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The British Rule in India: Tale of Loot and plunder
V. N. Datta

The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain Nicholas B. Dirks. Permanent Black, New Delhi. Pages XVIII + 389. Rs 650.

This is an unusual book. It is not only a severe indictment of the rise, foundation and total condemnation of the concept of Empire itself, but also shows that Empire-making is essentially exploitation and oppression by using devious means of seizing authority and sovereignty over millions of people, alien in race, nationality, customs and manners. The essence of the study is that Empire-making and scandals go together, and that Europe and Britain could not have emerged without scandals.

The book argues that there is nothing ethical or edifying about Empire-making or Imperialism, especially of the British, because the whole of the foundation and consolidation of the British ruling authority could not have been possible without using force for acquiring territories, perpetrating frauds and hatching conspiracies. So, the scandals are treated as basic for the creation of the British Empire as also of the rise and development of modem industry, of sovereignty, public virtue, market, economy and the bureaucratic state.

The focus of the book is mainly on the l8th century India, which has generally been called ‘Gardi ka Waqt’ (Age of Troubles). Initially, as the author emphasises, the British came to India as traders to make profits. However, steadily, they dug their feet in the country, exploiting the prevailing conditions. The traders, buttressed by the patronage and support of the ruling British authorities in India and England, played off one local power against the other and embarked on a calculated policy of fleecing the country of its wealth. By collecting enormous fortunes through torture and oppression and seizing territories by ruthless military force, the British became the rulers of the country.

The author emphasises that because of the economic and military oppression perpetrated, Bengal was ravaged by famine, and its one-third population perished. Firstly, the traders had set up warehouses, which they converted into factories, and finally, they built forts primarily to store their weapons and ammunition. Thus, the author Dirks challenges John Secley’s popular view that India was conquered by England in the fit of the absence of mind.

In addition to his discussion of the oppression and frauds committed on people, the author shows how the British East India company servants after amassing enormous "ill-gotten" fortunes in India through chicanery returned to England, contested parliamentary seats, and after winning them, gained enough political mileage to influence and shape the British policy on India. Dirks takes up the case of Clive who had joined the company as a writer and later became a military general, and the Governor of Bengal, after defrauding Omichand and enlisting the support of Mir Jafar who had betrayed Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal. Clive was impeached in England for the wrongs he did in India but was finally acquitted and knighted. He was allowed to draw a salary of 75,000 pounds within a short period. India was pillaged, fleeced, oppressed and conquered and Clive was to emerge in British historiography in India as the heaven-born general ranking with Julius Caeser and Alexander the Great as the founder of the British Empire in India.

The main focus of the book is on the impeachment of Warren Hastings that lasted nine years, drawing great public attention both in England and India. Assisted by Hastings’ inveterate foe, Philip Francis; Edward Burke charged Hastings for the numerous acts of oppression and highhandedness he had committed on the people of India for his personal gains. He cited the case of Raja Cheyth Singh on whom Hastings had imposed a fine of 50,000 pounds only because he had needed money to rout the Rohillas. Burke accused Hastings of having humiliated and tortured the Begums of Ondh. He highlighted the gendered and sexualised cast of Hastings’ Imperialist mind. When, with his usual rhetorical flourish, he said the nipples of women were torn from their bodies, Mrs Richard Sheridan swooned, and was carried out of the House of Commons, which Macaulay in his essay on ‘Warren Hastings’ has described with an exquisite narrative skill.

Hastings was acquitted on the ground that the crimes attributed to him were those of the Empire itself rather than his own dastardly excesses. Dirks maintains that ironically both Burke and Hastings wanted the Empire to succeed. In British historiography, Hastings began to be viewed as the Saviour of British Empire. Lord Curzon described him as a "great and ill-used man". To the author, the trial was not a failure as it presaged and worked to make possible the establishment of a legitimate empire in the East. Hastings was granted a pension of 4,000 pounds a year. Later he received an honorary degree in law from Oxford University for the great service he had rendered to England in her hour of trial.

In Chapter IV, the author discusses the economic dimensions of Imperial relationship that subsisted between England and India. Burke used the expression ‘Drain of India’ while referring to the ruination of Bengal. Drain was regarded by Burke as the only way to measure the cost of Empire. Dirks points out that in 1779, Drain arose to 73,761 pounds. In addition, India had to bear an enormous burden of expenditure due to the British civil and military service operating in the country. To the author, the East India Company was a rogue state that tried to retain the fictitious Mughal sovereignty while retaining power in its own hands. This farcical situation continued till 1857. In Chapter VII, the author has shown how the British historians have given false images of the British rule in India by their perverse interpretations.

This elegantly produced work written in a lucid style challenges the conventional view of the British rule in India, which has been presented by Imperialist historians like Dodwell, Vincent Smith and C.H. Philips.