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Jun-22-2012 22:33printcomments

Battle of Plassey June 1757

India's Perennial Disease - Disunity, Hatred, Exploitation and Self-interest - Part 11 B.

John Clive
John Clive - courtesy: sscnet.ucla.edu

(CHENNAI, India) - (Editor: We join this series from Visvanathan Sivam in mid-stride, but we will make an effort to publish earlier articles and link them together in consecutive order.)

Robert Clive was transferred to the military service of the Company and returned to England in 1753. When the Company required the services of an able commander, Clive was summoned to go to India. He arrived in India in 1756 and at once was in charge of the British forces in Madras.

In 1741, Alivardi Khan ascended to the throne of the Nawab of Bengal after his army attacked and captured the capital of Bengal, Murshidabad. He was well-informed on the situation in southern India, where the British and the French engaged in proxy wars using the local princes and rulers. Alivardi had no desire to have any of these in his province and thus exercised caution in his dealings with the Europeans. However, there was continuous friction with the British, who always complained that they were prevented from enjoying the full benefit of the firman, which exempted them from tax. This was granted to them by the Mughal Emperor in 1717. The British, however, protected subjects of the Nawab, gave passes to native traders to trade custom-free and levied large duties on goods coming to their districts – actions which were detrimental to the Nawab’s revenue.

In April 1756, Alivardi Khan died and was succeeded by his nineteen year old adopted grandson, Siraj-ud-daulah. In the midst of all of this, there was an ongoing court intrigue at Siraj Ud Daulah's court at Murshidabad. Siraj was not a particularly well-loved ruler. Young and impetuous, he was prone to making enemies easily. The most dangerous of these was his wealthy and influential aunt, Ghaseti Begum (Meherun-Nisa), who wanted another nephew, Shawkat Jang, installed as Nawab. Mir Jafar, commander-in-chief of the army, was also uneasy with Siraj, and was courted assiduously by Ghaseti.

When the British and the French started improving their fortifications in anticipation of another war between them, he immediately ordered them to stop work, as they were done without permission. When the British refused to cease their constructions, the Nawab led a detachment of 3,000 men to surround the fort and factory of Cossimbazar and took several British officials as prisoners, before moving on to Calcutta. The garrison defending Calcutta consisting of only 180 soldiers, 50 European volunteers, 60 European militia, 150 Armenian and Portuguese militia, 35 European artillery-men and 40 volunteers from ships and was pitted against the Nawab’s force of nearly 50,000 infantry and cavalry. The city was occupied on 16 June by Siraj’s forces and the Fort William surrendered after a brief siege on 20 June 1756.

The prisoners, who were captured at the siege of Calcutta, were imprisoned in a common dungeon at Fort William, known as The Black Hole of Calcutta, but this is disputed by Indian historians. On 21 June when the doors of the dungeon were opened, only 23 of the 146 walked out, the rest died of asphyxiation, heat exhaustion and delirium. It appears that the Nawab was unaware of the conditions in which his prisoners were held. Meanwhile, the Nawab’s army and navy were busy plundering the city of Calcutta and the other British factories in the surrounding areas, thus antagonizing then local residents.

When news of the fall of Calcutta reached Madras on 16 August 1756, the Council immediately sent out an expeditionary force under Colonel Clive and Admiral Watson. A letter from the Council of Fort St. George, stated that “the object of the expedition was not merely to re-establish the British settlements in Bengal, but also to obtain ample recognition of the Company’s privileges and reparation for its losses” without the risk of war. It also stated that any signs of dissatisfaction and ambition among the Nawab’s subjects must be supported. Clive assumed command of the land forces, consisting of 900 Europeans and 1500 sepoys while Watson commanded a naval squadron.

The fleet entered the Hooghly River in December and met the fugitives of Calcutta and the principal Members of the Council, at the village of Fulta on 15 December. The Members of Council formed a Select Committee for the operation. On 29 December the force dislodged Nawab’s forces from the fort of Budge-Budge. Clive and Watson then moved against Calcutta on 2 January 1757 and the garrison of 500 men surrendered after offering a scanty resistance. With Calcutta recaptured, the Council was reinstated and a plan of action against the Nawab was prepared. The fortifications of Fort William were strengthened and a defensive position was prepared in the north-east of the city.

Growing on the sidelines was the French influence, at the urging of the enterprising French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix, at the court of the Nawab. This was resulting in increasing French trade in Bengal. They lent the Nawab some French soldiers to operate heavy artillery pieces.

At the same time, Siraj Ud Daulah was facing conflicts on two fronts. On his Western border was the advancing army of the Afghan, Ahmad Shah Abdali who had captured and looted Delhi in 1756. Siraj Ud Daulah sent the better part of his troops west under the command of his general, Raja Ram Narain.

The Company had been looking for opportunities to encourage a regime change that would be conducive to its commercial interests in Bengal. Earlier in 1752, Robert Orme, a Company official, in a letter noted that it would be in the company’s interest to remove Siraj's grandfather, Alivardi Khan.

After the fall of Calcutta a letter, dated October 13, 1756, from Fort St. George, Madras, instructed Robert Clive "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." Accordingly, Robert was negotiating with two potential contenders, one of Siraj's generals, Yar Latif Khan, and the other was Siraj's grand-uncle and army chief, Mir Jafar Ali Khan, through William Watts, chief of the Kasimbazar factory of the Company. On April 23, 1757, the Select Committee of the Board of Directors of the British East India Company approved Coup d'état as its policy in Bengal.

Mir Jafar, negotiating through an Armenian merchant, Khwaja Petruse, was the Company's final choice. Finally, on June 5, 1757, a written agreement was signed between the Company, represented by Clive, and Mir Jafar, ensuring that Mir Jafar would be appointed Nawab of Bengal, once Siraj Ud Daulah was deposed. The British army was vastly outnumbered, consisting of 2,200 Europeans and 800 native Indians and a small number of guns. The Nawab had an army of about 50,000 with some heavy artillery operated by about 40 French soldiers sent by the French East India Company. The battle opened on a very hot and humid morning at 7:00 a.m. on June 23, 1757, where the Nawab's army came out of its fortified camp and launched a massive cannonade against the British camp. The eighteenth century historian, Ghulam Husain Salim, describes what followed.

Mīr Jafar with his detachment stood at a distance towards the left from the main army. Although Sirāju-d-daulah summoned him to his side, Mīr Jafar did not move from his position. In the thick of the fighting and in the heat of carnage, victory and triumph were visible on the side of the army of Sirāj-Ud-Daulah.

Morale dampened at around 11:00 a.m. when Mir Madan, one of the Nawab's most loyal officers, launched an attack against the fortified grove where the East Indian Company was located. Unfortunately, he was mortally wounded by a British cannonball. His cannon attack was essentially futile as the British guns had greater range than those of the French. At noon, a heavy rainstorm fell on the battlefield. The British covered their cannons and muskets for protection from the rain, whereas the French failed to do it. This turned the tide against the Nawab. As a result, the French cannons were ineffective and their cannonade ceased by 2:00 p.m. When the battle resumed Clive's chief officer, Kilpatrick, launched an attack against the water ponds in between the armies. With the French cannons and muskets becoming completely useless, and with Mir Jafar's cavalry, which was closest to the English, refusing to attack Clive's camp (first time revealing his treachery) the Nawab was forced to order a retreat. By 5:00 p.m. the Nawab's army was in full retreat and the British had command of the field. Some of the Nawab’s troops went over to the other side, and the others took to their heels. By sun-set after a pitched battle, Sirāj- Ud-Daulah was unable to stand his ground and fled.

The battle cost the British East India Company just 22 killed and 50 wounded (most of these were native sepoys), while the Nawab's army lost at least 500 men killed and wounded. The Battle of Plassey of June 23 1757 is considered as a starting point to the events that established the era of British dominion and conquest in India. This is also the only instance in history a chartered foreign company half way round the world could take over a vast country like India and rule it for 190 years. The irony of it all was that this foreign company used Indians to defeat Indians with the minimum of casualties from their own community. Even to this day India is plagued by this disease. Surely, history repeats itself.

Mir Jafar, for his betrayal of the Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah and alliance with the British, was installed as the new Nawab. Siraj Ud Daulah was captured on July 2, in Murshidabad as he attempted to escape further north. He was later executed on the order of Mir Jafar's son. Ghaseti Begum and other powerful women were transferred to a prison in distant Dhaka, where they eventually drowned in a boat accident, widely thought to have been ordered by Mir Jafar. Mir Jafar as Nawab was a powerless puppet operating under the British company officials; so he tried another intrigue. He requested the Dutch East India Company to intervene. They sent seven ships and about 700 sailors up the Hoogley to their settlement, but the British led by Colonel Forde managed to defeat them at Chinsura on November 25, 1759. Thereafter Mir Jafar was deposed as Nawab in 1760 and the Company appointed Mir Kasim Ali Khan, Mir Jafar's son-in-law as Nawab. Mir Kasim showed signs of independence and was defeated in the Battle of Buxar 1764, after which full political control shifted to the Company. Mir Jafar was reappointed and remained the titular Nawab until his death in 1765, while all actual power was exercised by the Company. The Company saw the rise of its fortunes, and its transformation from a trading venture to a ruling enterprise. As per agreement, Clive collected £2.5 million for the company, and £234,000 for himself from the Nawab's treasury. In addition, Watts collected £114,000 for his efforts in negotiating all the treachery. The annual rent of £30,000 payable by the Company for use of the land around Fort William was also transferred to Clive for life. (Isn’t this reminiscent of what is happening in the Rajapaksa family?) To put this wealth in context, an average British nobleman could live a life of luxury on an annual income of £800.

Robert Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal in 1765, for his efforts. William Watts was appointed Governor of Fort William on June 22, 1758. But he later resigned in favour of Robert Clive, who was appointed Baron of Plassey in 1762. The British were now the paramount European power in Bengal. When Clive returned to England due to ill-health, he was rewarded with an Irish peerage, as Lord Clive, Baron of Plassey and also obtained a seat in the English House of Commons.

From 1772, Robert Clive had to defend himself against the numerous accusations of pilfering from the Bengal Treasury brought against him by vocal critics in Britain. Cross-examined by a Parliament suspicious of his vast wealth and accusations that he took advantage of the opportunities presented to him he replied, "A great prince was dependent on my pleasure, an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.”—Baron Robert Clive commenting on accusations of looting the Bengal treasury after Plassey, at his impeachment trial in 1773

Despite his vindication, on 22 November 1774 he committed suicide at his Berkeley Square home in London by stabbing himself with a pen-knife. Though Clive's suicide has been linked to his history of depression and to opium addiction, the likely immediate impetus was excruciating pain resulting from illness which he had been attempting to abate with opium.

A few years later the Company acquired the right to collect revenues on behalf of the Mughal Emperor, but the initial years of its administration were calamitous for the people of Bengal. The Company's servants were largely a rapacious and self-aggrandizing lot, and the plunder of Bengal left the formerly rich province in a state of utter destitution. The famine of 1769-70, which the Company's policies did nothing to alleviate, may have taken the lives of as many as a third of the population.

The Company, despite the increase in trade and the revenues coming in from other sources, found itself burdened with massive military expenditures, and its destruction seemed imminent. State intervention put the ailing Company back on its feet, and Lord North's India Bill in the English Parliament, also known as the Regulating Act of 1773, provided for greater parliamentary control over the affairs of the Company, besides placing India under the rule of a Governor-General.

The first Governor-General of India was Warren Hastings. Under his dispensation, the expansion of British rule in India was pursued vigorously, and the British sought to master indigenous systems of knowledge. Hastings remained in India until 1784 and was succeeded by Cornwallis, who initiated the Permanent Settlement, whereby an agreement in perpetuity was reached with zamindars or landlords for the collection of revenue. For the next fifty years, the British were engaged in attempts to eliminate Indian rivals, and it is under the administration of Wellesley that British territorial expansion was achieved with ruthless efficiency. Major victories were achieved against Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Marathas, and finally the subjugation and conquest of the Sikhs in a series of Anglo- Sikh Wars led to British occupation over the entirety of India. In some places, the British practiced indirect rule, placing a Resident at the court of the native ruler who was allowed sovereignty in domestic matters. Lord Dalhousie's notorious doctrine of lapse, whereby a native state became part of British India if there was no male heir at the death of the ruler, was one of the principal means by which native states were annexed; but often the annexation, such as that of Awadh [Oudh] in 1856, was justified on the grounds that the native prince was of evil disposition, indifferent to the welfare of his subjects. The annexation of native states, harsh revenue policies, and the plight of the Indian peasantry all contributed to the Rebellion of 1857-58, referred to previously as the Sepoy Mutiny. In 1858 the East India Company was dissolved, despite a valiant defense of its purported achievements by John Stuart Mill, and the administration of India became the responsibility of the Crown.

To date I had written Part 1, Part 2A&B, Part 3 and finally Part 11A&B. This is a summary of the history of India for the past thousand odd years, when it came under foreign rule – first by the Muslims for 700 years and then by the British for 200 years. The Muslims were able to make use of the antagonism of one Hindu ruler against the other and take over the entire country with ease. The caste system divided the Hindu society and Hindu converts formed the bulk of the Muslim armies and many Hindu Rajas fought for the Muslims to defeat other Hindu royalties, thus further aggravating the enmity and disunity among the Hindus.

The Muslim Nawabs, who were able to play one Hindu ruler against the other, fell foul to the intrigues of the Europeans, especially the British, and became victims of their own game. Temptation for power broke the bonds of Muslim brotherhood. The divisions among the Hindu and Muslim rulers were so insurmountable that they could not put up a unified front against the British.

The Chinese were able to contain foreign intruders on account of their internal unity. In addition to Chinese values, Buddhism played a pivotal role in unifying the citizens to face foreign threat. Moreover, they were not willing to adopt the language or culture of the Europeans or, for that matter, any foreigners. Above all ever today they don’t cherish the idea of enlisting themselves in foreign armies. Least of all we rarely see a Chinese serving a foreign army to fight against fellow Chinese. This made foreign inroads into Chinese society extremely difficult. Unlike the Indians they were not easily tempted by power, nor did they seek glory by holding high positions in foreign governments.

The Indians on the other hand copied the habits of the West and behaved like Europeans. The Brahmins were the first to serve foreigners and retain their power among the masses. They prided themselves as being administrative officers in the British administration in India. The helpless masses followed them. Even to this day the average Indian takes pride when he speaks his language with many English words mingled in between.

The Sinhalese were able to get the help of diverse forces to reduce the Tamils to a helpless state after Mullivaaikkal in May 2009. The Sonia clique with the aid of Keralite Mafias armed the Sinhalese forces to defeat the Tamils. Today, the whole of Tamil Homeland is militarized to such an extent that one sixth of the population in the area are armed Sinhalese soldiers, who are expected to settle there with their families. They will be given a bonus of Rupees 100,000 for every child beyond the third child. The aim is to reduce the Tamils to a minority in their ancient habitat.

To achieve this objective a serious land grab is going on in the Tamils areas and the former inhabitants are not allowed to settle in the properties they owned. The Tamils are protesting against this move. A Sinhalese minister, Champika Ranawaka, who is a close associate of Rajapaksa had threatened the Tamils that if they make demands for equal rights they will have to face another hundred Mullivaikkal genocides. It is three years since the Eelam war ended. Except for a few cosmetic gestures like building 50,000 houses that are yet to take off the ground, India had done nothing for the welfare of the Tamils. On the other hand they are in league with Sinhalese to set up industrial zones in Tamil areas to fulfill Indian corporate greed.

The Western powers were more reliable in coming to the rescue of the beleaguered Tamils. They brought in two resolutions in the UNHRC in May 2009 and March 2012 to make Sri Lanka accountable for the crimes against humanity. India not only defeated the first but also praised Rajapaksa for crushing Tamil terrorism. The second resolution, under pressure from Tamil Nadu, India supported it after diluting the original resolution put in by the West to the level of an ineffective resolution.

Now the Chinese had made inroads into Sri Lanka, placing India’s southern flanks at risk. India’s hatred for the Tamil Tigers was so great that they wouldn’t mind putting their security at risk. The Indian Pundits don’t seem to bother about the antagonism they had aroused among the Tamil Nadu and Eelam Tamils. Similarly, they are not concerned that the various rebellions in the Indian states, especially the Maoist insurgency, will eventually cause disunity in India. History repeats itself; Indians don’t believe in learning from history.


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Stephen Gash June 24, 2012 4:33 am (Pacific time)

There is no English parliament and there has not been an English parliament since 1707. England is the only country in the United Kingdom and European Union without is own elected chamber.

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