Why did Marathas campaign in Bengal in the 18th century-Part 1, Myths vs. Facts

  • Part 1 covers rise of semi-independent Bengal Nawabs, usurpation of the province by Alivardi Khan, the first Maratha campaign of Bhaskar Ram in 1742 &Who looted Bengal then?   


Much has already been written about Maratha campaigns in Bengal, on various social media platforms, where the Marathas are maligned for their alleged atrocities but is the picture really complete? Have historians seriously covered all the aspects of this campaign?


This essay covers events during the Maratha campaigns in Bengal during the critical years of the 1740s with the available sources.


Part 1  covers the rise of semi-independent Bengal Nawabs, starting from Murshid Quli Khan, usurpation of the province by Alivardi Khan, and the first Maratha campaign of Bhaskar Ram in 1742.   


An orphaned Hindu boy was purchased by Haji Shafi Ishfani (Diwan-i-tan-Payment of salaries) of Aurangzeb. He renamed the boy Muhammad Hadi and taught him about administration and revenue. Due to his administrative ability, Aurangzeb soon appointed him Diwan of Hyderabad and Faujdar of Yelkondal in 1698 under his own patronage. Within couple of years, he was renamed as Kartalab Khan and promoted to Diwan of Bengal Subha.1 (History of Bengal-V2-J. Sarkar-Pg 400)


The incessant war against Marathas for past twenty years had emptied royal treasury. Mughal army’s pay in arrears were to 18 to 36 months while the army was starved as grain merchants had refused supplies due to non-reimbursement of earlier payments. The appointment of Kartalab Khan to Bengal slightly improved the scenario. Money was ruthlessly extracted from local zamindar’s, and defaulters were ‘tormented with live cats and dragged through ponds of filth, deliberately named ‘Vaikunth’ (the abode of Shri Vishnu)’.2 (Riyaz-265)


Soon, a cash flow of close to a crore rupees started flowing to the Mughal camp which was a life-saver. Aurangzeb was so pleased with his performance that he transferred his own grandson Azim-us-Shan to Patna and promoted Kartalab Khan as Nazim (Deputy Governor/ Administrator) with the title of Murshid Quli.3  (Nanasaheb- Dr. UK-52)     


In 1702, Orissa was added to his charge. Murshid Quli built his headquarters at Maqsudabad which was renamed Murshidabad in 1703-04.4 (History of Bengal-V2-J. Sarkar-Pg 404).


By 1713, with full revenue payment in time and regular, rich gifts, Murshid Quli won over the Subhedari of Orissa also from Farrukhsiyar (great-grandson of Aurangzeb).5 (Riyaz-273). 


Since Bengal Nawab Murshid Quli had no son, he favored his maternal grandson Sarfraz to succeed him instead of his son-in-law Shuja-ud-Din due to the dissolute character and unworthy manners of the latter. Shuja-ud-Din found allies in the form of Muhammad Ali and his brother Haji Ahmad, an ambitious duo, who were earlier in the service of Muhammad Azam (Aurangzeb’s 3rd son) and fallen into poverty after Azam’s death in the fratricidal Battle of Jajau (1707).


By 1720, both joined Shuja-ud-Din at his Subhedari of Orissa and rose to prominence. Muhammad Ali through his meritorious contribution and Haji Ahmad by taking care of licentious behavior of his master by ransacking the province to get the most beautiful women. ‘He never entered Shuja-ud-Din’s evening gatherings without ‘something of this kind in his hand’.6 (Alivardi-Dutta, 7, House of Jagatseth-93).


When Murshid Quli was on his deathbed, Shuja-ud-Din lobbied effectively at Delhi with King Muhammad Shah and obtained the Subhedari. In July 1727, he marched from Cuttack toward Murshidabad and took charge without any opposition from his son Sarfaraz.


The Rise of Alivardi

Muhammad Ali, for his invaluable service to Shuja-ud-Din, was re-titled Alivardi Khan and appointed as Faujdar of Akbarnagar (Rajmahal) in 1728. His efficient administration of area was appreciated. When Fakhar-ud-Daulah (Governor of Bihar) was sacked in 1732 for incompetence, Shuja-ud-Din appointed Alivardi as Deputy Governor of Bihar. (Dutta-11).


Alivardi zealously started subduing and looting the petty Hindu kings of Bhojpur, Shahbad, Tikari, Bettia, and Bhanwarah. He also thoroughly exterminated Banjara tribe and reduced king of Chakwars (Begusarai) into submission. By repression and conciliation, Alivardi increased the revenue of Bihar from 20 lakhs to 30 lakhs within a couple of years. (Dutta-13-16.)


The murder of Abdul Karim

During Alivardi’s time, Abdul Karim, Chief of Darbhanga Pathans, loyally served him and excelled in various campaigns as well as administration in the absence of the former. But Alivardi became suspicious and thought this independent streak was a precursor to removing him. Hence, he decided to protect his authority by assassinating Abdul Karim. 


When Abdul Karim entered Hall of Audience at Patna with two attendants, he was murdered after a brief fight, while Alivardi protected by guards continued to calmly watch from his seat. (Bengal Nawab-Muzaffarnama- Sarkar-18)


Alivardi continued to use the trick of calling an unsuspecting opponent for discussion and murdering him in his presence, even later in life.


Alivardi usurps the Bengal Subha

After Shuja-ud-Din’s death in early 1739, Sarfaraz was appointed as Governor in his place. As per advice of his father, he continued to trust his three advisors Haji Ahmad (Chief Diwan), Alamchand (Diwan of Khalisa), and Fatehchand Jagatseth (Banker of the world-a title given by Mughal emperor to Manik Chand, Fatehchand’s father). 


The ineptitude of Sarfaraz in the matter of governance and repeated scorns by deputies like Mir Murtaza fueled ambitions of Haji Ahmad and Alivardi. (Bengal Nawab-85).


As far as Safaraz’s personal character, opinion of historians is divided. 


According to chroniclers like Yusuf Ali (Ahwal-i-Mahabat Jung), Sayyid Ghulam Hussain (Siyar Mutkherin), Riyazu-s-Salatin (Ghulam Hussain Salim), Safararz was pious and spent much time in religious discourses overlooking his duties, but they don’t accuse him of licentious behavior as his father. By the time of his death, Shuja-ud-Din had a seraglio numbering around 1500 women which Sarfaraz inherited. However, English chroniclers like Holwell, Scarfton & Orme accuse Sarfaraz of ‘a man of mean abilities and notorious for excessive debauchery’. (Jagatseth-92, 93) The discussion is vital to understand what happened next.


The anecdote states that Sarfaraz heard about the beautiful granddaughter-in-law of Fatehchand and demanded to ‘see her’. Fatehchand begged as this would stain his honor, but Sarfaraz was adamant. Realizing that delay will make matter worse, Fatehchand had no option but to send his granddaughter-in-law in greatest secrecy to Sarfaraz. The indignity was never forgiven by Fatehchand and he joined Haji Ahmad in plotting against Sarfaraz adding much required financial muscle to coup. (Holwell-77, 78)


The attack of Nadir Shah (King of Persia), on Delhi and capture of the Mughal King Muhammad Shah presented a golden opportunity to the plotters. Haji Ahmad persuaded Sarfaraz to strike coins and read Khutba in the name of Nadir Shah, effectively declaring his allegiance to the invader.


Then, Haji communicated this startling news of ‘rebellion’ to Murid Khan, the Mughal Vazir Qamaruddin’s emissary sent to collect the annual tribute thus winning him over. (Riyaz-309) Alivardi and Haji Ahmad then started lobbying to get the governorship transferred in Alivardi’s name.       


Haji Ahmad then played another trick; he reduced the troops of Sarfaraz stating the bad economic condition of the province. The cashiered soldiers were sent to Patna and immediately enlisted by Alivardi. (Riyaz-310)


Once all the preparations including the lobbying at Delhi were complete, Alivardi moved fast towards Murshidabad. This move surprised Sarfaraz, who after much deliberation sent Haji Ahmad to Alivardi with two of his messengers. Alivardi tricked them by pretending to take an oath of loyalty to Sarfaraz while using a brick wrapped in a cloth in place of the holy Koran. (Siyar-335) However, Ghous Khan, the C-in-C of Sarfaraz realized the intentions of Alivardi and a battle became inevitable.


In the Battle of Giria, Sarfaraz was killed marking a change in Alivardi’s fortunes (March 1740). Haji Ahmad with his sons rode immediately towards Murshidabad to discourage any further resistance and to guard treasury and properties of allies like Fatehchand as the rest of Murshidabad was sacked by Alivardi’s troops for next two days. Only then Alivardi entered to restore order and took charge as Bengal Nawab. The widows of Sarfaraz were banished to Dhaka on small pensions and 1500 women in the harem were distributed between Haji Ahmad and his sons. (Riyaz-321)     


On hearing the news of Sarfaraz Khan’s death, King Muhammad Shah lamented; “Owing to Nadir Shah, the whole of my Empire is convulsed and shattered", but he was practically powerless. To pacify him, Alivardi sent the complete property of Sarfaraz amounting 70 lakhs to 1crore (according to various sources) in cash and kind, over and above annual tribute of Bengal. Vazir Qamaruddin and Nizam-ul-Mulk also received 3lakh rupees. After losing much of its hoarded wealth to Nadir Shah a year earlier, the cash-strapped Muhammad Shah was in no position to refuse. (Riyaz-322, Siyar-347). To compensate for this loss, Alivardi ruthlessly extracted double the revenue from the province. (Riyaz-323)


Alivardi attacks ORISSA

Bihar and Bengal were now in firm possession of Alivardi, but Orissa posed a problem.


Here Rustum Jung Murshid Quli Khan II, the son-in-law of Shuja-ud-Din was deputy governor, received the startling news of the sudden attack of Alivardi on his brother-in-law Sarfaraz and his demise. However, Mukhlis Khan (son-in-law of Haji Ahmad), Alivardi’s envoy, gave him a false sense of security till Alivardi’s war preparations were complete. At the same time, Mukhlis secretly negotiated with some nobles to desert Rustum Jung. (Siyar-325)


Alivardi’s march to Orissa was opposed by Bhanja King of Mayurbhanj at Rajghat on Subarnrekha River but superior artillery helped former to break the resistance and cross the river. Rustum Jung has taken a defensive position near Balasore well protected by artillery, which Alivardi was unwilling to engage in head-on combat. Hence, Mukhlis Khan instigated Mirza Baqir (son-in-law of Rustum Jung) to come out of the entrenchment and attack Alivardi.


At a critical moment in the battle, Afghan commanders like Abid Khan and Muqarrab Khan deserted Rustum Jung leaving him no other option but to flee with Mirza Baqir towards the Balasore port. Here they boarded a ship and reached Masulipatanam to take refuge with Nizam-ul-mulk (March 1741). (Riyaz-330)


In this confusion, Mir Habib, a close confidant of Rustum Jung made his way to Raghuji Bhosale’s Nagpur and briefed his Diwan Bhaskar Ram Kolhatkar about Alivardi’s usurpation of Bengal and then surreptitiously rejoined Alivardi who was completing administrative arrangements of Orissa at Cuttack. (Riyaz-338) 


Baqir’s Coup & its suppression

Alivardi appointed Saulat Jung, his nephew as his deputy at Orissa but in a short time his overbearing attitude, licentious behavior, and lust for money made him unpopular. Mirza Baqir, who was waiting for an opportunity, instigated a coup in Cuttack through his accomplices and returned with a small Maratha infantry unit to support it. The coup was successfully executed, and Saulat Jung was captured alive (end-1741).


The news of coup and capture of Saulat Jung prompted Alivardi to march back immediately and suppress it. Saulat Jung was recovered from plotters and Mirza Baqir fled back to Nizam. (Riyaz-336)


Alivardi’s highhandedness 

Zainuddin, Alivardi’s nephew posted at Patna had assassinated Roshan Khan, a notable Afghan commander on a mere suspicion of treachery in the same way his uncle had murdered Abdul Karim previously. This unprovoked attack incensed Alivardi’s other Afghan commanders.   


While returning from Orissa, Alivardi attacked Mayurbhanj and his army slaughtered, raped, captured women and children, and sacked the area thoroughly. Jagadishwara Bhanja (Mayurbhanj King) through Mustafa Khan (Alivardi’s Afghan commander) planned to come for negotiations. But, as soon as he entered the audience hall, Alivardi’s assassins mercilessly hacked him & his entourage to pieces, which further angered Mustafa Khan who had given the promise of safe conduct to the king. (Siyar-381)


Alivardi had incorporated many Afghan levies while fighting with Sarfaraz Khan and his first Orissa campaign earlier but as soon as that campaign was over, he dismissed these mercenary troops without due compensation. These same troops were hastily called with monetary promises by Alivardi during his second Orissa campaign. But after sacking Mayurbhanj territory, these mercenaries, who knew no other skill than fighting were dismissed by Alivardi without due compensation despite assurances to Mustafa Khan. (Siyar-380) 


Bhaskar Ram’s entry in Bengal 

“There at Satara, the King of the Bargis, who is a great devotee of mine (Bhagwan Shiv). Do thou appear in his dreams and he will come here to subdue the Yavanas (Muhammadans).” 


On hearing this, Nandi revealed everything to the King of Bargis in his dream, which enraged him highly. So Raghuji Bhosale sent Bhaskar Pandit to Bengal- Bharatchandra (Alivardi & His Times-Pg-57-58). (Annadamangala-France Bhattacharya)


In early 1742, Bhaskar Ram reached Bengal via Ramgarh (Hazaribag district, Jharkhand). When he received intelligence that Alivardi had dismissed most of troops and now camped at Mubarak Manzil, he quickly marched and intercepted the later near Burdwan. Alivardi still had about 5000 cavalry and 5000 infantry but his Afghan commanders like Mustafa & Samsher Khan were angry and didn’t take part in the first phase of battle against the Marathas. Most of the baggage and cannons were captured by the Marathas, which forced Alivardi’s army to endure much hardship. (Seir-379) 


Marathas also encouraged defection by planting their flags near Alivardi’s army indicating anyone who wished to escape can come to the flag and he will be allowed to leave the siege. Many of Alivardi’s soldiers deserted and were allowed to escape into the countryside. Under cover of the Maratha attack, Mir Habib commanding rear-guard also deserted and joined Bhaskar Ram. (Siyar-384). The situation became desperate as all essential items and food were either looted by the Marathas or burned. For several days they had to live on ‘pith’- roots of Banana plants for their survival. (Gangaram-18). 


Keeping aside his ego, Alivardi was forced to walk to Mustafa Khan’s tent at midnight and beg ‘to either kill me (Alivardi) and Siraj-ud-Dowlah (Alivardi’s grandson) or help in expelling the Marathas’. 


Alivardi also opened his treasure chest and fulfilled the long-pending grievance of Afghan commanders about their due payment and goaded them back into the fighting retreat towards Katwa. (Siyar-385-87) The fighting was so intense that Alivardi took three days to cover the 60km distance between Burdwan and Katwa, only to find that Marathas had reached the town before him and burned the granaries.


Meanwhile, Haji Ahmad received the news of Maratha attack and mobilized army and supply trains. These reinforcements and provisions reached the beleaguered Alivardi at Katwa mainly through Hooghly River which Marathas were unable to effectively blockade. (Siyar-392, Riyaz-341)


The sudden change in circumstances forced Bhaskar Ram to summon his war council to decide the course of action. As the monsoon was about to set in, many Maratha commanders suggested returning home for the time being, but Mir Habib persuaded them to stay firm in the liberated areas pointing out that in rainy season it would be equally difficult for Alivardi to carry out military operations.


However, Alivardi’s presence at Katwa was a constant threat to Marathas near Burdwan, hence a bold plan was formalized by Mir Habib who had intimate knowledge of terrain and sympathizers at many places. A special unit of Maratha horses marched under Mir Habib straight towards Murshidabad bypassing Alivardi’s garrisons. Marathas traveled on western banks of Hooghly River, crossed it at Dahapara, and reached Murshidabad. Haji Ahmad who was blissfully unaware of the Maratha approach, ran away and shut himself in the fort to save his life leaving the city defenseless. 


Mir Habib immediately released his brother Mir Sharif & family. Next he attacked and looted the important merchants, the prime target being Fatehchand Jagatseth. The amount of loot was between rupees 2 to 2.5 crore. (Siyar-393) 


The news of Maratha attack on his capital sent Alivardi into panic. Abandoning his base at Katwa, he marched towards Murshidabad, on the right bank of Hooghly reaching the place on next evening, hoping to intercept the Marathas. But Mir Habib had already crossed on the west bank and as the water level in Hooghly had risen due to rains, Alivardi was unable to cross the river and pursue Mir Habib.


The sacking of Murshidabad resolved his financial constraint, and Bhaskar Ram decided to stay in Bengal for further operations and made Katwa his base. Many areas in southern Bengal including Hugli were freed from Alivardi’s domination and Maratha garrisons were posted there. Marathas issued proclamations of safety and peace in the liberated areas.


Correspondence was started with local zamindars and Mir Habib persuaded them to accept Maratha suzerainty. This helped the zamindars to continue to perform their functions like assessing and collecting the revenue, and administration of justice. (Riyaz-343) Contemporary English records show that ‘Marathas collected revenue with as much tranquility as if they had been natural sovereigns of the country’, which would have been impossible if all the villagers in hundreds of square kilometers of area ran away leaving the land uncultivated and all daily activities suspended as described by certain court chroniclers. (Holwell 126)


This move prompted Alivardi to send his own tax collectors to the villages with strict orders for the realization of land revenue without fail. (Gangaram-32) The tax collectors of Alivardi were as ruthless as during the tenure of Murshid Quli Khan.


Now who can guarantee that in this confusion, the ones looting the village were Alivardi’s men and not the Marathas, unless we have chroniclers, who could transfer all such crimes to the Marathas in a poetic language


Alivardi’s attack on Katwa

Alivardi realized that after the monsoon, Marathas could renew their campaign from their firm base of Katwa. Hence, he started extensive preparations to attack it as soon as the rains had subsided enough. First, he opened his treasury and paid his Afghan generals to recruit fresh troops. He summoned his nephew Zainuddin from Patna, who reached Murshidabad with 10,000 troops.


Alivardi marched in mid-September towards Katwa with 60,000 troops but his river crossing was opposed by Mir Habib’s cannon fire from barges in Hugli. Hence, a new plan was formulated. The cannonade masked the army movements and Alivardi crossed Hugli near Uddharonpur on the bridge of boats. 


He immediately marched toward Ajai river, a tributary of Hugli. Since the area beyond Katwa was in the hands of Alivardi, Marathas remained unaware of this movement. A bridge of boats was promptly erected (probably near Fulbagan, 7km west of Katwa). Even though close to 2,000 men drowned during the crossing, as the bridge gave way due to overcrowding, the cracks were soon filled and the crossing resumed earnestly. Before dawn, Alivardi crossed Ajay with his forces and attacked Katwa.    


Meanwhile, to regain normalcy in areas under his control, Bhaskar Ram has initiated Durga puja at his camp. As many of his forces are now spread across vast areas in southern Bengal, he may not had many with him. When Alivardi’s attack came, Bhaskar had just completed Ashtami Puja. 


The two forces clashed, but the overwhelming numerical superiority of Alivardi resulted in a severe defeat and abandonment of Maratha base at Katwa. Alivardi’s army looted all puja material including sweets and sacrificial goats, It was redistributed as ‘Khairat’ (alms) to fakirs. We can only guess the fate of Durga Pratima. (Gangaram-42,43)


Due to the retreat of Bhaskar Ram from Katwa, small Maratha garrisons including at Hugli under Shesh Rao retreated under pressure of Alivardi’s army. Mir Habib guided them expertly through Bisnupur, Chandrakona, and Midnapur where the retreating Maratha garrisons came together and then marched on Orissa. 


Sheikh Masoom, Alivardi’s deputy at Orissa was killed at the Battle of Jajpur (50kms from Balasore) and Orissa came under the Marathas. (Siyar-405) But this was short-lived as Alivardi marched to Cuttack immediately and defeated Marathas. 


Contrary to the boasts of chroniclers, Bhaskar Ram didn’t return all the way to Nagpur but was in the jungles beyond Chilka Lake waiting for reinforcements from Nagpur. However, he sent Bairagi troops to attack areas like Bhagalpur and Rajmahal which forced Alivardi to run after them in early 1743 without a moment’s peace.


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