2015 marks an often overlooked anniversary, the 250th anniversary of the start of de jure British rule over India. The history of 18th century South Asia is a complicated whirlwind of competing powers and conflicting interests. By 1707, when the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, died, his empire controlled most of South Asia, but was also teetering due to military overstretch and fiscal instability.
This situation gave many local governors the chance to break free of the
empire’s grip and assert their autonomy. But it was never complete, legal
autonomy, because these essentially independent rulers still maintained the
fiction of ruling in the Mughal Emperor’s name. This is evidenced by the titles
these rulers took. The ruler of Hyderabad’s title–Nizam–signifies
administration or order while the ruler of Bengal was its Nawab–which means
“deputy.” Well into the 19th century, when the Mughal Emperor was reduced to
only ruling Delhi rulers throughout much of India, not just the Muslim ones, issued coins in the Mughal Emperor’s name
and had Friday prayers in mosques said in his name.
(Now the shoe is on the other's foot how will India behave internationally?)
Bengal was by far the wealthiest province in the Mughal Empire
due to its agricultural fertility; rule over it was greatly coveted. By 1717,
Murshid Quli Khan, a Shia Muslim, got the Mughal Emperor to declare him both
subahdar (governor) and diwan (chief revenue officer) of Bengal, after which he
promptly declared himself the effectively independent Nawab of Bengal. The
title of diwan was especially important because it gave its holder the legal
right to collect taxes and use them to furnish soldiers, fortifications, and
The effective rule of the nawabs of Bengal lasted until 1757, when
British power replaced it. Until then, the British presence in Bengal was
limited to trade and a fort at Calcutta run by the British East India Company.
The start of the Seven Years’ War in Europe led to increased rivalry between
the British and the French in India. This ultimately led to an alliance between
Bengal and France and the subsequent British invasion of Bengal, where they won
the Battle of Plassey in 1757, helped by a
While this is often considered the starting point of British rule in
South Asia, technically, from a “legal” point of view, this was not so. The
British installed the turncloak, Mir Jafar, as the new Nawab, and ruled through
him for a while. At this point, the British were still confined to Bengal and
had no formal authority.
This situation really changed because of what happened after Plassey.
Mir Jafar began to act independently, and was replaced with his relative by the
British, Mir Qasim. Mir Qasim, too, began to assert himself against the
British, and allied with both the Nawab of Awadh (in today’s Uttar Pradesh) and
the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. These three allied forces fought the British
at the Battle of Buxar (in Bihar) on October 22, 1764, where they were
The result of the Battle of Buxar was the Treaty of Allahabad, signed in
August, 1765. The Treaty of Allahabad included an imperial firman, or decree,
which granted the British the diwan of Bengal province (which includes much of
today’s Bihar and Orissa as well), instantly giving them the largest revenue of
any power in the subcontinent and control of over an eight of South Asia’s
population and territory. On behalf of the British East India Company, Sir
Robert Clive took over as diwan of Bengal on August 12, 1765.
Thus began official British rule over Bengal, though they maintained a
“nawab” as a petitioner until 1880. The British used the wealth of Bengal,
which they extracted using modern administrative techniques that were much more
effective than Mughal-style tax-farming, to build up their institutions and
military in India. This was used to eventually fund the conquest of much of the
rest of South Asia. This was a very strange situation, historically, as
invasions of India usually proceeded from the northwest to the east, and not
the other way around. Bengal remained the base of British power in India for a
long time, with Calcutta serving as the capital of the raj until 1911.
By Akhilesh Pillalamarri