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The Anarchy by William Dalrymple – Part II


In Part-1 of this article, we set up the contours for the review of a Historical account in terms of certain parameters and questions. In Part-2, we shall develop a perspective of those narratives by answering those questions. We shall do so by examining the narrative schema presented in the book through its specific elements and important characters.

The Narrative

Dalrymple presents five important narratives in the book. The first narrative is the transformation of East India Company from its humble beginnings to an Empire, in the guise of a Multinational Corporation, with India as its focus.

This is the larger narrative of the book and the outer shell. This is the conscious story that readers too will experience and perceive as reading. However, Dalrymple is a master craftsman. He has woven very important undercurrent narratives into the larger narrative – the Mughal narrative, the Mughal subordinate narrative, the Tipu Sultan narrative, and Maratha narrative. There are elements in these narratives that subtly enter our minds, that the civilization gets misrepresented.

The book depicts the evolution of the East India Company and is fundamentally a Historical thriller. It presents the Company as an ambitious, wealth hungry, ruthless, insensitive, exploiting organization. At the same time, it is strategic, highly capable, continuously evolving in all aspects, innovating, risk-taking, and a creator of the modern world.

It is a mesmerizing account. In addition, it provides a glimpse of British politics and the Parliament in a minimal way. Dalrymple largely weaves this narrative through the journey & characterization of the apex leaders of EIC – Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Cornwallis, and the Wellesley’s.

This is preceded by the portrayal of the painstaking growth of EIC from 1602 to 1740, through the efforts of many people starting from Sir Thomas Roe. This part of the narrative is interesting and intriguing. It navigates through a series of chances, initiatives, ambitious moves, brilliant thinking, and bravery of the early EIC men. Of course, Providence plays a role in its ascendency which is well depicted.

The Mughal narrative is fundamentally centred around Shah Alam. Dalrymple reserves his best writing skills to present a crumbling Mughal empire to draw sympathy of the readers. Dalrymple does not go into the Mughal past beyond a point. He does not sufficiently dig reasons for its crumbling power. EIC came to India during Jahangir – 1602 and began establishing by 1615. They lived through the entire durations of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

Yet, the narrative only focuses on the EIC ascendency and weaves the Mughals minimally into it. It fails to provide a deeper account of the Mughal rule in this period. On the other hand, Shah Alam is presented with enormous sympathy, sensitivity and fullness through those deteriorating times.

Nevertheless, the system of Mughals emerges as one of grandeur, orderly, bringing prosperity, efficiency and without conflict with the Hindu society but crumbling towards the end. If anything, any number of syncretism examples are provided insufficient measure. It seems providential that later rulers were weak and hence it crumbled. The Afghan narrative is a sub-narrative weaved into the Mughal narrative.

It is the Mughal subordinate narrative that is colourfully presented. Dalrymple packs enormous research detail in presenting this world. This is the part of history that academics know but the larger society does not. It is presented through Nawabs Alivardi Khan, his grandson Siraj Ud Daulah, Mir Qasim, Mir Jafar, Mir Qasim and Shuja-Ud-Daulah.

They are largely presented as well-governing, efficient, but cruel when required, haughty but pragmatic, interesting and colourful characters. Siraj Ud Daulah alone is an exception and we shall see why that is so. There are important sub narratives woven within this account. The financial ecosystem of India represented by the Merchants and Merchant Bankers is one. It also contains a brief account of the emergence of Kolkata which can be considered as the Bengal economy sub narrative.

The Tipu Sultan narrative is the smallest of all narratives but most filled with passion and intensity. Tipu and his father Haidar emerge as enterprising, ambitious, hard working, very smart, daring, far sighted as well as efficient in governance. The British looked at them with awe and hatred at once. Their shortcomings and cruelty are recorded as minor aberrations and a footnote in the larger narrative. The Nizam of Hyderabad narrative is woven into it as a Sub Narrative.

Finally, and sadly, the Maratha narrative is presented towards the end of the book. It remains a shadow narrative for long within the Tipu narrative, finally assuming a somewhat larger narrative.

The EIC secures its absolute domination of India by defeating the Marathas. The Marathas come across military geniuses but without any other substantial merit. They are presented as opportunistic but limited in vision.

In the subsequent sections, we shall explore each of these in a greater detail through its characters.

The Governors of the EIC

The most impactful accounts of the book belong to the Governors of the EIC – Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Cornwallis and Wellesley. Naturally so, as it is through them that the EIC emerged as a Corporate Empire. They are presented with their attributes on both sides. Nevertheless, basic politics is well taken care of.

Dalrymple has made his best efforts to present himself as condemning and criticizing the British EIC. There is a laughable epilogue where Dalrymple indulges in absolute criticism of the EIC in words that do not fit into a historical account. There is a ridiculous reference to a 2015 Raghuram Rajan speech as well that serves some current politics as well.

The book begins with the origins of the word loot in English. A common thread throughout the book is how the wealth of India was looted by the British through its Governor Generals, its systems and their policies. Clive achieves that through uncouth deceit, crude manipulation, barbaric exploitation and sheer ruthlessness. Warren Hastings starts as a sensitive administrator but gives into the exploitative system of the EIC.

Cornwallis elevates this by establishing a highly exploitative administration setup. Wellesley finally nails the coffin by strengthening the administrative setup, unleashing his military genius and through his vision of an Empire. Fundamentally, the exploitative system moves from the initiative of the individuals towards an absolute system. Dalrymple has been faithful to this account as much it necessitates – which is quite undeniable.

Yet, within this larger narrative, Dalrymple packs a subtle appreciation for the efficiency and enterprise of the EIC. The administrative and achievement-oriented capabilities of each of the Officers comes out in full measure whether it is military, revenue, law & order or strategy. In that, the book oscillates between appreciation and criticism.

There is nothing wrong in recognizing both aspects. But Dalrymple misses a key perspective. The system of organization that the EIC envisioned fundamentally became necessary only for the purpose of exploitation. It was a diversity killing organization. Hence, such a system does not deserve to be looked at with a sense of wonder.

They must be viewed from within the context in which it emerged. There is also an excessive focus on economic destruction leaving other spheres of life untouched. One may argue that the larger destruction was in the socio-cultural sphere that established a thriving economy. Dalrymple steers clear of that uncomfortable universe.

To an extent, Dalrymple does justice to Robert Clive and Warren Hastings. Criticizing Robert Clive is an imperative and it is less costly for Dalrymple. He does that generously and in that process brings out the best of his writing. He crafts the emergence of a person from less privileged origins to one creating a promising future for both himself and the EIC through his dynamism and power-wielding abilities.

However, Clive overrides himself through greed, corruption, overambition, cruelty, self-centredness, and arrogance and brings his own downfall. That he brought his life to an early and gory end by suicide seems very Karmic. Conscience does indeed hurt one may say. The story of Warren Hastings, on the other hand, stands in complete contrast in terms of his personality. Hastings emerges as sensitive, benevolent, and people-oriented but succumbing to the power politics of EIC and paying a very huge price. He is tragically impeached for crimes that were not his.

Fundamentally, they are two different but typical tragedies that are common play in power politics. There is no fresh insight in these stories but they are moving accounts. They are a nice aside but integral to the larger narrative and makes the book interesting. They provide sufficient cushion around which other narratives push themselves through.

The most unabashed criticism of the EIC comes through in its handling of the famine of 1770. The blame is clearly laid on the exploitative system in addition to the insensitivity with which it handled the calamity.

Dalrymple clearly acknowledges that for long times before the EIC Indian regions did not suffer such a famine in spite of lack of rains. He subtly lays the blame on the destruction of the erstwhile social and political welfare fabric brought about by the EIC business and administrative initiatives.

The Hindu governor of Mughals in Bihar handles the same famine better through his initiatives. It is sighted as an instance of sensitivity that the EIC lacked. However, there is a subtle manipulation here too.

The Maratha governed regions did not suffer the same consequence and their surplus helped Bihar navigate the crisis. Dalrymple does not elaborate on this aspect. He does not go beyond minimal criticism of the EIC. The investigation of how the Northern provinces controlled by Marathas escaped the calamity, the social and political organization behind it, go without any mention and dissection. This is among the glaring omissions of this book in terms of the narratives it presents.

The Mughal Nawabs

The most intensely historical narrative in this book is that of the Mughal Nawabs – Aliverdi Khan, Siraj Ud Daulah, Mir Jaffer, Mir Qasim and Shuja Ud Daulah. These accounts are presented with painstaking detail and passion.

Aliverdi Khan emerges as one who sustained the prosperity of Bengal during the crumbling times of the Mughal power. There is an unabashed appreciation for his efficiency, governance, people orientedness and farsight. At the same time, Siraj Ud Daulah’s arrogance, stupidity, rashness, cruelty and lack of perspective is presented in the same unabashed manner.

It’s quite ironic that school textbooks present Siraj almost as an honorable freedom fighter and his death as most unfortunate. In reality, Siraj’s rule would have been one of the most cruel rules if he were to emerge victorious. Dalrymple leaves no sympathy for Siraj while portraying his tragic end. Yet, it proved to be a turning point for the larger country and that cannot be denied.

Mir Jaffer, Mir Qasim and Shuja Ud Daulah are presented in their great mix. There is a painstaking effort to present them as mere products of their time. The ruthlessness of Mir Qasim is presented in the backdrop of heavy colonial assault rather than as a flaw within his ecosystem and personality.

Mir Jaffer’s incompetence draws sympathy through its matter of factly portrayal. Shuja is presented as an epitome of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. His final compromise with the British is presented nonchalantly in the background of the British genius in crafting the right strategy for the consolidation of their own powers. Any ethical, moral, substantial evaluation on the negative side is completely avoided both explicitly and subtly.

This entire section is remarkable by the presence of two hidden agenda narratives. Great eulogies are paid to the richness and splendor of Bengal as an outcome of Mughal innovation and enterprise. No opportunity is left to emphasize this. The narrative completely ignores the region’s own geographical richness. There is no attempt made to go deep into local factors of enterprise. The artisans and craftsmen of Bengal find a scarce presence.

The second narrative is far more sinister. It is the portrayal of the emergence of the EIC as a consequence of their collaboration with the Hindu Bankers starting from Jagat Seths. The Seths narrative is very cunningly crafted. It merely appears and goes as part of their EIC collaboration and the subsequent murder at the hands of Mir Qasim.

Their conflict with Siraj is presented as a matter of fact. However, their collaboration with Clive gets extrapolated as the real reason for the emergence of the EIC and the subsequent sustenance. A perspective from the stand-point of Seths is completely absent in this conflict. This is politics in the guise of history – very smartly done.

The Mughals

The singular space for Mughals is occupied by emperor Shah Alam. Shah Alam is presented as a highly cultured, erudite, artistic, sensitive but unfortunate emperor. In those pages, one wonders if this is a historical account or a human account or even a novel or a defense of Shah Alam’s failure. The restraint that is found in other accounts is completely absent. Dalrymple’s sympathy and desperation for an honorable portrayal is quite evident.

Clearly, this is part of a larger concern for Dalrymple to present a more glorious picture of the Mughals. While the cruelty of other Nawabs is portrayed in a held-back manner, any cruelty on Shah Alam, from within his ecosystem, is presented with graphic detail. One wonders if the intention is to create great sympathy for Shah Alam in the minds of readers. The subtext here is that Shah Alam was the result of centuries-old Mughal culture.

In his portrayal, Dalrymple seeks to vindicate and whitewash Mughal excesses starting from the times of Jahangir through Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. The real reason for a subdued presentation of the EIC times through Jahangir to Aurangzeb lies in the need to peddle this narrative. Even in the portrayal of his weaknesses and failures, Shah Alam is elevated as a tragic hero rather an incompetent ruler. What more, in their failure to protect Shah Alam, Marathas get painted negatively. When others indulge in such opportunism it is presented as shrewdness.

Hyder Ali Khan and Tipu Sultan

In comparison to Shah Alam, Tipu and Hyder do not get as many pages. However, it is compensated by the intensity of portrayal by the author. The accounts of Tipu and Hyder are written with a great sense of tragedy, in particular – Tipu Sultan. Dalrymple marks the enterprise and farsightedness of Hyder Ali quite rightly.

Hyder was not known for religious bigotry as much although he was known for his cruelty. Hyder’s cruelty too is completely absent in the book. In comparison, his daring abilities and appreciation of ground reality are presented with detail and patronage. On the other hand, any opportunity to portray the negatives of Marathas in terms of cruelty is not missed.

It is in Tipu’s portrayal, that Dalrymple becomes unabashedly manipulative. Tipu Sultan at best is an enigmatic combination of positives and negatives. Tipu’s diary consisting of his Dreams stands in absolute contrast with his performances on the ground in social and religious dimensions. Clearly a great warrior, strategist, enterprise builder and sharp mind he was – Tipu Sultan. He, along with his father, presented one of the most complex challenges to the EIC without doubt. If Dalrymple really wanted to portray only that dimension he could have done so. Instead, he goes on to carve Tipu as a tragic superhero who brought prosperity and good life to the region of Mysore.

The reality is that most South Indian Kings brought stability and prosperity to the region of Mysore. Throughout, Wodeyars distinguished themselves as benevolent rulers. Neither did enterprise and technology suffer at any point in time in Mysore.

While Tipu distinguished himself in his fight against the British, in the larger state of Mysore and beyond he was notorious as an oppressor. He indulged less in Srirangapatna alone. Further, it is his defeat at the hands of Cornwallis in 1792 that changed Tipu in seeking the support of Hindus. Not that Dalrymple is not aware of it. He does mention Tipu’s religious excess in Malabar and elsewhere. That is too much of known history for him to skip without being held guilty. He compensates for this through a manipulative narrative.

Dalrymple presents Tipu’s abilities with great pride failing to stand at a distance as a dispassionate author. He gently mentions Tipu’s crimes almost as a footnote. In the process, he ventures to portray Tipu as a great King who could have stopped EIC in its progress. Too bad that Marathas did not support him. On the contrary, Dalrymple finds Tipu’s initial reluctance to collaborate with Marathas as a mere flaw and not as influenced by his religious orientation.

Yet, when the Marathas join hands with EIC, Marathas do not get any margin – it is once again Tipu who emerges as a tragic hero. In addition, he dedicates few substantial pages for his virtues as an enterprise maker and military genius. Tipu wrote three letters during his final war seeking support.

Except in his letter to the Marathas, elsewhere there is a clear emphasis on his being a Muslim, the need to establish an Islamic state, a concern for the infidel rule and a definite seeking of a collaboration of the brotherhood. One can only imagine the consequences if Tipu had indeed won against the EIC.

Mahadji Scindia, Jaswant Rao Holkar and Tukoji Holkar

It is in his portrayal of the Marathas that Dalrymple demonstrates the highest bias. In spite of being the foremost power of the times in India, Marathas are nearly absent in the narrative until Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. They attain some flow from 1780 and gain prominence only after 1790. They earn exclusivity only in the last parts of the book.

This omission of the Marathas has robbed the book of a valuable dimension. The growth of EIC grew to prominence in Bengal and Madras in parallel with the developments in the Maratha world would have provided a larger picture of the subcontinent.

It is unlikely that the Marathas simply stood by the sides and watched. However, that would have gone against other political narratives the author intended to peddle. It is true that the Hindu deep past is without court chronicles. But Marathas certainly lived in times when contemporary scholars wrote chronicles. However, the book fails to add this dimension at all.

Maratha warfare too earns a grudging appreciation. While their military genius gets a nominal, passing mention, Maratha plundering is repeatedly mentioned with emphasis. Crimes of the Maratha army are presented almost on the same plane as other Mughal armies, which definitely is a manipulation.

The prosperity of Bengal under the Mughals gets a very special mention. Kolkata and Delhi earn a special mention in terms of their splendour and growth. The emergence of Pune, Gwalior, Indore, Varanasi under the Marathas do not even get a passing mention. They were as relevant as the narratives as Delhi and Kolkata but Dalrymple does not think so.

A war between the British and the Mughals was fought in Buxar because the rest of Hindustan was under the control of Marathas. The central provinces prospered under the rule of Marathas. The confederacy of Marathas was truly a political innovation of those times.

It ran parallel to the emergence of EIC. Yet, it does not draw any significant mention leave alone appreciation and deeper investigation. Compare this indifference to his lamentation at Tipu’s loss. Even a fraction of that for the Marathas would have elevated the book into a more wholesome historical account. It is a missed opportunity for us but a political purpose well served by Dalrymple.

The Larger Narrative of the Book

Essentially, this book is about the journey of East India Company. It must merely be read as that. It could also have been written as just that. However, Dalrymple chooses to weave in other political purposes through admirable craftsmanship.

The Mughals, Marathas, Tipu, Nawabs could have just come and gone out in a matter of fact manner through this journey. That would have given some more space to go deep into the EIC aspects. However, the ambition to transform this into a History of India that serves certain political purposes has bloated this account without sufficient balance.

The need to create a novel-like thriller to gain a larger readership has resulted in fiction in the guise of a historical account. Lastly, the necessity to serve his own political purposes and that of his fraternity has created a factually correct but intellectual dishonest account. Well, it is not even factually correct at all places.

As Author Aneesh Gokhale has pointed out in a twitter thread, Dalrymple has messed up with Maratha names, accounts, and reasons in at least one definite place. Political purposes have also resulted in inconsistent narratives such as that of Tipu Sultan.

As the title suggests, Dalrymple portrays the advent of EIC as a result of the Anarchy that prevailed in India in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, that Anarchy was only within the imperial Mughal quarters. Marathas were establishing themselves as a substantial force, Durrani’s attack notwithstanding.

Moreover, Political anarchy has never created a larger civilizational anarchy in the Indian subcontinent. The real reason for the EIC victory was their superior military warfare technology and a superior strategy. Further, it was necessitated by a desperation to exploit wealth and export it into their own country.

The Sultanate in India had the same wealth exploitation and cultural destruction mechanisms. There was no desperation to export wealth to other regions and that reduced tyranny. The socio-political machinery one establishes is always a function of the larger purpose. We cannot be in awe of the former and be in contempt of the latter.

The greatest manipulation is in the portrayal of Indian Merchants, Hindu in particular, as being hand in glove with the EIC and being the main reason for the EIC to emerge victorious. Indian society has always been organized as communities. Each community performs its functions without much concern about other communities.

Merchants have always remained neutral to political powers just as weavers, craftsmen and brahmins. From time immemorial, Kshatriyas have fought and the rest of the society has recognized the one who emerged victorious. This actually has shielded the society from the wrath emerging from the conflicts between ambitious Kshatriyas.

This narrative has remained the same in the first millennium and when the Sultanate emerged the Hindu society responded with the same political distance. In the later years, the religious onslaught from the Sultanate disturbed the society. But the larger approach of the society to the Kshatriya communities always remained the same. As the EIC emerged politically stronger, the Merchants and Bankers naturally sought security for their wealth through a collaboration with them.

There is no evidence to say that the exploitative nature of the EIC was any evident to the Merchants of India at that point in time. Dalrymple fails to investigate this dimension appropriately. Instead of presenting this in a matter of fact fashion, he seeks to insinuate a sinister collaboration. It is in this that he comes through as a political writer rather than a history writer.

In summary, what Dalrymple seeks to achieve through this book is to whitewash the Sultanate/Mughal excess, highlight their genius, portray the emergence of the EIC as a part consequence of the Hindu plan against Muslim rule. It is to lay a partial blame on the Hindu Ecosystems for their seeming collaboration with the EIC in order to uproot the Mughal Ecosystems. In this, the religious excess of the Mughal Ecosystem that created anarchy is completely dissolved.

Finally – Coming to the Critical Questions

In Part-1 of this article, we had presented a list of questions against which this book must be reviewed. Most of the questions have been answered in the above sections indirectly.

Fundamentally, the accounts that represent the concern of Hindu ecosystems of that time are largely absent in all the narratives. This is essentially a projection of the British accounts and Muslim Court Chronicles, with other narratives weaved into it very conveniently. For eg., in Tipu’s history, C Hayavadana Rao is completely absent. His accounts are relevant even if he belonged to a later date.

On the other hand, Kermani, a pro-Tipu historian, is very much present. The Maratha perspective is altogether absent in terms of their original sources. They are at the mercy of every other account and hence emerge as shabby as it can get in the book. In that, Dalrymple does a great disservice to a great force that left a mark on the subcontinent for more than a couple of centuries.

Similarly, a perspective of the Indian Merchants and Merchant Bankers, from an original account, is completely absent. In isolation, this would not have been a concern. However, in the light of severe aspersions cast on their role, this omission is unpardonable.

Fundamentally, Hindu India is a mere passive subject and footnote in this book. It is not an active participant and its perspective on the emergence of East India Company is completely lost.

The stated purpose of the book is to present the emergence of the East India Company. The unstated purpose is to blame the emergence on the incompetence of the subcontinent and a sinister plot of a section of Hindu India.

It also seeks to take Hindu India on a guilt trip by explicitly stating that the transfer of power from the Mughals to the British benefited the Hindus at the cost of Muslims.

This narrative does not sit well with the emergence of the Marathas and hence the Maratha narrative is suppressed and marginalized. The religious atrocity of the Mughal/Sultanate ecosystem is way too damaging for this narrative, hence it is altogether banished from the book.

A merely faithful account of the journey of East India Company would have still made a thrilling read. That would have been a great addition to the Intellectual world with integrity. Politics, of course, is always at loggerheads with intellectual integrity.


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