I am, of course, not talking about the book by Shashi Tharoor, which my intuition suggests would be a waste of time even more than a waste of money, but rather about the idea of viewing the British Raj as an era of darkness. I am no Anglophile and would not disagree with the claim that it was period of exploitation and enslavement for most Indians. Neither do I seek to reveal a silver lining to that dark cloud. My point is merely that it does not help us in anyway to enter into a debate on whether it was an era of darkness or light or dawn or twilight. The British period was a historical event and events need to be analysed to understand their nature and implication rather than to pass judgement on their goodness or evil.
The problem with the ‘era of darkness’ idea is that it suggests by implication that the eras preceding and succeeding it were brighter. Yet we know the cultural devastation that visited India during the Muslm rule of the preceding 700 years and the sufferings of Indians during the succeeding 70 years of Congress misrule. And I fear that the real intent behind lambasting the British period is precisely to whitewash the evil that overran India during these two periods and that is what we must not let the ‘era of darkness’ proponents to get away with.
We may grant that the period of the British Raj was one of ‘plunder and loot’ (to be pronounced as ‘lyute’ the way Tharoor does) but India has witnessed many such ravages in her history and overcome them in due course. In this economic aspect, the British Raj was no different, perhaps more virulent in degree due to advanced technology and practices. The argument that exploitation in Islamic India was relatively more benign because these rulers made India their own, is rubbish. In fact, the problem is worse precisely because ‘they became us’ (as Tharoor puts it) as it means that the project of Islamic conquest of India is not yet over and, indeed, was resumed once British power in India began to show signs of decline. It is precisely because the Muslim rulers and those whom they converted stayed back in India that partition happened and the Muslim factor now hangs about Hindu necks like a millstone. The best part of the British is that they left and we are now at liberty to deal with them as we will. The economic devastation they caused can always be corrected as indeed has happened in history after the invader has departed.
But the British project was really about ‘us becoming them’ and they left after they were assured that a powerful minority amongst us had, indeed, become them. In this aspect, the British conquest of India was unique and incommensurable with the invasions that preceded it. The British systematically inflicted a psychological damage on the Indians which, of course, the succeeding Congress rule has managed only to worsen rather than repair.
And that is precisely why I think it is pointless at best and perilous at worst to treat the British period as an ‘era of darkness’. The constitution of modern India is based on Western political ideology. The political arrangements of modern India – the organs of the government and bureaucracy – are Western. The education system of modern India is Western. The language that unites India for practical purposes is Western. All of this was established during the British Raj and if that is the very foundation on which the modern Indian nation-state stands and makes a bid for a superpower status, how can that period be an era of darkness? It would have to be regarded as a golden age!
Of course, if the Indians were to claim that the consitution of India, her political arrangements, her education system and the English language are not working for them and all of these should be scraped and replaced by institutions derived from her own traditions, then it would make sense to regard the British period as an ‘era of darkness’ which wreaked havoc on the Indian way of going about the world. But who is up for this kind of change? Sure, there are a few voices that may vociferate that such a change is necessary but there is no project even conceived to make it a reality. Sure, one hears about a Dharmic or Indic renaissance but these ideas are at best about preservation of ancient traditions under the aegis of the political and cultural infrastructure established by the British and are in no position to challenge it.
To make sense of this helplessness of the Indians, we need to understand the nature of what exactly the British did during the rule rather than focus on the repercussions of their misconceived or ruthless policies. They brought India within the ambit of a global world dominated by a Western discourse. This, of course, is what Islamic rule also did, only the dominant intellectual force of their global world was an Islamic discourse. And as the law of history would confirm, when Hindu political groups reasserted their power against Muslim polities in the 18th century, they did so using an Islamic discourse. Just as when they asserted their power against the British in the 20th century, they did so using a Western discourse.
On the one hand, we often think of Muslims or British as invaders who entered and destroyed our world. On the other hand, they were visionaries who dragged us into their world in the hope of making us a better people. These two views are opposite sides of the same coin. Which one of them is true depends on which side of the coin one is standing. Inasmuch as we seek to participate in a global world based on a Western discourse, even if it is to dominate it, it is the latter view that prevails. That we adopt this position and yet complain as if it is the former view that is true only reveals our ignorance of the working of history which, of course, is a well-known defect of our culture.
This bizarre situation where, on the one hand, we are continuing with the institutions and principles established by the British while, on the other hand, calumnise that period as an ‘era of darkness’ is the outcome of this same ignorance. What we seek to achieve therefrom is appropriation of the best aspects of these institutions and principles as arising from our own glorious, liberal Hindu past while projecting their evil side on to the British.
This is not only morally wrong but practically futile and dangerous. Futile, because the Western civilisation appears to have entered into a self-flagellation mode already and there is no virtue in beating a masochistic rival. There is no statement more politically correct today then one which claims that the period of European expansion and Western imperialism was an ‘era of darkness’ for the rest of the world. What is achieved by regurgitating this global consensus?
But it is also dangerous, because I don’t really think we fully understand the ways of the global world into which the British have led us and what level of compromise would be necessary with our own traditional ways to enable us to adapt ourselves to it and whether we are really interested in and willing to pay the cost for making this kind of transition. For now, it appears to me that we are simply being shaped by circumstances beyond our control, which has been the case for much of our history anyway, and this whole ‘era of darkness’ nonsense is yet another symptom of this disease.