Congress MP Shashi Tharoor charmed the audience on the fourth morning of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2017 in conversation with historian John Wilson and publisher Michael Dwyer. The focus of the panel was Tharoor's new book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (2016), which was inspired by his lecture at the Oxford Union a few years ago that went viral.
Speaking on the legacy of the British Raj in India, Tharoor was in his elements, opening the discussion with an explosive comment: Before the British came, India was one of the most prosperous countries, with 23% of the world's GDP. In the duration of their rule, they turned the country into one of the poorest.
Rapturous applause followed each of his remarks, especially his slamming of the apologists of the British Empire and those who cite the civilising mission of the colonials to justify imperialism. "You don't have to be colonised to get the railways," he said, to thunderous clapping.
Wilson pointed out that destabilising of power could lead to an impetus to nation-building and the creation of economic and cultural institutions. But Tharoor did not let up, in spite of being in the same side of the debate with Wilson.
"During the British Raj, India was the easiest place in the world for an untalented Englishman to thrive," he said. Over 35 million Indians died unnecessary deaths because of British policy and Churchill, who is often held up as a democratic ideal by the apologists of the Empire, was on record denying financial assistance to starving Bengalis during the Great Bengal Famine. In fact, the famine camps were given less provision than those in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
On the place of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in contemporary India, Tharoor didn't mince words. "It's the easiest to pay lip service to the Mahatma," he said, referring to the ruling party's appropriation of Gandhi. He mentioned Sakshi Maharaj's call for building of statues of Nathuram Godse on 30 Jan, the day he killed Gandhi, even as the government is co-opting Gandhi as a symbol in most spheres of political and social life. Gandhi's sayings, Tharoor added, are some of the most memorable and eminently suitable to 140-character tweets.
To a question from the audience about Britain's legacy on India's education, Tharoor said it's unfortunate that while Shakespeare is studied in schools and colleges, there's not enough emphasis on the teaching of Kalidasa. "The Ramayana and the Mahabharata should also be taught, like the way epics like Iliad and the Odyssey are read in schools, but I'm not at all in favour of injecting a political ideology in our education," Tharoor said.
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