NON-FICTION: HOW THE EAST WAS WON

December 01, 2019

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Shah Alam handing over tax collection rights of Bengal to Robert Clive | British Library
Shah Alam handing over tax collection rights of Bengal to Robert Clive | British Library

William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company is a fast-paced history of South Asia set during the turbulent 1700s. It tracks the emergence of the British as the successors to the paramount power of the Mughal empire, while also covering the rise and fall of various other contenders. Its rich narrative is engrossing and, once you pick up this book, you aren’t likely to put it down.

When the Epilogue begins, you are likely to wish that there were another hundred pages left to read. There cannot be a better introduction than this book to the South Asian history of the period covered and one can only marvel at the author’s skill at relating a story rendered all the more remarkable for it being fact, not fiction.

Dalrymple does not try to formally set forth an explanatory framework to guide us through his narrative of events and people. Nonetheless, The Anarchy provides much to reflect upon. Perhaps the most important in terms of understanding the effects of the past on the present is that three key reasons emerge for the eventual success of the British at empire-building in India.

The first is that none of the Indian contenders had anything remotely resembling a sense of national outlook or a framework of loyalty that extended beyond that owed to an individual leader. The second is that none of the local rivals were able to consolidate a fiscal-military base strong enough to enable them to unilaterally drive the British into the sea. And the third is that India’s own capitalist and military-service classes preferred collaboration with the British owing to the uncertainty that prevailed elsewhere.

An excellent introduction to 1700s’ South Asia, William Dalrymple’s latest book offers much more food for thought for present times

The predatory and selfish behaviour of the contending factions in post-1707 South Asia is brought out in great detail. What is troubling is that, while there were serious disagreements within the emerging British colonial regime, representatives of which — such as Robert Clive — were ruthless in their plundering, the local forces were beset by murderous internecine rivalries on an altogether different order of magnitude.

Take, for instance, the British conquest of Bengal. Siraj-ud-Daulah, the nawab ousted by the British in 1757, had years earlier risen in revolt against his predecessor, the infinitely more capable Aliverdi Khan. Luckily for the rebel, Aliverdi Khan had a soft corner for him and thus survived the intrigue. After Aliverdi Khan’s death, Siraj-ud-Daulah succeeded him, but so antagonised the seths and his own nobles that they conspired with the British to get rid of him.

Years later, in 1764, the British defeated the remnants of the Mughal forces (Awadh, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II and a suddenly patriotic Mir Qasim), and co-opted the first two. Meanwhile in the centre and south of India, the Marathas — often formidable, always tough to beat on the defensive, but chronically disorganised — had too many rival power centres to mount an effective, sustained campaign against the British, even when it became clear to their leaders that failure would be catastrophic for all of them.

While the lack of an institutional framework for political loyalty crippled the local ability to counter British machinations, the failure to develop stable financial bases for organised war-making on a scale that would be effective against the new hegemonic power, added to South Asian woes.

Dalrymple describes the terrible ordeal that Bengal endured between 1757 and 1773 and the horrific famine that ravaged the province between 1769 and 1772. But he also brings to life the process by which the British learned from their mistakes and gradually restored Bengal’s agriculture, commerce and administration. This turned Bengal into a revenue-generating machine that paid for the modern army that conquered the rest of South Asia for the British: “By the end of the century, Bengal was annually yielding a steady revenue surplus of Rs 25 million at a time when Scindia struggled to get Rs 1.2 million from his territories in Malwa.” In comparison, the sultanate of Mysore, at the height of its power under Haider Ali, managed annual revenues of Rs 12 million.

Elsewhere, regular (or even irregular) revenue collection was a distant memory and local factions (Jats, Sikhs, Rohillas etc) and foreign invaders (Afghans and Persians) took what they could. The superior revenue generation ability of the British was critical to their long-term success because the military-technological gap had closed by the 1780s.

Under these circumstances, a great many local communities and interests threw their support to the British. Yes, the British were strange in their ways, but if you were a soldier they paid well, on time and in full — a feat that local rulers managed only infrequently. Yes, the British were subordinating India’s trade and commerce to serve the needs of their imperial political economy, but if you were a local merchant, a banker or a broker, they offered unprecedented security of property, better returns, lower risk and were generally creditworthy.

By providing an island of relative calm in a sea of anarchy, the British were able to attract to their service the martial labour class and mercantile capital of South Asia as none of their rivals could. While it is consistent with the prejudices and conceits of the nationalistic present to dismiss or condemn the support extended to the British by so many Indians, it must be borne in mind that at the time there was no ‘nation’ to betray.

Tying these threads together, we can see how the situation that emerged in the 1700s worked to advantage the British. The disintegration of Mughal power was swift and triggered wars of succession. In these wars, the states that emerged, and which at times did reasonably well, lacked an institutional basis of political loyalty and succession (like the empire they had emerged from). This left them acutely vulnerable to being compromised from within by other actors, while the British had no comparable vulnerability.

Clive might have been a rascal of the highest order, but he wasn’t going to sell Bengal out to the Afghans or Marathas once it was under British control. The repeated disruption at the territorial and political levels experienced by local powers made it difficult for them to create a fiscal-military foundation as secure as that achieved by the British in Bengal. This meant that, to get rid of the British, they needed to cooperate, but efforts to this end proved desultory on account of there being no discernible sense of national or even dynastic solidarity. And then, as the anarchy became perpetual in most of the region, the relative stability of British-ruled territory allowed for the effective utilisation of local capital and military power for the purpose of colonial conquest.

As wonderful as The Anarchy is from the standpoint of historical narrative about 1700s South Asia and the emergence of British rule, there is a powerful global lesson on offer as well. The Anarchy testifies to the horrors that ensue when corporate power is left unchecked. This is not merely a lesson applicable to frail states, but it is also relevant to the experience of developed countries.

The past 40 years of neoliberal hegemony in policy-making have seen an astonishing consolidation of corporate power, plutocratic influence and growing socioeconomic inequality. The consequences for the environment have been devastating, with the 2020s poised to be the last decade in which relatively normal climactic conditions will prevail on Earth. And this is due in large measure to the reckless pursuit of corporate profit and material aggrandisement by business elites, who can then buy enough political support to block meaningful reform.

In Dalrymple’s account of the rise of the East India Company, one can see the precursor to the oil and gas companies, social media giants and industrial-scale farming corporations of our own time — capitalism run amok. The central question of the present century may well be whether or not states and peoples are able to break the power of the monstrous corporations pushing us all to extinction for the sake of their next quarterly profit and their investors’ annual dividends.

The reviewer is the author of The State During the British Raj: Imperial Governance in South Asia, 1700-1947

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1408864371
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 1st, 2019