Thursday, July 28, 2011

A History of Looting and Pillaging

---From the Pages of History.

The History of India is one of accommodating ethnic groups as diverse as Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Mughals, Persians, Europeans and the British. Except for the Parsees who identified themselves completely with the country and merged with it, each group made use of the country’s wealth either to enrich themselves and enjoy or siphon it off to their distant native land from where they had migrated. From the 16th century onwards, India was home to the Turko-Afghan Mughal dynasty. It was here in India that the Mughals lived and utilized the land and its resources for encouraging an economy that sustained their lavish urbane lifestyles.

During the rule of the Mughals, the country’s resources – Gold, silver, other precious metals, agricultural and non-agricultural products, architectural treasures, literary treasures etc were rarely siphoned out of the country. They were albeit put to different uses generating new reservoirs of wealth that catered to the tastes and manners of the ruling class. This trend was reversed in the middle of the 18th century by the British when the East India Company set foot on the Indian soil. Unlike their predecessors, the Mughals, it was the policy of the British not to recycle and redistribute India’s wealth 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 from India to sustain their larger Empire. Wealth was also acquired by loot and plunder during war with the Indian polities and as war indemnity and booty. As drain of wealth came to characterize British power and authority, the worst casualty was Indian society.

The distinction between the Mughal and the British way of draining the country’s wealth can be better understood by a few illustrations. For instance, the Mughals looted some temples in the South and also fought wars with the Rajputs in the North. Whatever booty they got during these conquests were utilized within the country in fostering architectural activity or building their craft and literary arsenals. The Mughal Emperors were patrons of literature, calligraphy, painting, music, other fine arts and crafts. The acquired wealth was freely expended to encourage these activities and artists to give their best. The direction of expenditure was aesthetic pleasure of the ruling dynasties. 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 the Mughal power and invincibility.

The critical difference in the direction of flow of the nation’s wealth was introduced when the East India Company came to India and acquired political power in 1757. The Company made it a rule that the revenues generated by the British in Bengal and other provinces under their control were utilized to maintain not only the British power but also sustain their Empire. The Britishers on posting to India rarely shifted their families to India. India remained just a ‘posting’ to them. It was never a ‘home’ to them as was the case with the Mughals. In British India, not only were salaries and pensions of British officers posted to India and transferred back to Britain but the fortunes amassed by them during their tenure were also dispatched home to be invested there. The fortunes of the British acquired legally and illegally, were by no means small. Their treasure in England was also enriched by their corrupt practices and dealings with the Princely States. In this context it is significant to note that when Robert Clive, Founder of the British rule in India, returned to England in 1760, he had with him 2, 30,000 Pounds in Dutch bills, 41,000 Pounds in bills on the Company, 30,000 Pounds worth of diamonds and other precious stones, 7,000 Pounds paid to him by the Company as its Director. It is learnt that even an ordinary British subordinate in the services of the Company had received 5,000 Pounds as bonus after the Battle of Plassey. Needless to say that all this booty was from the resources of the country.

Income transferred to Britain was generated in a variety of ways. Gifts given by the rulers of Princely States to keep their British masters in good humour were an important source of revenue. Apart from gifts, incomes were also generated by accepting bribes as well. The higher the position of the British officer in the hierarchy, greater was the wealth that was siphoned out..

War booty which included confiscated precious stones like diamonds, ruby, emerald, pearls etc was another source. Today much of this kind of wealth constitutes the British crown jewels. The famed diamond, the Kohinoor, now part of the British Crown, is an important case in point. This was confiscated at the conclusion of the Sikh War in 1840. The East India Company wanted to keep it to pay for the war but the Governor General Dalhousie had promised the Home Government in London that the Kohinoor would find its most appropriate resting place in the Crown of Britain. It is said that the diamond was carried by the Governor General in person [who got it sewn to his belt] from Lahore to Bombay and to the ship HMS Media to be taken to Queen Victoria. No one knows the value of Kohinoor since it has never been traded. It is said that in the entire world there is no diamond as fabulous and precious as the Kohinoor. Legend has it that the Kohinoor is the same mythological precious diamond called ‘Syamantaka’ gifted by the Sun God to Satrajith over which Krishna faced charges of theft, according to the Syamanthakopakhyana [which we read during the Ganapathi Festival] from the Skanda Puranam.

It was however the large scale transfer of precious Oriental manuscripts compiled and collected by native rulers, institutions, libraries and men of letters etc to Europe that dealt a big blow to India’s intellectual heritage. While Western scholars like Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkin were inspired by intellectual curiosity, knowledge was also essential for the Government since they believed in the adage ‘Knowledge is Power’.
The British Government was particularly interested in the acquisition of books pertaining to texts on governance, law, religion and the sciences. Acquisition of literary arsenals of the various vanquished Indian princes was symbolic of superior power of the British conquerors. In this context, the plunder of Tipu Sultan’s Library by the British armies after the fall of the Srirangapatnam Fort [1719-1721] is noteworthy. The Duke of Wellington picked up a horde of Arabic and Persian manuscripts after he captured Tippu’s Srirangapatnam and forwarded 197 of them to the India Office Library in London. In 1806, Colonel Mackenzie, who surveyed Mysore on the Governor General’s order, is said to have collected more than 1,500 manuscripts in 13 languages and 19 scripts. Similarly, one William Watson, an official of the East India Company, picked up an album of early 18th Century Ragamalika Paintings during the Rohilla War and sent them to the British Museum in London. The India Office Library today is said to possess 1,700 manuscripts, mostly Mughal. The Bodleian Library at Oxford, it is learnt, has more than 10,000 Sanskrit manuscripts. Out of nearly 7,000 paintings of the great painter Raja Ravi Varma [1848-1906], a majority of them today adorn the Art Museums of Europe. We can have some idea of the loss of art wealth to India if we realize that in 2002 Ravi Varma’s oil painting ‘Yashoda and Krishna’ fetched Rs 50 lakhs, a record price for any painting in India.


Created: Friday, February 12, 2010 8:54 PM


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