Book: An Era of Darkness
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2016)
Reviewed by Safiullah Shahwani
An Era of Darkness is a book written by Shashi Tharoor. He wrote this book following one of his speeches at Oxford, debating a case for reparations to India from Britain for its imperial rule of 200 years over India. He made this speech in 2015 and subsequently was urged to write the book after his speech went viral in circles of Indian academics, politicians students and general masses.
Although he favours a reparation to India but not in terms of cash. He demands a moral reparation from British and acknowledgement of the wrongdoings that it meted out to the Indians over two centuries. He quotes example of Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of Germany who sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 to apologize to Polish Jews for the Holocaust.
He is of the view that no government in India had had the courage to acknowledge the moral, saying David Cameron’s mealy-mouthed description of the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in 2013 as ‘a deeply shameful event’ does not constitute an apology. Nor does the ceremonial visit to the site in 1997 by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, who left their signatures in the visitors’ book, without even a redeeming comment.
Yet another way of demanding reparation, the author demands is teaching unromanticized colonial history in British School as he believes that the British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of British empire, and what it meant to its subject peoples. Being a member of Indian National Congress, he also responds to the critiques positively, agreeing with viewpoint that development requires sound institution-building and wise macro-economic policies, not a recitation of past injustices.
How power usurpers and colonizers justify killing of people, author quotes a British sea-captain in the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, “When we kill people, we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.
In chapter one, the looting of India, author quotes journey of Will Durant in 1930 to India who had embarked upon a world tour on his research The story of Civilization. However, he felt so perturbed by the ‘conscious and deliberate bleeding of India that he set aside his research into the past to write a passionate denunciation of this greatest crime in all history. His short book, The Case for India, remains a classic, a profoundly empathetic work.
“The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company (The British East India Company) utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and legal plunder which has now (1930) gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy three years.”
The conquest of India, author maintains was not of a barren land by East India Company but of a glittering jewel of the medieval world. Author claims India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or any other in Asia. Her textile goods, fine products of looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk were famous over the civilised world; so were her exquisite jewelry and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, color and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal, iron, steel, silver and gold.
Quoting British economic historian Angus Maddison, author says that India share to the world economy was 23 per cent at the beginning of 18th century, as large as all of Europe put together and had been 27 per cent in 1700, when the Mughul Emperor Aurangzeb’s treasury raked in 100 million pounds in tax revenues alone. By the time British departed, it dropped to 3 percent.
A great setback to the Delhi’s economy was Nadir Shah’s plunder in 1739 who pillaged and burned over eight long weeks; gold, silver, jewels and finery worth over 500 million rupees, were seized, along with entire contents of the imperial treasury and the emperor’s fabled Peacock Throne. When Nadir Shah and his forces returned home, they had stolen so much from India that all the taxes were eliminated in Persia for the next three years.
When Lord Clive, in connivance with Mir Jafar, won Battle of Plassy, he was able to transfer the princely sum of 2.5 million pounds (250 million pounds in today’s money), the entire contents of the Nawab’s treasury, to the Company’s coffers in England as the spoils of conquest.
Author maintains that Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries. Textiles were emblematic case in point and the British systematically destroyed textile manufacturing and exports, substituting Indian textiles with British ones manufactured in England. Indian Handloom fabrics were much in demand in England and Company established its first factory in 1613 in southern port town of Masulipatnam, famous for Kalamkari textile, hence destroying the local industry which produced some of the world’s most desirable fabris especially the fine muslins, light as woven air.
In short, the book is a beautiful account on colonial history of Indo-Pak which students and researches would find interesting to read and bask in. It also helps understanding the colonial mind-set prevailing in different parts of the world today and the subjugative techniques adopted by the powers of status quo in different oppressive regimes.