Bengal on the Eve of British Conquest
British Conquest of Bengal :- Bengal, the richest province of the Mughal Empire included present day Bangladesh, and its Nawab had authority over the region constituting present day states of Bihar and Odisha. Exports from Bengal to Europe consisted of raw products such as saltpetre, rice, indigo, pepper, sugar, silk, cotton textiles, handicrafts, etc. The English East India Company had vital commercial interests in trading in Bengal, as nearly 60 per cent of the British imports from Asia consisted of goods from Bengal. During the 1630s, regular contact of the British with Bengal continued when they established factories in Balasore, Hooghly, Kasimbazar, Patna and Dacca. By the 1690s, the foundation of Calcutta by the English company completed the process of English commercial settlement in Bengal. The Company paid a sum of Rs 3,000 (£ 350) per annum to the Mughal emperor who allowed them to trade freely in Bengal. In contrast, the Company’s exports from Bengal were worth more than £ 50,000 per annum.
British Conquest of Bengal
In 1700, Murshid Quli Khan became the Dewan of Bengal and ruled till his death in 1727. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Shujauddin who ruled till 1739. After that, for a year (1739-40), Sarfaraz Khan, an incapable son of Murshid Quli Khan, became the ruler; he was killed by Alivardi Khan. Alivardi Khan ruled till 1756 and also stopped paying tributes to the Mughal emperior. Under the rule of these rulers, Bengal made unprecedented progress. There were other factors too, which made Bengal prosperous, for instance, the rest of India was disturbed by inter-border disputes, the Maratha invasions, Jat revolts, and external invasions by Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The region of Bengal was fortunate enough to escape these challenges. The population of Calcutta rose from 15,000 (in 1706) to 100,000 (in 1750) and other cities like Dacca and Murshidabad became highly populous.
Almost all the governors of Bengal strongly resented the special privileges enjoyed by the English company as it meant a huge loss to the provincial exchequer. So the friction between the English commercial interests and the Bengal government became the chief cause for conflict between the two. During a short period between 1757 and 1765, the power gradually got transferred from the Nawabs of Bengal to the
British with the latter defeating the former.
Alivardi Khan and the English
In 1741, Alivardi Khan, the Deputy Governor of Bihar, killed the Nawab of Bengal Sarfaraz Khan in a battle and certified his own position as the new Subahdar of Bengal by paying a large sum of money to the Mughal Emperor, Muhammad Shah. Alivardi Khan ruled for 15 years, during which he fought off the Marathas. The English, too, took the advantage of the Maratha incursions in Bengal, by obtaining a permission from the nawab to dig a ditch and throw up an entrenchment around their settlement of Fort William. Later, Alivardi Khan’s apprehensions were drawn to the Carnatic region, where the European companies had usurped all power; on realising this, he was urged to expel the Europeans from Bengal. But he died in April 1756 and was succeeded by his grandson, Siraj-ud-daula, the son of Alivardi’s youngest daughter.
Challenges Before Siraj-ud-daula
A youth just in his twentieth year, Siraj inherited many troubles from his grandfather. He had a rival in his cousin, the Nawab of Purnea, Shaukat Jang; a hostile aunt, Ghasiti Begum, a childless widow; a rebellious commander of the army, Mir Jafar, husband of Alivardi Khan’s sister; and an alarmed (Hindu) subject population. There was a dominant group in his court comprising Jagat Seth, Omichand, Rai
Ballabh, Rai Durlabh and others who were opposed to him. To these internal rivals were added the threat to Siraj’s position from the ever-growing commercial activity of the English company. Impulsive by nature and lacking experience, Siraj felt insecure, and this prompted him to act in ways which proved counter productive. He defeated Shaukat Jang and killed him in a battle, divested Ghasiti Begum of her treasures and secured her, and dismissed Mir Jafar, appointing Mir Madan in his place. A Kashmiri officer Mohan Lal was appointed as the overall administrator, and he acted almost like a prime minister.
The Battle of Plassey
Prelude to the Battle
The officials of the Company made rampant misuse of its trade privileges that adversely affected the nawab’s finances. The English fortified Calcutta without the nawab’s permission. The Company further tried to mislead him, and compounded their sin by giving asylum to a political fugitive, Krishna Das, son of Raj Ballabh who had fled with immense treasures against the nawab’s will. The Company, on its part, suspected that Siraj would drastically reduce its trade privileges in collusion with the French in Bengal. Thus, when Siraj attacked and seized the English fort at Calcutta, it brought their hostility into the open.
Mention may be made here of the much propagated ‘Black Hole Tragedy’. Siraj-ud-daula is believed to have imprisoned 146 English persons who were lodged in a very tiny room due to which 123 of them died of suffocation. However, historians either do not believe this story, or say
that the number of victims must have been much smaller.
The arrival of a strong force under the command of Robert Clive at Calcutta from Madras strengthened the English position in Bengal. Clive forged a secret alliance with the traitors of the nawab—Mir Jafar, Rai Durlabh, Jagat Seth (an influential banker of Bengal) and Omichand. Under the deal, Mir Jafar was to be made the nawab who in turn would reward the Company for its services. The secret alliance of the
Company with the conspirators further strengthened the English position. So the English victory in the Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757) was decided before the battle was even fought. Due to the conspiracy of the nawab’s officials, the 50,000-strong force of Siraj was defeated by a handful of Clive’s forces. Siraj-ud-daula was captured and murdered by the order of Mir Jafar’s son, Miran. The Battle of Plassey placed at the disposal of the English vast resources of Bengal. After Plassey, the English virtually monopolised the trade and commerce of Bengal.
Significance of Battle of Plassey
As a result of this victory, Mir Jafar became the Nawab of Bengal. He gave large sums of money plus the zamindari of 24 parganas to the English.
The Battle of Plassey had political significance for it laid the foundation of the British empire in India; it has been rightly regarded as the starting point of British rule in India. The battle established the military supremacy of the English in Bengal. Their main rivals, the French, were ousted. They obtained a grant of territories for the maintenance of a properly equipped military force, and their prestige increased
manifold. But there was no apparent change in the form of government, though the supreme control of affairs passed to Clive, on whose support the new nawab, Mir Jafar, was entirely dependent for maintaining his newly acquired position. The sovereignty of the English over Calcutta was recognised, and the English posted a Resident at the nawab’s court.
Mir Kasim and the Treaty of 1760
Mir Jafar was increasingly irritated by the interference of Clive. He entered into a conspiracy with the Dutch at Chinsura. But the Dutch were defeated and humbled by the English forces at Bedara in November 1759. The treachery of Mir Jafar and his failure to make the payments due to the Company, annoyed the English. Meanwhile, Miran, the son of Jafar died and there started a fight for the nawabship of Bengal between Mir Kasim, the son-in-law of Mir Jafar, and Miran’s son. Vansittart, the new Governor of Calcutta, agreed to support Mir Kasim’s claim after a treaty between Mir Kasim and the Company was signed in 1760. Important features of the treaty were as follows:
- Mir Kasim agreed to cede to the Company the districts of Burdwan, Midnapur and Chittagong.
- The Company would get half of the share in chunam trade of Sylhet.
- Mir Kasim agreed to pay off the outstanding dues to the Company.
- Mir Kasim promised to pay a sum of rupees five lakh towards financing the Company’s war efforts in southern India.
- It was agreed that Mir Kasim’s enemies were the Company’s enemies, and his friends, the Company’s friends.
- It was agreed that tenants of the nawab’s territory would not be allowed to settle in the lands of the Company, and vice-versa.
Under the pressure of the Company, Mir Jafar decided to resign in favour of Mir Kasim. A pension of Rs 1,500 per annum was fixed for Mir Jafar.
Steps taken by Mir Kasim
Mir Kasim was the ablest nawab among the successors of Alivardi Khan. After assuming power, Mir Kasim shifted the capital from Murshidabad to Munger in Bihar. The move was taken to allow a safe distance from the Company at Calcutta. His other important steps were reorganising the bureaucracy with the men of his own choice and remodelling the army to enhance its skill and efficiency.
The Battle of Buxar
Prelude to Battle
The Company had thought that Mir Kasim would prove to be an ideal puppet for them. However, Mir Kasim belied the expectations of the Company. Ram Narayan, the deputy-governor of Bihar, was not responding to repeated requests by the nawab to submit the accounts of the revenues of Bihar. Mir Kasim could not tolerate this open defiance of his authority. But Ram Narayan was supported by the English officials of Patna. The misuse of the Company’s dastak or trade permit (a permit which exempted the goods specified from payment of duties) by Company officials also resulted in tensions between the nawab and the English.
The misuse of the dastak meant the loss of tax revenue to the nawab. It also made the local merchants face unequal competition with the Company merchants. By an imperial farman, the English company had obtained the right to trade in Bengal without paying transit dues or tolls. However, the servants of the Company also claimed the same privileges for their private trade. The Company’s servants also sold dastak to Indian merchants for a commission. Besides, they used coercive methods to get goods at cheaper rates, which was against the spirit of the duty-free trade. The duty-free trade simply meant buying cheap in an otherwise competitive market. Mir Kasim decided to abolish the duties altogether, but the British protested against this and insisted upon having preferential treatment as against other traders.
The Nawab-Company tussle over transit duty led to the outbreak of wars between the English and Mir Kasim in 1763. The English gained successive victories at Katwah, Murshidabad, Giria, Sooty and Munger. Mir Kasim fled to Awadh (or Oudh) and formed a confederacy with the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-daulah, and the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, with a view to recover Bengal from the English.
The combined armies of Mir Kasim, the Nawab of Awadh and Shah Alam II were defeated by the English forces under Major Hector Munro at Buxar on October 22, 1764 in a closely contested battle. The English campaign against Mir Kasim was short but decisive.
The importance of this battle lay in the fact that not only the Nawab of Bengal but also the Mughal Emperor of India was defeated by the English. The victory made the English a great power in northern India and contenders for the supremacy over the whole country.
After the battle, Mir Jafar, who was made Nawab in 1763 when relations between Mir Kasim and the Company became strained, agreed to hand over the districts of Midnapore, Burdwan and Chittagong to the English for the maintenance of their army. The English were also permitted duty-free trade in Bengal, except for a duty of two per cent on salt. After the death of Mir Jafar, his minor son, Najim-ud-daula, was appointed nawab, but the real power of administration lay in the hands of the naib-subahdar, who could be appointed or dismissed by the English.
A survey of this period of British rule cannot be complete without
a reference to Robert Clive, who joined the army after resigning
from a clerk’s post. He was instrumental in laying the foundations
of British power in India. He was made the Governor of Bengal
twice from 1757 to 1760 and then from 1765 to 1767. He
administered Bengal under the dual government system till his return
to England where he allegedly committed suicide in 1774.
——- Robert Clive
The Treaty of Allahabad
Robert Clive concluded two important treaties at Allahabad in August 1765—one with the Nawab of Awadh and the other with the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II.
Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula agreed to:
- (i) surrender Allahabad and Kara to Emperor Sha Alam II;
- (ii) pay Rs 50 lakh to the Company as war indemnity; and
- (iii) give Balwant Singh, Zamindar of Banaras, full possession of his estate
Shah Alam II agreed to:
- (i) reside at Allahabad, to be ceded to him by the Nawab of Awadh, under the Company’s protection;
- (ii) issue a farman granting the diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company in lieu of an annual payment of Rs 26 lakh; and
- (iii) a provision of Rs 53 lakh to the Company in return for nizamat functions (military defence, police, and administration of justice) of the said provinces.
Clive did not want to annex Awadh because it would have placed the Company under an obligation to protect an extensive land frontier from the Afghan and the Maratha invasions. The treaty made the Nawab a firm friend of the Company, and turned Awadh into a buffer state. Similarly, Clive’s arrangement with Shah Alam II was inspired by practical considerations. It made the emperor a useful ‘rubber stamp’ of the Company. Besides, the emperor’s farman legalised the political gains of the Company in Bengal.
Mir Kasim, the dethroned Nawab of Bengal, spent the rest of his life in abject misery as a homeless wanderer and died in June 1777.
Dual Government in Bengal (1765-72)
After the battle of Buxar, the East India Company became the real masters of Bengal. Robert Clive introduced the dual system of government, i.e., the rule of the two—the Company and the Nawab—in Bengal in which both the diwani, i.e., collecting revenues, and nizamat, i.e., police and judicial functions, came under the control of the Company. The Company exercised diwani rights as the diwan and the nizamat rights through its right to nominate the deputy subahdar. The Company acquired the diwani functions from the emperor and nizamat functions from the subahdar of Bengal.
The system held a great advantage for the Company. It left the appearance of authority to the puppet Indian ruler, while keeping the sovereign power in the hands of the Company. The nawab was responsible for maintaining peace and order, but he depended both for funds and forces upon the Company because the latter controlled the army and revenues.
For the exercise of diwani functions, the Company appointed two deputy diwans, Mohammad Reza Khan for Bengal and Raja Sitab Roy for Bihar. Mohammad Reza Khan also acted as deputy nazim or deputy subahdar.
The dual system led to an administrative breakdown and proved disastrous for the people of Bengal. Neither the Company nor the Nawab cared for administration and public welfare. Warren Hastings did away with the dual system in 1772.
Whether regarded as a duel between the foreigner and the native,
or as an event pregnant with vast permanent consequences,
Buxar takes rank amongst the most decisive battles ever fought.
Not only did the victory of the English save Bengal, not only
did it advance the British frontier to Allahabad, but it bound the
rulers of Awadh to the conqueror by ties of admiration, of
gratitude, of absolute reliance and trust, ties which made them
for the ninety-four years that followed the friends of his friends
and the enemies of his enemies.
Clive was not a founder but a harbinger of the future. He was
not a planner of empire but an experimenter who revealed
something of the possibilities. Clive was the forerunner of the