My godchild in the US turned 21 a few months ago this year. As a mutual acquaintance happened to be visiting and offered to take something for her, and because I know she loves reading about history, I scoured Broadway bookstore for something appropriate. And my gaze alighted on Shashi Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”.
As this year also marks the 70th anniversary of our Independence and of the end of British rule in India, it seemed a timely gift. I remember watching, and being hugely impressed by what is known today as Tharoor’s “Oxford speech” in 2015, which deservedly went viral; even political rivals conceded to the brilliance of his argument and congratulated him for his speech. When Tharoor mentioned in the preface that this book followed on from that speech, I was sold.
We all studied Indian history in school, but the scale of the loot (a loan-word from India, Tharoor reminds us, like so many other words that pepper the English language) and plunder of our country, the siphoning of our wealth and resources, and the sheer barbarity and inhumanity on the part of the British Raj towards our people while simultaneously and perversely feeling sanctimonious about being a “civilizing” influence, had never hit home quite as clearly or as hard as after reading this wonderfully-written and researched book, helped along by Tharoor’s sparkling wit and turn of phrase.
Several things come to mind after reading “An Era of Darkness”. The chapter “Divide et Impera” (Divide and Rule) is in some ways the most thought-provoking. The seeds of discord of communal disharmony leading up to Partition, and of rigidly compartmentalizing us based on religion, caste (“caste reified by colonialism”, as Tharoor’s subheading puts it), language, so-called “criminal tribes”, and other absurd divisions, under the guise of collecting census data or cartography, were sown by the British; and by continuing to let these rifts fester and dictate our internal politics and foreign policy, we in the whole subcontinent are still, unwittingly or not, playing into the hands of those that planted those seeds over a century and a half ago. A South Asian region whose energy is dissipated by internal unrest and whose capital is diverted towards border tensions and disputes rather than on true welfare and progress only benefits those who profit from it, whether trade competitors or those who sell weapons to all warring nations in the region. Seventy years on, it is time for all of us to stop being pawns in an obsolete “Great Game.” Indeed, all three post-Partition siblings (although Bangladesh was ‘born’ later, also traumatically, but also as a far-reaching result of the same ‘Divide et Impera’) would be ‘anti-national’ if we persisted in squabbling rather than beginning to genuinely and peacefully co-operate.
Tharoor is scathing when he writes about the Partition at the end of this chapter: “Finally, what political unity [he is responding to the oft-repeated British claim that the Raj had the benevolent side-effect of ‘unifying’ India] can we celebrate when the horrors of Partition were the direct result of the deliberate policy of divide and rule that fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule? If Britain’s greatest accomplishment was the creation of a single political unit called India, fulfilling the aspirations of visionary emperors from Ashoka to Akbar, then its greatest failure must be the shambles of that original Brexit –– cutting and running from the land they claimed to rule for its betterment, leaving behind a million dead, thirteen million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than in the tragic manner of its ending.”
He touches upon the teaching of history as well. It is shocking how little is taught in the British curriculum about the excesses of the Raj. This deliberate infliction of collective amnesia is deeply dangerous, in many ways to the British themselves, than to us. Tharoor’s last sentence in his book applies just as much to them, as to us, as to any people: “In looking to understand the forces that have made us and nearly unmade us, and in hoping to recognize possible future sources of conflict in the new millennium, we have to realize that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.”
This removal of the rear-view mirror at home, in airbrushing the Mughal legacy from our children’s history textbooks, and the Nehru-bashing, for example, is therefore extremely worrying, and in fact counterproductive. In the internet age, even a child can fact-check what s/he reads or is told; and when our children realize they are being fed untruths, partial truths, distortions of the truth, or to put it in today’s parlance, ‘alternative facts’, it will erode any shred of trust they might have in what is being taught to them. Why are our leaders and policy-makers so frightened of the truth, of an unbiased balanced account of history?
The other thing that struck me (and this has been remarked upon before) is, how despite such a prolonged, sustained, extensive legacy of harm perpetrated by the British towards us in terms of geographic area and population numbers affected, we have excellent diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, love cricket, speak, write and think in English, whereas in Goa, the reaction to anything Portuguese, be it a visit from a dignitary, or a celebration of Portuguese culture or of the language, still draws suspicion of a dilution of ‘Indianness’, whatever that might mean. But playing and following cricket, and going to a Bollywood film that has more English in even its title than Hindi, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, and is not at all a conflict of loyalty. The English language and cricket have been Indianised somehow, given honorary Indian citizenship, an permanent Aadhar card without even being asked. But the língua Portuguesa, fado and bacalhau are still ‘bandeiras vermelhas’ to some self-styled ‘nationalist’ ‘touros’.
Lastly: if the colonial experience has been (justly) termed an Era of Darkness, what shades of grey have we been living in, in post-1947 India and post-1961 Goa? What is our current swatch of grey? Darker or lighter than even a few decades before? We owe it to our children and generations after them, if not to ourselves as well, to strive tirelessly towards an Era of Light, with no place for hatred, violence or discrimination. Utopia or attainable realistic endeavour? You tell me.
(An edited version of this article was published on 13 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)