A contextual look at the background of the ideal of ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’, of past glories and devastation of India’s traditional industrial base at the hands of greedy, exploitative colonisers.
The ideal of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat has long guided and driven our quest for political, cultural and intellectual freedom. It is therefore symbolic that at a time when India is on the cusp of a civilisational leap when she is determined to play her role, strive for her interests and secure her global position, that this clarion call has once more been given by a leader who has worked to fundamentally reshape India in the last six years.
Against this backdrop, in our quest for comprehending the philosophy of ‘Aatma Nirbharta’ — self-dependence — in the Indian context, it will be useful to see how that self-dependence was decimated. The subjugation of India also paved the way for an era of exploitation. From a self-dependent polity, India gradually became a colony for extraction. With physical extraction was added the continuous attempt to deconstruct India — Bharat, intellectually and socially.
By 1818, Colonel Alexander Walker who had served in the country for decades and whose sympathetic and detailed accounts of India of the epoch enable us to absorb and surmise the positives and strengths of Indian society which was fast depleting or disappearing under the duress of occupation and exploitation wrote of how six decades of exploitative British rule had begun breaking the fundamentals of Indian society. ‘We have left wounds in every quarter’, wrote Walker, ‘and produced discontent everywhere; the confidence which was once reposed in our moderation and justice is gone. We have made use of treaties, contracted solely for protection, as the means of making violent demands… Every individual almost above the common artisan and labourer suffers by our system of government.’ In areas which were under the direct subjection of the colonial government, Walker noted, ‘or controlled by its influence, the inhabitants were reduced to wretchedness and penury.’
In another letter in 1820 to James Mill, the British historian who never set foot in India and yet dominated the creation of the Indian narrative in the West, Walker described how British rule had completely ruined and degraded India’s wealth and inflicted an exploitative relation which was both destructive and deadly:
‘It has been computed that Nader Shah carried out of India 30 million sterling; this was besides all that was consumed, destroyed and plundered; but the spoils which we have brought from India probably exceed a hundredfold all that our predecessors have taken by fits and starts. It would be a curious calculation to ascertain the amount of the wealth which has been brought by the Company and individuals from India… The drains which we have made from India have been less violent than the exactions of other conquerors but they have perhaps in their operations proved more destructive and deadly to the people. We have emptied gradually, but the pitcher has gone constantly to the well…’
In his eminently readable ‘The Theft of India: The European Conquests of India – 1498-1765’, British historian and archivist, Roy Moxham, mentions how after the defeat at Plassey, ‘seventy-five boats were loaded up, each carrying a large chest containing Rs 100.000’ and ‘headed down the river to Calcutta, escorted by the navy, and serenaded by music and drum…’ Moxham computes that ‘altogether this came to nearly a quarter-million pounds sterling. In all, the equivalent of one years’ total revenue of Bengal found its way to Britain.’
From being a country of producers, we systematically turned into a country that supplied raw materials. Edmund Burke perhaps described this best when, in course of his famous speech during the debate on the ‘East India Bill’ in December 1783, he said that “every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India.” A look at Burke’s speech makes one realise how we gradually slipped away from a situation of self-dependence and surplus to a level of subjection, scarcity and deprivation. It is a speech that one must keep revisiting. Describing the people of India as a people who have been for ages “civilised and cultivated, cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods”, Burke spoke of their industrial prowess, their rich and varied craftsmanship and the entrepreneurial spirit that drove them: “merchants and bankers, individual houses of whom have once vied in the capital with the Bank of England whose credit had often supported a tottering state, and preserved their governments in the midst of war and desolation; millions of ingenious manufacturers and mechanicks; [sic] millions of the most diligent, and not the least intelligent, tillers of the earth…” It was critical thus that the handling of India needed to be done delicately, instead, “it has been handled rudely”, argued Burke.
In his richly documented and fascinating autobiography, ‘Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist’. Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, for instance, has deeply delved into the destruction of Indian industry, its starvation, its exploitation and marginalisation. In the backdrop of the PM Modi’s call for Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, Acharya Ray’s magnum opus may be a useful guide for us to better comprehend our degradation and aspirations. He remains one of the earliest and most creative voices of our quest for Aatma Nirbahar Bharat. Ray refers to the ‘Plassey Drain’ a term used to describe the plunder of India post-Plassey. The ‘total drain to England during the period 1757 to 1780,’ writes Acharya Ray, ‘often named the Plassey Drain, is put down at 38 million pounds sterling.’
In his once widely read and cited opus, ‘Economic Annals of Bengal’ (1926), JC Sinha of Dacca University, explains in detail the ‘Plassey Drain’ which was mainly about the continuous outflow of a huge volume of bullion to England from Bengal. Writes Sinha, of the ‘Plassey Drain’, ‘Even if it was a few million pounds less, it must have been a very heavy burden on the people of Bengal, much heavier at that time than it would be at the present day because the purchasing power of the rupee was then at least five times as high.’
Sympathetic British journalist and writer, William Digby, who had done pioneering work in exposing the British engineered cycles of famine in India, for example, in his ‘Prosperous British India: A Revelation from Official Records’ (1901), speaks of ‘the drain of Indian treasure varying from five hundred to one thousand million pounds to England between Plassey  and Waterloo .’ Within a quarter of a century of Clive having described Murshidabad, in Bengal as ‘extensive, populous and rich as the city of London’, writes Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, ‘the very same Murshidabad resembled a sucked orange and presented a scene of ruin and desolation, thanks to the Plassey Drain.’
But this gradual and rude descent from the status of overflowing-plenty into an exploited, scarcity imposed, violently exacted, supplier status, could not crush or subjugate our innate resilience. It rather gave rise to three dimensions of action in us. One was the actual material, the quest for regenerating and recreating India’s traditional industrial base, adapting and adopting newer methods and technologies of invention and production — the movement for swadeshi — looking for self-dependence and sustenance from our core strengths. The second was dimension was an ideational quest for self-dependence and an intellectual, cultural self-estimation and the third was a renewed look at the world in which India’s civilisational message could radiate and become once more the influencer. These three fundamental directions would shape our quest for Aatma Nirbhar Bharat.