I once met a researcher from JNU at a social event. In the course of our conversation, I found out that she was pursuing a doctorate and I made the mistake of asking her what the doctorate was about. She looked at me with some pity and told me kindly that the subject was a difficult one; only an initiate could understand it. I looked at the clock and saw that we had another two hours to kill. So I asked her to tell me nevertheless — perhaps I might understand. It turned out that she was studying the culture and politics of a little-known tribal group in central India as part of a larger study of oppression. She seemed to have known the dimensions of oppression before she began the study. I wondered why she did the study in that case but decided that such a question could be a conversation stopper.
Later, while reading the marvellous The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians (1867), edited by Elliott and Dowson, I came across an episode that demonstrates that such overweening conceit is, and has been, a besetting sin of Indians, for a few hundred years at any rate. Khafi Khan, the historian of Mughal times, was railing against the English East India Company and its depredations on Indian shipping. He says, “the total revenue of Bombay, which is chiefly derived from betel-nuts and cocoa-nuts, does not reach to two or three lacs of rupees. The profits of the commerce of these misbelievers, according to report, does not exceed twenty lacs of rupees. The balance of the money required for the maintenance of the English settlement is obtained by plundering the ships voyaging to the House of God, of which they take one or two every year.” Evidently, to Khan, the company was a set of puny peddlers who, in their ignorance and foolishness, had dared to challenge the Mughals. Within three decades of his fulminations, the Mughal empire had crumbled and the puny peddlers were on the way to becoming the new masters of India.
So what is it about Indians that leads them to conceit or an abject self-abnegation of the kind that we routinely see today? Indians behave today as though all true knowledge must come from the West, and a degree from any Western university is worth far more than any Indian degree. Yet, barely 200 years ago, Indians showed massive arrogance and unconcern about the West.
What every Indian child should remember is that from the last decade of the 16th century, various European companies began to arrive in India. We interacted with them while doing business for well over 150 years before the Battle of Plassey. And yet, no one seems to have realised that the Europeans brought with them a fundamentally different attitude to business, with no compunctions about using coercion and state power to further the ends of trade. Make no mistake, the East India Company beat Indian businessmen at their own game much before it came to power after the Battle of Plassey. This was an India where a banker of the house of Jagat Seth thought nothing about paying the English company to dislodge Siraj-ud-Daulah in Bengal — they may well have thought that one ruler was as good as another. Within five years of the company coming to power, the house of Jagat Seth went into an irreversible decline.
Current events show that this is no mere historical anecdote. As the pandemic threatens the foundations of global order, some writers point out that a modern-day colonialism based on the monopoly of data is very possible and that India could become a colony of the West once again. That it takes a pandemic to bring this home to us is a matter of serious concern. For, it shows that India has learnt little from 200 years of colonial rule.
Irrespective of what evil the British did, the one thing the East India Company showed consistently was great sensitivity to its surroundings, an ability to learn from competitors and, above all, the ability to test beliefs against reality. These are qualities that we would do well to learn. For making money is not so much about access to capital but about the ability to imagine the future, to learn recursively and to constantly test your beliefs against reality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 27, 2020, under the title ‘Lessons from the Company’ The writer is an IAS officer and author of Making India Great Again: Learning from our History
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