The Battle of Plassey was fought on June 23, 1757. Sudeep Chakravarti, author of a book on the battle, speaks to Manimugdha S Sharma on its continuing salience.
Robert Clive is once again in the news due to the statue topplers. What is your reading of the man? Is he a bigger villain today than he was in his own time?
Robert Clive remains valorous and vile through the centuries. A boy-man who nearly drowned on his way to India, who grew to be an intuitively bright and bullying man-boy, a soldier’s commander, ruthless and belligerent, at once driven to success and driven by extreme anxiety to the level of opium intake, a man with an eye on the big picture and yet consumed with petty detail, a disciplined man and yet a grand louche, focused with goals and greedy as a goat, for whom money always talked loudest. Clive, Baron Plassey, was an 18th-century nouveau riche dream come true, perhaps the first white Mughal. He was big in history. He remains big in history.
You say that even Siraj-ud-Daulah is subjected to a binary. For some, he was debauch, cruel and incompetent; others see him as a wronged man. How should we understand him?
To me Siraj-ud-Daulah is neither absolute villain nor tragic hero. He was a victim of some circumstances of his own making as well as those beyond his control, such as dynamics unleashed by the crumbling Mughal empire, and the geopolitical and geo-economic contest between Britain and France. Siraj was callow, somewhat impulsive, certainly spoilt, naturally nervous and tense, but hardly the illiterate and complete Caligula he is made out to be, or the martyred nawab. Siraj is also sometimes portrayed as a Bengali nawab, which is hogwash. And, as I like to mention, Siraj was 23 when he took over as nawab, and 24 at the Battle of Plassey. Imagine fresh postgraduate students in his place as nawab of Bengal, being jostled by Mughal pressure, Maratha pressure, a warring Britain and France, and powerful conspirators at his court, home – and bank!
Why should we be reading about Plassey in 2020?
Because the very notion of modern India, and modern Indians, and the fact that we are conducting this interview in English and not French or Marathi or Persian, is an indicator of the importance of the Battle of Plassey, and its riveting, little-known and little-discussed backstory.
There is no doubt about the far-reaching impact of that chain of events culminating in the Battle of Plassey. In the process the British defeated the French, their main European competitors, and put their imprimatur on the court of Bengal. And Plassey set off another chain of events. The deposing of first Mir Jafar, a key Plassey conspirator and then Mir Qasim, his son-in-law, as nawabs of Bengal. The Battle of Buxar in 1764 in which Company forces defeated the opposition that included the forces of Mir Qasim, the nawab of Awadh and the Mughal emperor. The granting of the Diwani or revenue administration of Bengal and Bihar to the British East India Company in 1765 by the Mughal emperor was a direct consequence. It gave the Company revenue control alongside administrative control of Bengal – and helped raise and maintain armies alongside reversing the flow of bullion from Britain. This joint heft of money and power underwrote the Company’s move west to Awadh, and then, in a few short decades, to Delhi. The Permanent Settlement. Subsidiary Alliance. The Mutiny in 1857. The formal replacing of Company with Crown. Bengal – and India – becoming the hub and glory of the British Empire, underwriting its local and global growth and several local and global wars. It all began with the Company’s victory – British victory – at Plassey. To downplay Plassey is to downplay history.
What do you think about this traitor vs patriot narrative that is inseparable to the Plassey tale?
It needs to be separated because largely it’s bunkum. The Battle of Plassey is mostly mentioned as an event in terms of wrong and right, black and white, betrayal and martyrdom, but quite a lot of it is pure pamphleteering for either the British or the subcontinental cause. Hapless Siraj, Crafty Clive and Treacherous Mir Jafar is usually the cant for Indians (and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis). Many British tellings valorise Clive and the British East India Company, and dismiss Indians as a bunch of snivelling, conspiring lowlifes. Both are incomplete. These are emotional and expedient – not clinical – tellings. Several Indian textbooks are also challenged when it comes to Plassey; they give it a hyper-nationalistic spin. All this is a travesty for the study of a such a landmark event which actually started a chain of events that led to modern-day India.
There is a need for corrective history. There is a need to peel away layers to expose the truths and lies, the myths, and the nuances: the greys between the black and white absolutes. Moreover, the back story of Plassey, which is a mix of aggressive mercantilism married to geopolitics, is often diminished. For instance, few works acknowledge just how much the French were a factor in the run up to Plassey. And how much those like Robert Clive were dead set to be rid both the French in Bengal and India, as much as Siraj or any nawab of Bengal who proved to be inconvenient. There is also the immensely interesting cast of characters – dramatis personae – in and around Plassey.
You write that Clive was even considering to accept the Maratha Peshwa’s offer to send Maratha horsemen to help the British deal with Siraj-ud-Daulah.
Clive considered every option to work to his advantage against the Siraj and the Bengal army, even though by that time, in June 1757, the Company’s treaty with Mir Jafar and other co-conspirators was signed and sealed. Clive was keen to have on his side as much cavalry as he could muster, and the Maratha cavalry was famous – or infamous – besides being decades-long adversaries of the Bengal nawabs. Just days before the battle at Plassey Clive even proposed postponing the battle to buy time to reach out to the Marathas, besides local and regional rajas and nawabs, like that of Bardhaman and Birbhum. Clive had no cavalry, was a nervous wreck with worry, completely on edge on that account besides a host of other factors – including the risk of putting his career and the Company’s future on the line.
Do you see a departure in the nationalistic messaging around Plassey in more recent times? Do you see a return to the old colonial propaganda that the British rescued Hindus from the tyranny of Muslims while explaining away their less-than-glorious work at Plassey?
Events like Plassey, like the so-called First War of Independence in 1857 (or the Mutiny, depending on your perspective and politics), will be used for nationalistic purpose whenever it suits nationalists du jour. As far as what you term colonial propaganda: several prominent Hindu-Bengali historians, chroniclers and intellectuals of the nineteenth century gladly accepted that as fact. For them Siraj was the foolish, impetuous Muslim who lost Bengal and Mir Jafar the Muslim traitor who gifted away Bengal. Histories and epic poetry referred to Muslims as ‘yavana’ and Plassey as having freed Bengal from yavana. Such messaging has tended to be treated more clinically by several twentieth century chroniclers and historians, although you will still find a few Oxbridge historians and British novelists with raging Orientalist fetish, the odd Nirad Chaudhuri massively glorifying Clive and the odd Bangladeshi chronicler and propagandist treating Siraj as a Bengali nawab, which he was not.
What do you think about the bid to separate the Company from the Crown when it came to the loot and rapacity of the early colonial enterprise?
This is another attempt to perpetuate a myth. It was always a Company and Crown enterprise. The Crown looked out for the Company, and the Company subsidized the Crown – the British treasury – from time to time. The British Navy actively participated in Indian campaigns. Indeed, Admiral Charles Watson, who led the naval forces to Bengal from Madras in October 1756, wanted clarity in sharing loot that might accrue from the Bengal (and, as it happened, the Chandannagar and Plassey campaigns), as much as the land forces led by Robert Clive, a Company employee. Government and business were, as always, handmaidens to the other.
To what extent did Indians share the spoils of the plunder of Bengal by the Company after Plassey and later?
Those elites – bankers, merchants, Murshidabad nobles, courtiers, generals – who allied with the British East India Company enterprise did very well. These cut across religions and ethnicity. The Company was ruthless, though. When Mir Jafar as nawab found it difficult to cater to the Company’s needs and the needs of its officers, they deposed him and placed his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, as nawab of Bengal – and took a fee for it. When Mir Qasim couldn’t cope, they deposed him and brought back Mir Jafar – again for a fee! The legendary Jagat Seth family aided the Company enterprise to secure its business. But the British steadily cut the Seths’ influence and by the 1790s made the family strategically and financially irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Dog fed dog. Dog ate dog. Just business.
Do you agree with the characterisation of post-Aurangzeb India down to 1757 and later as the period of anarchy?
The period after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 until the end of the 18th century can be called anarchy by those with dramatic flourish, but only in the context of the loss of authority of the crumbling Mughal empire. While the pay-per-farman Mughal court in Delhi remained in disarray, what was happening across the subcontinent was the assertion, or reassertion, of power by those who saw themselves as power centres, including the Marathas, the various nawabs and rulers of southern India, and the nawab of Bengal. The French and the British played the game of gaining and retaining advantage on this fluid chessboard, leveraging anything and everything they could. Post-Mughal consolidation led by policies of the Company began with a great push in the 1790s, although the need and intent for that consolidation had become increasingly clear after the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765, which granted the Company its initial grand war chest: the diwani of Bengal. Then you had another empire again in the subcontinent, after a gap of a hundred-odd years. But I would urge that not every significant history in the subcontinent be seen through the lens of the Mughals. That can lead to its own anarchy of cause, effect, and chronicling – a dangerous, if glamourous, skew.
Manimugdha S Sharma in Parthian Shot
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Courtesy The Times of India