How India Became British India

ROBERT CLIVE IS a soldier of fortune and an ambitious one at that for Sudeep Chakravarti, the senior journalist, columnist and author who has famously—and in no deliberate attempt—given life to a new genre in publishing thanks to his Bengalis. As a result of that work, one can expect more authors from various Indians cultures tracing their roots from the advantages of their cosmopolitan learnings.

BritishIndia2Now, in Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History, Chakravarti has brought to the fore and narrated with great vigour the history of the battle that was largely responsible for setting in motion the British design of divide and rule in the subcontinent. I say largely because as always in history there are disputes about which was the first. While the Battle of Plassey is a watershed moment in Indian history, the battle for Arcot in the south of India was the prototype of divide and rule policy of the East India Company and later the British Empire. But Chakravarti has taken a broader understanding of history in differentiating what is the most significant event that inspired Britain, the Great Britain where the sun would soon never set, to confirm their modus operandi for India. The author has dwelt upon this subject and decided to settle for Plassey while acknowledging other incidents.

Chakravarti starts his book with a Camus-like ‘Introduction’ to the place and the making of its history. Evidently, it is much more than a piece of history compared with Arcot. He writes, ‘Plassey if you are British, or if you are much of the world, as once the British had imagined they were. Palasi, if you are Indian. And if you are a Bengali, Polashi, the place of flowering polash trees, flame of the forest.’ The author also describes the place as a Rashomon of collective and selective memories after factoring in the assertion among a large section of historians that the brief battle of 23 June 1757, fought by a mango orchard between Clive—the great ‘Clive of India’ as described by the eccentric scholar of immense talent, Nirad C Chaudhuri —and the ‘compromised’ forces of Siraj-ud-daulah, then Nawab of Bengal, meant, once and for all, that India was won by the British until it won freedom two centuries later.

We all know that there were other contenders to the prize catch called India in the colonial period of the time, the French being one besides the home-grown Marathas who saw themselves as claimants to the glory of the Mughals who were on a slippery slope since the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. It is in this context that Chakravarti says that Plassey determined whether we Indians would be speaking French, English, Dutch or perhaps Marathi.

At the recently held Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters in Thiruvananthapuram, Chakravarti elaborated on why he thought battles such as Plassey were of great consequence in history notwithstanding their inferior status compared with the scale and destruction of the World Wars. Although World Wars have no parallels in the price that humanity and the planet had to pay, battles of lower scales, too, have contributed (and will continue) to the making and unmaking of empires and therefore they too need to be studied with gusto. The argument is convincing, and reflects the rigour of his research. His analysis of events that led to the Battle of Plassey and the scrutiny of characters and places are extensively detailed and old-school.

The author calls history his amor prima, first love, and he owes his gratitude to several of his teachers, starting with Vijay Kumar Mathu at Mayo College, Ajmer; his professors at St Stephen’s (where he read history) including Upinder Singh, David Baker, Sumit Guha, PS Dwivedi and Mohammed Amin.

Events leading to Plassey start with a historical moment, which, according to the author, ‘played out with the Mughal Empire in fracture’. Chakravarti makes the narrative exhaustive. Though it may appear meandering to some, it wouldn’t to history buffs looking to learn more rather than be merely informed. He dwells at length on Makshsudabad (which later became Murshidabad), the vice-regal capital of the Mughal Empire in the east. In that chapter, he also regales us with anecdotes about the daughter of the nawab who presided over there, Murshid Quli Khan (who was earlier Surya Narayan Mishra), who had an obsession with eating the liver of young men and therefore was called Kaleja-Khaki Begum. The author talks about how under Murshid Quli Khan the region prospered at a fast clip. Many of the references to banking and trading communities here make it look as though centuries continue to coexist.

After a series of twists and turns, Alivardi Khan became the nawab of Bengal ruling from current-day Murshidabad in 1740 in a military takeover. How he used to indulge his grandson Siraj-ud-Daulah is explained well in this volume. Siraj-ud-Daulah became nawab in 1756 at age 23 and a year later he was defeated by the British East India Company led by Robert Clive , then 32, through strategies that are as old as empires. The book captures this and more, including the earlier frictions between successive nawabs and the Company. Alongside, there were tugs of war among aggressive trading powers with potential political ambitions, involving the British, French and Dutch, which are placed under the spotlight in the chapter titled ‘Company Versus Compagnie Versus Kompagni’.

Here is where Syed Mir Jafar, the commander of military forces under Siraj-ud-Daulah, makes an entry. He felt slighted by his nawab at a time when the latter was increasingly veering away from the Company (which the author also calls John Company in this book), Jafar switches sides in exchange for glory (destined to be short-lived) and wealth. In fact, Siraj’s many plans to ‘clip the wings’ of the Company are narrated with great skill in this book.

The Company plans its moves after securing the support of Jafar and others. The battle that finally results in the execution of the last independent Nawab of Bengal and its aftermath are beautifully described and sourced to historical accounts with tireless clarity. The author falls back on Robert Orme and other historians of repute to attribute most of his pronouncements and conclusions, and shuns rhetoric. He also examines the Black Hole story—which is about a dungeon in Fort William, Calcutta, in which British prisoners were said to be confined by Nawab’s men for a few days. The number of people allegedly kept inside was possibly exaggerated to whip up war frenzy. The author however merely presents various versions and distances himself from concluding which are right or wrong.

Besides numerous other characters, the book portrays Clive with warts and all—at times as a nervous character who, it is well-known now, was dependent on opium. Those Anglophiles who grew up treating any effort to de-lionise Clive as blasphemy will not be entirely pleased with this subtle depiction of the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency who later established political control of India by the East India Company.

This book helps one comprehend how India changed after the death of Aurangzeb and how the new era of colonialism, marked by avarice and dominated by Britain, shaped modern India. Chakravarti probes how colonial powers extended their sway across the country to put in perspective the story of the battle that changed the course of Indian history. This work is certainly a tour de force.

First published in Open

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