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Phantoms of Plassey lurk still

  • Published at 06:41 pm June 24th, 2018
Colonialism still haunts our minds

We have the expertise, let us take charge of our own destiny

One side’s hero is the other side’s villain -- various interpretation of world history will provide ample evidence to support that line. For decades, socialist revolutionaries like Che and Castro were deemed icons by millions, whereas for countless others, these two, with the chutzpah to be disobedient to the US, were symbols, not of freedom, but of socialist tyranny.

Well, the same perhaps will apply for Robert Clive, who led the victory of the British East India Company against the Nawab of Bengal, on June 23, 1757.

If Clive had not won that battle, with a combination of skullduggery and astute military skills, the history of the Indian sub-continent would have possibly unfolded differently. For the British, Clive can be the epitome of the colonial ambition, a man who played the game of imperialism with oomph and brought immense wealth.

Then, from our side, we were taught how Clive was depraved and wicked, who resorted to devious means to engineer the fall of Nawab Sirajuddaula. 

The non-partisan narrative should be -- Clive was a product of a time when expansionism by force was actively pursued by all, and with imperialism derring-do came the prospect of immense wealth, social status, and honour.

Being the maverick that Clive was, in an age when taking risk could either get one killed or bring recognition, he decided to go for it.

Of course, no one can deny that chicanery played a prominent part in his strategic move to overthrow the Nawab and take over control for the sake of cementing commercial monopoly for the East India Company.

Ensuring unfettered trade that was the main reason -- driving out the French and taking hold over the commercial ventures.

Interestingly, when we were taught at school “the sad setting of independence following the Battle of Plassey,” the core issue was sidelined in favour of rousing nationalistic passion.

The history that ignored the core reason leading to Plassey

The accounts we were given had clearly defined sides: The good, meaning the Nawab and his allies; the bad, indicating to the British and their cohorts.

In reality, the battle was just an extension of the Seven Years’ War, raging in Europe with France and Britain on two opposing sides. The main cause was to fight and maintain control over trade routes and ports. History books hardly touched on the commercial war between two European powers that got entangled with the Nawab’s court intrigue.

The fact is, by the mid-18th century, European presence in India was far more consolidated and Plassey was just the final step in securing foreign control.

When Sirajuddaula took over, foreign merchants already had formidable presence here with forts plus heavily-armed first-rate ships of the line.

The sun of independence, actually began to set in 1690, when Emperor Aurangzeb had the East India Company in his hands to crush in what is known as the Child’s War, and then, faced with the traders’ reverential apology, decided to permit them to carry on trading. 

Hypothetically speaking, if the Nawab had not been betrayed by his general at Plassey, then today, I would possibly be writing this article in French.

But how important is Plassey within the current socio-political setting, with Bangladesh moving towards greater prosperity?

Perhaps, it is not merely history that we like to evoke from time to time to recall inside treachery, fomented by outsiders.

Plassey evokes servitude and protracted mental subjugation

When we talk of the battle between the British and Nawab Sirajuddaula, the discussion is not limited to the conflict only. Inevitably, the long colonial period comes into the conversation with the seen/unseen legacy of imperialism.

Today, Britain has many development engagements in Bangladesh, with a large Brit-Bangladeshi community, forming part of a multicultural society in the UK.

Yet, somewhere inside our heads, pernicious colonial period concepts linger.

The first is the belief that outsiders (basically people from countries that were once imperialist) are in some way more talented or skilled than us. Such a thought was implanted in the heads of millions during the colonial era as part of a strategy to ensure that locals looked up to their masters with a mix of awe and fear.

The objective was to inject and seal in the minds of Indians that they are psychologically, physically inferior.

It worked brilliantly along with the divide-and-rule policy, preventing any major united uprising capable of threatening the empire.

The disquieting thing is, this was done with such precision that even when we were young in the 70s, decades after British rule ended, there was a prevalent feeling among the general people that any “white” person had to be superior.

This highly toxic belief was passed on from generation to generation and, sadly, still persists to this day.

Secondly, as a result of that ingrained notion, many of our skilled seem unsure to stand up and boldly assert: We have the expertise, let us take charge of our own destiny; no hand-holding is required.

Bluntly speaking, we automatically think that when an outsider is speaking about something, it’s gospel, terming their suggestions absolutely flawless.

From a historical perspective, keeping a liberal mind, I find Baron Robert Clive to be a desperado worth commending. He did what was right in that era. Our biggest mistake is that we still permit colonial era sentiments to haunt us and manipulate our outlook. Exorcising the phantoms of Plassey is the need of the time, Clive was smart in his period, let us be audacious and canny in ours. 

Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.

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