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Controversies centering Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah

Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah, Jagat Seths, Mir Zafar, Mir Zafar Ali Khan

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Controversies centering Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah

Another historian Ghulam Husain Tabatabai wrote: Making no distinction betwixt vice and virtue … he [Siraj Ud Daulah] carried defilement wherever he went; and like a man alienated in his mind he made the houses of men and women of distinction the scenes of his profligacy, without minding either rank or station. In a little time, he became as detested as Pharao. People on meeting him by chance used to say, God save us from him! Writes Suraiyya Aziz

Despite the fact of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah being projected as a heroic individual and symbol of the independence of India, historians have mostly portrayed him as an immature, short-tempered and a spoilt individual.

Commenting on Siraj Ud Daulah historian Ghulam Husain Salim wrote: Owing to Siraj Ud Daulah’s harshness of temper and indulgence in violent language, fear and terror had settled on the hearts of everyone to such an extent, that no one among the generals of the army or the noblemen of the City was free from anxiety. Among his officers, whoever went to wait on Siraj Ud Daulah despaired of life and honor, and whoever returned without being disgraced and ill-treated offered thanks to God.

Siraj Ud Daulah treated all the noblemen and capable generals of Mahabat Jang with ridicule and drollery and bestowed on each some contemptuous nick-name that ill-suited any of them. And whatever harsh expressions and abusive epithet came to his lips, Siraj Ud Daulah uttered them unhesitatingly in the face of everyone, and no one had the boldness to breathe freely in his presence.

Another historian Ghulam Husain Tabatabai wrote: Making no distinction betwixt vice and virtue … he [Siraj Ud Daulah] carried defilement wherever he went; and like a man alienated in his mind he made the houses of men and women of distinction the scenes of his profligacy, without minding either rank or station. In a little time, he became as detested as Pharao. People on meeting him by chance used to say, God save us from him!

Sir William Meredith, during the Parliamentary inquiry into Robert Clive’s actions in India, defended the character of Siraj Ud Daulah stating: Siraj Ud Daulah is indeed reported to have been a very wicked, and a very cruel prince, but how he deserved that character does not appear in fact. He was very young, not 20 years old when he was put to death—and the first provocation to his enmity was given by the English. It is true, that when he took Calcutta a very lamentable event happened, I mean the story of the Black Hole; but that catastrophe can never be attributed to the intention, for it was without the knowledge of the prince. I remember a similar accident happening in St. Martin’s roundhouse, but it should appear very ridiculous, were I, on that account, to attribute any guilt or imputation of cruelty to the memory of the late king, in whose reign it happened.

A peace was however agreed upon with Siraj Ud Daulah; and the persons who went as ambassadors to confirm that peace formed the conspiracy, by which he was deprived of his kingdom and his life.

Writer of book on history, William of Dalrymple in his book titled The Anarchy, which gives a graphic retelling of the East India Company’s “relentless rise” from provincial trading company to the pre-eminent military and political power in all of India. Naturally he also talks about the Nawabs, of Bengal of the period. He has termed the last ‘independent’ ruler Siraj Ud Daulah as an idiot.

According to The Anarchy the “volatile, widely disliked (among the businesspeople and members of his own court) Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah”, had made an intractable enemy of Bengal’s Marwari bankers, the Jagat Seths, who saw better prospects in investing with the East India Company than supporting him. The Jagat Seths offered the company more than £4m (about a hundred times that in current terms, reckons Dalrymple) to unseat Siraj Ud Daulah and install a compliant collaborator in his stead. Robert Clive, who stood to make an immense personal fortune, gladly accepted. So, in Dalrymple’s opinion Plassey was in truth a “palace coup”, executed by a greedy opportunist, won by bribery and betrayal. One shared Dalrymple’s view in this matter. 

This writer had the dubious distinction of meeting a family descendant of Mir Zafar who succeeded Daulah as a Nawab. The descendant one Reza Ali, with a rueful smile observed that Mir Zafar is a name that has become synonymous with treachery ever since that fateful day in Plassey in 1757. Of course, even now the term “Mir Zafari” is bandied about especially in the political arena. Anyone who leaves a party or criticizes their former leader is dubbed a “Mir Zafar.”

However, come to think of it, is loyalty always such a supreme virtue? It is questionable whether Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah can be termed as an independent ruler of Bengal.

Siraj Ud Daulah was a Nawab all right but the title basically meant that he was the ‘Governor” of Bengal, Bihar, Odissa, appointed by Mughal emperor from Delhi. True the Mughals were in decline but their farman (proclamation) was essential to be the legitimate governor.

According to most contemporary accounts, both British and Indian, it is quite obvious that the young Nawab was a highly incompetent ruler and a worse general. Many later nationalist historians have been too kind or biased on Siraj Ud Daulah and portrayed him as a symbol of Bengali national identity.

“Mirza Mohammed Siraj, a youth of seventeen years, had discovered the most vicious propensities, at an age when only follies are expected from princes,” British historian Robert Orme wrote about Siraj Ud Daulah’s youth in Ali Vardi Khan’s palace.” (History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from 1745).

“Taught by his minions to regard himself as of a superior order of being, his natural cruelty, hardened by habit, in conception he was not slow, but absurd; obstinate, sullen, and impatient of contradiction.” During his youth in Ali Vardi Khan’s palace, Siraj Ud Daulah “lived in every kind of intemperance and debauchery, and more especially in drinking spiritous liquors to an excess, which inflamed his passions and impaired the little understanding with which he was born,” Robert Omre said.

Of course, for fairness’ sake it ought to be pointed out that Omre was no neutral observer. He had been a member of the St Fort St George Council in Madras and was instrumental in sending Robert Clive with a military expedition to Calcutta to avenge what is known as the Black Hole incident of 1756. It should be stated that the “Black Hole tragedy” is a myth. It has been pointed out by many a writer that the floor space of so small a chamber could not accommodate 146 adults even if the-whole air space in it was covered. But even the French, who were friends with Siraj, did not have a favorable opinion of him.

“Before the death of Ali Vardi Khan, the character of Siraj Ud Daulah was reported to be one of the worst ever known,” Jean Law, who knew Siraj as chief of the French East India company in the West Bengal city of Cossimbazar, wrote in his memoir.

“In fact, he had distinguished himself not only by all sorts of debauchery, but by a revolting cruelty……. women were accustomed to bathe on the banks of the Ganges. Siraj Ud Daulah, who was informed by his spies which of them were beautiful, sent his satellites in disguise in little boats to carry them off”.

The British would refuse him admission into their Cossimbazar factory and their houses, he wrote, “because, in fact, this excessively blustering and impertinent young man used to break the furniture, or, if it pleased his fancy, take it away”.

Karim Ali, author of Muzaffarnama says that Alivardi “tried to teach him (Siraj Ud Daulah) the art of government and administration and the noble traits that befit a ruler of men”. But Alivardi’s love which was almost doting, made him turn his blind eye to every misdeed done by Siraj. As Prof. K. K. Datta observes “Siraj Ud Daulah’s education may have been of usual formal type, marked by rudiments of ordinary knowledge and not well calculated to foster high virtues”. Alivardi’s doting affection proved a fatal boon for Siraj. He developed unruly impulses and obstinacy.

Greed was Mir Jafar’s motivating factor and he collaborated with the British.  He wanted the throne by any means, fair or foul. But such were rules of the time. Siraj Ud Daulah’s grandfather Ali Vardi Khan was a much more ruthless figure who did not hesitate to kill his benefactor to get the crown.

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