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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


June 29, 2020

The East India Company Crowns Mir Jafar Nawab of Bengal

On 29 June, 1757, Robert Clive of the English East India Company entered the city of Murshidabad, capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, accompanied by some 200 European officers. He was there to greet his new ally, Mir Jafar Ali Khan, a general under Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah who had betrayed him shortly before that day, and who expected to be named the new Nawab of Bengal for his service to the East India Company. That afternoon, Clive crowned him Nawab. The British conquest of India had begun.

While the War of the Austrian Succession raged in Europe in the 1740s, the British and French forces in India fought their own conflicts, each one allying with the local powers fighting over the territories of the fast-disintegrating Mughal Empire. The end of the conflict in Europe in 1748 did not lead to peace in India; rather, the British and French continued to participate in the frequent civil wars that rocked India. The British had been left in a much stronger position in 1748, with possession of the trade hubs at Madras and Calcutta. With the French presence decimated, the East India Company reinforced its troops and recruited legions of native sepoy infantry, awaiting its opportunity.

In 1756, Alivardi Khan, the latest of the powerful Nawabs of Bengal, died. Khan had practiced an attitude of wariness and limited tolerance towards European traders, keeping them at arm’s length while avoiding direct conflict. His successor, his grandson Siraj-ud-Daulah, had no such patience. Shortly after ascending to power, the new Nawab began assembling a large army with the intention of seizing Calcutta, evicting the British from Bengal, and laying claim to the wealth of the city. In June 1756, his army issued ultimatums, laid siege to Calcutta, and quickly took the city.

The East India Company, naturally, was furious. From its base in Madras, it sent Robert Clive and his forces to take the city back. In January 1757, Clive reconquered Calcutta, which had been left with a small garrison to defend it. Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army immediately moved back to the city, where Clive launched a midnight attack on his camp that spooked him into signing the Treaty of Alinagar, ending the brief, inconclusive conflict. Though peace was declared, neither side was satisfied with the results.

Siraj-ud-Daulah reached out to the French East India Company and its Governor-General, Joseph Dupleix, who anticipated the coming of another war in Europe between Britain and France (such a conflict would begin in May 1757). Meanwhile, Clive’s ambassador in Siraj-ud-Daulah’s court alerted him to a significant opportunity. A powerful faction at court had grown disenchanted with Siraj-ud-Daulah’s rule; led by the high-ranking military commander Mir Jafar Ali Khan, they asked for the Company’s help in overthrowing the Nawab in return for money, land rights, and privileges. Clive agreed; soon after, his army marched towards the Nawab’s capital at Murshidabad, sending accusatory letters ahead of him. The Nawab moved to intercept him south of the capital, near Plassey, with a much larger force. The stage was set.

On 23 June, 1757, the armies met. For hours, an inconclusive battle raged. The British force - a thousand Europeans, two thousand locally-recruited sepoys - were badly outnumbered, but better armed and disciplined, and had the advantage of a defensible position. By the afternoon, neither side had made any progress or taken much damage.

What happened then has gone down in history as an innocuous, yet decisive, quirk of probability. It rained, briefly but heavily. As the rain poured down on both armies, the British protected their vulnerable ammunition and gunpowder. The Nawab’s army didn’t, rendering many of their firearms useless. Shortly afterward, Mir Madan Khan, a cavalry commander and one of the Nawab’s most loyal officers, led a charge at the British camp in the belief that their guns, too, would be unusable. He was mistaken, and took a mortal wound during the attack. On hearing the news, the Nawab was distraught. Seizing the moment, Mir Jafar and the other conspirators convinced him to pull back the army and return to Murshidabad; he left, leaving the conspirators in command of most of the army.

By evening, Clive found the Nawab’s army abandoning their forward positions. British cannons quickly set up there and began firing at the Nawab’s camp. Mir Jafar’s forces, and those of the other conspirators, took little further part in the battle. Disorganized, leaderless, and under fire, the Nawab’s army quickly dispersed and yielded the battlefield. Over the following days, Clive met Mir Jafar and confirmed their agreement. Siraj-ud-Daulah had reached Murshidabad on June 24, but heard that Mir Jafar was on his way and fled the city; he was caught and murdered a week later. Mir Jafar arrived at Murshidabad, consolidated his hold over the city, and awaited Clive. On 29 June, Clive entered the city and crowned him Nawab.

What happened on 29 June is, in two ways, reflective of the British conquest of India in general. On one hand, the events leading up to the day demonstrate the British strategy of subverting local governments and kings, using Indian political conflict and civil wars to their advantage, and using superior discipline and weaponry to hold off much larger Indian armies. On the other, the events that followed 29 June were indicative of what was to come. Clive emptied the treasury of Murshidabad, and forced Mir Jafar to pay the Company astronomical sums of money over the next several years. In 1764, the British acquired the rights of taxation in Bengal, and imposed punishing land taxes and tariffs in the region. In a decade, the wealth of Bengal, among the richest regions of India, had been shipped to Calcutta, Madras, and London. Amidst widespread poverty, and the destruction of local agriculture, Bengal entered a period of famine in 1769. Over the next five years, the Company itself estimated, one in three people in the region starved to death, leading to a conservative death toll of 10 million people. Amartya Sen has [argued](https://archive.org/details/povertyfamineses0000sena] that the Clive and the Company were responsible.

After Plassey, the East India Company began a phase of rapid conquest in India, generally unopposed by any major power in the North - the Mughal Empire had ceased to hold real power, Bengal was conquered, and the French East India Company dissolved in 1769. Clive’s actions, though they would be scrutinized and debated by Company officials and the British government, set the tone for the following two centuries of British rule in India; conquest, followed by the extraction of unimaginable quantities of resources. In 1943, yet another famine - the last of many in British India - hit Bengal, killing millions. The British government has since been accused, with evidence, of contributing to the massive death toll. Though the colonial regime changed over the centuries, its core methodologies never did.

Sahaj Sankaran

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