262 Years on, Betrayal at Plassey Still Has Lessons For Bengal
(On the anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, The Quint is republishing this article from its archives. It was originally published on 23 June 2015.)
The betrayal of Siraj-ud-daula by Bengal’s aristocratic and landed nobility leading to the stunning defeat of the nawab’s numerically superior forces at the hands of the British at Plassey (or Palashi) in Murshidabad on 23 June 1757, was not a new phenomenon in the subah of Bengal.
In 1740, the year Nadir Shah sacked Delhi, Siraj’s maternal grandfather Alivardi Khan conspired with the aristocracy, including Haj Ahmad, the house of the Jagat Seths (World’s Bankers) and Rairayan Alam Chand, to depose Sarfaraz Khan, the naib nazim of Bihar, who was a pretender to the throne in Murshidabad.
After Alivardi’s death in 1756, a conspiracy was hatched against the young and arrogant successor Siraj by the fauzdar of Purnea Saukat Jung, the army commander Mir Muhammad Jafar Ali Khan (better known to the world as ‘traitor’ Mir Jafar), Jagat Seth and others such as Umi Chand and Rai Durlabh.
But the attempted coup d’etat came to naught. It was the failure of this conspiracy to dethrone Siraj with the aim to protect the deeply entrenched political and commercial interests of the landed and moneyed elite that drove the plotters to the British.
While Plassey ensured that some East India Company worthies such as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings could engage in private trade, without the encumbrances of tariffs and side payments to the nawab, it also helped the landlords and traders to take full control of the state’s levers. But from 1757, it took a mere 15 years – climaxing with the 1764 battle of Buxar and the 1765 award of Bengal’s diwani to the British – for the Murshidabad nobility to be fully ousted by the East India Company.
Before Plassey, Alexander Row wrote in his 1773 book History of Hindostan, “the balance of trade was against all nations in favour of Bengal”. But in the years after 1757 the flow had reversed. The Bengal famine of 1770, itself the result of the Company’s rapacity, killed an estimated 10 million people. The 1793 permanent settlement destroyed the hereditary rights of thousands of Bengal’s small landholders.
By ruthlessly combining economic power with a private army, the Company was able to seize monopoly power. Astonishingly, Britain was able to use India’s resources to pay for exports back to Europe. The company, in the words of Nick Robins, had become “a monstrous combination of trader, banker, conqueror and power broker.”
The moral of the post-Plassey story is that the domestic elite’s collaboration with an outside power can prove economically and politically disastrous for any local authority. The history of more recent years shows that the Left Front’s debacle in Bengal in large part was hastened, among other factors, by the party’s collaboration with real estate barons and building promoters, beginning in the late 1980s.
It led to widespread corruption, weakened the state and zonal committees, had a debilitating impact on industrialisation and caused dissension and disaffection that split the CPI(M). The weakening authority of the party-government prepared the ground for Mamata Banerjee’s political surge across the state.
Mamata sought to usher in paribartan – much as the clique of nobles in Murshidabad did in 1756-57 by collaborating with the British – by the promise of getting rid of the Marxists, turning Kolkata into another London and taking Bengal to its lofty heights of the past. But soon after coming to power in 2011, her party and government machineries were opened up to the same promoters and real estate sharks who drained the Left Front regime.
The siphoning of wealth in the late 18th and 19th centuries with new systems of exchange and exploitation truly led to Empire. Bengal prospered too though, in the words of 18th century political thinker Philip Francis, “there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage.”
While the 34 years of Left misrule left Bengal an industrial wasteland, in the four years that Mamata has been at the helm, the state has seen the exercise of what Edmund Burke called “arbitrary power” – as reflected in the whimsical transfer of the secretariat from the stately Writers’ Building on the east bank of the Hooghly to the monstrous Nabanna on the west.
Kolkata has not become London, but the six years between 2011 and now has been a catalogue of one party’s misdeeds brought on by the machinations of a combination of political and real estate elites. Today, much in Bengal has changed and it bears only a faint resemblance to the Bengal that Siraj lost and Clive gained. What has not changed, however, is the deceit and perfidy of an elite willing to collude with a political class itself complicit in chicanery, corruption and mendacity.
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