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May 18, 2020 Monday 07:51:53 PM IST

Fall of the Mughals

Expert Counsel

At the beginning of 18th century, Mughal empire was at its zenith, extending from Kabul in the north west to Carnatic in the south and encompassed the whole of Bengal in the east. Though the near constant warfare waged by Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors, had weakened the empire financially, there was no denying the fact that the India it ruled over was the economic powerhouse of the world. The country produced nearly a quarter of goods manufactured in the world and its cities were the megacities, arousing considerable envy. Foreign powers such as Portuguese who attempted to cross the path of the empire were put in place firmly by a military machine that was looked at with awe and fear. How did this vast and powerful empire crumple within a period of three decades after the death of Aurangzeb What were the factors that led to the rise of East India Company (EIC), a small commercial establishment at the turn of the century, into a corporate behemoth? How did this merchant establishment, which had to struggle even to get an audience with the Emperor, grow in strength so rapidly during the second half of the century as to rule over the almost the entire Indian sub-continent? 

William Dalrymple, the eminent historian and Indologist, has answered these questions and many other related queries in his superbly researched book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire. Starting with the formation of EIC as a small trading concern, the author traces the various events that took place during the 18th century, while providing detailed portraits of the persons involved in them so as to provide a comprehensive account of the course of history during a complicated century. The instability and consequent harm brought to the country and the people after almost three centuries of peace and prosperity under the Great Mughals is captured vividly by the author.


Though the policies of ambitious overexpansionism and religious discrimination followed by Aurangzeb are cited as the immediate causes for collapse of the empire following his demise, the real reasons were deeper and embedded in the Mughal power structure. The damage potential of succession battles following the death of an emperor with its accompanying intrigues that had been contained till Aurangzeb ascended the throne, proved to be catastrophic after his death when his successors proved to be too weak and old to exert their authority over the nobility and regional chieftains. The invasion of Nadir Shah in 1731 and the large-scale plunder, looting and rape that Delhi was subjected to, brought down the prestige and standing of the ruler in the eyes of citizenry as well.

The weakening of central power led to the regional governors announcing their autonomy by stopping payment of tribute to the emperor. The notable exception was Bengal, the richest province, where the popular governor Alivardi Khan continued to send monthly payments to Delhi. It was the building of fortifications by EIC at Kolkata, fearing an attack by French fleet, without taking prior approval of Alivardi Khan that set off the series of events that led to commencement of British conquest of India. The governor asked his grandson, a hot-tempered young man named Siraj Ud Dowla to take the foreign merchants to task for showing disrespect to his authority. However, the governor passed away soon after issuing this direction, upon which his grandson mounted the throne.

Siraj Ud Dowla straightaway led a huge force to Kolkata and attacked the EIC garrison, quickly bringing them  down to heel. Most of the personnel managed to escape once the fort was abandoned, but those who could not had to face the wrath of Bengal forces. It was during this attack that the infamous “blackhole incident” took place, which created huge outrage, even back in London. It was the loss of its important trading stations and anger over the acts of cruelty by Siraj Ud Dowla’s army that led to EIC striking back against the governor. For this act, they were fortunate to find a leader in Robert Clive, as he was skilled not only in the art of warfare but also in plotting and scheming things to ensure victory for his forces.


The story of how Clive out-manipulated Siraj Ud Dowla by winning the support of his commander Mir Jafar to win the historic Battle Plassey in 1757 has been told and retold many times over. It was not the act of replacement of Siraj Ud Dowla, who was hated by most of the populace on account of his cruelty and excesses, that tilted the scales in favour of EIC but the huge amounts of money that Mir Jafar promised to pay them, along with the free hand given to Britishers to conduct their business all over Bengal. EIC and English businessmen embarked on a series of activities, amounting to pillage and plunder, with the sole intention of enriching themselves in the shortest possible time. This led to the economic rape of Bengal which finally ended in the great famine of 1770, that claimed an estimated 1.2 million lives.

The concern over the conduct of affairs of EIC led to inception of system of parliamentary control and establishment of office of Governor General. Dalrymple has written glowingly about Warren Hastings, the first incumbent in that post, for the efforts taken by him to streamline the administration of Bengal and to establish centres for learning of Indian languages and culture. However, Hastings also had to face the ignominy of facing impeachment before British Parliament, which was more on account of differences of opinion with members of Governing Council than due to any of his indiscretions.


Subsequent Governors General, after Hastings, laid down the basics of the policy that helped to consolidate and strengthen British rule.Lord Cornwallis brought in the Permanent settlement of land, which besides ensuring a steady income for the company from land revenue, also helped to create a community of “zamindars” who became completely loyal to them. His policy of excluding non Britishers, including Anglo Indians, from higher administrative posts was intended to minimise intermingling of Britishers with the natives and prevent a recurrence of the events in USA where they were thrown out not by the natives, but by those amongst them who had settled down there. 

It was his successor Lord Wellesley, who expanded the empire to occupy most of India. Though his primary intention was to have the French removed from the scene, in the process, he also achieved the objective of defeating Tipu Sultan and the Marathas, the last pillars of resistance to British domination. Wellesley also ensured that Shah Alam, the unfortunate Mughal emperor who was almost reduced to penury, was restored to his original place, though in titular status, in Red Fort. But the unhappiness of top brass of EIC over the actions of Governor General, which burnt a huge hole in company’s finances, led to his recall in the first decade of the 19th century.

It is often said that history is a delightful subject which has been made dreary by the writings of historians. Dalrymple is an admirable exception to the tribe of historians as he narrates the events with alluring charm, never allowing even the slightest hint of tedium to creep in. He ventures into areas not explored before to come up with outstanding works that enrich not merely history but contemporary writing in English as well. His research is impeccable and the facts are presented in a crisp and cogent manner, sustaining the interest of the reader to the very end. His passionate story telling has the effect of making historical characters come alive and provides the readers a ring side view of the major events.

History buffs should thank their stars for having in their midst a writer of the calibre of William Dalrymple who makes reading history an act of sheer pleasure.

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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