Indulgence of Alternative History: Without the British India?

Alternative history is usually treated as nonsense or worse - by historians! Justifiably so, as there is so much falsification of history already. At a time of battle against the alternative facts, it is best to stand guard against the intrusion of even the slightest hint of imaginary history-making. 

What-ifs have no space in real life. History has happened, irreversibly so it seems, and there is no point going back on what could have happened. But, in that very statement itself, there is a hint why alternative historical imaginary may be useful. History may have happened, but it was no way inevitable: Speculations of alternative history guards against the tendency of treating history as it happened as inevitable; emphasising the contingency leads to an escape from teleology trap.

So, that was my indulgence on a World Cup free day: What if the British did never rule India? Sure, they did rule India, for about 190 years starting the triumph in Bengal, and now we see that obvious - the greatest industrial nation in history has had to win! And, thereon, a straight logical step to the superior character of the Anglo-Saxon race, the world-conquering power of science - no less a speculation after all! 

As I delved more into the what-ifs, it opened up two different sets of ideas, contingencies and possibilities. Contingencies, why the East India Company could capture power as they did, point to factors that contributed to the change, the space for what-ifs, and possibilities appear thereof. 

In the Eighteenth century, the British were one, and not the preeminent one, power in India. It is the disarray of the Mughal empire, after the death of Aurangzeb, that created various smaller principalities: Without the musical chair at the Peacock Throne, before the Throne itself was carried away by Nadir Shah as a booty, there would have been a different history of India. And, indeed, one can go back further : Aurangzeb was a severe and successful emperor, but he started as a mere pretender to the throne of his father, the great Shahjahan, eventually winning battles against his brothers - the cerebral Darah Shokoh, the hedonist Sujah and the loyal Murad - and imprisoning his father and the sisters. That poisoned legacy carried on: While the five great Mughal emperors ruled India for about 180 years, the next 50 years would see no less than nine emperors, three of whom would be murdered and three deposed.  Primogeniture could have changed Indian history perhaps.

Britain, at a comparable point in its history, was consolidating, rather than fragmenting. Scotland was securely attached, and highlander energies were, after some trouble, were safely channelled into fighting overseas wars. Also, the waning of the French threat, after the seven years war in mid-eighteenth century helped greatly. And, in an immensely fortuitous turn of events, this is the precise time when the Marathas, who had become the pre-eminent power in India turning the Mughal emperor into their vassal in all but name, would have the run-in with Ahmad Shah Durrani and be defeated in the Third battle of Panipat. Like the previous two occasions, this battle of Panipat would change Indian history again, and over the next hundred years, the English would defeat the weakened and divided Marathas again and again, finally taking over the power in Delhi in 1857.

If one looks at the history of British India this way - and indeed, this is just one way of looking at it - it suddenly opens up a few questions that are never asked. Instead of treating the battle of Plassey as the pivot point of Indian history, as is usually done, what if one indulges in the possibility of a Maratha victory in Panipat? Indeed, one could wish away Panipat altogether, but, even in the land of alternative history, it is best to assume that two rising powers, Marathas reaching out westward and the Afghans aching to go south were to come to blows at some point. A victory in Panipat would have seen off the challenges for a generation, and also would have integrated the Sikh principality, which will grow in the power vacuum after the defeat of the Marathas, into the Maratha India. 

There is a fiction in the British historiography that the British power created the united, modern India. In fact, Lord Dalhousie can indeed be credited with the political unification of India in the Nineteenth century: But he was not, as the story is told, replacing the Mughal Empire, which was foreign in origin and culture, and was in a hundred year decline. He was effectively finishing off the jobs that his predecessors started by replacing the Marathas. The alternative story of India could have been a Maratha ruled one, which would have reconfigured not just Indian polity but also its culture. In fact, this is the narrative that underpins the political ideology of Hindu nationalism today, though the approach is not one of historical analysis but one that liberally fabricates myths.

And, in this, one must read the warning of History: As the alternative history highlights the contingencies, it also reveals the reality of why that did not happen. I am no expert of Maratha history - sadly - but the tale of Third Battle of Panipat is well-known: It is the majoritarianism of the Marathas, that led to the division of the ranks; the inward-looking approaches and personality cult limited innovation and popular participation. Indeed, Marathas were not just battling the Afghan invaders, but also the forces of Awadh, a principality nominally under the Mughal emperor, the chief sponsor of Marathas in the battle. These are lessons one can do with even in today's India. Indulging in alternative history should not be about living in a fantasy land: It should be looking at reality through the prism of contingencies, not to repeat past mistakes but to appreciate missed opportunities.



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