HistoriCity | When an 18th-century battle decides a 21st-century election in West Bengal - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | When an 18th-century battle decides a 21st-century election in West Bengal

ByValay Singh
Apr 09, 2024 08:29 PM IST

It is tragic that the colonial British tactic of divide and rule continues to haunt Indian politics as the communalisation of the Battle of Plassey shows

As West Bengal joins the country to go to polls later this month, the Krishnanagar constituency Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, Amrita Roy will face off against Trinamool Congress' Mahua Moitra.

Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. The battle was fought on the banks of River Hooghly (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. The battle was fought on the banks of River Hooghly (Wikimedia Commons)

Roy is a descendant of the Maharaj Krishnachandra's family, the erstwhile royals who served in the court of the Bengal nawabs — and who is believed to have supported the much-reviled Mir Jafar who ended the nawab's rule and facilitated the British takeover in the 18th century.

The name Mir Jafar has been a byword for treachery in the Indian sub-continent for more than 250 years now. On June 23, 1757, at Plassey (Polashi, West Bengal), the British East India Company forces defeated the much larger army of Siraj-ud Daulah, the last independent ruler of Bengal (1756-1757). This unlikely victory was the result of both luck (rain rendered the poorly protected gunpowder on Siraj’s side useless) and internal sabotage.

In the 18th century, Bengal was the richest province of the crumbling Mughal empire. European trading companies – British, French, Dutch and Portuguese – were vying with each other to gain trading rights in various provinces. This rivalry began in Europe and spilt over into trading frontiers such as India, and also led to military conflicts like the Carnatic wars (1746-48, 1749-54, 1757-63) between the British East India Company and the French East India Company, with both allied to rival Nawabs.

The Black Hole of Calcutta

 

Two months after Siraj became Nawab of Bengal in April 1756, his troops stormed the British-built Fort William in then Calcutta and took captive more than a hundred Indians, Britishers and a few other Europeans. This large group was forced into a tiny barrack, just 4.3 m x 5.5 m in size, on the night of June 20, 1756. During the night, many of them died due to suffocation and exhaustion in that ‘black hole’. The exact numbers of deaths vary wildly from 16 to 23 out of the 146 captured. Regardless of the exact number, the sordid episode led to the East India Company sanctioning the use of any and all means to oust Siraj. Author Sudip Chakaravarti writes in Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History, “Just how many died in the Black Hole? How many were there to begin with? A macabre arithmetic has since remained with the incident”.

Siraj’s brief rule as Nawab has been portrayed as untenably disastrous by his critics, such as courtier Ghulam Hussain Khan and a host of British writers. This provided the much-needed ‘moral justification’ for East India Company officials like Robert Clive to take over Bengal by force of arms, thereby turning the company from just a trading power to a territorial one. However, Indian historians, and particularly Bengali chroniclers, have described Siraj’s vilification as a deliberate exercise in communal historiography by the British, and later their Indian beneficiaries, who had willy-nilly imbibed colonial and orientalist mindsets.

Both contemporary and later Persian chronicles, as well as British records, conclusively show that the key saboteurs against Siraj were led by a disgruntled group comprising a top general Mir Jafar, leading merchants and bankers (Jagat Seth Madhab Rai and Omichand), and nobles like Rai Durlabh. Mir Jafar, a contender to the throne, had lost out to a much younger 24-year-old Siraj, who had also publicly humiliated Madhab Rai, the richest merchant. In fact, British accounts have depicted Siraj as an ill-tempered, scornful, cruel and uncouth man, who had come to be despised by the entire old guard, including landlords from the time of his grandfather Nawab Alivardi Khan’s (1740-1756 AD) rule.

Two hundred and sixty-seven years later, this spectre of the betrayal of Siraj-ud-Daulah by Mir Jafar, has been dug up in the ongoing election campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. This has been precipitated by the Bharatiya Janata Party fielding Amrita Roy, a political rookie who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Krishnanagar, from the eponymous Lok Sabha seat.

Ms Roy has sought to claim a larger role for her ancestor-in-law, Krishnachandra Roy, in the conspiracy to kill Siraj, whom she has labelled as a ‘Mughal outsider’ and whose rule of ‘torture’ would have led to the extinction of Hinduism from Krishnanagar. The Trinamool Congress’ Mohua Mitra and others have returned fire with their own cannonade of history. They have pointed to Krishnachandra’s allegiance to the British against the last independent ruler of Bengal in the decisive battle of Plassey, and have accused Roy of allying with the ‘outsider and anti-Bengali BJP’.

Since 2014, elections have turned increasingly communal and atavistic, referring to real and imagined injustices, and reinterpreting power struggles of the past such as between Siraj and the merchants aligned with the British, along religious lines to serve present political interests. Thus, history is now witnessing the communalisation of the Battle of Plassey.

Also Read: Bengal nawab who died fighting British turns tormentor of Hindus in BJP’s poll narrative

Who was Krishnachandra Roy (1710-1782)?

 

A petty zamindar and a self-styled ‘Raja’, Krishnachandra Roy’s family had controlled the Krishnanagar-Nadia region of West Bengal for five generations. After winning the favour of the British, Krishnachandra patronised the arts and religion. He styled himself on Emperor Akbar and kept his own nine jewels – or navratna – among his courtiers in his small court in Krishnanagar. He championed orthodox traditions like the prohibition of widow remarriage and was a big patron of Shakta worship.

Krishnachandra Roy’s part in the battle of Plassey was peripheral. None of the British, Persian, French and Dutch accounts mention him or his role in any detail. But it was adequate for the British to intervene to stop his execution, ordered by Mir Qasim, the British-installed Nawab in the early 1760s. Pranab Chatterjee writes in A Story of Ambivalent Modernisation in Bangladesh and West Bengal: The Rise of and Fall of Bengali Elitism in South Asia (Asian Thought and Culture), “for his loyalty and friendship, Clive rewarded Krishna Chandra with five cannons, the title of Maharaja (the great king), and the right to be a large-scale local zamindar”.

This gifting of cannons – the exact number varies from five to 12, according to different accounts – is perceived as an important marker of Krishnachandra Roy’s role in the battle. As historian Joel Bordeaux writes in The Mythic King: Raja Krishnacandra and Early Modern Bengal, “…a more directly related bit of material evidence (of collusion) is probably the cannon directly in front of the Nadia royal palace in Krishnanagar. Its pedestal bears an inscription stating that the cannon was used in the Battle of Plassey and was gifted by Clive himself. It is commonly claimed that Krishnachandra received a dozen such cannon, but even one would seem an unusual way to honour the raja had he not contributed to the Company's victory in any meaningful way”.

The cannons that were used by the British to gain their first military victory, which brought a sudden end to the largely pluralistic and tolerant Nawabi rule in Bengal, were on display at the Krishnanagar palace. Bordeaux also notes a legend prevalent about them, “…despite its location inside the gate, plenty of people are aware of the cannon's existence. During a public festival held in the exhibition hall (naṭ-mandir) adjoining the palace some of the locals informed me that the cannon is possessed (pagal) and has been known to fire occasionally on its own initiative.”

Legitimation and myth-making

 

The 18th and 19th-century literature such as Bharat Chandra’s ‘Anand Mangal’ and ‘Kshitishvansavalicharita’, the 1805 biography of the Krishnagar kings, introduced Krishnachandra and other Hindu aristocrats into the Plassey conspiracy, and this self-serving belief in relation to their new masters – the British – spread widely among the colonial bhadralok (Bengali elite).

‘Anand Mangal’, for instance, attempts to show Krishnachandra Roy as the one who “approached Robert Clive with an underhanded plan to overthrow Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula lest continued 'Muslim Rule' destroy the Hindutva, the religious/social/biological identities, of Bengal's Hindu population - and perhaps the universe itself in the process.”

Just as the name Mir Jafar came to exemplify betrayal, British colonial rule is remembered for its policy of divide and rule throughout the world. This extended to history-writing, in which they pitted one community against another by undertaking a systematic project of emphasising differences and downplaying tolerance and syncretism, such as that embodied by the likes of Emperor Akbar, and Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal. It is tragic and ironic that more than 75 years after their departure, the spectre of the British still haunts Indian politics, and this divisive colonial legacy has found new life in the form of communalisation of history, even at the cost of undermining national unity.

References

 

Sudeep Chakravarty, Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History, 2020

Pranab Chatterjee, A Story of Ambivalent Modernisation in Bangladesh and West Bengal: The Rise of and Fall of Bengali Elitism in South Asia (Asian Thought and Culture, 2009

Joel Bordeaux, The Mythic King: Raja Krishnacandra and Early Modern Bengal, 2015

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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