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9 December, 2019 10:59:16 AM
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Siraj Ud Daula really a great hero?

Discontent against the Nawab flourished in his own court
Syed Mehdi Momin
Siraj Ud Daula really a great hero?

It is said that the essence of William of Dalrymple, as a writer of book on history, is that he is perpetually digging for the story in history. This is reflected is his book The Anarchy, a graphic retelling of the East India Company’s “relentless rise” from provincial trading company to the pre-eminent military and political power in all of India. Naturally he also talks about the Nawabs, of Bengal of the period. He has termed the last ‘independent’ ruler Siraj Ud Daula as an idiot.
According to The Anarchy the “volatile, widely disliked (among the businesspeople and members of his own court) Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daula,” had made an intractable enemy of Bengal’s Marwari bankers, the Jagat Seths, who saw better prospects in investing with the East India Company than supporting him. The Jagat Seths offered the company more than £4m (about a hundred times that in current terms, reckons Dalrymple) to unseat Siraj ud-Daula and install a compliant collaborator in his stead. Robert Clive, who stood to make an immense personal fortune, gladly accepted. So in Dalrymple’s opinion Plassey was in truth a “palace coup”, executed by a greedy opportunist, won by bribery and betrayal. One shared Dalrymple’s view in this matter.

This writer had the dubious distinction of meeting a family descendant of Mir Zafar who succeeded Daulah as a Nawab. The descendant one Reza Ali, with a rueful smile observed that Mir Zafar is a name that has become synonymous with treachery ever since that fateful day in Plassey in 1757. Of course even now the term “Mir Zafari” is bandied about especially in the political arena. Anyone who leaves a party or criticises their former leader is dubbed a “Mir Zafar.”

 However come to think of it, is loyalty always such a supreme virtue? It is questionable whether Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah can be termed as an independent ruler of Bengal. Siraj-ud-Daulah was a Nawab all right but the title basically meant that he was the ‘Governor” of Bengal, Bihar, Odissa, appointed by Mughal emperor from Delhi. True the Mughals were in decline but their firman (proclamation) was essential to be the legitimate governor.

According to most contemporary accounts, both British and Indian, it is quite obvious that the young  Nawab was a highly incompetent ruler and a worse general. Many later nationalist historians have been too kind on Siraj and portrayed him as a symbol of Bengali national identity.

In the middle late 1980s there was a play in the HSC syllabus on the Battle of Plassey which glorified Siraj and tried to establish that he was a paragon of all virtues. It is perhaps true that every nation needs iconic figures but we could have chosen better than Siraj.

Coming back to Mir Zafar, what sort of a boss did he betray?

 “Mirza Mohammed Siraj, a youth of seventeen years, had discovered the most vicious propensities, at an age when only follies are expected from princes,” British historian Robert Orme wrote about Siraj-ud-Daulah’s youth in Ali Vardi Khan’s palace.” (History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from 1745)

“Taught by his minions to regard himself as of a superior order of being, his natural cruelty, hardened by habit, in conception he was not slow, but absurd; obstinate, sullen, and impatient of contradiction.” During his youth in Ali Vardi Khan’s palace, Siraj-ud-Daulah “lived in every kind of intemperance and debauchery, and more especially in drinking spiritous liquors to an excess, which inflamed his passions and impaired the little understanding with which he was born,” Robert Omre said.

Of course for fairness’ sake it ought to be pointed out that Omre was no neutral observer. He had been a member of the St Fort St George Council in Madras and was instrumental in sending Robert Clive with a military expedition to Calcutta to avenge what is known as the Black Hole incident of 1756. It should be stated that the“Black Hole tragedy” is a myth. It has been pointed out by many a writer that the floor space of so small a chamber could not accommodate 146 adults even if the-whole air space in it was covered. But even the French, who were friends with Siraj, did not have a favourable opinion of him.

"Before the death of Ali Vardi Khan the character of Siraj-ud-Daulah was reported to be one of the worst ever known,” Jean Law, who knew Siraj as chief of the French East India company in the West Bengal city of Cossimbazar, wrote in his memoir.

“In fact, he had distinguished himself not only by all sorts of debauchery, but by a revolting cruelty....... women were accustomed to bathe on the banks of the Ganges. Siraj-ud-Daulah, who was informed by his spies which of them were beautiful, sent his satellites in disguise in little boats to carry them off.”

The British would refuse him admission into their Cossimbazar factory and their houses, he wrote, “because, in fact, this excessively blustering and impertinent young man used to break the furniture, or, if it pleased his fancy, take it away.”

A Muslim historian of the time, Ghulam Husain Tabatabai, said the following about Siraj-ud-Daulah: “Making no distinction between vice and virtue, he carried defilement wherever he went, and, like a man alienated in his mind, he made the house of men and women of distinction the scenes of his depravity, without minding either rank or station. In a little time he became detested as Pharaoh, and people on meeting him by chance used to say, ‘God save us from him!’"

Peter Harrington defended Siraj-ud-Daulah (Plassey 1757: Clive of India's Finest Hour) saying Siraj’s “alleged pastime of pulling the wings off birds or watching boats deliberately overturned so that he could watch the occupants drown” were not true.

But he did quote his contemporary Muslim historian Ghulam Hussain Salim: “Owing to Siraj-ud-Daulah’s harshness of temper and indulgence, fear and terror had settled on the hearts of everyone to such an extent that no one among his generals of the army or the noblemen of the city was free from anxiety. Amongst his officers, whoever went to wait on Siraj-ud-Daulah despaired of life and honour, and whoever returned without being disgraced and ill-treated offered thanks to God.”

Karim Ali, author of Muzaffarnama says that Alivardi “tried to teach him (Siraj) the art of government and administration and the noble traits that befit a ruler of men”. But Alivardi’s love which was almost doting, made him turn his blind eye to every misdeed done by Siraj. As Prof. K. K. Datta observes “Siraj-ud-daulah’s education may have been of usual formal type, marked by rudiments of ordinary knowledge and not well calculated to foster high virtues”. Alivardi’s doting affection proved a fatal boon for Siraj. He developed unruly impulses and obstinacy.

Greed was Mir Jafar’s motivating factor and he collaborated with the British.  He wanted the throne by any means, fair or foul. But such were rules of the time. Siraj’s grandfather Ali Vardi Khan was a much more ruthless figure who did not hesitate to kill his benefactor to get the crown. .We also have to remember that Siraj too were in cahoots with the French. There is every possibility that had he succeeded in driving the British away with French help, Bengal would have fallen to the French instead.

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent

SHK

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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