Many globalization critics in India have blamed East India Company directly for our long suffering at the hands of British. Little realizing that it was, after all, our own rulers and people who put us in a mess. Every character was, in himself, enough to create havoc. But when they all combined together, what resulted was a long colonial rule over the hapless people.
Today was the day – June 23, 1757, when the foundation of the British rule was laid in a small town in Bengal called Palashi (or Plassey – name by Brits). Here is an account of what happened in days leading to that fight.. and on THAT day and after. A day where British army consisting of 2200 Brits and 2100 native Indian soldiers defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army of 50,000. British casualties: 72. Indian casualties: 500. More importantly, the Nawab lost the war in the brain and the minds. A pattern that was to be repeated throughout the continent for next 200 years!!
The start of the war
Polash, a bright red flowering tree — also known as Flame of the Forest — lends its name to a small village called Palashi on the banks of the Bhagirathi river, 25 kilometres south of Murshidabad, and 150 kilometres from Kolkata.
What happened under these colourful trees on June 23, 1757, was a battle that would change the face of a nation. On that day, exactly 250 years ago, the forces of Siraj-Ud-Daulah, Nawab of Bengal, clashed with troops of the British East India Company led by Robert Clive.
When the fight was finished, the establishment of British rule in Bengal was set in motion. Eventually, all of India would fall to the Union Jack.
Although a more direct cause can be attributed to it — Siraj-Ud-Daulah captured Fort William, Calcutta, in June, 1756 — there were a number of smaller reasons. For one, there was the matter of illegal usage of Mughal imperial export trade permits granted to the British in 1717 for internal trade within India. Using these permits as an excuse, the British refused to pay taxes to the Nawab, which obviously didn’t go down well with him.
The British also interfered in the Nawab’s court, placed mounted guns on Fort Williams without his permission, and favoured Hindu merchants. To say the ruler was miffed would be putting things mildly. Then there was that tragic episode referred to as the Black Hole of Calcutta. According to recorded testimonies, when Fort Williams was captured, 146 British prisoners were locked into an 18 by 15 feet room. Only 23 survived the night. The British weren’t ready to forgive and forget.
French Governor General called Joseph Francois Dupleix had also got special privileges at the Nawab’s court. This did not also go down well with the British.
Siraj-Ud-Daulah wasn’t very popular. Just 24,and of impetuous nature he ha dmany enemies. Even his aunt Ghaseti Begum disliked him, as did his army’s commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar. To make things worse, apart from the British threat, the young Nawab had to contend with an advancing Afghan army led by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the man who had captured and looted Delhi in 1756.
Meanwhile, the British had long wanted someone else in charge, to make life easier for them. They went to the extent of supporting Ghaseti Begum against the Nawab. They also settled on Mir Jafar as a potential choice, and signed an agreement on June 5, 1757 ensuring he would be appointed Nawab once Siraj-Ud-Daulah was deposed.
While the Nawab’s army comprised 50,000 soldiers — not counting the French soldiers manning the heavy artillery — the British had around 2,200 Europeans and 2,100 native Indians, with a small number of guns.
At 7 am, on the morning of June 23, 1757, the Nawab’s army left its fortified camp and launched a massive cannon attack against the British. According to 18th century historian Ghulam Husain Salim, Mir Jafar refused to move, despite orders from the Nawab. This was obviously a huge setback for the Nawab.
Meanwhile, Mir Madan, one of the Nawab’s trusted officers, was felled by a cannon ball. While the latter’s army had begun with the upper edge, they now began to falter. By midday, many had fled.
The weather had also begun to turn. When a rainstorm suddenly broke, the British had cover for their guns and cannon; the French didn’t. By sunset, Siraj-Ud-Daulah’s army had collapsed. The Nawab was forced to flee.
While the British had just 72, including dead and wounded, the Nawab’s army had around 500.
The Aftermath – the players
Mir Jafar, who betrayed the Nawab, was made the new ruler (although that situation didn’t really last long). Siraj-Ud-Daulah was captured on July 2 in Murshidabad and executed on the order of Jafar’s son. Ghaseti Begum was imprisoned in Dhaka, and later drowned in a boat accident that many suspect to have been orchestrated by Mir Jafar.
The entire province of Bengal fell to the East India Company and 1757 is considered the start of British rule in India. Its enormous wealth allowed the Company to significantly strengthen its military might. This was, in effect, the first step towards complete British control.
Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim then connived against each other and ruled in tandem.. while the British orchestrated this drama for many years and enjoyed themselves! (Deja vu in Iran/Iraq situation?)
He collected 2.5 million pounds from the Nawab’s treasury for the Company, and 234,000 for himself. He was also appointed Governor of Bengal in 1765, and made Baron of Plassey in 1762. After becoming addicted to opium, Clive committed suicide in 1774. Incidentally, Clive bought land in Ireland and named part of it, Plassey. Today, this is where the University of Limerick stands.
Interestingly, June boasts another bloody episode in Indian history. Exactly one hundred years after Plassey, the Sepoy Mutiny led to the Siege of Kanpur (then Cawnpore). Only this time, the Mutiny was a strong step towards freedom for the subcontinent.
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