I stand in the general area where the young Colonel Robert Clive would have stood that day, watching the Bengal infantry launch a new attack on the mango grove where the British forces lay hidden. The whites had been nifty with their tarpaulins, the gunpowder was crackling dry. Their cannonballs tore through the charging soldiers, killing general Mir Madan, a setback Siraj’s army never recovered from.
The Plassey victory midwifed the British Raj. Overnight, British-occupied area on the subcontinent doubled, making Clive the uncrowned emperor of India’s richest and largest region, encompassing Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, 40 million people, eight times the population of the British Isles. Before me is a monument to that battle. To reach this 12-foot white obelisk, you have to unlock an iron gate. Ashok Rajwar, who owns a nearby tea shop and keeps the key, takes around 15 minutes and nearly a jug of oil to tease it open. The lock was put in after the bronze decorations on the monument were stolen. North of the obelisk stretches the battleground, bordered by the Bhagirathi, a distributary of the Ganga. But what I see is a vast sugarcane field, owned by the Khaitans of Calcutta. The mango grove is gone; the only witness to the battle still around is a colossal banyan tree. Under it, a family tries to rebuild their destroyed earthen home.
All around us are memories of the devastating floods that swept through West Bengal in late September. We are here in early November, yet hundreds of people in Palashi remain homeless, families huddling under tarpaulin, using sticks and twigs to build some sort of dwelling, any sort of shelter. The local mla has not visited the area even once since the floods. Maybe he’s afraid, says farmer Beni Biswas. The last time he came, we made him walk through slush to our primary school to show him what our children have to do every day. The local MP sent a few sacks of puffed rice, but Biswas has heard that the sacks also contained the MP’s handbills, so the hungry would be left in no doubt about who it was who loved them.
But then, betrayal has been a constant theme in Palashi’s history. In the Battle, three of Siraj’s generals, led by Mir Jafar (whose name today is synonymous with "traitor" in Bengal) sold out to the British. The 38,000 troops they commanded sat by and watched Siraj lose. In the 30 years after the Battle, the barbarous greed of the British and their Indian agents ruined the economy of the lower Gangetic plain, from Buxar to Chittagong, turning it into a Stygian slaughterhouse. The region has still not recovered from that experience. Not that Siraj-ud-Daulah was any better. A vicious little psycho, when he tired of raping women who caught his fancy, he would get his jollies by having boats capsized on the Bhagirathi and watching people drown.
Out of the 60 families in Rajwar’s village, 35 are still sleeping under the open sky. Like Siraj’s army, the government doesn’t have enough tarpaulin. Yet, like in everything else in India, irony lurks just below the surface. The floods have destroyed all the railway bridges in the area, and the destitute are at least earning some money working as day labourers rebuilding the structures.
Do they get any tourists? A few Englishmen used to come, says Nirmalendu Biswas, commercial clerk at the railway station. They used to ask ‘battlefield? battlefield?’ But no one’s come for a long time now. Why have you come to Palashi? another railway official asks me. This is a backward uncultural place, all farmers and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. There’s nothing to see on the battlefield. Go to the sugar mill, that’s more interesting.
When I was a child, the Palashi sugar mill used to employ 6,000 people, says twenty-something Partha Das. Today, it has about 75 permanent employees. They take temporary labour on a seasonal basis; that’s when we get some work. Increased mechanisation? Oh no, says Das, it’s the same machines, they just get everyone to work harder, and see no reason to have staff all year round in a seasonal business. And then, slowly, the story comes out. When the Khaitans bought the mill, they wanted to name the area around the mill Khaitan Nagar. The people of Palashi rebelled. They had seen their battleground turned into a sugarcane field and their monument disfigured, they had watched their tourism hopes die, but they would not stand for their name to be changed. Khaitan Nagar would have covered all the areas in Palashi of historical interest. This was one betrayal the people could not tolerate.
In a relentless war of vandalism fought for months, the people of Palashi destroyed every Khaitan Nagar signboard. Today, only one exists, close to the mill gate, but that too has been defaced with black paint. All that they owned, these neglected "uncultural" people, was that name, and they refused to let go of that. The Khaitans backed off, but, says Das, on their stationery, they still use Khaitan Nagar. Yet, it was undoubtedly a grand victory.
When you take away everything, you still leave behind pride. I walk down the main street, lined with posters of Coke and Pepsi and Sunlight washing powder, and I talk to people. We have never had any communal problems here, boasts Mohammad Hussain, owner of bookshop Chhatrabandhu. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is rampant in the region, but railway officer Subroto Majumdar blocks that line of questioning with Hindu or Muslim, we think they’re just people. When Biswas says that the farmers of Palashi live a life only slightly better than homeless vagrants, his elder brother butts in. We are better off than many people in India, he says. And why should we have only sob stories for those who come to visit us from the cities?
A cow ambles in through the iron gate and starts munching on the grass at the foot of the monument. It’s now getting to sunset. By this time, Siraj would have fled. A civilisation would have changed hands.
I am carrying a book on the Battle of Plassey. Something stirs at the back of my mind. I flip through the book; ah, here it is, a passage from the memoirs of Luke Scrafton, one of Clive’s co-conspirators: Yet an Englishman cannot but wonder to see how little the subjects are affected by any revolution in government; it is not felt beyond the small circle of the court. To the rest it is a matter of utmost indifference, whether their tyrant was a Persian or a Tartar; for they feel all the curses of power, without any of the benefits but that of being exempt from anarchy, which is alone the only state worse than they endure. Evening falls.