‘History cannot be seen in black and white terms’

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 17 October 2019

William Dalrymple, who was in the city to talk about his book The Anarchy, sheds light on the corporate violence that was the trademark of East India Company’s rule in India

It took William Dalrymple six years to complete his latest book, The Anarchy — The East India Company, Corporate Violence And the Pillage of an Empire. Out of the six years, he spent the first year reading on the subject, the second year on researching various sources and in the third year, he worked on getting the research material translated. And then in the subsequent months, he started writing, completing The Anarchy early this year. 

The book, which is a prequel to The Last Mughal, has been published by Bloomsbury.  
With the solid research that went into making of The Anarchy, it’s no wonder that the book has thrown up lesser-known details. Dalrymple, who was in the city on Wednesday, says that the book is a myth-breaker in many ways. 

In India, most of us are acquainted with the British Raj, having studied it in History textbooks. But the ruthless nature of EIC was not largely known, until now. The Scottish author uncovers the pillage of the EIC, how it was a joint stock company and all for profit operations. “EIC was a corporation, working for profit. They didn’t pretend to be anything else. In order to achieve profits, the EIC collaborated with Indians. Early on, they made alliances with the Jagat Seths or world bankers, and the Marwaris. Later on, they collaborated with Hindu bankers of Benaras, Calcutta, Patna, Allahabad. It was audacious the way they operated. In fact, loot was the first Hindustani word that entered the English lexicon spoken at that time,” Dalrymple says.

One wonders why would the Marwaris and bankers support the company. “The big local bankers, landowners approached the EIC. They had an interest in its success. Lots of Bengalis invested their money in the company. They might have done this because the then province of Bengal was looted and ravaged by the Maratha forces and they wanted stability and order. The Mughal rule had already declined by then. The EIC seemed the less worst option. It offered a tax free regime and Marwaris came in from Rajasthan to stay in Calcutta. They got their interest back on time,” explains Dalrymple.

Siraj-ud-Daulah was ousted by Robert Clive with the help of Jagat Seths. It was their money that funded the wars. “The Marwaris didn’t realise the nature of the EIC rule. In fact, the EIC also might not have realised what it all would lead to. In retrospect we can say that its victory was inevitable,” he adds. 

In The Anarchy, Dalrymple has said, ‘It is always a mistake to write history backwards’. When asked why, the Festival Director of Jaipur Literature Festival says, “It is easy to write History knowing what happened. We know that the EIC won and Shah Alam (Mughal Emperor) lost. But there were many extraordinary moments in between like the first Anglo-Maratha war, Tipu’s victories. Both these victories were achieved with the help of French mercenaries. The Indian forces had to catch up with the modern army of the EIC. In addition, there was lot of infighting between Scindias and Holkars. Nana Phadanvis tried his best. He was an amazing man, a brilliant strategist. But he couldn’t quite pull it off. The Marathas and Tipu could never achieve what they could have. And, we have got to write it and understand it, and feel it as it would have in that period.”

For this book, the author was guided by the writing of Ghulam Hussain Khan, a young Muslim nobleman. Ghulam Hussain’s father was in Muhammad Shah Rangila’s (father of Shah Alam and Mughal Emperor) court. He also happens to be the cousin of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Murshidabad. “Ghulam Hussain has been actually known for quite a while. His four volumes were translated in 1786 by a Greek Christian residing in India. He is my favourite source. He understands for the first time what it means for the country to be colonised. India till then had not been colonised. Everything we know of that period — the drain of wealth, the death of arts and crafts, the destruction of previous ruling class — is because of Ghulam Hussain. He sees all of this as it happens and tells us this wide-angle, detailed story. He is very even handed, except while writing about psychopaths like Siraj. Ghulam Hussain liked Warren Hastings and wrote a pretty good pen portrait of Aliverdi Khan, Nawad of Murshidabad and grandfather of Siraj-ud-Daulah,” says Dalrymple. 

His other source is Fakir Khair-uddin Ilahabadi, a displaced aristocrat. He writes a very detailed account of what is happening in Patna, Allahabad. And, there is a Shah Alam’s Shah Nama. There is also the writing of Munshi Munna Lal. 

“For the research on East India Company, I turned to company archives in National Archives of India, Delhi and British Library in London. The British Library has 35 miles long record! The archives in Delhi is more detailed and interestingly the first despatch sent from Battle of Plassey is sitting there! Imagine!” exclaims Dalrymple.  

With the decline of the Mughal rule, sub-centres, regional powers like Marathas, Tipu, Nizam of Hyderabad and Nawabs became supreme and art and economy flourished in their region. But it was in the same period that India was invaded by Nader Shah, Ahmad Shah Durrani and others. The EIC also found its footing after the decline of the Mughal rule. When asked if we can draw parallels between past and present rulers, Dalrymple points out, “In India, you have had periods of total control by strong empires and following their collapse, there was disintegration. Before the Mughals, you had centralised power in times of Ashoka, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas. In the late ’90s, it looked like after the rule of the Gandhis declines, it would give rise to the regional political parties. But BJP is back with a strong Central government.”

Is that good or bad, we ask, to which he responds, “History cannot be seen in black and white terms. Tipu was an amazing ruler, but he was brutal in warfare. It was good time to be a Hindu in his court, but at the same time, he left behind terrible memories of his rule in Coorg and Malabar coast,” he explains. 

His book is of an ensemble cast — Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Shah Alam, Mahadji Scindia, Tipu. Does he spot people like them in contemporary India or contemporary world? He laughs and says, “History never repeats itself exactly. But there are men here and there — the good man who doesn’t quite succeed (Shah Alam), there is the brutal one (Clive). I am fond of Hastings. Unlike Clive, who was a thug and didn’t like India, Hastings loved India, he learnt local languages. He read Gita, believed in Karma and Dharma.”

After working on such big writing projects, Dalrymple usually feels empty. That was the case with The Last Mughal. “But after this one, I didn’t feel sad. I have another book coming out in November. It’s an appendix to this one and it’s called The Forgotten Masters. It’s about the painters of Mughal empires who later made portraits of the EIC officers. I am also working on a book that covers the Indian civilisation and 21 cities from Mohenjo Daro to Gurugram. It’s a collection of essays on history and culture,” he says. 

In the book, the EIC had received bad press in London and their actions were considered un-British. However, it might seem to some of us that the British Raj was no different because Indians were treated shabbily. Dalrymple believes that it isn’t the same thing. “I don’t know which rule is better or worse. The EIC rule was in collaboration with the Indian bankers. On a social and sexual level, they mingled with people. They lived like Nabobs (Nawabs), got their paintings commissioned. It was all about loot, profit and enough Indians aided them in this. All of them were making profits in different ways. Whereas the Raj rule was different. They at least had a rhetoric about bringing in civilisation. They gave the country its distinct architecture, started schools and colleges. You had a wonderful education system then, institutions which ushered in democracy were introduced. However, the British Raj was racist. There were demarcations between cantonments and civil lines with the board  ‘Dogs and Indians are not allowed’ put up. I wouldn’t want to be an Indian living in either of the rules. Both are not happy parents and are unpleasant in different ways,” the author says. 

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