Two hundred and fifty years ago, on 23 June 1757, the last sovereign nawab of Bengal (which included present-day Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Bangladesh) was defeated on the banks of the Ganga by an army under the command of the British East India Company’s Colonel Robert Clive. The battle came to be known as the Battle of Plassey, after the mango orchard of Palashi, near Murshidabad, on which it was fought. Clive’s victory and the subsequent annexation of Bengal allowed the East India Company to strengthen its military might across India, paving the way for it to make massive economic gains – some would say plunder.
In spite of the importance of this turning point in the region’s history, however, media pundits and historians throughout the Subcontinent showed little interest this past June in remembering the death of Nawab Mirza Muhammad Sirajuddaula (see pic), of his commanders Mir Madan and Mohanlal, or of the hundreds of soldiers who lost their lives on the day that British colonialism established its first territorial foothold on Southasian soil. Even as academics queued up in hope of publishing their essays on the mutinous events of 1857, which took place a full 100 years after the battle, the memorial in Plassey remained largely neglected. No government official deigned to lay a wreath here.
A child of the royal family of Murshidabad, then the capital of Bengal, Sirajuddaula was groomed by his maternal grandfather, Nawab Alivardi Khan, as his successor. To acquaint the 13-year-old boy with the arts of governance and martial affairs, Alivardi took him to battle against the Marathas in 1746. In May 1752, the septuagenarian nawab named Sirajuddaula his heir, splitting Bengal’s gentry along complicated lines of loyalty. With the death of Alivardi in April 1756, things took a difficult turn. The defeat of the army of the 24-year-old nawab, enthroned only 14 months earlier, was no feat of military brilliance, but rather a tale of colonial cunning.
Though discontentment within certain palace factions following Sirajuddaula’s ascension were a shot in the arm for the British, the plot for the young nawab’s overthrow had in fact been in place long beforehand. According to Robert Orme, an official historian of the East India Company, the British had prepared a blueprint for the conquest of Bengal soon after Alivardi named his successor. British private trade had been experiencing severe cash-flow problems since the late 1740s, and financial crisis had also engulfed the Mughal regime. Bengal, in the meantime, was incredibly rich. According to official colonial records, Shaista Khan, governor of Bengal from 1664 to 1688, had amassed 640 million rupees, excluding gold and jewellery; during the early 1680s, he had even been able to give a bribe of 20 million rupees to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for an extension of his governorship.
In 1756, Sirajuddaula seized Calcutta. Months before Clive’s local co-conspirators were brought on board, the Council of Fort St George, the proto-colonial administration in Madras, had instructed officers of the East India Company not only to ensure the “mere retaking of Calcutta” and the payment of “ample reparations”, but “to effect a junction with any powers in the province of Bengal that might be dissatisfied with the violence of the Nawab’s government or that might have pretensions to the Nawabship.” The rest is history. Clive moved towards Murshidabad for a head-on clash with Sirajuddaula’s troops at the orchards of Palashi. Sirajuddaula’s commander-in-chief Mir Jafar Ali Khan, in league with the British, defected, causing the collapse of the nawab’s army. The fateful battle went on for eight hours, after which the defeated Sirajuddaula tried to flee towards Rajmahal, in present-day Jharkhand. He was captured, and eventually killed on 2 July 1757.
After Sirajuddaula’s death, Mir Jafar was installed as Nawab of Bengal. Clive, however, made it difficult for him to rule effectively, extracting a massive yearly tax from him, in addition to compensation for losses and military expenditures. The annual revenue extorted by the colonial regime from Bengal ranged between GBP 2-4 million – enough to ensure that the East India Company would be able to maintain its armed forces, and to keep the newly acquired territories under its control. Clive went on to attain knighthood, and to reward some of his other co-conspirators handsomely.
There has been much criticism of Sirajuddaula for his supposed ‘immoral behaviour’. The writings of Robert Orme set a trend on this count. As a member of the Council of Fort St George from 1754 to 1758, Orme was influential in having Robert Clive made the head of the 1757 military mission to Bengal. In 1778, Orme wrote of Sirajuddaula:
In conception he was not slow, but absurd; obstinate, sullen, and impatient of contradiction … [he] lived in every kind of intemperance and debauchery, and more especially in drinking spirituous liquors to an excess, which inflamed his passions and impaired the little understanding with which he was born.
Though other historians of the time also portrayed Sirajuddaula as cruel and arrogant, the bile of Orme’s description has coloured the young nawab’s character in most subsequent historical accounts. Many of the writers of official British and French histories of the colonial period, it should be noted, had previously been officials in the British East India Company and other colonialist efforts.
In a book on the East India Company published last year, journalist Nick Robins points out that such historians waged a “veritable smear campaign against Sirajuddaula”. One of the most notable of these efforts was a book published in 1758 by John Zephaniah Holwell, titled A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and Others Who Were Suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell alleged that, on 20 June 1756, after the capture of Fort William in Calcutta, Sirajuddaula’s men forced 146 Europeans into an 18×14-foot room, causing the death by suffocation of 123. Holwell was one of the survivors of what came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. As a leader of a defeated force whose testimony is not corroborated by any independent information, Holwell could easily be considered an unreliable witness. But his story was dredged up in 1818, in defence of Viceroy Lord Curzon’s decision to build Calcutta’s Holwell Monument in memory of those who died in the Black Hole incident. Since then, it has attained legendary status. As early as 1916, British historian J H Little roundly criticised the story of the Black Hole, calling it a “gigantic hoax”. Though many have similarly discredited it since then, the story has remained alive. In an introductory essay to a collection brought out by the guidebook publishers Lonely Planet in 2004, titled Calcutta, the authors dubbed the Black Hole “the best known account of barbarism in India”.
There have been some notable attempts to rescue Sirajuddaula’s reputation. Kali Kinkar Dutta (in his book Sirajuddoula), Akshay Kumar Maitreya (in a similarly titled book in Bengali) and even Rabindranath Tagore considered the nawab a gallant opponent of British colonisation. Luke Scrafton, the director of the East India Company from 1765 to 1768, joined them in their praise. “The name of Sirajuddaula stands higher in the scale of honour than does the name of Clive,” he wrote. “He was the only one of the principal actors who did not attempt to deceive.” Scrafton added that the young Sirajuddaula had taken an oath on the Koran at Alivardi’s deathbed that he would thenceforth not touch liquor – and that he had kept his promise. But stories such as that of the Black Hole persist, providing fuel for the argument that the inhabitants of the Subcontinent were fit only to be colonised. The avenging of the Black Hole incident itself is frequently presented as an alibi for the conspiracy to annex Bengal. Even India’s mainstream left, with West Bengal as its bastion, today fails to treat the history of colonialism with rigour and honesty. Indian communism, which could have been a powerful voice against such obscurantist practices, has been fettered by a poor, sectarian understanding of the Southasian freedom struggle, and has proven blind to imperialism’s excesses in its one-track pursuit of class politics.
Indeed, the demeaning of the Subcontinent’s past at the hands of its own historians continues unabated. A colonial regime whose raison d’etre was nothing more than profits continues to be apologised for by the children of independent countries. Though Southasians honour the memory of the First War of Independence, much of our memory of our past persistently falls prey to colonial mythologising. As long as we continue to believe those myths, the story of Sirajuddaula and the Battle of Plassey will not be worth remembering.