Sunday, June 24, 2007

Had there been a battle at Plassey

Saturday was the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey. To mark the event, we present our thoughts on what could have happened if the John Company had lost on 23 June 1757.

Of course, as every school child in Desh knows, no battle actually was fought at Plassey on that day because cliques led by his vizier betrayed the Nawab. Had there been actual fighting, sheer numerical superiority probably would have handed the Nawab victory.

What would have happened if the Nawab had won?

His army would almost certainly have burnt Calcutta to the ground. The Company would have lost all its privileges in Bengal. But would it have survived in the South? The Madras presidency was a separate entity, and there is no reason why it would have folded if Calcutta was lost. But would the Company have been so weakened that it would have ceased its rivalry with the French? And if the English Company was sufficiently weakened, would the Dutch Company have returned to the game in Desh?

By the 1750s, the Mughal Empire was in the process of disintegrating. There were principalities — Hindus and Muslims, large and small; Bengal, Hyderabad and Awadh, all Muslim, being the three large ones — that accorded the Mughal throne de jure allegiance while maintaining de facto independence. These post-Mughal states weren’t always friendly to each other. And then there was the Maratha confederacy, the first Hindu power to seek mastery of the entire Desh in many centuries.

The European companies operated in this world. In ‘the famous 200 days’, Clive gained mastery of Bengal and put the English Company way ahead of its French rival (the Dutch had conceded the contest earlier). Had Plassey gone the other way, the French perhaps would have come out ahead.

Or perhaps not.

We know that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore were no anglophiles (see how Tipu's tiger mauls a sahib).

Bengal and Mysore probably would have become French allies, but perhaps the English would have formed an alliance with the Marathas. Perhaps in the course of the next few decades, a stand off would have ensued, with two alliances — French backed Bengal-Mysore entente and the English-allied Marathas — facing each other across the remnants of the Mughal Empire.

Which way would Hyderabad, Awadh and various Rajput and Afghan princes have gone?

There is no reason to think that the developments in Desh would have significantly affected the American and French revolutions. But Napoleon’s defeat would almost certainly have weakened the French Company. While this would have meant a Maratha ascendancy across Desh by the 1810s, a Maratha supremacy would by no means have been a certainty. By the 1820s, Ranjit Singh would have seated on this throne, overseeing his Sikh kingdom, adding one more power in the game.

Fearful of the expansionist power to the north beyond Hindu Kush and the Oxus, the Sikh king would surely seek alliance with some other European power, but who would that power have been?

By the 1840s and the 1850s, Desh would have become the setting of a great game of intrigue and high politics involving home grown and foreign players. How would the game end? Would there have been one massive war? Or would there have been a cold war? Who would have come out on top in that Great Game?