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The war that defined modern India

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book on the Battle of Plassey brings alive a crucial period of India’s history through colourful characters and astute analysis

‘Robert Clive And Mir Jafar After The Battle Of Plassey, 1757’ by Francis Hayman. wikimedia commons
‘Robert Clive And Mir Jafar After The Battle Of Plassey, 1757’ by Francis Hayman. wikimedia commons

In the procession of ill-fated emperors who followed Aurangzeb on the peacock throne, there was in the early 18th century a not-so-great Mughal ruler called Farrukhsiyar. Saddled with a hundred problems as his empire unravelled, in 1715 he found himself also facing a medical ailment of grave personal inconvenience: a swelling in the groin, and a suspected fistula. It so happened, however, that a delegation from the English East India Company arrived at his court around this time, and its doctor began to attend to the indisposed emperor. Weeks later, Farrukhsiyar recovered, and while it would take the company another year to settle business, there was no doubt that the badshah was pleased with their medical associate.

In the end, it took some effort to persuade the emperor to give Dr William Hamilton leave to depart (including circulating the fiction that he missed his non-existent wife), but when the party returned at last to Calcutta (now Kolkata), it was with a “phirmaun" granting some keenly sought privileges.

Unfortunately for the company, a grant from Delhi did not automatically translate to a ready execution of orders in Bengal—the nawab who governed this province refused, for instance, to permit the British use of the official mint, since it got in the way of his own arrangements and could upset the local economic and political balance. It did not matter that the foreign merchants wielded an imperial firman—on the contrary, it would take another four decades for the British to finally acquire the power to mint coins, this time won not through decorous wording on official paper but through the brute force of fire and war.

It was the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that tilted things in favour of the company, including, importantly, through what writer Sudeep Chakravarti calls a “business-led regime change" that deposed one nawab and replaced him with a pliant successor. It was the launch of a process that made not only Bengal’s rulers dependent on the favour of white men but one that would eventually also transform the emperor into a glorified pensioner.

Chakravarti’s book, Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course Of Indian History, clearly bears a title that encapsulates the significance of the event in the modern evolution of our subcontinent. It is a volume that makes for gratifying reading. To begin with, the story, by itself, is phenomenal, with a cast of characters ranging from the tragic to the villainous. There is a walled-up beauty (a Bengali Anarkali, as it were) and a scheming and ambitious begum, determined to destroy her nephew, but drowned herself in the end by agents of his substitute. There are Bengal’s fabled bankers—the Jagat Seths—who guarded their prerogatives even from the company for long, enjoying also the power to make and break princes. There is a merchant who conspired with the British at Plassey, only to discover he was to get no share of the booty—he went mad and died soon afterwards. And there is Siraj-ud-Daula, the nawab deposed after Plassey, whose titles included “One Who is Fearsome in Battle" but whose name caused such confusion in London that one man wondered if “Sir Roger Dowler" was a knight or a baronet.

But a strong cast that provides food for delicious storytelling is only part of the equation. In Chakravarti’s hands, it also meets healthy analysis and an even-handed study which constantly interrogates the diversity of records and tries to weed out exaggerations in one by holding it up against divergent views in another. He begins, for instance, by tackling head on the problem of binaries—was Siraj-ud-Daula the spoilt brat who squandered his inheritance through cruelty, lust and a lack of common sense (he did, after all, slap a Jagat Seth, giving the latter a personal cause to plot with the British)? Or was he a martyr, wronged, deceived and treacherously let down by men who cared less for country and more for personal profit and aggrandizement? Chakravarti negotiates these questions with sobriety, till we see the nawab very much as a man of weakness and overconfidence, just as we learn that his courtiers too had multiple motivations in deciding which horse to back—a dynamic in which money, personality, espionage and plain deception all played a role.

Chakravarti’s build-up to the focus of the book is relatively slow—it is about 60 pages in before we start getting a flavour of things, and find the events and forces leading up to Plassey placed under the magnifying glass. In the process, we study Bengal and its local history in the period, as also the story of the company and its standing in the south. Competition with the French, both in Europe and at sea, for instance, was key to the formation of policy in Bengal, and we find that just as the Indian side had its clashes of personality and internal rivalries, the colonial companies were also beset with internecine contests.

Private trade by company men upset not only the nawabs but also the directors of the corporation in London, for example. Back-channel talks and diplomacy were significant elements and, in what never ceases to interest, even till the last minute, whom victory would favour was not at all clear. Robert Clive was cast only afterwards as a man destined to win—till the events of Plassey actually unfolded as they did, he himself was not quite so certain.

The book could, however, have benefited from certain stylistic changes. From the start, we are introduced not only to the names of scholars Chakravarti cites in the main narrative, but also the complete titles of their works, to which are added quotes within quotes. For instance, at one point we read: “‘Described as the “Rothschild of India" by Edmund Burke,’ notes a chapter in the work, Finance And Modernization: A Transnational And Transcontinental Perspective, edited by Gerald D. Feldman and Peter Hertner, ‘the banking house would consider it…’" So, too, there are digressions, rendered in brackets, which contain material of historical interest, but could have been carried in the footnotes.

Thus, for instance, in a section describing the life of an early nawab of Bengal, we abruptly encounter a summary of historian Jadunath Sarkar’s career and a list of his significant works—these are of value but belong at the bottom of the page, not in the middle. In the existing format, such asides break the flow of the principal narrative. That much of this happens in the early part of the book mars its readability somewhat just where it should be drawing the reader in.

But for these technical weaknesses, Chakravarti’s book is a rewarding experience. And as we find increasingly acknowledged, it presents, besides the historical and political, also a window into the complex role human behaviour has played in shaping the past. Siraj-ud-Daula is the unlovable, tragic hero of this tale. Alerted to a conspiracy brewing to depose him, we learn how he laughed and pooh-poohed the intelligence. In the end, his mangled body was paraded on an elephant down Murshidabad’s streets. Meanwhile, his mentally unstable opponent, Clive, became a fabulously wealthy man, celebrated for generations thereafter as one of the great architects of imperial Britain.

Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

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