics who suffer from a deep sense of nostalgia, which I take to be, following Steinwand, ‘a sort of homesickness, a pain or longing to return home or to some lost past’”. Kedourie sees national identity as manifestation of nationalist doctrine and not the other way around.

Since Tharoor often takes recourse to hypothetical arguments, one can look at Immanuel Wallerstein’s less-known essay “Does India exist?” and pose questions to test the claims of a priori political unity of India. For example, Wallerstein, better known for the world-systems theory, asks a counterfactual question, “Suppose in the period 1750-1850, what had happened was that the British colonized primarily the old Mughal Empire, calling it Hindustan, and the French had simultaneously colonized the southern (largely Dravidian) zones of the present-day Republic of India, giving it the name of Dravidia. Would we today think that Madras was “historically” part of India? Would we even use the word “India”? I do not think so. Instead, probably, scholars from around the world would have written learned tomes, demonstrating that from time immemorial “Hindustan” and “Dravidia” were two different cultures, peoples, civilisations, nations, or whatever.” After posing this question, Wallerstein then shows how “India is an invention of the modern world-system”, and how “India’s pre-modern history is an invention of modern India”.

As a member of Congress, one understands certain biases of Tharoor in favour of the Congress party. In the latter part of the book, he tries to exonerate Nehru—in relation to the 1947 partition—through certain discursive strategies. For example, on page 163 he writes, “To see him [Nehru] as wrecker-in-chief of the country’s last chance at avoiding partition is […] to overstate the case.”

He then goes on to quote Nehru’s biographer M. J. Akbar (1988) to put the blame on Jinnah and Britain, while avoiding mentioning the most recent work on the subject by Jaswant Singh: Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (2009), which is more critical of Nehru’s role in the partition.

Another pro-Congress bias of Tharoor reflects in the sections where he is talking about the Muslim League—which he argues (on page 152) spoke to Muslim insecurities and then (on page 157) says grew with British patronage. What he avoids telling us is that it was some Congress leaders who stimulated these Muslim insecurities. As T. N Madan writes in Modern Myths, Locked Minds (1997: 219), “A clear statement about the alleged threat to the Hindu community’s interests that militant Muslims posed, and the need for Hindu unity and a show of strength, was made by the prominent Congress leader, Madan Mohan Malaviya.” Madan cites two more names (both part of the Congress party) who were responsible: Lajpat Rai and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.

On page 161, Tharoor quotes Viceroy Lord Wavell’s “candid dairies” and then comes up with this negative portrayal of the Muslim League: “Though he [Wavell] was, like most of the British administration, hostile to the Congress and sympathetic to the League his government had helped nurture, he was scathing in his contempt for the mendacity of the League’s leaders, and of their ‘hymn of hate against Hindus.’ (No Congress leader expressed any hatred of Muslims to the viceroy.)”. Maybe League members were less diplomatic than Congress leaders in their dealings with the viceroy, but what purpose does this sentence serve in the book?

Tharoor cites Alex von Tunzelman’s 2007 book Indian Summer at a couple of places in the book, but he doesn’t reproduce the section where Tunzelman writes (pp.110-11): “Gandhi compounded this error of judgment by offering praise to Hitler. ‘I do not consider Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted,’ he wrote in May 1940. ‘He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.’

Apparently, he saw some parallel between his own efforts to return India to the Indians and Hitler’s invasion of French territory to reclaim that lost to Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. He regretted that Hitler had employed war rather than nonviolence to achieve his aims, but nonetheless averred that the Germans of the future ‘will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more.’” Interestingly, Indian Summer is not listed in the bibliography of the book!

Quoting Jeremy Corbyn, Tharoor calls for an un romanticised history of the British Empire. One cannot agree more. But Tharoor cannot assume a moral high ground and ask for a formal apology from British when his own stand and attitude on the question of Kashmir’s occupation is immoral and utterly colonialist; when he himself is unremorseful about the systematic oppression against Kashmiris, and even go to the extent of not only negating the well-documented human rights reports on Kashmir but the very autonomous political agency of Kashmiris.

All this criticism against Tharoor is in no way intended to discount or undermine his valid arguments against the British rule over South Asian sub-continent. He has an impressive case against colonialism. But, not all his opinions and arguments are genuine, some are just too simplistic.

For example, he does not mention how Dalits and marginalised groups view the British rule with respect to their empowerment—about which Dalit intellectuals like Ambedkar have written. If a reader wants to know all the bad things that British did in her South Asian colony, then this book is an apt catalogue for that. It is a well-crafted, racy narrative, with sprinkles of wry humour here and there. But, for a more balanced, complex, account on the colonial history refer to ‘academic’ works.


Muhammad Tahir is a PhD student of Politics and International Relations at Dublin City University (Ireland). His articles have appeared in The Japan Times, The Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, Cafe Dissensus, IAPS Dialogue, and in different newspapers and magazines in Kashmir. 

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir.


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