Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Dalrymple’s Attacks on Maratha History

In his book The Anarchy, William Dalrymple calls Shivaji a “Maratha Hindu warlord.” But he calls Nader Shah a “tough, ruthless, and efficient figure” who possessed “remarkable military talents.” Quoting a European source, Dalrymple tries to establish that Shivaji’s soldiers were “naked, starved rascals,” who lived by plunder. He notes that Aurangzeb dismissed Shivaji as a “desert rat.” But he eulogizes Nader Shah as a “great king” who arrived in India with a “force of 80,000 fighting men.” 

The term “warlord” refers to a tyrant who amasses a large army and invades other countries to plunder, rape, kill, and conquer. No serious historian has accused Shivaji of such heinous crimes. Shivaji never invaded any foreign country. He was the son of Indian soil who fought for liberating his people from Mughal oppression. He was not a conqueror; he was a liberator. He fought several wars with the armies of the Mughal Empire. He never ordered his soldiers to carry out large-scale massacres of defenseless civilians.  

Nader Shah was an invader who came from Persia. In 1737, his soldiers butchered between 20,000 to 30,000 people in Delhi. He took 10,000 women and children as slaves. The wealth that he plundered from Delhi has been estimated to be around $120 billion by today’s purchasing price. Yet in Dalrymple’s historiography, Nader Shah gets hailed as an efficient and remarkable figure, while Shivaji is depicted as a warlord who operated “predatory cavalry armies.” 

Dalrymple tries to pull down the Marathas by quoting from the text of a disapproving Muslim chronicler: “most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters, and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery.” Nader Shah was of low birth too. Dalrymple acknowledges that Nader Shah was “the son of a humble shepherd and furrier.” 

In Nader Shah’s low birth, Dalrymple sees a great merit (which he would not see in the low birth of the Marathas). In Nader Shah’s case, Dalrymple quotes from the text of an approving French Jesuit: “In spite of his humbler birth, he seemed to be born for the throne. Nature had given him all the qualities that make a hero and even some of those that make a great king… Intrepid in combat, he pushed bravery to the limits of rashness…”

From the way he has denigrated Shivaji and lavished praises on the butcher of Delhi, Nader Shah, it becomes clear that Dalrymple is not a genuine historian—he is biased against Hindu culture. He fails to point out that before the fourteenth century, when the Islamic invasions started having an impact, most of the Indian subcontinent was dominated by Hindu and Buddhist culture. From his book, the reader will get the impression that Islam was always dominant in India. 

Throughout his book, Dalrymple presents the Marathas as the “terror” of India. In his description of the Maratha wars in Bengal, he quotes from a disapproving source: “the Marathas are niggard of pity, slayers of pregnant women and infants, of Brahmans and the poor, fierce of spirit, expert in robbing the property of everyone and committing every sinful act. They created a local cataclysm and caused the extirpation of the people of Bengal villages like an [ominous] comet.” 

Dalrymple has nothing good to say about the Marathas. But he seems to swoon over Tipu Sultan, whose good looks he praises in the style of a dreamy schoolgirl describing her first crush. He quotes a British observer who has praised Tipu’s looks: “[Tipu] was uncommonly well-made… his arms large and muscular, with the appearance of great strength… [Tipu] had an interesting, mild continuance, of which large animated black eyes were the most conspicuous feature.” 

Why couldn’t Dalrymple find a single Maratha ruler who was good looking? In his book, only the Islamic rulers and the British are good looking. 

He calls Tipu a “daring” sultan who ruled with great “efficiency and imagination.” On Tipu’s abilities as a commander, Dalrymple writes: “Able and brave, methodical and hard-working, [Tipu] was above all innovative, determined to acquire the arsenal of European skills and knowledge, and to find ways to use them against his enemies. Tipu had already proved his capacity to do this on the battlefield, defeating the Company not only in Pollilur but also twice more since then…” 

What Dalrymple fails to tell his readers is that between 1762 and 1787, the Marathas defeated Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in every battle that they fought. Hyder and Tipu were regularly paying tribute to the Marathas. On at least five occasions, between 1762 and 1787, the Marathas had Hyder and Tipu in their grasp, and could have executed both of them. But the Marathas were not ruthless killers—they used to let Hyder and Tipu go after receiving a tiny sum as tribute. Tipu was finally killed in 1799 by the ruthless killers of the British East India company.

Dalrymple’s book is not on the Marathas—it is on the East India Company. In my article, I talk about his tirade against the Marathas because this is the aspect of his book that I found most disturbing. Outright falsehoods, dubious analysis, and anti-Hindu bias drips from every page of this book. As I noted earlier, Dalrymple is not a genuine historian—he is biased. He writes like any court-historian of the Mughal Empire. The Anarchy is a bad book; it is full of lies about India’s history; Dalrymple is a bad historian.

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