Indian history fails
Indian history’s biggest failing is in understanding and explaining the rise of English imperial power in the Indian subcontinent.
Facing foreign conquest for the first time in 12th century AD, Indians have difficulties in understanding invasion, conquests, territorial expansion and the motive power behind such imperial actions.
Equally for the British, the ‘gain’ and ‘loss’ of India happened so quickly, that they cannot accept the loss and they still cannot believe their luck.
The central question of how India could ever have fallen under British rule continues to engage almost obsessive attention. How so few Britons, as servants of a private business enterprise, could have conquered so huge an area and so many people, so far away, has never ceased to amaze or embarrass. Neither British nor national historiography has proven satisfactory. (From The Oxford history of the British Empire: Historiography By Robin W. Winks, Alaine M. Low).
Modern Indian historians have not been of much help.
The perplexed Indian
The question of Indian subjugation by Islamic and English invasions has rarely been answered with any balance.
For instance, with reluctant admiration, some Indians ‘acknowledge’ that the British must have had something special. After all, how could Robert Clive with 400 English soldiers, defeat Siraj-ud-Dowla’s armies of 60,000? This left the ordinary, disbelieving Indian with the second assumption. Indians must have been fighting with bows and arrows, while the English had guns and cannons.
Now both these answers are wrong – because in 1857, Indian had equally good ship-building docks (if not better) and gun smiths. The best steel in the world came from India – as did the raw material for gun-powder, saltpetre.
A hundred years ago, a perplexed Indian, Taraknath Das, sought to understand the cause of Indian subjugation. He wrote to Tolstoy, the 19th Russian writer. Tolstoy’s very ‘insightful’ answer on Indian independence was
What does it mean that 30,000 people, not athletes, but rather weak and ill-looking, have enslaved 200 millions of vigourous, clever, strong, freedom loving people? Do not the figures alone make it clear that not the English, but the Hindus themselves are the cause of their slavery?’ For the Hindus to complain that the English had enslaved them was like villagers addicted to drink complaining that that the winesellers who had settled in their midst were the cause of their drinking habit. ‘Is that not the case with all the people, the millions of people, who submit to thousands or even hundreds of individuals of their own nation or those of foreign nations?’ If the Hindus had been enslaved by violence, it was ‘because they themselves have lived, and continue to live by violence, and fail to recognize the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.
Gandhiji, made 20,000 copies of this waffling and rambling narrative – and distributed it among the Indian population in South Africa. Tolstoy’s ‘explanation’ is today repeated in Indian schools as a defeatist question, ‘How could a few thousand people conquer a nation of crores?’
Tinged with ‘admiration’ for the English ‘character’!
What was behind the rise of English power – especially, in the Indian sub-continent? After 60 years and a few hundred-crores (or a few billions) of tax-payer funds, Indian academia and historians have failed to answer this question – satisfactorily.
The usual answers trotted out are:-
- Military superiority (better trained and motivated English soldiers)
- Technological superiority (Indians had bows and arrows versus English guns and cannons)
- Political unity (united English vs a divided India)
Historical evidence completely contradicts these three constructs during the 1600-1850 period, the phase of English ascent. For real answers we will need to look somewhere else.
Later in the post, we will use two widely syndicated posts, that appeared on the same day, originating in the USA. These two reports are an excellent parallel of what happened some 300 years ago.
But before that let us look at the key events and developments.
Cut to India in 1757
Robert Clive’s ‘genius’ lay in cobbling exactly one such cabal. This cabal consisted of Armenian, Indian and English merchants.
The Armenians were represented by Khojah Petrus Nicholas, and Indians were represented by the Jagat Seths, Seth Mahtab Chand,and Seth Swarup Chand, and other seths like Raja Janki Ram, Rai Durlabh, Raja Ramnarain and Raja Manik Chand. The Armenians, and the ill-fated Omichund, a “notorious Calcutta merchant who was later to engineer the Plassey Revolution” played an important part in the Bengal/Bihar saltpetre trade. They were all significant players in the export of saltpetre (potassium nitrate). Also known as niter, saltpetre was a necessary ingredient for gunpowder.
Increasing demand for Indian saltpetre from Europe increased prices in India. Indian traders benefited. Was this Plassey-nexus between Armenian, English and Indian traders, a result of restrictions on saltpetre trade itself by the Nawab of Oudh.
As a battle, observes Panikkar, “Plassey was ridiculous. Mir Jafar, who vacillated during the engagement, came timidly round with congratulations and he was told he was now Nawab.” Plassey thus, was “a transaction, not a battle.
The ‘importance’ of Plassey is a colonial invention. It is the Battle of Buxar which started off the East India Company. It is conveniently ignored that the East India Company recruited some 18000 sepoys in the next 6 years (1757-1763). It is these 18000 sepoys which clinched the Battle of Buxar for the East India Company.
The coup of Plassey was not a military success, but industrial and economic. Industrially, the English gained global control over saltpetre, an essential component in gunpowder. With Bihar and Bengal being production centres of saltpetre, control over the global gunpowder production system, passed into English hands. Rest of India and the world were cut-off from saltpetre supplies.
Economically, till the grant of Bengal diwani to the East India Company in 1765, after the battle of Buxar (1764) England used to export bullion to make investments in purchase of Indians goods. After the 1765, diwani, the excess revenue was used to make the purchases – and the English bullion was used to fund expansion, grow armies, et al. It was the battle of Buxar (1764) which created the roots of the English Empire in India via the East India Company.
Such exclusive companies, therefore, are nuisances in every respect ; always more or less inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and. destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government. (An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations By Adam Smith).
Such was Clive’s legacy. A troubled Robert Clive committed suicide in 1774.
The oppressive army of the colonial Raj
The growth in the Colonial Raj’s army to maintain its authority is the simple reason why the Raj was able to maintain its rule for nearly 200 years.
The 18000 sepoys enrolled in 1763 grew in the early years of the nineteenth century to 150,000 and to nearly 350,000 by about 1820. (from Neighbors & strangers: the fundamentals of foreign affairs By William Roe Polk).
In 1820, Britain ruled less than half of modern India. The population of India at that time has been estimated at 25 crore- and the possible population under the Colonial Raj was less than 12 crore.
To sustain an army of 350,000 on a population of 12 crores is an oppressive burden beyond imagination. In a population of 12 crores, the number of able-bodied men would be around Rs.3.0 crore – and army of 350,000 would have meant 1 in every hundred was a soldier. Another writer on the British Empire confirms
the East India Company’s own army, especially its sepoy regiments, grew rapidly. This created a new demand for officers. By 1772 the Company’s officer corps in India was about 1560 strong, more than half the number of regular British army officers at that time. Regular officers were encouraged to transfer to the Company, but most of the increase was accounted for by the recruitment of very young men straight into the Company’s army as cadets. (from The making and unmaking of empires – Britain, India, and America c.1750-1783 By Peter James Marshall).
A proportionate army in India today would be close to 35 lakhs – twice the size the 16 lakhs that India, defence forces (army, air-force and navy) have today. Not only did the East India Company pay better, they also made timely payments.
The East India Company had a justified reputation for not only paying better but for being a more reliable paymaster for its Indian sepoys than any Indian ruler was likely to be.
Many Indians soldiering communities joined the armies of the British Raj as the
Company sepoys’ pay was high; infantry received about Rs.80 per annum, several times the pay of a specialist field worker. The regularity of pay … distinguished British from indigenous Indian armies.
The other reason why the British Raj military size was greater was that instead of police,
many civil duties, which in this country (England) are performed by the police, are in India discharged by the military force.
The small size of Indian police force was a historical trend, predating the English and continues till date. The small police force was derived from the economic habits of the Indian population which did not depend on crime for a livelihood (unlike say, piracy or slave trade in Europe). The constant warfare against Indian polity in India was essential for imperial English objectives. It was the large size of the Colonial Indian Army, consisting of Indian sepoys that was behind the might of the British Empire.
But during WW2, the situation changed. As Indian armies were sent to various theatres of war, and the Quit India movement exploded – as did various other movements across India, the British hold on India seemed to be hanging by a thread. The British response was interesting.
In 1932 there were 215,004 policemen in India (for a population in excess of 300 million) of whom 32,596 (15.16 per cent) were armed. By the end of 1938, the figure had fallen slightly to 193,118 with 28,703 men (14.86 per cent) under arms. But in December 1943, as political and administrative responsibilities of the police grew, the total reached 300,656 (an increase of over 60 per cent since the outbreak of the war) with 137, 222 (45.64 per cent of the total) under arms. (from Policing and decolonisation: politics, nationalism, and the police, 1917-65 By David Anderson, David Killingray.).
The day the worm turned, the British Raj ended. On February 18th 1946, the Indian Naval force, then the Royal Indian Navy raised the flag of independence. Colonial history calls it the Naval Ratings Mutiny – on February 18th 1946. Within 1 week, Britain decided to evacuate from India.
On February 18th, the ‘lowly’ Naval Ratings from the Royal Indian Navy rained on the British parade – by raising the flag of Indian Independence. Britain did not have the stomach to take on the Indian Colonial Army, battle hardened and exposed to warfare in all the global theatres of WW2. Penderel Moon, a much quoted British Civil servant, felt that the Raj was on “the edge of a volcano.” As did Nehru and Pethick Lawrence. The INA trials had created serious ruptures in British control over India.
On February 19th, 1946, PM Clement Attlee announced that a British Cabinet delegation of three ministers would visit India. He followed this up, on 20th February, 1946, with a statement in the British House of Commons,
His Majesty’s Government desires to hand over their responsibility to authorities established by a constitution approved by all parties in India … His Majesty’s Government wish to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take necessary steps to effect the transference of power to responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June 1948 … His Majesty’s Government will have to consider to whom the powers of the Central Government in British India should be handed over on the due date
On 15th March, 1946, Attlee announced in the British House of Commons that Britain was leaving India. 23rd March, 1946, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade came to India for consultations on modalities for power transfer. The British acquiesced and 18 months later the British were out.
It took nearly 200 years for the The Indian sepoy to decide that he was no longer willing to be a loyal soldier of the Company Bahadur. And the British Raj crumbled.
The seed capital of the British Raj
In all this, the important thing was funding!
The recruitment and expansion of the standing army, the purchase and stockpiling of gunpowder, needed exceptional financial resources that only the English seemed to have. Where did this ‘liquidity’ come from?And that is where the English secret lies.
Apart from the Indian loot, it was the loot from the rest of the world that enabled the English to fund the acquisition of these power sources. The surge in English financial capital can be explained by a succession of English ‘adventures’ which created the seed capital for Indian subjugation.
Of which, the most celebrated is the piracy.
Britain – a pirate power
The explicit use of pirates in the Caribbean brought great riches to the Britain. Keynes famously linked all British foreign investment to the single act of looting of the Spanish Armada.
For a good part of 300 years (1550-1850), the English crown gave permits for pirates to operate on high seas – through, what were known as, letters of marque. With the sanction of the English State, high seas piracy became a national pastime in Britain.
Pirates like Sir John Hawkins made money on slave trade and piracy – targeting Spanish ships. Queen Elizabeth, apart from knighting him, also participated in these criminal enterprises. In a modern context, imagine the Italian government giving legal sanction to the Mafia, or Colombians to the Cali cartel.
The Spanish Armada was assembled by Spain to end British piracy. Further on, British propaganda made these pirates and privateers into heroes – and the Spanish Armada into an instrument of Catholic repression.
John Maynard Keynes, famously and honestly, tracked the source of British capital – and computed the compounded value of this loot. Keynes wrote: –
I trace the beginnings of British foreign investment to the treasure which Drake stole from Spain in 1580. In that year he returned to England bringing with him the prodigious spoils of the Golden Hind. Queen Elizabeth was a considerable shareholder in the syndicate which had financed the expedition. Out of her share she paid off the whole of England’s foreign debt, balanced her Budget, and found herself with about £40,000 in hand. This she invested in the Levant Company –which prospered. Out of the profits of the Levant Company, the East India Company was founded; and the profits of this great enterprise were the foundation of England’s subsequent foreign investment. Now it happens that £40,ooo accumulating at 3f per cent compound interest approximately corresponds to the actual volume of England’s foreign investments at various dates, and would actually amount to-day to the total of £4,000,000,000 which I have already quoted as being what our foreign investments now are. Thus, every £1 which Drake brought home in 1580 has now become £100,000. Such is the power of compound interest!
Now we all know where the Spaniards got their gold from!
English Chartered Companies – monopoly public-sector trading houses
The next major source for English capital were English corporations, in which the British ruling classes were the prime promoters and beneficiaries. English use of corporations was ‘pioneering’. It allowed the State to hide behind the veil of an artificial person. The EEIC could be blamed as the tyrant – and Queen Victoria could be displayed as a saviour.
The earliest English experiences with corporations started with the Muscovy Company (formed during 1550-155), the Spanish Company (1577), giving rise, in turn to the Levant Company (1581). Precursors to the East India Company, the Levant Company for instance was a mostly successful English monopoly of trade with the Turkey, Venice, Genoa and Middle East. English royalty became shareholders in these English corporations like the Muscovy Company or the Russia Merchants Companies in the 1550s, Levant Company, The Royal African Company – and later also the East India Company.
James Lancaster, John Eldred (Treasurer of the Levant Company) and Alderman Thomas Smythe and his assistant Richard Wright were common to both the Levant company and the East India Company. The English Queen contributed to the slave trading enterprise of Jack Hawkins the pirate, with her own ships, the Jesus of Lubeck and the Minion.
These trading houses, set up with royal patronage, controlled wealth, power and trade. Controlled by a few people, these corporations were extensions of the State.
Britain – prime slave trader
Britain and US were the largest users of African slaves – which gave these economies a 20% labour cost advantage. It also ‘freed’ its unemployed youth to go to the colonies and join the military.
The Royal African Company, a slaving trading ‘enterprise’, branded slaves with the letters ‘DY’, after its benefactor and promoter, the Duke of York, (better known as King James-II) and later the company’s initials, RAC. The Royal African Company, formed as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, was created to exploit the ‘opportunity’ for slavery in general – and the trans-Atlantic slave trade specifically.
Between 1699-1807 alone, there were more than 12100 slave voyages from the English ports of London, Bristol, Liverpool, Newport and others. Britain was the prime slave-trading European power. More than 20 million slaves were captured from West Africa and sold into slavery. The overall number of slaves from Africa to Europe and Americas are much higher than 20 million. Wealthy slave traders built grand edifices across Britain, donated to universities, museums, charities.
Britain – sugar and spice
Based on slavery, was Britain’s chain of sugar production colonies across the Caribbean. With the collapse of slavery in Haiti, sugar prices zoomed. Places in the West Indies, like Barbados, Jamaica competed to become the ‘richest spote of ground in the worlde.’ Between 1793-1798, sugar prices trebled. For a few years, English territories imported more slaves than Cuba.
As slavery became impossible due to revolts and mutinies, Britain turned to India again. This time for indentured labour. Slavery diluted and called by another name, India became a source to fall back on for indentured labour. How could the British afford to buy indentured labour? Bought with new gold discoveries in Canada and Australia. Nearly 1 crore (10 million) indentured labourers were shipped out from India alone to various parts of the world – and continued till about 1917. As is to be expected, the UK Government grossly underestimates these figures.
By the time the indentured labour scheme was finally brought to an end in 1917, it is estimated that 2.5 million East Indians had been shipped to British colonies around the world. (From Empire’ Children – Channel 4).
After the finally abolishing slavery in 1833, indentured labour replaced slavery with indentured labour. Upfront, indentured labour was only slightly more expensive, but was cheaper in the long run. Indentured labour also came fewer issues related to capture, transport, trade and maintenance of slaves – with a veneer of respectability that was needed for propaganda purposes.
Indentured labour – Slavery by another name
In the late and middle 19th century, capture of Indians by British agents indentured labour, (slave traders and slavery by another name) was also the reason, that possibly, the myth of ‘kaal-paani’ became prevalent and Indian traders preferred buyers to come to them. Intrepid Indians, suddenly discovered kaala paani – a defensive response to indentured labour, which was a close parallel to slavery.
The West re-invented slavery (in the 20th century again) and renamed it as apartheid which made native populations into slaves. They could, of course, truthfully claim that great Anglo-Saxon frontiersmen discovered gold and settled empty continents – in ‘hostile conditions.’
As sugar prices climbed, Cuban plantation owners expanded plantations – and increased slave labour. From 1840, rumblings among Cubans slaves increased – which would continue for many decades.
Cuban sugar industry was itself kick-started, with English import of 5000 slaves in 1762, during their brief occupation of Cuba. In 1844 Cuban slaves revolted unsuccessfully. 10th, October 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspesdes released his slaves and El Grito de Yara War, (a 10 year campaign) against Spain started. General Valeriano Weyler, “The Butcher,” was sent to stamp out the independence movement. He created modern history’s first concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of men women and children were put into concentration camps.
And English sugar colonies gained another second wind.
50 years before Independence, a 100 years ago, India was one of the largest ship building countries in the world. The “modern era” began with the building of a dry dock at Bombay about 1750; a second was erected in Calcutta about 1780.
During Shivaji’s reign, as per estimates, more than 300 ships of 300 tons capacity were launched. The Wadias alone built more than 350 ships – during 1735-1863 170 war vessels for the East India Company, 34 man-of-war defence vessels for the British Navy, 87 merchant vessels for private firms, and three vessels for the Queen of Muscat at Bombay docks.
In 1872, Jamshedji Wadia, from a Parsi ship-building family, constructed the “Cornwallis”, a frigate with 50 guns, bought by the East India Company. This led to several orders from the English Navy.
Bengal was the other major port where ship building was for global markets. Chittagong was the center for shipbuilding (now in Bangladesh). The Turkish Navy (a major world power till WWI) was a major customer.
Ma Huan, the famous chronicler and interpreter of Zheng He (also called Cheng Ho) voyages, during the Ming dynasty, studied boat building in Bengal during the early 15th century (1400-1410).
The third major center for ship building was Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) port – which was a major center of exports of steel, diamonds, saltpetre (potassium nitrate, for gunpowder, to kill Indians, Negroes, Aborigines and Red Indians with) from the Deccan plateau.
These buyers preferred Indian ships, because of better jointing technology and elimination of metal sheeting. Indian shipbuilders had a special system where wood was seasoned in partial vacuum, with oils for timber improvement. British shipbuilders, colonialists ensured through tariff and other barriers, that Indian shipbuilding “was prevented from continuing to develop, even though it had a proven ability to adapt to changing technological needs” – and thus finally killing it. English naval superiority rested on Indian ships – and paid for by exploitation of Indian resources.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s ocean-going ship, the Sao Gabriel came to India. The Portuguese caravel are well-known. But what do the Portuguese call their ocean-going ships? Nau. Yes, nau as in Hindi, for boat. Few of these Indian built ships have been recovered in various parts of the world. Indian shipbuilding expertise ruled the world – till colonialism killed it.
History repeats itself
On June 6th, two posts appeared in the Indian newspapers. These two posts were remarkable, as these mirrored events and behaviour some 200-400 years ago.
One report dealt with the American War in Afghanistan. To smoothen logistics in Afghanistan, the US ‘recruited’ an Afghan warlord, Matiullah Khan. Much like the English recruited many Indian kings, chieftains to fight their wars.
His main effort — and his biggest money maker — is securing the chaotic highway linking Kandahar to Tirin Kot for NATO convoys. One day each week, Matiullah declares the 100-mile highway open and deploys his gunmen up and down it. The highway cuts through an area thick with Taliban insurgents.
Matiullah keep the highway safe, and he is paid well to do it. His company charges each NATO cargo truck $1,200 for safe passage, or $800 for smaller ones, his aides say. His income, according to one of his aides, is $2.5 million a month, an astronomical sum in a country as impoverished as this one. (via With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire).
Matiullah Khan, yet another report reveals, is one of the
… eight trucking contractors who share the US military’s $2.16bn (€1.68bn, £1.45bn) two-year host nation trucking contract. The companies include NCL Holdings, run by Hamed Wardak, the US-educated son of Afghanistan’s defence minister, and others founded by investors in the US and the Gulf.
The system relies on an opaque network of sub-contractors who pay Afghan security companies to escort their trucks. Investigators suspect these companies in turn pay tolls to militia leaders with groups of hundreds of gunmen.
Prominent militia commanders in southern Afghanistan include Matiullah Khan and Ruhullah. Although some hold ranks in the Afghan security forces, such commanders exercise considerable autonomy and often field better forces than the army or police. Industry insiders say militias run what amount to protection rackets on convoys passing through their territory.
Two aspects of this stand out. One is the figure US$2.16 billion over two years – i.e. US$1.08 billion per annum. Now that is a lot of money for the 1500 Matiullah Khan’s militia – and the other 10,000-15,000 members of the other militias.
Are these private militias a problem for the local Afghans? Yes, say the local people. But, like this reports says, “But as long as the Americans are behind him, there is nothing I can do. They are the ones with the money.”
And that pretty much was what happened in India from 1757 to 1947.
Indian history according to Dilbert
All this still does not explain how the English could become ascendant in Indian – without Indian collaboration. For understanding this collaboration, let us turn to another column by Scott Adams – the creator of Dilbert.
When I heard that BP was destroying a big portion of Earth, with no serious discussion of cutting their dividend, I had two thoughts: 1) I hate them, and 2) This would be an excellent time to buy their stock. And so I did. Although I should have waited a week.
People ask me how it feels to take the side of moral bankruptcy. Answer: Pretty good! Thanks for asking. How’s it feel to be a disgruntled victim?
I have a theory that you should invest in the companies that you hate the most.
If there’s oil on the moon, BP will be the first to send a hose into space and suck on the moon until it’s the size of a grapefruit. As an investor, that’s the side I want to be on, with BP, not the loser moon.
Perhaps you think it’s absurd to invest in companies just because you hate them. But let’s compare my method to all of the other ways you could decide where to invest.
Perhaps you can safely invest in companies that have a long track record of being profitable. That sounds safe and reasonable, right? The problem is that every investment expert knows two truths about investing: 1) Past performance is no indication of future performance. 2) You need to consider a company’s track record.
Right, yes, those are opposites. An investment professional can argue for any sort of investment decision by selectively ignoring either point 1 or 2. And for that you will pay the investment professional 1% to 2% of your portfolio value annually, no matter the performance.
I’m not saying that the companies you love are automatically bad investments. I’m saying that investing in companies you love is riskier than investing in companies you hate.
If you buy stock in a despicable company, it means some of the previous owners of that company sold it to you. If the stock then rises more than the market average, you successfully screwed the previous owners of the hated company. That’s exactly like justice, only better because you made a profit. Then you can sell your stocks for a gain and donate all of your earnings to good causes, such as education for your own kids.
My point is that I hate Apple. I hate that I irrationally crave their products, I hate their emotional control over my entire family, I hate the time I waste trying to make iTunes work, I hate how they manipulate my desires, I hate their closed systems, I hate Steve Jobs’s black turtlenecks, and I hate that they call their store employees Geniuses which, as far as I can tell, is actually true. My point is that I wish I had bought stock in Apple five years ago when I first started hating them. But I hate them more every day, which is a positive sign for investing, so I’ll probably buy some shares.
Looking back at how the Rajputs, like General Mansingh et al, collaborated with the Mughals (Mughals were better than the Khiljis, right?) Indians also justified alliances with the colonial Raj. It took some time for the reality of English rule to sink into Indian minds.
Thus, at historical crossroads, in the 18th century, Indian industrial technology (shipping and gunpowder), wealth (Indian gold reserves) and Indian manpower (Indian sepoys and indentured labour) powered the rise of Britain.
The Indian military market was completely dominated by the private sector. Elements of the Indian military mix – soldiers, elephants, horse traders and trainers, saltpetre production, shipping, wootz steel production, was supplied to the various kingdoms. Operating on a commercial basis, across borders, these production and recruitment systems were technology leaders with high production capacity. In such a military system, standing armies were rare. Production capacities catered to the entire Indic area – and limited export markets.
As the linkage between Indian intellectual and industrial centres (Takshashila against Alexander; Nalanda and saltpetre) broke, after Indian polity fell under the spell of ‘Desert Bloc’ ideology, from 1200 (Qutubuddin Aibak onwards) till date, Indian military production also lost discretion and propriety. From being market-oriented, and end-use sensitive, India’s military production became mercenary.
Using their ill-gotten gains, from slavery, piracy, crime, loot, et al Islamic rulers and the English outbid Indian rulers. For military elements like saltpetre, elephants, sepoys, horses, armies et al. The first time in Indian history, defence production became public sector monopoly, under Nehru’s ‘commanding heights’ and ‘temples of modern India’ socialistic policy.
To marginally ethical people, without recourse to loot, piracy and slavery under the Indic values system of shubh labh, ‘Desert Bloc’ ethics were an ‘attractive’ alternative. Economically affected by shrinkage in Indian exports due to slave raids and piracy, land grab by the colonial Indian State, some took the easy way of embracing English practices and values – giving the British Empire a leg up in India.
Pirates and slave traders as vectors of the insidious Desert Bloc ethic are usually not factored, analysed or discussed. Indian ship manufacturing centres were world leaders. Hence, ‘traders’ (especially slave traders) from the world over came to India shipyards – centred around Kerala, Gujarat and Chittagong. But slavery and loot are the two elephants in the Desert Bloc room which needs to be recognized, examined – and understood.
Sandwiched between buying Indian collaborators (like Americans are today buying Matiullah Khan) or obtaining cooperation (like Scott Adams is suggesting) from ‘reluctant’ Indian admirers lies the story of the rise of Britain and the British Raj in India.
Not a great mystery this. If you can cut out all the ‘White’ noise.
The 1857 war in India, is something that remained an enigma for the last 150 years. For “the public was at the time and for years to come saturated to an astonishing degree with lurid accounts of the uprising, which became the subject of countless sermons, novels, plays and poems, and about which more than eighty novels were written, six appearing in the “peak” year of 1896 alone”.
So, I too was vaguely thrilled to receive a draft copy of the Operation Red Lotus (Red Lotus) by Parag Tope, some 7 months ago. Over the next 2-3 weeks, I went through the book. The first time with more enthusiasm than objectivity. Then came the time to take a 2ndlook look.
This book was an interesting experience. For one it represents yet another attempt to clean up Indian history of colonial detritus.
Answers to some obvious questions
Western /colonial historiography has typically dismissed the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 (Parag Tope’s nomenclature) as a Sepoy Mutiny. Post-colonial Indian historians have been equally guilty of another crime – of dismissing this War as a subaltern war, playing into the hands of Western dismissive-ness. This is something that becomes obvious after reading Red Lotus. Brought on a staple diet of colonial history refurbished as Indian history, to get some bearings was a welcome development.
After all a 18-36 month War that reverberated across the world could not have been a leaderless, cashless, food-less, resource-less war. Red Lotus gives us some vital information on that – which Indian history books don’t! The chapatis and lotus petals insight is unnervingly plausible.
The official account of the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 leaves a number of loose ends. This book takes those loose ends and unravels the official account itself – to leave it in tatters.
How was the 1857 war important
A valuable focus in the book, was how the British backed away from their proselytizing efforts. After and due to this War.
Not due to any innate goodness in the British hearts, or any ‘religious’ and ideological ‘liberalism’ that the modern-day Western narrative trots out. The triad of freedoms that Parag Tope delineates in Red Lotus, are an important element that defines the Indic polity system – defined as भारत्तंत्र in 2ndlook posts.
Drawing on the correspondence between Hartog and Gandhiji, as pointed out elsewhere, in 2ndlook, Red Lotus also has an excellent section on how the Indian education system was destroyed by British policy and design.
Caste of characters
Apart from the Anglo-Indian War of 1857, there were more than 75 battles, skirmishes, revolts, mutinies, involving thousands, up to lakhs of Indians, across India. And more than double that many conspiracies, plots, hold-ups, explosions, bombings, which were not organized. These more than 200 violent actions have been completely glossed over by post-colonial India’s historians. Obviously, more than 200 incidents of violent opposition to British misrule over 150 years (1800-1947) deserves better treatment by official historians. Especially, the people who were ‘behind’ this.
This is another area where Red Lotus scores. Its cast of characters are real people and have been treated objectively. Of course to readers of the 2ndlook, Parag Tope’s views are not new or strange. But to anyone else, like me initially, it was an intellectual challenge. Because Red Lotus does not spoon feed.
For instance, Baijabai Shinde and Vishnubhat Godse (his account in Marathi strangely is hardly known, and usually ignored). My favourite though is Azimullah Khan, a ‘secret agent’ who ‘devoured’ English ladies, hob-nobbed with the enemy’s-enemy and surveyed the enemy’s war operations in Crimea. Azimullah Khan, other sources say, bought a French printing press and confirmed the viability of the Anglo-Indian War!
Interestingly, the one character dealt with rather tersely (balanced, if you will) is Tatya Tope himself. Tatya Tope seems, in comparison, to be cut from a normal revolutionary cloth in Red Lotus. No mean achievement, this.
To Indians raised on an official narrative of caste-religion matrix, this cast of characters is refreshing. Unlike other texts and narratives that have given a brief or a cursory mention of these characters. How could a caste-ridden, divided and oppressive society mount more than 200 actions – against British ‘deliverance’ and ‘enlightenment’.
Red Lotus does not, for instance, get defensive about the ‘rape’ and killing of English women. Most narratives do not even question the rape and murder of British women stories. In fact,
there was no evidence that British women were raped… (but) this was the immediate and lasting assumption, and a great many of the novelizations of the event, were “essentially pornographic” as they detailed the lascivious thoughts of Indians preparing to “tear and mangle” the white limbs of English women “in unspeakable tortures”.(from WTC, September 11; Indian “Mutiny,” 1857: Two Studies in the Psychology of Embattled Superpower By Diane Simmons; ellipsis and text in parenthesis supplied).
The international context
The book also brings out some parts of the international context. For instance how the 1857 financial crisis in the US was possibly triggered by mass redemptions from UK, to fight this war! Or how troops meant for China were diverted to India. Or the huge amounts of drug trade that fuelled the ‘Rise of Britain’. In comparison, the Cali cartel seems like small change, Tope points out. Or the official licensing of piracy by England – and other European powers.
Too often , Indian history is boxed into a small context, which makes it difficult to understand the bigger questions. One question which this book does not completely answer – at least directly, is why did India have to struggle financially to fight a just war, and Britain has money pouring out of its ears, to impose its tyranny on India.
The missing links
So, why did India lose the war? Tope in Red Lotus has marshalled excellent research to show it was British brutality on the hapless Indians that disarmed the leaders of the Anglo-Indian War! The drug trade and piracy are another part of the answer.
The bigger answer is (as per 2ndlook) slavery, genocide in Americas and Australia. And the capture of land, wealth and gold from these lands that fuelled the rise of the West – and why India could not match those resources. So to say, the Country Model itself. But then, that would have unfairly expanded the scope of the book – claim the writers!
This was the other disappointment. I had expected (unrealistically and in a lighter vein), that after all, who better than the Tope family to tell us what ‘actually’ happened to the missing leaders – though Red Lotus does give an eye-witness account about the end of Tatya Tope.
As the Anglo-Indian War of 1857, continued and wound down, the three leaders, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope, and Feroz Shah disappeared. No one knew what happened to them.
It is usually accepted (in Red Lotus also) that the man who was ‘executed’ by the Colonial Raj, as Tatya Tope, was a straw figure. Unlike Red Lotus, it is difficult to believe that Tatya Tope died in battle – without being recognized, by eager Britishers or thousands of his loyal lieutenants. Like other leaders of the War, Tatya Tope’s life has many endings.
The fate of the leaders – Nana Sahib, Azimullah Khan, Tatya Tope, Feroz Shah et al.
Enduring mystery this!
A war of a different kind
During the 1857 War against the colonial rule of Britain in India, unable to gain military advantage, British armed forces started using Indian populations as human shield. For each military success of the Indian armies, the British armies exacted retribution on the local non-combatant populations.
This reign of terror and brutality on home populations disarmed Indian armies and ended the war. A impressive work on this period is by Amaresh Misra – a film critic and journalist, who was moved sufficiently to research for a few years, because, “Since 1957, no Indian has written a comprehensive account of the Revolt. Indian historians have done a limited work”. Another step in this direction is Parag Tope’s forth coming book, Operation Red Lotus, on the life and wars of Tatiya Tope.
And after subduing the Indian population with this brutal campaign, Britain started a more insidious war – a propaganda war. History started getting twisted, perverted, mutilated – and over the next 100 years, Indian and world history was changed beyond recognition.
Let the games begin
After 1857, British racist propaganda and cultural baggage came covertly – to gain better traction at home and in the colonies. For instance, Priya Joshi, a researcher shows that after 1857, book shipments from Britain to India increased by a factor of three.
The death of Semiramis
In this propaganda campaign, the most interesting bit is the cold-blooded murder of the historical Semiramis. Readers will find that Semiramis as an Assyrian Queen till the 1850-60 period Western histories.
The Marchese Tommaso II of Saluzzo commissioned Jacques Iverny in 15th century to paint Semiramis, (alongwith Lampheto, Marpasia, Synoppe, Thamiris, Menalippe, Hippolyta, Orithyia, and Penthesilea) now known as The Nine Worthies. Chaucer’s character, Sowdannesse, is charged of being a ‘Virago, thou Semyrame the secounde’ in his Man of Law’s Tale. Edward Degas and Guercine made Semiramis the subject of their paintings. Calderon used her character in his plays. Mozart died before he could complete his melodrama based on Semiramis. A 16th century painter, Philip Galle used Semiramis and Babylon as the subjects of his paintings.
Mired in legend and prejudice, Semiramis is discredited in modern Western history – especially starting from 1853-1857. Her very existence denied, accused of incest, Semiramis has been tarred and condemned to the rubbish heap of modern history – and the Bible.
Semiramis established an empire that lasted, practically till WW1. Some 300 years, after the reign of Semiramis, the Assyrian Empire passed into Persian hands. From the Persians, into Alexander’s lap.
Suddenly, from 1860 onwards, Western history started treating Semiramis as a wanton, decadent, probably mythical, a perverted sluttish character.
Semiramis biggest defeat was at the hands of Indians. And soon after her defeat, was the defeat of Cyrus the Great, at the hands of Indians again. And before that were the Battles of Meggido and Kadesh, in which Indic armies confronted the Slave Empire of the Egypt. Such an Indian history was very inconvenient for the British Raj.
The Alexander mythos
Alexander’s raid of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, finally turned out to be a overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty, usurpers of the Assyrian Empire. Unable to make headway into India, as the Indian Brahmins had helped and influenced Indian princes to organize and support the Indian war against Alexander. Greek sources cite, after this realization, at ‘The City of Brahmans’, Alexander massacred an estimated 8000-10,000 of these non-combatant Brahmans.
Alexander’s massacres in India, a colonial historian informs us (without naming a source), earned him an “epithet … assigned (to) him by the Brahmins of India, The Mighty Murderer.” This Indian Brahmanic characterization of Alexander, commonly taught to English schoolchildren and present in English college texts, as The Mighty Murderer, curiously disappeared from Western-English texts soon after 1860 – and instead now “a positive rose-tinted aura surrounds Alexander” … !
Since Indian texts were completely silent about the very existence of Alexander, colonial Western historians had a free run. Using hagiographic Greek texts as the base, Alexander became the conqueror of the world.
Max Mueller – Son of Hegel
Behind this propaganda was possibly a man who is much admired (wrongly) in India today – Max Mueller. For instance in Max Muller’s colonial propagandist history, when it comes to Indian triumphs over Semiramis, she becomes half legendary. Yet in another book, the same Semiramis becomes one of ‘the great conquerors of antiquity.’ In a matter of a few pages, he dismisses Indian history completely, in a half-Hegelian manner.
Among Max Mueller’s cohorts, was Karl Marx, who wrote from London, on Friday, June 10, 1853 on India, for the New-York Herald Tribune thus
Hindostan is an Italy of Asiatic dimensions, the Himalayas for the Alps, the Plains of Bengal for the Plains of Lombardy, the Deccan for the Apennines, and the Isle of Ceylon for the Island of Sicily. The same rich variety in the products of the soil, and the same dismemberment in the political configuration. Just as Italy has, from time to time, been compressed by the conqueror’s sword into different national masses, so do we find Hindostan, when not under the pressure of the Mohammedan, or the Mogul, or the Briton, dissolved into as many independent and conflicting States as it numbered towns, or even villages. Yet, in a social point of view, Hindostan is not the Italy, but the Ireland of the East. And this strange combination of Italy and of Ireland, of a world of voluptuousness and of a world of woes, is anticipated in the ancient traditions of the religion of Hindostan. That religion is at once a religion of sensualist exuberance, and a religion of self-torturing asceticism; a religion of the Lingam and of the juggernaut; the religion of the Monk, and of the Bayadere.
“The East bowed low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain,
She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.”
Matthew Arnold’s influence in Indian education can be gauged by the fact that Indian-English language poetry was for long called derisively as “Matthew Arnold in a Saree”. Just before 1857 War, the works of another ‘influential’ poet, John Keats, became popular. In his hubristic haze, Keats wrote how,
The kings of Ind their jewel-sceptres vail,
And from their treasures scatter pearled hail;
Great Brahma from his mystic heaven groans,
And all his priesthood moans,
Before young Bacchus’ eye-wink turning pale.
Much of modern history’s debates and questions were born during this time – verily created to wage a propaganda war against India – and the world. India’s cultural stature in the pantheon of world’s societies was reduced to a minimal role – and the Greek Miracle was born.
In the dying days of the Raj
This propaganda war continued well for another 100 years. In the middle of WW2, Britain pulled out a general from the Italian theatre of war. Brigadier General Mortimer Wheeler, the general in question, was sent to India – to head colonial India’s archaeological operations.
One evening in early August 1943, Brigadier-General Mortimer Wheeler was resting in his tent after a long day of poring over maps, drawing up plans for invasion of Sicily. Mortimer Wheeler was invited to become the director general of archaeology by the India Office of the British government in its last years of rule in South Asia … Summoning a general from the battlefields of Europe was an extraordinary measure, an admission both of the desperate condition of Indian archaeology and an acknowledgment of its vital importance. (from The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture … – Google Books).
Why would the glorious British Empire, on which the sun never set, struggling for its very existence, in the middle of WW2, suddenly pull a general back from the battlefield? Remember, the deceptive Operation Mincement had just been completed. The Allies for readying their armies for their assault on Hitler in Europe. The outcome of the war was far from certain.
And they put a Brigadier-General into archaeology! That too, Indian archaeology. Not Egyptian, not Greek! Especially, when it was clear, that they would be departing from India – sooner rather than later.
Right choice … right time
Considering what theories came from Mortimer Wheeler’s rather fertile ‘imagination’ and his rigourous archaeological process, in hindsight, from a Western perspective, this was sound decision. There may be the facile answer that the British were, after all ‘searching for history and truth’.
And it led Mortimer Wheeler to remark,
“They demonstrate with astonishing clarity the extent to which the brief transit of Alexander did in fact Hellenize almost instantly vast tracts of Asia populated previously by nomads or semi-nomads and villagers”
It is this one incident which possibly contains answers to many unanswered questions like: –
- The amount of energy expended by the West in defending the Aryan Invasion /Migration Theory,
- The lack of access to Indian scholars of the archaeological sites in Pakistan
- The many myths in Indian history
- The clues to the partition of India
- The dating problems
Just why did the world’s foremost imperial power, struggling for its very existence, suddenly pull a general from the battle field, in the middle of WW2 – and put him onto the job of digging dirt.
Only one explanation fits – it had to be a struggle for its own existence at a higher level!
- Art Review: ‘Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi’ at Asia Society (nytimes.com)
- Without Comment – How The State Creates Propaganda (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- A sinister conspiracy (nation.com.pk)
- BAILOUTS, BRIBES AND INSIDER TRADING: Here’s What The World’s Leading Business Looked Like 300 Years Ago (businessinsider.com)
- Indian Bania On British Raj Economics (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- Indian Independence – Prison Logistics (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Indian History – Blind At Birth? (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- Beware the Vengeance of the Afghans (lewrockwell.com)