Pamila Nightingale says: “Haider Ali, the Mysorean leader, was an upstart adventurer, who had displaced the old royal house and with ruthless ability sought to extend his power over southern India” (Trade and Empire in Western India 1783-1806, Cambridge University Press, 1970).

So the British coming out of their dark, dank island thousands of miles away in order to take the wealth of South Asia and many other places were not adventurers, but Haider Ali became one because his kingdom sat between the Madras presidency and the one of Bombay. His son, Tipu Sultan, was, according to the same author, if anything worse as he had confined the East India Company “to its small and practically defenceless trading posts in Malabar.......”

Of course, Britain’s problem was not so much with Haider Ali or Tipu as with the fact that, once the British had conquered the fertile Bengal with its huge agricultural and industrial production, the company was not particularly anxious to invest much in Gujrat. The British were in South Asia not just to buy and sell. Not even to rely on the putting-out system for manufacture. They wanted to control the trade of the whole subcontinent. They wanted their cut in every major transaction. For example, the traders of Malabar were not allowed to sell pepper to anyone, except to the British. And the latter readily employed their navy to impose this regime. Well it makes sense!

The British sailed half-an-year on sailing-ships, eating turtle all the way, to attain South Asia and its heat, not for sight-seeing but to make money and that as quickly as possible. They would not put up with anyone getting in their way. Their conquest of Bengal with its immeasurable riches had assured their ultimate conquest of the whole subcontinent. However, hurdles remained in the way in the shape of Shujauddaulas and Haider Alis. The first, the ruler of Awadh, was the first South Asian ruler to take the initiative in attacking the British. His troops fought in Buxar for four days. But once defeated, he just crumbled and agreed to make his kingdom a British protectorate. Tipu held out till the end, being killed on the battlefield, sword in hand. For his uncompromising resistance to imperialism, he earned the epithets “fanatic” and “stubborn” from his enemies.

The transfer of tribute from South Asia to England was in the shape of goods and money. Goods were paid for in silver brought from the new world. After Plassey, the products, mainly from Bengal, were paid for by the state revenues raised in Bengal itself. No silver needed to be transferred from Britain for these imports. Any surplus of revenue left after meeting administrative expenses was transferred in cash, i.e. tribute in its purest form.

This means that a part of South Asia’s economy had already been monetised before the coming of the British. The economy being big and South Asia being the most industrialised part of the world in the 18th century, the absolute volume of monetisation there must have been very great. Therefore, the transfer of money from here would not have posed a problem. However, this money in the form of precious metals, had first to concentrate in the hands of the various South Asian governments in order to be turned into tribute. Ultimately, the source of all value-creation was the peasants and handicraftsmen. The coercive machinery arranged its transfer to the ruling class. The British left the primary exploitation - depriving the producers of the greater part of the value created by them - to the local potentates themselves. Puncturing those hoards was then easy.

Actually, the greatest weakness of South Asia was the absence of patriotism among its inhabitants. Mohammad Husain Azad narrates that when Nadir Shah attacked the Mughal Empire, ruled at the time by Mohammad Shah, a noble of the empire, Burhanul Mulk, took the initiative in attacking the invader and pushing him back. Nadir Shah agreed to take Rs 20 million and go away.

However, another noble, who had taken no part in fighting, intrigued in the court to take the credit for repulsing Nadir. Thereupon an outraged Burhan met Nadir and told him that Delhi was not only rich, but almost denuded of troops. So Nadir occupied the capital, killed thousands and carried away treasures built up over generations.

Patriotism is the product of national consciousness, which, in turn, is the bourgeois ideology. Capitalist ruling class, upon gaining power, creates the nation around a national market. This is done by removing all the hurdles to the movement of goods within the country and building a single customs wall around it. In addition, the state unifies the currency and the national laws, and promotes a national language, leading to a single educational system. As a result, the people acquire a strong feeling of nationalism.

The South Asians, who still lived in a pre-capitalist society in the 18th century, freely allied themselves with foreigners against their own sovereign, were extremely surprised when the English and French soldiers, who fell into their hands, refused to change allegiance no matter what the price offered.

The writer is a retired ambassador. Email: