•Jagath Seths, the wealthiest bankers, offered Robert Clive £2 million
•The period was of greatest corruption, loot and human rights abuse
The empire was won not on the strength of military superiority, but as a result of the cunning of a corporate house that was helped along by amoral Indian bankers who financed its operations. One of the fictions many of us have come to believe is that the British ruled India for almost two centuries. But after the Battle of Plassey (1757), all they consolidated their hold over was a part of Bengal. Similarly, you suggest that when people talk of British rule, they forget that until the middle of the 19 century, it was run by the East India Company, a joint stock company. It was extremely well known in the 18th century that it was a company that was running India, and this was a cause of some scandal.
William Dalrymple, a British historian based in India, presents the picture of ‘loot’ and ‘takeover’ by the East India Company using Indian money. In his latest book, ‘The Anarchy’, he says, “I’m both an insider and an outsider”. Pandit Sunderlal, an Indian historian and M.P., was first to publish his Hindi book “Bharat mein Angareji Raj” way back on 18 March 1929 describing how the British came to India, slowly penetrated the sub-continent and established an empire. The book was banned by the British Government on 22 March 1929 but the ban was lifted on 13 November 1937 when most of the Indian Provinces had the Congress Governments. After Independence, the Government of India brought out some editions of the book.
Danrymple earned fame for his ‘White Mughals’ and ‘The Last Mughal’. He presents his observations in the latest book: “The Company makes its first territorial seizure with the support of the Jagath Seths, the country’s wealthiest bankers. It was they who asked the British to overthrow Siraj-ud-Daulah of Bengal and they offered Robert Clive £2 million to do this. This was the moment the Company realised it could defeat the vast Mughal armies with a very small amount of its newly-trained sepoys. And particularly from the 1780s onwards, the Marwari and Jain bankers of Bengal, and later the Hindu bankers of Benares and Patna, consistently backed the Company against other Indian forces.”
“What you got in the East India Company period was maximum extraction — the period of greatest corruption, loot and plunder as well as human rights abuses. But it was also the period when Indians and the British were collaborating most closely. The country was not conquered by white British manpower. It was conquered by Indian troops, who were recruited. And these armies were being funded by Marwari bankers. There were never more than 2,000 British traders in India in this period, most of them in Bengal. The extraordinary audacity of the British was to borrow Indian money, train Indian soldiers, and take on other Indian states. But this is exactly what they did.”
In August 1765 the East India Company defeated and captured the young Mughal emperor and forced him to set up in his richest provinces a new government run by English traders who collected taxes through means of a vast and ruthless private army.
The creation of this new government marked the moment that the East India Company ceased to be a conventional international trading corporation, dealing in silks and spices, and became something much more unusual: an aggressive colonial power in the guise of a multinational business. In less than half a century it had trained up a private security force of around 260,000 men – twice the size of the British army – and had subdued an entire subcontinent, conquering first Bengal and finally, in 1803, the Mughal capital of Delhi itself.
The Company's reach stretched relentlessly until almost all of India south of the Himalayas was effectively ruled from a boardroom in London. The Anarchy tells the remarkable story of how one of the world's most magnificent empires disintegrated and came to be replaced by a dangerously unregulated private company, based thousands of miles overseas and answerable only to its shareholders. Eventually, the State took over the reins of India in 1858, after the Company lost the faith of Parliament. In his most ambitious and riveting book to date, William Dalrymple tells the story of the East India Company as it has never been told before, unfolding a timely cautionary tale of the first global corporate power.
Next column: Lala Lajpat Rai, a Great Patriot