Why did Marathas campaign in Bengal in the 18th century-Part 2, Myths vs. Facts

  • How Alivardi Khan deceived the Marathas? Did Marathas loot villages of Bengal? If Marathas had crossed the Ganga &  uprooted the domination of Alivardi it would not only have posed a challenge to Islamic dominance in East Bengal.

Part 1 covered 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.  

Part 2 of the series contains the treachery of Alivardi at Mankara with the Maratha nobles, his double cross with Mustafa Khan that prompted the Pathan rebellion, and critical analysis of contemporary literature. It also contains an analysis of the later events including the partition of Bengal in 1905 and 1947 as well as British policy regarding the propagation of the atrocity myth.


Treachery of Alivardi at Mankara

Though he had usurped Subhedari from Sarfaraz Khan, Alivardi had been on the march for the past four years. The two successive campaigns against the Marathas in 1742 and 1743, had not only exhausted his military strength but also deteriorated his health. The unending campaigns had pushed him nearly to bankruptcy due to a reduction in revenues as well increase in the cost of maintaining a vast army to counter the Maratha threat. In short, Alivardi had lost appetite for this continuous state of war and abandoned ‘to meet sword with sword’, started looking forward to his tried and tested policy- ‘War is made up of fraud’.


He took into confidence Mustafa Khan and started discussing the best way of entrapping Bhaskar Ram and his principal officers and dispatching them ‘on a journey to the Kingdom of Nothingness’ (Hell). When Mustafa Khan declined the use of treacherous means, Alivardi not only reminded him about his defeat and jail term a year earlier at the hands of Marathas (Raghoji Bhosale). Deeper intent was to instigate him to take revenge. Alivardi also fired his ambition by promising a deputy governorship of Azimabad (Patna) on successful completion of this ‘task’. (Riyaz-347, Siyar-430-31 & L-14, Vaidya Daftar dated 6th May 1743).


Now convinced, Mustafa Khan started negotiations with Ali Bhai (a converted Hindu) also known as Ali Qarawal, a trusted captain of Bhaskar Ram. To help him, Alivardi also sent his trusted servant, Raja Janakiram, with detailed instructions. Both, Mustafa and Janakiram came over for negotiations to the Maratha camp at Katwa and induced Bhaskar Ram to meet Alivardi for the settlement of Chauth and establishment of friendly relations thereafter. However, Bhaskar Ram still had some reservations about this. Hence, he instructed Ali Bhai as his representative to visit Alivardi’s camp and report back his observations.  


Ali Bhai was received with great pomp and throughout his stay in Alivardi’s camp, he was lavishly entertained with costly presents and sweet talk. During the meeting, Alivardi gave a splendid performance and tried to put his apprehensions to rest and succeeded in convincing Ali Bhai of his ‘sincere’ desire for ‘peace’.


Even though Bhaskar Ram received a favorable report from Ali Bhai, he still insisted on a formal guarantee of safety during the planned meeting. Mustafa Khan, who had expected this immediately took out a brick wrapped in cloth and pretending to be a holy Quran declared an oath of safety. Similarly, Janakiram took the oath on (supposed) holy water of Ganga.


This finally convinced Bhaskar Ram and the details of the next meeting were finalized. It was decided Alivardi would keep his forces at Amaniganj and come to Mankara for the meeting along with his retinue. Similarly, Bhaskar Ram marched with all his principal commanders numbering 23 and an escort unit of 50 soldiers with Mustafa Khan and Janakiram towards Mankara (20kms from Murshidabad).


At Mankara, a huge canopied tent was erected by Alivardi Khan who placed his choicest troops in the wings. When he sent his commanders like Mirza Hakim Beg to ‘inspect the tent’, they understood the game and reported back in the same cryptic manner ‘that the tent was suitable for the General’ (which means the soldiers are hidden so perfectly in the wings Marathas will not be suspicious). 


On the fateful day of 11th April 1744, Bhaskar Ram, Ali Bhai, and twenty-one Maratha commanders were led by Mustafa and Janakiram towards the meeting tent. However, Raghoji Gaikwad either opted out or was purposely left behind to observe the proceedings from afar. Keeping his escort unit outside, Bhaskar Ram entered the meeting tent with his commanders. Mustafa and Janakiram left the tent on some pretext. Alivardi asked ‘Which of those eminent officers was the valorous Bhaskar Pandit’? After ensuring the identity of Bhaskar Ram by asking the same question thrice, he commanded, ‘kill the heathen sinners’. (Riyaz-348)


If only they had recalled Shivaji meeting with Afzal Khan at Pratapgarh.  


Mir Kasim who was closest instantly drew his sword and killed Bhaskar Ram without any warning. In an instant pandemonium broke out. Alivardi’s hidden soldiers burst into the main tent and engaged the rest of the Maratha commanders, ‘the action became at once furious, bloody and doubtful’. Alivardi, as usual was watching the bloody engagement from his masnad (high sitting area). Mustafa Khan immediately rode towards Amaniganj where Alivardi’s main force was camped to start 2nd phase. He was instructed by Alivardi to march to Katwa and massacre the leaderless Marathas and capture their women.


Raghuji Gaikwad, the sole Maratha noble outside the tent while observing these events realized what was happening inside and guessed Alivardi’s intention. The Maratha nobles were murdered but he could still save the army and non-combatants. He immediately galloped to Katwa and ordered Maratha army to retreat toward Kashi. The tactical retreat was so brilliantly executed that when Alivardi’s army under Mustafa Khan reached Katwa, Marathas were many miles ahead of him and Mustafa was unable to capture anyone. 


Taibai, Bhaskar Ram’s wife was in an advanced state of pregnancy and was also in the retreating army. She delivered the child in the Kashi; hence he was named Kashirao


Robert Ainsleigh of the English East India Company had recorded this instance ‘as one of the darkest deeds ever committed on this wicked earth. (Bound to John Company-Robert Ainsleigh-83) When will Hindus stop being trustworthy, learn?


Alivardi’s double cross

Though Alivardi promised Mustafa Khan the deputy Governorship at Patna to perform this ghastly deed, the former was never planning to actually hand it, as Zainuddin, his favorite nephew was handling the province. After repeated reminders to Alivardi, all Mustafa Khan received was sweet talk. Matters reached such a level that he started fearing assassination by Alivardi and both sides planned for armed confrontation.


Ultimately after payment of 17lakhs, Mustafa broke out of Murshidabad with his brigade, marched towards Patna, and asked help from Marathas against Alivardi. Though he was killed later during the battle, the Pathan rebellion became another headache for Alivardi.


Critical Analysis of Contemporary Sources

“O Nandi, immediately start for the town in the South where there is a king on earth named Sahu. Go and enter his body. The Earth is overburdened with sin. Send out the messengers of the death so that the sinners may die.” Nandi hastily left for the court of Sahuraja and on the behest of his Lord (Bhagwan Shiv), entered Raja’s body. Maharashtra Purana (Translated by T.C. Dasgupta)  Pg 4.

While discussing historical events, any source has to be dealt with seriously inside the frame of context as opposed to the consideration of the text as a definitive understanding of the times.


While discussing contemporary events in Bengal, historians consider Islamic accounts like Riyaz-ul-Salatin and Siyar-ul-Mutkharin, accounts written by East India Company representatives like Holwell, and poets like Bharatchandra and Gangaram. However, the Maratha records in the form of contemporary letters and Bakhars, which were seldom used earlier will be considered here. 


‘Maharashtra Purana’, is one of the chief atrocity literatures used by critics and social media warriors against Maratha campaigns in Bengal. 


Here, we will try to critically analyze the work to check the historical authenticity of the source rather than conveniently focusing only on its literary value.


Gangaram records finishing of first canto of ‘Maharashtra Purana’ on 14th Pausa, Saka 1672 which translates to December 1751. It doesn’t mean that Gangaram had written even the whole first canto at a go. He might have started writing earlier but completed only in 1751. The mention of the ‘first canto’ signifies that he may have planned more sections as the available work covers events till 1744 only excluding the events of 1743. The correct dating of the work is a crucial first step in the critical analysis. Also, Gangaram never confirms where he was based during the period nor does he confirm to be an eye-witness of the events. 


Accounts of both, Gangaram and Bharatchandra invoke the theme of divine punishment to Yavana by the hands of the Marathas at the start as their writing style is based on Pauranik literature.


Both Holwell and Gangaram, independent of each other, had mentioned in their works, the usurpation of Bengal Subha by Alivardi, and the helplessness of Muhammad Shah and later his son Ahmad Shah in punishing him. Hence, the campaign of Bhaskar Ram has a legitimate basis.


Gangaram has given a list of villages in Maharashtra Purana, which he claims to have been looted by the Marathas during their campaign but once you start plotting these names on the map, it becomes clear that many of them are not only beyond Murshidabad but also on the Eastern bank of Padma (a branch of Ganga River).

Shows places beyond Murshidabad described by Gangaram in ‘Maharashtra Purana’

Mastail (219 kms north east of Murshidabad), Nimagachhi (206 kms north east of Murshidabad), Sarbhanga- 215kms north west of Murshidabad, 40kms from Bhagalpur, now in Jharkhand), Baultali - 307 kms Murshidabad, 50kms from Dhaka, now Bangladesh), Mahadevpur - 336km north of Murshidabad, are some of the places, where we definitely have no record of the Marathas reaching, but still these places are mentioned by Gangaram. The question is how?


Similarly, in the first Battle of Katwa and Burdwan, even with hardly any numerical superiority over Alivardi’s forces; the ratio was only 2:1 in favor of the Marathas whereas a siege in open plains would require a ratio of at least 3.5:1, Gangaram claims that Bhaskar Ram sent army detachments for looting villages as far as Nimagachhi which is 200kms beyond Murshidabad or Chandipur (200kms south of Katwa) is possible only in a dream.


The accounts of alleged Maratha looting and atrocities   

There are a couple of possibilities, first, in Alivardi’s behavior of cutting loose the levies he has recruited for his various campaigns without any compensation as described earlier. The mercenaries who knew no other survival skill had to depend on looting unarmed villagers for survival.  When Alivardi and Marathas were fighting each other, both would try to concentrate their forces leaving open other areas to these mercenary brigands. For example, during the first Maratha campaign in 1742, many of Alivardi’s soldiers deserted him, but were captured and their goods were confiscated by the Marathas encircling them. So, to compensate the loss, they similarly turn to looting the villages.


The second possibility was recorded as Alivardi’s own detachments looting the villages and committing various atrocities in the dress of the Marathas “to cover and conceal their villainies”. (Holwell-153, Land & Local Kingship- 168). Armchair critics always shout from rooftops about Marathas looting the house of Jagatseth, but never mention that his house was again looted by Alivardi’s forces after Marathas departed hastily from the place, which Alivardi was reluctant to address. Many such complaints were sent to Alivardi from merchants and people as far as Kasimbazar, but were completely ignored lest the soldiers again desert him at a critical moment. Jagatseth and many of the merchants left towns like Murshidabad and Kasimbazar and fled to Dhaka to escape the depredations of mercenaries, which Alivardi failed to control. (Bengal-Past and Present-Jagatseth-5, 6) 

So, in a two-pronged attack, Alivardi’s troops looted and committed these atrocities while his court chroniclers recorded these acts under the Marathas for posterity. 


The third possibility is that there may be a partial truth in the Maratha attacks in Bengal but these happened after Bhaskar Ram and 21 Maratha commanders were slaughtered treacherously by Alivardi at Mankara and not before as claimed by Gangaram. (Holwell-134,135)  


In his exaggerated account, Gangaram claims that Alivardi was favored by Devi Durga, Pasupati (Bhagwan Shiva), Yoginis, and Bhairavis to kill Bhaskar Ram for his atrocities. Do Alivardi who had already murdered the likes of Abdul Karim, Roshan Khan, Raja Jagdishwar Bhanja by treacherously calling them for a meeting, require blessings from the Hindu God to kill a Hindu commander? (Gangaram-43,44) 


The probable reason for Gangaram’s U-Turn 

Kumkum Chatterjee points out that unlike court chronicles specifically tasked to whitewash the image of Alivardi, Gangaram may not be a part of the same clique, but his employment under Alivardi, his career advancement and his poetic endeavors were dependent on Alivadi’s goodwill. So, we have two possibilities, one, Gangaram wrote the poem as another attempt to cover Alivardi’s treacherous behavior of murdering Maratha nobles. 


The second possibility is that Gangaram genuinely wanted Marathas to evict Alivardi as mentioned in the first part of his literary work, but the treaty of 1750 between Alivardi and Raghuji Bhosale, which left Alivardi in possession of Bengal (though he had to pay Chauth and cede Orissa) placed him in difficult position. Hence a dramatic U-Turn was penned in terms of Goddess Durga ordering Yoginis to favor the Nawab as his own survival was at stake. (Chatterjee, the cultures of history in early modern India- Persianization and Mughal culture in Bengal-109)   


Alivardi’s financial excesses

The revenue collection in Western and Southern Bengal by the Marathas left a gaping hole in Alivardi’s overall revenue collection. Though Alivardi sent his tax collectors to the same areas, they had to fight with the Maratha forces and may have to return without any collection. To compensate for this Alivardi used standard tactics of coercion. Krishnachandra and Ramnatha (the Raja of Nadia and Dinajpur respectively) along with Raja of Rajshahi, were imprisoned and harassed till they paid 12 lakhs each to Alivardi as a ‘financial help’ (Bengal Subha-K.K. Dutta-157). English factors were also forced to pay 3.5 lakh rupees. (Bengal, past and present-15) 


Jagatseth Fatehchand, the financer who helped Alivardi gain Bengal Subha also was forced to pay up but the amount was never disclosed. (Bengal, past and present-8). Alivardi was intent to ‘fleece the whole country,’ ‘every person who was reputed to have money was seized and whipped until he disgorged his wealth’ (Bengal, past and present-11-13). 


So, can we discount the possibility that the torturers and looters were Alivardi’s own contingents but his court chroniclers pushed the narrative against the Marathas?  


Though Alivardi had to pay Rs.12 lakhs as Chauth (25% of revenue) to the Marathas, he planned to pay this expense not from actual revenue but by imposing a new tax on the already overburdened population named ‘Chauth Maratha’. The net assessment of the levy was 15.3 lakhs as per records (Agrarian system of Bengal- V1-P57, A.C.Banarjee).


The aftermath

Maulavi Abdus Salam, who had translated Riyazu-s-Salatin had confirmed that the fear of the sudden Maratha attack was such that it resulted in a general exodus of Muslim nobility and gentry from areas in south and western Bengal like Burdwan, Midnapore, Birbhum, Balasore, Cuttack, Rajmahal to northern and eastern areas of Bengal which were still under Alivardi’s control like Dhaka, Malda and Rampur. The residents of Murshidabad were also not immune to fear and many of them shifted with their families beyond Padma including Nawazish Mahamud Khan, the deputy governor and son-in-law of Alivardi who shifted to Godagari (now in Bangladesh). 


Most of them continued to stay in new areas even after the Maratha threat had subsided resulting in a curious situation of Muslim-dominated Eastern part and Hindu-dominated Western part. (Riyaz-Footnote-343,344).


During the partition of Bengal in 1905 and later in 1947, the areas divided between East and West followed almost similar course in boundary lines. Though we were able to save Western parts of Bengal (as population percentage was one of the crucial factors) and integrate it into India in 1947 the seeds were already sown in the middle of 18th Century.


This hypothesis gets further confirmation from historian T.S. Shejwalkar who had shared an interesting anecdote in his book ‘Panipat’. In the year 1951, during the All-India Teacher’s conference at Nagpur, a Bengali teacher started asking for the address of descendants of King Raghuji Bhosale. Through a contact named Gujar (who was himself a descendant of a noble under Raghuji), he was able to meet the then-surviving member of the Bhosale family, Raghuji IV. (Panipat-1761, T.S. Shejwalkar, Pg-203, 204)


During the meeting, that Bengali teacher suddenly lost his cool and started shouting at the almost 80+-year-old member of the Bhosale family “why didn’t you cross Ganga and march on the Eastern part of Bengal? Due to your laziness, we were forced to leave our home, our land, and come here.” 


The octogenarian Raghuji IV and Mr. Gujar were stunned at this sudden outburst and unable to comprehend. When tempers had cooled, the Bengali teacher explained that his home was in eastern Bengal, which has become East Pakistan (in 1951, now Bangladesh). He along with many Hindus was forced to flee to India during the 1947 partition riots. His grievance was that if Marathas had crossed the Ganga and uprooted the domination of Alivardi it would not only have posed a challenge to Islamic dominance in the Eastern part but also to the expansion policies of the British East India Company.


This may have resulted in keeping Bengal intact leading to no partition and horrific riots, uprooting of millions, the genocide of Hindus, and loss of their property associated with it.


Why the early and later British policy differ about the Marathas in Bengal

The early British accounts were written primarily as an observer, and partially to clear their own names in any alleged wrongdoing. However, the anti-Maratha rhetoric, especially during the British Raj had a significant impact on the current discourse due to preserving the stability of the British Raj during the revolutionary era of Bengal in the early 20th Century.  

J.E. Armstrong (SP on Special Duties) has written a special report on the revolutionary organization in Eastern Bengal with special reference to Dacca Anushilan Samiti in 1917. He reports a worrying and ‘thoroughly objectionable’ development with respect to a group known as ‘National Volunteers’. 


The report further states that young Bengalis were being initiated into the ‘cult of Shivaji’ and were given training in fencing and martial arts. This has helped channel the energy of the youth. Also, it has started erasing the narrative that was being propagated about Maratha Bargis and their alleged atrocities. (Terrorism in Bengal- J.E. Armstrong’s report 1917, compiled by A.K.Samanta, Director-Intelligence Branch, 1995, Pg 289).  


The unwritten sentiment in this passage is that this erasure of memories and introduction of Indian heroes to young Bengalis could lead to unity among Indians which could seriously undermine the foundations of the British Government in India that was based on the policy of ‘Divide and Rule’. Hence British went into overdrive to propagate the ‘atrocity narrative’, a policy which is sadly continued to date by agenda-peddlers and social media warriors for petty politics with hardly any due diligence. 

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