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A wicked traitor?

  • Published at 07:31 pm September 4th, 2015
A wicked traitor?

Mir Jafar has been tarred for his dubious role in the British victory at Plassey, and often referred to as “the wicked traitor.” As usual in history, however, his life might well be read in a somewhat different light, as that of a man, at least as much  sinned against as sinning, both in his lifetime, and in history.

History, they say, is written by the victors; and in the case of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, the “last independent ruler of Bengal,” there may well be some truth in it. But perhaps, as in the case of Mir Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur, there should come a time for the reputations of both to be reconsidered.

Siraj, of course, was famously -- some would say, infamously -- defeated at the Battle of Plassey, on June 23, 1757, opening the way for the East India Company to begin manoeuvres to take financial and administrative control of the traditional, and very valuable, tri-state lands of northeast India, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. A control subsequently confirmed by the Delhi Mughal administration, who still held nominal control of most of India, despite the chaos that had ensued following the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707.

It was the battle of Buxar, seven years after Plassey, in which the British forces, in support of those of the East India Company,  consolidated the Company’s earlier grip on the territories they already held, and which were to be the foundation of their eventual conquests in, and around, South Asia. And, arguably, with the vast supplies of saltpetre secured, much of the rest of the world.

The British forces at Buxar comprised the British Regiment of the 89th foot, newly raised in Britain following the 1745 rebellion, in the clearing up of which, Major Hector Munro, the regiment’s commanding officer, played a leading role.

The force also comprised a considerable number of Company-recruited local sepoys. Munro’s first task, in fact, on assuming command of the force at Patna, had been to quell a “formidable” mutiny amongst the sepoy soldiers, as a result of which 20 mutineers were executed.

Despite such difficulties in his own army, numbering between 8,000 and 10,000 which, taken to battle at Baxar, Munro defeated an enemy army of about 40,000. This fact serves well to illustrate the confusion and disarray of the forces on both sides of what had been a somewhat titanic struggle for India, of which Plassey had, in its own way, been simply the first battle.

In the course of his own assumption of the status of Nawab of Bengal, Siraj is said to have had sought to overcome what he perceived to be threats to his own title. But that, too, involved both violence and duplicity, including, without much doubt, placing considerable, ill-considered reliance on cronies. And Mir Jafar was one victim of his manoeuvering.

Whilst it is true that, in writing history, winners often seek to emphasise the weaknesses of the losers, rather than their strengths. In the case of Siraj, a dispassionate view of the evidence might reasonably conclude that some, at least, of what has been written of him, could well have selectively ignored weaknesses that, circumstances suggest, may well have existed.

There is little doubt that the Bengal of the post-Aurangzeb era might well be described as what is referred to in French as “un pannier des crabbes,” defined as the way in which crabs, put together in the environment of a bucket, rather than seeking to escape as a lone crab would usually successfully achieve, instead, attack each other.

There seems little doubt that the youthful Siraj, on inheriting his grandfather’s authority, at the age of 27, in April 1756, found himself top crab in the basket. But lacking, apparently, the essential qualities of guile, management and duplicity, to climb above the turmoil.

Clive, who oversaw his defeat just over a year later, had no special reason to describe him, as his biographer did, as, possibly, “a monster of vice, cruelty, and depravity.” However, not unreasonably, he continues, “though he may have suffered  from the demoralising effects of too much wealth and power at too early an age, he was, in fact, no more cruel than most 18th century eastern despots.”

It may be worth noting that few such despots survived long. But there seems no doubt that religious, social, commercial, and personal insecurities, selfish greed, and possibly even significant international interests, and even racial differences lay at the foundation of his troubles.

Sometimes, as the famous Palmerstone doctrine suggests that, when in trouble at home, start a war abroad -- amongst other adherents of which, of course, Thatcher and the Falklands spring to mind -- such a policy can be successful. Whether Siraj was an early exponent, however, seems unlikely, but his almost instant attack on British interests might have represented such an attempt.

Mir Jafar was born into the Persian aristocracy of the Turkish Empire. His grandfather had been governor of the city of Najaf, now in Iraq, a city regarded as holy by both Shia and Sunni Muslims.

When the Portuguese traveller Pedro Texeira visited the ancient city in the early 17th century, nearly a century before Mir Jafar’s birth, he found that a change of course by the Euphrates river, upon whose banks the city originally stood, had reduced the city to a shadow of an earlier centre of worship and trade.

Although it had recovered, somewhat, by the time of Mir Jafar’s birth in 1691, it still left him “a penniless young man” by the time he followed his father to the Court of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, where his father became chief justice. Another of the significant appointments of officials of Persian origin made throughout the Mughal period, reducing, in status, those of Afghan origin who had preceded them.

The death of Aurangzeb, as we know, set the entire Mughal Empire, irretrievably, as it turned out, through decline towards disaster. What is certain is that, with the regular changes of regime, the prospects for a secure employment forced Mir Jafar to seek “his fortune” elsewhere. And where else would a young soldier seek it but in the wealth and trade of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, under the last of the largely independent Nasiri Nawabs, Sirfaraz Khan? He rapidly proved his value to the Nawab, becoming commander of his Eastern Army in Orissa.

Remaining loyal to Sirfaraz’s successor, Alivardi Khan, the first of the Afshar Dynasty, he successfully defeated in Orissa the family of Sirfaraz Khan, who sought to continue their dynasty, following Sirfaraz’s death at the Battle of Patna in 1740. The subsequent kidnap of Alivardi’s nephew, Syed Ahmad Khan, by the rebels, Mir Jafar met with force, rescuing the young prince.

His loyalty to Alivardi Khan, however, was not repaid by the Nawab’s grandson, Siraj, on his succession as Nawab in 1756.  Mir Jafar was removed from his military commands, and, it is reported, humiliated. This, despite the fact that, as a result of his loyalty and military successes, Alivardi had married him to his niece.

Siraj’s early assault on East India Company interests, including his attack on Calcutta, is cited as a measure of the new Nawab’s endeavours to rid his realm of the influences of the Company. Objectively, it is worth considering just why the young Nawab regarded the threat of the Company, great though it certainly was, as requiring such precipitate action; or, indeed, action calculated to both enrage the British, and give them time, following the Calcutta adventure, to call up from Madras the reserves led by Robert Clive.

He must have been aware that, not only his displacement of his grandfather’s loyal followers, but also his patronage of his own younger associates, risked alienating influential men.

It is unlikely also that he could have been completely unaware of the complex of vested interests, including those of the numerous Armenian merchants, whose commerce might well suffer for his actions.

A realm in ferment, in an empire in turmoil, might well have merited carefully considered, and carefully planned, action. Siraj, however, it appears, may well have been “fickle and indecisive,” but also inclined, as is so often the wont of such people, to impulsive action.

That Clive recognised in Mir Jafar a man who had already lost much, and, probably, with much more left to lose under Siraj, should come as no surprise. Mir Jafar’s history of military achievement was certainly known to the Company. That, severely outnumbered, Clive should have sought out Mir Jafar, and enlisted his assistance in overcoming the forces of the Nawab at Plassey, would serve only to mark the Englishman’s shrewd skills.

That Mir Jafar, recruited, belatedly, by Siraj, should have joined with the British to defeat his own nephew may well mark him, in fact, as a man who held the commercial interests of Bengal and the Mughal Empire closer to his heart than the support of the wayward nephew. And, despite all that followed, it would be difficult to consider his judgement at fault at the time.