Mughals embraced Indian ethos and were thus loved; British loathed Indian-ness and thus made Indians revengeful: MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar, a renowned journalist-author, Rajya Sabha MP, who is known for his profound prose writing mostly dealing with historical themes, has come up with his new book. Published by Bloombury India, Dolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Race and Revenge in British India details life of Indians under Mughals and British. While Mughals, till Aurangzeb, weaved a fine net of harmony and humorous culture to help safeguard the integrity of India and help it prosper, the British kept Indians at bay in every possible way. Mughals served India. The British looted India. And thus, Indians felt revengeful against them and ultimately ousted the yoke of their slavery. He speaks to Anas Mohammed about how his book touches various contours of history.


Q: How did this idea of writing a book on British Raj officials (the term Doolally denotes them) and their cronies, Indian Zamindars struck you? Does this history have any reflection on present times, in any way?

Answer: Books sometimes tumble out of one another. I studied the British Raj and its policies for my last book on Gandhiji and Jinnah, and as the horizon of study widened organically, the cultural imperialism of the British and its invasive impact on Indian lives became a fascinating tributary, particularly in conjunction with the brutal economic exploitation. Central to the British project of a new colonial history that would be thrust into the Indian consciousness was an absolute denigration of Hindus and Muslims — the former became emblems of backward heathen superstition and Muslims became symbols of barbarism. Macaulay could therefore say, contemptuously, that the whole literature and philosophy of thousands of years in India was not worth a single bookshelf of European literature. Mughal rule was turned into a caricature with a selective stress on some late-era mistakes and general elision of the reasons for its sustained longevity, which was a consequence of its culture of inclusiveness within the matrix of medieval mores. Of course the British needed an intermediary comprador class for their project to progress, and they found this class… Examples of British racism are plenty, but no instance is more tragic than the manner in which the British treated their own children, their own flesh and blood — the Anglo Indians, once because the mothers of their children were Indian. It is an astonishing story of how racism can distort all values.

Q: Your book starts with a depiction of communal harmony prevailing in the Mughal period. How did early period Mughals like Akbar were able to generate such an atmosphere?

Answer: The culture of power in India before the British had some striking common chords among rulers of all faiths. The Emperor Akbar is best remembered because he was an exemplary ruler, but he was certainly not alone. You could see the same culture in Deccan and further south, in Bengal, in the courts of the Marathas — there is a chapter on the harmony that prevailed in the Scindia court at Gwalior in the 18th and 19th century — and later in the great Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was quintessentially Indian philosophy of power. Few Indian rulers were so foolish as to challenge the saint, the faqir or the yogi, or indeed the great wit at court that functioned as the voice of the people, a Birbal, or a Gopal Bhand or a Tenali Rama. The rage of Badayuni, who railed conitnuously as Birbal, is evidence of how close Akbar was to Birbal; as Abul Fazl notes in his history of the reign, the emperor did not eat for two days after he learnt of Birbal’s death. Birbal died on the battlefield, when leading a campaign against the Yusufzai tribes. Even Aurangzeb, who damaged a historic legacy of harmony irreparably through individual excesses, bore the insult silently when a Muslim faqir threw a pot of dirt on his face as he was going from the Red Fort to the Jama Masjid. Aurangzeb’s great failure, and this started even before he became emperor, was to abandon his cultural inheritance and try and warp the Indian ethos. Those who distort India’s ethos of harmony cannot succeed in India.

Q: You have given once an instance that Akbar, in a later stage of his life, had turned vegetarian and that he called non-vegetarian as those who made their stomachs the graveyards of animals. It sounds a bit difficult to believe, albeit you cite historians writing it. Why didn’t other Mughals follow suit?

Answer: I suppose you will have to believe the official historian of Akbar’s reign, Abul Fazl; the facts are there, in black and white. Akbar started giving up meat in stages and then became vegetarian. Jahangir put the Gujarati khichdi on the imperial menu. My point is that Mughal rule succeeded because it assimilated into a common Indian culture. The British never accepted India as home; home was England or Britain. There was no home leave in Mughal rule.

Q: You say that the bridge of harmony and laughter fell part with the arrival of Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal, on the national scene as king. Why did Aurangzeb fail to read the sensibility of Indian ethos and went the hard-line way as you have written?

Answer: It is one of the great mysteries, of course, how the British managed to rule the country with so few officials. But we sometimes have a rose-tinted view of British India created, naturally, by the British themselves. Between 1757, when the won at Plassey in Bengal and 1857 the British were challenged continuously on the battlefield: by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, by the Marathas for half a century, and of course in the uprising of 1857 which saw the courage and determination of icons like Rani of Jhansi. There is a very interesting account of a conversation with Rani in my book. One of the commanders who defeated the Marathas was none other than Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington who famously said that his victory at Assaye over the Marathas was a much closer battle than Waterloo. After 1857 the political challenge to British rule took a different route, but within a generation the stirrings of a liberation movement had begun in Bengal and then spread up to Punjab.

Q: The book says that when the British acquired the rights of revenue collection in big cities like Calcutta; they hired local influential people like Govindram Mitra (the first Black Zamindar, according to the book) to do the job on their behalf. Why was it so easy for the British, who were so few in numbers, to find such cronies from among Indians?

Answer: The Black Zamindar was a fetid pillar of corrupt rule. The only place where the British and Indians cooperated in magnificent unison was corruption. The whole of the much-vaunted British judiciary in Calcutta was corrupt, with the first chief justice Sir Elijah Impey setting the pace. He was derided as Justice “Pulbandi” because his nephew was rewarded with the contract for road and bridge repairs at bloated rates by Warren Hastings. This continued all through Company rule, with Black Zamindars like the Haldar brothers becoming fabulously wealthy even after having passed on a share of the loot to their British partners and judges.

Q: You say that the collapse of the harmonious Indian culture was also because of the fact that the new political masters (British) kept themselves distinguished from the locals. However, sometimes they also adopted Indian food, dress, culture, etc.

Answer: There were only a few exceptions that began to live like Indians after British rule began, and they were dismissed as mavericks; the British took great pride in wearing heavy British clothes even in the heat. Officials laughed at the sight of such attire when an English delegation called to pay homage to Shivaji. As my book will indicate — and all the sources are original, from contemporary accounts — even some officials could not understand this attire-fundamentalism. In contrast the Portuguese, although they could be and were cruel, learnt quickly to adapt to local norms in dress. A Superiority Complex, born partly out of racism and partly out of military success, was intrinsic to the British sense of themselves in India. The “natives” were of a lower order, and there were many British intellectuals and liberals who understood that this deep flaw in their ruling philosophy would become counterproductive. But their attempts at reforms were easily sabotaged by majority British opinion.

The British were brilliant in their ability to convey that they had brought order to a chaotic India. Yes, there was disorder during some stretches of the 18th century in some parts of the subcontinent, but this was never true of the whole country. The British also positioned themselves as the messengers of modernity, who were bringing the science of development of Europe to the backward east. The facts of economic exploitation, most horrifyingly evident in the many many millions who died in famine after famine, show that this science was never meant for the welfare of the Indian but for the propagation of colonial rule. The facts about famines were unbearable even when I was writing them.

Q: Doolally Sahibs, as you write, were almost maniac British officials who were returning to their hometowns in Britain after completing their duties in India? Please explain why they were called Doolally?

Answer: Doolally is now a word in the dictionary; indeed, I just saw it being used in reference to the Downing Street parties held during the pandemic lockdown in Britain. It originates from the Deolali cantonment, the holding area for British troops on their way back home. Naturally, spirits were high at the prospect of returning home and if you were tipsy or off your balance you were said to have gone Doolally… As for the loot of India, the best evidence comes from memoirs of the “White Nabobs”, of Company officials who turned their bribes into diamonds and stitched them in their shoes on the ship back to England. The British were excellent diarists, whether they were prelates like the wonderful Bishop Heber [a remarkably honest and wise priest] or the rather different Philip Francis, who wanted to unseat Warren Hastings. Hastings, by the way, was ready to bribe his opponents in the governing council by paying them a hundred thousand pounds each, a staggering sum, and equivalent to a present British Prime Minister paying millions of pounds from his private resources gathered through bribes to Cabinet colleagues opposed to him.

Q: Please explain how Indians take revenge against British racism by illustrating some examples?

Answer: The Indian response came at many levels — as we have seen earlier, most Indian rulers fought back against the British advance, and had to pay a heavy price for defeat. The Indian people were more subtle, but they knew what they were doing. The stories are often hilarious — which I hope is a good inducement for readers to buy the book!


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