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5 March, 2020 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 5 March, 2020 06:33:59 PM

Rulers of Bengal

The Independent Editorial Board
Rulers of Bengal
An oil-on-canvas painting depicting the meeting of Mir Jafar and Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey by Francis Hayman

part- v of viii

Keeping in mind the celebration of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Mujib Barsha in 2020, The Independent took up a study to make a detour around Bengal’s political history from ancient period to the time when Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in 1971. The reason for undertaking this study is to find out 10 most influential rulers who ruled the geographical entity called Bengal during the time span of the last 14 centuries. To make this study successful, the newspaper’s Editorial Board talked to noted historians of Bangladesh namely  Prof. Syed Anwar Husain, Prof. Mesbah Kamal, Prof Dr. Aksadul Alam and Associate Prof. Sania Sitara all of whom are history faculties of Dhaka University. After research and interviews, it was found really difficult to single out 10 most important rulers of Bengal because in the last 14 centuries, many rulers permanently shaped the history of Bengal. Many may find the names in the final list incorrect, but few would disagree with the fact that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first Bengali head of state—note the word Bengali—of an independent and democratic Bangladesh, notwithstanding the fact that in the different periods of Bengal history, the map of Bengal was much larger than the map of present Bangladesh. Our aim was not to make a historical research as historians would do on the topic, but we made an attempt to be factually accurate with available information in our hand. The 10 leaders in the study findings are: Shashanka, Gopala, Dharmapala, Vijaya Sena, Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, Sher Shah Suri, Murshid Quli Khan, Siraj ud-Daulah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.   


Murshid Quli Khan (1717-1727)

After the Subadars it was the time of the Nawabs. While they were nominally governors or viceroys of the Mughals they were de facto independent heads of state.

Murshid Quli Khan was the first Nawab of Bengal. He transformed Murshidabad, named after him, into a capital city with an efficient administrative machinery for his successors. Also known as Mohammad Hadi, he was born as Surya Narayan Mishra (1660 – 30 June 1727). He served from 1717 to 1727. Born a Hindu in the Deccan Plateau in 1670, Murshid Quli Khan was bought by Mughal noble Haji Shafi at the age of around ten years. Shafi circumcised him, and raised him with the name Mohammad Hadi. In 1690, Shafi left his position in the Mughal court and returned to Persia accompanied by Murshid Quli Khan. About five years after Shafi's death, Murshid returned to India and worked under Abdullah Khurasani, the Diwan of Vidarbha in the Mughal Empire. At that time he caught the attention of the then-emperor Aurangzeb, who sent him to Bengal as the divan in 1700. 
Murshid Quli Khan got embroiled in a bloody conflict with the province's subahdar, Azim-us-Shan. After Aurangzeb's death in 1707, he was transferred to the Deccan Plateau by Azim-us-Shan's father the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah I. However, he was brought back as deputy subahdar in 1710. In 1717, he was appointed as the Nawab Nazim of Murshidabad by Farrukhsiyar. During his reign, he changed the jagirdari system (land management) to the mal jasmani, which would later transform into the zamindari system. He also continued sending revenues from the state to the Mughal Empire. Due to his expert handling of revenue matters, he attracted the attention of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and played an important role when applying the sharia-based Fatwa Alamgiri’s financial strategies. Murshid Quli Khan did not indulge in polygamy like other Islamic rulers. He had only one wife, Nasiri Banu Begum, and no concubines. He had three children, two daughters and one son. One of his daughters became the wife of Nawab Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan and mother of Sarfaraz Khan.

Aurangzeb appointed Quli Khan the Diwan of Bengal in 1700. At that time, Azim-us-Shan, a grandson of the Mughal emperor, was the subahdar of the province. He was not pleased at this appointment as he intended to use the revenue collected from the state to fund his campaign to occupy the Mughal throne after Aurangzeb's death. Immediately after being appointed to the post, Quli Khan went to Jahangirnagar (present day Dhaka) and transferred officials from the service of Azim-us-Shan to himself, enraging Azim-us-Shan.

Quli Khan felt unsafe in Dhaka, so he moved the diwani office to Mukshudabad. He said that he relocated the office since Mukshudabad was situated in the central part of Bengal, making it easy to communicate throughout the province. As the city was on the banks of the Ganges, European trading companies had also set up their bases there. Quli Khan thought that it would be easy for him to keep a vigil over their actions. He also relocated the bankers to the new city.

Quli Khan went to Bijapur to meet Aurangzeb, and to give him the revenue which was generated from the province. The emperor was happy with his work and gifted him clothes, flags, nagra, and a sword. He also gave him the title of Murshid Quli and gave him permission to rename the city Murshidabad (the city of Murshid Quli Khan), which he did when he returned to it.

Until the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, all the powers of the subahdar were vested in the hands of Quli Khan. He was succeeded by Azim-us-Shan's father Bahadur Shah I. He reappointed his son as the subahdar of the province and made Quli Khan his deputy. Azim-us-Shan influenced his father to throw Quli Khan out of the province. As a result, he was appointed the Diwan of Deccan in 1708, and served in the post until 1709.

But, in 1710, Quli Khan was brought back as the diwan (revenue officer) of the province on the advice of Azim-us-Shan. He did so to form an allegiance with him, as he thought that it would be impossible to occupy the Delhi throne without the support of local nobility. Though he was brought back, his relationship with the Mughal prince remained stained.

Quli Khan continued his policy of sending part of the revenue collected to the Mughal Empire. He did so even when the empire was in decline with the emperor vesting no power, as the power became concentrated in the hands of kingmakers. He justified his action by saying that it would be impossible to run the Mughal Empire without the revenue he sent.

His real reason was to show his loyalty to the Mughal Emperor so that he could run the state according to his own wishes.

Records show that every year 1 crore 30 lakh rupees were sent as the revenue to the Mughal emperor. Besides, money revenue was also paid in kind. Quli Khan himself used to carry the money and other forms of revenue with the infantry and the cavalry to Bihar where they were given to the Mughal collector.

With Murshidabad evolving as the capital of Bengal, it became necessary for Quli Khan to build buildings and offices for work to be carried out from that city. In the Dugharia region of the city he built a palace, a diwankhana ("office of revenue collection", a court of exchequer). He also built an inn and a mosque for foreign travellers. He also constructed a mint in the city in 1720. In the eastern end of the city he built the Katra

mosque in 1724 where he was buried after his death.

Quli Khan also imitated the Mughal tradition of holding a durbar in the city which was attended by the city's bankers, foreign tourists, and European companies' representatives. Because of the increase in trade, a new class of businessmen emerged who also attended his durbar. Due to his pious nature, Quli Khan followed Islam strictly and, according to Islamic rules, visitors were fed twice a day.

Quli Khan died on 30 June 1727. He was succeeded initially by his grandson Sarfaraz Khan. But his son-in-law Shuja-ud Din Muhammad Khan did not accept the succession, and planned to fight a war against him. Khan gave up without a fight and Shuja-ud-Din became the Nawab in 1727. Sarfaraz ascended the throne after his father's death in 1739 only to be defeated and replaced by Alivardi Khan in 1740. Siraj ud-Daula became Nawab in 1756 only to be defeated by British East Indian Company in 1757 at the Battle of Plassey, after which it established company rule.

During Khan’s reign Bengal witnessed a flourishing of trade both internal and external. European companies established themselves with his blessings. Though he was a pious Shia Muslim the condition of the minorities was good during his reign. Hindus started to control big businesses and became influential in his courts.   

Under him many Hindus held the office of Ray-i-rayan, i.e. Khan-i-kanan which was equivalent to the post of the Chancellor of Exchequer. Many of the Hindus held posts both in the civil and military departments and were called Dastidars, Sarkars, Qanungoes, Shahna, Bakshi, Chakladar, Tarafdar, Munshi, Lashkar  etc and these continue even today as the surnames of many Hindu Bengali families.

Murshid Quli Khan was followed by Nawab Shujauddin and Nawab Sarfaraz. They were followed by Alivardi Khan. Alivardi Khan was a prudent king. He tried to win people over by all possible means. By behaving kindly and being on friendly terms with all, by acting with discretion and by distribution of money he won over to his cause all men living far and near. He fought off the Maratha brigands and established peace all over his territory.

Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah (1756-1757)

There is no doubt in it that Mirza Muhammad Siraj ud-Daulah, commonly known as Siraj ud-Daulah, was the last independent Nawab of Bengal. The end of his reign marked the start of British East India Company rule over Bengal and later almost all of India. Siraj ud-Daulah is usually seen as a freedom fighter in modern India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan for his opposition to the beginning of British rule over India.

Siraj was born to Zain ud-Din Ahmed Khan and Amina Begum in 1733, and soon after his birth, Siraj's maternal grandfather, was appointed the Deputy Governor of Bihar. Accordingly, he was raised at the Nawab's palace with all necessary education and training suitable for a future Nawab. Young Siraj also accompanied Alivardi on his military ventures against the Marathas in 1746. Siraj was regarded as the "fortune child" of the family. Since birth Siraj had special affection from his grandfather. In May 1752, Alivardi Khan declared Siraj as his successor. Alivardi Khan died on 10 April 1756 at the age of 80. Siraj succeeded his maternal grandfather, Alivardi Khan as the Nawab of Bengal in April 1756 at the age of 23. 
Siraj ud-Daulah's nomination to the Nawabship aroused the jealousy and enmity of his maternal aunt, Ghaseti Begum (Mehar-un-nisa Begum), Mir Jafar and Shaukat Jung (Siraj's cousin). Ghaseti Begum possessed huge wealth, which was the source of her influence and strength. Apprehending serious opposition from her, Siraj ud-Daulah seized her wealth from Motijheel Palace and placed her under confinement. The Nawab also made changes in high government positions giving them his own favourites. Mir Madan was appointed Bakshi (paymaster of the army) in place of Mir Jafar. Mohanlal was elevated to the rank of peshkar of his Dewan Khana and he exercised great influence in the administration. Eventually Siraj suppressed Shaukat Jang, governor of Purnia, who was killed in a clash.

Siraj, as the direct political disciple of his grandfather, was aware of the global British interest in colonization, and hence resented the British politico-military presence in Bengal represented by the English East India Company. He was angered at the company's alleged involvement with and instigation of some members of his own court to a conspiracy to oust him. His charges against the company were broadly threefold. Firstly, they strengthened the fortification around the Fort William without any intimation or approval; secondly, they grossly abused trade privileges granted them by the Mughal rulers – which caused heavy loss of customs duties for the government; and thirdly, they gave shelter to some of his officers.

The Nawab was infuriated on learning of the attack on Chandernagar. His former hatred of the British returned, but he now felt the need to strengthen himself by alliances against the British. The Nawab was plagued by fear of attack from the north by the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Durrani and from the west by the Marathas. Therefore, he could not deploy his entire force against the British for fear of being attacked from the flanks. A deep distrust set in between the British and the Nawab. As a result, Siraj started secret negotiations with Jean Law, chief of the French factory at Cossimbazar, and de Bussy. The Nawab also moved a large division of his army under Rai Durlabh to Plassey, on the island of Cossimbazar 30 miles (48 km) south of Murshidabad.

Popular discontent against the Nawab flourished in his own court. The Seths, the traders of Bengal, were in perpetual fear for their wealth under the reign of Siraj, contrary to the situation under Alivardi's reign. They had engaged Yar Lutuf Khan to defend them in case they were threatened in any way. William Watts, the Company representative at the court of Siraj, informed Clive about a conspiracy at the court to overthrow the ruler. The conspirators included Mir Jafar, the paymaster of the army, Rai Durlabh.

A plan of the Battle of Plassey, fought on 23 June 1757 by Robert Clive against the Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah of Bengal. The Battle of Plassey (or Palashi) is widely considered the turning point in the history of the subcontinent, and opened the way to eventual British domination. After Siraj ud-Daulah's conquest of Calcutta, the British sent fresh troops from Madras to recapture the fort and avenge the attack. A retreating Siraj ud-Daulah met the British at Plassey. He had to make camp 27 miles away from Murshidabad. On 23 June 1757 Siraj ud-Daulah called on Mir Jafar because he was saddened by the sudden fall of Mir Mardan who was a very dear companion of Siraj in battles. The Nawab asked for help from Mir Jafar. Mir Jafar advised Siraj to retreat for that day. The Nawab made the blunder in giving the order to stop the fight.

Following his command, the soldiers of the Nawab were returning to their camps. At that time, Robert Clive attacked the soldiers with his army. At such a sudden attack, the army of Siraj became undisciplined and could think of no way to fight. So, all fled away in such a situation.

Siraj ud-Daulah was executed on 2 July 1757 by Mohammad Ali Beg under orders from Mir Meerun, son of Mir Jafar in Namak Haram Deorhi as part of the agreement between Mir Jafar and the British East India Company. Siraj ud-Daulah's tomb can be found at Khushbagh, Murshidabad.

Siraj ud-Daula is revered as a hero as he stood against the British and refused to kowtow before them that even cost him his life. He was the first ruler of Bengal to foresee the threat posed to the future of the country by the English East India Company which entered India in the name of trade but transgressed its limits. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah will be remembered in history as the ‘first warrior’, who sensed the danger from the British and fought against them heroically.

After Siraj ud-Daula’s death there were several titular Nawabs but except for Mir Quasim no one tried to fight the British.  


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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.

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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