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In the first ar­ti­cle in a se­ries on cor­rup­tion in mod­ern In­dia by Alam Srini­vas, we fo­cus on the man, who sys­tem­a­tised and in­sti­tu­tion­alised it. From his ac­tions, de­ci­sions, be­hav­iour and thoughts em­anated the sprawl­ing ten­ta­cles that shaped into crony cap­i­tal­ism, crony so­cial­ism, nepo­tism, and the stink­ing nexus be­tween pol­i­tics and busi­ness. These over­ar­ch­ing and ugly limbs have en­cir­cled an en­tire so­ci­ety for the past 250 years

BY the third quar­ter of the 18th cen­tury, there was one word in Bri­tain that was both loved and hated, and re­viled and ad­mired. The word was Nabobs. They were not the usual Nawabs, who ruled small and large ter­ri­to­ries in In­dia. They were the ju­nior and se­nior ser­vants of the East In­dia Com­pany, who came back with huge riches from Hin­doostan, bought ex­pen­sive town houses and huge tracts of ru­ral land, and bribed their way to po­lit­i­cal power, or a seat in Bri­tish Par­lia­ment. The Nabobs be­came a part of neo-aris­toc­racy that threat­ened the old or­der. A 1773 pam­phlet claimed: “Lacks and crowes (lakhs and crores) of ru­pees, sacks of di­a­monds... jaghirs and prov­inces pur­loined... have found the de­lights and con­sti­tuted the re­li­gions of the Di­rec­tors (of East In­dia Com­pany) and their ser­vants.” In the same year, an­other writer lamented, “What is Eng­land now? A sink of In­dian wealth, filled by Nabobs.... A gam­ing, rob­bing, wran­gling, (and) rail­ing na­tion with­out prin­ci­ples, ge­nius, char­ac­ter or al­lies.” Au­thor Lawrence James felt that the Com­pany was “a sort of Franken­stein’s mon­ster or, as an­other writer put it, “an em­pire within an em­pire”, al­beit a de­spi­ca­ble and de­ceit­ful one. Robert Clive, the Gov­er­nor of Cal­cutta, was the orig­i­nal Nabob, the Nabob of Nabobs. As a mil­i­tary com­man­der, he was au­da­cious and risk-taker, as a politi­cian, he was ma­nip­u­la­tive and schemer, and as a busi­ness­man, he knew how to break and skirt rules, and use pol­i­tics as a per­sonal tool. For him, the means jus­ti­fied the ends, i.e. per­sonal power and greed. But he also had his loy­al­ists and devo­tees, in­clud­ing the In­dian writer, Ni­rad C Chaud­hari, who wrote the sem­i­nal book, Clive of In­dia. There are vary­ing es­ti­mates of Clive’s wealth. Au­thor John Keay wrote that his share of the £2.5 mil­lion paid by Mir Ja­far af­ter the Bat­tle of Plassey (1757) was £234,000. Ja­far, aided by

the Bri­tish and other co-con­spir­a­tors, in­clud­ing Hindu and Sikh bankers, and Ar­me­nian and other traders, be­came the Nawab of Ben­gal af­ter the de­feat of Si­raj-ud-Daula’s huge army. Clive used a part of the money to buy prop­er­ties in Eng­land, which in­cluded a town house in Berke­ley Square (£10,000) and 10 square miles in ru­ral Shrop­shire (£70,000). What was more ap­palling for the Bri­tish pub­lic was the £30,000 ja­gir (Keay’s es­ti­mate), or per­pet­ual an­nu­ity for life, that Clive ex­tracted from Ja­far in 1759. The galling as­pect was that the ja­gir com­prised the 24 Par­ganas area in Ben­gal, which was un­der East In­dia Com­pany. Hence, as Keay ex­plained, “The Com­pany had to re­mit the fees to col­lect rev­enues in this area not to the Nawab (Ja­far) but one of its em­ploy­ees (Clive).” In essence, Clive be­came his em­ployer’s ‘Over­lord’ or ‘Land­lord”. Over the years – Clive had three stints in In­dia – he found in­ge­nious ways to en­hance his riches. For in­stance, af­ter the Bat­tle of Plassey, Rai Durlabh, one of the con­spir­a­tors, con­trolled the Nawab’s trea­sury. But he was se­cretly in league with the Nabob. In re­turn for a pay­ment of 5 per­cent “of all sums made over to the Com­pany”, Durlabh agreed to in­ter­pret the agree­ment be­tween Ja­far and East In­dia Com­pany in a man­ner to en­sure that “pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als like Clive ben­e­fit­ted”.

WHEN he be­came Cal­cutta’s Gov­er­nor in May 1765, he en­sured that the Com­pany mo­nop­o­lised the in­ter­nal trade in Ben­gal, Bi­har and Oudh (Ut­tar Pradesh) – the lat­ter two came un­der Bri­tish con­trol af­ter the Bat­tle of Buxar (Oc­to­ber 1764). Traders now had to pay div­i­dends to se­nior Com­pany em­ploy­ees to com­pen­sate for their low salaries and re­stric­tions on pri­vate trade that was freely al­lowed ear­lier. The an­nual pick­ings through this route were £200,000; Clive’s share: £21,000. The shenani­gans con­tin­ued. When he reached Madras, on his way to take over as Cal­cutta’s Gov­er­nor, Clive dis­patched a se­cret let­ter to his agent in Lon­don. The com­mu­niqué in­structed the lat­ter to in­vest all the for­mer’s money, in­clud­ing what could be bor­rowed “in my name” to pur­chase the Com­pany’s shares. His loy­al­ists claimed that this was to get more

vot­ing rights to in­flu­ence the de­ci­sions of the com­pany’s di­rec­tors and board. His de­trac­tors con­tended that the plan was to get higher div­i­dends from the higher po­ten­tial In­dian rev­enues af­ter the Bat­tle of Buxar. As Keay con­cluded, “Ei­ther way there can be no ques­tion that the trans­ac­tion (in­struc­tion) was prompted by the news that he gath­ered at Madras (about the ad­di­tional con­trol over Bi­har and Oudh) and that he used the news for per­sonal ad­van­tage.” It was a clas­sic case of in­sider trad­ing, although it wasn’t il­le­gal in those days. When­ever he got the op­por­tu­nity, Clive used his wealth to im­pact the Com­pany’s op­er­a­tions, as well as to nudge the politi­cians’ ac­tions vis-a-vis the Com­pany.

TWO hun­dred and sixty years af­ter Clive first landed in In­dia as a ju­nior-most clerk in 1744 at an an­nual salary of £5, we got a real idea about his wealth. At the 2004 Christie’s auc­tion in Lon­don, some of his ‘In­dia’ loot was sold by his fam­ily. A re­port said, “Rare Mughal trea­sures that were brought to Bri­tain by Robert Clive... were sold for £4.7 mil­lion....” It added, “The high­est price was more than £2.9 mil­lion... for a 17th cen­tury jew­elled flask”, which was “prob­a­bly looted from the Mughal... by Nadir Shah, a Per­sian king who in­vaded In­dia in 1739”. No one had any idea how Clive ac­quired the flask. Sim­i­larly, not many have cred­i­bly ex­plained his trans­for­ma­tion from a short-tem­pered child “prone to de­pres­sion” to an over-ac­quis­i­tive and ma­te­ri­al­is­tic per­son, an army com­man­der who led from the front against all odds, or a mo­ti­vated in­di­vid­ual with grand per­sonal and im­pe­rial de­signs. How­ever, this might be be­cause some of the leg­ends, at least, are just that – em­bel­lished myths per­pet­u­ated by Clive’s sup­port­ers and ben­e­fi­cia­ries. His mil­i­tary ex­ploits, for in­stance, are now tem­pered. In 1746, or two years af­ter Clive ar­rived, the army of French Com­paigne (Com­pany) ran­sacked the Bri­tish fort in Madras. Clive, along with many oth­ers, “sim­ply con­trived to es­cape” to the ad­join­ing fort in Pondicherry. The cap­ture of the Bri­tish Cal­cutta Fort on New Year’s Day in 1757, sev­eral months be­fore the Bat­tle of Plassey, but af­ter Si­raj-ud-Daula oc­cu­pied it the pre­vi­ous sum­mer (1756) be­cause of long and ever-grow­ing grudges and feuds against the Bri­tish, was “ac­ci­den­tal”, and not be­cause of Clive’s feats. Ac­cord­ing to some ac­counts, Clive wanted to as­sault the first line of de­fence to the Cal­cutta fort at dawn. How­ever,

in the night, an ine­bri­ated sailor of the Bri­tish Royal Navy stag­gered to­wards the Baj-Baj de­fence, waded across the wa­ter moat, and scaled a breach in the walls caused by the Bri­tish can­nons the pre­vi­ous day. He was sur­rounded by “in­cred­u­lous guards, but the sailor “flour­ished his cut­lass (a short sword with a slightly curved blade used by sailors in those days) and fired his pis­tol”. The Bri­tish sol­dier cried, “This place is mine.” Hear­ing the com­mo­tion, his com­rades in the no-man’s land rushed for­ward. They were fol­lowed by other sailors, se­poys (In­dian sol­diers in Bri­tish army), and Bri­tish troop­ers. The Nawab’s guards and gar­ri­son melted away. Thus, Baj-Baj, the “first” and, as it turned out later, “and only ob­sta­cle to Cal­cutta fort” was won “by mis­take”. The only Bri­tish sol­dier, who died that night, was also felled by a mis­take – he was shot by a bul­let fired from a Bri­tish army mus­ket. Even the grandiose Clive’s vic­tory in Plassey, ac­cord­ing to James and Keay, was due to luck, pluck, ac­ci­dent, and irony. Although the two ver­sions are not in sync, both the Nabob and Nawab were un­sure about the loy­al­ties of their sup­port­ers. Clive wasn’t con­vinced that co-con­spir­a­tor Ja­far, a se­nior com­man­der in Si­raj-ud-Daula’s army, would com­mit his troops to aid the Bri­tish. He was also un­sure about Ja­far’s troop po­si­tions. Si­raj-udDaula was un­cer­tain about the loy­al­ties of his com­man­ders. So, while Clive was at­tend­ing to his wardrobe, Si­raj-ud-Daula backed off from a de­pres­sion that his ar­tillery oc­cu­pied. A ma­jor on the Bri­tish side spot­ted it, and im­me­di­ately “swept for­ward” with­out Clive’s or­der. When the lat­ter re­turned to the bat­tle­field, he shouted at the ma­jor, but re­alised the op­por­tu­nity, and asked for re­in­force­ments. For­tu­nately, Si­raj-ud-Daula didn’t launch a frontal at­tack. His troops “massed around” the Bri­tish didn’t rush in for a flank­ing at­tack to cut them off be­cause they were pos­si­bly un­der the com­mands of his con­spir­a­tors. Irony ac­com­pa­nied the events. When the Nawab’s gun­ners ac­ci­den­tally set fire to gun­pow­der and added to the con­fu­sion, Ja­far dis­patched a mes­sen­ger to let Clive know about his troops’ po­si­tions. How­ever, the fire was so high that the mes­sen­ger re­fused to cross the bat­tle lines. Un­til the vic­tory, Clive was sus­pi­cious about Ja­far’s in­ten­tions. The oc­cu­pa­tion of the ‘ de­pres­sion’ by the ma­jor proved to be the turn­ing point in the bat­tle.

BUT to be fair to Clive, there are ex­am­ples of his lead­er­ship prow­ess too. The siege of Ar­cot, which was part of the Car­natic Wars be­tween the French and Bri­tish prior to the Ben­gal feats, es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion, su­per­hu­man stamina, and abil­ity to think on his feet. Ac­cord­ing to James, the block­ade in­stilled two traits in every Bri­tish com­man­der – au­dac­ity, i.e. “when a tac­ti­cal choice ex­isted, take the most dar­ing one”, and the abil­ity to em­brace risks to “en­cour­age In­dian se­poys”. At Ar­cot, a thou­sand sol­diers, led by Clive were cooped in for 50 days. They were pit­ted against a French-In­dian force of 10,000 men. How­ever, Clive re­sisted “bribes, threats, bom­bard­ment and as­saults”, and went into an un­ex­pected and even fool­ish offensive that turned into a rout for his en­e­mies. For many his­to­ri­ans, Ar­cot in the Car­natic, and not Plassey in Ben­gal, was the “turn­ing point in Bri­tish (In­dian) for­tunes”. Con­tra­dic­tions, like in his mil­i­tary

ad­ven­tures, ac­com­pa­nied Clive through­out his life. Af­ter his first stint in In­dia, when he sailed back for Eng­land in 1753, he had amassed £40,000, but had the Ar­cot tag on his shoul­ders. In his home coun­try, he spent £5,000 to buy a seat in Par­lia­ment, which was over­turned. When he re­turned to Eng­land for the sec­ond time af­ter the Bri­tish stran­gle­hold on Ben­gal, he was glo­ri­fied for the con­quest, and vi­ciously vil­i­fied for his 24 Par­ganas ja­gir. The day the East In­dia Com­pany ap­proved the va­lid­ity of the ja­gir, it also ruled that its In­dian ser­vants can­not ac­cept any presents from the Hin­doost­ani Rulers, Nawabs, Kings and Em­per­ors with­out the con­sent of its di­rec­tors. The same day, it ap­pointed Clive as the new head of Cal­cutta. The new Gov­er­nor’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­cluded “sort out po­lit­i­cal com­pli­ca­tion and sup­press abuses – like ex­tor­tion­ate present-tak­ing, priv­i­leged pri­vate trade and open de­fi­ance of au­thor­ity”. Iron­i­cally, Clive was con­sis­tently ac­cused of all these mis­de­meanours and more. Most im­por­tantly, we also know of the in­sid­i­ous and prof­itable de­ci­sions he took as the Gov­er­nor that en­hanced his wealth, and those of his sup­port­ers and loy­al­ists. Ob­vi­ously, there were wheels within wheels in the Com­pany’s em­pire within the Bri­tish Em­pire.

AT a cyn­i­cal level, Clive thrived to in­crease the Com­pany’s ter­ri­to­rial hold in In­dia. He con­stantly asked his em­ploy­ers to add more troops since he felt that the In­dian rev­enues could eas­ily off­set the ad­di­tional costs, and yet yield higher prof­its. He wrote to the Bri­tish min­is­ters on this is­sue. At the end of the day, it led to the di­lu­tion of the Com­pany’s pow­ers in In­dia, and the ex­pan­sion of the Crown’s. The first nail in the Com­pany’s cof­fin was ham­mered by the Par­lia­ment’s Reg­u­lat­ing Act of 1773. Per­son­ally, he was grilled and at­tacked by the Par­lia­ment’s Se­lect Com­mit­tee in 1772. Sadly, he com­mit- ted sui­cide in 1774. Un­til his death, he con­tin­ued to de­fend him­self. He main­tained that his ja­gir was for “real ser­vices ren­dered to the Nabob (Ja­far of Ben­gal) at a very dan­ger­ous cri­sis”. As for his wealth and presents he re­ceived, he told the Se­lect Com­mit­tee, “From time im­memo­rial, it has been the cus­tom of that Coun­try (In­dia), for an in­fe­rior never come into the pres­ence of a su­pe­rior with­out a Present.... The Com­pany’s ser­vants have ever been ac­cus­tomed to re­ceive Presents.” He added that every Com­pany’s ser­vant and Crown’s em­ployee (army and navy) has taken presents. Clive was nei­ther the first, nor would he be the last. In 1772, the East In­dia Com­pany was li­able to pay more than £1.5 mil­lion in bills of ex­change to its em­ploy­ees, who had re­turned from In­dia. These bills rep­re­sented the cash earned by its ‘ser­vants’, who loaned their le­gal and il­le­gal In­dian earn­ings to the Com­pany in In­dia, col­lected bills, and ex­changed them for cash in Bri­tain.

Robert Clive

Artist im­pres­sion of the Bat­tle of Plassey

Nawab Si­raj-ud-Daula

by Jan Van Ryne, 1754

“A Per­spec­tive View of Fort Wil­liam,”

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