BY Sandip Hor
“This is where India was sold to the British,” tells my omniscient guide Quadir when we visit an abandoned mango grove in Plassey, a small village in West Bengal, which for the last 250 years has remained as a silent spectator of a drama that changed the fate of India.
History books account that so called drama as “Battle of Plassey”, which in 1757 was staged between Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula, ruler undivided Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and Lord Clive of East India Company.
Murshidabad, located 150 km away from Kolkata was then the bustling capital of Siraj’s empire; now a shabby district town where almost every stone and brick has a story of lust and passion, obedience and conspiracy, power and greed to narrate. That’s enough to lure visitors like me to land there on a weekend and browse through the impoverish townscape, dotted with ruined palaces, mosques, monuments, mausoleums, tomb and graveyards.
The history during the golden period of Murshidabad is very interesting. Situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi, it was established in 1717 by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan as the capital of his province in Eastern India at a time when the might of Mughals in Delhi was on the wane. The British East India Company, established a century ago in Calcutta, was becoming more interested in territory than trade. They had organised an army of their own and built walled bastions in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Other European colonizers — the French, Dutch and Portuguese — were also trying to make their presence felt, but their scores were limited.
Siraj-Ud-Daula, ascended to the throne in April 1756 at the age of 26, after the death of his grandfather Ali Vardi Khan, superseding other princes, senior ministers and nobles. This aroused extreme jealousy among close family members and officials. From day one, Siraj was not in good terms with the British Company, particularly because of their strengthening the fortification in Calcutta. So in June 1756, he attacked the fort, captured it and held 146 British subjects in a small, dark chamber, recorded in history as the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta”. Only 23 were said to have survived the ordeal. Revenge became the top of the agenda item for the British East India Company.
At the same time, a conspiracy to overthrow Siraj was growing exponentially in Murshidabad. His most senior minister Mir Jafar, aunty Ghasetti Begum and many others including wealthy merchants like Jagath Seth and Umichand, joined hands with Lord Clive, the commander of East India Company and struck a deal that if Siraj can be ousted, the throne will be awarded to Mir Jafar.
So on June 23, 1757, the 3,000-strong army of Clive met face-to-face with Nawab’s 50,000 men equipped with a train of heavy artillery at the tranquil mango grove of Plassey at the outer periphery of Murshidabad. However, the outcome of the battle had been decided long before the soldiers came to the battlefield. Nawab’s soldiers were bribed by Mir Jafar to throw away their weapons and surrender prematurely. So without many gun shots fired, the battle ended within a day and with Siraj fleeing for his life; but he was soon captured by Mir Jafar’s son and brutally murdered.
Nawabs for puppets
Mir Jafar and his descendants became the future Nawabs, but remained as puppets under the British, who wasted no time thereafter to establish their reign, not only in Bengal, but all over India. Years later Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book Discovery of India aptly described Clive as having won the battle “by promoting treason and forgery”, thus marking a sordid start to British rule in India.
A monument stands today in the ill-fated battle ground, perhaps to remind the generation of independent India and visitors as well, how sovereignty of a nation was lost and to make them think what would have India looked like today if a fair game was played.
Mir Jafar was never forgiven for his disloyalty to his motherland. He was nicknamed Ghaddar in Urdu meaning unfaithful traitor and remembered in history as another word for betrayal. It’s said people kick and spit on his decorated graveyard, of which nothing remains except the ornamental gate called the “Namak Haram Deorhi” meaning traitors gate.
There is also nothing much left to remember Siraj other than his grave in Khosh Bagh, located on the other side of the river. He rests there alongside his grandfather and wife Luft-un-nisa, inside an arcaded mausoleum, surrounded by a pleasant garden, peppered with 108 varieties of roses.
The town’s most tourist occupied venue is the Hazarduary Palace, which surfaced long after the era of Siraj and Mir Jafar. Built in 1837, it’s an Italian architectural styled three-storied edifice, fitted with 900 real and 100 artificial doors (hazarduary literally means thousand doors), guarding 114 rooms which now display an exquisite collection of Nawabi memorabilia. The 41-acre walled area that also houses a Clock Tower, a mosque, an impressive white- painted Imambara and a huge 4m long cannon, which has been kept idle after it fired its first shot. Its explosive sound was so loud that all pregnant women within a 15 km radius gave birth to their child prematurely.
The oldest monument of significance in Murshidabad is the Katra Masjid, a large mosque built on a 20-acre property in 1723 by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan. During heyday, this mosque could accommodate thousands easily and had numerous cave-type cells for worshippers to read the Quran. Though this monument, like few others is maintained by the Archaeological Society of India, unfortunately signs of neglect are evident everywhere