William Dalrymple's 'The Anarchy': Risky business and the company that never left
The book starts with the origin of the word loot, a slang word for plunder. It was imported into the English language while the East India Company and its officers pillaged—for more than 100 years—Bengal, Mysore, Deccan, Hyderabad, and finally Delhi, the seat of the Timurid dynasty in the vast Indian sub-continent. In The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (2019), William Dalrymple tells the gripping story of the Company's conquest of Mughal India for close to 50 years, using his fluid writing style and research from extensive travels and interviews. Dalrymple lives the history he writes.
One issue the book handles well is the legitimacy of power. When Shah Alam ascended to the musnad (throne) of Delhi in 1760, there were several regional military powers across India. Nadir Shah of Iran had already ravaged Delhi and taken away the Koh-i-Noor as his prize, leaving a financially, politically, and psychologically weakened Mughal Emperor. But he remained the legitimate ruler in the minds of his people. In 1765, the Company gained diwani, the right to collect taxes directly in the eastern province of Bengal-Bihar-Orissa, but had no responsibility for their welfare. Its officers made brutal use of this power to their benefit—within five years, this region faced a devastating famine causing an estimated 10 million to die.
The global power balance
By the mid-18th century, the Ottoman military fell behind the Habsburg and Russian empires. England, France, and other emerging European powers were competing against each other to set up trading posts and colonies in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and particularly the rich but fading Mughal Empire. They were full of vigour and vitality, hungry for adventures and exploration.
Dalrymple uses British military officer Robert Clive as a personification of this attitude, with "a willingness to take great risks and a breath-taking, aggressive audacity." While conventional Indian warfare was conducted in daylight with their commanders riding elephants or horses, Clive led daring charges on dark monsoon nights through mud fields or swamps, taking the enemy by surprise. The remaining Indian powers could only turn to the English Company or the French for any help, little realising that both had come to India with the same intention. Could a more unified India have defeated these European enemies? Such a reversal of the tide would only have been temporary. Mughal India was already on the wrong side of history.
The story that Dalrymple tells of these events is utterly gripping, and you never quite feel the length of the book. He writes about personal connections—three earlier Dalrymples, Stair, James, and Alexander who were directly involved at its different stages, and about other small but significant events to set a great tone for the narration. When both Mir Jafar and his son Miran wanted to marry Lutf un-Nissa, the most beautiful of Siraj's wives, after his death, she replied: "Having ridden an elephant before, I cannot now agree to ride an ass."
The rise of corporate greed
In 1773, the East India Company almost went bankrupt from its aggressive expansion strategy and incessant wars in India. But the Crown was obliged to bail it out with a massive loan of about 1.4 million pounds—equivalent to more than 140 million pounds today—because almost a quarter of the Members of the Parliament had stakes in it. Their argument at the time will sound familiar even today: the Company was 'too big to fail.' With only 35 odd employees at its head office in London, they conquered and ran a vast empire in India and shipped billions of pounds out of it with brutal efficiency.
Dalrymple argues that this corporate culture pioneered by the East India Company is still prevalent today, as demonstrated by state adventures in Iraq and elsewhere, paid for by taxpayers' money, to benefit only a few. The pillage continues. In 1767 the Company bought off the British Parliament to safeguard their diwani rights in Bengal. Present-day modern corporations operate in developing countries similarly, taking advantage of the weak governance and legal loopholes. A dangerous mix of power, money, and corruption controls the majority of the world economy even today.
Dr Sayeed Ahmed is a consulting engineer who writes on history, culture, and contemporary issues.