Of the numerous battles fought on Indian soil, there is none more pivotal than the Battle of Plassey (1757). Fought between the forces of the British East India Company and Nawab Sirajuddaulah of Bengal, this victory gave the Company a foothold in Bengal, from where it established a massive empire that would stretch from the borders of Afghanistan all the way to Burma.
It was this battle that turned ‘traders’ into ‘rulers’ and also saw the beginning of the brutal drain of wealth from India. Even though this battle was a turning point in the history of the Indian subcontinent, most people view it as just another battle, where a small British force defeated the much larger Bengal army due to the treachery of Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths.
But, like so much in history, there is nothing simplistic about this battle. Helping us unravel the web of intrigue and deceit that surrounded the battle is journalist Sudeep Chakravarti’s book, Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History (January 2020, Alpeh Publications). The book offers a fascinating insight into the life and motivations of a number of characters in the drama, such as Robert Clive, Nawab Sirajuddaulah, Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths. It is as if each of them has their own story to tell.
Chakravarti calls the events surrounding Plassey ‘a petri dish of sophistry and uncomfortable views’. He brings out different versions of the same event, pointing out how versions are important as they shape perceptions and, in fact, how some versions are deliberately created to shape perceptions. In his book, he contrasts the colonial British narrative of ‘get rid of the Nawab that nobody could stand’ with the ‘betrayed tragic hero’ story offered by nationalist Indian and Bangladeshi writers. The truth lies somewhere in between.
There are several interesting questions that Chakravarti attempts to answer in the book: Was it a battle or was it won before it began, as some historians surmise? What were the politics at the time that led to Plassey? What was the attraction of the plains and rivers of Bengal versus the homes and balance sheets of Europe? Was the incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta that was used by some to morally underpin the British expedition to Plassey, real, exaggerated or fictional? How does that incident and Plassey carry forward to this day, as the present remembers the past in various versions of living history?
Chakravarti attempts to answer these questions in his book by looking at a variety of sources, in India and Europe. These sources include contemporary accounts of British East India Company officials to contemporary histories, research papers, biographies, essays and articles. Most importantly, a number of Bengali sources have been referenced, which most non-Bengali historians have overlooked. All these factors make the book a rivetting read.
Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, India’s richest province, anointed his 19-year-old grandson Sirajuddaulah as his heir. Given to debauchery and prone to bouts of cruelty, the young Nawab, Sirajuddaulah, alienated almost the entire Murshidabad court. The most notorious example of his high-handedness was his slapping of Bengal’s richest and most powerful banker, Jagat Seth Mehtab Rai, in front of the entire court.
Sirajuddaulah’s aunt Ghaseti Begum and senior Generals like Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh too were ranged against him and his wanton cruelty. Sirajuddaulah had also alienated European powers and launched a particularly destructive siege and invasion of the British settlement in Calcutta. This set off a chain of events that culminated in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the subsequent British control over Bengal.
We spoke to the book’s author, Sudeep Chakravarti, for his perspectives on the book, the battle and the interesting cast of characters associated with this momentous event. Excerpts:
The Battle of Plassey is one of the most famous battles in Indian history. When so much has already been written about it, why did you feel the need to embark on this book?
Indeed, a lot has been written about the Battle of Plassey, but quite a lot of it is pure pamphleteering for either the British or the subcontinental cause; quite a lot of it is an emotional telling and not a clinical one; and many Indian textbooks are, frankly, greatly challenged when it comes to Plassey. There was—is—a need for corrective history, if you will, the need to peel away layers to expose the truths and lies, the myths and the nuances.
The descriptions of hapless Siraj, crafty Clive and traitorous Mir Jafar cannot be the only absolutes, because they are not. Besides, the back story of Plassey, which is a mix of aggressive mercantilism married with geopolitics, is often diminished, as is the cast of characters—dramatis personae—in and around Plassey. Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History was a story waiting to be retold.
In your introduction, you have described Plassey as ‘a petri dish of sophistry and uncomfortable views’ and compared it to the Japanese movie Rashomon. With so many different versions of the same event, why did you attempt to put together a balanced view?
Because a balanced view is, to my mind, the appropriate way to treat history, especially an event as pivotal to Indian history, in some ways even to British and Asian history, as Plassey. Plassey is the root event from which ‘modern Indian history’ emerges. A balanced history is also the crucial need of the times, with so much partisan rewriting of history, so much whitewashing or saffron-washing of history taking place.
In most books on this subject, Nawab Sirajuddaulah has either been portrayed as an absolute villain or as a tragic hero. What is your personal assessment of Siraj?
He is neither an absolute villain nor a tragic hero, in my opinion. He is a victim of circumstances of his own making as well as some circumstances beyond his control, such as the dynamics unleashed by the crumbling Mughal Empire and the geopolitical and geo-economic contest between Great Britain and France. Siraj was callow, somewhat impulsive, certainly spoilt, naturally nervous and tense, but hardly the illiterate and complete Caligula he is made out to be, or the martyred Nawab he is made out to be. He was also just 23 years old when he took over as Nawab, and 24 at the time of the Battle of Plassey. Imagine fresh post-graduate students in his place as Nawab of Bengal, being jostled by Mughal pressure, Maratha pressure, a warring Britain and France, and conspirators at his court, home and bank!
The conspiracy behind the battle has a very complex back story. With all the different accounts of this event, do you think you have been able to unravel it adequately, or do you think there are things that are still unexplained? If so, what are those?
I believe I‘ve been able to address most threads and nuances, partly unravelling some, and hinting at a few. I would have liked to take a deeper dive into the Plassey mechanics of the Jagat Seths, pivotal Bengal bankers and long-time conspirators, but I was unable to access appropriate original documentation of great depth. Maybe they don’t exist, or they do and I don’t know of such documents or of ways to access such documents.
Recently, there has been much discussion on the role of Hindu bankers bankrolling the British East India Company. Why do you think the Jagat Seths supported the British, considering it led to their own downfall?
The Seths underestimated the mercantile aggression of the British East India Company, and just how much the taking and re-taking of Bengal became a Company and Crown project for the British, and just how much Bengal’s riches were necessary for the Company to offset its import of bullion from Britain to pay for goods from Bengal, in particular, and India in general. Once the Company was awarded the Diwani or revenue administration of Bengal, and began to shift the focus of administration from Murshidabad to Calcutta and establish a Company mint in Calcutta, which the Seths had for so long opposed, and encouraged the growth of British financiers in Calcutta, that banking family was done. The Seths were used and cast aside by the Company, which played the game better than they had.
One very interesting perspective that your book brings out is the role of Frenchman, Jean Law, an ally of Siraj. How do you see Jean Law’s role in the event?
Jean Law is a fascinating person, and his accounts offer a terrific counterpoint—and counterpunch—to Company-sponsored or Crown-sponsored tellings of glory and empire. As someone who had a ringside seat at the court of Murshidabad and to its culture, who actively worked to diminish or delay British dominance to protect the interests of the French East India Company and of France until nearly the very end, Law also provides a fascinating account of the mind of Siraj, especially in the first half of 1757—the Plassey months, if you will.
Considering that the ‘old elites’ of Bengal were already against Siraj, do you think the Battle of Plassey had the far-reaching impact it is made out to have had, or do you think the British would have anyway dethroned him with the help of conspirators?
As it happens, the Battle of Plassey came about on account of the conspiracy between the British East India Company and the upset elites in Murshidabad, besides the British need to protect its business interests as well as diminish the French. Why should the conspiracy and the battle be seen as mutually exclusive? They were part of a chain of events. And there is absolutely no doubt about the far-reaching impact of that chain of events culminating in the Battle of Plassey. In the process, the British defeated the French, their main European competitor, and installed their imprimatur in the court of Bengal.
And Plassey set off another chain of events. The deposing first of Mir Jafar, a key Plassey conspirator, and then Mir Qasim, his son-in-law, as Nawabs of Bengal. The Battle of Buxar. The subsequent granting of the Diwani or revenue administration of Bengal and Bihar to the British East India Company. The Company’s move west to Awadh, and then, in a few short decades, to Delhi. The Mutiny in 1857. The formal replacing of Company with Crown. It all began with the Company’s victory—British victory—at Plassey. To downplay Plassey is to downplay history.
Another very interesting fact that you touch upon in your book is the attempt by Mir Jafar to enlist Dutch help when he faced problems with the British, and how this Dutch attempt ended with the Battle of Chinsurah. Do you think there was any possibility at all that the Dutch could have dislodged the British at the time?
Indeed, there was, at least in Bengal, although it is likely that the British would have sent more troops and naval vessels from their bases in Bombay and Madras to supplement their case in Calcutta. The Dutch made a serious play for Bengal in 1759, encouraged by overtures from Mir Jafar, who was being severely pressured for cash and kind by the British East India Company.
The Dutch brought in forces and ships from Batavia—present-day Jakarta. The British basically crossed the Hugli (Hooghly) River north of Calcutta and took the battle to the Dutch enclave in Chinsurah on the opposite shore. The Dutch lost. And, as a consequence, Mir Jafar lost his first Nawab-ship. The East India Company ensured that. The Company effectively controlled Bengal’s court.
While writing this book, what was your most fascinating discovery, something you chanced upon that amazed you?
There were several fascinating points for me. The meticulous record-keeping by the British East India Company and, indeed, all the various East India Companies of Europe. The lies peddled by the British and French that made Siraj out to be the first Bengal Nawab to have clashed with the British East India Company. In fact, in the late-17th century, Mughal Governor Shaista Khan drove out the British from the factory in Qasimbazar and all of Bengal. The Company then attacked Chittagong—and was hammered. It managed to establish a base in Calcutta only after Shaista Khan left Bengal.
The British also had frequent run-ins with subsequent Nawabs of Bengal. And the British and Siraj actually got along for a while. Before he became Nawab, they even kowtowed to him after he became Crown Prince. And Robert Clive never seriously expected to win the Battle at Plassey, even halfway through the battle! Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History is replete with such examples and myth-breaking.
If there is one takeaway from this book for the reader, what would you like it to be?
Corrective history, layered history, history that seeks to deconstruct myths in order to present unclouded realities is crucial for the times of myth-making and distorted realities we are compelled to live in. Knowing our past for what it really was is as crucial as understanding our present for what it really is.