Interview, Amar Farooqui, author, The Colonial Subjugation of India - “There was a continuous tradition of resistance to British rule”
On his new book which charts the violence inflicted by the British Empire and the resistance against it that culminated in India’s independence
What kind of violence was inflicted on the people by the British Empire and what were the instruments of coercion used to keep subjects under control?
Colonial intrusion in Asia and elsewhere was accompanied by extensive violence. In order to understand the role of violence and its use for exercising control, we need to go back to the last decade of the fifteenth century. The expedition of the fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama marked the beginning of regular voyages between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope for the purposes of trade and conquest. The vessels plying along this route were not just merchant ships, they were heavily armed ships and brought a new element to the vibrant trade of the Indian Ocean, namely violence, disrupting it in the process. The Portuguese monopolized the all-sea route between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope for most of the sixteenth century. The monopoly could be imposed by resorting to superior firepower. The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which established its own monopoly over the Cape route, and exercised control over the trade between Europe and Asia during the seventeenth century. The Dutch company was more resourceful, could mobilize more capital, had better ships and larger fleets. This also meant that it was capable of resorting to violence on a larger scale. Both, the Portuguese and the Dutch, used violence to regulate the trade of the Indian Ocean thereby undermining and disrupting traditional networks.
Dutch intervention was more devastating in terms of its impact, since the VOC sought to bring sources of supply under its direct control, through the conquest of producing areas wherever this was possible, as in the case of Indonesian islands, which were major producers of commodities that the company was interested in transporting to Amsterdam for sale in European markets. The most well-known instance is that of the Banda islands, a group of tiny islets, which had the misfortune of producing a much sought-after commodity – nutmeg. Almost the entire population of the islands was wiped out to ensure the VOC’s nutmeg monopoly. This was the model that other trading companies such as the English East India Company and the French East India Company adopted, though they became leading players in the Europe-Asia trade only in the early eighteenth century, by which time the VOC was in terminal decline.
The English East India Company (EIC)would go on to operate on vastly bigger scale than the VOC, eventually ruling over the entire Indian subcontinent and Burma. To be able to do this it had to first eliminate its main competitor in the subcontinent in the early eighteenth century, the French company. The armed conflict between the two engulfed a large part of south India in war. The main battleground of the so-called Carnatic Wars was Tamil Nadu, though the fighting extended to neighbouring areas as well. The three wars, fought over a period of over two decades, from the 1740s to the 1760s, cannot be regarded as an affair involving just the two companies. Regional polities were drawn into the conflict and obviously the wars affected the lives of countless non-combatants, apart from large numbers of locally recruited soldiers — mere cannon-fodder. The march of armies caused destruction, displacement, death and loss of livelihoods, as it always does. And the triumph of the EIC was ultimately the triumph of its shareholders. So much violence for the benefit of shareholders and hangers-on of the company! This is not to suggest that war for some supposedly higher purpose would be worthwhile, nor that there were no meaningless wars before this, nor that wars might not have taken place had the Anglo-French conflict not taken place. However, one would like to highlight the utter futility of this violence, and also the widespread damage it would have caused to the everyday lives of common people.
How did these continuous wars and the ensuing bloodshed shape the subcontinent?
Of course, this was just the beginning. War and bloodshed were inflicted on the people of the subcontinent for over a century to create empire. The ascendancy of British colonialism could only be achieved through continuous warfare with state-of-the-art weapons. Most of the wars and battles involved fierce fighting: Plassey/Palashi (1757) and Buxar/Baksar (1764), which brought a large part of eastern India under the EIC; four Mysore wars (1767-1799), resulting in the subjugation of south India; three wars against the Marathas till 1818, which brought central and western India and parts of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab under the company; the war against Nepal (1814-1816); first Burma War (1824-1826) which extended the company’s control to southern Burma, the North-East and the Brahmaputra valley; the decade-long series of wars for the conquest of Sind, Baluchistan, Punjab and Afghanistan. As is well known, the Afghan War was an unmitigated disaster for the British. What needs to be underlined is that it resulted in the death of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. A vast proportion of those killed or maimed were Indians and Afghans. To this we must add the tens of thousands killed in the prolonged Sind military campaign, and the two fiercely fought Punjab wars. Let us not forget that on the British side too the bulk of those who lost their lives or were injured were ordinary privates who came from the least privileged sections of British society. There was yet another war against Burma in 1852 which completed the colonial conquest of southern Burma. As for the revolt, we have not even begun comprehending the extent of the violence. Large parts of the empire had to be reconquered through naked force.
Whereas the organs of the colonial state (bureaucracy, army, judiciary) played a critical role in exercising control over Indian subjects, ultimately fear and the threat of violence was the most effective means of sustaining British power. Whenever required, the state could spectacularly demonstrate its ability to unleash violence in order to instil fear by example, as happened at Jallianwala Bagh. At the same time ceremonial and symbolism (eg, the invented traditions on display at the three Delhi “darbars”) played an important role in legitimizing British rule, giving it the appearance of being benign.
You’ve written in detail about the anti-colonial resistance against British imperialism in India, from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the revolt of 1857. How important were these moments in this national struggle and the national liberation movement which culminated in independence on 15 August, 1947?
There was a continuous tradition of popular resistance to British rule throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the great anti-colonial upsurge of 1857. In the countryside, this resistance often took the shape of resistance to oppression by dominant landed groups who usually had the support of the colonial state. The large-scale dislocation of itinerant communities and tribal societies resulted in violent confrontations between these people and the repressive machinery of the government. The colonial state was very hostile in its attitude towards communities, which were located outside or on the margins of settled agrarian society. In the 1820s and 1830s, the state attempted to discipline wandering and nomadic groups in the areas located between the Chambal and the Narmada. These included, for example, those who came to be designated collectively as “thugs”. The suppression of thugs, or of the practice of “thuggee” (thagi), became a major preoccupation of the colonial officials in central India. In the period following the Second Anglo-Maratha War, and more so after the Third Anglo-Maratha War, the East India Company was engaged in consolidating its vastly-expanded empire. The government set up a “Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830 to stamp out thuggee. WH Sleeman was superintendent of the department from 1835 to 1839. Under him, a reign of terror was let loose in central India to establish the authority of the EIC. A draconian law was introduced in 1836 giving extensive powers to officials of the Thuggee department (Act XXX of 1836). This allowed colonial officials to incarcerate anyone on suspicion of being a thug, leading to hundreds of innocent persons being put behind bars without any hope of ever being released. Sleeman and his subordinates became skilled at assembling testimonies of approvers — the only evidence they could ever produce — to punish suspects. The defiance of the state’s authority by such groups and/or individuals was a matter of great concern for the British who viewed the phenomenon as a form of resistance.
Colonial intervention in regions of central and eastern India with a large population of tribal communities (particularly present-day Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and non-coastal Orissa) produced tensions that led to sustained resistance from the 1820s onwards. The main underlying factor was the disruption of their lifestyles due to the intrusion caused by the company’s administration, which had led to the oppression of tribal people by revenue officials and moneylenders. An uprising of great consequence took place in 1855-56 in areas inhabited by the Santhal people.
In Bengal, the Permanent Settlement impoverished the poorer sections of rural society. Besides, artisans increasingly found it difficult to subsist on the basis of their traditional occupations and skills. The worldwide economic depression of the 1830s added to the difficulties of the poor. The 1830s and 1840s witnessed a series of peasant disturbances in Bengal.
These are just a few instances. One could go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, and mention the poligar campaigns for crushing the resistance of poligars in Tamil Nadu; or the Vellore mutiny of 1806, the first major mutiny in the EIC’s army. At another level, the wars mentioned earlier too should be regarded as part of the history of resistance. They were the outcome of the refusal of regional and local elites to submit to the EIC. The company offered only two options: submission, which meant reducing a political entity in the subcontinent to the status of a “native” state (princely states eventually accounted for two-fifths of the territory of the empire), which could at times end in absorption as happened to Nagpur and Awadh; or outright war. Choosing the latter was an act of resistance in most cases.
You write there was callousness with which the Indian subcontinent was abandoned to its fate in August 1947. What impact did it have on the subsequent Partition and the two nations that came into existence as a result?
The callousness I refer to is the utter lack of concern about the consequences of arbitrarily dividing a substantial chunk of the territories of the empire. Even a person unfamiliar with the Indian empire could have figured out the implications of such a division, the tragedy that would unfold when vast stretches of densely populated areas were partitioned in a context where communal violence had become fairly widespread. Underlying the “masterly inactivity” of colonial officials and policy-makers at the highest levels was the complete absence of any concrete plan, a manifestation of the callousness, to deal with the situation which might arise due to partition, leading Cyril Radcliffe to remark tersely, upon his return to Britain, “Strange chaps. [They] just didn’t do their homework”. The misery, suffering and displacement caused by Partition is well-documented; there is now an extensive historical scholarship on the subject.
There’s an interesting chapter on the 1857 revolt in the book in which you write that all sections of the society, and not just sipahis, participated in this anti-colonial struggle, the history which is largely missing in mainstream narratives. What was the historical importance and consequences of this revolt and how did it transform into a popular people’s uprising?
There is a rich scholarship — and these are mainstream narratives — which has explored the popular dimensions of the revolt, the crucial role of the peasantry especially. Unlike writings published prior to the 1950s, these were studies by academics who were trained historians and their research was based on archival research.
The study by SB Chaudhuri on the organic link between “civil rebellions” and the mutiny, by Rudrangshu Mukherjee on the alliance of the peasants and talluqdars (holders of big estates) in Awadh, by Tapti Roy on the rural uprisings in Bundelkhand, and by Badri Narayan on the participation of lower castes in the Doab, among others, are important writings which look at the extensive involvement of the people in the revolt. It would be difficult any longer to sustain the view that this was just a “mutiny” of the sipahis. I do hope that my chapter in the book on the revolt, which is fairly lengthy, will help in shedding some more light on this aspect.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.