The British Conquest Of India
The beginnings of British political sway over India may be traced to the Battle of Plassey m 1787, when the English East India Company’s forces defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab 01 Dengal. The earlier British struggle with the French in South India had been but a dress rehearsal.
Bengal was the most fertile and the richest of India’s provinces and its industries were well developed. The East India Company and its servants had highly profitable trading interests in the province. The Company had secured valuable, privileges in 1717 under a royal farman by the Mughal Emperor, which had granted the Company the freedom to export and import their goods in Bengal without paying taxes and the right to issue passes or dastaks for the movement of such goods. The Company’s servants were also permitted to trade but were not covered by this farman. They were required to pay the same taxes as Indian merchants.
This farman was a perpetual source of conflict between the Company and the Nawabs of Bengal. For one, it meant loss of revenue to the Bengal Government. Secondly, the power to issue dastaks for the Company’s goods was misused by the Company’s servants to evade taxes on their private trade. All the Nawabs of Bengal, from Murshid Quli Khan to Alivardi Khan, had objected to the English interpretation of the farman. They had compelled the Company to pay lump sums to their treasury, and firmly suppressed the misuse of dastaks. The Company had been compelled to accept the authority of the Nawabs in the matter, but its servants had taken every opportunity to evade and defy this authority.
Matters came to a head in 1756 when the young and quick-tempered Siraj-ud-Daulah succeeded his grandfather, Alivardi Khan. He demanded that the English trade on the same basis as he times of Murshid Quli Khan. The English refused to comply as they felt strong after their victor over the French in South India. They had also come to recognise the political and military weakness of Indian states. Instead of agreeing to pay taxes on their us to the Nawab, they levied heavy duties on Indian goods entering Calcutta which was under their control All this naturally annoyed and angered the young Nawab who also suspected that the Company was hostile to him and was favouring his rivals for the throne of Bengal.
The breaking point came when, without taking the Nawab’s permission, the Company began to fortify Calcutta in expectation of the coming struggle with the French, who were stationed at this time at Chandernagore. Siraj rightly interpreted this action as an attack upon his sovereignty. He also feared that if he permitted the English and the French to fight each other on the soil of Bengal, he too would meet the fate of the Carnatic Nawabs. He ordered both the English and the French to demolish their fortifications and to desist from fighting each other. While the French Company obeyed his order, the English Company refused to do so, for its confidence had been enhanced by its victories in the Carnatic. It was now determined to remain in Bengal even against the nawab’s wishes and to trade there on its own terms. The English Company demanded the absolute right to trade freely in Bengal irrespective of the Bengal Nawab’s orders. This amounted to a direct challenge to the Nawab’s sovereignty. Siraj-ud-Daulah had the statesmanship to see the long-term implications of the English designs.
Acting with great energy but with undue haste and inadequate preparation, Siraj-ud-Daulah seized the English factory at Kasimbazar, marched on to Calcutta, and occupied the Fort William on 20 June 1756 and renamed it Alinagar. But he made the crucial mistake of letting the English escape with their ships.
The English officials took refuge at Fulta near the sea where they waited for aid from Madras and, in the meantime, organised a conspiracy with the leading men of the Nawab’s court. Chief among these were Mir Jafar, the Mir Bakshi, Manick Chand, the Officer-in-Charge of Calcutta Amichand. a rich merchant and Jagat Seth, the biggest banker of Bengal. From Madras came a strong naval and military force under Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive. Clive reconquered Calcutta in the beginning of 1757 and compelled the Nawab to concede all the demands of the English.
The ambitions of the English were whetted and they decided to install a more plaint tool in Sirajud-Daulah’s place. Having joined a conspiracy organised by the enemies of the young Nawab to place Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal, they presented the Nawab with an impossible set of demands and a war was inevitable. They met for battle on the field of Plassey, 20 miles from Murshidabad, on 23 June 1757. The fateful battle of Plassey was a battle only in name. The major part of the Nawab’s army, led by the traitors Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh, did not fight. Only a small group of the Nawab’s soldiers fought bravely but were defeated. The Nawab was forced to flee but was captured and put to death by Mir Jafar’s son Miran.
The English proclaimed Mir Jafar the Nawab of Bengal and its officials were paid huge bribes worth 3 crores. The Company was granted undisputed right to free trade in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa besides receiving the zamindari of the 24 Parganas. . The battle of Plassey was of immense historical importance. It paved the way for the British mastery of Bengal and eventually of the whole of India. It boosted British prestige and raised them to the status of a major contender for the Indian Empire. The rich revenues of Bengal enabled them to organise a strong army which enabled them to oust the French. It also enabled the Company and its servants to amass untold wealth at the cost of the helpless people of Bengal.
Even though Mir Jafar owed his position to the Company, he soon repented the bargain he had struck His treasury was soon emptied by the demands of the Company’s officials for presents and bribes. The Company was no longer to merely trade with India, it was to use its control over the Nawab of Bengal to drain the wealth of the province.
Mir Jafar soon discovered that it was impossible to meet the full demands of the Company and its officials who, began to criticise the Nawab for his incapacity in fulfilling their expectations. And Şo, in October 1760, they forced him to abdicate in favour of his son-in-law, Mir Qasim who | rewarded his benefactors by granting the Company the zamindari of the districts of Burdwan, Midnapore, and Chittagong, and giving handsome presents totalling 29 lakhs of rupees to the high English officials. Llir Qasim, however, belied English hopes and soon emerged as a threat to their position and designs in Bengal. He was an able, efficient, and strong ruler, determined to free himself from foreign control. He realised that a full treasury and an efficient army were essential to maintain his independence. He therefore tried to prevent public disorder, increase his income by removing corruption from revenue administration, and to raise a modern and disciplined army along European lines.
All this was not to the liking of the English. Most of all, they disliked the Nawab’s attempts to check the misuse of the farman of 1717 by the Company’ servants, who demanded that their goods whether destined for export or for internal use should be free of duties. This injured the Indian merchants as they had to pay taxes from which the foreigners got complete exemption. Moreover, the Company’s servants illegally sold the dastaks or free passes to friendly Indian merchants who were then able to evade the internal customs duties. These abuses ruined the Indian traders through unfair competition and deprived the Nawab of a very important source of revenue.
In addition to this, the Company and its servants got intoxicated by their new-found power and in their pursuit of riches, began to oppress and ill-treat the officials of the Nawab and the poor people of Bengal. They compelled the Indian artisans, peasants, and merchants to sell their goods cheap and to buy dear from them. People who refused were often flogged or imprisoned. These years have been described by a recent British historian, Percival Spear, as “the period of open and unashamed plunder.”
Mir Qasim realised that if these abuses continued he could never hope to make Bengal strong or free himself of the Company’s control. He therefore took the drastic step of abolishing all duties on internal trade, thus ensuring fairness and equality between Indian and English merchants.