The Indian independence movement was built on the supposed axiom that the British Empire in India was singularly evil. According to India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India's long-suppressed soul found utterance after it was freed from the colonial yoke. Every Indian is taught that the Republic's Founding Fathers, despite their flaws, were fighting the good fight against the white man. In fact, figures like Gandhi and even Shubhas Chandra Bose are accorded a semi-divine status in the narrative of the Indian Freedom Struggle.
Naturally, any narrative that portrays one set of people as unequivocally 'good' and another as 'bad' is bound to be far from the truth. The question is: to what extent is the narrative of the evil British Empire in India, a false one? I venture to say that it is gravely so, not because I buy the imperial propaganda of the White Man's Burden but because I find that history shows that the British Empire in India was truly, as Enoch Powell stated in an interview, the "Indo-British Empire" in India.
The Raj formally began after the Government of India Act 1858 and the Queen's Proclamation. This was right after the uprising of 1857 which led to the defeat of the last Mughal Emperor (a mere figurehead at the time) at the hands of the East India Company. The said Government of India Act replaced the rule of the East India Company with the direct rule of the British Crown. The rule of the Company, for all practical purposes, began in 1757, when the Company defeated the forces of the Nawab of Bengal (equivalent to a British Duke) and had a puppet installed in his stead.
The Company had very little actual power prior to this point, apart from having trading privileges granted by the fourth Mughal Emperor. In fact, from 1686-1690, the East India Company had tried to carry out a blockade of Mughal ports with the intent of capturing Bengal when they were denied higher trading rights. His Majesty King James II had sent a formidable fleet of ships to assist in this regard. But the forces of the infamous Emperor Alamgir I (or Aurangzeb as he is better known) brought the Company to its knees, literally. The Company's envoys had to prostrate themselves before the last Great Khan, the Refuge of Allah, the Conqueror of Kings (the Mughals had comically grand imperial titles) and pay him a fine amounting to ₹150,000, which was a huge sum at the time.
But Alamgir I died in 1707, and the largest political economy of the time slowly descended into chaos and in-fighting. By 1756, the young Siraj ud-Daulah became the Nawab of Bengal. The brash Nawab was, to say the least, indelicate and prone to making enemies in the conduct of statecraft. He passed over many influential members of his family and the aristocracy when making official appointments. He also had his aunt's palaces raided to neutralise the threat posed by her. The Nawab had no understanding of the day-to-day troubles of running a government and trusted a group of Hindu merchants led by one Jagat Seth to manage the treasury. Siraj threatened to have Jagat Seth (literally 'Banker to the World') circumcised upon learning that due to the deep debts of the Nawab, there was not enough money to pay the salaries of the army.
This was not a good move. As Aakar Patel, an eminent journalist noted, "Jagat Seth ran the economy for Siraj ud Daulah, Mir Jafar, and later for Mir Qasim. It is recorded that ₹ 3 out of ₹ 4 collected as revenue in the state went straight to Jagat Seth, against loans he had already advanced to the nawabs." Jagat Seth and his group of merchants did not take slights such as these and the general mismanagement of the province lightly. They plotted with the young Nawab's rivals, chiefly one Mir Jafar, to have the young Nawab removed. In this plot, the British were the natural allies of the shrewd Bania.
While the British had many grouses against the Nawab, such as the alleged Black Hole of Calcutta incident, the real point of synergy between the Seth and the Company was the Company's adherence to the rules of good business. As pointed out by Patel once again, the Indian merchants of Bengal stored their commercial paper and cash in Calcutta. This was because the British could be trusted with keeping their end of the bargain. The British system of justice, the rule of law, ensured that contractual obligations were enforced and honoured. For a betting banker, the chances of getting a return on his investment from a capitalist force like the Company was far greater than an immature and whimsical aristocrat.
Thus in 1757, after recapturing Fort William, Robert Clive, a mentally unstable military genius won the Battle of Plassey against Siraj ud-Daulah, pursuant to a secret treaty between himself and Mir Jafar which was brokered by an agent of Jagat Seth, who operated in the shadows. Clive recognised Mir Jafar as the Nawab and it was decided that a compensation of 22 million rupees would be made over to the Company by the treasury of the Nawab. Jagat Seth hastened to the Mughal court in Delhi and succeeded in persuading the Mughal Emperor to give his rubber stamp of approval to the English victory and to the appointment of the new Nawab.
When these facts are taken cognisance of, the beginning of the Empire looks more like a corporate takeover, as William Dalrymple suggests in The Anarchy, rather than a true subjugation of an indigenous people by an imperialistic force. In fact, the complicity of the indigenous in this corporate takeover seems far greater than that of the imperialists. The Company could not have defeated Siraj in a fair battle. It could not have won without the support of a shrewd banker and a disgruntled relative of Siraj. Even the Company's foot soldiers or sepoys, as they were called, were not European, but low-caste Indians on the Company's payroll.
The foundation of the British Empire in India would have been impossible without Indians facilitating the same.
The cultural developments of the time give further evidence of this. To congratulate Clive on his victory, a certain zamindar or landlord by the name of Raja (or 'King') Naba Krishna Dawn organised a grand festival in honour of the Hindu Goddess Durga. This was not strictly in accordance with scripture since the invocation of Durga was usually associated with spring. However, the celebration took hold of the imagination of the new aristocracy under the new masters of Bengal. It became ubiquitous and continued to grow in both scale and splendour. In fact, it has now become Bengal's most important festival and it is now rare to see Durga worship in spring.
India's native elites were happy to give up power for the centralisation that was brought about by the British. A patent example is the doctrine of subsidiary alliance formulated by Lord Wellesley - who was appointed Governor-General of India in 1798. This doctrine capitalised on the existence of the many bitter warring nobles in the subcontinent - who had grown in power and independence due to the decline of the Mughal Empire - but were deeply insecure due to the anarchy that was prevalent in those times.
The British offered protection to these nobles from the threats posed by their rivals and other colonising forces such as the French. In exchange, these nobles were required to maintain an army of the East India Company stationed permanently in their territory. More importantly, the Company would place an agent in the court of the noble as the point of contact and as a check on any potential betrayals by the nobles.
Naturally, this was an enticing deal for the near-independent vassals of the Mughals: They wouldn't really have to maintain their own armies to fight off constant threats, and business with the Company would ensure that the riches would keep flowing. The powerful and wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad, the region where the Kohinoor diamond was mined, was the first to sign up to the doctrine. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the Wodeyar rulers of the area of Mysore signed up. With the defeat of the Marathas in 1817-1819, the Peshwa or Prime Minister of the Marathas accepted the doctrine as well.
Indeed, war and conquest were necessary in many cases, but the doctrine of subsidiary alliances was a success. India's ruling class was too selfish and too narrow-minded to resist British paramountcy.
The Indian kings were handsomely rewarded for giving up some of their powers. The riches of the Kings of Patiala, i.e. the successors to the Kings who gave up the Kohinoor to Her Majesty Empress Victoria - grew immensely during the Raj, with lavish parties and Rolls Royces characterising their rule. The Marathas and Rajputs who are upheld as the paragons of nationalism by Hindu Nationalists built palaces, held grand darbars, and bathed themselves in decadence as junior partners of the Raj.
If the establishment of the Empire was a consequence of Indian acquiescence, its continuation, especially during its heyday, was due to a special partnership. A partnership that had no parallel in any other part of the Empire. While the nobility ushered in the British Raj, the Hindu and Muslim landed elite, the Pandit and the Ashraf, made it the envy of the world.
The Brahmins and other upper castes (both Hindu and Muslim) of East India pursuant to the Permanent Settlement of 1793 were given ownership of the lands of which they were mere tax collectors under the Mughal regime. These aristocrats thus became the backbone of the Company's rule and the British Raj, they ensured that the flow of money extracted from the fertile lands of India to the coloniser remained undiminished. According to a research paper, the collection of land revenue never really declined when famines broke out in North India where the zamindars were dominant. In fact, during the 200 years of the Raj, which was afflicted by 17 major famines, land revenue collection only ever grew.
The zamindar, as the plinth of the Raj's revenue extraction infrastructure, grew very rich by exploiting the peasant. In fact, the Famine Commission of the British Raj itself remarked in 1880 that the objective of the feudal landlord was "to harass the tenant and to diminish the value of his occupancy rights, by bringing suit after suit for enhancement of the rent."
If cultivators left their villages for relief work during a famine, the landlords would ruthlessly take over their lands, even if they had left women and children behind. British officials, when dealing with a famine in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), observed in 1879 that "If
this famine lasts for a year there will not be an occupancy right left in the whole of
Moradabad" due to the zamindar of Moradabad remorselessly taking over the lands of his tenant farmers who had left for relief work. The famine became a tool for the upper caste zamindar to advance profitability. He would hoard grain whenever the symptoms of famine became apparent instead of advancing any loans to his farmers. This hoarded grain would then be sold at extortionate prices, giving the zamindar a windfall gain.
Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that India was ruled by a handful of British officials. Even as late as 1931, when India had a population of 300 million, there were only 60,000 Britons in the armed forces of India and a meagre 4,000 of them in the Indian civilian administration! The British did not need to actually do the dirty work of subjugating "the bloody natives" and extracting an estimated $45 trillion from their lands, they could rely on India's pre-existing social and economic upper-crust to do it for them.
So, while it is all good fun for Indians to marvel at Shashi Tharoor's lambasting of the British Empire, it is extremely hard but extremely necessary to look within and ask ourselves whether we (or perhaps a section of us) are the ones responsible for our historic oppression.
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox