Mohan Guruswamy | An important lesson from history for Narendra Modi

What is worrisome is that we know history is not Mr Modi’s forte

Update: 2022-01-11 20:00 GMT
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. (PTI)

The fortunes of India irrevocably changed on May 29, 1658 when two Indian armies clashed on the dusty fields of Samugarh, near Agra. India’s history changed forever. Aurangzeb’s victory over his brother Dara Shikoh marked the beginning of Islamic bigotry in India which not only alienated Hindus but also the much more moderate Sufis and Shias as well. Aurangzeb’s narrow Sunni beliefs were to make India the hotbed of Muslim fundamentalists, long before the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia sponsored the fanatics of the Taliban and the Islamic State. It wasn’t just a battle for the Mughal throne, but also a battle for the very soul of India.

Aurangzeb’s victory here and other successful campaigns resulted in the creation of the greatest and biggest Imperial India till then. His empire spanned from Kabul to Calicut in the south and Kamrup in the east. He ruled almost 20 per cent of the world’s population. He ruled with an iron hand and killed his enemies with extreme cruelty. He had Dara Shikoh killed in front of his son, and Guru Tegh Bahadur decapitated in front of a large crowd in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area. If emperors were to be judged by territory, population and wealth, he was verily the greatest of the Mughals. But the seeds of this India’s collapse were sowed.

In 1620, India had the world’s greatest national income, over a third of it, and was its greatest military power as well. According to economics historian Angus Maddison, in 1700 India accounted for 27 per cent of the world’s GDP. It was the envy of Europe. European traders came to seek Indian goods for their markets.

But no sooner had the iron hand of Aurangzeb been removed that his imperial India began disintegrating. The iron hand that ruled by dividing rather than uniting and that sought to impose a hierarchy by theological preferences gave rise to much discordance. But for Aurangzeb, Shivaji Bhonsle might have remained a minor western Indian feudatory? There are important lessons for those who rule and seek to rule India in this.

The weakening central rule and profit-seeking peripheral kingdoms allowed European trading posts to be established. Weakening regimes led to the trading posts raising armed guards. Soon, the overseas trading companies began warring with each other and with so many minor states now, free to make their destinies joining hands with one or the other. It were the Europeans who then gradually got established. The Anglo-French wars of the Carnatic were fought by Indian armies beefed up by the trading company levies. The East India Company prevailed and the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish got reduced to pockets.

A hundred years later, in 1757, the era of total foreign supremacy over India began when the East India Company’s troops drawn from South India and officered by English company executives defeated the army of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah at Plassey (Palashi), with the now usual mix of superior drilling, resolute leadership and a bit of treachery. At a crucial time, Mir Jaffar and his troops crossed over. India lay prostrate before Robert Clive.

Within a decade, on August 12, 1765, Clive obtained a firman from Emperor Shah Alam granting the dewani of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to the “John Company”. A Muslim contemporary indignantly exclaims that so great a “transaction was done and finished in less time than would have been taken up in the sale of a jackass”. By this deed the Company became the real sovereign ruler of 30 million people, yielding a revenue of four million pounds sterling. The John Company grew from strength to strength and by 1857 the Grand Mughal was reduced to his fort conducting poetry soirees. It was the golden age of Urdu poetry.

The events of 1857 led to the formal establishment of India as a directly ruled colony. It was yet another epochal event. The English established the greatest dominion in India ever. It spanned from Peshawar in today’s Pakistan to Pagan in Burma; and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India came under one sway for the first time in its history. Even Aurangzeb didn’t go down very much beyond the River Krishna.

India changed, for the better and for the worse. All through its long history India had absorbed the waves of immigrants and their dynasties, as it absorbed from the Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Kushans, Afghans, Uzbeks and all those who came to seek their fortunes here. They built on India’s fortunes. The British were the only ones who came to take away its vast wealth in a systematic manner. The wealth taken from India to a great extent financed the Industrial Revolution.

The renowned economist Utsa Patnaik, who worked and taught at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), ever since she returned with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, had written a seminal paper on how much Britain had profit by from India? This article, published by Columbia University Press in 2018, categorically refuted British moral assertions. Ms Patnaik concluded that Britain had plundered almost $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938, based on nearly two centuries of precise tax and trade data. This amount is almost 17 times the current combined GDP of Britain and India.

From then to another epochal year ending with seven took ninety years. In 1947, India became independent. In that year India’s GDP was only 3.8 per cent of the world’s GDP. It is 2022 now. India’s GDP is now the world’s third biggest. In a few decades from now, it could conceivably become its biggest.

Given its failures on the economic front, the BJP-RSS establishment in New Delhi is now pushing India towards Hindutva nationhood, by seeking to victimise a minority for perceived wrongs and slights of the past. An intolerant religion can never be the basis of nationhood and national unity in India. The legacy of Aurangzeb tells us that. Aurangzeb had created the greatest imperial India since Ashoka the Great. But it didn’t take very long for it to dissipate. In the hundred years that followed, a foreign mercantile company gained control over all of India.

The BJP under Narendra Modi might keep gaining electoral dominion over all or most of India. But has he learned any lessons from history? Does he want to become the Hindu Aurangzeb? What is worrisome is that we know history is not Mr Modi’s forte.

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