Monday, August 16, 2010

East India Company rises(?) from the ashes

The wheel of time has turned around and the East India Company (EIC), which was dissolved in 1874, is back in business, this time with an Indian owner. The company was a legend in its time. It was once said that the sun never set over the British Empire. The seeds of having such a vast territory were largely laid by the EIC.

In its time, the company was involved in trading all kinds of goods. From cotton to muslin and spices to opium, thereby controlling around half of the global trade. As the industrial revolution spread, the company became a reverse outsourcing company. It would export cheap cotton and cloth dye to England and import high value product like processed cloth. Its processed cloth was priced way cheaper than the indigenous cloth, like the fine Dhaka Muslin. This policy of the EIC drove traditional Muslin and handloom weavers into bankruptcy and led to a decline of many traditional trades. Corruption was so rampant in the company that every officer retiring from the Company, would buy sprawling estates in country side England. Its policies induced large scale devastation caused by a famine in Bengal in the year 1770. And it was the EIC, which introduced cartridges smeared with cow and pig fat, thereby causing great resentment and triggering the First War of Indian Independence. Due to its excesses and irregularities, the company was dissolved in 1874, though it managed to maintain minimal presence in tea and coffee trade.

Now, in 2010, Sanjiv Mehta has purchased the company and is the owner of the brand name "East India Company". And what does this company plan to do? Similar to what it did 400 years ago-- trading. It will buy "luxury goods" from India and sell it in its stores in London. What are Mr. Mehta's views about the Indian company? According to him

"Without the company, Britain would not have tea on its tables and in Mumbai and Bangalore, people would not be having jams on their toast for breakfast."

Of course, without the Company, there wouldn't have been the great Bengal famine of 1770, when forget jam and toasts, people didn't even have basic food like millets and rice to eat. Without the company, cartridges wouldn't have been smeared with cow and pig fat, thereby causing deep hurt to the religious sentiments.

And we would be fools to consider it a victory for India, that an Indian now owns a company that was once upon a time a force to reckon with. The East India Company is a spent force, its brand has no recall in the world, except in the South-Asian subcontinent, where it has wrecked havoc. And in major cases, it evokes negative, bad and horrendous memories. If we are not able to forgive Dow, because it owns UCC that wrecked havoc in Bhopal in 1984, how can we forgive EIC, which did so much harm to the South Asian subcontinent?
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  1. Why should that "negative emotion" stop any-one from buying the brand. If you have troubles with EIC, then
    a) don't buy/use/promote their products in any way

    b) If you think they are legally responsible (not morally/ ethically, sowing the seeds for the british empire may have been the morally wrong thing to do by the british) for anything, according to the laws prevailing at that time (either in India or in UK), then sue them.

    Otherwise, there is no point in this outrage.

  2. btw, I think it is stupid that we consider individual success in any thing, sport, science, arts etc as "victory for India".

    So definitely, even without the outrage, it is not any success for the country.

  3. a) Logic, doesn't work all the time. That is why companies that evoke negative emotions suffer. That is why Dow suffers. The simple fact that it owns UCC (which was bought 15 years after Bhopal happened), even though UCC, America is not a legal party to the case.

    b) The then British government tried to take steps to reign in the EIC. But, it had a very powerful lobby in the UK parliament, which prevented taking any legal action against them.

    c) Yes, it is very stupid to consider individual success as "victory for India". But the media is propagating it in that way. Look at the ToI headline. That is why I made the statement of considering the takeover as a victory for India.