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A ride through colonial history

In popular perception, the Battle of Plassey put India on her irrevocable slide into colonialism. While the battle did indeed act as a springboard for further exploits of the British it does not really qualify as a landmark event in the country’s subsequent colonisation. For one it wasn’t worth being called a battle at all. Robert Clive won the day by deceit infamously aided by the traitor, Mir Jaffer, who was soon to find himself at the receiving end of English East India Company’s arrogance (and end up being deposed and replaced by his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, who in turn would also fall out with the Company in a repeat of the shameful narrative). Notwithstanding the advantage the Company gained by establishing its power over the richest province of India – Bengal – in consequence of the victory, it was still in no commanding position to ride roughshod over the rest of the country (More of the hype about Plassey was self promotion by Robert Clive). The Mughal power was still more or less intact, though the empire itself was a divided entity with the Nawabs of Oudh and Bengal reigning as autonomous rulers and the emperor himself reduced to a provincial monarch. Though Bengal had come under the Company’s hegemony the Nawab still had the clout to put up a fight and if the other two Mughal entities, the Nawab of Oudh and the Mughal Emperor, joined hands with him, as indeed it did happen, the British ascendancy could have been checked. While that was the scenario in the North, Southern India was still boiling with the British at Madras reeling under threat from the Mysore horsemen and umpteen rebellions, and the Marathas ruled the roost over wide swathes of Central India. A combination of these forces could have easily shown the door to the British. Unfortunately such an attempt by the Maratha leader and the greatest Indian statesman of the times, Mahadji Scindia, the only one who had the clout to a forge a grand alliance of the kind, could not succeed for the fissiparous tendencies among the parties concerned; India’s inherent national bane.

How did the British overcome such overwhelming odds and colonize the whole subcontinent over a period, leaving the native rulers aghast as hapless victims? Two factors stand out paramount: One, the steady build up of the sepoy armies into fine professional forces and two, isolating their opponents and tackling one at a time, with intervening periods at times as wide as a few decades. Our native rulers never cared to develop and groom their armies in the scale the East India Company did and they were too bird-brained to see the writing on the wall and form a united front. Thus, we see four landmark battles that the British won over a period of 90-odd years, which pushed India into the quagmire of colonialism. We will have a look at these in a 4-blog series stretched over 2 weeks. Here’s the first one:

Battle of Buxar, 22 October 1764

Mi Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal, who fell out with the British, managed to forge an alliance with Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Oudh, and Shah Alam II, the Mughal Emperor. Their combined armies numbering 40,000 met the army of the East India Company, led by Major Hector Munro comprising a little over 7000 troops, at a small fortified town called Buxar that falls within the present-day state of Bihar, on the banks of the Ganges about 130 kilometres west of Patna, on 22 October 1764. The battle fought over a couple of hours ended in a decisive victory for the British.

Such a humiliating defeat of the combined Mughal armies by a force they outnumbered by 5:1 was due to absolute lack of leadership and professionalism. With no coordination between the three allies, Munro, attacking on multiple fronts, could isolate them from each other and deal with them separately. Shuja-ud-Daula, who was the first to lose his nerve, blew up stocks of his ammunition and gunpowder and fled across the Ganges, burning the boat bridge after him, leaving some of his own troops behind leaderless. Mir Qasim followed suit, fleeing with three million rupees worth of gemstones. Mirza Najaf Khan, Shah Alam’s loyal general, who was the only one who seemed to put up a decent fight, gallantly tried to make a last stand to protect the stranded emperor, but gave in when pushed into a corner and opened negotiations. The sordid affair ended in the surrender of Shah Alam II and the Mughal Emperor being reduced to a pensioner of the Company. Shuja-ud-Daula surrendered but gratified himself to the British and was restored to Oudh, deflated as a protectorate of the Company (The Company cared more about the loot by way of taxes than administering the conquered domains). Mir Qasim was the worst hit. Shunned by Shuja-ud-Daula and hunted by the Company he vanished into penury and obscurity. He died a pauper at Kotwal near Delhi in 1777.

The victory virtually made the British the masters of the whole of Northern India. They abolished the Nizamat (Mughal Suzerainty) before the turn of the century. This spectacular victory which the British pride about was however hardly a fete of British arms. Of Munro’s 7000 not more than 900 were British; the rest was made up of more than 5000 sepoys and almost a 1000-strong native Indian cavalry. It was the first of the great battles wherein Indian troops defeated armies of Indian sovereigns to the benefit of the British. Ironically the sepoys of the Bengal Army which won the battle hailed from regions ruled by the same sovereigns against whose armies they were fighting. It speaks volumes about the incompetence of the native rulers who failed to capitalize on the inherent military potential of their own lands and let the foreigners benefit from it. It is a story that was to be repeated over and over again till the Indian troops would conquer the whole of Indian subcontinent for the British.

[To be continued. Next: BATTLE OF SERINGAPATTAM]
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