“An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” by Shashi Tharoor


Author– Shashi Tharoor

Genre– Nonfiction/ History

About the author

Shashi Tharoor is a member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. He previously served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and as the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs.

He is also a prolific author, columnist, journalist and human rights advocate.

He has served on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. He has also served as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and the Advisory of the Indo-American Arts Council, the American India Foundation, the World Policy Journal, the Virtue Foundation, and the human rights organization Breakthrough

Tharoor has written numerous books in English. Most of his literary creations are centered on Indian themes and they are markedly “Indo-nostalgic.” Perhaps his most famous work is The Great Indian Novel, published in 1989, in which he uses the narrative and theme of the famous Indian epic Mahabharata to weave a satirical story of Indian life in a non-linear mode with the characters drawn from the Indian Independence Movement. ( Ref: Good Reads author information)

My review

Tharoor mentions what the American historian and philosopher Will Durant  wrote about Britain in 1930, ‘Britain’s conscious and deliberate bleeding of India… [was the] greatest crime in all history’.

In this book, Tharoor has made an impressive case against the empire apologists giving the lie to their claims on benevolence to the empire subjects, and the purported dividends accrued by Indians over the period of colonialism and post-colonialism, shattering the myth of ‘enlightened despotism’ of the empire through his concise, well-scrutinized, trenchant and to the point onslaught. This book followed his famous Oxford speech advocating the cause of reparation by Britain, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by his opponents, daring Britain to take on board its historical responsibility of colonial excesses and depredations.

The British Empire in India began in 1600 as a commercial project in trading silk, spices, and other commodities by the East India Company and which changed into a rapacious and savage enterprise subjugating the natives, misappropriating their wealth and land and trampling their self-respect, identity, and honor under the jackboot of colonialism. What ensued, later on, was organized plunder thrusting a rich civilization into the edge of a precipice, engendering a yawning gap of pecuniary disadvantage with its world share of GDP going into a free fall. When the British acquired the reigns from the Mughal empire, India’s share of world GDP had been 23% and by the time they left, this dropped down to a mere 3%.

Britain’s industrial revolution flourished from the ashes of Indian industries. A well planned and systematic de-industrialization of the textile and steel industries was carried out which put an end to the manufacturing while force-feeding Indians with British exports. Similarly, India’s pioneering shipbuilding industries were forcefully shut down and done away with completely. The ryots(peasants) were saddled with exorbitant taxation, and the local princes were extorted in return for tutelage. All the while, the drain of resources continued unabated to London. India continued to be the gold mine of the empire, the officials vying for the coveted ICS post, ensuring an extortionate salary and pension, all fleeced from the Indians. Whatever developments, in the form of railways, bridges, dams, etc were meant for the commercial benefit of the empire.  History provides us with the axiomatic corroboration, the Jallian Wallah Bagh massacre, forced displacement of the masses, and the Bengal famine to name a few.

Two hundred years of pillage, chicanery, liquidation, and deindustrialization is patently writ large in the annals of colonialism for any cognizant soul, let alone historians and Indian nationalists, to take the apologists for granted in all their conscience. Thus, the import of an adroit orator, wordsmith, and a debater like Tharoor who can deftly weigh in on, driving a coach and horses through the vindicatory assertions of empire apostles by the tenor and trenchancy of his debate substantiating his counterpoints through good sense, wit and researchful sedulousness.

Apologists’ claims of giving India political unity, endowing liberal democracy, freedom of the press, the Parliamentary system, and rule of law are extirpated by his political arguments and Argus-eyed spadework. The most consequential and lingering legacy of the empire in India indubitably is the partition of India, which is a corollary of the British policy of ‘divide et impera‘(divide and rule) on the basis of communalism and politicization of religion and is a case in point. Also, the myth of enlightened despotism advocated by the apologists has been thrashed by counterclaims on the contrary, and their absurdist contentions laid bare. The statements of bequeathal of the alleged British properties like railways, tea, English language, British education, and cricket, as a means of enriching and civilizing a motley amalgam of paganistic wogs, is anatomized, and their alleged altruistic intentions debunked by statistics that run athwart professions.

The arguments against the empire are as blunt, incisive, and muscular as they are equitable. He has objectively endorsed the obvious positives of the Raj, unintentional and corollary to the colonial prosperity though, in the coda. There, still, are Indians oblivious to the dimensions of colonialism foisted on their ancestors and how most, but not all, of the current strifes, ill governance, and policies are a direct sequel of colonial misrule, for whom this book could be a reference work. The ideologies of Gandhism are brushed past in relation to its unrealistic nature in the context of present-day conflicts, concomitantly emphasizing its relevance as an abstemious force that triumphed in defenestrating the imperial regime.

Though conversant with the historical facts, there is a minority of empire sympathizers who turn a blind eye to it and condones this Milton’s Satan of sorts rephrased as ‘The Brown Mans’s Burden’. Nostalgia for the yesteryears of the empire has been a significant contributor to the 52% YES vote for Brexit, which is hauling the nation to a cliffhanger, being condemned to the uncertainty of dallying in the back of the queue being laid out by some allies.

However sublime the tenets of Gandhism, yet, an average man in the street belies pretensions of moral high ground or political correctness and might even savor the frisson of schadenfreude while he catches wind of what could be perceived as the day of reckoning in the form of TATA steel’s pull out of Britain or the looming misgivings post-Brexit. For exposing us to a game like cricket, even incidentally, Britain has scored a point in Indian minds, though the rules of the gentleman’s game had never been emulated by the empire in the real-life experience.

14 thoughts on ““An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” by Shashi Tharoor

    1. Roberta, its quite a recent book(2016).
      Like South Africa, India was also ruled by the British until independence in 1947.
      The author refutes the claims of benevolent rule by the apologists of empire, explosively with the help of impeccable research.
      A nice read if u r interested 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. By Jove! how did you find that out, Roberta?
        Thank you so much for the interest in the poetry book 🙂
        I was not very serious about my book as I was thinking who would read the poems scribbled by an unknown person.
        Please feel free to give your honest feedback.
        Thanks again. You made my day 🙂 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Not like that Liz. India has obviously recovered from the damages, with the help of prudent planning and economic policies of the subsequent governments after independence.
      India was known as the ‘jewel on the crown of the British empire’, with a share of 23% of the world income during the 18 th century- almost equal to the share of whole Europe combined. After the British left, it shrunk to a mere 3%.
      After independence, India adopted economic reforms like the fiscal federalism and industrial policy resolutions that protected the indigenous industries. The economy started growing at an annual rate of 3.6% after 1950.
      The Green Revolution helped sustain agriculture and food security. Similarly, the White Revolution helped sustain a stable dairy industry. Similar developments happened in all service sectors including IT and telecom industries, and the infrastructure.
      Notable is the education sector that could be said on par with the global standards in some cases. Advances in the health sector increased life expectancy and decreased the mortality rate. Malnutrition came down, polio was eradicated, smallpox was eradicated( to name a few)
      Similar advances were made in science and space technologies too including nuclear and missile programs.
      In a nutshell, the growth story can be said to be good, but average. We had to start from nil or negative to achieve this in a span of seven decades.
      That is what the author is trying to point out. He is giving a point by point counterargument against the British empire apologists who still maintain that though despotic, their intention was benevolent in the sense that they provided a base on which India could build itself up. Like the railways, tea industry, dams, and the like. But they forget the naked truth that before they conquered and plundered the land, India was rich, richer than the whole Europe combined. The dams, railways, and the like that the empire is said to have contributed could easily have been built by ourselves even otherwise, though it could have taken some time, had it not plundered India thus.

      I was reading an article about the question you asked. So the detailed answer( I know it is lengthy, it was interesting.) 🙂
      Thank you, Liz, for reading and discussing the topic 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the additional information, Deepa. When I read your review, the comparison that was uppermost in my mind was how the British, French, Spanish, and, later, the US treated our indigenous people.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Heh heh. North Americans kinda know the feeling of being trampled by priggish, cocksure, slaveholding, colonial mercantilist monarchy. But I do observe that all totalitarians vigorously pose and virtue signal as champions of “human rights.” This causes me to look closely at labeling. Those who instead claim to speak up for “individual rights” speak languages I understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Though both the rights overlap, the term human rights is an expedient one since the time it was coined. It could easily be misappropriated as a cover for plunder, past and modern colonialization, and military action by the old empires and the new ‘World Police Team’.
      The term individual rights is a more lucid one. We as individuals are more exposed to it than the other.


  2. Now that Deepa has tickled my curiosity, I searched and discovered that the Indian Constitution is the longest in the world at 117369 words (takes 80 hours to read it). On a hunch I charted GNP versus constitution wordiness for the Americas. It turns out there is a correlation with a downward-sloping trendline. Brazil, with the wordiest Constitution, has almost the lowest per capita GDP underperformed only by the declaredly socialistic Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.(See Many Words and Many Lies at Libertariantranslator). India’s people could invest time in deleting tens of thousands of those words, and I’ll bet money economic performance increases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Frankly, I don’t know anything about the relation between the wordings of the constitution and economic performance.
      Shall search Google for the correlation.
      Could you please send the link to your post? Thank you for mentioning. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.