By Kazim Ibn Sadique
There is a story that needs to be told. It is the story of a battle. Of a young, perhaps naive ruler. Funny how there are so many of them strewn through the pages of history. The story must be heard, must be remembered and celebrated. Because it is our story.
23rd June, 1757. Morning. On the banks of Bhagirothi River, two armies are forming, facing each other across a large field under an overcast sky. On one side there is Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, with nearly 50 thousand men. Colonel Robert Clive, commander of British forces under the East India Company lines up his meagre force of three thousand men with their backs to the mango grove at the edge of the field. We are here today, between these two armies because of the stupidity of Farrukh Siyar.
By the 1700s the Mughal Empire was failing. A succession of weak and ineffectual monarchs had made the borderlands restless. Bengal was ruled by semi-autonomous Nawabs who pledged allegiance to the Emperor only on pen and paper and referred to themselves as Bengali. The fertile riverlands was seen as the region of plenty. The food was good, the industry was strong. Our muslin was famed throughout the world. Our river-barges were a picture of luxury and beauty. Our people prospered.
The British had been in India for a century or so by then. They convinced the feeble Emperor Farrukh Siyar to issue a decree, giving them the right to trade freely and as much as they wanted, paying only a total tax of Tk 3000. The local merchants didn't have that favour. They had to pay their usual tax of 40% on their products. The British East India Company flaunted this decree and settled in three villages that they bought from the Emperor: Govindapur, Sutanoti and Calcutta. Yes, Calcutta was a village that was built into a city by the British.
The British used their special trading privileges to the full. They traded illegally, giving passes to the natives so that they could utilise the almost tax-free trading privileges. They harboured the Nawab's enemies and built Fort William at Calcutta. The tension between the two parties escalated. With the Dutch, Portugese and specially the French traders breathing down their necks, the British knew they needed a friendly Nawab; one that would help them expand their power. Desperate, they drew up a plan in 1752 and began strengthening the fortifications of Fort William without permission.
After the aging Nawab Alivardi Khan died in 1756, his grandson Siraj-ud-Daula came to the throne at the age of 23. Siraj had a certain lack of discipline as an adolescent, which the responsibilities of reign eventually cured. But his headstrong nature and youth caused doubt in some of his advisers.
He attacked Calcutta and captured Fort William to force compliance, to stop the British insulting his emissaries and harbouring fugitives of the state. The East India Company sent Robert Clive and Admiral Watson to reinforce Calcutta, but by that time the Nawab's forces had withdrawn for negotiations for a treaty and the token garrison did not put up much of a fight. Siraj decided to overlook the attack and signed the Treaty of Alinagar. It helped the British buy time.
And so we come to Kashimbazar Kuthi. What makes a man sell out his country? Perhaps the price was too good, or the cost was too high.
Mir Jafar, Yar Lutuf Khan, Mir Kashim, were the Generals. Jagat Seth was the banker. Rai Durlabh, Omichund, Rajballabh, they were all there. They all failed their country, their Lord and their people. To say that Siraj didn't know about them would be an alteration of history. He knew about Mir Jafar. But this was his grand-uncle, the commander of his army. Siraj confronted Mir Jafar, who begged forgiveness. And Siraj forgave him. And no, not because he was blinded by youth. Mir Jafar was a powerful man. And Bengal was a feudal region. The armies were raised by the holders of the land. Siraj didn't want a civil war while he had other problems to deal with.
The British destroyed Chandernagar, the French outpost. Since the French were under the protection of Siraj as well as every other trader, they appealed to him for intervention. And so Siraj gathered his army and marched to his doom. And we are here, on the field of Polashi, as the two armies exchange cannon fire.
See the vanguard? Yes, there are two men there, men of importance. They are Mir Madan and Mohanlal, two of Siraj's loyal Generals. They have roughly ten thousand men. Notice the cannon positions on the right? There's Monsieur St. Frais with his small French artillery detachment, who have come to avenge Chandernagar. Look how the British fall back into the grove half an hour into the cannonade. The Nawab has superior firepower.
The rain comes. It wets the gunpowder. The Bengali cannons are silenced. Mir Madan thinks the British suffered the same fate. As 40000 Bengali troops of the traitorous generals just stand and watch, look how he charges the lines. But the British cannons are still functional. They fire on the cavalry and a grapeshot takes Mir Madan's leg.
Come, stand inside the tent as they bring him to Siraj. Hear him complain with his last breath about the game of freeze the rest of the army is playing. Study your toes as Siraj flings his crown at the feet of Mir Jafar and begs him to save the day, to protect Bengal. Keep a straight face as Mir Jafar bows and promises to take the English by surprise at nightfall. Can you see him send a message to Clive the moment he walks out?
Do you hear Rai Durlabh whisper to Siraj that it would be best if he left the field? Do you dare look Mohanlal in the eye as he receives the order for retreat when the battle is almost won? In the end Mohanlal defies orders and continues fighting. Siraj has left the field, and rumours flock Polashi as the main army retreats. With their troops fleeing around them Mohanlal and St. Frais withdraw in the end. With three thousand troops, Clive takes the field of “Plassey”.
Siraj made it to his capital Murshidabad, but his defeat had sealed his fate. He did not manage to raise an army and he fled dressed as a commoner. They caught up with him at a port town, took him back to the capital. They murdered and butchered him, and displayed the pieces of his body to the public.
Mir Jafar became a puppet Nawab, but soon grew uncomfortable with the restrictions placed upon him and the expansion of the British. He tried to betray them by allying himself with the Dutch. But that plan failed as the British destroyed the Dutch fleet.
Mir Kashim was the last Nawab with any real power. He had played his part at Polashi and this was his reward. But he too realised the British plans and rose up in arms against them in the Battle of Buxar of 1764. By that time, the British were stronger and Kashim's allies were foolish and incompetent. He was defeated and died in poverty.
Mir Jafar again occupied the now ceremonial position of Nawab till his death a year later.
Colonel Robert Clive became Lord Clive and received the title Baron of Plassey.
After that? Bengal went dark for 200 years. Until dawn came in 1971. A ruined yet glorious morning. But our eyes were so used to darkness we had to close them. And now, we can either grit our teeth and open our eyes and behold the glory we can achieve. Or we can pluck out our eyes because we cannot handle the light.
Author is a descendent of
Mirza Muhammed Shukur,
a defeated soldier and survivor of Polashi