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'Facebook, Google are like East India Company'

By SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF
January 17, 2020 14:27 IST

'Facebook and Google no longer need to have infantry regiments and cavalry like the East India Company because they are inside everyone's phones listening to our conversations.'

IMAGE: An East India Company ship. Inset: The East India Company logo. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Historian William Dalrymple is an authority on the history of Mughals as attested to by his well-known books, The Last Mughal and The White Mughals.

Another Dalrymple bestseller is Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan in which he gives the first account of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42.

His latest book, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of Empire, talks about the birth and rise of the rapacious East India Company.

"The East India Company never pretended to rule for the benefit of Indians, it ruled to benefit its shareholders," Dalrymple tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

Samir Jain, vice-chairman of The Times of India group, was once quoted as saying that if he was prime minister of India he would ban the study of history.
Your books sell in good numbers, so one wonders how can Indians today have such interest in the history of the East India Company after 70 years after Independence?

(Laughs). Everyone has been told in school textbooks that it was the British with capital 'B' who conquered India, but it wasn't.

It was the East India Company which was far more sinister than a nation-State.

The East India Company as a corporation existed for the profit of its shareholders.

Stressing the self-evident truth has appeal because this book is still a number one book to be sold months after it was released.

I am very thrilled at how well it has been received in India.

After 1739 Nadir Shah plundered Delhi. In 1761 Ahmed Shah Abdali won the Third Battle of Panipat.
You have quoted poet Mir Taqi Mir describing how Sikhs, Marathas and every other community was creating a ruckus in Indian society.
In such a scenario, don't you think it was only the East India Company which brought some kind of order into a chaotic Indian society?

You can certainly argue that, but the East India Company existed to give profits to its shareholders.

It had no pretence as the crown used to give out later that it existed to bring about civilisation, to bring in order.

The East India Company never pretended to rule for the benefit of Indians, it ruled to benefit its shareholders, which is a crucial distinction.

It may have brought about order and certainly united India, but it did not do that for the benefit of Indians, but for the benefit of itself.

You write in your book that India became a military market post the Third Battle of Panipat. What did you mean by it? That all Hindu castes start participating in wars, which that was not the case earlier?

I don't think it was the Third Battle of Panipat that created a military market as it was there in some form from antiquity.

There were always people who were up for hire and many people who would take up arms during winter when they were not engaged in agriculture.

There is no question that in the 18th century, as the Mughal empire broke up post Aurangzeb's death, the military market expanded.

There were all these competing states. Everyone was militarised and everyone was armed.

I don't think India became a military market post the Battle of Panipat as that happened 60 years earlier, after Aurangzeb's death.

The East India Company used to pay four times more salary to its soldiers than Tipu Sultan or any other Indian ruler. Can we then come to the conclusion, as historian Burton Stein put it, that the conquest of India was bought rather than fought?

I think that is absolutely right.

There are two things that gave a military edge to the East India Company.

One was military tactics which gave an edge to the company between 1740 and 1780.

But after that it was the fact that they had good finances as people were investing in London and India.

The issue of company bonds and also the fact that the company had seized Bengal, which was the richest province (made the company financially well-off).

Just like Bengal had financed Mughal operations, now it financed the company's operations.

Why did Muslim landholding families not become zamindars after Lord Cornwallis brought in the Permanent Settlement Act in 1793? How did a new class of Hindu Bengalis emerge as traders and bankers?

Because those were the financial classes, just as they are today.

The old landholding classes did not have ready cash.

This is true even today as those who deal in money have money.

If you are in a situation today where land is put up for competitive auction, obviously the financiers will be able to outbid anyone else.

Today, if you put up land for auction in Bombay (Mumbai), you will see Marwaris and moneylenders would have the first highest bids.

In the 1770s, after the East Indian Company started ruling Bengal, there was a terrible famine. Still, the company's revenues later rose to Rs 25 million compared to the Malwa region whose revenue was only Rs 2 million.
How was Bengal producing so much wealth when other parts of India were failing?

Bengal was the richest province in terms of agriculture.

It had the richest soil and two harvests a year.

Also, they had weavers.

The weaving industry produced money more than anything else and there were one million weavers in Bengal.

They produced the greatest textiles in the world.

Why did the Marathas never sit on the Delhi throne in spite of the fact that they placed Mughal kings on the throne many times between the 1730s and 1800? Why didn't they rule from Delhi?

Because the Mughals had such prestige, today we see the Marathas through the eyes of modern patriots and nationalists.

We see them as great heroes.

As far as they (Marathas) were concerned, they emerged from plough lands and from fields.

Faced with the Mughals, who had the aura of legitimacy although we don't think of that today, in the eyes of the 18th century they were the legitimate rulers of Hindustan.

Marathas as clever politicians decided to rule through them rather than rule against them.

Why did Indians, and especially Mughal rulers, lose out in terms of military inventions post Aurangzeb?
Why did India never get someone like Frederick the Great who revolutionised the military inventions of Europe?

Frederick the Great was a great military genius who created a military revolution and that can happen in any given situation.

Normally, just like the Second World War produced enormous military innovations in a million ways like radar, guided missiles, long distance missiles and carpet bombing, all these things were invented in the course of intense warfare.

So the two big battles in the early 18th century -- the war of Austrian succession and Spanish succession -- had the same effect that time (in Europe).

What was the currency that was paid to Indian soldiers by the East Indian Company vis-a-vis other Indian rulers? How did currency exchange take place?

Every ruler had their own currency.

Tipu Sultan minted his own rupees.

The Company also minted its own rupees.

Initially, the Company coins in the South were modelled on Vijayanagar empire coinage.

They had Hindu deities on the back of the coins initially.

In the north they were modeled on Mughal coinage.

Right up till 1832, the East India Company coins had the name of Mughal rulers on it.

Men like Ghulam Qadir raped Mughal women and paraded them naked. The same kind of atrocities were committed by other Indian rulers after military victory.
You don't see the East India Company raping women and destroying temples and mosques in India?

Brutality and the looting of Srirangapatna (by the East India Company) would have equalled anything that Ahmed Shah Abdali did.

Maybe not, we don't have details of the ghastly horrors like the way we know of Ghulam Qadir straddling Mughal emperor Shah Alam and plucking his eyes out.

That horror took place at Srirangapatna and other fallen cities, there is no doubt.

Is it true that India's contribution to world GDP was 25 per cent under Mughal rule and after the East India Company started ruling India that figure fell to just 2 per cent?

It is true.

The complicating factor is that Indian exports continued to rise until the 1830s and it does not mean that the Indian economy was contracting.

It was the amount that was being taken off from India and sent to England as profits.

The Indian economy continued to boom under the East India Company, but the profits were no longer staying in India, they were being exported.

China has blocked e-commerce giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. They seem to have learnt their lesson after the opium wars, but India's market has been captured by American companies.
Do you see any similarity between the East India Company and these Internet giants?

That is the point of my book.

My book is a warning about the power of corporate institutions.

You can argue that Facebook and Google no longer need to have infantry regiments and cavalry like the East India Company because they are inside everyone's phones listening to our conversations.

You will find adverts of the East India Company in your social media feed tomorrow morning, having discussed them with me (laughs).

SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com in Mumbai
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