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Reading Dalrymple’s ‘Anarchy’ In Contemporary Pakistan

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Through The Anarchy William Dalrymple tell us an epic story of a “company that began in commerce and ended in Empire.” As usual Dalrymple delves deep into the annals of the Indian Subcontinent, bringing the dark corners of the colonial era under the spotlight. He covers the period of the roughly century-long rule of the “Company” in India.

One cannot assume that by covering the period of the Company’s colonial rule the author excludes the ensuing nine decades of colonialism under the Crown. It seems the author has drawn a line between the two distinct periods: a period of non-institutional rule by a rogue unscrupulous militarized corporate entity which committed many savageries and inflicted gross socio-economic and political devastation; and the period of institutional colonialism under the Crown.

To me, the striking parables in this didactic work are about the havoc that results when a commercial entity usurps military and political power, bound by no institutional or contractual framework. Dalrymple looks at what it costs socially and politically to buy loyalty and fabricate legitimacy through spurious tools.

The East India Company had a gluttonous and unscrupulous nature which Dalrymple traces to its very birth. The corporation came into existence with the money accumulated through piracy. In a period of less than two decades the Company established itself more as a military power than a commercial one in the south of India.

The insatiable lust for wealth could only be satisfied through loot and plunder – nay, regulated trade. Thus achieving political power through brute military force to capture the resources of India was the only answer.

Till the end of the 18th century, the Company was achieving this purpose subtly: through bribes, cunning and divide et impera. The Company’s first success in getting political control was installing its puppet Mir Jafar after defeating Nawab Siraj-ul-Daula of Bengal.

It was a first major success for the Company. The organization was able to carve out political and financial control as well as extract huge sums of money as a rent of its own war against Siraj-ul-Daula and installing Mir Jafar on the throne of the resource-rich province of Bengal. The first financial jolt to Bengal was the payment of the huge sum that Mir Jafar had promised to pay the Company and its officials for military service against Siraj.

Mir Jafar was a good general but a dull politician and ruler. Company officials dubbed him “a prince of little capacity”. He was unable to stir Bengal from crippling economic crisis. He was more engrossed in enjoying his own luxuries and was unable to pay off the agreed amount to the Company. Thus, he was replaced by his son-in-law Mir Qasim.

This game of getting political control and fabricating legitimacy through puppets continued.

The Company’s second but major foray was taming Shah Alam II, the exiled emperor who fled from Dehli for his life as the young vizier Imad-ul-Mulk usurped the Delhi throne. Again, towards the end of the 18th century when the Company defeated the Marathas, the last hindrance in its way to occupy North India, it continued to legitimized its brutal exploitative rule in the name of puppet emperors upto Bahadar Shah Zafar II.

The story of Company rule in the Indian Subcontinent establishes that rule through puppets is more dangerous – creating a smokescreen to avoid responsibility and accountability. The goal of such usurpers, foreign or local, is upholding vested interests at the cost of the welfare of the commons.

In this regard, the book provides a succinct account of the Great Famine of Bengal (1769-70), that starved to death 1.2 million – one in five Bengalis – and the Company’s ruthless insensitivity toward the starving people. The Company was worried indeed – but not for the Bengalis dying from starvation:

The company officials dotted around rural Bengal watched the deepening drought with concern, realizing the effect it would have on their revenue.”

The labourers were selling their children but the Company was further increasing its tax assessments.

Despite the famine, the company officials proudly reported some increase in revenue.”

In that excruciating time, instead of giving tax relief and cutting the military budget, the latter was further increased. After all, the military was not for the people but for promoting and protecting the vested financial interests of Company stakeholders. In that year, the Company had spent 44 percent of its annual budget on its army, military buildings and fortifications. The Company’s rule in the Indian Subcontinent took the form of a fiscal military state, “with a vicious cyclic effect”: finance for the military and the military for extracting finance, i.e capturing resources. This quote in the book, “A barbarous enemy may slay a prostrate foe, but a civilized conqueror can ruin nations without a sword,” amply elucidates the point.

Opposition to Company rule had been crushed through brute military force. Any opposition, non-conformism or dissent by the locals was labeled as treason and sedition. The war of independence in 1857 was called a mutiny or rebellion. The label of treason and sedition has ever since been a lethal weapon in the armory of usurpers.

The rule of rule of the untamed Company was ruinous not only for its hapless colony, but its ill effects were felt in the home country too. In the colonial metropolis, the wealth extracted through loot and plunder was corrupting the polity of England. The book quotes William Pitt, a former prime minister, “The importers of foreign gold have forced their way into parliament […] the EIC could repeat the same cruelties in this island.” A number of members of the United Kingdom parliament were stakeholders in the Company, using their power to protect its interests.

The Anarchy is a great historical research work but is also thought provoking to reflect on and assess our contemporary politics. It also raises the question: is it a necessary prerequisite to be a foreigner if one is to be a colonial power or have a colonial mindset towards the populations under their power?

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Naya Daur