Time to Rewrite History
Itihaas by Akhilesh Mithal
May, 10th, 1998 © Akhilesh Mithal
Vasco Da Gama landed in India, at Calicut 500 years ago on May 20, 1498.
On this 20th May, the 500th anniversary, what should we make of the Indo-European
interaction? Ideally, a history which Europeans attempt to whitewash what was a period of
unmitigated cruelty and exploitation should be exposed, negatived and expunged!
Much that has been written by Hindu historians and their
opposite numbers, the Muslim historians needs to be scrapped. The same applies
to the British versions of Indian history. It is, after all, the case for the
When a murderer, rapist, arsonist or looter is called to book, he or she will plead
innocence or grave and most aggravating provocation.
Also, after the heat of the moment had subsided, great attempts were made
to rehabilitate the victim. In Delhi, the month of May 1998 saw the projection of six
films made for BBC with the object of portraying the relationship between Britain
and India and exploring its history through monuments and archives.
The monuments selected for attention are not missionary institutions like
St Stephens Mission College which would have brought out the best of the British to
come to India like Deenabandhu Charles Freer Andrews. They are either megalomaniac, ugly
and sinister piles like the Viceregal Lodge in Dillee or the symbols of exploitation like
the Lahore railway station.
The choice of people interviewed includes Khushwant Singh who waxes
eloquent about Lord Irwin reacting stoically to a failed bomb attempt on his life. No hint
is given and not the slightest allusion made to Bhagat Singh who gave himself up to the
police of the British to submit to hideous torture and finally to death by hanging.
A G Nooranis book The Trial of Bhagat Singh has Khushwants
father Sobha Singh appear as Prosecution Witness Number Seven. In the present case, the
son gives testimony and bears witness to defend the British intrusion.On the positive
side, we have the writer, narrator, presenter, William Dalrymple discover and exhibit an
ancestor who perished on June 20, 1756, in the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Although he claims to be impartial as he was born well after 1947, this
display of murdered ancestry can only make him partisan. Is his selection for the job a
good thing for British-Indian relationship? Perhaps an Indo-British Commission could
examine the vexed but as yet undecided question hanging over 1756/1757.
Was the 20-year-old Nawab Nazim of Bengal, Sirajuddowlah really a monster?
Did he delight in sinking boats full of hapless subjects in order to enjoy the spectacle
of their deaths by drowning? This and other atrocities are attributed to Sirajuddowlah by
the British. The idea appears to be one of providing a backdrop leading to the Black Hole
in order to make it plausible and credible.
The only evidence that 145 men and one woman were incarcerated in a
semi-basement prison after the Nawab Nazims troops stormed Fort William is from the
polemical tracts written by James Zephaniah Holwell. The London Press of the time reported
the loss of the Fort William but made no mention of the tragedy.
The draft treaty proposed by Clive after the British return to Bengal
asked for no reparations on the Black Hole account. Holwell has the single female prisoner
removed to the Nawabs seraglio and 123 men die of suffocation. Including the
ancestor of William Dalrymple!
Against Holwell is evidence of his being a chronic liar and compulsive
yarn spinner. Also the physical impossibility of squeezing 146 pairs or 292 human feet
into a space measuring 270 square feet. He also claims to have laid himself down to sleep
during that night.
From the Indian side there is little record to go by. Fortunately, all the
officials of even the later Mughals were literate and cultivated the arts of the time.
This included poetry. The Naib (deputy) of Sirajuddowlah, Raja Ram Narain wrote Urdu
poetry under the nom d plume Mauzoon.
When he heard of the defeat and death of Sirajuddowlah he did not say,
Thank God! the horror has got what was coming to him and what he deserved. He
recited a verse which is on the tongue of all Urdu-loving people. We reproduce the text in
Roman script to enable readers to speak and enjoy the roll of it on the tongue and the
sound of it to the ear.
Ghizaalaan toum toa waaqif hoa kahoa mujnoun kay murrney keeDeewaanaa murr
guyaa aakhir koa, veeraaney pey kyaa guzaree!(O gazelles of the desolation, you who are in
the know for only you were there when this dark deed occurred, and you are the informed
and sentient ones, Tell us, as you are the informed and sentient ones what was
the death of Majnoun like? The one obsessed and possessed by his passion has died.
How did his going affect the wilderness?)The loot from Murshidabad was
carried in hundreds of boats via Calcutta to London and Clive became the richest man in
the kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The capital needed for the
Industrial Revolution to begin in England had been acquired, in one felled swoop.
Another myth retailed by the British and repeated by the films is about
the railways that the British cobbled India into a unity with the railway
tracks as the securing thongs. The same myth was taught in British Indian schools as
railways the great gift of the Whites to their Black subjects.
The railways, in fact, were paid for by the ever more impoverished Indians
in a manner which would make multinationals operating in banana republics look
angelic.Fortunately for Truth we have a book by William Digby CIE Prosperous British India
published at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was seen briefly in the first and only
Indian reprint in 1969 and is again unavailable.
The railways were over 22,000 miles in length, and have cost, with land
acquired, loss on interest and other expenses, considerably more than 300 million pound
sterling. Practically the whole of the sum invested is held by Europeans, barring that
which Feudatory States benevolently loaned.
In regard only to a portion of it has amortisation been provided, and that
as in the case of the East India and Great Peninsular Railway on terms most
costly to the Indian taxpayer.
Amortisation from the start would have made a difference of many million
pounds sterling to the advantage of the Indian taxpayer, and, with wise provision, the
earlier railways might have been largely redeemed before the great fall in the value of
India has been very hard hit in all these transactions. Forty million
pounds have been taken from general revenue to make up the guaranteed interest to
shareholders. That sum will never be repaid.
... it was agreed that the railway companies would receive interest
at the guaranteed rate of five per cent plus half the profits, no account being taken of
deficits, that remittances would be converted at the rate of 1s.10d. to the rupee every
half year being treated as the accounting period.
The Indian government bore all the loss of unprofitable half years, and,
after 1875 never received its full share of the gain in the profitable ones as the rupee
fell below 1s.10d. The shareholders received a gradually increasing share of the profits.
The contractual obligation to pay interest at the rate of per cent
deprived the State of advantage from cheaper money. It could raise funds at the rate of
two-and-a-half or three per cent and this would pay off the loans taken at higher (five
per cent) interest.
Alas! this was forbidden.Or the three lines in question (Great
Indian Peninsular, Bombay Baroda and Central India, and the Madras lines) the average
proportion of earnings yearly remitted to England 1892-1897 was 99.70 per cent while net
annual loss to the Government amounted to Rs 13 million, a tax imposed on the Indian
public for the benefit of British shareholders.
The same author established the relative advantages for the people as
between the railways and irrigation. The canals won by a proportion of seven to one. But
railways were needed to bring British goods from the coast to the markets inland and to
take raw materials out. Thus much more capital was spent on rails than on canals.
Old irrigation works like tanks in the South were allowed to fall into
ruin. There was no money in water. Rail lines were laid out most callously across cities
and no heed paid to structures that came in the way. The Red Fort of Delhi has a whole
area destroyed by the railways.
The gardens in the heart of Shahjahanabad were laid waste by the rail
tracks. The city was divided into two. This happened to Lucknow also. The grave of Mir
Taqi Mir the great Urdu poet disappeared under the sleepers of the rail
tracks. In Agra, the mausoleum of Bhanumati titled Jagat Gosain daughter of Rai Rai Singh
of Bikaner and mother of Shah Jahan was blown up for making way to accommodate the rail
In 1942, the railways were targeted by those participating in the Quit
India movement so as to indicate they represented a running sore and a scar on the body of
the Indian nation. The series shows that like the Ancient (Bourbon) Regime of France the
British have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing in the half century of
They have so confused the Indians that they cannot make up their minds
whether they achieved Independence after 200 years or 1,000 years. It is obvious there is
much confusion about. Why blame the Brits? Except of course, when they go too far in an
effort to show that their rule was for Indias benefit.
© Akhilesh Mithal, 1998. All rights reserved.
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