Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Assistant Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
What constitutes the wealth of our nation? Who generated this wealth? Whose wealth is it? Can we date its loss? These are difficult questions and there are no simple answers. Yet, historically speaking one can discern certain phases that saw an unprecedented drain of India's resources: revenues, labour, gold, artefacts, jewels and valuable manuscripts containing scientific and religious knowledge about the people of this country. Given the variety of cultural encounters that shaped India's history it is not surprising that attitudes to its wealth varied at different points of time.
Gulab Singh, Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Painting in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The history of India is one of accommodating ethnic groups as diverse as the Aryans from Central Asia, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Persians, Europeans and the British. Each of these people represented a distinct civilisational ethos. After the initial act of conquest they all settled in the country as "rulers." Yet, each was different in the varying notions' of power that they sought to introduce. The most clear distinction was that between the pre-colonial "Asian" rulers and the British who became masters after the middle of the 18th century.
From the 16th century India was home to the Turko-Afghan Mughal dynasty with its Persian elite support base. It was here that generations of Mughals lived and utilised the land and its resources for encouraging an economy that sustained their lavish urbane lifestyles. The fact that India was home to the Mughals continues to be part of popular memory. Today the commonly accepted belief that the last of the Mughal Emperor died in "exile," in Rangoon away from his homeland, India, aptly reflects this mood.
Popular perceptions about the Mughals were by no means unfounded. The initial invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni in the early 11th century may have targetted the temple wealth of India for padding up a homeland in Central Asia; but from the 13th century onwards India was home to the Turkish dynasty of Iltumish and later the Turko-Afghan ruling house of the Mughals. The country's resources _ bullion, gold, agricultural and non-agricultural production, even the architectural treasures were rarely ever siphoned out. They were albeit put to different uses generating new reservoirs of wealth that catered to the tastes and manners of the urbane ruling class. This trend was to be disrupted in the middle of the 18th century by the British.
In the galaxy of those who ruled India the British stand apart. Unlike their Mughal predecessors India's wealth was not meant to be recycled and redistributed within the country. Instead its ultimate destination was London. British notion of power was based on the appropriation and drain of the maximum possible revenue and labour surplus from India to sustain their larger Empire. Wealth was also acquired by loot and plunder during war with Indian polities and as war indemnity and booty. As "drain of wealth" came to characterise British power the worst casuality was Indian economy and society.
Loot and plunder were hallmarks also of pre-colonial medieval political cultures. But the distinction with the British looting forays lay in the fact that in pre-British India the looted wealth never left the Indian subcontinent. Thus for instance the Mughals looted wealth from temples in the South or even during their drives against the Rajputs in the north; but this was utilised within the country in fostering architectural activity or building their craft and literary arsenals.
The Mughal Emperors were patrons of literature, calligraphists, painters, poets, singers and craftsmen. A variety of Persian writing bureaucracy - both Hindu and Muslim - found patronage in their court. Wealth was freely expended to encourage these artists to give their best. The results were soon evident. The Mughal Empire was famous for its beautifully calligraphed and often illustrated manuscripts. The Ain-i-Akbari and the Akbarnama produced by Abul Fazl at Emperor Akbar's behest were representative cases in point. Translation of pre-Mughal manuscripts on Indian mythology, religion and sciences was also undertaken on a large scale by the Mughals. This direction of expenditure was of - course for aesthetic pleasure of the dynasts; but it was also a critical strategy for "knowing" the people and politics of India for exercising a greater administrative control. Wealth acquired through trade and fiscal revenues along with booty was also recycled in the construction of architectural monuments that became a major marker of Mughal power and invincibility.
In their redistribution of India's wealth the Mughals were like any other pre-colonial Indian power. Their bete-noirs, the Marathas, did just the same. They too plundered wealth from neighbouring kingdoms of Bijapur, Golconda and even at times Mughal territory to carve out a small kingdom out of a marginal frontier area of Bijapur and Ahmedabad. Shivaji, the Maratha leader, literally survived on raids and booty collected by his light cavalry. But the wealth raided from the neighbouring territories and the rich Mughal port of Surat was utilised for building forts and maintaining armies for state building. The loot was recycled within India.
The critical difference in the direction of flow of the nation's wealth was introduced with the setting up of British rule. The English East India Company which acquired political power in 1757 was not merely another Indian state. The defining disjunction that Company rule heralded was the use of the revenues of Bengal for the maintenance of an imbalanced commercial tie between Britain and India. Bullion inflow into India was to ease out; instead Indian goods were to be bought by the British from the revenues of Bengal. Initially Bengal and later the revenues of most of the upper provinces were to maintain not only British power but also sustain their Empire. This was particularly true after the industrial revolution of England when bullion inflows into India were considerably lowered; and India became a supplier of raw material to British industry and a market for her finished products. This imbalanced relation encouraged a functional relationship with the British. The Britishers on posting to India rarely came with their families. India remained a "posting" for them. It was never a home as had been the case with the Mughal Emperors and nobles who lived here with their families for good. Thus in British India not only were salaries and pensions of officers transferred to Britain but the fortunes amassed were also dispatched home to be invested there. The fortunes of the British, acquired legally and illegally were by no means small. They often earned them the title of oriental Nabobs. The title not only connoted an "Indianised" lifestyle but also the corrupt practices and wealth that Britishers associated with oriental princes.
In this context it is significant that when Lord Robert Clive, in many ways the founder of British rule in India, returned to England in 1760, he had with him £ 2,30,000 in Dutch bills, £ 41,000 in bills on the Company, £ 30,000 in diamonds, £ 7,000 in bills on a Company director and £ 5,000 in bills on the Company in Bombay. Even the subalterns in his army had received £ 5,000 after the battle of Plassey (1757). All this was of course from the resources of India.
Incomes transferred to Britain were generated in a variety of ways. Gifts from generous Indian rulers were one important source. Between 1757-65 when the British played the game of replacing Nawabs in Bengal an estimated total of Rs. 2,000,000 was paid out in the form of gifts by various Indian aspirants to the nawabi. More was not given because the total revenue of Bengal at this time was about Rs. 2,5000,000 a year. Apart from gifts incomes were generated by accepting bribes as well. Even "beardless boys" in the Company's service in Lucknow were known to reject "with indignation gratuities of Rs. 3000-5000." Those in higher positions like the Bengal Councillor, James Johnston, the Commander-in-Chief, Richard Smith, Sir Thomas Rumbold, Resident in Patna, retired to take home money to the tune of £ 3,00,000, £ 2,50,000 and £ 2,00,000 respectively.
Amita Prasher Gupta/Fotomedia
War booty, which included confiscated precious stones and jewels, was an all important source of wealth taken out of the country. Today much of this kind of wealth constitutes the British crown jewels. The famed diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, now part of the British crown jewels, is an important case in point. The Koh-i-Noor was confiscated at the conclusion of the Sikh war (1840). The English Company had wanted to keep the diamond to pay for the war, but the governor General, Lord Dalhousie, had promised that it would find its "final and fitting resting place in the crown of Britain."
It was however, the large scale transfer to Europe of precious oriental manuscripts compiled by Indian and Mughal rulers and men of letters that dealt a big blow to India's intellectual heritage. In post Enlightenment Europe the quest for knowledge of "oriental" cultures picked up and drove many scholar administrators, like William Jones, Charles Wilkins, A. H. Polier to India. Their forays into the oriental book bazaars were inspired by their intellectual curiosity; but knowledge was also essential for a better control of Indian society as well. It was for this reason that the British scholar administrators were particularly active in the hunt and purchase of Indian texts on governance, law, religion and the sciences. Acquisition of literary arsenals of the vanquished Indians became also the symbol of the superior power of the British conquerors. In this context the plunder of Tipu Sultan's library by British armies after the fall of Seringapatnam (1791-2) is noteworthy.
Tipu offered a formidable challenge to the British. His ultimate collapse in 1799 is often described via the British takeover of his rich library. In 1799 a gleeful Charles Wilkins, British Sanskritist and orientalist, wrote to Warren Hastings, the Governor General, "the papers have told you truly that the captors of Seringapatnam have reserved Tipoo's library for the Company repositary." Tipu's death at the hands of the British in 1799 became a symbol of great glory and celebration in Britain. Long after his death he remained a compelling theme for British painters. Tipu's treasured items that found place in the Company's museum in London was the "Man Tiger Organ." Constructed by French craftsmen, it depicts the true story of the death of the son of a Company general, Sir Hector Monroe, trapped under a tiger. When the handle is turned the soldier screams and the tiger roars! It needs to be mentioned here that the tiger was Tipu's national motif.
In colonial India the British were not the only ones instrumental in the drain of India's wealth. British power in India, at least in its formative years, rested on a range of Europeans as well. French soldiers, traders, architects and engineers, in particular constituted an informal network of support to British administration in India. The literary wealth of India was shipped to France by soldier trader scholars like A. H. Polier and Jean Baptiste Gentil. Many of their collections are housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. These include priceless Persian manuscripts like the Shahnama and the Akbarnama, besides the Diwan of famous oriental poets Hafiz and the Gulistan and Bostan of Saadi.
Private fortunes amassed by these men of multiple professions were also transferred to France. Large amounts of money were collected through private trade. When Polier left for France at the end of the 18th century he was truly a rich man having participated in private trade. Frenchmen like De Boigne who served Indian rulers as commandants also indulged in private trade and had space for other incomes. In 1797 when De Boigne, who served the Maratha leader Shinde, returned to France he carried his personal savings which amounted to Rs. 4,00,000. The same was the case with Claude Martin, the soldier, surveyor and commander based in Lucknow, who accummulated enough wealth to enable him to play the role of a prominent financier. His wealth was used after his death for philanthropic purposes. The chief beneficiaries were the La Martiniere schools in Lyons, Calcutta and Lucknow.
The long history of India is dotted with diverse cultural interactions. Attitudes to wealth varied from pre-colonial to colonial times. Yet, both sets of rulers left their indelible imprint on the country's political culture. Structures of power and governance, patterns of lifestyle, religious and popular traditions modified and often reinvented in the face of each new encounter. Wealth may have been recycled within the country or siphoned off but the spirit of accommodativeness remained the hallmark of India's history. The rich plurality of Indian tradition is a treasured legacy of this historical process.
Copyrights © 2000, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.