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Dalrymple’s Anarchy shows where our historians have gone wrong

NewsDalrymple’s Anarchy shows where our historians have gone wrong

New Delhi: In 1835, when Lord Macaulay talked about creating a class of persons “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”, he wouldn’t have expected the idea to take off so effortlessly. Over a century later—and within four years of India’s Independence—Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, a celebrated but equally reviled author, dedicated his book, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, “to the memory of the British Empire in India”, saying that “all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule”.

Seventy years later, there aren’t many takers for the idea of the “benign Raj”. Even the apologists of British colonial rule now tread cautiously while mentioning its role in politically and administratively uniting the country—first through canons and later railways. They are also circumspect about reminding the strides the Raj took in the introduction of democracy and education. Even its initiatives in the spread of tea and cricket fail to hide its true colonial colours. It was a case of plain and simple loot. As historian William Dalrymple puts it in his new book, The Anarchy, “One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot.” But has the real face of the Raj been unmasked totally?

The Macaulayan hold may have slackened on the surface, but the fact is the idea of India is still being defined and interpreted through colonial yardsticks. The material loss to the Raj may have been analysed in detail, but the loss of the mind is yet to be probed properly. A classic case is the narrative of Mahatma Gandhi being the “Father of the Nation”. There’s no denying the contribution of the Mahatma in the making of modern India, but isn’t it plain ludicrous to give him any such epithet especially when the civilisational roots of the land of Rama, Krishna and Buddha go back by millennia and had a series of ace unifiers both politically and culturally—from Chanakya and Chandragupta to Asoka and Akbar to even Shankaracharya and Shivaji? Even the obsessive secularisation of Indian discourse is an alien notion. The Indian way, instead, is respect for all religions (Sarva Dharma Samabhava) rather than distrust for them, as the Western concept of secularism suggests.

Dalrymple’s book may not have looked at the mental deprivation that the Raj caused, yet it is a welcome addition to the genre indicting British colonial rule. It analyses the plunder and persecution that the East India Company (EIC) inflicted upon Indians, explaining how the country’s share in world economy plummeted from 23% in the early 18th century to 3% when the British left the subcontinent in 1947. From the time in the 17th and 18th centuries, when British shopkeepers passed off shoddy English-manufactured textiles as Indian in order to gain greater profits, to the time in the 19th century when Britain replaced India as the world’s largest textile manufacturer in the 19th century—the country’s economic decline was complete.

Even the railways were brought in to not just easily and cheaply transport Indian resources to Britain but also, as Shashi Tharoor writes in An Area of Darkness: The British Empire in India, to further British economic interests. When railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana started designing and building their own locomotives, writes Tharoor, which were “just as good and a great deal cheaper than the British-made ones”, then the British passed an Act of Parliament in 1912 “explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives”. Such was the Indian dependence that after Independence “the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again”.

In a way, The Anarchy seems to be an extension of Tharoor’s book, except that the former confines itself to the exploits of the EIC that “enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million people”, as Leo Tolstoy wrote in a letter in 1908. It traces the modest beginning of the company whose rise, in retrospect, seems almost inevitable. For, it was Britain’s failure to compete with the Dutch in the lucrative spice trade that forced the EIC directors to “focus on less competitive but potentially more promising sectors of the trade of Asia: fine cotton textiles, indigo and chintzes”. The source of these three was India.

Dalrymple, to his credit, does a commendable job in bringing the early history of the EIC alive. He is ruthless in his assessment regarding the massive loot committed by the British. He also gives considerable attention to the company “probably” inventing “corporate lobbying”. He writes, “In 1693, less than a century after its foundation, the EIC was discovered for the first time to be using its own shares for buying parliamentarians, annually shelling out 1,200 pounds to prominent MPs and ministers.”

The EIC’s footholds in India didn’t mean the company didn’t face any financial hardships. “Only seven years after the granting of Diwani, when the company’s share price had doubled overnight after it acquired the wealth of the treasury of Bengal, the East India bubble burst after plunder and famine in Bengal led to massive shortfalls in expected land revenues,” writes the author, as he writes how in 1773 the world’s first aggressive multinational corporation was saved by one of history’s first mega-bailouts—“the first example of a nation state extracting, as its price for saving a failing corporation, the right to regulate and severely rein it in”.

Like an ace historian, Dalrymple also throws light on the state of affairs during Aurangzeb and post-Aurangzeb India. And he keeps an unbiased approach towards these characters. For instance, the author, unlike several eminent historians including his own countrywoman, Audrey Truschke, is unforgiving to Aurangzeb for growing up into “a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic”. The only place where Dalrymple seems to have gone a bit off course is during his assessment of Tipu Sultan. The author vouches for his secular administration, negating, deliberately or otherwise, Tipu’s unsavoury exploits in bordering Kerala that paint a very cruel and bigoted picture of the Sultan. Rare donations to a few Hindu temples won’t change much. Exceptions don’t—and shouldn’t—form the rule.

The book is relevant for our times, too. As the author suggests, it is also a reminder of the abuse of corporate power. “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current,” Dalrymple writes as he cautions against today’s crony capitalism. “For as recent American adventures in Iraq have shown, our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be.”

The Anarchy is important for one more reason. The book, with his largely honest, passionate and warm portrayal of the East India Company, is a reminder on how history books should actually be written. In India, there’s a tendency to turn a history book into an economic tome, thanks primarily to the author’s obsession with numbers and ideologies. Dalrymple has shown with this book—and others, especially White Mughals—that history is well told when the author thinks like a historian but writes like a novelist. History, after all, is about stories and the lessons we can learn from them.


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