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The Rediff Special
The battle that gave India away
June 23, 2007
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.
For those who haven't paid as much attention to their history textbooks as they ought to have, here's a refresher course.
Why was it called the Battle of Plassey?
Why not read the first paragraph?
Who were the principal characters?
Siraj-Ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and a contingent of the British East India Company led by Major General Robert Clive.
How did the battle come about?
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.
Where do the French come into the picture?
Blame an enterprising French Governor General called Joseph Francois Dupleix. He must have been a charming sort, considering he managed to wield a great deal of influence in the Nawab's court. That meant more French trade in Bengal, and the Nawab was also lent soldiers to operate heavy artillery. Could all of this have pleased the British? What do you think?
But was all well in the Nawab's court?
Sadly, it wasn't. To begin with, Siraj-Ud-Daulah wasn't exactly Mr Popular. He was all of 24, for one, and his impetuous nature led to him making many 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.
Was this an equal fight?
Not really, considering the British were vastly outnumbered. 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.
What exactly happened at Plassey?
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.
Were there many casualties?
While the British had just 72, including dead and wounded, the Nawab's army had around 500. It can be looked at as a precursor of things to come -- a small contingent of Englishmen ruling a nation of millions.
What was the aftermath of the battle?
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.
What about Robert Clive?
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.
Text: Rediff Features Bureau
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