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Book Review: “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”

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Book Review by HSC Leadership Team Member Abhishek Desikan

“An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”
Shashi Tharoor, 2016, Aleph Book Company

“The British rule was good for India”, is a common argument put forth by apologists for the Raj, both in India and elsewhere. Tharoor, in his latest book, debunks, denounces, debases and ultimately destroys this argument and the various claims to support it.

The grim realities of British colonialism and its effects and consequences are examined in great detail, displaying at every stage, the supremely self-serving nature of the “elite rulers”, with little to no regard for their “subjects”. The mere fact that the British left one of the leading economies of the world at the time they took control of the country, to one reeling in tatters, as one of the poorest, illiterate and diseased societies in the world at the time of our Independence is abhorrent enough. But to read about their systematic strangulation of every aspect of our country – be it religion, culture, wealth, natural resources, established practices and so forth, with a highly narcissistic attitude, leading to such monstrous acts, leaves one numb.

How, could a society which claimed to conquer and rule for the benefit of its conquered, and which held such high standards of being the torchbearer of liberalism and free speech, subjugate and humiliate countless denizens, with such rapaciousness, one wonders. The massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, the intentional starvation and death of millions in the various famines, the idea and execution of the divide between Hindus and Muslims, the introduction of a racist and biased Penal Code which has repercussions to this day, are some of the many despicable legacies of colonialism. The very psyche of Indians changed forever, with over 200 years of imperial browbeating.

Tharoor is a master with words, and his lucid responses (to Niall Ferguson in particular) are both cruel and delightful to read. The supposed benefits of the British “giving” us Railways, a “free” press and “rule of the law” are all addressed in more detail than any apologist would like to debate. He also makes it clear that we are not passing the buck to the British on our failures as a country post-Independence, but rather to understand the wrongs of the past and how it has led to our present state. Above all, the self-respect which comes with owning up to our decisions, right or wrong, was always withheld by the British, which is as grave a sin as any.

That India has come out of such barbaric times to rise up as one of the largest economies in the world is a credit to its strong leaders and citizens’ indomitable spirit. It would do a great disservice to the lost lives of countless freedom fighters and victims of the colonial era, if we were to ascribe our successes as a hat tip to their legacy.

A must read for every Indian.

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