AN ERA OF DARKNESS – Audi Alteram Partem

15 Feb


This blog began as a review of the book, “AN ERA OF DARKNESS: The British Empire in India” by Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2016. Very early in my undertaking, it became obvious that I wasn’t doing an Executive Review and had to offer arguments in the interest of the principles of “Natural Justice”.  Foremost among these principles are: rule against bias (nemo iudex in causa sua) and the right to a fair hearing (audi alteram partem).

A journalist friend commented “this is not a book review… it is a  book about a book”… a reaction to the length of the blog. It is obviously only for those who have the interest and the patience to read it!


I had just finished reading, INDIA CONQUERED: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire” by Jon Wilson when “AN ERA OF DARKNESS” by Shashi Tharoor became available.

I couldn’t help wondering if the title of V.S.Naipaul’s book, “AN AREA OF DARKNESS” had influenced the title of Tharoor’s latest book, both offering analyses of the British Indian Empire.

Tharoor’s book, “An Era of Darkness, The British Empire in India” followed closely on the release of Jon Wilson’s book, “INDIA CONQUERED: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire”. Tharoor has quoted from Wilson and in places presented Wilson’s observations.

Shashi Tharoor’s command of the English language towers above his arguments and some of his facile scenario building forays.

Many of the words used by Tharoor (Schadenfreude, Defenestration, Smidgens, Congeries, Elide, Infelicitous, Reified, Metonym, Redounded, Immiseration and Indigenes, for example) are not words even the above average English reader would be familiar with. The impression is not of the “Macaulayputra” showing off his scholarship, or of bits of the dialogue from a Peter Sellers movie, but of class and style that any one proficient in English can recognise. I was also able to brush up some English words which I hadn’t come across or used in ten or twenty years!

The inspiration for this book was the famous Oxford Union debate on 24 Jul 2015, when Tharoor spoke on the proposition, “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies”.

Unfortunately, much of the book appears to have been organised as notes for the debate, where the objective is to defeat the other side, not to present a balanced picture. In a debate the speakers defending the proposition gather and present only arguments that support their claim. It is not their responsibility to produce a “balanced” picture.
To understand what I mean by balance and academic sophistication, one must read Jon Wilson, who has not only introduced a lot of material not usually found in graduate level history text books on colonial India, but highlighted both the costs and benefits of British rule in India.

Will Durant’s “The Case for India” appears as a recurring source of inspiration for “An Era of Darkness”… The thoughts of modern writers Niall Ferguson, Lawrence James, Jon Wilson, John Keay and William Dalrymple, make frequent appearances in the main narrative.


One of the main assumptions taken for granted is the “idea of India”.

Tharoor suggests that even the ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana reflected an “’idea of India’ that the twentieth century nationalists would have recognized.”

This “idea”, captured in the Sanskrit term, “Himachala Setu Paryantam” merely describes “the land stretching from the Himalayas to the southern seas” as “Bharata”.

At a time when the Chinese were making topographic maps, thinkers in the Indian subcontinent were “inclined to dream up cosmographies, rather than to draw realistic maps.” (ERALY 2000). There was a notion that the earth was a flat disk with a golden mountain, Mount Meru at its centre. Seven continents lay in “concentric circles around Mount Meru, each girded by a distinct ocean, one of salt, another of treacle, others of wine, ghee, milk, curds and fresh water.”


British imperialists insist “that the very idea of ‘India’ as one entity instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the unchallengeable contribution of British imperial rule.”

3.1. The Ancient “Idea of India”

There were several empires in the subcontinent (MAURYAN, KUSHAN, GUPTA, HARSHA) which established their rule from present day Afghanistan to Bengal and to the Deccan) through a system of directly ruled territories and indirectly ruled provinces.

The Vijayanagara empire was a South Indian empire based on trade and economic prosperity. Other empires were those of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal dynasty where territories were annexed with the help of mercenaries who were made Governors and had the responsibility of collecting revenue and sending the King’s share to Delhi. After the time of Aurangazeb, the Mughal emperor ruled only in name, while the Governors or Subadars established themselves as independent Maharajahs or Nawabs.

The Maratha Empire, also known as the “Maratha Confederacy” did not have a centrally administered government. It existed from 1674 when Shivaji established a kingdom carved out of the Bijapur Sultanate to 1818 when the leaders of the broken confederacy surrendered to the British one by one bringing to an end the Third Anglo Maratha War.

3.2. The Legacy of British India

When the sun set on the British Empire in India, we inherited a political entity called “India” which included the Presidencies which were created by the East India Company and the princely states, which were indirectly ruled through a Resident and had to pay heavily for their “subsidiary alliance”.

Tharoor has graciously accepted that “When the British eventually left in 1947, they left India as a functioning democracy, and many Britons would take credit for having instilled in their Indian subjects the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, even if Indians were denied its substance by the British. This claim is worth examining closely.” (p47)

The Mughal empire was a spent force, brought to its knees ever since the sacking of Delhi and looting of its treasury by Nadir Shah in 1739. However, it was still a powerful memory in 1857 when mutineers from Meerut rode to Delhi shouting “Delhi Chalo”, gained entry into the Red Fort and proclaimed the last titular Mughal ruler, the elderly Bahadur Shah Zafar as Emperor of India.

“India” by this time consisted of “Company ruled” provinces, semi-independent territories controlled by gubernatorial strongmen in Bengal, Arcot, Maharashtra, and princely states, each fiercely independent and ambitious. Rather than any “impulsion for unity” what we can see is a fissiparous tendency by regional powers. The Marathas in particular, were unable to ally with other Hindu rulers to forge a “Hindu Nation” and resist Muslim invaders. The disastrous Third Battle of Panipat (17 January 1761) was the inflection point after which the course of Maratha imperialism was “seriously deflected”. It also marked the point from which Marathas began to be viewed as unreliable allies (M,R&D p546)

3.3. Cultural Linkages

The cultural linkages throughout the subcontinent no doubt provide an underlying unifying feature. The powerful ideas of Advaita Vedanta, propagated by Adi Shankara in the eighth century and carried to the four corners of the sub-continent by him provided the basis for a unification of the underlying philosophy which no doubt guided the actions of warrior kings and emperors.

Tharoor quotes Diana Eck, “Considering India’s long history, India has had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. Its unity as a nation, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hitlltop shrines… linked with the track of pilgrimage.”
The East India Company came to India as supplicants of the Great Moghul, to establish a trade centre in Bengal and carry on their business. Frequent depredations of local chieftains who appeared to fear no authority and arbitrary customs and tariffs by Mughal officials prompted the Company to ask for military help from the British Army.

3.4. What Business Are We In?

Once the army came into the picture, “trade”, the “core” business of the East India Company became secondary to the business of War.

With military support the Company was able to establish itself, through the Battles of Plassey (1757), and Buxar (1765) as Revenue Collectors of the Mughal King Shah Alam II (1760-1806).

As Revenue Collectors, the East India Company put its clerks and ledgers to work to make profits for its shareholders.

In Tharoor’s words, “The Company ran India, and like all companies, it had one principal concern, shared by its capitalist overlords in London: the bottom line.”

The East India Company (1600-1858) made investments in fortifications and a disciplined, professional army to establish and indeed expand its activities and power base.


The rapacity of servants of the East India Company and how they built their individual wealth bases are well known although we should calibrate measures of venality based on looting by rulers even after Independence. Englishmen who had come to India with the sole intention of making as much money as they can, merely continued the existing feudal practices of squeezing revenue from the countryside. Many of them entered into “Private Trade” which they were forbidden to do, and used their position and connections to make huge private profits.

The expectation that the East India Company should have behaved like Britain’s ODA or DFID of latter years (working to end extreme poverty in the world) is laughable in an age when feudal exploitation was rampant and human life was cheap. Just as there were enlightened Indian feudal rulers who would negotiate taxes with their people, there were as many English district officers who toured their districts and listened to the farmers. Philip Woodruff (Mason) notes, “… But even in Akbar’s day, it must have been easy for whoever collected the King’s share to extort more than had been fixed and then take his bill and sit down quickly and write less…”

British Imperialism in India was powered by revenue collection, a system inherited from the Mughals over two centuries and methods of collection and enforcement had not changed much. The Permanent Settlement of 1793 was a first step in regularisation of land revenue collection.

In the 18th century, plunder was one of the sources of state revenue, and “treasure” (looted from the enemy) was used to pay troops, especially mercenaries who were not paid regular wages.

After the fall of Seringapatam, in keeping with the times, Arthur Wellesley laid down the share of every officer and sepoy from the loot that was organised after Tipu was killed. Many items from this loot can be seen in Powis Castle in Wales, UK. “The division of spoils was conducted according to the rules of ‘prize’ whereby each soldier received the share due to his rank. The coin and treasure were allotted to the army; the stores and ordinance to the Company .” Loot and Plunder were the order of the day!

We are told that when Maratha ruler Daulat Rao Scindia had no resources to pay his army circa 1805, the “soldiers were permitted to collect money on their own account, from the districts .”

As Tharoor puts it, “Violence… was contracted to non-state actors.” As a result, “The freelance warriors and mercenaries associated with the Company enjoyed the license to loot everything they could lay their hands on…”

4.1. Kohinoor Diamond

Although Tharoor has discussed the Kohinoor diamond towards the end of the book under the Chapter Eight titled, “The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism”, since it deals with the return of “looted colonial treasures”, I have included it under this section on “Looting of India”.

The shrill demands for returning the Kohinoor diamond to “India” is a good reason to re-examine some of the issues of legal ownership.

Tharoor has touched on this topic and has dealt with it fairly (p280-283).

Although the diamond was found in the Subcontinent (in the Kollur Mines of Guntur District of Modern Andhra Pradesh according to one account, or in the Golconda mines of modern Hyderabad District according to another account) or in Central India on the banks of the Mahanadi according to yet another account), it went to the treasury of the Delhi Sultanate, then passed to the treasury of the Mughal dynasty where it lay for over two centuries. Nadir Shah of Persia sacked Delhi in 1739 and the jewel which adorned the Peacock Throne travelled to Persia. After Nadir Shah was killed in 1747, the stone came into the hands of Ahmed Shah Durrani who became the Emir of Afghanistan. One of his descendents, Shah Shujah lost his kingdom to Mahmud Shah in 1809 and had to seek refuge in the Punjab. While under house arrest in Lahore, Shah Shuja was forced to hand the stone over to Ranjit Singh of the Punjab in 1813 under duress. After the Second Anglo Sikh War, under orders from the Governor General Lord Dalhousie, the stone passed to Queen Victoria from Ranjit Singh’s son Gulab Singh through the Governor of Punjab, John Lawrence, under Article III of the Treaty of Lahore on 29th March 1849.

In 1976, Pakistan claimed the Koh-i-noor, since Lahore, the court of Ranjit Singh was in what is now Pakistan Punjab. Afghanistan has made a claim. Iran (successor state of Nadir Shah’s ‘Persia’) also has a claim. India has joined the chorus for return of the jewel which is claimed to have been the left eye of Goddess Bhadrakali in her temple in Warangal, Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh.

4.2. Textiles

With the objective of maximising return on investment, we should not be surprised that Indian production of fine textiles was not only discouraged, but also brutally repressed. If at all true, it is not clear how accurate or widespread was the practice of mutilating the thumbs of weavers to put them out of business. This dramatic story is attributed to a 1772 book, “Considerations on India Affairs” by William Bolts, a Dutchman who joined the East India Company in 1759. He was dismissed in 1768 for “going private” and had an axe to grind with the Company Raj. We should exercise caution in accepting the lurid details of how weavers’ “thumbs were broken” to put them out of business.

Like all colonies, India became a producer of raw materials and a market for machine-made finished goods.

4.3. Shipbuilding

At the time of the arrival of Europeans in India in the 17th century, both the Western Coast and the Eastern Coast were well served by local shipping and shipbuilding.

Local materials and labour, made Indian shipbuilding vastly more competitive than the British shipbuilding industry.

As sailing ships gave way to steamships, the East India Company had gradually become more powerful in India.

Tharoor asserts that a combination of self-serving policies and legislation crushed the Indian shipbuilding industry.

However, we get quite a different picture from Jon Wilson. Sir John Malcolm, a Governor of Bombay actually commissioned an “armed steam vessel” from the Parsi shipbuilder Naoroji Jamsetjee…to check piracy along India’s West Coast. The same vessel, was sent to Egypt with letters for onward transmission to London’s Court of Directors to persuade them to support inland and ocean-going transport investments in India .

The policy of establishing Managing Agents for all sterling companies as a prerequisite for British capital created barriers of entry to Indians and Indian capital, shutting off potential “native” investment.

4.4. Steel

Shashi Tharoor’s research notes on the history of Indian steel making is a source of pride and shame for modern Indians. Pride that ancient Indians in the subcontinent had perfected the art of Crucible Steel making (Wootz Steel) in Kodumanal, Erode Dt., Tamilnadu; Golconda, Telingana, and Gulbarga, Karnataka; and shame that this science did not develop with modern furnaces and equipment.

By a process of being required to meet higher quality standards, Indian steel became uncompetitive in other parts of the world.

Again Tharoor suggests that if there were a “forward looking ‘Indian’ ruler” there could have been scientific and technological innovation. We have already seen that if the British were not ruling India, it is very likely that some other European power or Russia would have been doing so. If it had to be an “Indian” ruler, it would have had to be a Maratha ruler, provided the members of the Confederacy could agree on leadership, economic policy and and administrative co-operation..


British rule in India is described in the book (p63) as “’a huge military despotism tempered somewhat by a civil bureaucracy’. That bureaucracy was all pervasive, overpaid, obtusely process ridden, remarkably inefficient and largely indifferent to the well-being of the people for whose governance it had, after all, been created. ”

With this single sweeping assessment, the “Steel Frame of India” as the ICS was known is dismissed as a nominal and an unnecessary expense inflicted on India. Here is another example of complete lack of balance.

We must remember that in the late nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill and in the early twentieth century Max Weber had promoted bureaucracy as the most efficient and rational way to organise human activity. Delaying harsh or irreversible executive decisions through “due process” was seen as one of the benefits of bureaucracy.

If the ICS were as useless as implied, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) the successor service of the ICS would have been completely overhauled and the defects of the British system removed. Instead, we have the same distance between rulers and the subjects and the same time-consuming procedures. This “distance” culture is older than the Indian Civil Service and can be traced to a doctrine first propounded by the slave king Ghiyas ud din Balban (reigned: 1266–86) of Delhi. Balban propounded the Divine Right of Kings and believed that kings should deport themselves seriously at all times and introduced rituals and ceremonies to emphasise his beliefs.

If Brahmins were considered “Twice Born” ICS Officers were called “Thrice Born” and “Heaven Born”, myths created by Indians, not by the Englishmen and Scotsmen who came to India.

As for the huge cost of ICS salaries, perquisites and retirement benefits, these have to be seen as the cost of keeping the service free of corruption, and out of “private business”, one of the reform objectives of the Regulating Act of 1773 and those of Lord Cornwallis in 1786 under the Pitt’s India Act of 1784. By the the late nineteenth century, the ICS had gained the reputation of being “incorruptible”.

Tharoor lays out the Job Description of the ”24 year old district officer [who] found himself in charge of 4,000 square miles and a million people.” (p65) No further argument is required to justify the cost ot the ICS officers who performed the roles of kings in hostile conditions.

Today, the salary and perquisites of IAS Officers do not compare proportionately with those of the ICS although some of the prestige still remains. The IAS Officers today still stay aloof from the people they govern and go only to exclusive clubs. The difference we frequently hear about is Income Tax raids on corrupt officials, who at the bidding of corrupt political masters and due to their own greed have abandoned the high moral ground of the “Incorruptible” service.

Tharoor offers no evidence for the blanket statement, “…the British bureaucracy retreated to mountain redoubts in the hills for months on end to escape the searing heat of the plains, there to while away their time in entertainments, dances and social fripperies while the objects of their rule, the indian people, were exploited ruthlessly below…. Really? Exploited ruthlessly? Belief, opinion or fact?

The best response to this accusation is attributed to ICS Officer E.H.H.Edye circa 1909, “It may be easy to win a name for laziness, but to keep it up over a period of years is a laborious process .” (Woodruffe)

“The British in India created little islands of Englishness (p66)… they lived in bungalows in their own areas, known as cantonments and ‘civil lines’, separated from the ‘Black Towns’ where the locals lived;…” (p67).

Jon Wilson observed candidly that “Within the heavily guarded spaces of South Asia’s bureaucracy, business and media, elites [today] have cultivated their own exclusive communities, creating social norms which separate themselves from the rest of society….Political and bureaucratic elites live in heavily guarded areas where there is never a power blackout or water supply shut down. Business and expatriate elites live in “Gated Communities” where the only ‘outsiders’ allowed are Indian servants and service agencies (modern “Boxwallahs”).

There is a description of the slow absorption of Indians into the ICS and their nether world where they became imitations of the white ICS Officers without gaining full social acceptance and getting isolated and alienated from their own ‘Indian’ community.

“… imperialists during the second half of the nineteenth century developed and expressed a strong preference for the noble savage (the primitive, wild, martial but ‘manly’ tribesman and his ilk) over the educated wog (the effete, culturally hybrid Westernised Oriental Gentlemen later to be derided as Macaulayputras )


The British claim for having created India’s Political Unity and Democracy as observed by Tharoor lay in three of the building blocks of democracy:

a) A Free Press
b) Parliamentary System
c) Rule of Law

6.1. Building Blocks of Democracy – A (Partly) Free Press
The British get the credit for establishing newspapers in India, “which had been unknown before colonial rule”. The English press was followed by a vernacular press and soon, the East India Company administration experienced the embarrassment of conflicting interests.

A “scoop” by a reporter in Anand Bazaar Patrika revealed plans of Viceroy Lord Landsdowne to annex the state of Jammu and Kashmir. As a result of this leak, the Maharajah travelled to London and lobbied the authorities to honour the existing guarantees of the “state’s independent status”.

Ideas of “sedition” and “Anti-National activities” which we continue to hear about in Free India 70 years after Independence owe their origin to this nascent period of the history of the free Indian press.

British owned newspapers, which catered to the British in India tended to be more free than the Indian press which was critical of imperial policies and highlighted the National movement

6.2. Building Blocks of Democracy – Incipient Parliamentary System

The Indian Parliamentary System was freely chosen by Indians in a Constituent Assembly even though in Tharoor’s view it is not suited to India.

When Clement Attlee as a member of a Constitutional Commission offered the US Presidential system as a model, “they rejected it with great emphasis”. The innate conservatism of Indian politicians insisted on the same system as the Mother of Parliaments whether best suited for India or not.

6.3. Building Blocks of Democracy – Rule of Law

Shashi Tharoor illustrates why “Justice in British India, was far from blind: it was highly attentive to the skin colour of the defendant. Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment… The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s action always a capital crime.”

“Sentences handed down by British judges were never equal for Indians and Europeans; in Calcutta it was estimated that Indian prisoners’ sentences exceeded those for Europeans by a factor of ten for the same crimes.”

“Since the rule of law was intended to perpetuate the British hold over India, it was designed as an instrument of imperial rule. Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts. The penal code contained forty-nine articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only eleven on crimes involving death).”

Legislators have been content to leave the Penal Code almost exactly as Macaulay had drafted it in 1837, and use the archaic laws to muzzle dissent and hobble political opponents.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) still has Section 120B, which deals with criminal conspiracy against the state, and 124A, which concerns sedition.

We still have outmoded Adultery Laws (Section 497 and 498) which target married women having a consensual sexual relationship with an individual other than her spouse.
“There is no provision in the law for a woman to file a complaint against her adulterous husband. If a married man commits adultery with an unmarried woman or a widow or with a married woman with the consent of her husband, his wife is not regarded as an aggrieved party and she is not permitted to make any official grievance against her husband.”

India has Homosexuality Laws of the Victorian era which Lord Macaulay introduced as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1860. This law criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature”, arguably including homosexual activities.

The section was decriminalized with respect to sex between consenting adults by the High Court of Delhi on July 2009. That judgement was overturned by the Supreme Court of India on 11 December 2013, with the Court holding that amending or repealing Section 377 should be a matter left to Parliament, not the judiciary.

This reinforces the argument that India has a deeply conservative social system which is reluctant to change even alien laws introduced by a colonial power.

It is partly due to the usefulness of some draconian laws which can be invoked when the ruling dispensation, if not the state feels threatened or extremely annoyed.

Are we to blame the British colonial rule and demand reparation of costs incurred by us for shortcomings in our democracy?


The book traces the the impact of two World Wars, the Freedom Struggle and Partition with the caste system and Hindu Muslim conflict as a background.

Swami Vivekananda is quoted as having said, “Acceptance of difference was central to the Indian experience throughout its long civilizational history.”

Tharoor posits that, “The creation and perpetuation of Hindu-Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the horrors of Partiion that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority in 1947.”

We in modern India are not so bad at the game of divide et impera. As I write in February 2017, political parties are busy, unabashedly “polarising” the electorate in UP on the basis of religion and caste.

7.1. Feast and Famine: The British and Starving India

The author lists 11 major famines between 1770 and 1944 which claimed the lives of 35 million people of the subcontinent and suggests that the Malthusian Theory was used to explain the non-interference of the British Indian Government.

Particularly worthy of denouncement were the export of goods (including food grain) and inflexible high taxation in the midst of famines.

This is one area where Free India can be proud… famines are unknown to modern Indians, thanks not only to policies, but also to technology and infrastructure.

7.2. Violence and Brutality

The author cites a number of occasions when the British Indian Government inflicted the most cruel brutality on the people of India.

The retaliation of the Administration and Army after the Mutiny of 1857 is cited with the explanation that it was “for the killing of British women and children and over 100,000 lives lost.” The orgy of killing in Central India was under General Neill, in Jhansi by Sir Hugh Rose. The reprisals in Delhi and surrounding areas involved killing without trials and mass hangings in marketplaces.

The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre ordered by General Reginald Dyer is described in some detail and is cited as “the decisive moment when Indians were alienated from British rule” (A.J.P.Taylor). Sometimes its when we push hard that the system pushes back harder ! The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre (13 April 1919)… “made Indians out of millions of people who had not thought consciously of their political identity beore that grim Sunday.” (p200)

7.3. The Railways

Tharoor evaluates the benefit of the Indian Railways to the Subcontinent against the ways and means of raising (British) capital to invest in the venture during colonial days. The government guaranteed returns on capital of 5% net per year, making up shortfalls from its revenues, which came from taxes raised in India.

The author reckons that even after the Government took over railway construction in the 1880’s, a mile of Indian railway cost more than double the same distance in th Canada and Australia.

The immediate objectives of the railway project were movement of the British army and British trade.

As with any new technology, a number of unintended or unforeseen negative impacts on the environment, on agriculture, on human health (rapid spread of bubonic plague) were visited on the subcontinent by the newly opened railways. Probably more devastating were the market distortions which made consumers in rice-growing areas compete directly with urban Indians and exporters of rice. Similar distortions were noted in fish markets.

7.4. Education and the English Language

The vast array of native education systems in India in the nineteenth century cited gives us an idea of the complexity of policy choices that faced the British Government in India. This does not include the princely states which would not have been affected by such policies.

Although English may have been an instrument of colonialism rather than a gift of modernisation, it is spoken well enough to be understood by native English speakers only among about 2% of today’s Indian population. However it continues to be an aspirational language and is associated with social status. Indian youth interested to explore international job markets and keep abreast of modern computer technology know that English is the key medium of communication.

The RSS and BJP would like to make English disappear from India (Ref: Sushil Aaron, Hindustan Times, Updated: Oct 25, 2016 12:49 IST) However, the first of the five processes to realise this objective is:

“The RSS should ensure that all BJP politicians, from the village level to the Union Cabinet, sign a pledge that they will enrol their four-year old children and grandchildren in only Hindi-medium or regional language institutions…”

Inevitably, the introduction of English education in India led to the study of Indian history in English with all the biases and prejudices they presented.

Caste continues to be a hurdle for universal primary school education even today. It is inconceivable how lower castes could have sat in the same classrooms as higher caste children and studied in the nineteenth and early twentieth century without the intervention of an autocratic British Indian power, however clumsy their attempts might have been.

Even Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have objected to universal compulsory primary education!

Tharoor admits that “English was undoubtedly Britain’s most valuable and abiding legacy to India…”

7.5. Tea

The section on tea illustrates the dilemma of a typical colonial product… where a plantation agriculture crop was grown with inexpensive factors of production. Tea was grown on low cost land, usually on long term leases, cultivated with low cost labour and debt capital.

Indian tea has become uncompetitive due to high labour costs directly impacting cultivation practices. New entrants like Argentina, Kenya and Malawi are offering comparable products at lower costs. These countries would have lower costs of production in this labour intensive industry in its current position on the product life-cycle.

Tharoor flies yet another kite here…”If Argentina could grow tea without the British having colonised them first, couldn’t India have done so as well?”

Argentina turned to tea growing and production a full sixty years after India and benefited from all the agricultural and marketing knowledge capital; much of it no doubt developed in India.

Every product has a life-cycle and while Indian tea may be in its decline and cost of production is no longer optimal, Argentine tea might just have reached its maturity level with increased sales volume and efficiencies brought on by the experience curve. It is pointless to wonder if the Indian tea industy could not have developed without British colonisation.

The futility of the question is all the more apparent with the author having just stated, “Full credit, then to the British. And this time it is difficult to argue that one could have had extensive tea cultivation and a vast market for the product without colonization: certainly Indians hadn’t ever done it before the British.” (p240)

7.6. The Indian Game of Cricket

Cricket is yet another colonial legacy in India and “has seized the national imagination of India as no other sport has. Long after the British have gone, love of cricket continues to be a passion in India, cutting across all its divisiveness and diverse backgrounds. “A land divided by caste, creed, colour, cuture, cuisine, custom and costume is united by a great conviction: cricket.”


Tharoor emphasises that “The British left a society with 16 percent literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no industry and over 90 percent living below what today we would call the poverty line.

These statistics would have been more useful if we knew the state in which the Portuguese left Goa and the French left Pondicherry, even though both these European possessions were much smaller in size and would have had better report cards, just as Union Territories in India have today compared to the larger states. It would be equally interesting to compare India’s literacy and life expectancy with that of Britain from 1773 to 1947 to get an understanding of the slope of the trendline.

Although there is a fleeting mention of Sir Arthur Cotton and his pioneering irrigation project across the Godavari, his dedicated work and influence that led to the creation of India’s Public Works Department is overlooked.

9. From Darkness to Light

Without European colonisation, there would have been no political entity called “India”… with the weakening of the Mughal Empire and the assertion of independence by hundreds of independent rulers, each with their own systems of administration and justice and notions of kingship. While Persian and Urdu would have been the state language in Hindustan, below the Vindhyas, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam would have been the lingua franca. At the very least, Punjab (of which Kashmir was a province), Mysore, Hyderabad and Travancore could have been Independent states.

Even though British rule in India is a distant memory, it still evokes emotional and angry responses in Indians today. Shashi Tharoor’s speech in Oxford went viral and even the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi praised Tharoor for “articulating India’s point of view”. It is easy to see why the speech would have gone viral, reflecting the feel-good impact especially among Indians.

If the period of British rule in India was an “Era of Darkness”, we can reasonably expect that 70 years after Independence, was enough time to have come out into blinding light.

The Upanishadic poet prayed:

Asato ma sad gamaya | Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya | Mrtyorma amrtam gamaya

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.iii.28

“From the unreal to the real! From darkness to light! From death to life!”

Poverty should have been eradicated, Rule of Law should have long been in force, Caste cruelty and atrocities should have become distant memories, Full literacy for men and women, Health for all, No more looting of our tax money, to be stashed away in England or Swiss Bank accounts, and no more “scams” (like the Railway Scam in British India) involving public money.

The purposively selected examples below tell a different story about Independent India’s record of governance which can rapidly change the “Feel Good” to “Feel Wretched”.


During 2006-2007, malnutrition contributed to seven million Indian children dying, nearly two million before the age of one .


As for Rule of Law, (Law and order is a State subject) we see that according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), every day [an average of] 93 women are raped in the country. The number of rapes in Delhi almost doubled from 585 in 2012 to 1,441 in 2013.

On the night of 28 September 2015, in Bisara village near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family on the suspicion of having killed a cow and eaten its flesh. Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi (52 yrs old) was killed and his 22 year old son Danish was injured.


On July 11 2016, a group of Dalits who were skinning a dead cow in Mota Samadhiyala, a village near Una town in Saurashtra region were rounded up, tied and publicly flogged with steel pipes and iron rods by members of the local cow protection committee. The flogging was filmed, posted on Facebook as warning to other Dalits were they to repeat such acts.

Most Dalits in many parts of the country are not allowed entry into temples in villages; common crematoriums too are out of bounds to them.


According to the INDIAN EXPRESS (9 Feb 2016), 29 state-owned banks wrote off a total of Rs 1.14 lakh crore of bad debts between financial years 2013 and 2015, much more than they had done in the preceding nine years. Writing off bad loans means transfer of tax money to private capitalists while acknowledging that it ensured that mass layoffs and retrenchments may not have taken place.

On 5 May 2016, a JD(U) Member said in Rajya Sabha that Corporate houses owe about Rs 5 lakh crore to PSU banks. In particular, he referred to the Adani Group, alleging that the company got “unimaginable” favours and its debt stands at Rs 72,000 crore.

On 9 Feb 2017, India handed over its request to extradite business tycoon Vijay Mallya from the UK where he had flown last year after defaulting on bank loans worth 900 crore and facing charges of money laundering.

The Saradha Scam was a Ponzi Scheme in W.Bengal and Odisha, involving Rs.40,000 crores, which collapsed in 2013 and led to the arrest of Rajya Sabha and State Legislative Assembly members.

A list of 32 major scams in India from 1940’s to the present time can be found on


According to a statistic offered by Credit Suisse, “India’s wealth increased by $2.284 trillion between 2000 and 2015. Of this rise, the richest 1% has hogged 61%.”

India is listed under “Very High Inequality” (Share of Wealth of top 10% population > 70%) countries by Credit Suisse in their 2014 Global Wealth Report.


According to a former Women and Child Development Minister (Krishna Tirath, 2011) “Large scale displacement of tribals due to land acquisition for development is a challenge.” Large scale land alienation takes place despite tribal welfare laws such as the PESA 1996, the Forest Rights Act 2006 or even the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.


So what has Independence and democracy done for the people of India? What have we been able to change? Where is the light?

More importantly, where is the heat? Why is there no anger? Is it possible that when Indians elected by us or Corporations registered under the Indian Companies Act 2013 steal our money it is less painful than when the East India Company ripped India off? No public anger although we are better educated now and have communications at the speed of thought today? Is it because there is a separate rule of law for members of our ruling class by which FIRs are not lodged or cases are dragged on till they slip beyond the limits of public memory?

How will reparations for British rule in India help us today?

(6582 Words)

2 Responses to “AN ERA OF DARKNESS – Audi Alteram Partem”

  1. Chandra February 16, 2017 at 12:49 pm #

    Most interesting, well thought out and written review. Did the modern day corruption start with the agents of the East India Company whose young officers’ main reason for being in India was to maximise their earnings to take back to the mother country and the idea of booty proportional to their rank?? “Macaulayputra” What is the purpose if not to impress, might as well use Latin, Greek etc. unless it is an accepted technical term. PS I too learnt new words!

  2. Chandra Mohan February 20, 2017 at 2:43 am #

    Hi Ajit, your review is no less scholarly than the book itself – bravo! You appear to be uncomfortable with a supposed lack of objectivity but history has never been written without a bias, wouldn’t you agree? Why, you have yourself approached the issue with the bold conviction that Bharata khanda was always an unmanageable morass of dysfunction and chaos! New literature is emerging that articulates (in contemporary language) that such “chaos” is indeed the natural order of things and ancient traditions had very sophisticated (by today’s standards) means to abide by it (not “manage” it).
    Great start to your blog!

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