On Treason in the Subcontinent

By Anjum Altaf

Have you ever wondered why there have been so many traitors in the Indian subcontinent?

We can start with the most well known of them all, Mir Jafar, known as Ghaddaar-e-Hind, whose name has become synonymous with treason. In the critical Battle of Plassey between Robert Clive and Sirajuddaulah in 1757, Siraj had the advantage but at the critical moment Mir Jafar failed to move his troops because he had sold out to the British. Thus began the British domination of India.

The history of the Mughal period is full of incidents of betrayal. In his book The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babar, GS Cheema documents “the readiness with which great nobles switched sides, often in the midst of battle.”

These facts are well known. What triggered this thought again in my mind was reading Khushwant Singh’s A History of the Sikhs. At a certain point I realized that virtually every twenty pages or so I was coming across another incident of treachery.

Here is just one example from the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845 as Khushwant Singh describes the Battle of Ferozeshahr:

The British suffered terrible casualties; every single member of the governor general’s staff was killed or wounded. “That frosty night the fate of India trembled in the balance” (a quote from the account of Sir Hope Grant, one of the British generals).

The sun rose on the plains of Ferozeshahar over a terribly battered British army. It had run out of ammunition, and the men had no stomach left for battle. At this point Tej Singh arrived from Ferozepur with troops, fresh and eager for combat.

Tej Singh’s guns opened fire. The British artillery had no shot with which to reply. Then, without any reason, Tej Singh’s guns also fell silent, and, a few minutes later, Tej Singh ordered his troops to retreat. Lord Gough quickly realized that the Sikh commanders had fulfilled their treacherous promise…

The story repeats itself again and again. I have read many ‘if-only’ accounts of Indian history – if only Mir Jafar had stayed loyal, if only Tej Singh had not sold out, the course of Indian history would have been different. But I have yet to see an examination of why traitors appear with such regularity in Indian history.

Let me try and tackle that question by going back to the issue of primogeniture that we discussed in the previous post. Both the possibilities and the rewards for switching loyalties open up when there is no universally accepted convention for political succession and when there is more than one heir with equal claim to power.

Imagine the death of Aurangzeb and all his many sons who were governors of various provinces beginning their march to Delhi to claim the throne. Each one had their supporters among the nobles few of whom had compunctions switching sides as they assessed the relative strengths of the contenders at any particular time. As Cheema puts it, it was not that these were bad men; it was just that there were no rules or norms that would have stigmatized them for such behavior. The objective was to end up on the winning team.

I came across a very insightful passage in Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official by William Sleeman written in 1844:

The laws of Mahomed, which prescribe that the property in land shall be divided equally among the sons, leaves no rule for succession to territorial or political dominion. It has been justly observed by Hume – “The right of primogeniture was introduced with the feudal law; an institution which is hurtful by producing and maintaining an unequal division of property; but it is advantageous in another respect, by accustoming the people to a preference in favour of the eldest son, and thereby preventing a partition or disputed succession in the monarchy.

The point is not to make too much of primogeniture – that was only one possible rule to ensure orderly transfer of power. Any other rule might have worked equally well and there could easily have been different rules for political succession and the inheritance of property.

The point is that without any rule for political succession the law of the jungle prevailed and a lot of space opened up for what we perceive as treacherous behavior. This provides one explanation for what otherwise comes across as a surprisingly high incidence of treason amongst the chiefs in the ruling groups.

And what was the relationship of these noble chiefs with their own followers that sustained such political behavior? Sleeman has something to say about this phenomenon:

The fidelity of the military classes of the people of India to their immediate chief, or leader, whose salt they eat, has been always very remarkable, and commonly bears little reference to his moral virtues or conduct towards his superiors. [All emphasis in original.] They feel that it is their duty to serve him who feeds and protects them and their families, in all situations, and under all circumstances; and the chief feels, that while he has a right to their services, it is his imperative duty so to feed them and protect them and their families. He may change sides as often as he pleases, but the relations between him and his followers remain unchanged. About the side he chooses to take in a contest for dominion, they ask no question, and feel no responsibility.

Jump forward to modern-day Pakistan, still without a stable rule of political succession, and where the relationship of the nobles to their constituents has changed little. Does this explain the lota phenomenon – the propensity of the political elite to betray, switch sides at will, and fear no repercussions from their supporters or from society?

One last point: Does the erudition of a member of the British military service and his deep insight into Indian social relationships come as a surprise to readers? Sleeman was by no means an exception – there were many more like him steeped in Western theories and knowledgeable about local languages and practices.

How come? How come there are so few of that intellectual caliber in our civil service even today? I can bet that they must have been the heirs of British aristocracy disinherited by the law of primogeniture.

Rules have consequences that are often very far-reaching in more ways than one.


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