The Battle of Plassey

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The Battle of Plassey

How the British Raj took roots in India: The Battle of Plassey revisited

By M Abul Fazl


THE Battle of Plassey, whose 250th anniversary is being observed today, was fought on June 23,1757, between Sirajuddulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal and the British East India Trading Company, at the banks of Bhagirati River, about 150 km north of Calcutta (now Kolkata), near Murshidabad, the then capital of Bengal. The great significance of this battle stems from the fact that its outcome heralded the age of colonialism not only in the Indian subcontinent but in Asia as a whole.

The battle was waged in the backdrop of the Seven Years' War in Europe (1756–1763) and the French East India Company had sent a small contingent to fight against the British East India Company. At the time, French influence at the court of the Nawab was growing and the French trade in Bengal was also increasing volume. The circumstances that ultimately led to the battle began unfolding when Ali Vardi Khan, (1740-56), the Governor of Bengal and the grandfather of Sirajuddaula, had ceased, in practice, to recognise the Mughal sovereignty and sent tribute to the king irregularly. But he had a firm grip on Bengal and kept it free of the Marathas. His friction with the British arose from the latter’s tendency to keep expanding and abusing their privileges. For example, they did not pay inland taxes on their goods, although Delhi had given them exemption from customs duties only on foreign trade.

The employees of the company, who carried on private trade, did not pay taxes on those goods either. Worse, the company’s functionaries moved even the goods of the local traders in the company’s name, after charging commission from them. Emperor Farrukhsiyar had equally not given the company the permission to fortify its settlements but it had, in fact, been doing so from 1696 or from the time of Aurangzeb. The company’s functionaries were also in the habit of regularly bribing the court officials in both Murshidabad and Delhi, in order to escape the sanctions for their violations of law.

The friction came to a head when the young Sirajuddaula succeeded his grandfather in 1756 at the age of twenty. His succession was contested by his aunt Ghasiti Begum and by a cousin Shaukat Jang. The British were in touch with both. The new Nawab, however, reacted energetically and defeated both of them, Shaukat dying in combat. The British gave asylum to some of the rebels and their families and ignored the Nawab’s orders to raze their fortifications erected at Calcutta.

Thereupon, the Nawab seized the British post of Kasimbazar and then attacked and captured FortWilliam at Calcutta after only three days of fighting on June 20, 1756. The Nawab regarded his action as of a punitive nature against a body of recalcitrant traders and in no way constituting a break with the British. He, therefore, allowed the British, who had escaped from Calcutta, to remain at Fulta and wrote to Pigot at Madras, explaining his action against the company. There were good reasons for Nawab’s conciliatory gestures. British trade, in spite of their malpractices, was beneficial for Bengal and their total removal would have left the French in control of foreign trade and, lastly, the British fleet could, if things took an extreme turn, impose a naval blockade of Bengal.

The British responded with a three-pronged policy: (a) they sent a force from Madras under Col Robert Clive to recover Calcutta (b) they pretended to seek reconciliation with the Nawab in order to keep him in good humour and (c) they began to systematically corrupt the high officials of the Bengal government.The Nawab was prepared to let the British back into Bengal but as traders they had to obey his government rules. The British wanted the restoration of all the privileges they enjoyed until the fall of Calcutta and, in addition, the cession to them of the villages which had been granted to them by Farrukhsiyar in 1717 but not conceded by the Nawab, the right to fortify Calcutta and the right to mint money. And, of course, they intended to resume all the malpractices and expected the Nawab to tolerate them as his predecessors had done.

Clive’s expeditionary force landed in Fulta on December 15, 1756. He immediately took a strong position towards the Nawab but tried to win over Manik Chand with a conciliatory approach. He moved on December 30, taking Baj Baj without a fight and then Calcutta. Manik Chand, who had probably been bribed, fled Calcutta and panicked the Nawab with exaggerated tales of British strength. The impasse in political discussions continued. The Nawab’s position was weak because many of his high officials were in correspondence with the British and the financial magnates of Bengal wanted him to settle with the company on the latter’s terms, as they had lucrative trade with it.

At this time, the Nawab was camped midway between Calcutta and Murshidabad with 40,000 horses, 60,000 foot soldiers, 50 elephants and 30 pieces of cannon. Clive who had marched up to his proximity with 700 British and 1300 Indian soldiers, 100 gunners and 14 6-pounders, was nervous but felt encouraged by his secret contacts with the Nawab’s courtiers. On February 5, 1757, he made a night raid on the Nawab’s camp with the intent of killing him. The Nawab escaped death because of his absence from his tent at the time. Clive’s action, however, shows both his desperation and the belief of the Europeans in India that rule of civilised behaviour did not apply to their dealings with the Indian states.

The demonstration of the British force’s ability to reach the Nawab’s tents frightened Sirajuddaula so much that he was ready to give in to the British demands and restore status quo ante bellum but was not prepared to give the company any additional privileges.

The British had gained so much confidence by now that Clive signed the text of the treaty sent to him by the Nawab only after deleting the phrase “the English will be obedient to the command of the Prince” from it. The Nawab returned to Murshidabad, thinking he had secured his one flank in order to be able to face Ahmad Shah Abdali on the other, about whom a rumour had reached him that he was advancing towards Bengal. He had captured and looted Delhi in 1756. However, while Abdali’s phantom evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared, the Nawab discovered that basic contradictions cannot be got rid of by opting out of confrontation. It is only that the surrendering party now faces the same contradiction from a much more disadvantageous position.

Clive had decided that the Nawab was on the run and he was not going to give up until he had brought Murshidabad under the company’s control. Therefore, he was no longer satisfied with the terms he had obtained under the treaty of February 9. He now wanted to punish the Indians who it thought were obstructing the company’s trade, instead of complaining against them to the Nawab. He also demanded that the Nawab not construct any fortifications below Calcutta. But Clive first wanted to eliminate the French from Bengal so that Nawab would not be able to seek their help against the British.

The Nawab, a young autocrat, without either experience or good advice, now behaved like a chicken with its head cut off. He congratulated the British upon their conquest of Chandernagar but refused to hand over the French factory at Kasimbazar to them. He also encouraged the French who had escaped from Chandernagar to remain on his territory in Bihar and even helped them financially but was frightened when the British threatened to send their own troops to Bihar to capture them. At home, he alternately humiliated and begged forgiveness of his high courtiers until no one trusted him any more. The French were afraid that he would sell them to the British if the latter pressed him hard enough, while all high courtiers were either sold to the British or in touch with them. The only senior official, who remained loyal to him, was Mohan Lal Diwan.

On May1, it was decided at Calcutta to replace Sirajuddaula with Mir Jafar. Clive set out on June13 to attack Murshidabad. He defeated the weak garrisons on the way easily and reached Plassey on June 22. Here, Nawab’s main force faced him – a force most of whose commanders had already given an undertaking to the British that they would not fight them.

At Plassey itself, where the two armies were facing each other, Clive had 900 European and 2100 Indian soldiers with eight cannon. The Nawab had 15,000 horse, 35,000 foot soldiers and 40 cannons. The Nawab opened hostilities on the morning of June 23, with a cannonade to which the English replied with one of their own. This continued until 2 pm. The Nawab could have won if he had then charged with his main force. But, upon seeing Jafar moving away from the field with his contingent, the Nawab’s will collapsed. He fled from the field. He was captured and killed and Jafar became the new Nawab. The English had lost four Europeans and sixteen sepoys killed and the Nawab about five hundred.Clive had won the battle before it was engaged but through bribery and not in Napoleonic fashion. The worst part of the episode is that the Emperor at Delhi, Alamgir II, confirmed Mir Jafar in his governorship in place of Sirajuddaula after the company had adequately bribed the proper quarters in Delhi.

Ram Gopal in his How the British Occupied Bengal (Book Traders, Lahore) explains: “Sirajuddaula was only twenty years of age at the time of his death. At this age, it was humanly impossible for him, or any one, to prove superior to the collective treachery, machination and trickery of a score of persons, all possessing rich and varied experience of the world, and all, employing all the evil genius they were capable of, hatching one of the most fool-proof conspiracies ever practised on battlefield.” (P. 212).

Here we have the explanation of the decision at Plassey – not the intrigues themselves. Bengal with its immense human and financial resources could lose one battle and win the next. No. The explanation lies in the worldview of the feudal ruling class of India, in the readiness of nearly the whole high officialdom of Murshidabad to contemplate entering into such a conspiracy with a foreign power. They behaved as if it was a game that they routinely indulged in among themselves in order to gain an advantage or change a ruler. They did not understand the nature of the power whom they were inviting to acquire the upper hand in Bengal.

These nobles regarded Plassey as just another battle where they had out-smarted their own ruler, causing his defeat. Had they been told that it had been a decisive battle, they would not have believed it. Not only, as a class, had they been bypassed by history, they did not even realise what they had done to themselves. The Indian ruling class had indeed “lost the mandate of heaven.”

As to the people of Bengal, those who produced the wealth which was the subject of dispute between the local ruling class and the company, they were so alienated from their own ruling class that they remained unconcerned with the victory of the British over “their” Nawab. When Clive entered Murshidabad after Plassey with 200 European and 500 Indian soldiers, the inhabitants, who were spectators on the occasion, according to him, “must have amounted to some hundred thousands; and if they had had an inclination to have destroyed the Europeans, they might have done it with sticks and stones.” But they, the unconcerned spectators in all wars, showed no resentment towards the English, who were, in their eyes, just the latest of their conquerors.

Next: State of Indian society on the eve of the Battle

Why defeat was Sirajuddaula’s fate

By M. Abul Fazl


(This is second part of the essay: The Battle of Plassey revisited. The first part appeared in the last issue of Encounter.)

THE Battle of Plassey, which was fought on a field covered with little red flowers, on June 23, 1757, at a village called Palashi, laid the foundation of European colonialism in Asia which lasted until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. However, it also laid down two principles, which still govern the relations between the advanced and the backward countries, indeed which underpin the modern neo-colonial system even more firmly than they did the colonial structure.

These principles are: firstly, the dominating powers have the right to change a regime in the Third World which may come in their way and; secondly, the right of the dominant capital to impose the terms of trade between the two worlds.

India of the 18th Century was the most industrialised country of the world, producing more cotton textiles than the rest of the world put together. But it was pre-capitalist industry, based on the family labour with primitive mechanical aids. And the industry was so massive and the cost of labour power so low that even sharply rising trade failed to bring any change in its organisation.

England had imported 240,000 pieces of calico from India in 1600. A hundred years later, the volume had increased to 861,000 pieces. In addition, there were exports to other European countries and to the Ottoman Empire, China and South East Asia. However, the Indian textile industry had been able to meet these increased export orders without either raising its technical level or modifying the organisation of labour. There was thus no incentive to adopt a new mode of production.

The success of the industry had blocked its progress. The rate of exploitation of the peasants was so high that the peasantry was threatened constantly with ruin. The total production of India may actually have been diminishing in the 18th century.

The ruling class, consisting of landed aristocracy, underpinned by money-lenders, engaged full-time in war or ostentatious living. The drain upon the productive resources of society was, therefore, crushing. In those days, as the Oxford History describes, “Indian society, whether in its Hindu or Muslim forms, was centred round religio-social systems which showed little trace of political nationalism in its modern sense. The affections of the people were fastened upon social and religious ideals rather than upon political freedom… No doubt both the Hindu and the Muslim preferred their own rulers to others but what both would die for was their religious ideals and social patterns.”

India’s real weakness lay in its system of government. It was a pre-capitalist state and power was a function of personal loyalty. But even the weak impersonal relationships, which had evolved in the feudal states of Europe, were missing in India. Therefore, every ruler had to re-create the whole state structure, including the system of loyalties, when he ascended the throne.

There were many reasons for this: Firstly, a small Muslim stratum wielded power over the overwhelming Hindu majority. It could evoke the loyalty of individual Hindus, not of their community. Secondly, subjects tended to nurture loyalty to dynasties, which lasted long. This was not the case with the Muslim dynasties (except the Mughals) because of frequent wars of succession. When one prince denigrated another in these wars, the prestige of the ruling family itself fell. Thirdly, under dynastic principle of government the talent to rule may not be inherited.

Bengal’s Nawab Sirajuddaula, who fought the Battle of Plassery with the British, betrayed contradictory characteristics. Periods of energetic action would be followed by those of indecisiveness and lethargy. He was not able to understand that the legitimacy of power was a weak basis of rule in the Muslim system. It had to be consolidated anew by each ruler. Legitimacy was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for such consolidation. His imperious attitude quickly alienated all the senior officials, including Mir Jafar.

The Europe, whose companies traded with India, was mercantile. The traders did not control production though they could influence it up to a certain extent through the size and regularity of their purchases. These companies were thus engaged in pure trade. They were interested in buying cheap and selling dear. Objective barriers were posed to both the acts by the purchasing power available to their customers, the cost of production of the suppliers, the attendant commercial conditions and above all by the Indian state, which controlled the political conditions in which the trade was carried on.

Most of the economic conditions listed here were objective i.e. they could neither be mastered nor modified by the trading companies. But the political conditions, under which trade was conducted, could be influenced or even brought under control, given favourable circumstances. And once that was done, the profits could be maximised by using the state power to replace equal exchange with unequal exchange or even outright robbery.

This was evident immediately after the Battle of Plassey. No more bullion was exported to India. Instead the Bengali exports to England were henceforth financed entirely by the local land revenue accruing to the British East India Company. According to a 1783 report of a select committee of the British Parliament: “… the whole exported produce of the country, so far as the company is concerned, is not exchanged in the course of barters but it is taken away without any return or payment whatever.” (As quoted in World Accumulation 1492-1789, Andre Gunder Frank, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1978, p. 149-50).

Thus the logic of the maximisation of profits of the mercantile capital pointed to territorial conquest. (The Rise and Fall of the East India Company, Ramakrishna Mukherjee, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1974, p. 118). The rivalry between the British and the French for commercial gains consequently turned rather quickly into rivalry for territorial gains, as the Indian state weakened.

The companies, which were really the transnationals of that period, had the name advantage over the Indian states that any superior organisation has over a primitive one. As the Cambridge Economic History of India puts it: “The key to the success and long survival of the two East India Companies, Dutch and English, lay in the fact that from the beginning they put all their corporate efforts into the creation of an organisational system which was independent of both time and personnel.”

Their second advantage was their financial resources. Their soldiers were paid regularly and they always had funds available for bribing the local potentates or officials where necessary. Lastly, possession of a navy gave them flexibility and independence from land barriers. This flexibility and mobility was not available to the Indian states, not even to the Mughal Emperor.

The British, having acquired confidence in their power as a result of their successes in South India, were reaching out for Bengal, which did not possess an adequate state and military structure to thwart them successfully. Sirajudaulla’s courtiers, generals and big bankers, on whom he depended, had a different mindset when they were intriguing with the British against him. They did not think of the British as foreigners; hence collusion with them was no treachery in their eyes.

For them, the Europeans were the latest wave of foreign invaders who could be accommodated within the Indian society and power structure, as had been the case with the previous intruders, such as Turks, Afghans, etc. They failed to realise that the British (and French and Dutch) represented something qualitatively different. Thus Bengal’s confrontation with the East Indiacompany at Plassey brought a corrupt, outdated state face-to-face with the most advanced socio-economic and political organisation of the world at the time.

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