William Dalrymple’s “Anarchy”

I am a fan of William Dalrymple’s books and this past week or two I had been listening to his latest book – “Anarchy”. This is about the rise of the East India Company and as an Indian and also as someone who has recently been reading a lot of Empire related books (Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire”, Niall Ferguson’s “Empire”, and Daniel Immerwahr’s “How to Hide an Empire”). Of these recent books the first two deal with the British Empire in India, with Shashi Tharoor being quite scathing.

I expected “Anarchy” to be similar but it surprised me. It’s less about the British Empire, and more about the East India Company and the situation in India after the fall of the Mughal Empire; and the ensuing anarchy and how the British and French rivalry played a role in all this.

I don’t want to summarise or review the book here but couple of things stuck with me from the book. One: the East India Company (EIC) wasn’t about conquering India like I had always supposed, it was always about trade. The people on ground from the EIC had their own selfish motives though and so took things into their own hands. Sometimes they were greedy and wanted the wealth, other times they wanted the power. Many times the British made a move just to block the French, and the whole “Carnatic Wars” situation was mainly about the British and French helping local rulers fight each other using British or French forces.

The key thing in India was that after the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb died there was anarchy. He had no strong successor, and after Aurangzeb passed away everyone began fighting each other. On top of this the Persian Emperor Nadir Shah attacked India multiple times looting Delhi. This drained the wealth of the Mughal Empire weakening it substantially. All the kingdoms that were previously under the Mughal Empire began breaking out and warring, and the EIC officials on the ground put themselves into the midst of this.

During a time of anarchy $hit happens, and that’s precisely what happened here. Anarchy plus human self interest.

This on its own shouldn’t have led to India being subjugated by the British but here’s where the second point I should have made above kicks in. Two: Indians have no unity! At every instance even when the Indian rulers knew they should stick together and keep their fights to themselves rather than involve the British they’d chose not to. Sure in a few instances they put on a united front, but mostly they’d just turn on each other and happily involve the British to defeat one another – in the process agreeing to pay the British for their services or ceding some control. It was just silly! I couldn’t help feeling sad for the Indian rulers but also feel that in a way they brought it upon themselves. At some point you got to realise it makes sense to unite with your enemies than bring outside parties in, especially if the outside party is slowly gaining power due to all these conflicts, and if you don’t have the sense to do that and you are a King then that’s on you.

Anyways, that’s more or less it. Check out the book, it’s worth a read.