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Explained: What TMC means when it calls the BJP ‘bargis’

Simply speaking, the word bargi referred to cavalrymen in Maratha and Mughal armies. The word comes from the Persian “bargir”, literally meaning “burden taker”, notes historian Surendra Nath Sen in his 1928 work The Military System Of The Marathas.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury , Om Marathe |
Updated: February 2, 2021 7:46:15 am
In the Maratha cavalry, any able-bodied person could enlist as a bargir, unless he had the means to buy a horse and military outfit– in which case he could join as a silhedar, who had “much better prospects of advancement"

As the Assembly elections in West Bengal draw closer, the ‘insider-outsider’ theme has grown to become one of the topics of political debate. The ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), wary of the large non-Bengali-speaking voter base in the state, has found a specific word to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s outsider status. The word ‘bargi’ as the TMC likes to call the BJP, is of special significance in Bengal’s history. “It is a wrong perception” that the party is calling the BJP “outsiders”, “we call them outsider ‘bargis’… this word is important,” Sukhendu Shekhar Ray of the TMC had said recently.

The term is a reference to the several Maratha invasions of West Bengal between 1741 and 1751, which resulted in looting, plundering and massacres in what was then Mughal territory. The happenings of this specific period have affected Bengal’s consciousness to the extent that they have an established presence in Bengali folklore and literature, and the term ‘bargis’ is used as a casual reference to troublesome outsider forces.

Who were the bargis?

Simply speaking, the word bargi referred to cavalrymen in Maratha and Mughal armies. The word comes from the Persian “bargir”, literally meaning “burden taker”, notes historian Surendra Nath Sen in his 1928 work The Military System Of The Marathas. But in the two imperial armies, the term signified “a soldier who rode a horse furnished by his employer,” Sen writes.

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In the Maratha cavalry, any able-bodied person could enlist as a bargir, unless he had the means to buy a horse and military outfit– in which case he could join as a silhedar, who had “much better prospects of advancement”. Both the bargirs and silhedars were under the overall control of the Sarnobat (Persian for “Sar-i-Naubat”, or Commander in Chief).

Why did the Marathas raid Bengal?

Maratha incursions into the Mughal province of Bengal (which included the regions of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa) between 1741 and 1751 came at a time of intense political uncertainty in both the Maratha and the Mughal courts.

At the Maratha capital in Satara, Chhatrapati Shahu was trying in vain to resolve the differences between his two top power centres– the Peshwa dynasty of Pune and Raghoji I Bhonsale of Nagpur. As the Mughal Empire was crumbling by the 18th century, the two Maratha chieftains were scrambling to secure taxation rights in its far-flung regions, and violently disagreed over their spheres of influence.

In Bengal, Nawab Subahdar Sarfaraz Khan had been overthrown by his deputy Alivardi Khan. After Khan’s inauguration, the provincial governor of Orissa, Zafar Khan Rustam Jung, more commonly known as Murshid Quli II, rebelled against the usurper. The revolt failed, and Jung enlisted Raghoji’s help to oust Khan.

Raghoji was also motivated by internal politics within the Maratha camp, fearful as he was of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, also known as Nana Saheb, trying to establish his claim over Bengal first at this time of political disturbance in the province.

How severe was the damage caused to Bengal by the Maratha invasions?

The Marathas first entered the Mughal province in August 1741, when Raghoji’s infantry troops accompanied Mirza Baqar Ali, the son-in-law of Jung, to conquer Orissa– notes historian T.S. Shejwalkar in the 1941 Bulletin of the Deccan College, Pune.

Alivardi Khan was able to fend off this attack and hold on to his position as Nawab, but would see no respite for another decade, as the Marathas were to launch many more bids to unseat him.

In 1743, the Bengal province faced the wrath of two Maratha armies – both, as it happened, at loggerheads with each other. One belonged to Raghoji, and the other to Peshwa Nana Saheb. Khan took advantage of the rivalry between the two Maratha chieftains, and brought the Peshwa to his side, promising him to pay tribute for the foreseeable future. Raghoji was again driven away.

The multi-party conflict of 1743 was brutal for Bengal. Writes Shejwalkar: “[The Peshwa forces] proceeded further, committing all sorts of atrocities on the way in a land which they had ostensibly come to protect. Raghoji’s armies were also doing the same, but at least he had openly arrived as an invader.”

A documentary evidence from the time also highlights the region’s sufferings. The Peshwa’s Vakil (emissary), Mahadji Hingane, wrote in April 1742: “The Peshwa declared that he was proceeding for a visit to Raghoji and plundered several places on the way, exacting tribute. A number of people with their wives put an end to their life to avoid oppression. This act was highly resented by the general populace.”

Raghoji returned to Bengal in 1744 and 1745, when his army reached as far as Murshidabad. In 1748, the Marathas reached Bihar. In 1750 they once again raided Murshidabad. With each wave of invasion, the damage done became more and more severe.

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Finally, in 1751, after remaining encamped in western Bengal for a significant amount of time, the Marathas reached an agreement with Alivardi Khan. The Nawab promised an annual tribute of 12 lakh rupees and the cession of Orissa to the Marathas. In return, the Bhonsales gave word to not return to Bengal.

Ten years of Maratha invasions had crippled Bengal’s economy. “The Dutch believed that 400,000 people had been killed. Losses of weavers, silk winders and those who cultivated mulberry were particularly high,” wrote historian P J Marshall in his book, ‘Bengal: The British Bridgehead: Eastern India 1740-1828’. Marshall takes note of contemporary accounts which said that people were so distressed that they would take flight even on imaginary alarms, and wander around. Poorer districts like Birbhum felt the effects of the invasions for a much longer period, marked by shortages and a sharp rise in prices.

The 18th century Bengali text ‘Maharashtra Purana’ provided grim details of the deep impact that the invasions had left on the traditions of the Bengali people: “They shouted over and again, ‘give us money’, and when they got no money they filled people’s nostrils with water, and some they seized and drowned in tanks, and many died of suffocation. In this way they did all manner of foul and evil deeds. When they demanded money and it was not given to them, they would put the man to death.” (As reproduced in Marshall’s book)

How did the word ‘bargi’ enter Bengali language and literature?

Over centuries, the historical memory of the invasions gradually seeped into modern Bengali language and literature. “In the 18th century, the Maratha invasions were popularly referred to as the massacre done by the ‘bargis’. Over time the negativity attached to the word remained in the Bengali language. Today we use the word while referring to large troops of marauders coming in from outside to cause harm,” said linguist Pabitra Sarkar, former Vice-Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.

The fear of the Marathas is well captured in a popular children’s rhyme in Bengal:

Khoka ghumalo, para juralo, Borgi elo deshe/
Bulbulite dhan kheyechhe, khajna debo kishe?

(When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the bargis come to our lands
Bulbuls have eaten the grains, how shall I pay the tax?)
The word also appears in the popular Bengali folk song, ‘Dhitang dhitang bole’:

aaye re aaye, logon boye jaaye
megh gurgur kore chander shima naaye
parul bon dake champa chute aaye
bargi ra shob h(n)ake, komor bendhe aaye

(Come one and all, there is no time to waste.
The clouds are roaring around the edges of the moon
The forests of padri are calling, so let’s rush together
The bargis are bellowing, let’s all go prepared (to fight))

The rich, fertile landscape of Bengal has attracted several other communities, including the British who took away large amounts of wealth from the state during their rule there. The Muslim rule too lasted several centuries. Yet, the decade long Maratha invasions are seen as especially disruptive. \“It is not that the British, or Islamic invaders before them, are not viewed negatively in many parts of Bengal. Besides, Bengalis themselves have helped the loot of Bengal for centuries. But it’s complicated. Islamic invasion turned into Islamic rule, but it was integrated with Bengal, to the extent that Islamic rulers of Bengal fought against subsequent Islamic invaders who came from northern India,” explained writer, historian and ethnographer Sudeep Chakravarti, whose latest book is ‘Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History’.

“The Maratha raids to the subah of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were akin to Nadir Shah’s raids. They swept everything before them, burnt, looted, killed, raped, maimed, in order to gain wealth and pursue the collection of chauth from nawab Alivardi Khan, for instance. It devastated the subah. In Calcutta, the East India Company even created the ‘Maratha Ditch’ as a defence against Maratha raiders,” he added. There is a Maratha Ditch Lane to this day, though remanants of the ditch itself are hard to find.

“There was a semblance of principle attached to British rule. It was more systematic. Unlike that, the Marathas were ruthless and chaotic in their plunder of Bengal,” explained Sarkar. “Similar invasions were also carried out by the Afghans sometime in the 13th century. However, it is too far back in time and has not entered Bengali memory and language the same way as the ‘bargis’ did.”

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