June 23, 2007

Plassey : Agony or Ecstasy ?

Today is the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, where on the banks of the Hooghly River, near the town of Murshidabad, Robert Clive and his Indian allies, defeated the Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal and laid the foundation of British Rule.

There will be events to commemorate this Battle and the overwhelming tone and tenor of these events will be that of regretful nostalgia .. to commiserate with the subjugation of India and its loss of independence to a foreign military power.

But is this really correct ?

Should we not celebrate this event as the dawn of the Indian Renaissance ?

Politically correct historians and semi-literate bards and dramatists have given this event an emotional tone that is quite out of sync with the real emotions that were felt by the common people who lived in those tumultuous times.

I believe that the population was actually quite jubilant at the fall of the tyrannical Nawab -- and the utter lawlessness that his rule symbolised -- and a direct echo of that is found even today ! Calcutta's famous Durga Puja festival which is so widely publicised and celebrated today has its roots in the celebration that followed Clive's victory in Plassey ! Though this fact is often ignored when we watch tired and cliched dramatic performances ( the Bengal Jatra's ) which groan and moan about the fall of Siraj.

In the wider perspective of India, the event of Plassey, heralded the end of medieval times and sowed the seeds of a new beginning.

Had it not been Plassey, the medievalist Muslim aristocracy that had kept India under its heel since the 12th century, would have been very difficult to dislodge. Despite the energetic protestations of politically correct historians and despite the occasional generosity of a handful of Akbar-like liberal rulers, it is fact that the Hindu population of India had been terrorised into a sullen submission ...

While the Babri Masjid may be a subject of scholarly debate, the facts at the ground level are abundantly clear ...

For example in Bengal, there are literally hundreds of Hindu temples that were ravaged by people like Kala Pahar -- the notorious Muslim tyrant who ruled South Bengal. To see and example, please visit the famous Kankalitala temple near Shantiniketan and you will see the remnants of vast ShivaLinga that has been felled by his thugs.

Similarly Sri Chaitanyadeb, one of the leading lights of Vaishanava movement in Bengal had to flee to Puri to save his dignity, if not his life, from these tyrants.

So it is childish to believe that the people of Bengal mourned the passing of the Nawab's rule. In fact, conch shells were blown and diya's were lit in village after village when the news of Clive's victory or rather the fall of the Nawab was received. These celebrations coalesced into the triumphant Durga Puja celebrations .. that have since become a part of Bengali mindscape. [ A contemporary analogy would be the eviction of the worthless and incompetent Nawab of Hyderabad by the Sardar Patel ... do people in modern Andhra Pradesh mourn his absence ? ]

At a national level, the Battle of Plassey, paved the way for British Rule in India. Again, there can be a debate on whether British rule was a curse or a blessing ..

Economic historians have pointed out that because of British economic policies, India's share of global GDP declined precipitously and the country went from being a land of riches to a land of poverty.

I would argue that while British economic policies might have been partly responsible, the real problem was that India was stuck in the past ... cut off from the groundswell of science and technology that would be the engine for future growth. Without access to this new schools of thought, India was doomed anyway ... irrespective of whether the economic policies were favourable or hostile.

In any case, India was falling back, or the world was surging forward .. and we would have been left behind anyway !!

The Battle of Plassey was our ticket to board the train to progress, albeit a third-class ticket .. but a ticket nevertheless. Without it India would have been left behind on the platform !

The Battle of Plassey paved the way for British Rule. The change of leadership allowed the liberals to stand up and raise their head. Without the Battle of Plassey, there would have been no city like Calcutta and without a modern city there would have been no Bengal Renaissance ..

Without this Renaissance, there would have been no Raja Rammohan Roy, no Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, no female education, no reforms in Hindu society, no institutions like Presidency College, no Vivekananda, no CV Raman, no Jagadish Bose, no Hargobind Khorana ... all the way down to no Kalpana Chawla, no Infosys, no TCS and no sign of the resurgent Sensex !!

And to think that all that goes back to that rain drenched field at Plassey where on the 23rd of June 1757, the forces of modernity and progress triumphed over the forces of regressive medievialism ...

250 years ago, not too many people were perhaps aware of the significance of event ... except to celebrate the overthrow of a local tyrant.

Today we know better. So let us celebrate this anniversary as the 250th anniversary of the Indian Renaissance.

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