Siraj ud-Daulah

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Siraj ud-Daulah
Nawab of Bengal
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Siraj-Ud Daulah
Reign April 1756 - June 1757
Full name Mîrzâ Mohammad Sirâjud Dawla
Predecessor Ali Vardi Khan
Successor Mir Jafar
Consort Begum Lutfunnissa
Issue Umme Zohra
Father Zain Uddin
Mother Amina Begum

Mîrzâ Mohammad Sirâjud Dawla, more popularly known as Siraj-Ud-Daulah, (1733 – July 2, 1757) was the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The end of his reign marks the start of British East India Company rule in India. Many of the British, who were unable to pronounce his name correctly, also called him "Sir Roger Dowlett." In English literature, Siraj-ud-Daulah is depicted as cruel and despotic, almost as if this justified his overthrow. In fact, behind much of the literature the developing notion of the white man's burden can be detected, that Indian rulers such as Siraj were too decadent to be allowed to remain in power, so by removing them the British were bringing better governance to India. The annexation of Bengal by the East India Company can be identified as the real birth of the British Raj in India, although the British government would not take direct control of Indian territories until 1858, when Victoria of the United Kingdom was proclaimed Queen (later Empress) of India. In Indian literature, Siraj's character is not especially praised and his faults and weaknesses are recognized but he is regarded as a victim, not as a villain. The villains, from an Indian perspective, were the British and those Indians who betrayed Siraj who for all his faults was the legal ruler of Bengal. Towards the end of the century, further South, the ruler of Mysore, Tippu Sultan would succeed in inflicting several defeats on the British but was defeated when rival Indian rulers allied themselves with the British. It was this divide and rule polity that enabled the British to subjugate India. Indian independence became inevitable once the great majority decided that they did not want the British to remain. As long as a significant number collaborated with the British and gained from their presence, their position was secure. Siraj's legacy is still assessed differently by observers. Some choose to see him as a hero of anti-colonial resistance, as an inspiration to those who struggled for independence. Others see him as weak and corrupt and as personally responsible for Bengal's loss of autonomy, since had he ruled more wisely, he might have avoided direct confrontation with the British.

Contents

Early years

Siraj's father Zain Uddin was the ruler of Bihar and his mother Amina Begum was the youngest daughter of Nawab Ali Vardi Khan. Since Ali Vardi had no son, Siraj, as his grandson, became very close to him and from his childhood was seen by many as successor to the throne of Murshidabad. Accordingly, he was raised at the palace, where he was given the education and training suitable for a future Nawab. Young Siraj also accompanied Ali Vardi in his military ventures against the Marathas in 1746.

Ali Vardi Khan in 1752 officially declared his grandson Crown Prince and successor to the throne, creating no small amount of division in the family and the royal court.

Reign as Nawab

Mirza Mohammad Siraj succeeded Ali Vardi Khan as the Nawab of Bengal in April 1756 at the age of 23, and took the name Siraj-Ud-Daulah. As the direct political disciple of his grandfather, he was aware of how British colonialism was spreading around the globe and resented the British politico-military presence in Bengal. He was annoyed at the company's alleged involvement with and instigation of a conspiracy to oust him by members of his own court. His charges against the company were mainly threefold. First, that they strengthened the fortification around the Fort William without any intimation and approval; second, that they grossly abused the trade privileges granted to them by the Mughal rulers, which caused heavy loss of customs duties for the government; and third, that they gave shelter to some of his officers, for example Krishnadas, son of Rajballav, who fled Dhaka after misappropriating government funds. When the East India Company started further enhancement of military preparedness at Fort William in Calcutta, Siraj asked them to stop. The Company did not heed his directives, so Siraj-Ud-Daulah retaliated and captured Kolkata from them in June 1756. During this time, he is alleged to have put 146 British subjects in a 20 by 20 foot chamber, known as the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta; only 23 were said to have survived the overnight ordeal. The real facts around the incident are disputed by later historians, but at that time the lurid account of this incident by one survivor, John Zephaniah Holwell, obtained wide circulation in England and helped gain support for the East India Company's continued conquest of India. Simon Schama says that Holwell doubled his statistics but that "some of his account must have been true: the stifling heat and unhinged victims" but that the incident was only ever an excuse to preserve Fort William.[1]To place these developments in context, Siraj demanded that all the Europeans dismantle their trading posts and leave Bengal. The French and the Dutch did so but the British refused, regarding Calcutta. "rightly or wrongly ... as their own creation."[2] Siraj regarded the European as tenants occupying rented space and as their landlord he had every right to end their tenancy. He had good reason, too, to be suspicious of the motives of the East India Company's army, which, theoretically was mandated to protect British assets and personnel but were actually engaged in a war with France on India's soil with the obvious aim of incorporating India within its sphere of colonial interest.

Siraj-Ud-Daulah's nomination to the Nawabship aroused the jealousy and enmity of Ghaseti Begum (the eldest sister of Siraj's mother), Raja Rajballabh, Mir Jafar Ali Khan and Shawkat Jang (Siraj's cousin). Ghaseti Begam possessed huge wealth, which was the source of her influence and strength. Apprehending serious opposition from her, Sirajuddaula seized her wealth from Motijheel Palace and placed her in confinement. The Nawab also gave high government positions to his favorites. Mir Mardan was appointed Bakshi (Paymaster of the army) in place of Mir Jafar (who was married to a half-sister of Siraj's grandfather). Mohanlal was elevated to the post of peshkar of his Dewan Khana and he exercised great influence in the administration. Eventually Siraj suppressed Shaukat Jang, governor of Purnia, who was killed in a clash. On the one hand, Siraj did not lack military training and had learned some politics from his grandfather. On the other, he was not especially well trained for leadership and obviously made basic mistakes in favoring some and alienating others.

The Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive, meeting with Mir Jafar after Plassey, by Francis Hayman.

The Battle of Plassey (or Palashi) is widely considered the turning point in the history of India, and opened the way to eventual British domination. After Siraj-Ud-Daulah's conquest of Kolkata, the British responded by sending fresh troops from Chennai to recapture the fort and avenge the attack. The battle was almost certainly lost before it began. To counter the threat from Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan, who had already taken Delhi, he sent a considerable number of troops to meet his advance which depleted the numbers he could deploy against Clive. His army still outnumbered the British but soldiers who served under the demoted Mir Jafar had agreed to betray him. Mir Jafar had let Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive commander of the East India Company's army know that "he would not be excessively grief stricken" were Clive to depose Siraj, believing that he had been "passed over" unfairly.[3]. On May 1757, he entered a secret agreement with the British, who promised to make him Nawab if they successfully removed Siraj. On June 23, 1757, a retreating Siraj-Ud-Daulah met the British at Plassey. With Jafer's troops, Siraj had the numerical advantage; without them, he could not withstand the disciplined and well-equipped British attack. He was also betrayed by several other officers who had accepted bribes from the British. Defeat followed. The Nawab escaped to Murshidabad and then to Patna by boat, but was eventually arrested by Mir Jafar's soldiers. Siraj-Ud-Daulah was executed on July 2, 1757, by Mohammad Ali Beg under orders from Mir Jafar, whom the British installed as their puppet ruler. In Bengali, his name became synonymous with "traitor."

The character of Siraj-ud-Daulah

Although proclaimed as a freedom fighter in modern India, Bangladesh and Pakistan for his opposition to the British annexation, many historians of the period report that he was cruel and his opposition to the British was not out of any nationalistic fervor, but an expression of his desire to strengthen his own power. As a teenager, he led a reckless life, which came to the notice of his grandfather. However, keeping a promise he made to his grandfather on his death bed, he gave up gambling and drinking alcohol totally after becoming the Nawab. He was a fierce fighter against the Marathas and the pirates of Southern Bengal as a prince during 1740s, but his forces were later totally routed by the greatly outnumbered British. He cannot properly be faulted for demanding that the Europeans, who were tenants, vacate their stations, since he saw how firmly entrenched they had become elsewhere in India. His character appears to be painted in more positive or in less favorable color depending on who creates the portrait. On the one hand, Indian writers do not tend to claim that he was especially competent or even a very pleasant person but not do they depict him as totally corrupt, despotic and cruel, which is how the British describe him. As the story of the British annexation of Bengal was narrated, Siraj's moral character serves to a great extent as a justification for removing him from power. As the British annexed more and more Indian states, they indeed used what they claimed was the corrupt character and immoral life-styles of princely rulers to depose them. Siraj qualifies as:

"the first official villain of imperialist history; the sadistic fiend who immured innocent Britons within the living tomb of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Pictures of the monster gloating over his victims, which illustrated Victorian and even twentieth-century 'empire stories' featured stereotypes of the Oriental despot: curled mustachios as black as his heart. 'Early debauchery had unnerved his body and mind', wrote Macauley (which certainly could not be said of his own childhood) '... it has early been his amusement to torture beasts and birds and when he grew up he enjoyed with still keener relish the misery of his fellow creatures. But Sirah ud-Daulah was, of course, just your standard eighteenth century Indian princely post-adolescent: impulsive, spoiled rotten, ill-informed and politically out of his depth."[2]

Regardless of his moral character or competency, it was the British who rebelled against and deposed the legal ruler of Bengal, not Siraj who rebelled against his sovereign (technically, Bengal was still part of the weakening Mughal Empire). There is a large literature on Siraj in Bengali, in which he is regarded more as a victim than a weak or despotic ruler. It was largely due to treachery that he failed to defeat Clive. Although the British were better trained and equipped, if the whole of Bengal's army had confronted Clive the result of Plassey may very well have been different. However, in addition to the troops who refused to fight, he also sent a large contingent to the West to counter the threat from Ahmad Shah Durrani. Of course, the British took full advantage of this situation to press home their victory.

Legacy

The end of Siraj ud-Daulah's reign also ended Bengali autonomy and marked the beginning of British power in India. In the Bengali version of the end of his rule, Mir Jafar and Robert Clive are the villains and Siraj is the victim. Even though he is rarely if ever depicted as an attractive person, he is regarded as having been sinned against, rather than as a sinner. As the movement for Indian independence gathered strength, Siraj along with Tippu Sultan and the heroes of the First War of Indian Independence including the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, gained iconic status as people who resisted the imperial aggression. In Bangladesh, he is regarded as the last legitimate ruler until Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged as leader following independence from Pakistan in 1971, a gap of some two hundred and fourteen years or so.

Siraj's legacy has become the subject of cultural war between those who want to offer some moral defense for Western imperialism as a civilizing mission and those who see the colonial period as one in which the strong exploited the weak, and reject the contention that Europe had much to offer India in terms of culture or that Europeans conducted themselves in a morally superior way.


Born: 1733; Died: 2 July 1757
Preceded by:
Alivardi Khan
Nawab of Bengal
1756–1757
Succeeded by:
Mir Jafar

Notes

  1. Simon Schama, A History of Britain: Volume 11: the wars of the British, 1603-1776 (New York, NY: Hyperion/Miramax, 2001, ISBN 978-0786867523), 498. Also see J.Z. Holwell, A genuine narrative of the deplorable deaths of the English gentlemen, and others, who were suffocated in the Black-Hole in Fort-William, at Calcutta, in the Kingdom of Bengal, in the night succeeding the 20th day of June, 1756, in a letter to a friend (London, UK: A. Millar, 1758).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schama 2001, p. 517.
  3. Schama 2001, p. 498.

References

  • Chaudhury, Sushil. 2000. The prelude to empire: Plassey revolution of 1757. New Delhi, IN: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. ISBN 9788173043017
  • Gupta, Brijen Kishore. 1966. Sirajuddaullah and the East India company, 1756-1757, background to the foundation of British power in India. Leiden, NL: E. J. Brill.
  • Marshall, P. J. 1987. Bengal—the British bridgehead: eastern India, 1740-1828. The New Cambridge history of India, II, 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521253307
  • Sarkar, Jadunath. 2003. The history of Bengal 2 Muslim period: 1200 C.E. - 1757 C.E. Delhi, IN: B.R. Publ. ISBN 9788176462396
  • Watts, William, and Bimal Kanti Ghosh. 1988. Memoirs of the revolution in Bengal, Anno. Dom. 1757. Calcutta, IN: K.P. Bagchi & Co. ISBN 9788170740346

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