Neoliberalism and corporate plunder of India (Part 1/2)

Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is about the East India Company, its strategies, artifice, grand corruption, and the consequences of unbridled corporate greed; an account acutely relevant today.

The cavernous Roundhouse Theatre at UNSW was full beyond capacity last October. Many of the faces looked Indian. An energised William Dalrymple, clearly enjoying himself, was launching “The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company.” He was rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation and the queue for his signature was so long it blocked the exits. The book was an immediate hit, selling 100,000 copies right after launch.

It was a subject certain to be controversial in the Anglosphere. To cater for local sensibilities, the British edition had a different cover of four standing soldiers and the title “The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company”, while the Indian cover had a picture of conflict and the title “The Anarchy: The East India Company. Corporate Violence, And The Pillage of Empire”.

Who better to traverse this controversy than Scottish-born Dalrymple, author of multiple works on India, who now calls Delhi home for most of each year. The Anarchy has several layers. It can be read as a telling of history, or as a remediation of romantic historical myths, perhaps as an eye-opener for the growing ranks of Hindu nationalists, and finally as a warning to the world about what is now called neoliberalism.

Why “anarchy”? Dalrymple: “Anarchy is the old phrase for the period after the breakup of the Mogul empire. It comes through Persian from Darab Khan and then to Urdu and then to French and English where they talk about the age of anarchy.”

The historical story is simple. The Anarchy is a 550-page account of how a tiny English company in the early 17th Century rose over 250 years to 1857, to rule that vast country that now includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and much of Afghanistan.

The East India Company (EIC) was given an exclusive charter by the crown to trade in Asia, and to quash competitors by whatever means necessary, even if it meant waging war, which it did most effectively.

Along the way, it corrupted everything. English parliamentarians were bribed, owned shares in the company, so the crown used its economic and military resources to protect the company. When the EIC got into financial difficulties, the crown bailed it out. In India, it bribed, coerced and waged war on anyone in the way.

“For the Company always had two targets in its sights: one was the lands where its business was conducted; but the other was the country that gave it birth, as its lawyers and lobbyists and MP shareholders slowly and subtly worked to influence and subvert the legislation of Parliament in its favour. Indeed, the East India Company probably invented corporate lobbying,” Dalrymple wrote.

India was looted, which incidentally was a Hindustani word. When the EIC started its rampage, India had a third of world GDP, roughly the same as China, while Britain accounted for 3%. By the end of the EIC era, when its assets in India were finally nationalised by the crown ushering in the era of the Raj, the GDP numbers had been inverted. India had 3%. The EIC, even as it was wound up, left India a corpse, the title of chapter 9.

Dalrymple pays much attention to the half decade from 1756, during which the EIC plundered Bengal. “The entire contents of the Bengal treasury were simply loaded into one hundred boats and floated down the Ganges from the Nawab of Bengal’s palace in Murshidabad to Fort William, the Company’s Calcutta headquarters”.

A famine in Bengal was made worse by company officers who bought up all the rice and then resold at extortionate prices. One in five in Bengal perished. The company allowed no tax relief during the famine and those who failed to pay were hanged.

Myths dismantled

In both Britain and India, stories of EIC brutality have been largely untold in the history books, as were stories of collaboration by bankers and various treacherous individuals in India in assisting the EIC plunder. As the book showed, Indian money-lenders happily lent large sums to the company to build an army of 200,000 Indian Sepoys to conquer the country.

According to Dalrymple, “the Victorians were strongly embarrassed about the shady, brutal and mercantile way the British had founded the Raj. They preferred not to remember the economics of corrupt corporations. Moreover, they liked to think of the empire as a mission civilisatrice: a benign national transfer of knowledge, railways and the arts of civilisation from West to East, and there was a calculated and deliberate amnesia about the corporate looting that opened British rule in India.”

The Daily Times, Lahore, wrote: “When we were at school, our text books on ‘British Rule in India’ described the British colonialists as our saviours, who introduced new reforms in agriculture by bringing large tracts of barren lands into productive fields yielding good crops and vegetables for consumption of local population. The actual activities of the Company were even then shrouded in mystery and there was hardly any mention of the steps taken by the Colonists to exploit the resources of India for their own use. For several decades, the British have continued to insist that they were not merely benign, but actually enlightened colonizers.”

Another myth was that India was in shambles when the EIC arrived. Dalrymple disposes of that, saying to India’s The Telegraph that before the EIC, the Mughal rulers made for a gigantic industrial power under whom the textile industry flourished to unparalleled heights. It was the export of Mughal textiles that earned all the plentiful riches for Mughal India.

Legacy: Spread of corporate culture

Dalrymple told the Sydney Morning Herald that many individuals associated with the East India Company moved to colonial Australia after their time in India. One of them was the influential NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie, who fought in several East India Company military campaigns in the late 1700s before his arrival in Australia. “My impression is that people are only now waking to the degree to which the story of Australia and the story of the company are closely linked,” he said.

Stamford Raffles, who founded modern Singapore, was a clerk in the EIC. William Jardine, who would co-found a firm that led the opium trade with China, first worked as an EIC ship’s surgeon.

Part 2: More legacy: Rise of Hindu nationalism and neoliberalism.

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John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.

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