East India Company: The Evil Empire

(Published in Open Magazine, 23 August 2019)

In the summer of 1788, the Red Fort in Delhi witnessed 10 weeks of the most diabolical horror. Taking advantage of the weakness of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, a former servant of his had marched into the capital and taken captive members of the imperial family. This man, Ghulam Qadir, had grown up as a well-treated hostage at court, after the defeat of his rebellious father—in fact, so fond was Shah Alam of the young Rohilla boy that he was rumoured to be the emperor’s catamite. Now, having grown into a man of violent temper, Ghulam Qadir held his master in chains, launching a quest on the side for Mughal treasure. But the gold and coin heaped before him was considerably less than the trespasser expected. And so began a sequence of events that would smash forever the prestige of the house of Timur and Akbar: the emperor’s sons were dressed in drag and forced to dance for their tormentor, while begums of royal blood were stripped, raped and humiliated. And to crown his reign of terror, Ghulam Qadir himself scooped out Shah Alam’s eyes, leaving the badshah of Hindustan blind and broken for the rest of his life.

While the decline of the Mughals had begun even before Aurangzeb went to the grave eight decades earlier, there was yet a certain glamour attached to the imperial name. Even as power departed Delhi for provincial capitals elsewhere on the subcontinent, the legitimacy supplied by the Mughals was a commodity everybody coveted: the British were amazed at how Shah Alam inspired among the masses a reverence reserved usually for gods. His capital was in unfriendly hands, his nobles were treacherous, and he was perhaps the only king in the world to reign over a realm actually controlled by others. And yet, whenever they came into his presence, towering figures of the age prostrated before this aesthete, seeking for their own conquests and wars the stamp of imperial legitimacy. Shah Alam, in that sense, was an instrument of extraordinary value—the Nawab of Awadh needed him, as did Mahadji Scindia, the Maratha general. And more than anyone, the English East India Company also required the emperor to endorse its acts, for in an age of disorder only Shah Alam represented something resembling the law.

Shah Alam’s tragic tale is one of the principal threads with which William Dalrymple weaves his splendid new volume of 18th century Indian history, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (Bloomsbury; 554 pages; Rs699). It is, in fact, a study in irony. Here was a prince who had an uncommon measure of talent: he wrote poetry, was exceedingly well-read and refined, had absorbed the best of Hindu and Muslim traditions, and made a genuine effort to reclaim for the Mughals the authority that abandoned them before he was born. But equally, he also seemed to be the wrong man in the wrong place. For by the time he rode out to recover the fealty of his recalcitrant governors, the world was dominated by ruthless men. Cold cunning, shrewdness and an unyielding sense of purpose alone could have delivered to Shah Alam what he sought. At times he showed himself capable of coming close to an iron will, but always, in the end, fell short on account of his own sense of dignity and decency. Many, for instance, warned him to liquidate Ghulam Qadir, whose father had been so full of hate and disrespect. Shah Alam showed kindness instead—and lived to pay. At a time when Mughal institutions were breaking down, and realpolitik governed the shelf life of kings, this unfortunate emperor was ultimately marked out by everybody as weak: a shuttlecock for the men actually in power.

Dalrymple’s choice of ‘anarchy’ as the term to describe this period is interesting. As he notes himself, it is true that at this time there was a flowering of culture and the arts in places other than Delhi, and while the imperial centre crumbled, great cities emerged elsewhere. But to him, ‘anarchy’ is still the most appropriate word to represent what was happening in the plains of Mughal Hindustan, where shifting sands unleashed dynamics that allowed the emergence of many an adventurer and numerous men of ambition. We meet in the book German, Irish and French mercenaries; Maratha warlords; Afghans and Persians (as both invaders and generals); and, of course, the East India Company. And it is this last of the many players seeking to shape circumstances to their advantage that occupies most pages of the book. Where in the beginning they were merely one of several pieces on the Indian chessboard, by the end of Shah Alam’s reign, the Company had orchestrated, as Dalrymple writes, ‘the most extraordinary corporate takeover in history’. They came to trade, slowly graduated to kingmakers and finally became the chief fount of power on the entire subcontinent—a chilling rise, the consequences of which nobody could foresee.

Dalrymple’s crisp prose and superb narration makes The Anarchy a confirmed page-turner. It is also a book full of historical gems from a variety of English, Persian and Indian sources. Each chapter holds startling reminders as to how much luck and common sense mattered in shaping history—far more than romantic notions of destiny. If Queen Elizabeth and her counterpart in Spain had signed a peace treaty in the late 1590s, the Company may never have received its charter; that no such agreement materialised was what finally, after a two-year wait, brought them royal consent. Having come to India, the English neither impressed the Mughal court, nor their competition: in Surat, their conduct was of such a standard that soon they were being called ‘Ban-chude’ and ‘Betty-chude’ in the streets. A lot also depended on individual quirk—the selection of the land that would evolve into Calcutta had, according to one account, much to do with its nearness to the residence of an Indian concubine, which is merely one example of personal likes and dislikes masquerading as sober policy. And finally, timing meant everything. As Dalrymple notes, around 1780 the Marathas, Nizam of Hyderabad and Hyder Ali of Mysore came tantalisingly close to an alliance to expel the Company. But prevarication opened a window for the latter to ward off with shrewd diplomacy what had every potential to change the course of history.

Ironically, a lot of the Company’s aggression in India was a consequence of its rivalry with the French. And it was the French who first saw in the ‘great derangement’ afflicting the Mughal order opportunity for gains. One of the causes of the conflict that led to the historic Battle of Plassey between the Nawab of Bengal and the Company—a turning point if ever there was one—was that the latter reinforced their fortifications in Calcutta against express orders from the former. But the whole thing was born of a misunderstanding. The English were under the impression that the French were plotting an attack, based on the sighting of French ships that were actually on their way elsewhere. Company bosses in London asked for their subordinates in Calcutta to seek the Nawab’s permission before strengthening the city walls—an instruction that was, in another example of how individual propensities could make all the difference, ignored by the man on the ground. Even within their own council, there were disputes on how relations with Indian princes were to be handled, with prominent voices advocating peace and conciliation. The aggressive party clamouring for blood carried the day, however, and soon the Company became master of what was the Mughals’ most prosperous territory. The devastation that followed, often by design and driven by ambition, is without parallel.

But what stands out most in the book is the patterns it indirectly conjures up with our present age of corporate dominance and transnational power. The Company’s wars were fought by Indian military talent, the best of which gravitated towards it because it offered better terms of pay. In a time when fickleness and indecision afflicted those in charge of a fragmented Mughal state, capital was safer under the Company—the result was that India’s biggest banking firms, including the legendary Jagat Seths, intrigued against local rulers to favour this foreign corporation. The combination of ruling functions and the mercantile obsession with profit and dividends meant that the Company had no qualms being ruthless and extractive, cheered on by their Indian collaborators. And, as Dalrymple notes, in what parallels behaviour even today, if the Company were not offered terms it liked, it could threaten to leave the shores of an Indian prince and take all its business elsewhere—a form of sophisticated blackmail that swelled its power and soon gave it the confidence and wherewithal to meddle in politics.

If there is one infirmity in the book, however, it perhaps resides in the fact that while we receive a magnificent account of what was happening in Hindustan, the responses of the Company’s directors in London to the actions of their overseas agents receives less attention. For all practical purposes, the men on the ground were too often unsupervised, their actions attracting odium back home—a fuller explication of dynamics in the modest Leadenhall Street office in London may have made the book richer, demonstrating also how in India the Company grew into a monster beyond the effective control of its own faraway masters. To be fair, however, Dalrymple is forthright early on that his intention is to peg his narrative firmly in India. Another quibble comes from the fact that the book’s focus on the north means that the company’s actions in the south—through its Madras and Bombay offices—end up with the short end of the stick. In the peninsula, dynamics were somewhat different and the Company often met its match in the likes of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, who were more than capable of giving it a fright. While rulers in the north were in many respects stuck with obsolete methods of warfare, which gave the British a strategic advantage, those in the south learnt quickly to compete with the Company on its own terms. A fuller explanation of these subtle but significant differences would have enriched what is already a fine and masterly account.

But despite this niggle, Dalrymple’s focus on Bengal and the north is understandable—as he notes, once Bengal was had, it was the revenues of this province that put the wind in the Company’s sails, allowing them to become what they did in the years to come. The anarchy in the north was not the only story in India, but it was the anarchy that really opened avenues for the rise of the White man as India’s master. Equally importantly, the corporate nature of the enterprise meant that Parliament in Britain took a long time to rein in the Company’s worst impulses—heaps of parliamentarians, after all, held East India stock, and their own finances were wedded to the fate of the Company. The consequence was that they looked away while their agents did the worst and cheerfully accepted dividends even as Bengal confronted famine and starvation. At the end of the day—between the saga of Shah Alam, the emasculation of other grandees, the sheer violence of the age and the pitching of the English flag in Delhi—it is this that Dalrymple highlights: how avarice and personal enrichment demolished not only good faith but even attempts to introduce checks and balances. And in indicting the Company, he does not forget to highlight the corrupting influences at play within India too. As he writes towards the end of this infinitely satisfying book, ‘Ultimately it was the East India Company, not the Marathas or the Sultans of Mysore, that financiers across India decided to back.’

In other words, the Company came and caused much trouble. But holding its hands were also many homeborn Indians. For in the end, the nexus of profit and power proved, for the Brown man as much as the White, dangerously irresistible.