Revelation?? Shashi Tharoor’s “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”

Shashi Tharoor strikes back at the British Raj’ claims one news journal while another quotes the author  ‘British reduced India to one of the poorest countries’.

The above headlines are in reference to Shashi Tharoor’s latest work of non-fiction ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’

There has been quite a media reaction on this book, lots of ‘rah rah’, ‘oohs and aahs’ and of course the ‘… I knew it, we knew it’ both from the knowledgeable media and the average reader. Everyone seems to agree that the book explains and then goes on to elucidate the pain the British raj and its aftereffects had on the Indian subcontinent, with emphasis on the Republic of India.

I am not particularly interested in why this book has hit a nerve with its Indian readers, I am more interested in the premise of this book, what has Mr. Tharoor proposed in this book that has resulted in this revelation among the Indian readers?

To start off, let me introduce Mr. Shashi Tharoor to the readers, if you know him well enough, you can skip this paragraph, else please read on. Shashi Tharoor is a former UN diplomat, current Indian politician and an acclaimed novelist. But does that give him enough authority to write a book on a complicated topic such as the one we have in question? The answer to that is a resounding YES, he is a student of history and a prodigy of sorts, he earned his PhD at the age of 22 and has had a successful international diplomatic career. So I guess that gives his enough authority to not only air his views about the subject but also to lend his own analysis of affairs past.

I want to broach the subject of the drivers of economic well-being of nations based on their journey through history. The broad theory is based on the research work that has empirically concluded that the current economic state of a country is a direct result of institutional setup. In the case of former colonies such as India, the current economic state or rather the journey to the current state does have its underpinnings in the institutional setup by the colonists, in India’s case, the English.

What then are institutions? According to scholar Douglass Cecil North “Institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction”.  Institutions determine how the actors in a society interact with one another in carrying out their economic and social activity. With good institutions, actors can interact with greater degree of confidence knowing that the institutional framework under which they operate will protect their rights whatever that might be. Conversely with bad institutions, actors will be wary of their interaction and will take measures to protect themselves as they know they cannot count on the bad institutions to uphold their rights.

To explain the premise and for the sake of simplicity, we can break up the colony setup into two distinct sets, the first set, the colonisers who in most part were the Europeans and the second set, the colonies i.e. non-European countries in most cases. Among the colonies we can further cleave them into colonies that the colonisers continued to inhabit like Australia, the United states, South Africa etc. and colonies that were meant for trade and exploitation like most of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia etc.

Why is this important? Well we need to understand the motivation of the colonisers and the subsequent actions taken in the years to pass which will explain the current state of the former colonies. Acemoglu, Johnson, Robinson in their 2001 paper Colonial Origins postulate that the Europeans decided to stay on in some places and they choose not to stay on in some other places.  This they say in-turn had an effect on the kinds of institutions they developed in the colonies whose effects persists to the present. In their paper they observe that the mortality rate of the early Europeans in the colonies had a direct impact on whether the Europeans decided to stay or not.

Overall, where the Europeans decided to stay, they setup inclusive institutions with good law and order, property rights, fair markets etc. where they decided not to stay they setup extractive institutions whose sole purpose was to enrich the colonisers’ coffers by extracting as much as they could from the land.

We know for a fact that the English chose not stay on in India, perhaps the fact that there was a large indigenous population that could not be displaced that easily led them to think differently. However, knowing that they chose not to stay on, we can safely conclude that the institutions that they developed in India were extractive in nature. So from a social anthropological view, it is not surprising to reach a conclusion that the British left the country poorer than they found it. But to those who are not familiar with the mechanisms of institutions and their after effects it might appear to be a revelation and hence the headlines and the justified accompanying sentiments.

Now having said my bit about the subject, I have to go out and buy/borrow a copy of the book and find out for myself if there is indeed a discovery to be made.


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