6 Jul 2011

Namak Haram

Minutes Of Board Meeting
Her Majesty’s Imperial East India Company
(Adapted From Governor General Papers - Jul 1843)

On this wretched morning in Jul 1843, the Monsoons arrived in Calcutta two weeks later than usual. With guilt induced by lack of punctuality, the ‘Kala Basaki’ brought with it a wall of menacing, black, rolling thunder clouds and howling winds that lashed the denizens of Calcutta, both white and brown with equal zest. Calcutta was inundated with chest high water, the flotsam threatening the city with death and decease. With drains flooding the drinking water wells, an epidemic was just around the corner.

Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General, called for an emergency meeting of the secret conclave. The five men met punctually at sunset, the usual business hour, deep within the Viceroy’s lodge. They sat around the traditional round table, their feet dangling in water and coats soaking wet. Droughts of Cognac with warm water, brought by the silent and bare footed ‘Khansama’,  did little to warm their hearts or morale. They were the most powerful men in India, the ones who were empowered by the directors of East India Company in 'India House' at Liddenhall Street in London, to govern India by direct action. Each knew with out being told that the purpose of the emergency meeting called by the Governor General had nothing to do with the natural calamities and misery confronting the denizens of Calcutta. Even though they all were excellent administrators, their driving force was commercial avarice and their raison d’etre, the commercial health and profits of ‘John Company’. Without being told the agenda for the meeting, each man knew why they had been called to this extraordinary board meeting. In Jun 1843, the East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Ellenborough sat quietly, brooding. His shoulders hunched with the weight of responsibility. The left empty sleeve of his coat folded and pinned neatly, his wrought gold Farber watch in the right waist coat pocket, a reminder of his physical and mental handicaps. He felt as if some one had just walked over his grave.
Osborne was the first to clear his throat with a polite cough, calling the meeting to order. He was the aggressive one. Though only military secretary, he was the unspoken leader of the conclave. The round table was a symbol of their equality and social standing within the company, though the public face and chief executive was the Governor General.

Ellenborough sat up and squared his shoulders.  ‘Paul…’, he addressed Witworth, the secretary of treasury, in barely audible tones. ‘How much can we hold out ?’. He voiced the question that was on every one’s mind.
‘About eight months, ….that is if we take a lien on the salaries and allowances of the sepoys’, he rasped asthmatically.
‘You couldn’t be serious’, Osborne smiled, despite the gravity of the situation. ‘That is about a hundred and twenty five regiments, about a hundred and twenty thousand men…..’ he paused for emphasis. ‘‘I say fellows’, he mimicked in comic disdain, ‘I tell the largest army in the world…., I say fellows, we will not pay you his month or the next….,  I don’t even know when we will pay you…..,  or pay you at all’. He paused to take an ample sip from his glass.  ‘Pray Paul’….., he said with a mocking scowl, ‘What do you think the bloody Seowars and Seeepoys will do then……, coup de mains,  cut our throat ?’.
“Why did you have to go and raise a bloody army, so large ?”. Secretary Treasury was exasperated. “I never did see your point and my views are on record’, he said.
‘Easy’, commented Metcalfe, in a placatory but commanding tone. 
Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe was the charismatic India hand in the conclave. He spoke seven Indian languages and had private business interests in most of the thirty four princedoms in the Do Ab and the Punj Ab region. Although his elder brother Charles was a civil servant of the Company and currently the Governor General in Canada, Thomas was a mercenary of sorts, an entrepreneur and a self seeking profiteer. He also held a ‘Magisterial’ post in Delhi, primarily to keep a watchful eye over the titular Emperor of India, the old, ailing and redundant king 'Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar'. Over a period of three decades he had amassed incredible wealth and landholdings by private trade in guns, horses, opium, indigo, the high value trade goods that could be had in Hindustan.  On behalf of the company he played politics; one Nawab or Raja against the other, unabashedly flexed the muscular might of the Company’s army and in return extracted ‘Firmans’, monopolistic trading concessions and tracts of land large enough to be small kingdoms. Thomas was indisputably the richest Englishman in India. He was hated and loved by the natives as well as the English with equal zest, and totally held in awe by the other members of the conclave. The rest of them understood with alacrity that Metcalfe would make money whichever way the wind blew. Thomas Metcalfe’s position in the conclave was unassailable, partly because of his commanding personality, sterling leadership qualities, and rest because of the substantial inducements that he secretly deposited annually in four individual accounts  in the Bank of England branch at Delhi, one account for each of the other members of the conclave.

‘Easy’, Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe repeated. ‘Your troubles will not go away by quarrelling’.
‘Your Excellency’, Thomas raised his glass offering a toast to the Governor General. ’Let us go and annex a kingdom, the treasure and loot will fill the treasury coffers and the soldiers will be happy. And you gentlemen’, he said nodding towards Osbourne and Witworth. ‘I am sure you gentlemen will appreciate……, under the circumstances this is probably the only way to placate India House’.
There was silence for a while, each man thunderstruck at the sheer audacity of the preposterous suggestion.
‘Which one…., Hyderabad?’, queried John Bull, the fifth and quietest member of the conclave.  Bull was the political secretary and a sick man, prone to repeated bouts of coughing induced by final stages of tuberculosis. Conversation induced coughing and hence Bull usually preferred to keep his mouth closed.
‘The bloody war is going to cost us money and where is that going to come from ?’, Witworth interjected anxiously. ‘Thomas, the escapade with the Afghans cost the treasury three million sterling and nothing in return’.
Metcalfe smiled and jutted his pointed pepper and salt goatee defiantly. With a wave of his hand he summarily silenced Witworth. “Don’t I know”, he asked with a mischievous smile.

The Afghan war was a fiasco. Seven thousand soldiers and officers, mostly from the Queens Foot Regiments,  accompanied by approximately thirty thousand sepoys had marched all the way across Punjab to the North West Frontier and only a few had returned. Besides, a ransom had to be paid to repatriate English hostages including women and children. The logistic effort for the war against the Afghans had frightened India House. Wars necessitated hiring thousands of elephants, horses, camels and mules, and native pioneers for long durations of the campaign to haul cannons, ammunition carriages, provision and baggage trains, the sick and the wounded. Besides, the food for sepoy army, the concubines and servants who accompanied them, plus the fodder and grain for the animals, had worked out to tens of thousands of ‘maunds’ of provisions. Metcalfe had been contracted by the Company to make the field provisions and hire the support columns from adjacent territories as also harness the local resources. When he submitted a bill for three quarters of a million Sterling,  India House had immediate epileptic seizures which finally resulted in a censure of the conclave. India House finally pruned the debts to half million and Metcalfe had been offered position in the conclave as an incentive. The salaries and bonus for sepoys, pensions for the deceased, replacement of horses and equipment lost in war, and ransoms had accounted for the rest of two and half million sterling.  Most of the payments had been handled by Metcalf.
‘This is do or die situation Paul, you either cough up the cash to run the company’, Metcalfe paused for effect. ‘or you go tell the mongrels in India House to kiss my ass and close shop in India….. what will it be ?’. Metcalfe did not wait to see the anguish in Witworth’s face. He turned impatiently to John Bull.
‘Hyderabad or Punjab… choice is yours’. ‘Hyderabad is tactically easier, the Madras army should be able to do it unaided. However, I am not too sure if the repatriation will be worth the effort. The Hyderabad coffers are empty, the treasury in fragmented and in the hands of secret trustees, we won't be able to find them ’.  ‘On the other hand’, he emphasized. “Punjab is a rich”. Metcalfe’s eyes twinkled with concealed excitement. ‘The bloddy Kana, ….sorry old boy, the one eye King of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, has left behind untold wealth. Broadfoot tells me that Lahore treasury alone has about twenty million in bullion and harem ornaments. The Sikh ‘Subha’ is in shambles over a tenable successor and their considerable army is in disarray. And if you promise Victoria the Kohinoor, Lord Treasury in Buckingham will twist arms in India house to garner support’.
It was a long speech even for Metcalfe. He tilted his head back, emptied his glass and snapped his fingers signalling to the silent and watchful Khansama to refill the glasses.
‘What about the treaty that your brother signed in Amritsar’, Ellenborough interrupted with audible uncertainty.
‘What treaty ?’, Metcalfe raised his bushy eyebrows. ‘Charles is now in Canada and he is not going to complain’. .......  ‘Ranjit Singh is dead and he is not going to complain’. Metcalfe started a monologue. ‘Khadak as well as his son Nihal are dead and they are not going complain’. He started ticking off the names on his fingers. ‘Dhyan Chand the wazir is dead and he will not complain’. He took a sip of his drink. ‘Lal Singh and Gulab Singh can be compromised and hence they will not complain’.  ‘So that leaves the Punjabi Subha. If we give them a reason to mobilize the troops to Cis Satluj, we have a reason to go to war and no one is going to complain about the Amritsar treaty’, he pronounced with finality.  
‘But the army is not prepared for war’, mumbled Osbourne.
Metclafe grinned in exasperation. ‘With that buffoon Gough as the Commander In Chief, what else can you expect ?. Don’t ask him. Just tell him to get on his horse and come back only if he has the Lahore treasury. If you take my suggestion, this is one war in which his Excellency must become Richard the Lion Heart and lead from the front’, he gesticulated towards Ellenborough.  ‘Thomason at Agra can coordinate the war effort. I will personally look after the logistics as usual’.

Ellenborough sat up in his chair. He had visions of the conquest. A vision of  himself in the role of King Richard in the annals of English history. The thought peppered him out of his melancholy.  If he could annex Punjab he may eventually get his seat in the House of Lords, he may even become more famous than his earlier predecesssor, the man who defeated Napoleon. His thoughts were interrupted by Osbourne. 
‘We don’t have enough military resources in Cis Satluj for the war, the Sikhs are very strong in artillery and cavalry’, Osbourne grimaced, remembering his visit to Lahore to make peace with Ranjit Singh prior to the Afghan war. At that time he had grudgingly acknowledged that the Frenchman Allard had trained and equipped the finest army in India for Ranjit Singh, right under the British nose.
“I have been told by Broadfoot that there are enough spies and sympathisers in Lahore”. Metalfe interrupted emphatically, almost in a whisper. “We can split the Punjabi Subha”, he said pronouncing the words without anglicised affliction. “I think we could win without a fight”. Metcalfe half rose out of his chair, dipped his finger into his glass and quickly drew a rough map on the polished table. The others on the conclave leaned forward with rapt attention.
‘We have about thirty odd regiments here in Cis Satluj’, Metaclafe made a circle around Jullunder and Philor. ‘Move them forward to the line from Firozpur to Amritsar’, he drew a north to south line. ‘Move the four Queens Foot regiments out of Simla and Umbala’, he drew an arrow from east to west. ‘They have been enjoying the sunny climes long enough’. ‘Move the six cavalry regiments in and around Gwalior and Jhansi to a forward line near Jhind and Patiala. He drew another circle. The artillery and cavalry from Lucknow and Kalpi can move forward later to the Jullunder and Philor cantonments vacated by the lot who are by now on the firing line. They will be the strategic reserves to turn the battle. Thomason can, and will, induce the Rajas of Bundelkhand, Jhind, Patiala, Jammu and the monkeys from Nepal to pitch in as a diversionary force from the south on the Forzpur Lahore axis if the battle goes out of control’.
 ‘What timeframes are we looking at ?’, John Bull interjected, stifling a cough on a linen napkin, already specked with blood stains.
‘ We will have to plan the campaign in winter, the summer is too hot to mobilise’, retorted Osbourne. Metcalfe noted with glee that his thoughts had germinated fully in their minds and that they were endorsing his views on war as the solution to bankruptcy. ‘Sooner the better, say eighteen months from now’, he said.
‘How do we sell this idea to India House ?’. Witworth was still sceptical, though cooperative. ‘The war needs funding and approval from London, what do we tell them, the Afghan campaign is still a bleeding wound’.
‘ Twenty million Stirling in Lahore treasury should be a convincing argument for London’. In his excitement John Bull had forgotten all about his bad cough. ‘Tough fight, but we could suggest Punjab instead of Afghanistan as a strategic buffer between the empire and the Hindukush. The bloody Tsar or the Ottoman will think twice before compromising the security of the empire’.
‘’Strategically brilliant’’. Cheered by the spreading enthusiasm in the conclave, Ellenborough  finally joined the discussion. ‘But the war will only fetch short term gains, what do we do to avert a long term fiasco as we are now ?’. All eyes turned to Witworth the financial controller.
‘Tax the bloody natives’, Metcalfe interjected without hesitation.
‘What do we tax them for ?’, asked  the Governor General, back now in full control. ‘Commodities ?’.
‘We don’t control all the commerce in India, just some parts’, said John Bull hesitatingly. ‘But we control the transit of goods from one part to another’, we can impose transit tax.
“My foot”, said Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe. “Tax them for Salt”.
There was an imperious silence around the table. They stared at each other with lack of comprehension. Ellenborough broke the silence. “Would you care to explain Thomas ?”, he commanded in his soft voice.
“What is the most precious commodity for the natives ?”, asked Metcalfe, looking around the table. He did not wait for an answer. “What is gold and diamonds for you is salt for the natives, the heathen cannot live without it”.  He paused for effect. “It has been coming from the salt works near Muree since the silk route days”, he dipped his finger in his glass and drew lazy circles on the table top. “It goes all the way from here to China”, he said sliding his finger to the right, “and to Madras” he drew another line south. “Where did Ranjit get his money from ?” he asked pointedly. There was silence around the table. “Why was he keen to send Nalwa to capture Kashmir ?” he asked again.
He pushed his chair back and got up. For a minute he stood there with a faraway look in his eyes. “The most precious possession with Ranjit was not the bloody Kohinoor”, he said hooking his thumbs on his cummerbund. “or money in his treasury”,  he declared. “All his power came from the ownership of the Salt mines in Muree.  Kashmir is the strategic route for the salt to come to India or go east to China. The man who holds the route can also tax the produce”.
He started to pace around the round table.
“Gentlemen”, he drew in his breath. His voice quivered with mischievous anticipation. “I will go along and fight the war with you, I will supply the entire logistic support and also pitch in a 50% discount. You take the Kohinoor, you take the treasury, but give me the salt mines as compensation. Along with Punjab you shall inherit Kashmir, sell it to Gulabh Singh, Broadfoot says that he is keen to buy it. So make more money. And when I sell the salt to the natives and they take it through Kashmir, tax it, make more money. You don’t have to do it yourself, that bloody swine Gulabh will do it for you. God willing, I shall fill your treasury and mine, and there is none to complain”.
There was silence around the table, it was irrefutable solution to their current problem.
Ellenborough broke the silence. ”Stop pacing my good man”, he commanded. “Sit down and let us discuss this harebrained plan of yours”. He picked up the silver spoon and tapped on it to call the Khansama for more brandy. And till late at night they drank and discussed the plan. That night the Military Secretary dictated the top secret directive from the Governor General to the C-In-C, at Shimla. The words were simple, it’s portent evil and ominous.
‘Go to war’, it commanded. ‘Take Punjab quickly’,  it demanded.
None had a choice. It was destiny.
The  ‘Jan Company’ had decided to become “Namak Haram” against the very soldiers who had sworn that they would not be ‘Namka Haram to Jan Company’.
Salt was irresistible, more valuable than Kohinoor.



  1. Excellent story. Is it true?


  2. I think all policy decisions in the so called 'Govt of India' are still taken like this. Eye opener. And yes... is it true???

  3. Hi Unni. You are good. Never knew this side of you. Great work. Arun K Gupta