The Decline of Mughals in Bengal and the Growth of the Nawabs

As in the rest of India, Mughal power also declined in Bengal. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Nawabs of Bengal ruled almost independently until the defeat of Sirajddauls at the famous Battle of Palashi in 1757. That victory for the British marked the beginning of their period of dominance in India. So, here is the history of the decline of Mughals in Bengal and the growth of the Nawabs:

Main events of the decline of Mughals

  • 1695 Afghan Rahim Khan challenges the Mughal rule in Bengal.
  • 1713 Nawabs of Bengal era started by Murshid Quli Khan’s hereditary position.
  • 1725 Nawab Suja-ud-din.
  • 1739 Nawab Sarfaraz Khan
  • 1740 Nawab Alivardi Khan
  • 1756 Nawab Siraj-ud-doula
  • 1757 Battle of Palashi: Siraj defeated by the British.
  • 1757 Nawab Mir-Jafar.

The Impact of the Mughal decline

Mughal rule in Bengal was at its greatest height during the Viceroyalty of Shaista Khan (1664-1688). The end of Shaista Khan’s rule, however, marked the beginning of the end of the Mughals in Bengal.

A number of Mughal governors were sent to deal with problems in Bengal, but they could not stop the overwhelming decline that set in all around.

Afghan challenge to Mughal rule in Bengal

The Afghans had never accepted their defeat at Mughal hands. Taking advantage of the Emperor’s continuous absence from the capital during his Deccan campaigns, Rahim Kha, an Afghan Chief, attempted to regain power in Orissa and southwest Bengal around 1695.

The uprising was put down severely but it was the first serious challenge to Mughal rule in Bengal from within the empire since the time of Emperor Jahangir.

Europeans take advantage

The taking advantage of the confusion, the European companies fortified their settlements and made themselves militarily stronger in West Bengal. IIN 1690, the British were allowed to build settlements in Calcutta once again. Eight years later, they bought the zamindars of the three villages of Sutanoti, Kolkata, and Gobindopur.

These three villages gradually became the center of activities of the English and came to be known as Calcutta. It is from Calcutta (Kolkata) that the English East India Company gradually grew into a military and political power, which would one day rule the whole of India.

Fort William was built by the English, Fort Orleans at Chandernagar by the French, and Fort Gustavus at Chinsura by the Dutch. To increase their armies, the Europeans enlisted Rajputs and other local bands.

Mughal authority in Bengal weakens

In the meantime, the continual tension between the Mughal Viceroy, Prince Azim al-Din and the provincial Diwan, Murshid Quli Khan, further weakened Mughal authority in Bengal.

Murshid Quli Khan (Kartalib Khan) persuaded the emperor to order the transfer of the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad. As the Viceroy’s residence was moved to Patna, Dhaka was no longer the real capital of Muslim Bengal and was soon in decline.

Regional independence of Bengal under the Nawabs

The influence of the Diwan, Murshid Auli Khan, began to increase. The Mughal Viceroy was mostly away from Bengal and in 1707, Aurangzeb died. The Emperor’s death was followed by a succession of wars in Delhi.

It was not long before the Diwan, Murshid Quli Khan, took over the powers of both the Diwan and the Nazim (Subhadhar)-explained below. Thus another period, though very short-lived, of independence from northern Indian imperial rule ensued in Bengal.

Changes in administration, politics, and society

The term “Nawabs of Bengal’ refers to the hereditary rulers of Bengal whose only connection with the Mughal emperor was to follow his Firman and to pay a tribute to him regularly. The Nawabs were responsible for their subah(province or provinces). The Nawabi era in Bengal was started by Murshid Quli Khan.

Towards the later part of the Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent, the central government appointed two officers, who enjoyed equal political status bout were independent of each other, to administer a subah. One of them was the Subahdar or Nazim (general administrator including justice and defense) and the other was the diwan (revenue administrator).

Since 1705, during the reign of Aurangzeb, Murshid Quli Khan had been a diwan of Bengal. However, it was only in 1713 that the Emperor appointed Murshid Quli Khan as the diwan as well as the subahdar of Bengal. Form Murshid Quli Khan’s time onwards, the subahdar was no longer an office under the central government but a hereditary office with a Masnad (throne).

After this, all the successors (Nawabs) to the Masnad of Bengal regarded themselves as independent Nawabs, though they always received the Sanad (voice regal patent) from the emperor on payment. The decline of the Mughal Empire after the death of Aurangzeb further alienated the provinces from the central government.

Taking advantage of this situation, the Nawabs of Bengal strengthened their position and continued to rule independently. On the other hand, bereft of real power, the emperors had to remain content with gifts and tributes that the Nawabs used to send regularly. Even though the Nawabs could not issue a Firman which was the prerogative of the monarch alone, they could issue parwanas, dastaks etc.

They could even refuse to accept a Firman, as done by Murshid Quli Khan in 1717 when Emperor Farukh Sheyyar issued a Firman granting special trading privileges to the English traders in Bengal.

Who were the Nawabs of Bengal?

Murshid Quli Khan (1706-1725), the first of the Nawabs, became the subahdar of Bengal in 1717, he reigned over Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa form his capital Murshidabad with only nominal allegiance to the Mughal emperor.

He also opened a mint and introduced the “Zurbe Murshidabad” coin.  Murshid Quli Khan built the magnificent Katra Masjid. After his death in 1725, he was buried below the steps of the Katra Masjid.

Suja-ud-din (1725-1739), alias Suja Khan, son-in-law of Murshid Quli Khan succeeded after Murshid Quli Khan’s death. Shuja Khan was a charitable, just and impartial ruler, and gave great encouragement to learning.

He was also a patron of art and culture. After his death in 1739, he was buried in Roshni Bagh (garden of lights) near Farah Bagh.

Sarajraz Khan (1739-1740) was a man of valor and of religious temperament. His short career ended in 1740 only after 13 months of reign when he was defeated at the battle of Giria in April 1740 by Alivardi Khan.

Alivardi Khan (1740-1756) became the Nawab by defeating and killing Sarfaraz in 1740 and ruled for 16 years thereafter. Though an efficient ruler, he had to face continual attacks by the Maratha and rebellion by the Afghans.

He had to buy peace from the Maratha by allowing concessions. He Maintained good relationships with the Europeans but did not allow them to increase their military power.

Siraj-ud-doula (Siraj) (1756-57) succeeded his grandfather Alivardi.  the young Sultan faced the two-pronged trouble of the ambitions of the increasingly powerful British and the intrigue of his disgruntled relatives and bureaucrats. In May 1756, Siraj occupied the Cossimbazar factory of the British. Then he went on to occupy Calcutta in June 1756.

But then he had to go to Purnea, Bihar to put down the rebellion of his cousin Shaukat Jang, a claimant to the throne. Taking advantage of this situation, the British amassed forces and re-conq1uered Calcutta in February 1757 and then struck and secret treaty with Mir Jafar. The British captured the French factory at Chandernagore. The French sought asylum from the Nawab.

The Nawab and the British army, under Robert Clive, met for the final round at Palashi. In an act of great betrayal by Mir Jafar, Saraj was defeated and Killed on 23 June 1757. Mir Jafar ascended the throne of Bengal at the mercy of the British.

Mir-Jafar (1757-1760) was an incompetent ruler. The British replaced him with his son-in-law, Mir-Qasim, in 1760 on account of show signs of independence. He shifted his capital to Monghyr in Bihar and tried to reorganize his own army. The British did not approve of this and defeated Mir-Qasim in the Battle of Buxar in 1764.

decline of mughals in bengal
Decline of Mughals in Bengal

Key changes from Murshid Quli Khan to Siraj-ud-Doula

After Murshid Quli Khan’s death, the Masnad passed on to his son-in-law Suja-ud-din Khan. It was during his reign that Bihar was incorporated into the province of Bengal. The able Alivardi Khan (Mirza Muhammad Ali) was appointed to the office of administrator of Bihar. After Suja-ud-din Khan’s death in 1739, his son Ssrafraz Khan ascended the throne.

However, Sarafraz Khan was unfit for the post he had assumed and, as a result, Alivardi Khan, Jagat Sheth, Alamchand and his own brother Haji Ahmed conspired against him. Ultimately, in 1740, Alivardi Khan subjugated the Nawab in the Battle of Ghiria near Rajmahal and became the Nawab of Bihar, Orissa, and Bengal. Alivardi Khan was a tactful governor, always keen to do best for his province.

It was during this time that Nadir Shah, the Persian King, invaded India and through the Mughal Empire into chaos and turmoil. As a result, the Nawab of Bengal, taking advantage of the situation, strengthened his position and continued to enjoy ruling his subah as an independent ruler.

It was due to his efforts that peace was established with the Marathas. Alivardi Khan also took a strong but cautious stand against the British traders. However, in 1756, this great Nawab died and was succeeded by his grandson Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-doula. Alivardi Khan was a tactful governor, always solicitous for the welfare of his province.

Conspiracy against Siraj-ud-doula

Siraj ruled for little over one year (April 1756 to June 1757) and the Masnad of Bengal was full of thorns for him. During his short-lived administration, the young Nawab faced enemies from within the family as well as outside.

Siraj’s nomination to the Nawabship caused the jealousy and enmity of Ghaseti Begum (eldest sister of Siraj’s mother), Raja Rajballabh, Mir Jafar Ali Khan and Shawkat Jang (Siraj’s cousin). Ghaseti Begum possessed huge wealth, which was the source of her influence and strength. Apprehending serious opposition from her, Siraj seized her wealth from Motijheel Palace and placed her in confinement.

The Nawab also made certain changes in high government positions giving them to his own favorites. Mir Mardan was appointed Bakshi (Paymaster of the army) in place of Mir Jafar. Mohanlal was elevated to the post of Peshkar of his Dewan Khana in the place of Mir Jafar.

Mohanlal was elevated to the post of Peshkar of this Dewan Khana and he exercised great influence in the administration. Eventually, Siraj suppressed Shawkat Jang, governor of Purnia, who was killed in a clash.

The accession of Siraj threatened the position of the dominant section of the ruling group in Murshidabad, which was engaged in the accumulation of wealth during the time of the earlier Nawabs. With his assuming the reins of government, this group apprehended that he would be a danger to their continued enjoyment of the sources of accumulation of wealth, as he was trying to raise another group to counterpoise the old one which usurped the power of the Nawab to a great extent.

Siraj’s accession was a threat to the British also because he made it absolutely clear that, unlike the previous Nawabs, he would not put up with the abuse of dastaks (permit for trade) by the British Company’s servants was facing a severe crisis.

Conflict with the British

Upon ascending the Masnad, Siraj’s main aim was to curb the growing power of the British traders (namely the East India Company) in Bengal. He was already aware of the fact that the only threat to the independent subah of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was the East India Company.

In fact, Siraj had genuine grievances against the East India Company. He accused the company of strengthening the fortification of Fort William in Calcutta without his permission; he also accused them of missing the trade privileges given to them by the Mughals, thereby causing heavy losses in the revenue of the province.

Moreover, under the pretext of trade, they were interfering in the internal politics of the province since Siraj felt sure that the English were heavily involved in the conspiracy against him.

The British also gave shelter to his officers like Krisnadas, son of Rajballav, who appropriated government funds. Also, the British governor, Roger Drake, did not pay the Nawab any Nazrana or Peshkash as was the custom of the day.

In spite of all this, the Nawab was willing to forgive the British if they would take appropriate steps against his complaints and agree to continue to trade in the same way as the other traders did.

However, the British had no intention of showing any respect to the Nawab and therefore, when the Nawab expressed a wish to visit their factory in Kasimbazar, Governor Drake insulted the Nawab’s special envoy. This incensed the Nawab, who now decided to retaliate. The very first thing he did the city. This attack led to the so-called controversial Black Hole Incident.

Following these actions of the Nawab, the Treaty of Ali Nagar was signed between the British and the Nawab by which Siraj agreed to compensate for the British losses at Calcutta. But the British could not forget this incident easily and there were only two possible courses open to them.

One was to ask the Nawab to forgive them and the other was to avenge the defeat by force. The British decided to opt for the latter course and under the pretext of a peace treaty prepared for war.

They used diplomacy to reduce French influence in Bengal and, at the same time launched an elaborate and intricate plan to replace the Nawab with their own favorite. With this end in view, they courted the friendship and help of Mir Jafar and other disaffected courtiers.

When everything was fixed, the company’s forces under Robert Clive and Charles Watson marched towards Murshidabad to face the young Nawab. As you will read in the next chapter, Siraj was defeated in the Battle of Palashi.

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