India's fate was sealed in 1757 at Palashi. There, in a clash that lasted barely a day, Robert Clive vanquished the Nawab of Bengal. It hardly mattered that the British owed their victory to chicanery rather than military prowess. Soldiers of fortune were now poised to become masters of India. Clive proceeded to Murshidabad, "the opulent city that lay at my mercy", and plundered it so extensively that a decade later Bengal descended into a famine which claimed ten million lives. By the time the British left India, in 1947, the full tally of people who perished in famines stood at almost 35 million. The destruction of indigenous manufacturing industries turned skilled workers into peasants. The introduction of railways, paid for by Indian taxes, expedited the emptying out of India's resources to feed Britain's industrial hunger. And India, once fabled for its exports, devolved into the world's largest purchaser of British products. Its share of the world economy went from 27 per cent at the beginning of the 18th century to under four per cent by the time the British left. "Britain's rise for 200 years", Shashi Tharoor reminds us in this blazing polemic – republished in a special edition in India under its original title, An Era of Darkness – "was financed by its depredations in India".
Tharoor, who came close to succeeding Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006, is an Indian parliamentarian. Some years ago, he delivered a sensational stem-winder at the Oxford Union demanding reparations from Britain for the crimes of its Empire. His publisher saw an opportunity. But Tharoor drops the call for reparations in this book and settles for an apology. He catalogues the Raj’s crimes, accuses it of fomenting religious division, and disputes its claims of good governance. Those unfamiliar with the subject will be hooked. Tharoor’s loyal readers, however, will find he has very little to say that qualifies as new. Some of the most stinging commentary in this book is repurposed from his own previous writings.
Tharoor belongs to a generation of Indians whose patriotism was shaped by the fierce anti-colonialism of the Congress Party. An Era of Darkness is a reheated Congress-nationalist view of history. The “provable hypothesis” on which Tharoor builds one of his main arguments – that India would have attained political unity without the British Empire – is wholly unconvincing. Nothing about pre-colonial India suggests that it would have incubated an inclusive nationalism of the kind spawned by Congress following its encounter with the British. Medieval India was a hunting ground for central and West Asian marauders. By the 18th century, with the Mughals in decline, India was infested with European powers competing for dominance. If the British had not brought most of India under the crown’s control, the territory would probably have been sliced up among multiple powers. Instead of three, the subcontinent would today be home to dozens of little republics.
Britain conquered India with Indian muscle. Yet Tharoor refuses to grant agency to the Indians who collaborated with the British by likening them to a "servant" who opens the door to strangers out of "fear, cupidity, or because he simply didn't know better". This oddly Orientalist treatment of pre-republican Indians as benighted tools permits Tharoor to evade the inconvenient question of why so many Indians allowed themselves to be conscripted by the British in the project to subjugate India.
The truth is that India was so enervated by the time the British showed up that Indians, as V S Naipul put it, were "ready to build anybody a new Delhi". The orders were yelled by British officers; the triggers were pulled by Indian soldiers.
The absence of original insight is compensated with lengthy passages lifted, word for word, from Tharoor’s old books. Thus a chapter on the inadequacies of the Raj’s educational system, which begins defensively with a survey of the “great educational institutions” that flourished in India at different times in the pre-British period, culminates, strangely, in a philippic against Nirad Chaudhuri for straying from Congress orthodoxies about British rule. This segment, copy-pasted from an old essay of Tharoor’s, does not illuminate anything new. Its purpose – like the essay on P G Wodehouse that appears out of nowhere – seems solely to be to stuff the book.
Repetition is accompanied by problems of ascription. Tharoor claims that, upon learning of Mahatma Gandhi's declaration that he was "a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Zoroastrian, a Jew", Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, replied: "Only a Hindu could say that." Did Jinnah really speak that sentence? No primary source is cited, and I've not been able to locate one. The line was first attributed, to the best of my knowledge, to a fictionalised Jinnah by Tharoor in his The Great Indian Novel (1989).
The Indian sociologist Andre Beteille, no apologist for Empire, has written about the radical intellectual currents provoked by the public universities built by the British in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. They played a transformative role in a society, Beteille wrote, frozen in a "conservative and hierarchical mould for centuries". Beteille's name appears nowhere in this book. Ramchandra Guha, arguably the greatest living historian of modern India, has expounded on the intellectual stimulus unwittingly supplied by the British to a people who, having fallen behind, had invited conquest.
The confidence that is the precondition for such dispassionate assessments of the colonial epoch is lacking, alas, in Tharoor, who has long been weighed down by an anti-colonial chip on his shoulders, once writing of his ambition to exact literary revenge on the “melanin-deficient race that ruled [India] for 200 years”.
There is much that is laudable in Tharoor’s writing, and much more that is admirable about his politics, but the British empire is a peculiar fixation for an Indian politician in the 21st century. British atonement is a matter for British consciences. But it is far from the clear that an apology by the British can heal India, which is today covered with bruises inflicted by authentically home-grown demagogues.