William Dalrymple Agrees With Amit Shah’s Push to Rewrite History, But There's a Twist
Historian and author William Dalrymple speaks to News18 on his new book that traces the history of the East India Company, and the influences and lessons it left for modern-day India.
Author William Dalrymple. (News18)
William Dalrymple’s latest 576-page energetic page-turner The Anarchy, which recounts the rise of the world’s first Multi National Corporation – The East India Company – in the turbulent political landscape of late Mughal India, is already a bestseller. The historian and author was in Kolkata for the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet for the launch of his book where spoke exclusively to News18.
The Anarchy is not just the story of the East India Company, but its evolution from being a trading company to a political and military power in India. Why did you write the book now and why should people read it?
It’s been my most successful book ever. It has sold a hundred thousand copies — something I had never dreamt of before. So it has certainly struck a chord with the readers for various reasons that are not clear to me. I think the anxieties about large corporations and the power they wield seemed to have surfaced exactly at the moment I produced the book.
I started it six years ago with no particular plans. It is this incredible and improbable story of how one English business took over the Mughal Empire. Both in Britain and in India today, the Company has been associated with Britain. But it wasn’t the British as such, it wasn’t the British government out of Downing Street who first conquered Bengal and then the rest of India. It was one corporation.
At the time the company was founded, Britain controlled only about 3 per cent of world GDP while the Mughal Empire contributed about 37 per cent. In other words, over a third of the world’s industrial power came out of India. It had just overtaken China for the first time in history as the world’s leading industrial producer. And somehow, in as little as fifty years between 1756 to 1803, one British company, with never more than 2,000 ‘goras’ sitting in Bengal, managed to train up 200,000 Indian sepoys paid for by Marwari and Hindu bankers to conquer the rest of India.
It started with the Jagat Seths of India…
Jagat Seth [a prominent money-lending family from Bengal’s Murshidabad] is incredibly important to this story. I think text books in India still blame Mir Zafar [who betrayed the Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah during the Battle of Plassey] as the ultimate betrayer of India. But he was just a puppet of the Jagat Seths, as was [Robert] Clive. They were both paid by the Jagat Seths to perform the coup. And, of course, it went horribly wrong. It ended up with the company being in charge rather than Mir Zafar.
When you are talking about a corporation like the East India Company, is it in essence the microcosm of the large corporations that we see in the world today?
It is the embryo. It is the seed from which large multinational corporations around the world sprung. The East India Company is not the first joint stock company, it was probably the fourth. But it was the first one to encompass the globe. By the 1780s it had taken most of Bengal and eastern India. It was growing opium and selling it to China in an illegal narcotics operation. From China it was buying tea which it sold in India, Europe and in America. It was the East India Company tea that was dumped in Boston harbour.
So this is the origin of the great multinationals we admire, but also fear today. If you look around us, the way these huge corporations are listening to what we do, the capitalism of Google and Facebook — these are real contemporary issues. And you see for the first time a corporation bribing a Parliament, destroying and stripping whole nations of assets. The East India Company was the origin of all this.
So, as a chronicler and as a story teller what is the dominant sentiment in you about these corporations? Is it admiration or is it fear?
Obviously, most people today work in some sort of company which generates profits and gives the livelihoods and pays most of our salaries. But what happens when corporations are unregulated and escape the power of the state? Just like we need laws to control human beings to stop them from murdering, looting and killing, we need laws which can control multinational corporations. The difficulty is, MNCs like East India Company transcend legal boundaries and are often richer than entire states.
And do they bend the laws, you say?
They cannot only bend the laws, they can make the laws. They can bribe them [those who make laws]. The 20th century is full of examples, like the Anglo- Persian oil company bringing about coup in Iran or United Fruit leading to the collapse of the government in Guatemala, thereby coining the phrase “Banana Republic”. So corporations can destroy whole nations just as they can provide prosperity.
There have been statements from the Home Minister [Amit Shah] of the country no less, saying that the history of India needs to be re-written from the Indian perspective. Do you have a stand or say on that? Have you thought about it?
I don’t often find myself agreeing with Amit Shah, but here I actually think that it’s the job of every generation to rewrite history on the basis of their perception. Let me give an example. There is a very important moment in this book where the East India Company nearly goes bankrupt. Thirty banks go over like dominoes. The previous generations had never seen anything like that, and because the company was eventually bailed out, no one really commented on it.
But it’s so like the sub-prime collapses of ten years ago [the 2008-09 financial crisis] that when we read that history today, it screams out at us for attention. This is something so contemporary and so familiar that the government has to intervene to bail out a failing corporate. I suppose the similarities here might be the Indian banks.
So, each generation should re-write history although I don’t think the kind of history re-writing I have in mind is the same as what Amit Shah has in mind (laughs). But it’s certainly true that a lot of Indian history has been written by outsiders over the years and I for one try and get into my history as many Indian voices as I can. I’ve spent five years trailing provincial libraries from Patna and Tonk to Rampur, digging out manuscripts from the National Archives in India and the British Library getting the Mughal side of it. I think most of the new work in this book is the story of Shah Alam and the tragic tale of the Mughal Emperor.
These uncanny resemblances that you find in the 18th century and 19th century India with the 21st century, it’s like history coming full circle. But what lessons should we take from the past considering the fact that probably India is walking down the same path once again?
Edmund Burke said during the impeachment of Warren Hastings that history never repeats itself, but those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. I think the most important lessons we can learn from the Company are of regulating multinationals by transparency, about campaign donations and the control of those. And a much grander figure than myself, Raghuram Rajan, made the same point when he said we are in danger. In the 60s and 70s we had crony socialism and now we are in great danger of replacing it with crony capitalism.
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