Tale of the great conquest

KP Agrawal’s magnum opus, British Takeover of India, documents the major treaties that were instrumental in India’s colonisation — exposing, in the process, the modus operandi adopted by the English

Tale of the great conquest

Like any organic matter, history is also a continuous process of growth or decline, influenced by an interplay of myriad forces, whether friendly or hostile. If for the proper appreciation of an individual, we have to cover his activities over many decades, a proper appreciation of the destiny of a civilization or a nation will obviously involve a study over a much longer period ...certainly not less than a century”.

There are many ways in which the history of a period can be studied. Traditionally, it was a chronological narrative of those at the helm, accompanied perhaps with maps of the new territories acquired by the ruler, supplemented by commissioned hagiographies and a reference to the important monuments built during the relevant period. However, in this magnum opus, KP Agarwal did something more interesting. He took up the painstaking, but very rewarding task of documenting the major treaties that were instrumental in the British takeover of India, covering the period from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the Kharita (proclamation), from the Viceroy to the Maharana of Odeypore (Udaipur) in 1883. These were the years within which the British consolidated their ‘control’ over the sub-continent. Agarwal avers that the takeover was not just through hard-won victories on the battlefield: it was also accompanied by subterfuge, cunning and outright deceit in the drafting of agreements.

On examining the treaties and the commentaries that foreground them, many historical shibboleths with which our generation grew up – like Mir Jafar being the traitor on account of whom Clive won the Battle of Plassey, or Sir John Lawrence being a fair-minded and liberal administrator of Punjab — are demolished. These were all projections that suited the British discourse before and after the First War of Independence. These comprised, as one would say in contemporary terms, ‘media spin’. We also understand that Toynbee’s world view of history was far from being objective, and the prognosis which he and many others of his ilk had about India were totally unfounded. India has not broken up into multiple nations – on the contrary, in the 75th year of her Independence, she has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The advantage of the inscribed word is that while it can be reinterpreted, it cannot be erased. These inscribed sanads, treaties, and engagements reflect the prevailing norms of culture, society, and the political economy of their time, showcasing how the East India Company (EIC) and the British Empire aimed to subjugate India not only materially and militarily but also mentally. In fact, it was this control over the terms of the discourse that ultimately led to the takeover of India.

Let me begin with the theoretical framework in which this study has been done. The significant milestone is the Battle of Plassey: the determining factor was superior artillery and the capacity to train mercenary Indian sepoys. They were moulded into fine disciplined soldiers, better than those under any indigenous ruler, or the European naval powers (French, Dutch, Portuguese) as well as of the Indian rulers (the Marthas, the Mughals, and the Sikhs). Nevertheless, all this would have been of no avail if there had been a strong central power in India. However, more than that, it was the post war iniquitous settlements – all conducted in English – that consolidated their power. Winning a particular war or battle was not an end in itself, but just the means to entrench themselves even further into India.

Reading the book cover to cover, one is forced to reflect on several questions: Is a strong central authority essential to limit and control the breakaway tendencies in the country? This occurred not only with the Mughals but also with the Mauryan, Gupta, and Kushan empires.

Secondly, the British were bankers and record keepers. Was the failure of our rulers to prioritize “finance” as a core activity of governance a contributing factor to their inability to match up to the machinations of the East India Company (EIC)?

Thirdly, the British invested their time, money, and scholarship in understanding their adversaries. They learned Sanskrit and Persian and engaged with Pundits and Maulvis. On the contrary, we do not observe any organized effort on the part of Indians to do the same. Hence, knowing your enemy or adversary is as crucial as knowing oneself.

Fourthly, recording history is perhaps even more important than creating it. The book illustrates how the British always highlight their victories, but their failures – whether in Afghanistan or in Tibet — are never discussed.

Fifthly, language usage plays a significant role. While many of our rulers actually believed in the superlatives that are a necessary part of the diplomatic jargon, for the EIC and later the Empire, these were just empty words.

Then there was the issue of asymmetry among the contracting parties, as well as the British cunning in always leaving room for renegotiation. Treaties made with the Presidency Governor could be overruled by the Governor General, and these, in turn, could be reversed by the India Office. In contrast, for the Raja or Maharaja, it was an end game.

Before closing, one would like to acknowledge and thank INTACH for having republished this book after a gap of more than four decades. This will give the necessary fillip to scholarship for this era of Indian history. The book has raised many questions – including the role of the English-speaking officials of the Indian Maharajas, and Rajas and nawabs who more often than not were also in the pay of the East India Company. The modus operandi took the form of the following steps: create a false alarm to make the Indian ruler feel vulnerable, offer to provide military assistance, but at an exorbitant cost, and then annex territory to collect the necessary revenue to pay for the upkeep of the troops led by British officers whose terms of employment were decided by the British.

Even as I strongly recommend the book – both for the professional historian and the lay reader - I am taking the liberty of making the following suggestions for the next edition. There are several examples of spell check going

awry. It cannot be left in an auto-mode. Secondly, and more importantly, the Treaties should have been placed in the Annexure chronologically. While the 1781 Sanad granted to Raja Mahip Singh for the Zamindari of Benares is given ahead of the 1757 Treaty with Jaffier Ally Khan (Mir Jafar) and the Firmaund from King Shah Alam, granting the Dewanny of Bengal, Behar and Orissa to the Company in 1765; these are actually the two treaties which heralded the ascent of the EIC, which carried the

veritable title of Hon’ble even though all its actions were perfidious and far removed from the dictionary meaning of the term. Last, but not the least, we could have the maps showing how with each treaty, the British influence grew in the country – both in terms of territories directly under their control, and the kingdoms over which they exercised complete control over their military and foreign policy.

The writer superannuated as the Director of the LBSNAA after 36 years in the IAS, and is currently a historian and policy analyst.

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