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Getting a grip

  • Published at 06:08 pm December 4th, 2015
Getting a grip

It cannot, from any empirical, documentary, or archaeological sources, be readily reckoned how long it took the earliest overlords of most, or all of the lands that are now Bangladesh, such as the Magadha, and then the Mauryans, to establish, firmly, their rule; if, indeed, they ever did. We have no real idea, in fact, how they conquered, who they conquered, and how far they conquered.

There is, after all, ample evidence in the writings of Greco-Roman historians that the Gangaridai, the people of the Ganges delta, were independent of the rulers of Patna, probably the Magdha regime, at the time when Alexander advanced.

And, although the Mauryans, who probably inherited the Magadha Empire, possibly as a result of the turmoil of Alexander’s advance, are believed to have extended their rule as far as modern Burma, it is also possible that, dependent on trade through the Ganges delta, they also chose to leave the successful traders of that delta to their own devices.

However, we do know that, of the four primary overlords, from the early 13th century onwards, it took the Khilji and their Muslim successors so long to get a grip, and then lose it in such a comparatively short time, that it is arguable that none ever really succeeded, except -- the British.

And, for them, it seems that their eventual grip gave them the foundation to both get a firm grip on the rest of the sub-continent, and build and maintain, for a century or so, a worldwide empire.

This was the first real attempt by outsiders, from beyond the sub-continent, to dominate the indigenous peoples they found in these lands, lands that, to them, above all, represented control of what was already a well established international trading centre, made by the previously invincible army of Alexander of Macedonia, “Alexander the Great.”

Suffice to say, in fact, that Alexander failed to get even a finger-hold on these lands, although, no doubt, his all conquering progress across eastern and central Asia and northern India was, surely, sufficiently well known to deter all but the bravest of opponents.

It was over a millennium later that the Khilji, and their allies, not the least of whom were  the Sufi warrior missionaries, who, fleeing the depredations of the Mongol hordes who swept across Asia, advanced across the northern Indian plains that they had, already, been raiding for over a century, who became the first of the successful conquerors.

It is, perhaps, a little ironic that the Khilji, themselves, with a homeland in Kandahar Province in today’s Afghanistan, are believed to have been descended from an army Alexander left to defend his conquered territories thereabouts.

Although early converts to Islam, not the least of the clues to their ancestry is the name “Alexander,” or “Sikander,” which remains common, even today, in the lands, east of Dhaka, where they are known to have settled themselves.

The “indigenous” people, over whom they established their over lordship, would certainly have included a large immigrant population.

We know that, from well before the 8th to 11th century Buddhist Pala period of domination, peoples travelled from across much of the known world to study in the numerous internationally famed monasteries and universities, the ruins of which are still visible in Bangladesh, perhaps as many as over 400.

The somewhat ramshackle period of control of these early Muslim overlords was, eventually, overcome by the mostly Muslim Mughal incomers.

By that time, the “indigenous” people they found, and fought with, had many local rulers -- amongst whom the names of Isa Khan and Pratapaditya, one Muslim, the other Hindu, are notable -- who would have been a pretty diverse population, including, already, Portuguese Europeans.

Predictably, perhaps, the Mughals, and their associates, following the death of the great and ruthless Aurangzeb, the sixth Emperor, in 1707, also descended into their own, almost endless internal power struggles.

Probably the English, intented on defending their often threatened-in-the-turmoil commercial interests, were unfamiliar with the classical ancient Latin dictum of Greek philosophical origin, “Horror vacui” -- “nature abhors a vacuum” -- but were, to say the least, like most successful businessmen, opportunists. And, it seems, a little like the original Mughals, could discern some such vacuum.

Arriving in India around 1609, and with their first east coast factory in about 1612, by 1640 they had firmly established a trading centre in Orissa, and had made connections across Bengal and neighbouring provinces.

For over a century, their business grew, not least in that most essential fuel of warfare of the age, gunpowder. However, other Europeans were not far behind, and, inevitably, conflicts in Europe began to colour relationships in India.

Local Nawabs were not slow to encourage. The simmering conflicts were, often enough, fanned by the Mughal rulers. And those rulers themselves proved unreliable trading partners, prone to seizure of cargoes, assets, and even people, and releasing them for ransom.

The frustration, as well, no doubt, as a commercial eye for opportunity, revealed itself, particularly, in the 1680s, with the unwise and shambolic attempt by the English to seize Chittagong, and the subsequent onset of Child’s War, with its humiliating consequences.

As traders, with businesses to protect, they were bound to react, and they did.

 Opportunistic exploitation following the subsequent victory at the Battle of Buxar, fought against the “might” of the assembled Mughal forces.

However, in 1793, with the loss of the American colonies, Parliament decreed that ruthless, commercialism be advanced to a more disciplined and enlightened governance.

Surely a fine example of what any businessman can identify as immediate exploitation of an opportunity, followed by consolidation. The grip of the British seemed, finally, secure.

The Mughals appear to have taken over half a century to truly get a grip on their conquered domain in northern and central India; the British, arguably, from 1765 to 1793, a little less than 30 years.

And Pakistan, the last of the interlopers, handed these lands on a plate by British bureaucracy and desperation to leave, we might suggest, never ultimately succeeded in doing so.

Since the majority of the population of Bangladesh today comprises descendants of all the last four “ruling dynasties,” such a stark observation may stir emotions amongst that majority, each, no doubt, still harbouring some sense of connection with the past.

Many others of the world’s greatest nations are, even today, wrestling with such “tribal” emotions that have a curious habit of taking a long time to die, if, indeed, they ever do.

Strange how the past always seems to re-emerge clothed more in resentment than celebration.

The one thing, after all, that can be firmly said of the past, without fear of contradiction, is that it is, indeed, past. It cannot be experienced again: Rewritten, maybe, and often is, but, in fact, even that effort is usually, ultimately, proved pointless.

The consequences of history cannot be changed.

As the great American born poet, TS Eliot wrote. “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”

However, perhaps, what the history of Bangladesh tells us, as so many others have learnt, throughout history, and across the world, that you can conquer lands, but you can never, entirely, conquer hearts and minds.

Those have to be wooed and won. And without them, the eradication of the past has little, if any, prospect of facilitating an enduring grip; it has been attempted, and failed, around the world, in many places, for many regimes. These days, such attempts result more often in international courts of law, than in success.