October 10, 2019
Big is not beautiful. Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Tech, Big Tobacco. Or that private trading corporation, headquartered in London and formed to do business in the Indian Ocean region in 1600, that became so big that it ended up seizing control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, colonised parts of Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong after a war with Qing China. And succeeded in ending the mighty Mughal Empire.
William Dalrymple’s new book, The Anarchy, maps the rise and fall of that East India Company (EIC) and debunks the notion that the colonisation of India was a national project of England to begin with. It was the idea of maximizing corporate profit by a private joint stock company that eventually led to the colonization of India. William Dalrymple tells me we often tend to forget that.
“Historians are obsessed with the Mughal period. And then the freedom struggle. The period in between, when the East India Company set shop here and gradually extended its operations with help from the Marwari and Jain bankers of Bengal, and then Hindu bankers of Benares and Patna. It is a story of how Indians collaborated to make the Company grow. The Jagath Seths, the wealthiest bankers of the time, prodded the British to overthrow Siraj-ud-Daulah of Bengal and offered Clive £2 million to do this,” Dalrymple tells me. “This Company knew it could defeat the Mughals with Indian sepoys and Indian money!”
Was it hatred for the Muslims that made Hindu traders put their money on the Company to end Mughal rule? “That would not be wholly correct. The Jagath Seths felt their money was safer with the Company than with the Mughals,” Dalrymple says.
What is fascinating though is how corporate violence propelled the “pillage of an Empire”.
“On 31 December 1600, the last day of the first year of the seventeenth century, the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’, a group of 238 men, received their royal charter. This turned out to offer far wider powers than the petitioners had perhaps expected or even hoped for. As well as freedom from all customs duties for their first six voyages, it gave them a British monopoly for fifteen years over ‘trade to the East Indies’, a vaguely defined area that was soon taken to encompass all trade and traffic between the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan, as well as granting semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies. The wording was sufficiently ambiguous to allow future generations of EIC officials to use it to claim jurisdiction over all English subjects in Asia, mint money, raise fortifications, make laws, wage war, conduct an independent foreign policy, hold courts, issue punishment, imprison English subjects and plant English settlements,” Dalrymple writes in The Anarchy.
No wonder, as one reviewer of The Anarchy has pointed out, one of the first words to enter the English language from India was ‘loot’. “Another being ginger’ from the Prakrit singabera,” Dalrymple says.
Present-day historians may have focused less on the Company (though Dalrymple doffs his hat to Indian historians who, he says, have done seminal work on that period of history), but England of that time was aware of its growing menace. “If you read what went in the British press at that time, you would feel you are reading The Guardian. A bit of that criticism was, of course, due to the fact that they didn’t quite like these new nawabs returning to England with huge fortunes amassed in India. There was also heated debate in British Parliament on how a band of businessmen could control such a huge territory,” Dalrymple says.
Eventually, the State took over the reins of India in 1858, after the Company lost the faith of Parliament. “Corporate greed did EIC in. Human beings have it in their DNA to eat, mate, pass on the gene. It is the same with corporations; it gets more and more greedy with profit and even clashes with the State. Like what happened with the 2G and coal scam during UPA rule,” he says.
In that sense, The Anarchy is not just a book of history but a reminder of the damage that unbridled corporate power can cause. It is a fat book, but a breezy read. Something even the Pakistan Prime Minister can read on a flight. Twitter was abuzz with Imran Khan, who is not really known for his geography, or his history, or even his politics for that matter, reading The Anarchy on his flight to Jeddah. To which Dalrymple had tweeted “Some guy in shalwar kameez is reading The Anarchy…
I forgot to ask the writer of the City of Djinns what he made of the news of Khan’s wife, the peerni, not being seen in mirrors. Next time, perhaps.