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

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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.

Book Review- ‘That was Dachau’ by Stanislav Zamecnik

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Author–            Stanislav Zamecnik ( Czech historian, Holocaust survivor)

Genre–              Non-fiction/ History

(‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’…..     Primo Levi)

Review

I bought this book while on a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site( created in 1965), Bavaria, Munich during the 2016 summer.  A must-see place for history lovers. The camp is a bit of a harrowing repository of the Dachau archives, houses a museum which really is a time machine, whereby one can hark back to Third Reich and it’s barbarity. I could literally feel the terror while being guided through the camp( the museum is set in such a way). One of the sites which made me stuck as if in a nightmare, was the crematoria where the gassed and poisoned prisoners were burned up. Words definitely fall short for the kind of utter insensibility and cruelty of The Third Reich.

About the book, the author, Stanislav Zamecnik, himself a Holocaust survivor, has stunningly captured the details, shored up by statistics and ample evidence. He has done a painstaking and arduous job of research which is commendable. The fact that he had done this despite the sanction imposed on him by the authorities in the wake of The Prague Spring, which prohibited him from working as a historian, in itself is one of the reasons which make it a must-read for all, in particular, The Third Reich history pursuant. He was imprisoned in Dachau for almost four years. His mission in life was to preserve the memory of Dachau, and he committed himself to the redevelopment of the Dachau Memorial and the permanent exhibition there recreating the realities, leaving his indelible mark on the International Committee of Dachau.

The camp was opened on March 22, 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, 2 months after Adolf Hitler took power, the first one of a series of death camps to follow. It went on to become the instrument of the Nazi extermination regime and the prototype for the other death camps. Dachau was the only camp that remained in operation from 1933 until 1945. Located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory, it was intended to house political prisoners at first and later expanded for forced labor and to house Jews from Germany, Austria and other countries that Germany invaded. There were more than 40,000 documented deaths (murders plus death from hunger, malnutrition, overwork, and diseases) out of the 200,000 imprisoned from all over Europe at the site and its subsidiaries.

The entrance gate carries the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free). Dachau’s close proximity to Munich, where Hitler came to power and where the Nazi Party had its official headquarters made it a convenient location. Initially, Hitler imprisoned intellectuals, artists, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, handicapped and homosexuals for the slave labor for manufacturing weapons for Germany’s war efforts. Later, some of the prisoners were used for brutal medical experiments by the Nazis( There is a touching book about how the Nazi doctors ruthlessly did irrational, unethical, inhumane and brutal experiments- Doctors From Hell by Vivien Spitz- I had read this some time back, hope to re-read and write the review sometime soon).

The first commandant of Dachau was the SS officer, Hilmar Wackerle. A Munich schoolteacher Sebastian Nefzger was killed by the SS officers, who reported the death as a suicide. The Autopsy revealed the cause of death as strangulation and the public prosecutor in Munich, therefore, charged the camp commandant Hilmar Waeckerle and other SS officials in the camp with murder. Himmler was forced to remove Wackerle from his post. But on May 25, 1933, Hitler exempted Dachau from judicial oversight and authority and the SS were given unlimited authority over the camp prisoners. Later, all the camps would be removed from the judicial oversight.

Theodor Eicke, who replaced Wackerle as the camp commandant on  October, 1933, brought in severe punishments including systematic beatings and summary execution for rule infringements or escape attempts. Any attempts at sabotage, escape or political agitation were met with summary execution. Later, this system would be followed for all the other concentration camps run by the SS.

Dachau camp was expanded in 1938 by the construction of an SS military training base by demolishing a WW I era munitions factory. The prisoners were made to work 24/7 for the reconstruction. During the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, about 30,000 Jews were summarily arrested and incarcerated in the three concentration camps, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed, burned or vandalized and they were dragged off the streets and homes to the camps, almost 11,000 of them ending up in Dachau.

In 1939, all the prisoners in Dachau were transferred to Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Flossenbeurg camps. The facilities at Dachau were used by the Waffen-SS for training the Death-Head’s Division. The camp would resume operating again in 1940. From 1941 onwards, the SS doctors started selecting the weak, ill and disabled prisoners, who would be transported to Hartheim and get killed there. As more numbers of prisoners started getting executed in Dachau, four crematoria were built along with the construction of a gas chamber. As a part f their plan to Germanize Occupied Poland and undermine the Catholic Church leadership there, more than 2700 clergy were arrested and incarcerated in the “Priest barracks” of Dachau.

SS doctor Sigmund Rascher conducted his infamous cold water freezing experiment on the prisoners, with methods of reviving them after they had been forced to remain in ice- cold water for hours. This was meant to help revive the German Air Force pilots whose planes went down in cold water. Out of 300 test subjects, one-third died. Numerous other prisoners were used for other medical experiments as well. A 1943 Typhus outbreak in the camp forced the SS to quarantine the prisoners and stop the forced labor. Almost 1000 died as a result of the disease.

While the prisoner numbers increased many subcamps sprang up around Dachau in Southern Germany and also in Northern Austria. On April 26, 1945, just three days before the liberation of the camp, the SS forced about 7000 prisoners on ‘The Death March’ to Tegernsee. It lasted for 6 days, while the SS shot the weak on the way, while many died of exhaustion, hunger, and exposure. The surviving prisoners who arrived at Tegernsee were liberated by the American Forces on May 2, 1945.

The Dachau Camp was liberated by the US Forces on April 29, 1945. As they arrived in the camp, they found more than 30 coal cars filled with decomposing bodies and more than 30,000 prisoners in the camp.

As a part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution‘ to ‘The Jewish Problem‘ many more were exterminated in the other concentration camps. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site was opened in 1965. The International Monument at the Memorial Site holds a sculpture by Nandor Glid, the Yugoslav sculptor and Holocaust survivor whose father and many other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. The sculpture is a poignant pointer to the Holocaust. It is made of dark bronze. It features short strands of barbed wire on which skeletons are hanging with their heads dangling sharply. On either side of the sculpture are concrete fence posts which closely resemble the ones actually used to support the barbed wire fence around the camp. Underneath the sculpture is the dates 1933 – 1945, the years that the camp was used as a concentration camp for anti-Nazis.

 

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On the west side of the monument  is a wall whose inscription in English reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”
The letters on the east side of the monument wall say “Never Again” in five different languages. In front of the wall is a box of ashes of the victims of the Dachau concentration camp, which was placed here on May 7, 1967, the same day that the Jewish Memorial building was dedicated. These were ashes that were found in red clay urns when Dachau was liberated.
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The International Monument has a wide ramp which slopes down to the base of the sculpture designed by Nandor Glid. On the west side of the ramp is another sculpture which features a bas relief depicting three links of a chain held together by bars in between. This signifies the unity among the prisoners, many of whom were left-wing political prisoners who shared the same beliefs. On the links are enameled triangles in the colors of the cloth badges worn by the prisoners on their uniforms to identify their prisoner classification.
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Red triangles were worn by the Communists, Social Democrats and other political prisoners and blue by the foreign workers, mostly Poles, who were brought to the Dachau camp. The Jews always wore two triangles with a yellow triangle on top of another color, usually red which signified a political prisoner.
Why we should read about the Third Reich and the Holocaust?
The Italian- Jewish Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi, in his autobiographical trilogy ‘If This Is a Man‘, tries to find the reasons for the human barbarity.
Logical thinking and reasoning prompt us human beings to ask questions. Discerning the answers cogently and sizing up the present and future, linking them to the past, requires one to dig deeper into the graveyards of history.
I admit that the read was depressingly bleak. Yet the pages sufficed as steps of knowledge, as answers to how a civilized nation could descend into savagery of this magnitude, how complacence and denial are akin to abetment of organized crime, why only a few were audacious enough to stand up to the ordeals, how a far-right ultra-racist minority could amass the instruments of governance to systematically mass murder an entire race by kindling the smoldering hatred with the aid of warped history, spurious politics, and apocryphal pseudo-science, or, how the social, political and economic environments join forces in the origin, re-incarnation or morphing of one among us into a Frankenstein’s monster.
The answers teach us many things. We learn to pay heed to the forewarnings from society, we try to respect diversity, fend off ‘otherization’, above all to question the unsavory, shady deviances. We learn to react individually and collectively. To teach is to learn and to learn is to question. And learning about the Reich and the Holocaust invariably prepares our mind for questioning, to understand the responsibilities in crimes of not only the men at the top of the ladder, but also the nameless, faceless cohorts at the lowest rungs of the society,  to have the courage of our convictions, to speak out when something is not right. The German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller‘s post-war confession stays ever- relevant, in particular,  in the present times. The following poetic form of his quote is engraved at the  New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

‘ First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’.

 

As Primo Levi observes, ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’.

 

Ref:

Book review ‘ Jerusalem The Biography’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

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“Like a snowy mountain glittering in the sun”

–  Flavius Josephus, the Romano-Jewish scholar, and historian.

                            A casual observer could be forgiven for being drawn into the dragnet of bias when it comes to broaching and expounding on the subject matter of Israeli- Palestinian quagmire. Responsible journalism and authorship, though ostensibly non-partisan and unprejudiced is by no means so as the evidence suggests. That leaves us with very few options for digging deeper into the marshlands of history and collating the layers beneath to prepare the ground of conceivability in our conscience.

                            The beliefs of historical determinism and fatalism, more often than not, rear their ugly head in almost every causal analysis of the conflict in spite of the contrarian disposition of the rational mind. Not even a page of this book could be flipped by without contemplating retrospectively of a more lucid outcome, had the powers that be shown a speck of farsightedness or a morsel of horse sense about a region that in itself had been tangled in the cobweb of politics, religion, ethnicity and pincered between the grasp of bloodthirsty warlords and religiously evangelical zealots. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement which unabashedly apportioned the Middle East map among British and French stemmed from the ‘ divide and rule’ dogma followed by the empire, the repercussions of which echoes to the present day, albeit in the form of protracted quasi-occupation in Afghanistan or Iraq before, by the West. Lessons will never be learned it seems, after imbibing Jerusalem’s travails.

                      Though the book offers a prolonged read and is steeped in history, titles and chronology Montefiore has done justice to his subject by dissecting Jerusalem right from the roots, eruditely, not in the least exhibiting any sort of pedantry or pomposity. Palpability of the spirit of Jerusalem and perspicuity of the ghosts of the past sauntering through the narrow alleys of Old Jerusalem is a haunting experience that lingers on. From the Maccabees to the present day rulers, the list of conquerors and occupiers seem never-ending, yet the provenance of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the seat of religious secularism, the cynosure of the world presents herself as a desolate sweetheart whom the lovers have forsaken.

                       The weightiness of the issue and the two-state solution on the cards endows a special significance to the book now than ever before. Montefiore’s pedigree and his ancestor’s role in carving up a Jewish state and propounding Zionism have been distinctly documented. I just loved the myriad footnotes which by themselves could be collated into a compendium of sorts. The sheer magnitude of research that has been put through by the author is unbelievable.

                     A magnificent tour de force, scholarly penned, bluntly chronicled, holistically viewed and meticulously researched. An absolutely enlightening tome.

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