The Company Bahadar
Jul 23, 2004 (Chowk)
British in India
Called ’Company Bahadar’ by the Indians and known as ’John Company’ in Britain, the British East India Company was a unique commercial enterprise that developed to a nation status having a standing army, negotiating and making agreements with other states. In its 250 years, it expanded to rule most of India, founded Hong Kong and Singapore, began tea cultivation in India, held Napolean a prisoner on Saint Helena and had something to do with the Boston tea party. Its officers invented the games of badminton, polo, squash and snooker.
After the civil war or the sepoy mutiny (1857), the Company was ablished by the British crown. Then began the rule of the ’Saab Bahadars’ of the Crown for the next 100 years before the British left of their own free will out of their own domestic compulsions. This all began in London (1600) in a small office with 7200 pounds and 125 employees; and when Queen Elizabeth gave a Royal Charter to the Company to do business in spices in East Indies.
Company Bahadar’s main adversay in India were the Mughals. For its first 100 years, it dealt with well known Emperors like Jehangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. After Aurangzeb, in the next 150 years, it saw another 15 non-discrept Mughal Kings who only kept the Dehli throne warm. Basically, it was Akbar, Jehangir’s father, who had put the Mughal empire on a strong footing by his sagacious policies. Though illetrate, his concepts were quite modern. His empire covered about 70% of South Asia; and, more important, it was at peace with itself. He had established a system of rule by which he either secured the allegience of smaller independent rulers or directly ruled the territory through a system of appointing Mansabdars who collected revenue and also provided soldiars for the throne. The system worked so well that it took the Company 100 years to go beyond its three main stations like Surat, Calcutta and Madras. By then, it had 23 factories and 90 employees. Later, Bombay came to it in dowry for the Catherine de Braganza of Portugal (1668).
When Sir Thomas Roe visited Emperor Janhangir (1615) as an emissionary of King George to get trade concessions, Jehangir gave the British full access with a view to counterbalance other Europeans like the Portugese and the French traders. His reply to King George reads like a village Nambardar writing to a Deputy Commissioner. It read ’’ When your Majesty shall open this letter, let your royal heart be as fresh as a sweet garden…..blah… blah, blah….let your throne be advanced higher; amongst the greatness of the kings of the prophet Jesus…blah…blah…blah.. I desire your Majesty to command your merchants to bring in their ships of all sorts of rarities and rich goods fit for my palace… that neither Portugal nor any other shall dare to molest their quiet…… Your Majesty is learned and quick-sighted as a prophet, and can conceive so much by few words that I need write no more…’’
The Mughals had their good and bad aspects. The worst in them came out close to the time of succession. They invariably went through a gory charade of eliminating all possible contenders to the throne not even sparing the parents. Taking the eyes out was one of the favourite techniques. The Mughals were also pompuous and believed in extravaganza at the expense of a common man. Jehangir (1605-1627) was mostly busy spending quality time with the Persian Noor Jahan who was always intriguing to get more Persian influence into court. Jehangir also went after the Jains and executed Guru Arjun Das, the fifth Sikh Guru. Shah Jahan (1627-1658) was a decent person but had an opulent taste. He frittered away his energies by sending campaigns in Deccan and Khyber pass. Building of Taj Mahal is commendable but a thought should have crossed his mind to send some subjects to Europe which was into an industrial revolution with fundamental new discoveries like inertia, Earth as a magnet, theory of lenses, laws of hydrostatics etc. Finally, Aurangzeb’s policies created a deep wedge in the society seriously weakening the empire.
Meanwhile, the Company officers were having a jolly good time, getting familiar with local customs and languages. They lived like the Indians, freely intermingled and even intermarried. Some never returned home. Those who returned established sprawling estates back home to the envy of others. Their intimate knowledge of India and close relationship with Indian traders gave them an edge over other European colonialists. Britain itself was going through a period of prosperity and getting to a high standard of living. The Company had become a big player in the British global business with a say in the parliament. The business had expanded to include cotton, silk, indigo, saltpeter and tea. In 1670, King Charles II gave the Company the right to acquire territory, to mint money, to have its own troops, form alliances and exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over its territories. By 1689, Company had established vast fortress type presidencies in Bengal, Madras and Bombay and had its own formidable military force. The Company only needed a person like Aurangzeb to come and soften the ground for its expansion.
Aurangzeb (1658-1707) was only too willing to oblige. When Principia Mathematica was coming out of Europe, Aurangzeb was busy in not only alientating the non-muslims but also persecuting the muslims for their wordly ways. He banned drinking, gambling, prostitution, music in the court, reintroduced jazia, forbade building of temples, destroyed temples and persecuted the Sikhs. As a consequence, there were uprisings in Deccan, by Maratthas in Maharashtra, Bijapur and Golcanda. The Mansabdars and the allied states also began to show their independence. The Company was fully prepared to fill the vaccume by using all available means like diplomacy, coersion, intrigue, show of force or a simple battle. It began to swallow the Empire piece by piece. History may have been different if Hira Bai, Aurangzeb’s infatuation and a Deccanese, had not died untimely. She very nearly turned him into a hedonist.
Finally, the Company Raj began when Robert Clive defeated (1757) Siraj Ud Daulah at Plassey in Bengal. Later, when Shah Alam, the ruling emperor, gave the Company the administrative rights over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, its influence increased many fold. Next to fall was Tipu Sultan of Mysore (Carnatic) in 1777. Finally, after the Maratha wars, the Company secured vast areas surrounding Bombay. The French and the Portugese were now confined to small enclaves of Pandicherry and Goa. The only remaining parts of India out of its jurisdiction were the northern regions of Delhi, Oudh, Rajputana and Punjab.
By offering dubious offers of protection against each other, the Company was successful in preventing the local rulers from putting up a united front. It employed two strategies for its expansion. First was to reach an agreement (sanad) with the local ruler, under which the control of foreign affairs, defense, and communications was transferred to the company and the ruler was permitted everything else. This created what is known as the Princely India of the maharajas or nawabs who exceeded 500. By this ingenious method, the Company made the rulers barter away their real responsibilities for some visible sovereignty. The second method was outright conquest or annexation; and these areas were called the British India. Despite their best efforts, many Hindu and Muslim rulers eventually lost their territories like Mysore (1799), the Maratha Confederacy (1818) and Punjab (1849). Finally, Lord Dalhousie brought about a "doctrine of lapse" by which if a ruler had no heir, his territory would automatically go to the British. The Company annexed the estates of deceased princes of Satara (1848), Udaipur (1852), , Jhansi (1853), Tanjore (1853), Nagpur (1854) and Oudh (1856) under this doctrine. In hindsight, it appears incredible how successfully the Company managed to manipulate the Indian rulers one by one.
By now the Indians were also getting restive and this anger came out in the form of civil war or the sepoy mutiny (1857). The annexation of states, harsh revenue policies and famine in Bengal, which killed one-sixth of population, caused the unrest. Some believed that the Company was planning to replace the local princes. The leader of the Marathas, Nana Sahib, was denied his titles in 1853 and his pension was stopped. The last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadar Shah Zafar II, was told that he would be the last of his dynasty. The British had also abolished child marriage and sati which was not liked. Some believed that the British intended to convert them to Christinanity. There was also a rumor of a prophecy that the Company’s rule would end after 100 years. Plassey was in 1757. The most famous reason was the use of cow and pig fat in Patten Enfield rifle cartridges which had to be peeled off by mouth.
In 1857, Company had 34000 British of all ranks in the army and 257,000 local sepoys. First the Bengali units in Meerut mutinied. It is said that the town prostitutes made fun of their manhood and when goaded, they went to the prison and released some chained sepoys. Then they attacked the European cantonment where they killed all Europeans and any Indian Christians they could find. This included all women and children from master to the servant. Then they burned the houses and marched towards Dehli. Next day in Delhi, they were joined by others from the local bazaar. They attacked the Red Fort, killed five British including a British officer and two women; and demanded Bahadar Shah Zafar to reclaim his throne who reluctantly agreed to became the nominal leader of the rebellion. Then the sepoys proceeded to kill every European and Christian in the city.
In Kanpur, Nana Sahib promised free passage to Gen. Wheeler. When the British sat in the boats, the boatmen jumped off and all the British were massacred. Some British women and children who were left behind were put into a Bibi Ghar where the mob came with knives and hatchets to cut them to pieces. The civil war was limited to the area of Bengal and North India. Common Indians joined the sepoys to restore both the Moghul and the Maratha rulers. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, which had been annexed by the British, led a strong rebellion. There were calls for jihad by some leaders like Ahmedullah Shah. But there was no unified leadership to lead the war. Many Indians supported the British as well. The Sikhs did not like the idea of returning back to the Mughal rule. Sikh and Pathan units from the Punjab and North West Frontier suppported the British. These supporters proved to be crucial to the eventual victory of the British. In Oudh, Sunni Muslims did not want to see a return to Shiite rule so they refused to join what they thought to be a Shia rebellion. Most of the south of India remained passive and unconcerned.
The British were slow at first but eventually they proceeded towards Delhi; and fought, killed and hanged numerous Indians along the way. The British fought the main army of the rebels near Delhi in Badl-ke-Serai and drove them back to Delhi. The British established a base on the Delhi ridge to the north of the city and the siege began. However, their encirclement was not effective since the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. Then the British were joined by the Punjab Movable Column of Sikh soldiers and elements of Gurkha Brigade. Eventually they broke through the Kashmiri gate and a week of street fighting began. When the British reached the Red Fort, Bahadur Shah had already fled to Humayun’s tomb. The British retook Dehli. They arrested Bahadur Shah; and next day British officer William Hodson shot his sons Mirza Moghul, Mirza Khizr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr by his own hands. Their heads were presented to their father the next day.
The retaliation of the British was violent and without mercy. Whole villages were wiped out for just pro-rebel sympathies. The British adopted the old Mughal punishment by lashing the rebels to the mouth of cannons and blowing them to bits. The Indians were called and made to lick the blood off the walls of the women and childeren massacred in Bibi Ghar. Gwaliar and Lucknow were last to be recaptured. It was the crudest war India had seen in a long time and both sides resorted to worst kind of barbarism. The Indians called it ’Devil’s Wind’.
After the war, the British Crown took over India and East India Company was disbanded. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India. The Viceroy of India cancelled the ’doctrine of lapse’; and about 40 percent of Indian territory and 25 percent of the population remained under the control of 562 princes of all religions (Islamic,Sikh, Hindu, Others). By 1910s, the British reluctantly began to employ the Indians into the officer cadre.
After the civil war, the British attitude changed from relaxed openness to aloofness even for the Indians of comparable standing and stature. The British families and their servants began to live in cantonments at a distance from the Indian settlements. Private clubs where the British gathered for social interaction became symbols of exclusivity and snobbery that has still not disappeared from South Asia. Some other aspects of the life style like the stiff-necked Brown Saab, whisky-soda, hill stations etc also continue. The British perceptions of India changed from general appreciation to condemnation of India’s past achievements, its heritage and customs. The next 90 years of the rule by the ’Saab Bahadar’ of the Raj saw modernization of India in terms of railways, telegraph, canals, colleges and transplanting of some aspects of the British Government system. Queen Victoria promised an equal treatment under the British law but the Indian mistrust was now deep. Denial of equal status to Indians became a trigger for the formation of the Indian Political parties (Indian National Congress). The Indian National Congress (1885) was initially loyal to the Empire but asked for increased self-government in 1905 and, by 1930, was asking for an independence. Muslim Leauge was another party that came up later.
The day the British accepted separate elecotrorate system in India, a foundation had been laid for the partition. The British left leaving behind a divided India embroiled in its own conflicts.
And soon everyone forgot about the Raj which had exploited South Asia for nearly 350 years.
(a) To what extent, did the Mughals rule (400 years) benefit South Asia? The Mughals came as run-of-mill conquerors and decided to settle down. They did introduce a Turko-Persian culture and life style with a new language (Persian), architecture and literature. Todar Mal, during the Akbar’s reign, devised a revenue system that is still in vouge. But the Mughals miserably failed to connect the 4000 year old knowledge-based heritage of India with the European Industrial revolution of the time. The Mughals were also not able inter-faith managers. They did not do much for the common man.
(b) To what extent did the British presence/rule (350 years) benefit South Asia? The British came to India for commercial reasons. They left India when they could not afford to keep it. They discarded the Indian heritage and attempted to replace it with the European technology and sytems. Their effort for modernization (railways, telegraph, canals, cantonements etc) were more for commercial and security reasons rather than any love for India. Their failing is that they left India at the level of baboos, petty bureacracy, lawyers and engineers before the European culture of high learning (reseacrh etc) could be introduced. They also did not do much for a common man.