Pretty much every child in India grows up hearing about the “200 years” of British rule and the immense damage it did to the Indian economy. While the latter part about the economy is true, the former part of 200 years of British rule is nothing but a gross exaggeration done purposefully to romanticise pre-colonial India.
The most important thing while teaching children history is to explain to them the facts and not suppress them. Suppression of facts gives birth to political movements. It must also be noted that suppression of facts is also a politically driven agenda to suit the narrative of those in power. The truth gets compromised.
British defeat a tyrant
According to some historians, the fall of Siraj ud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 is the start of British rule in India. Siraj is portrayed as a freedom fighter in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is, Siraj was a tyrant. Muslim noblemen, along with Hindu and Sikh merchants, bankrolled Robert Clive to depose Siraj.
Muslims continued to rule while the British collected taxes. The misrule of the nawabs and tyranny of tax collectors is well highlighted in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Ananda Math which became a source of inspiration for freedom movement against the British.
Clive, after defeating the nawab, attended a Durga Puja organised by Raja Nabakrishna Deb and provided a donation of Rs 60 to the Kalighat Kali temple. Clive, at the same time, was involved in corrupt activities for which he was tried in the British Parliament later.
How powerful were the British in 1757? Did the Indians of that time even perceive them as a threat? The answer is no.
Ahmad Shah Durrani
In 1757, the Maratha Empire was at its peak. A few decades earlier, a man had changed the fate of the subcontinent in the 18th century. That was Peshwa Baji Rao I. He took the Marathas from controlling a few districts when he became the Peshwa to controlling most of present-day Deccan and northern India. His 20-year rule had broken the back of the Mughal Empire and enabled the strengthening of revolts by the Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs and Bundelas.
In 1757, not British but an Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Durrani (also known as Abdali) was the biggest threat to the country. Marathas and Sikhs were engaged in constant warfare with Durrani since the 1750s, with many successes such as the Battle of Lahore (1759). The events finally lead to a showdown at Panipat in 1761. So, essentially, Plassey wasn’t even the most important Battle in the 18th century.
Post-Panipat: Maratha resurgence
Due to leadership issues, failing to secure alliances and carrying a number of civilians with them, the Marathas were defeated in Panipat despite being on the verge of victory. However, the defeat at Panipat (unlike the Second Battle of Panipat) did not alter the history of the subcontinent. This was due to the able leadership of the Marathas, which emerged from the ruins.
Madhavrao I took the reins of the Maratha Empire as a young Peshwa in 1761 at the age of sixteen. During his short reign of 11 years, the Marathas defeated all their enemies in both north and south. Najib ud Daulah and the Rohillas, who fought alongside Durrani, were routed. The Jats were also defeated and Delhi was captured. In the south, Hyder Ali and Nizam were defeated and only Raghunath Rao’s personal rivalry with the Peshwa prevented the capture of Hyder Ali.
This period of history is rather important because, following Peshwa Madhavrao’s death in 1773, the First Anglo-Maratha War broke out in 1775, lasting almost seven years. Marathas led by Mahadji Scindia and Nana Fadvnavis defeated the British. So, we are now well into three decades of the “200 year” of British rule, with the British yet to rule India. Ironic!
Till Mahadji Scindia’s death in 1794, the British recognised his rule and the rightful Peshwa (Madahavrao II) while retiring their candidate Raghunath Rao as a pensioner. A positive outcome of this for the British was securing Maratha help against Tipu Sultan during the Anglo-Mysore Wars.
British start expanding their influence
Following the Anglo-Mysore Wars and the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the British influence in India started growing in the early 19th century. More territories started coming under their control. Jats (Bharatpur State) were still a strong faction in northern India and the Sikh Misls (various confederacies) had been consolidated into an empire under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He ruled from Lahore and controlled most parts of present-day Pakistan, Punjab, Kashmir and even conquered Kabul only to restore the Aghan ruler as his tributary.
However, Maratha infighting and seeking help from the British to solve their internal disputes ended in the demise of the empire in 1818, with the culmination of the Third Anglo-Maratha War.
Around this period, the British also fought the Gurkha kingdom and seized some of their territories. By 1818 they controlled large chunks of the subcontinent. However, northern India was still out of their reach, with the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs controlling most of the territories. Following Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death (1839), the Brits ventured into northern India with two Anglo-Sikh Wars culminating in the end of the Sikh Empire in 1848.
Between 1848 and 1856, a number of territories were seized by the Doctrine of Lapse policy. It can effectively be said that the British ruled India for a hundred years at best with non-interference in the governance policies of a number of kingdoms termed as “princely states”.
The British were a bit different than the previous colonists like the Mughals in the sense that their preferred method was to collect revenue and secure trading rights. Law-and-order was often left to the States; hence, even during the peak of the British rule post first struggle for independence in 1857, a good chunk of the landmass in India comprised “princely states”. People there did not face the brunt of British brutalities unlike areas directly under their control such as the Presidency of Bengal, Punjab, Northern Provinces, Presidency of Madras etc. It is not a surprise that a majority of people from these princely states did not engage in the freedom struggle that followed.
So, why portray it as a 200-year old rule?
The answer is rather simple, it’s a romanticism associated with the pre-colonial rule of Mughal invaders. The way events are depicted in most history books is that the British defeated Mughals and took over India. As one can see from the complexities of 18th-19th centuries, it simply wasn’t true.
After Peshwa Baji Rao I, Mughals held a titular post who ceased to play an effective role in India. They had to seek the help of Marathas on most occasions to prevent their nawabs from breaking away and even maintaining the nominal court.
If one studies Indian history carefully, whether it’s Mughals or the British, some group of natives welcomed them while others opposed them. Political power, religion, ethnic identity and rights to collect revenue were the main motivations behind it.
So, by portraying any ruler, including despotic tyrants like Siraj ud-Daulah and Tipu Sultan, as “freedom fighters”, we are doing a disservice in analysing the political dynamics of those times. They are simplistic narratives, which do not match the historical facts recorded by multiple sources.
The struggle against the British started much after their oppressive rule and policies began once the official period of the Raj started 1857 onwards. We must be careful while promoting a romanticism of historical figures to suit the narratives of politicians. As witnessed in India post-independence, promoting narratives has resulted in truth being lost and that has given birth to reactionary politics. It’s time we start analysing history objectively and treat historical characters and events for what had happened then. They should have no bearing on our present nor play a role in present-day politics.