The Pulse

250 Years Ago, This Event Changed Everything in South Asia

250 years ago, British rule over India began de jure.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri
250 Years Ago, This Event Changed Everything in South Asia
Credit: Illustrated London News via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 like.

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 turncoat.

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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 decisively defeated.

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.