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