Anarchy or Plunder? A book with two titles

Book Review

It is the story of an anarchist corporate power stretched over more than two hundred years…..from 1599 to 1857. It plundered not only the resources of the subcontinent but threw the area into a prolonged colonialism. They ruled the indigenous people and introduced a strategy of making and breaking alliances for the sustainability of the rule and enshrined the cancer of divide and rule.

Book Review

By Noor Ahmed Janjhi

Human history has passed through different phases and eras and left different lessons for succeeding generations. Some of them are learnt and some are ignored. Such is the long history of colonial rule in the subcontinent. Many people came here as invaders and became masters of this land full of resources and rituals. Such latest episode in the history has been the British rule which is attributed as the colonial rule. However, the colonization in the region has been a story of far past beyond these white hungry people of frozen islands. The story of colonization starts with corporatization in the subcontinent and is rightly called “the relentless rise of the East India Company” by William Dalrymple in his long narrative on the subject under title of “Anarchy” published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

The book consists of nine chapters along with an introduction and epilogue. Besides, the glossary, notes, bibliography and maps add value to the book. A map imaging India of eighteenth century opens the book and reflects India as a divided country among the dominions of Mughals, Rajputs, Avadh, Bengal, Marathas, Nizam and Tipu. The writer has given all the characters who played the role in this chaos and anarchy. The people are categorized as follows;

  1. The British: Robert Clive (1725-74), Warren Hastings (1732-1818), Philip Francis (1740-1818), Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), Richard Colley Wellesley(1760-1842), Colonel Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), Gerald (1744-1808), Edward Clive (1754-1839),
  2. The French: Joseph-Francois Dupleix (1697-1764), Michel Joachim Raymond (1755-98), General Pierre Cuiller Perron (1755-1834)
  3. The Mughals: Alamghir Aurangzeb (1618-1707), Muhammad Shah Rangila (1702-48), Ghazi ud- Din Khan, Imad ul – Mulk (1736-1800), Alamgir II (1699-1759), Shah Alam (1728-1806),
  4. The Nawabs: Aliverdi Khan, Nawab of Bengal (1671-1756), Siraj ud-Daula, Nawab of Bengal (1733-57), Mir Jafar, Nawab of Bengal (1691-1765), Mir Qasim , Nawab of Bengal (d. 1763), Shuja ud-Daula, Nawab of Avadh (1732-74)
  5. The Rohillas: Najib Khan Yusufzai, Najib ud-Daula (d. 1770), Zabita Khan Rohila (d. 1785), Ghullam Qadir Khan Rohilla (1765-1787)
  6. The Sultans of Mysore: Haidar Ali (d.1782), Tipu Sultan (1750-99)
  7. The Marathas : Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle (d.1680), Nana Phadnavis (1742-1800), Tukoji Holkar (1723-71), Mahadji Scindia (1730-94), Peshwa Baji Rao II (1775-1851), Daulat Rao Scindia (1779-1827) and Jaswant Rao Holkar (1776-1811).

‘Loot’ was the first Indian word to enter the English language and according to Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late eighteen century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain writes Dalrymple in the onset of the introduction and tries to depict the situation of Britain and other trade powers ventured for the subcontinent and portrays the fractured governance across the subcontinent. He clarifies that the book does not provide a complete history of the EIC, still less an economic analysis of its business operations. He narrates the story of establishment of the Company and defeat of its principal rivals. The name of the book has been derived from Fakir Khair ud-Din Illahabadi’s words ‘ disorder and corruption no longer sought to hide themselves and the once peaceful realm of India became the abode of Anarchy (dar al amn-I Hindustan dar al fitan gasht).

First chapter of the book starts from the year 1599 or start of seventeenth century when Shakespeare was thinking on a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark, simultaneously some Londoners were gathered in a shabby building to plan an overseas business and it was the start of a small ignored company which not only became the tycoon among other corporates and surpassed all other Europeans to establish the business in the subcontinent but also emerged a strong power and paved the way in taking over the subcontinent by the Crown. The book explores schism in the society in terms of class and faith. It facilitated the invaders to grip the matters of local people, divide them and rule over them. The cities of Delhi, Calcutta, Murshidabad were good urban centers during seventeenth century and there were great commercial as well cultural activity there in those cities. He writes, “Delhi in 1737 had around 2 million inhabitants. Larger than London and Paris combined, it was still the most prosperous and magnificent city between Ottoman Istanbul and imperial Edo (Tokyo).” It was an example of the pomp and show of the civility and commercial potential of the subcontinent. He discusses the Maratha Aurangzeb relations and arrival of Nadar Shah Afshar who had ordered his troops to stop killing on the commitment of 100 crore or 1 billion rupees (13 billion pounds of today) by Nizam ul Mulik. Nadar Shah just came here to plunder the wealth and resources to fight against his ‘real enemies, the Russians and the Ottoman.’ He took away Koh i Noor Diamond along with ‘ 700 elephants, 4000 camels and 12000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones  valuing estimation as 87.5 million in the currency of the time (p 44). It equals around 9200 million pounds of today. A brief is given on Robert Clive, describing his aborted political activity in Britain and his employment as a writer, a most junior rank employee at the EIC. The chapter presents a narrative on the arrival of British and other Europeans during different periods. He mentions Sir Thomas Roe arrival and appointment in the court of Jahangir but the arrival of missionaries and Vasco de Gama is missing. The latter is real pioneer of white imperialism in the subcontinent. Mughal rule was ended in true sense as Aurangzeb passed away on 20 February 1707. The different powers emerged afterwards and the power of Delhi became weak day bay day.

The second chapter throws light on Anglo French conflict and preliminary assets of the Company. Nawab Aliverdi Khan, genealogically a mix of Arab and Afshar Turkman stock got power in 1740 in Bengal in a military coup financed and masterminded by Jagat Seth bankers who controlled finances of the Bengal. Aliverdi was very popular and cultured ruler but he had no son as an heir succeeding his rule so he was succeeded by Sirajudullah , son of his sister. The success was not with same charisma to continue Aliverdi’s legacy. There were family conflicts also. Despite the shortcoming he crushed the power of company in first battle but then the white men became conscious and gathered their power, did conspiracies and defeated Sirajudullah.

Third chapter of the book narrates Sirajudullah-Clive conflict in detail and betrayal by Mir Jafar, a close confident army man of Aliverdi Khan. The betrayal weakened Nawabs’ rule in Bengal and ultimately the British succeeded in Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757 with the support and of Mir Jafar. Robert Clive seems very much anxious and suspects in his correspondence about the commitment made by Mir Jafar. In this way Mir Jafar became the Nawab of Bengal from a sword holder employee of the Nawabs. Consequently, the Company got free hand in loot and plunder of Bengal.

Chapter fourth highlights inefficient governance of Mir Jafar. His son Miran kills all the family members of Sirajudullah and he himself dies of lightening in 1761. After that, Mir Qasim, son in law of Mir Jafar was made the Nawab. The emergence of Warren Hastings and consolidating efforts by Shah Alam for Mughal rule are discussed. He made allegiance with English against Mir Qasim and again emerges conflict between them.

Chapter fifth tells the tale of growing power of the Company and reaction against it. Mir Qasim of Bengal, Nawab of Avadh and Shah Alam made an alliance against the Company for first time. It was a first great Muslim alliance. Resultantly, the battle of Buxur was fought on 22 October 1764. The Muslim forces were defeated and the colonization of the corporate was strengthened. Mir Qasim lost his rule and Nawab of Avadh became a puppet in the hands of the Company. After that Clive intended to add the support of Shah Alam. By offering vague promises of support in help of return to Delhi, they got a lucrative offer from Shah Alam. The offer was of the financial management of the three rich eastern provinces of the Emperor dominions….Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It was the Diwani that snatched legal basis of rule from Mughals. It opened a new door of plunder and exploitation. Entire subcontinent was turned into a factory run by white people with facilitation of local nawabs and rulers.

Chapter six of the book describes drought of 1770 in Bengal. Some three million people were badly affected. Rice became scarce even in Calcutta, where some 76000 people were died between a short span of July to September. The author has narrated an interesting piece about the play The Nabob which was played in June 1772 by Haymarket Theatre, just off Piccadilly Circus, an interesting place even today. The play was a satire making mockery of the Nawabs. These dialogues express the foxy nature of white men.

“Touchit: We cunningly encroach and fortify little by little, till at length, we are growing too strong for the natives, and then we turn them out of their lands, and take possession of their money and jewels.

Mayor: And don’t you think, Touchit that is a little uncivil of us?

Touchit: Oh, nothing at all! These people are little better than Tartars or Turks

Mayor: No, no, Mr. Touchit; just the reverse; it is they who have caught the Tartars in us.”

The chapter also tells the account of anger and critic by parliamentarians and common people of London. Some accused the Company of genocide in India, others accused of corruption, and some mentioned plunder of the diamonds. Some of them went to the extent to restrict the corporate body from using imperial powers. Arthur Young published a pamphlet against the Company. There is narrative about the literary and cultural posture of Warren Hastings and the establishment of ‘Asiatic Society’ in 1784 by a renowned Orientalist Sir William Jones. The society sponsored the first translation of Bhagavad Gita. The account of the Marathas is also given with the mention of major setback they got at the hands of Aurangzeb at the Battle of Panipat in 1761. Ahmed Shah Durani and Maratha Peshwas and their intelligent minister Nana Phadnavis are remained under discussion in the chapter. Nana Phadnavis was called the Machiavelli of the Marathas.

Seventh chapter of the book gives detailed discussion about march of Shah Alam towards Delhi, Rohila Governorship at Delhi, role of Madhv Rao Scindia and other Marathas, recapture of Pathargarh by Shah Alam from Rohilas, Arrest of Ghullam Qadir , Massacre of Mughals by Ghullam Qadir, Destruction Delhi after attacks by  Nadar Shah  and Ahmed Shah in 1739 and 1761 respectively.

Chapter eighth narrates impeachment of Warren Hastings because of his duel, appointment of Cornwallis as Governor General , succession of Tipu after his father Haidar Ali, conflict among Tipu, Marathas and Nizam of Deccan, defeat of Tipu by British and consequent plunder including two sons of Tipu. Sultan Tipu had been remained in close contact with Napoleon Bonaparte.

Ninth chapter of the book is with the title of ‘The Corpse of India.’ It throws light on the governorship of Wellesley, the pact with Nizam by British to face the French Tipu alliance, weakening of Maratha Confederacy after the death of Nana Phadnavis, defeat and death of Tipu at Srirangapatnam. The chapter also discusses some acts passed by the British parliament during the period. At last, the Company captures all dominions of India in 1803 and becomes sole corporate and political power. It was seriously noticed by the Crown and serious conflict rose between the Company and the Crown. The Court of Directors raise their objections in black and white against Wellesley. It led the conflict to the strong opposition in the parliament in 1825. The Parliament took final decision in shape of the EIC Charter Bill in 1833. Consequently, the Company was turned into a sort of governing corporation. ‘On 10 May 1857, the Company’s own private army rose up in revolt against its employer. The company murdered and hanged many rebels to crush the rebellion. The rebellion is recognized as the Indian Mutiny by the British and people of the subcontinent call it the First War of Independence. Parliament finally removed the Company and took over the power. The author has concluded this chapter nicely with the following passage.

“Enough was enough. The Victorian state, alerted to the dangers posed by corporate greed and incompetence, successfully tamed history’s most voracious corporation. The Company’s navy was disbanded and its army passed to the Crown. In 1859, it was within the walls of Allahabad Fort—-the same space where Clive had first turned the Company into an imperial power by signing Diwani—that the Governor General, Lord Canning, formally announced that the Company’s Indian possessions would be nationalized and passed into the control of the British Crown. Queen Victoria, rather than the directors of the EIC, would henceforth be ruler of India.

The East India Company limped on in its amputated form for another fifteen years when its charter expired, finally quietly shutting down in 1874, ‘with less fanfare,’ noted one commentator, ‘than a regional railway bankruptcy’.

Its brand name is now owned by two brothers from Kerala who use it to sell ‘condiments and fine foods’ from a showroom in London’s West End.”

It was the whole story of an anarchist corporate power stretched over more than two hundred years…..from 1599 to 1857. It plundered not only the resources of the subcontinent but threw the area into a prolonged colonialism. They ruled the indigenous people and introduced a strategy of making and breaking alliances for the sustainability of the rule and enshrined the cancer of divide and rule. The story of the plunder starts from Bengal and is phased out from there because the location is the real brain of the subcontinent. Local ruling class was indulged in luxuries and remained away from the masses. Centrality of the rule was disturbed after the death of Aurangzeb. Nawabs of Bengal, Nawabs of Avadh, Maratha, Nizam and Shah Alam all were poor in technology and strategic planning. Only Tipu was trained by French but he was the ruler of a small area and lacked in strategy and alliance making. On the other hand, white people were equipped with strategic planning and cunningness. A pivotal role is seemed of local mercantile classes. Jagath Seth, Narain and others are main names who facilitated the Company. It seems clear crystal from all the happening during the period that local rulers were far away from their own people. There was lack of social organization and coordination among the rulers and the ruled. The Company or its successors got benefit of the gap and ruled over a vast and rich eastern empire. The author has given a good bibliography and notes at the end of the book. However, the author depends mostly on a few local historians and Ghullam Hussain Khan is one of them. The analysis needs a balanced and diversified point of view. There are two edition of the book with different descriptions on the title covers. The book has got a wide reading as it is a detailed narrative on the subject. Besides the narrative, the book focusses on the Mughal rule and has presented a wonderful comment by William Fraser, one of the first graduates of Lord Wellesley’s new Fort William College. He writes to his father as follows:

“At this time, I was constantly by the side of the King; and could not but admire the extreme of nobility in his gait, aspect and mien. The loss of his eyes does not at all disfigure his countenance; but the history of their loss and his misfortune exalts to the highest our pity and veneration. On his death, and not till then, we may say, the Line of Timour is extinct as a Dynasty; beginning with the lame, and ending with the blind.”

The author of the book, William Dalrymple, 55, living at his Mehrauli farmhouse near Delhi, is a great historian and bestselling author of White Mughals, The Last Mughal. He has won many awards and prizes for his writings and plays. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and has held also visiting fellowships at Princeton and Brown. He is a regular contributor of the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the Guardian. He has been co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

(The writer is a Professor, a well-known figure in literary and academic circles and author of several books. He writes regularly for the newspapers)   


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