I am presently engrossed in William Dalrymple’s dazzling work The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. What compels me to write about it before finishing it is not Dalrymple, but a great man his book reminded me of as soon as I opened it. This man is Bari Alig. But let me begin with The Anarchy.
Dalrymple is one of the leading historians of our times, whose academic rigour goes hand in hand with his knack for writing riveting prose, like that of a master storyteller. But his associative mind is perhaps at its best in his new book. It took him six years to meticulously research and brilliantly present this fascinating account of how the large empires in India during the 18th century were first fragmented and then subjugated by the East India Company — a private commercial enterprise. The Company’s founding charter authorised it to wage war to maximise the gains of its shareholders. That encouraged its administrators and operatives to remain totally unregulated and utterly brutal. Loot and plunder, deceit and treachery, oppression and violence became hallmarks of its operations across India.
Beginning from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, it took direct or indirect political and economic control of the large regions under the Mughal, Awadh, Maratha, Rajput, Deccan and Mysore courts. The book focuses on the rise of the Company in India between 1757 and 1803. However, it also provides important information on the trajectory of the evolution of the Company in the 17th century and how, in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence and India’s annexation to the British Crown in 1858, the Company began to lose control, before being finally decimated 16 years later. The role of the British parliament sitting in London during all this time remained mostly that of a partner in crime, unnerved by some scattered voices of dissent that were raised from within Britain once in a while.
Dalrymple also tells us how American patriots drew attention to the Company’s arrival in the United States and feared that it would be allowed by the parliament to commit the same plunder that it did in India. That was perhaps one of the major triggers of the American War of Independence. In 1773, the patriot John Dickinson said that the Company that remained occupied in wreaking the most unparalleled barbarities, extortions and monopolies in Bengal had cast its eyes on America as a new theatre whereon to exercise its talents of rapine, oppression and cruelty.
Dalrymple is as ruthlessly objective in dissecting and describing the characters of the East India Company’s managers, kings and princes, commanders and soldiers, traders and scholars as Robert Clive — the first British governor of Bengal and the true founder of British rule in India — was ruthlessly ambitious in seeking power and amassing wealth. The book also serves as a major source of understanding the life and times under Mughal, Awadhi, Maratha and other courts after the Mughals had lost the grip they once practically had on the whole of the Indian Subcontinent. Dalrymple points out that the rise of regional powers in the Subcontinent had, in fact, helped those regions develop economically and militarily.
Dalrymple has referenced his book with such attention that it becomes a most authentic and detailed narration on the subject. However, the pioneering work in Urdu on the history and role of the East India Company, which helped so many of us understand how corporate power holds sway over political power and how colonial violence is perpetuated for economic gains, is titled Company Ki Hukumat [Rule of the Company] by Bari Alig, spread over more than 400 pages. It was first published in 1937, when Alig was barely 31, but ran into multiple editions soon after. Alig continued to revise and update the book with each edition, perhaps until 1945. Each time, he added new chapters and rehashed his arguments on the basis of his evolving knowledge and appreciation of world history, tools of analysing history and the dynamics of political economy.
Alig was born in Amritsar in 1906, graduated from Aligarh Muslim University (hence the suffix ‘Alig’) and pursued a career in journalism in Lahore. He had neither the resources nor exposure that a modern historian or social scientist enjoys. But I am sure he would have continued to further his argument on the subject had life permitted. He died aged 43 in 1949.
Even today, Company Ki Hukumat continues to be reprinted and is considered Alig’s magnum opus. In his preface to the book, he divides the history of the Company into three periods and describes and analyses these periods accordingly. He also dissects the politics and person of the British and Indians involved in running the affairs of the states and economy.
According to Alig, the first period of the Company’s ascendance in extortion in the name of commerce is from the 16th century to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which Sirajud Daula, the ruler of Bengal, lost. Subsequently, after eight years, the Mughal king Shah Alam was made to sign a one-sided agreement with the Company which allowed it the revenue collection in eastern India.
The second period is from that time until the beginning of the 19th century. This largely coincides with the period under review by Dalrymple. The third period is between the 1830s and 1857. Alig writes about all three periods from a Marxist perspective, which highlights the plight of commoners, artisans and farmers at the hands of the Company and colonisers. But what is even more refreshing is that Alig’s is an indigenous Marxist lens as Karl Marx himself held a different view on the conquest of India by the British.
Alig’s other books include Inqilab-i-France [The French Revolution], Tareekh Ka Mutaalea [A Study of History], Karl Marx, Socialism, Machine Aur Mazdoor [The Machine and the Worker] and Islami Tareekh-o-Tehzeeb [Islamic History and Civilisation]. I wish our universities commit resources to translating such works into English so that international scholars get access to the geniuses born and forgotten in languages of the vanquished.
The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 23rd, 2020