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We need to engage with the serious & not be obsessed with TRPs: Shashi Tharoor

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 3 November 2016, 17:54 IST

At the end of May 2015, when MP Shashi Tharoor was invited by the world-famous debating society, the Oxford Union, to speak on the proposition 'Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies', he didn't give it much thought. The facts were on his fingertips, and 15 minutes were enough to make his point - that Britain owes reparations for colonising India. The speech went viral. Three million views and thousands of shares.

Tharoor hadn't said anything "terribly new" - so the hits were an obvious indicator of how little Young India knew about their country's past.

Tharoor's 15th book - An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (Aleph Books) - is an extension of that speech and a history lesson that Young India needs to read. Urgently.

In an interview with Catch, Tharoor talks about British India's "brutish" rule, how they systematically engineered a divide between Hindus and Muslims and how the Empire needs to atone for its misdoings - especially by telling its own people about the atrocities of the Raj.

Tharoor reveals that he wrote his first draft of the book in 12 days, writing 18 hours a day - disconnected from the world in a remote cottage in Bhutan. Of course, you believe him when you hear him deliver over 3,500 words in 27 minutes - citing historical events and dates - as if he were singing a song.

He also tells us about his "almost schizophrenic life" moving between the world of decisions, the world of actions and the world of reflections, why India's reading list needs to go beyond the Chetan Bhagat universe, and the secret of his eternally youthful looks.

Edited excerpts:

LH: I loved what your computer's spellcheck offered as an acceptable substitute for British -- 'brutish'. So how brutish was their rule in India?

ST: Extremely. There is a self-justifying mythologising that is taking place, principally by the British about how benign their Empire was. Perhaps, by comparison with the brutalities of the Belgians in Congo, for example, it may well be relatively benign by comparison.

But it's all relative. And the fact is, when you think of the ruthlessness with which mutinies, rebellions were put down, when you think of the soldiers that were blown to bits at the mouths of cannons, when you think of the number of soldiers executed for desertions and other things, when you think of civilians massacred in 1857-58, and deliberately not in the heat of battle but after surrenders and captures.

When you think above all of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and then, on top of that, when you think of things such as 35 million Indians who died completely unnecessarily in famines because it was the British policy not to help during famines.

When you think of (Winston) Churchill diverting grainstock from starving Bengal merely to boost up reserve supplies in Europe during the last bits of the Second World War.

When you think of all of this, it really was brutish, to put it very mildly.

Even admirers of British Raj had to suffer the indignity of racial discrimination

LH: But you also say that some of us Indians, mostly royals, wanted the British around...

ST: Oh yes. The fact (is) that some Indians were complicit. That doesn't change the reality of what they did and how they did it.

LH: There are still a lot of people who romanticise that period. You mention Nirad C Chaudhuri in that context...

ST: You see in every colonial narrative there are those who become enamoured of their own enslavement. I don't think there is any exception, I think in every empire there are people from the so-called native classes who are happy to play along, and often for personal benefits.

In the case of Nirad C Chaudhuri, and, in all fairness, initially there were no personal benefits, until he ended up for the last 25 or 30 years of his life at Oxford.

He was in India, leading a decent middle class Indian life, nevertheless his ideas were very much based on admiration and uncritical admiration.

But even he had to suffer on a number of instances the indignity of racial discrimination, and on that basis he himself said that 'look this is simply unworthy', as he saw it, of the empire he admired so much.

So even the admirers of the British had to go through some experiences of slights.

LH: You talk of reparations, apologies and atonement. But you also cite a conversation between Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru wherein Churchill asks Nehru (who had spent an accumulative 10 years in jail) 'why he felt so little rancour for his tormentors' and Nehru remarks, 'I was taught by a great man (Mahatma Gandhi).' Shouldn't we then just forget and forgive, and move on?

ST: So the thing is (this is) certainly one of the things I expect people to say is -- 'for God's sake who cares anymore, 70 years after the Brits have gone, forget it'.

So my first answer is that if you don't know where you are coming from, you have no idea where you are going, you can't appreciate where you are going.

You have to know what the past was -- where you started from, what was done to you and your people, in order to have a sense of perspective as well as a sense of direction.

The second thing is I find that understanding history is very important. There are lots of statements --- the most famous perhaps is George Santayana's -- those who have not learnt history, are condemned to repeat it. May be, may be not. Obviously there are a lot of people who don't agree with this approach.

In fact, I remember a very interesting argument by the late Shimon Peres - he said he hates history and he doesn't want his grandchildren to learn history because history only teaches you to hate, evokes all these wrongs, he wants them to focus on the future -- peace and coexistence are only possible through forgetting.

That, in turn, again reminded me of a famous lecture in 1882 by French historian Ernest Renan who argued that forgetting was as important as remembering. That there could not be a united French nation, unless the massacres in the earlier centuries had been truly forgotten by the descendants of the victims, because how could they show allegiance to a France that had massacred their ancestors, unless you forget.

Now these are all very important ideas and I have stressed in three or four places in the book that I am not using history to either exonerate the present or to serve as a guide for behaviour in the present.

I am very much in favour of civilised, normal state-to-state relations. I am certainly not on the reparations bandwagon as the Oxford debate implied -- that was a topic Oxford came up with so I went with it.

All I am saying is lets have an honest reckoning. They could indeed issue an apology - I even suggested the dates, place and time. (The Jallianwala Bagh massacre centenary)

Atonement is actually teaching their own people about the atrocities of the British Raj

LH: But your suggestion that the British Prime Minister should kneel down at the Jallianwala Bagh and apologise is a bit too dramatic...

ST: Why is it dramatic? This is what Willy Brandt did when he went to the Warsaw Memorial Ghetto in Poland and I thought it was such a fine gesture.

LH: It could look demeaning -- especially if the PM is a woman?

ST: But kneeling at a grave is not a demeaning gesture. Don't we all kneel in temples and in churches and in mosques?

This is the site where so many hundreds were killed....there is a dispute over numbers but a minimum of 1,379 people were killed.

The other thing I say, which people have not focussed enough upon, is that part of atonement is actually teaching their own people about the atrocities of the Raj. There is this complete glossing over.

The Guardian carried an article by a Pakistani journalist who has raised her two children in London and was marvelling over the fact that they don't know one sentence of British colonialism. One of the best public schools in London, these are bright students, but they do not have a clue because this is not taught. There is deliberate amnesia.

To my mind this is unfair because it justifies all of this romanticing and mythologising that's going on especially on television and so on in Britain.

When the Brits have absolutely no idea what the actual reality of their rule was.

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British Raj's divide and rule policy was set in stone with the first census in 1872

LH: You also talk about the Brits accentuating the differences between Hindus and Muslims. When exactly did this begin?

ST: I think it was essentially sparked off by watching Muslims and Hindus serve together in the rebellion in 1857-58. That really sent alarm bells ringing. They had been complacent before.

They had always taken comfort in the idea that such a hopelessly divided society will never unite against us. But when they saw for example both Hindu and Muslim sepoys jointly and without debate or dispute rallying under the banner of the rather enfeebled Mughal monarch and claiming the right to rule themselves, and for their country to rule itself, they got alarmed.

The idea that dividing and ruling was the only way they could continue to rule us [started here]. The execution of these policies was carried out very systematically -- in the second half, in the last three decades of the 19th century.

It was almost dated to the 1872 census - as the first moment when they thought it is time to categorise these people to control them. And then, all the divisions - of caste division, of regional division, of language division, religion above all, became set in stone.

People were forced to identify boxes and to shove themselves into those boxes - even in their real lives they lived fuzzy relationships with each other. It was essential for the Brits.

Some of the cynicism of this lies in, for instance, the episode of the Partition of Bengal in 1905. The Nawab of Dhaka was a Muslim and the ruler in Eastern Bengal said this is a beastly idea, its terrible how the British are doing this. The British quietly slipped him 100,000 pounds and his story changes.

This kind of thing, and then the active encouragement given for the founding of the Muslim League, for example. These are conscious things.

Also, the famous interview of the Governor of Bengal, Bampfylde Fuller, saying he has two wives and, between the Hindu and the Musalman, he prefers the Musalman.

What is the purpose of all this? They have diagnosed the risk of nationalism rising from what they see the Hindu majority and therefore the best bulwark against it is fomenting disaffection among the Muslim minorities.

All this evidence that is out there is too damning to be ignored.

Shashi Tharoor (File Photo)

LH: You recently wrote an open letter to your colleagues 'Let's talk about rape'. Is there feedback on that?

ST: Sadly, no. I think there are some issues people don't want to discuss.

I was reminded of something that happened to my UN boss, Kofi Annan. I was not with him on this trip - but he went to Zimbabwe and met President Mugabe and he began talking about AIDS which, at the time of his visit, was a major public health concern. He began talking about the awareness of using condoms. He was interrupted by the president who said, 'you are the secretary-general of the UN, I don't expect to discuss condoms with you'.

End of conversation. He was not interested in talking about it. It was not something he wanted to discuss. In India, we still have that kind of attitude towards anything to do with sex. And so the opposition to my stance on Section 377 was not just intolerance, it was also embarrassment.

They feel it is about sex and I tell them it is not about sex, it is about freedom. But they don't want to listen to that.

Kofi Annan told them this is not about sex, this is about public health, they wouldn't listen to it.

So instead of rape being talked about as an act of violence against half our population, people see it as a taboo subject they can't talk about in polite conversation.

The short answer is - I have had no feedback.

Some say I have done a disservice to writing by getting distracted with so much else

LH: You are a writer, a politician, a diplomat. Which role is the most satisfying?

ST: Difficult to say. Each has its moments, each has its frustrations.

There is a personal satisfaction involved in writing a book, an article. Your creativity connects you to individual readers, so that's one kind of satisfaction.

There are different types of satisfactions involved in politics - thanks to your efforts something gets done that affects millions.

This satisfaction is different from writing a bestseller.

That's why I have lived an almost schizophrenic life. Because I have always been moving between the world of decisions, the world of actions and the world of reflections.

There is a certain impression in literary circles that I have done a disservice to writing by allowing myself to be distracted with so much else. No one has said the opposite - 'only if he would give up his writing he would be doing better at politics' - simply because I have given priority to my professional work.

LH: This is a solid book of history. How did you make time to write it?

ST: But this has never been at the expense of my work. This is (the result of) some weekends, some nights.

This is one of the reasons I have moved away from writing fiction in the last few years. Non-fiction is interruptible, but fiction is not. Because I have chosen to allow my work to take precedence.

My various attempts to start a novel have had to be abandoned somewhere - sometimes after writing 15 pages, sometimes 100, because I couldn't do justice because of the frequency of interruptions.

With non-fiction you can just pick up the threads.

LH: A history book with major referencing and indexing?

ST: It hasn't been easy. The basic shape of what I wanted to write was in my head but the substantiation that was needed for a serious book is very different from a 15-minute speech.

But I did something I have never before - perhaps being in Opposition helps. I took 12 days off at a stretch...

Thanks to the generosity of the King of Bhutan I went and sat in a cottage in the mountains, no SIM card, no phone, no visitors, no tourism, and I just wrote 18 hours a day. In those 12 days I was able to produce 50,000 words - the first draft.

I was still researching, but I knew I had the basic shape of the book. The book in its final form is 100,000 words. But the other 50,000 I was able to expand and amplify from what I had written in Bhutan. Since the core was there the second half could be done at nights, and in between work.

LH. Your speech at Oxford Union went viral and you've written this book for those of us who do not know our history. But how many of us are reading - leave alone history books?

ST: This is a concern.

LH: We all like to read Chetan Bhagat...

ST: Frankly, I like Chetan very much as a person, but his books are not going to change people's thinking of fundamental issues, certainly not of history.

There's always a different function served in a society between a bestseller in a popular sense and books which hopefully have an impact over a period of time, including mine.

It is interesting that a book like this has, if you like, a pre-prepared audience through this speech. I say this not because I expect everyone who has watched me on YouTube to buy the book. Many will say I have watched the speech so I don't need to buy the book. So I am not going to give my publishers the hope that they will sell 3 million copies.

But at least a number of people whose appetite has been whetted by this speech will be inclined to go for the book.

There are two concerns here, and this goes beyond the purview of my book.

One is to what degree as we as a society are prepared to engage with some of the serious issues of the past. Or are we going to continue to be obsessed with sensationalism, voyeurism, TRPs, breaking news headlines, and the familiarities of the present. That is the larger question.

The second question is, of course, how much of the thinking sections of the society, the ones who shape the agenda for ideas and for policies - eventually make policy decisions - how many of them have the time or the patience to engage with the serious.

And honestly, for both, I don't know the answer. You will have to look at years of bestseller lists to judge how many serious mind altering [books have been written/sold].

LH: You are a bestselling author. So is Chetan.

ST: There is a difference between a 5000-copy bestselling author and a 5-million-copy bestselling author. There is not much comparison.

But again this is non-fiction.

I am not a metrosexual who spends hours in front of a mirror

LH: My next question is a bit personal. I want to know what is the secret of your eternal good looks?

ST: (Laughs) Choose your parents wisely.

Honestly I think we shouldn't give people with good looks any credit. Often it is a luck of draws when it comes to the genes. In my mother's family, for example, everyone is astonishingly young looking. They didn't grey at all till well into their sixties. I seem to be following them.

But I also have a lot of characteristics from my father's side of the family who are not a terribly healthy bunch.

It is ultimately a luck of the draw of which gene will emerge from the great race of the chromosomes. I have no idea...

LH: Really?

ST: Honestly, I don't spend any time .... I am not a metrosexual who spends hours in front of a mirror.

Often, I am given credit for careful dressing. It is not careful at all. Very often I wear whatever kurta has been ironed and given to me. I have really been very casual about things...

I have been wearing kurtas over pants since I was in high school. In Stephen's (College) that was my uniform throughout. The truth is this is how I was. When I went to the UN I was forced to wear suits and ties, the one occasion I wore a kurta to work on a hot summer's day - a Bengali khadi kurta - my boss looked at me and said 'who do you think you are - a surgeon?'

After doing that for three decades, the day I came back to India I embraced with gusto this one thing about Indian politics - wearing kurtas and bandhgalas.

There is no great fastidiousness involved and I totally give credit to my mother and father for the combination of genetic features.

I exercise to battle the irresistible encroachments of middle and older age. I am officially a senior citizen now so I need to be conscious and exercise.

'Too much tweeting can lead to quitting' - that actually turned out to be correct

LH: In your book you say you would have liked to be born in a bygone era - but don't you think you are far ahead of your time?

ST: Its true that for a number of things that I believe in, have written, have said and have done - it does seem that a large number of people around me have not been prepared to accept.

Twitter was a very good example. I was widely criticised. I remember Venkaiah Naidu, who was the president of the BJP, presciently saying 'too much tweeting can lead to quitting' - which actually turned out to be absolutely correct.

But today, the same Venkaiah Naidu and his colleagues, who are ministers, are busy tweeting. In an interview in 2009 I said that in 10 years every major politician of the country will be tweeting. We didn't have to wait 10 years.

The only problem is, it's a well-known adage that when a fort is being besieged, the first soldier who sticks his head up above the parapet is the one who gets his head blown off. That's what happened to me. And I fear that happens a lot.

I am sure (Section) 377 will go and at that time nobody will remember that I was the poor fool who took the hit for it. But there is some merit in being right even if it is at the wrong time.

LH: So it's a happy life...

ST: I don't know (laughs). It's an interesting life.

Surgical strike: Sending back Pakistani artistes was most stupid, says Shashi Tharoor

First published: 3 November 2016, 17:54 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.