How a ‘Lootera’ Company Defeated Equally Violent Feudal Lords 

Mayank Mishra reviews William Dalrymple’s latest book on the ‘original looteras’, namely, the East India Company.

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Image of historian William Dalrymple and his latest book ‘The Anarchy’ used for representational purposes.
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“One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late eighteenth century, when it became a common term across Britain.”

With these words, celebrated historian William Dalrymple, introduces his latest book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire.

The book marks the rise — and eventual fall — of the East India Company which was incorporated in London in 1599, with a view to conduct international trade — but which ended up plundering India on a never-before-seen scale.

Of the many instances of unprecedented loot, the one that took place in Bengal in the 1770s, stands out. “In 1770-71, at the height of the Bengal famine, an astounding 10.86 lakh pound was transferred to London by Company executives — perhaps 100 million pound in modern currency,” writes Dalrymple. The famine is estimated to have claimed 1.2 million lives; yet, there was no stopping revenue extortion from famine-ravaged farmers.

Extortion in the Time of Famine

“By June 1770, the devastation was unfolding across the entire province (of Bengal). Five hundred a day were now dying of starvation in the streets of Murshidabad (the then capital of Bengal province). Rice was scarce even in Calcutta, where 76,000 died, on its streets between July and September. ‘The whole province looked like a charnel house,’ reported one officer. The total numbers are disputed, but in all, perhaps 1.2 million — one in five Bengalis — starved to death that year, in what became one of the greatest tragedies of the province’s history,” writes Dalrymple.

And the relentless plunder continued for decades to come.

Even as there were instances of general uproar in Britain against the excesses of Company officials in India, the East India Company could always rely on pliable local allies to commit even more excesses.

The EIC could get help from Marathas to fight the Nizams. On different occasions, they would all come together to fight Tipu Sultan. Then, there were ambitious generals and ministers, ever eager to collaborate with the Company officials to get the throne for themselves or their chosen ones. It was almost ‘free for all’, with each after all the others.

Indian Money Helping an ‘Alien’ Company Loot Our Own Resources

What was even more bizarre was the fact that the EIC could secure finances from local merchants to conquer Indian territories! “The biggest firms (local merchants) of the period... handled the largest military remittances, taking charge of drawing bills of exchange in Bombay or Surat or Mysore, as well as making large cash loans, all of which made possible the regular payment, maintenance, arming and provisioning of the Company’s troops,” the author writes.

In a sense, it was Indian money helping an alien company plunder our resources so as to enrich London-based EIC shareholders!

A classic case of jis daal par baithe ho usi ko kaat rahe ho (cutting the branch which is supporting you).

While going through the book, one gets the impression that in the decades preceding and following the entry of EIC, there was scant regard for rule of law. Local feudal lords followed the only rule: ‘might is right’. There was no limit to the kind of barbarism they would subject the people to. “Throughout the 1740s, while the Carnatic wars were raging in the south, the Marathas had attacked Bengal with horrifying violence, killing what the Dutch VOC chief in Bengal estimated to be, as many as 400,000 civilians,” the author writes.

Describing the savagery of one of the Muslim rulers of that time who had captured the Mughal throne, one contemporary writer wrote (quoted by Dalrymple in The Anarchy): “If even a fraction of the calamities and misfortunes of the time be described, if it be heard, anyone hearing it would go deaf. And if your hearing were to survive, and if you were still capable of compassion, your gall bladder would surely burst with sorrow.”

Chilling Evidence of the Perils of Crony Capitalism

Then there are stories of corporate-politics nexus, and the miscarriage of medieval justice that was in place at the time.

“(Edmund) Burke had defended Robert Clive (first Governor General of Bengal) against parliamentary enquiry, and so helped exonerate someone who genuinely was a ruthlessly unprincipled plunderer. Now he directed his skills of oratory against Warren Hastings (who was finally impeached), a man who, by virtue of his position, was certainly the symbol of an entire system of mercantile oppression in India, but who had personally done much to begin the process of regulating and reforming the Company, and who had probably done more than any other Company official to rein in the worst excesses of its rule,” Dalrymple writes.

On the corporate-politics nexus, the book refers to many instances of the then British parliament looking the other way, despite mounting evidence of excesses by the EIC officials in India, as several MPs had vested interest in the rogue company.

Chilling evidence of the perils of crony capitalism. Sounds familiar?

In this eminently readable book, Dalrymple offers insights into a slice of our history that was as horrific, fragmented and polarised as it could get. The disconnect between the rulers and the ruled was complete, and there was not a single boundary of decency that was not breached.

Do we have the stomach to learn the lessons?

[The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And the Pillage of an Empire’ / Bloomsbury Publishing / Pages: 522 / Price: Rs 699]

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