November 8 saw India’s first encounter with imperium, or absolute power, in years.

As I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak on national television that evening, I thought: in what democracy can the persona of a leader, his manias and phobias, his pet theories and obsessions come together and lead him to declare 86% of the currency in circulation redundant with immediate effect?

Empires of India, whether of the old-fashioned kind, or dressed in democratic robes, have usually been created and consolidated under the leadership of a single leader, nearly always male. By the powers vested in him by patriarchy and/or lineage, such a leader will first create a solid constituency for himself, and then, assured by his total control over his followers, he will then mount an ambitious expansionist phase. If need be, during this he may stop in his tracks suddenly and subvert and change the rules of the power game that has brought him so far, thus ruling out another imitator overtaking him – the proverbial kicking away of the ladder.

From Ashoka to Kanishka, Mohammad Bin Tughlaq to Akbar, the Governors General of the British East India Company to various viceroys who served the British Crown, from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi, the list of undisputed leaders of the ruling dispensation initiating a sudden and astoundingly radical turnaround, and unleashing transformational changes to outwit their perceived challengers, runs long.

The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote: “Man will get used to anything, if only he reaches an appropriate degree of submission.”

Silence falls when everything has been officially investigated, reported and interpreted and justified clearly. All else is rendered trivial, second-rate or likely to be termed seditious.

Empires have a history far longer than the democratic state. And it is undeniable that today globally, a climate conducive to conservatism and protectionism – the building blocks of imperium – has come to prevail.

In India, the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes is just the most recent example of this. Come to think of it, the exercise is just one of the many other turning points in our history that were brought about by the will of a Chakravartin Samrat (powerful ruler) or Shah of Shahs or a popular democratically-elected party supremo. The energy of the Indian nation has usually been spent far less on grassroots initiatives than carrying out the wish of the leader of a ruling elite.

Memories of the Raj

In 1833, the British East India Company had tried initiating demonetisation of the old native coinage for its Indian presidencies, quoting British politician Lord Liverpool’s (1770-1828) thesis that bimetallism – the system of allowing the unrestricted currency of two metals like gold and silver as legal tender – is impractical.

In 1835, a declaration from Governor-General William Bentinck in Calcutta demonetised all old gold coins and introduced a unified coinage system for India with the Madras silver rupee as the standard. The gold mohur (coin) of the Mughal empire was deliberately undervalued to dissuade its usage, and soon its circulation began to fall. In 1841 came another proclamation authorising the government to receive gold, but it continued to pay out only silver.

Over two decades later, in February of 1856, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie’s doctrine of Summary Settlement, or a reassessment of land and revenues, (he called it “a parting coup”) summarily dismantled the centuries old mutual dependence and complementarity between rural land owners (jagirdar or talukadar) and cultivators in the newly amalgamated province of Awadh in present-day Uttar Pradesh.

With the simultaneous banishment of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the erstwhile ruler of Awadh, an entire range of subordinate rights – between the Nawab and the nobles, between rural Talukdars and their cultivators (sustained through the years by grants, special concessions during bad years, blood money and rewards), between the nobles and the guilds of weavers and artisans they employed – were also thrown out of the window.

The weavers and artisans, singers and dancers who had traditionally produced and directly sold their products to their noble patrons and well-to-do citizens, were reduced to penury, while farmers stood face-to-face with the rapacious revenue officials of the East India Company, also referred to as Company Bahadur, who undervalued their lands and over assessed the revenues payable to the company.

Company Bahadur representatives would arrive with armed sepoys and use strong-arm tactics to collect revenue. The local landowner who was steadily losing his lands under the Summary Settlement, was no longer a buffer between them and the government.

As ordinary citizens lapsed into brooding silence, and prices of commodities rose alarmingly, the atmosphere grew ominously dark. Threatening governmental decrees announced harsh punishments to be meted out to those who did not pay the new taxes, which, in some instances, were said to run as high as 45% of the total produce.

The Company Bahadur’s carefully chosen cadres embedded with native rural revenue officials (the Patwari, the Nazim and the Chakledar) now replaced and completely redefined a customary native system of governance based on caste and lineage. The British civil service for India, raised by Dalhousie’s predecessors, and the highest paid in the world at that time, now began to be perceived as the new mai-baap (masters), where citizens were at the mercy of their goodwill.

Thus the 19th century version of the licence raj of inspectors and bureaucrats, trained to be forever suspicious, and promoted for skills in exacting far greater revenues for the Company no matter what the human cost, came into being.

Easy corruption

This opened the floodgates for corruption in Awadh as wily bands of power-drunk revenue officials visited villages accompanied by a retinue of petty native revenue clerks who interpreted and measured and wrote out the horoscopes for coming generations of hapless cultivators.

By one stroke of the pen these early native representatives of the East India Company, who were mostly Bengali or Bihari as the British Raj’s capital was located in Calcutta, could now snatch priceless and vast inherited lands and exact revenues (jama) after they had been set at back-breaking rates.

Amrit Lal Nagar, a Hindi writer who roamed the villages of Awadh in 1957, a century after the first war of Independence, wrote that this stigmatised Bengalis and Biharis in villages in that area for generations. Even 100 years later, the words Bengali or Bihari were synonymous with lies and deceit all over Awadh, wrote Nagar.

But of course, the collection of revenue rose sharply. In 1856, on the eve of his departure from India, Dalhousie happily boasted that thanks to his efforts Britain’s Queen Victoria had not only acquired 50,00,000 more subjects, but also stood to earn £1,30,00,000 of extra revenue for the royal treasury.

While officials applauded and Britain toasted Dalhousie, the ordinary people of Awadh like farmers, including farmer-sepoys of the Bengal Army numbering some 75,000, land owners, courtiers and the host of craftspeople and artisans they had supported, found that they had lost control over their lives and means of livelihood.

Old patterns of life and livelihood, even old currency bearing the familiar seal of their summarily dethroned rulers, seemed to appear or disappear by a seemingly magical force.

Gold coinage was demonetised, and silver coins minted in far away Surat and Bombay were the new common currency even in Awadh. With a drastic upward reassessment of revenues, the price of essential commodities rose. As raw cotton was diverted to the British mills and an export-led boom in the Indian economy filled the Company coffers to the brim, an acute scarcity of currency loomed on the horizon even as the native farmers, many of them sepoys in the Company’s Bengal Army, the weavers and other artisans faced penury.

The only thing that grew manifold was corruption. Since the Nawab had no power over the revenue officers or the Army, it resulted in gross misgovernance. After throwing the entire system into a tail-spin, Dalhousie recommended the removal of the Nawab of Lucknow on charges of misgovernance terming Awadh as “a fortress of corruption…and misgovernance”.

This was supreme irony. But the normally witty Awadh had, by now ,lost its self respect and with it, its fabled sense of humour.

The new authority

In the years following the Summary Settlement initiated by Dalhousie, government officials quickly created regulatory methods to grab various advantages for their own kind. As old Awadh crumbled and vanished into the mists of time, in its place rose a heavy and powerful edifice symbolising the new authority: The Residency.

Here a devilishly cunning scheme was crafted whereby prime land was deliberately under assessed and convenient legal loopholes were then used to ease out the original owners and auction the land holdings deemed mismanaged.

No surprises for guessing that each auction was handled by the revenue officials who, along with their cronies from the new mercantile classes, managed to buy prime land at very low prices for their families.

The descendants of these civil servants and their crony capitalist friends replaced the earlier elite and turned into city-dwelling gentleman farmers who had the tenant farmers till their fields and visited the villages only to take air (havakhori) or to hunt.

Development became the buzzword to mask this, and the rapacious hunt for ever-higher revenues for the government. Farmers were coerced into growing cash crops like cotton and indigo, and the swift movement of goods and vital raw material for export to England was given a further push by developing the railway network, roads and ports. The telegraph services were extended to facilitate faster communication from Calcutta to Peshawar. The Army was provided the latest ammunition, among them the famous Enfield rifles whose cartridges, greased with animal fat, triggered the first war of Independence (that the British refer to as the Mutiny).

In 1856, Dalhousie departed for England surrounded by glory. It seemed that the government machinery he left behind was firmly in control. Then, suddenly, a year later, a bloody mutiny erupted within the Bengal Army headquartered in Meerut, which took everyone by surprise. Another major surprise was the rare solidarity that a common anger against the British had helped forge across caste, community and gender lines – between Hindus and Muslims, veiled queens and the nobility, land owners and lowly tenant farmers, and sepoys and civilians.

A few years later, while analysing the so-called mutiny in his 1864 book, A History of the Sepoy War in India, for the fatigued, disoriented and nervous British, military historian John William Kaye wrote that the British may have erred in playing down the resentment of an overtaxed people and forcing the pace of change with “an unwholesome rapidity” so as to “screw up the revenue…to the highest possible pitch”.

Sounds familiar?