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Of traitors & Mir Jafars — and some uneasy truths

Kingshuk Chatterjee writes: Syed Mir Muhammad Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur was a Mughal warrior aristocrat in the Subah of Bengal, who, during the days of Nawab Alivardi Khan, rose as high as the Subehdar of Orissa before temporarily falling from grace for his failure to stem the Maratha raids.

Written by Kingshuk Chatterjee |
Updated: April 24, 2022 4:26:58 pm
Robert Clive, who led the Company troops, meeting Mir Jafar after Plassey. Oil on canvas by Francis Hayman. (Wikipedia Commons)

Three weeks ago, when Imran Khan was still in office as the Prime Minister of Pakistan but was looking at the edifice of power beginning to crumble, he lashed out at the opposition in a rally in Islamabad. Imran claimed that the political crisis was the handiwork of the US because he had dared to go against them in trying to pursue an independent foreign policy by reaching out to Russia. Denouncing his political adversaries of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, he accused them of “trying to devastate the country” through “foreign conspiracy” and branded them as Mir Jafars and Mir Sadiqs — two figures from 18th century India who have come to represent the ultimate sin of ghaddari (treason) in the subcontinent.

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Mir Sadiq was the man Tipu Sultan left in charge of Sreerangapattanam fortress when he went for his last battle. Unknown to him, the British had already crossed Mir Sadiq’s palm with silver — so when Tipu, battle-scarred and exhausted, needed to beat a tactical retreat, he found the doors of the fortress barred. Unable to retreat, Tipu kept on fighting till he breathed his last in a rare example of valour against the British on the battlefield. In trying to convey the impression that he was fighting as valiantly as Tipu, Imran was somewhat inaccurate in comparing his adversaries to Mir Sadiq, because unlike Tipu, he was not really let down by someone he had placed his trust in.

The other allusion, to Mir Jafar, has more resonance in subcontinental memory and is more frequently resorted to — albeit in most cases somewhat incorrectly.

Syed Mir Muhammad Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur was a Mughal warrior aristocrat in the Subah of Bengal, who, during the days of Nawab Alivardi Khan, rose as high as the Subehdar of Orissa before temporarily falling from grace for his failure to stem the Maratha raids. He was later rehabilitated, and when Alivardi was succeeded by his grandson Siraj al-Daulah, Mir Jafar was given a high military rank befitting his status, being a nephew of one of the wives of Murshid Quli Khan, the architect of the de facto independent Subah of Bengal.

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In the nationalist lore, Siraj al-Daulah was the brave Nawab who dared to confront the increasingly ambitious and unscrupulous East India Company in mid-18th century. He even threw the Company out of its base in the burgeoning township of Calcutta because they dared not defer to his authority over the Subah of Bengal. The Company fought back, wrested Calcutta, and conspired to oust Siraj after defeating him at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

From all accounts, Siraj was doing well in the battle before Mir Jafar advised him a retreat instead of pressing home the advantage, and that he advised him so because he was a part of a conspiracy to topple Siraj, and had been promised the gaddi of Bengal.

Ever since, Mir Jafar has been considered the personification of betrayal, without which — it is argued — British conquest of the Indian subcontinent may never have really begun. By invoking this particular trope of ghaddari, Imran was invoking not only the nationalist ire against the infamous “foreign hand” that has dogged the post-colonial political imagination of the subcontinent, he was also invoking the trope of a Muslim ruler being let down by ghaddars (who happened to be Muslims) in his struggle against non-Muslim foreign powers.

Of course, the nationalist lore never really bothered to explain why the British would want to commit their resources in a military adventure even as they had just embarked on the Seven Years War (1756-63). A large segment of people who have since studied the history of British India tend to turn the nationalist lore on its head. In their reckoning, Siraj was a tempestuous personality well set to become a tyrant, whom neither the bulk of Muslim aristocracy of Subah Bengal, nor the overwhelmingly Hindu banking fraternity (led by house of Jagat Seth), could accept. They were unable to oust Siraj by means of any palace coups, hence a conspiracy to topple Siraj was hatched in the Murshidabad court.

Upon the Company’s successful recapture of Calcutta from Siraj, the conspirators of Murshidabad decided to use the Company troops as guns-for-hire. The understanding was Mir Jafar was to replace Siraj, and the officials of the Company were to be rewarded with an unfettered access to the fabled Murshidabad treasury. So Siraj may not really have been victim of a grand “sell-out” to a foreign adversary, but a petulant tyrannical ruler who was overthrown by the political class of his own polity.

That Mir Jafar was himself ousted in 1760 when he tried to stand up to the British had not been originally factored into the conspiracy — an inconvenient detail that the nationalist lore conveniently overlooks.

Mir Jafar, in other words, has historically been the victim of bad press. What he had actually tried to do was pretty routine in politics (yes, even in the 21st century), and, historically speaking, the charge of ghaddari does not really stick. Nearly the same is true of those whom Imran charges with being like Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq.

Kingshuk Chatterjee is a Professor in the Department of History, University of Calcutta

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