Looking back over this period, it almost seems that the British succeeded in dominating India by a succession of fortuitous circumstances and lucky flukes. With remarkably little effort, considering the glittering prize, they won a great empire and enormous wealth, which helped to make them the leading power in the world. It seems easy for a slight turn in events to have taken place which would have dashed their hopes and ended their ambitions. They were defeated on many occasions—by Haider Ali and Tipu, by the Marathas, by the Sikhs, and by the Gurkhas. A little less good fortune and they might have lost their foothold in India, or at the most held on to certain coastal territories only.
And yet a closer scrutiny reveals, in the circumstances then existing, a certain inevitability in what happened. Good fortune there certainly was, but there must be an ability to profit by good fortune. India was then in a fluid and disorganized state, following the break-up of the Mughal Empire; for many centuries it had not been so weak and helpless. Organized power having broken down, the field was left open to adventurers and new claimants for dominion. Among these adventurers and claimants, the British, and the British alone at the time, possessed many of the qualities necessary for success. Their major disadvantage was that they were foreigners coming from a far country. Yet that very disadvantage worked in their favour, for no one took them very seriously or considered them as possible contestants for the sovereignty of India. It is extraordinary how this delusion lasted till long after Plassey, and their functioning in formal matters as the agents of the shadow Emperor at Delhi helped to further this false impression. The plunder that they carried away from Bengal and their peculiar methods of trade led to the belief that these foreigners were out for money and treasure and not so much for dominion; that they were a temporary though painful infliction, rather like Timur or Nadir Shah, who came and plundered and went back to his homeland.
The East India Company had originally established itself for trading purposes, and its military establishment was meant to protect this trade. Gradually, and almost unnoticed by others, it had extended the territory under its control, chiefly by taking sides in local disputes, helping one rival against another. The company’s troops were better trained and were an asset to any side, and the company extracted heavy payment for the help. So the company’s power grew and its military establishment increased. People looked upon these troops as mercenaries to be hired. When it was realized that the British were playing nobody’s game but their own, and were out for the political domination of India, they had already established themselves firmly in the country.
Anti-foreign sentiment there undoubtedly was, and this grew in later years; but it was far removed from any general or widespread national feeling. The background was feudal and loyalty went to the local chief. Widespread distress, as in China during the days of the war lords, compelled people to join any military leader who offered regular pay or opportunities of loot. The East India Company’s armies largely consisted of Indian sepoys. Only the Marathas had some national sentiment, something much more than loyalty to a leader, behind them, but even this was narrow and limited. They managed to irritate the brave Rajputs by their treatment of them. Instead of gaining them as allies, they had to deal with them as opponents or as grumbling and dissatisfied feudatories. Among the Maratha chiefs themselves there was bitter rivalry, and occasionally civil war, in spite of a vague alliance under the Peshwa’s leadership. At critical moments they failed to support each other, and were separately defeated.
Yet the Marathas produced a number of very able men, statesmen and warriors, among them being Nana Farnavis, the Peshwa Baji Rao I, Mahadaji Scindhia of Gwalior, and Yaswant Rao Holkar of Indore, as also that remarkable woman, Princess Ahilya Bai of Indore. Their rank and file was good, seldom deserting a post and often facing certain death unmoved; but behind all this courage there was often an adventurism and amateurishness , both in peace and war, which were surprising. Their ignorance of the world was appalling, and even their knowledge of India’s geography was strictly limited. What is worse, they did not take the trouble to find out what was happening elsewhere and what their enemies were doing. There could be no far-sighted statesmanship or effective strategy with these limitations. Their speed of movement and mobility often surprised and unnerved the enemy, but essentially war was looked upon as a series of gallant charges and little more. They were ideal guerrilla fighters. Later they reorganized their armies on more orthodox lines, with the result that what they gained in armour they lost in speed and mobility, and they could not adjust themselves easily to these new conditions. They considered themselves clever, and so they were, but it was not difficult to overreach them in peace or war, for their thought was imprisoned in an old and out-of-date framework and could not go beyond it.
The superiority in discipline and technique of foreign-trained armies had, of course, been noticed at an early stage by Indian rulers. They employed French and English officers to train their own armies, and the rivalry between these two helped to build up Indian armies. Haider Ali and Tipu also had some conception of the importance of sea-power, and they tried, unsuccessfully and too late, to build up a fleet in order to challenge the British at sea. The Marathas also made a feeble attempt in this direction. India was then a shipbuilding country, but it was not easy to build up a navy within a short time and in the face of constant opposition. With the elimination of the French many of their officers in the armies of the Indian powers had to go. The foreign officers who remained, chiefly British, often deserted their employers at critical stages, and, on some occasions, betrayed them, surrendering and marching over to their enemies (the British) with their armies and treasure. This reliance on foreign officers not only indicates the backwardness of the army organization of the Indian powers, but was also a constant source of danger owing to their unreliability. The British often had a powerful fifth column both in the administration and in the armies of the Indian rulers.
If the Marathas, with their homogeneity and group patriotism, were backward in civil and military organization, much more so were the other Indian powers. The Rajputs, for all their courage, functioned in the old feudal way, romantic but thoroughly inefficient, and were rent among themselves by tribal feuds. Many of them, from a sense of feudal loyalty to an overlord, and partly as a consequence of Akbar’s policy in the past, sided with the vanishing power of Delhi. But Delhi was too feeble to profit by this, and the Rajputs deteriorated and became the playthings of others, ultimately falling into the orbit of Scindhia, the Maratha. Some of their chiefs tried to play a careful balancing game in order to save themselves. The various Muslim rulers and chiefs in northern and central India were as feudal and backward in their ideas as the Rajput. They made no real difference, except to add to the confusion and the misery of the mass of the people. Some of them acknowledged the suzerainty of the Marathas.
The Gurkhas of Nepal were splendid and disciplined soldiers, the equals, if not the superiors, of any troops that the East India Company could produce. Although completely feudal in organization, their attachment to their homelands was great, and this sentiment made them formidable fighters in its defence. They gave a fright to the British, but made no difference to the issue of the main struggle in India.
The Marathas did not consolidate themselves in the vast areas in northern and central India where they had spread. They came and went, taking no root. Perhaps nobody could take root just then owing to the alternating fortunes of war, and indeed many territories under British control, or acknowledging British suzerainty were in a far worse condition, and the British or their administration had not taken root there.
If the Marathas (and much more so the other Indian powers) were amateurish and adventurist in their methods, the British in India were thoroughly professional. Many of the British leaders were adventurous enough but they’ were in no way adventurist in the policy for which they all worked in their separate spheres. ‘The East India Company’s secretariat,’ writes Edward Thompson, ‘was served in the courts of native India by a succession and galaxy of men such as even the British Empire has hardly ever possessed together at any other time.’ One of the chief duties of the British residents at these courts was to bribe and corrupt the ministers and other officials. Their spy system was perfect, says a historian. They had complete information of the courts and armies of their adversaries, while those adversaries lived in ignorance of what the British were doing or were going to do. The fifth column of the British functioned continuously and in moments of crisis and in the heat of war there would be defections in their favour which made a great difference. They won most of their battles before the actual fighting took place. That had been so at Plassey and was repeated again and again right up to the Sikh wars. A notable instance of desertion was that of a high officer in the service of Scindhia of Gwalior, who had secretly come to terms with the British and went over to them with his entire army at the moment of battle. He was awarded for this later by being made the ruler of a new Indian state carved out of the territories of Scindhia whom he had betrayed. That state still exists, but the man’s name became a byword for treason and treachery, just as Quisling’s in recent years.
The British thus represented a higher political and military organization, well-knit together and having very able leaders. They were far better informed than their adversaries and they took full advantage of the disunity and rivalries of the Indian powers. Their command of the seas gave them safe bases and opportunities to add to their resources. Even when temporarily defeated, they could recuperate and assume the offensive again. Their possession of Bengal after Plassey gave them enormous wealth and resources to carry on their warfare with the Marathas and others, and each fresh conquest added to these resources. For the Indian powers defeat often meant a disaster which could not be remedied.
This period of war and conquest and plunder converted central India and Rajputana and some parts of the south and west into derelict areas full of violence and unhappiness and misery. Armies marched across them and in their train came highway robbers, and no one cared for the miserable human beings who lived there, except to despoil them of their money and goods. Parts of India became rather like central Europe during the Thirty Years War. Conditions were bad almost everywhere but they were worst of all in the areas under British control or suzerainty: ‘…nothing could be more fantastic than the picture presented by Madras or by the vassal states of Oudh and Hyderabad, a seething delirium of misery. In comparison, the regions where the Nana (Farnavis, the Maratha statesman) governed were an oasis of gentle security’—so writes Edward Thomspson.
Just prior to this period, large parts of India were singularly free from disorder, in spite of the disruption of the Mughal Empire. In Bengal during the long reign of Allawardi, the semi-independent Mughal Viceroy, peaceful and orderly government prevailed and trade and business flourished, adding to the great wealth of the province. Some little time after Allawardi’s death the battle of Plassey (1757) took place and the East India Company constituted themselves the agents of the Delhi Emperor, though in reality they were completely independent and could do what they willed. Then began the pillage of Bengal on behalf of the company and their agents and factors. Some years after Plassey began the reign of Ahilya Bai, of Indore in central India, and it lasted for thirty years (1765-95). This has become almost legendary as a period during which perfect order and good government prevailed and the people prospered. She was a very able ruler and organizer, highly respected during her lifetime, and considered as a saint by a grateful people after her death. Thus during the very period when Bengal and Bihar, under the new rule of the East India Company, deteriorated and there was organized plunder and political and economic chaos, leading .to terrible famines, central India as well as many other parts of the country were in a prosperous condition.
The British had power and wealth but felt no responsibility for good government or any government. The merchants of the East India Company were interested in dividends and treasure and not in the improvement or even protection of those who had come under their sway. In particular, in the vassal states there was a perfect divorce between power and responsibility.
When the British had finished with the Marathas and were secure in their conquests, they turned their minds towards civil government and some kind of order was evolved. In the subsidiary states, however, the change was very slow, for in those so-called protected areas there was a permanent divorce between responsibility and power.
We are often reminded, lest we forget, that the British rescued India from chaos and anarchy. That is true in so far as they established orderly government after this period, which the Marathas have called ‘the time of terror.’ But that chaos and anarchy were partly at least due to the policy of the East India Company and their representatives in India. It is also conceivable that even without the good offices of the British, so eagerly given, peace and orderly government might have been established in India after the conclusion of the struggle for supremacy. Such developments had been known to have taken place in India, as in other countries, in the course of her 5000 years of history.