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Analysing ‘The Anarchy’

William Dalrymple’s new book narrates a riveting tale of the English trading company’s rise as the Indian subcontinent’s dominant political power, but neglects its sociocultural impact

Nearly 15 years ago, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an essay for The New Yorker to mark 100 years of the publication of German thinker and sociologist Max Weber’s seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Using a contemporary figure to explain Weber’s analysis, Kolbert suggested that Weber’s argument would mean that Donald Trump (then a real estate entrepreneur and reality TV show host) was the spiritual heir of Martin Luther, the key figure of 16th century Protestant Reformation. Weber argued that among other factors – and he stressed that they were equally important – the rise of capitalism in northern Europe of 17th century could be attributed to the spiritual encouragement that the Protestant religious movement provided to the accumulation of wealth (or worldly success in general) through hard work, enterprise, investment, and professional determination.

Along with forces unleashed by technological advancement, Weber’s reasoning as well as Karl Marx’s use of class struggle theory to understand the emergence of modern capitalism have been the stuff of academic pursuits in Indian universities – the latter being more visible than the former. What’s been less studied is something that was far closer and very much a part of Indian history as a riveting case study of ascendant capitalism since the 17th century. It spread across almost the whole of what’s now called Indian subcontinent and, in the process, became an instrument of political domination and military prowess as much as it became what it originally set out to achieve – an efficient means of wealth accumulation.

In some ways, the English East India Company, a London-based joint stock company which was granted the royal charter to trade on December 31, 1600 was a forerunner of the giant global corporations of the modern world. In other ways, the company was very different from modern corporations – with a territory-conquering and deal-making military, law-making and law-enforcing apparatus, and sophisticated civil services. All this made the EIC, in Edmund Burke’s words, “a state in the guise of a merchant’’.

The lack of rigorous historical inquiries into the nature, working and role of the EIC in India’s colonial past has been obvious to those interested in modern Indian history. Among other reasons, the sketchy treatment of the period in which the EIC became central to power arrangements in the Indian subcontinent can also be attributed to the arbitrary ways in which Indian history textbooks have chosen to classify medieval and modern periods – not sure about what to mark as the beginning of modern Indian history. Consequently, the period falling between the contested lines of modern-medieval history hasn’t found much depth of material in school and university textbooks.

To an extent, the historian and writer William Dalrymple’s new book The Anarchy fills that gap. In what is seemingly the most ambitious of his body of work, Dalrymple chronicles the journey of the EIC from a fledgling trading company mandated to “wage war” in pursuit of its commercial interests to a venture defeating, taming or co-opting the forces of the moribund Mughal empire and regional powers like the Maratha confederacy, Bengal and Awadh nawabs, or the Mysore Sultanate. To his credit,  Darlymple goes beyond the hitherto skeletal accounts of the period and supplies them full flesh and blood of details, characters, events, and seminal historical currents. Besides digging other sources, Darlypmle weaves the narrative relying on material he has mined from the EIC’s own voluminous records – despatches from its Indian operatives to the company’s directors in London, and records found in the EIC’s headquarters in Government House and Fort William in what was then Calcutta (now found in the National Archives of India, Delhi).

The wide array of material, however, doesn’t deviate from the focus of the book from a specific period in the career of a trading company. That is apt for a historian who is known more for weaving tales from slices of history rather than epochs extending to centuries. Given that the company’s presence in India spanned over two centuries, Dalrymple limits his narrative gaze to a period of less than half a century (1756-1803) which saw the EIC’s rise from a trading company to being the dominant political power in the subcontinent.

“This book does not aim to provide a complete history of the East India Company, still less an economic analysis of its business operations,” Dalrymple writes in the introduction. “Instead it is an attempt to answer the question of how a single business operation, based in one London complex, managed to replace the Mughal Empire as masters of the vast subcontinent.”

Beyond this obvious focus, the book has useful chapters on the genesis of the company – tracing it to a historic meeting held at Founders’ Hall on  September 24, 1599. Its formative years are explained through various strands – the limited objectives of its initial voyages, the support of the British government and the generous royal charter, the arrival of Captain William Hawkins in India in 1608, and the visit of royal envoy Sir Thomas Roe in 1615. Similarly, the chronicles of the EIC’s turf battles with European rivals, mainly the French, in their effort to find commercial foothold and political sway in India, also offer some fresh details.

It’s, however, in the chapters on the Battle of Plassey (1757), the Battle of Buxar (1764) and the granting of Diwani to the EIC in 1765, and their consequences for the political landscape of the country, that Dalrymple’s narrative captures the sense of history being shaped through chaos, violence and establishment of the EIC’s ultimate supremacy over many players in the fray. In doing that, the book sketches the dramatis personae as drivers of the momentous events – the EIC military commander Robert Clive, Bengal nawab Siraj-ud Daula, Awadh nawab Shuja ud Daula, and Mughal emperor Shah Alam are some of them. To add to that, the details the book brings to the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the mayhem unleashed by Ghulam Qadir Khan Rohilla in Delhi, in an act of revenge against Shah Alam, infuse the unfolding of history with human drama of pettiness, intrigue and brutality.

However, the book is far from being comprehensive and lacks width in its canvas. It could have given more space to institutional footprints of the EIC on Indian administrative structures and practices.The legacy, for instance, of the civil services has not found the detailed account one was expecting in a book about the entity that built a modern and professional bureaucracy in India. More elaboration on such aspects was needed to grasp the seminal influence that the EIC’s rule had on the emergence of the modern state in India.

Similarly, the sociocultural register of the EIC’s impact on Indian subcontinent is missing in the book. The need for mobility in its trade and personnel in India had its own set of implications. Scholars like Usha Mathur, for instance, have identified Premsagar, published in 1803, as one of the first known books in khari boli, though it was sprinkled with Braj too. Lallulal, from Fort William College in Calcutta, wrote it. The college used to train young officers of the EIC and textbooks for teaching Indian languages were also prepared there. Lallulal’s book was written as a part of the training programme in Indian languages. In a way, while being shaped by the need to grasp languages of the territories that it was trading in as well as administering, the EIC was also shaping the need to develop new forms of communication for facilitating commerce across different regions of the countries.

In some ways, this implies that one would still be turning to writings of scholars such as the Cambridge historian Chris Bayly – as Dalrymple admits – to strike a balance between the violent military history of the period with “long-term consolidation of new political, economic and  social formations”.

If such inadequacies curtail the scope of the book considerably, some obvious blind spots can be spotted in its approach to the period. In his eagerness to establish the EIC as the historical precursor of contemporary global capitalism – marked by corporate lobbying, regime change, bailouts – there are times when Dalrymple’s sense of outrage against the pillage takes precedence over a holistic account of the period.

While tracing the strands of the evolution of global capitalist corporations in the EIC can be a riveting tale, moralistic rhetoric in assessing its role can come at the cost of ignoring the historical milieu in which it existed, the parallel forces and its precedents. In a significant way, it amounts to ignoring the low moral capital of the regime that the ECI was seeking to replace. It’s an aspect that Dalrymple doesn’t consider while lamenting the disintegration of the old order. Searching for moral legitimacy in the EIC’s pillage – its business and military campaign as well as its political expansion – should have been an exercise that even the regime it replaced, the Mughal empire, could be subjected to. The latter wouldn’t stand such scrutiny in any edifying way either.

Conditions of anarchy, a theme that Dalrymple identifies as the defining feature of the period, weren’t unique to the period, though the presence of too many players amplified its magnitude. The alienation between people and the state could be traced back centuries earlier, something professor CA Bayly referred to while explaining the rise of national sentiment against the British rule in the 19th century in his work Origins of Nationality in South Asia (2001). In addition to other factors, Bayly identifies “an emotional alienation from the state after the establishment of Muslim rule” as one of the elements contributing to the ties of nationality in popular perceptions

An influential section of historians have been seen as adopting different standards for assessing different forms of imperialism. In his book Malevolent Republic, published early this year, Kapil Komireddi has reflected on such selectivity. “Imperialism, in other words, was destructive only when Europeans did it. When Asians did it, it was a cultural exchange programme,” he remarked sarcastically.

Beyond these limitations and blindspots, Anarchy is a significant and ambitious piece of scholarly engagement with the emergence of what was arguably the most influential corporate giant in human history, and the ways in which it altered the power dynamics in the Indian subcontinent. Given the skillfully crafted narrative and meticulous document-digging that the book offers about a less studied phase of Indian history, it could have done without polemics – most obvious in its epilogue. That has sometimes crept into the book because of something Dalrymple himself cautioned against but occasionally succumbs to: reading history backwards.

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