THE NEGLECTED BATTLE - Plassey versus the Mutiny in Indian history

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 15.06.07

There are some anniversaries that are left expediently unobserved. The 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey on June 23 doesn’t seem to feature in the celebratory calendar of either India or Britain. The neglected obelisk on the scene of the skirmish — in military terms there wasn’t much of a battle — is unlikely to witness either a military parade or even a typically Indian tamasha, akin to the meaningless, government-sponsored Meerut-to-Delhi walk last month to commemorate 150 years of the 1857 Mutiny. At best, some amateur history group will assemble before Lord Clive’s statue in Whitehall for a walking tour of the East India Company sites in London. The flat-owners of Styche Hall in Market Drayton, Shropshire, may even take advantage of the English summer and collectively commemorate the local lad who reshaped the destiny of Britain and India.

In a country that lives and breathes history, the neglect of a battle which, till the Fifties at least, ranked on a par with Agincourt, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Waterloo and Trafalgar in the British schoolboy’s imagination, may seem odd. At the same time, given Britain’s squeamishness over its imperial legacy — which, ironically, runs hand in hand with widespread nostalgia — the relegation of Plassey to the footnotes is understandable. In multicultural Britain, it makes greater political sense to commemorate 200 years of the abolition of the slave trade than observe a momentous battle won on the strength of diplomatic guile. Clive may have been a folk hero in Victorian Britain; in the second Elizabethan age, he is an embarrassment.

What about India where recently-written official histories equate the 190 years of British rule with the Dark Ages? If the pathetic Bahadur Shah Zafar can be deified for his symbolic attraction to the sepoys in 1857, why isn’t the brash and astonishingly inept Siraj-ud-Daulah being honoured for his post-Plassey martyrdom? Plassey was, of course, a defeat for the natives and an unqualified victory for the foreign merchants — although, to be fair, even the treacherous Mir Jafar did not grasp the awesome implications of letting the East India Company secure a substantial territorial foothold. However, if grandstanding is the criterion, 1857 was a bigger “Indian” debacle. The formal demise of the Timurid dynasty also coincided with the decimation of all the feudal chiefs who took advantage of the Sepoy Mutiny to assert the inviolability of their traditional rights. Yet, 1857 is being half-heartedly lauded as the spectacular First War of Independence.

Why, in an age marked by the deification of victimhood, is India equally indifferent to commemorations of its troubled past? From all accounts, the official 1857 “celebrations” have created no ripples in civil society. Apart from William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal becoming a bestseller, a contrived controversy over the film on Mangal Pandey, a few articles in the newspapers and a silly debate over Karl Marx’s attitude to the uprising, the anniversary has, by and large, left the country cold. The major political formations — the Congress, Left and Hindu nationalists — did try and use the occasion to score debating points. However, neither Arjun Singh’s bizarre accusation that the Bharatiya Janata Party wasn’t part of the struggle for independence nor the BJP’s discovery of Bahadur Shah’s ban on cow slaughter in Delhi has proved sufficient to inspire modern India to enthusiastically rediscover its past.

Part of the problem can be traced back to the deficiency that Alberuni detected a thousand years ago — that Hindus have no sense of history. It is a shortcoming that has been reinforced in recent decades by the obsessive preoccupation with science, technology and commerce at the cost of the gentlemanly pursuit of the liberal arts. To add to the country’s aesthetic woes, contemporary history-writing in India has suffered from an overdose of politicization, jargon borrowed from voodoo sociology, linguistic inelegance, the downgrading of archival research and plain mediocrity. Good history-writing comes naturally to Britons: Indians have to make an extra effort to overcome mental blocks and inherited baggage.

However, there is a more fundamental problem in examining colonial rule that the renaming of cities and roads and the uprooting of bronze statues haven’t succeeded in addressing. British rule in India, beginning from the conquest of Bengal in 1757, was propped up only partially by superior military organization. It rested more substantially on a network of local support — the term ‘collaborators’ has a pejorative ring to it — which included the princely states, the landholders, the so-called martial races in the Indian army, traders and businessmen and, above all, the middle classes.

The news of Clive’s victory at Plassey was, for example, joyously received by the merchants of Calcutta who were fearful of the post-Aurangzeb anarchy gripping Bengal. Again, in 1857, despite the fear of their religious traditions being in jeopardy, the Hindu middle classes, particularly in the presidencies, remained unwaveringly loyal to the East India Company. This loyalty became more pronounced after Queen Victoria’s reassurance in the Proclamation of 1858 “that none be in anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law”. Indeed, the consensual wisdom, till General Dyer ruined it all in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, was that British rule in India was a substantial improvement over anything witnessed before. And, till the late Thirties at least, the demand for self-government was inevitably coupled with the desire to remain a part of the Empire.

It was the Tory imperialists, with their deep attachment to the country, who understood and appreciated Indian loyalism far better than angst-ridden British liberals. Unfortunately, the likes of Lord Curzon failed to be even-handed in assessing the growing conflict of interests between the urban middle classes and the traditional leaders of rural society. Britain’s Indian Empire floundered because it lacked a Tory reformer like Benjamin Disraeli at the helm in Calcutta to fine-tune social hierarchy with political change. The Salisbury model of illiberal Toryism proved disadvantageous to imperial interests in the long run.

The middle classes merely sought a place or two at the High Table along with the galaxy of bejewelled nawabs and maharajas. They were naturally loquacious but unnaturally subversive. Their part in history, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge of his Indian friends in the Thirties, was “allotted, not chosen” and “belonged to the Raj which they hated, rather than to the Swaraj whose coming to pass they sought”. Yet, confronted by repeated put-downs — some offensively racist — the middle-class commitment to the Raj remained a promise unfulfilled. Subversion became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A little more accommodation and flexibility of the kind the Old Queen showed in her 1858 Proclamation and, who knows, India’s constitutional status may have been akin to Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

These, of course, are possibilities that post-Independence histories will not acknowledge. Ranting against colonial iniquity and imperial prejudice is obligatory in India and feeds the post-colonial angst in the West. But the scope of these inquiries excludes a vast and complex area of the Raj experience — the willing cohabitation of India in Pax Britannica. Like the Vichy interregnum the French have obliterated from collective memory and the ridiculous negationism that surrounds the history of Islamic iconoclasm, India’s loyalist past is destined to remain unexcavated.

Yet there are times — like this summer — when the country detects the subterranean tremors and turns away uneasily. India didn’t take enthusiastically to the contrived xenophobia over either Plassey or the Mutiny because they were essentially Indian disagreements over the future of India.