Plassey heralded a new chapter in the history of the Sub-continent. The victors had the entire
spoils. They began their business by unabashed expropriation.
Mir Jaffar was installed as the titular Nawab on agreeing to pay Rs. 20,000,000/- to the Company.
The amount was so unrealistic that despite draconian and cruel extortion, Jaffer could not collect
this amount from Bengal's peasantry. He was therefore able to make only a part payment. On his
inability to coerce the peasant through his revenue collecting apparatus, Jaffer was removed from
the Diwani, in 1760. His son-in-law, Mir Qasim, now placed on the notional throne. Thus began
what Spear calls the "the financial bleeding of Bengal".
Mir Qasim had bought British patronage by the promise of a vast sum, but his predecessor's
treasury had already been impoverished in the three short years of his reign as an appointee of the
Company. Qasim, therefore, undertook heavy taxation to pay his debts and supported it with a
severe and ruthless collection of the taxes. Defaulters were arested and their properties
forefeited. The number of tax collectors was increased. Tax inspectors were invested with vast
and arbitrary powers. Heavy fines were imposed and extracted for the slightest default. Qasim
paid Rs. 20,000,000/- in the first instance and Rs. 1,000,000/- towards the salaries of the
Company's troops. He contributed another Rs. 500,000/- towards the Company's war expenses
in its conflict with the French in southern India. Additionaly Qasim allowed the Company to collect
and appropriate the entire revenue (diwani) from three of the richest Bengali Districts. Like the
right to have its own coins minted this, too, was a somewhat precocious delegation of sovereign
authority. It was ominous of things to come. Bengal, and India's sovereignty, had begun to erode.
Despite all his compromises there was a limit below which even Qasim was not prepared to
descend. He knew when enough was enough. It must, therefore, be said of him that having
obtained power, he did endeavour thereafter to wean his Government of the Company's control
and influence. He began raising his own army. He undertook the fortification of his principal seat,
Mongir. He even resisted the Company's surreptitious designs to raise and arm a garrison at its
Patna factory, and to excercise the sovereign right to search the traffic of goods carried on the
Company's barges up the Ganges.
The Company reacted strongly when six barges loaded with arms, that should only have been
carrying textile products, were distrained by Qasim's men. It decreed the removal of Qasim and
reinstated Mir Jaffar. Qasim was pushed out of Bengal and Bihar in 1763. He took refuge at
Allahabad and planned a campaign against the British with the help of Shuja-ud-Daula of Oudh.
The Emperor of Delhi gave his blessings.
The allied forces were routed at Buxar in 1764. This indeed happened more out of their own inter
se differences than on account of the superior military strength of the Company's regiments. But
happen it did. Qasim fled. The Emperor expediently stood by. And Shuja-ud-Daula sought peace
with the Company by offering to pay it Rs. 5,000,000/. At the Company's insistence he also
allowed certain further "concessions" to the Emperor who had, in the final moment refrained from
taking part in the hostilities and who had now joined up with the Company. These concessions
included the supply of the entire provisions at the Emperor's residence at Allahabad where
English officers would be retained to advise him on matters of government. After the Battle of
Buxer, the Emperor became a pawn in the hands of the Company.
After Qasim unsuccessful attempt to confront the Company, Mir Jaffer was reinstated. On his
death, in 1765, a fifteen years old Najam-ud-Daula was installed as the nominee of the Company.
A new ruler implied the revision of all previous mandates. A fresh "treaty" was therefore dictated
by the Company. It thus obtained the sole and unfettered authority to hire or fire any or all revenue
officials of Bengal. British traders were granted a complete and blanket immunity from all taxes,
rates or fees. The size of the Nawab's army was reduced in perpetuity to the maximum force
required to coerce the payment of taxes and land revenue. The Nawab's adminstration was
burdened with a contribution of Rs. 500,000/- annually towards the payment of the salaries of the
Company's troops. This was not all. The individual members of the Calcutta Council of the
Company were themselves privately paid Rs. 3,003,506/- as a measure of the young Nawab's
Such "gratuitious" payments to the Company's Officers were a substantial and regular burden on
Bengal's resources. Mir Jaffar had been directed to distribute 1,238,575 pounds (Rs. 12,385,750)
"in gratitude" for the supervision of his treachery. Clive alone received 31,500 pounds (Rs.
315,000) in cash. "Gratitude" for his services was, of course, overwhelming and he was also
bestowed a vast land grant (Jagir) becoming the first European jagirdar of Bengal. Qasim paid
200,269 pounds (Rs. 2,002,690) to the Company's officials in addition to what he had paid the
Company on being installed. Jaffar, on re-installation, was once again called upon to measure his
"gratitude" in the rather impressive sum of 500,165 pounds (Rs. 5,000,65). Young Najmaud
Daula's "gratitude" was evaluated generously at 230,356 pounds (Rs. 2,303,560)! In addition to
the income of the Company itself and the penalties and "gratuitous" payments extracted by it to
its own accounts through pre-emptory and onerous treaties, its officers dredged no less than
2,169,665 pounds (Rs.21,696,650) to the credit of their personal fortunes. The Company's own
income in these seven years, as entered in its books, amounted to an astronomical sum of
32,770,650 pounds (Rs. 327,708,330) [The pound value is calculated at the then rate of Rs. 10/-
The most graphic and vivid fabulist of imperial Britain James Morris, who asserted that the Raj
"was a part of that divine order which had made Britain supreme and Victoria sixty years a Queen.
.... It was more properly ordained - a charismatic anointment of the British, like a Higher
Summons.", is compelled to admit: "In fact, one imperial end was basic to all others: profit. Many
nobler and subtler motives played their part, and many passionate imperialists did not stand to
gain at all, but the deepest impulse of the Empire was the impulse to be rich. It had always been
so. Loot of a more respectable kind (?) had been a fundamental of British imperialism since the
first adventurers went to India in search or spices or indigo."
Is loot not just loot? Only an Englishman, perhaps, could have coined the phrase: 'loot of a more
respectable kind'. Perhaps expropriation by a native ruler would be the less respectable kind of
loot. The British expropriation could not be called mere loot, and that too, of a less respectable
kind. Robert Clive, the conqueror of Bengal and its first Governor, had himself reported, in 1765,
that "such a sense of anarchy, confusion, bribery, corruption, and extortion was never seen or
heard of in any country but Bengal; nor such and so many fortunes acquired in so unjust and
rapacious manner." But call it what you may, the rape of Bengal by the East India Company
was not confined to this avaricious and cruel extortion. It was accompanied by yet other draconian
The peasantry was not the only toiling class to suffer the cruel impact of Plassey and British
hegemony. The miseries of Bengal were compounded by the most heartless suppression of the
artisans. These adept and dextrous craftsmen had, for several centuries, produced some of the
finest textiles in the world. So gifted was the weaver, so light and nimble his touch, that one
variety of Bengali cotton cloth, the "muslin" (mal mal), was so fine as hardly to be visible. Yet it
was tough and durable. It had had a market alike among the elite of ancient Rome and of
contemporay Europe. It was the most valuable textile manufacture. Other textile products of
Bengal were also of the highest quality. The techniques of manufacture were kept family and caste
secrets. They were passed down from one generation to the next. No handloom in the world could
compete with this rare craft. Not even the newly developed flying shuttle and the spinning jenny.
Lancashire's spinning and weaving mills, the first giants of modern technology, had to be
protected from the heat of Bengali competition.
The Company's soldiers put draconian restrictive measures into effect by crushing the Bengali
handloom industy. Strict prohibition on the production of quality textiles, was imposed upon pain of
the severest penalties. Trading in several local products was also prohibited, such goods being
declared contrabad, subject to immediate confiscation and destruction. Entire communities of
artisans were driven out of their urban craft centres. Running and operational factories were
converted to the Company's use and to purposes definitely other than textile manufacture.
The Bengali industry was put to an end. Production of fine muslins and cloth of all superior
qualities was prohibited. Heavy duties were imposed on export out of India, of even the coarser
varieties of all textile products. Expropriation of taxes and the confiscation of produce and field
animals continued unabated throughout this period. Agricultural implements and farms animals
were impounded in case of the slightest default. Even seed preserved for future crops was siezed.
By contrast the import of the Lancashire manufactures was encouraged and there was no
corresponding tarrif on these being brought into India. Sometime later the Bengali weaver was
prohibited outright from working in any 'native' unit.
We have already noticed that the weaving community had, by and large, converted to Islam. It
is perhaps no accident that the Bhakti poet Kabir, of Benaras, belonged to this class and therefore,
understood this suffering. He must, no doubt have also perceived the alien hand that caused it. It
is because of this perception and background that he felt the greater need for a fusion between the
two major indigenous religions of the Sub-continent. Kabir was himself a Hindu by birth, but
would have preferred a half-way synthesis to all-out conversion undertaken by his community.
But Kabir sang at a time when the communal divide, dormant till late, had begun to widen. It was
also now, for the first time in the history of the Sub-continent, that this communal divide had been
buttressed by tangible and competing economic interests and circumstances.
It may have been a coincidence, but the first sufferers of the success of the British, as signified by
Plassey, were the Muslims: the feudal aristocracy, the peasants and the artisans. At the same
time, the first beneficiaries were the Hindus: the traders, rentiers and the other sections of the
Vaish caste. In the early stages of the Raj, the Muslims were out in the cold. Hindus had
integrated themselves into the new system. The former had lost. The latter had profited.
This divergence would not, of course, be always duplicated in the later periods of British rule. This
inverse equation would not necessarily remain identical in all areas. It was not that all Muslims in
all parts of the Sub-continent, and at all times under the British, would be the constant losers.
When the British took the Punjab, for instance, almost a hundred years after Plassey, their rule
directly benefited the Muslim aristocracy and the peasant proprietor. Muslim feudals and newly
settled peasant proprietors gained by the opening up of new cotton-growing lands with the
construction of the barrages and canals. Naturally these feudals remained overwhelmingly
pro-British, and provided them the safe constituency of the Unionist Party patronised by the
British, until the very last. They bent away from the Raj only in the very fulness of time:1946.
But the wounds of Bengal would never heal, and the scars would remain for a long time. It was to
be etched on to the mind and sould of the Sub-continent by what was to come as the result of the
plunder: Famine.Read more...
The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan