British : Period of Anarchy

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The period starting from the defeat of the Marathas at the hand of Ahmed Shah Abdali in the third battle of Panipat (in 1761) to the first war of Independence 1857 was filled with a scene of anarchy and chaos all over North India. With no visible ruler or political stability India was passing through one of the worst state in its entire history. The political map thus developed had the Marathas at the central and west India, Mughal at Delhi, British at Bengal and Bihar and various other petty states and kingdoms scattered here and there all over the Indian map. The worst sufferers of this political drama were the farmers and rural folks who had to pay at times revenues to more than two authorities.

The miserable rural life led to famines which in turn led to lawlessness. In 1782, Delhi and its nearby region faced a great famine which nearly swept away two-thirds of the population. Bengal too went through various such faces. Lawlessness became order of the day for the people of these regions.

The most obvious of this was dacoity or gang robbery whose prevalence, like that of banditry in China, is a kind of thermometer of governmental authority in India. From being an endemic it had become epidemic and had flared up into a cancer in central India with the pitiless Pindaris. All travelers had to have escorts, and find a protection at night; at Delhi at the coming of the British it was not safe to picnic in daylight in the environs of the city for fear of snipers lurking behind the tombs.

A feature of this malaise was the religious sanction claimed by many of these groups as well as the public support they had. The public support was basically due to the fact that for survival at the time of great famine, the common man participated in such gangs or groups in mass. Thus we have thugs, who combined robbery with ritual murder in honour of Goddess Kali. Their cult had long existed in a small way, but with the troubled times they grew until they were a terror all over central India and into north. Sati, or the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands as a religious rite long known to exist and be extensively practiced in Hindu courts, increased notably among the upper class of Bengal. Acts of religious fanaticism multiplied, like hook-swinging in honour of the car of Lord Jaganath of Puri.

Strangest of all, perhaps, was the appearance of armed religious ascetics in a land where non-violence were the basis of the local religions. They went about in bands variously described as nagas, bairagis, sannyasis and gosains. They had tremendous mass support and usually attacked and looted British godowns and deposits. There basic aim was to uproot the British state and end the rural miseries. The supreme among them was the case of Sanyasi Vidroh in Bengal. Sikhs who transmitted from religious quietism to militant gospelling to achieve statehood and something like nationhood.

The same blight spread over the intellectual life of the country. Sanskrit and Arabi were still studied in the tols and madrasahs, Sadhus still sought realization in meditation. But there was little sign of new thought or creative achievement. The keynote was withdrawal. For the people there were cults appealing to the emotions; for the intellectual detachment and non-involvement. In the India of the late eighteenth century there was only two achievements of some kind.

One was the development of Urdu, the mixture of Persian and Hindi, to the status of a major language, and the other the work of Shah Wali-ullah and his school of theologians in Delhi which some trace the early seeds of the Pakistani movement. It is typical of the times that while the influence of the one was unifying that of the other was divisive.

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