Time to Rewrite History
Itihaas by Akhilesh Mithal
May, 10th, 1998 Akhilesh Mithal

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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 defence. 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 Stephen’s 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 Noorani’s book The Trial of Bhagat Singh has Khushwant’s 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 Nazim’s 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 Nawab’s 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 one’s 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 silver occurred.

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 line.

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 India’s Independence.

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 India’s benefit.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1998. All rights reserved.
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