Books | Court and Conspiracy

How Siraj-ud-Daulah’s fate was sealed well before the battle was joined

PLASSEY: THE BATTLE THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF INDIAN HISTORYEspionage played a key role in setting the scene and the pace for Plassey — and, in helping Clive to make up his mind and press for action from Admiral Watson and the Calcutta Council. The Company encouraged intelligence gathering. A Consultation in Calcutta on 1 February 1753 actually records such encouragement. Alongside cutting trees on roads, clearing and repairing the ‘tank’ at what would become Dalhousie Square, orange trees for the park, a whimsical expense of 9 paise for ‘Govind Chand’s Cat’ — I was unable to trace the purpose — and purchase of confiscated belongings of prostitutes at public auction or ‘outcry’, the Council also listed 10 rupees 12 annas and 6 paise towards ‘the Mores employed for secret services’.

Indeed, one of the great concerns at Fort William after the recapture of Calcutta in early 1757 was that the cipher used to communicate with Watts and Scrafton had been compromised. We learn from Orme and a record in Hill’s Bengal that the cipher, in which letters were transposed with numbers, went like this: a: 19 b: 15 c: 27 d: 30 e:20 f: 39 g: 28 h: 18 i: 38 k: 33 l: 16 m: 29 n: 32 o: 23 p: 25 q: 37 r: 34 s: 31 t: 24 u: 35 w: 22 x 17 y: 26 z: 36 &: 21

Double letters were represented by using the number 4, And the Roman ‘I’ could imply a stop ‘where necessary to avoid mistaking the sense’.

Some capital letters signified key players and places. A was used for Watts, D for Mir Jafar, B for Umachand, C for Siraj, G for the French, E for Murshidabad and F for Qasimbazar.


Clive himself would write to the Court in London in August 1757:

Some of Suraja Dowla’s letters to the French having fallen into my hands, I enclose a translate of them just to show you the necessity we were reduced to of attempting his overthrow.


Reverend Long reproduced several of the letters Siraj wrote the French that would come into the Company’s possession. Here’s one Siraj is believed to have written to Charles Joseph de Buss, the commander of Pondicherry, in the second half of February, just days after signing the Treaty of Alinagar with the British. A time when the next tactical step as being argued by Clive & Co was an expedition up the Hugli to Chandannagar:

Suraja Dowla to the exalted in station, greatest among great Officers, the support of friendship, Monsr. Busie, Bahadre.

These disturbers of my country, the Admiral and Colonel Clive, Sabut Jung, whom bad fortune attends, without any reason whatever, are warring against…Monsr. Rennault, the Governor of Chandernagore. This you will learn from his letters. I, who in all things seek the good of mankind, assist him in every respect, and have sent him the best of my troops that he may join with them and fight the English, and if it becomes necessary I will join him myself. I hope in God these English, who are unfortunate, will be punished for the disturbance they have raised. Be confident. Look on my forces as your own. I have written you before for two thousand soldiers and musqueteers under the command of one or two trusty Chiefs. I persuade myself you have already sent them as I desired. Should you not, I desire you will do me the pleasure to send them immediately. Further particulars you will learn from Monsr. Rennault. Oblige me with frequent news of your health.


Siraj would write again to de Bussy — a letter believed to have been written in mid-March, a time when the French commander was thought to be on his way up the coast in an attempt to secure Chandannagar. It would be too late, of course. On 14 March, the initial skirmishes between Clive’s forces and the French had already begun, with the capitulation of Chandannagar, on 23 March, just over a week away. The letter acknowledged ‘news’ of de Bussy’s arrival ‘near the Orissa country, with a powerful army of soldiers, Telingas, & c., to the assistance of the Commander of Chandernagore’ and looked forward to a meeting that would ‘confirm the great friendship between us’. Siraj wrote that he had ‘ordered the Naibs of the Soubah, the Phouzdar, and Zemidars of Midnapore to wait on you and assist you on your march’.

A third letter to de Bussy is supposed to have been written at the end of March, by which time British forces had defeated the French and occupied Chandannagar. Siraj would follow up this letter with another one ordering his officials to ‘obtain good intelligence’ about de Bussy’s movements and arrival, and to not ‘impede’’ de Bussy and his army.

I am advised that you are arrived at Echapore [Ichhapur in Orissa]. This news gives me pleasure. The sooner you come here the greater satisfaction I shall have in meeting you. What can I write of the perfidy of the English? They have, without ground, picked a quarrel with Monsr. Rennault and taken by force his Factory. They want now to quarrel with Monsr. Law, your chief at Chandernagore, but I will take care to oppose and overthrow their proceedings. When you come to Ballasore I will then send Monsr. Law to your assistance, unless you forbid his setting out. Rest assured of my good will towards you and your company…

Interestingly, Hill has a different take on all this. He is emphatic that Siraj ‘foolishly’ walked into the British script by marching upon Calcutta to ‘fight them on their own ground’, and trying to take them head on at Plassey after the British sacking of Hugli, instead of adopting this wiser tactic of blocking their supply route, or by decree forbidding his subjects to resupply the British. Siraj could have ‘starved them out of Calcutta in a few month’, Hill writes with some astonishment. It’s open to question whether the combination of Colonel Clive and Admiral Watson would have capitulated to such a blockade, but this remains among the what-ifs of Plassey.


Law remained convinced that the English were driven to attack the French in Bengal on account of the Seven Years War in Europe. As we have seen, news of the war reached Bengal in January 1757 right after the retaking of Calcutta by the British. There was also the concern that Renault was pushing for an agreement with Siraj. Although elsewhere in his memoirs Law appears to acknowledge that Clive and Watson were actually more concerned about his moves at Murshidabad’s court, in one instance he sidesteps this supposition by shifting the blame onto the British.

It would appear from the English memories that we corrupted the whole Durbar at Murshidabad to our side by presents and lies… As a matter of fact, except Siraj-ud-daula himself, one may say the English had the whole Durbar always in their favour.


‘The dethronement of the Nawab had become an absolute necessity (for the British,’ Law reiterates. ‘To drive us out of Bengal was only a preliminary piece of work. A squadron of ours with considerable forces might arrive. Siraj-ud-daula might join his forces to it. What, then, would become of the English? They needed (as) Nawab a man attached to their interests. Besides, this revolution was not so difficult to carry out as one might imagine. With Chandernagore destroyed, nothing could be more easy…’

But Law acknowledges that the French may not have proved a major impediment to British interests and even their various plans to dethrone Siraj. Merely a ‘junction’ of the British with anti-Siraj forces, ‘the crowd of enemies whom he had, and amongst whom were to be counted the most respectable persons in the three provinces’ of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa would have sufficed.

In any case, the French attempt at influencing Siraj appears to have failed, according to Law, on account of the Seths. In addition, the French were unable to get those like Rai Durlabh, said to have ‘feared’ to ‘fight the English’ after the February fiasco in Calcutta, to say any ‘even a single word’ in favour of the French at court. According to Law, the failure was primarily on account of Jagat Seth Madhab Rai and his cousin Swaroop Chand who had everybody sewn up and primed for manipulation. Even Siraj, against whom they used a ‘refined policy’ to ‘conceal their game’. Law says the banking family frequently bad-mouthed the British in front of Siraj ‘so as to excite him against them’. It was to both mislead the nawab and gain his confidence.

According to this telling, it worked. ‘The Nawab fell readily into the snare, and said everything that came into his mind, thus enabling his enemies to guard against all the evil which otherwise he might have managed to do them’. It bolstered the British position — and the British were in any case casting their own net snaring Mir Jafar and other nobles — but the strings all led, in one way or another, back to the bankers, ‘attached to them by their presents or the influence of the Seths’. This included ministers of Alivardi’s court who ran afoul of Siraj’s arrogance and temper and even most of the secretaries, who were crucial in communicating the nawab’s wishes.

Understandably, this Plassey lore attributes great importance to Siraj scribes, with some chroniclers attributing to the court secretaries, opportunities to deliberately obfuscate or misdirect a word, leaving room for interpretation. As we have seen, such lore imputes a method readily adopted by the British, for instance, to lay siege to Chandannagar. In any case, while correctly ascribing Machiavellian success to the British, the Company’s Qasimbazar chief, Watts, and their sponsor-benefactors like the Seths, the French downplay their own attempts at influencing Siraj and his court. There is also a possible bias against Siraj that presumes the nawab was either illiterate or indolent, and paid the price for his rudeness when his scribes were actually doing the subtle bidding of other masters. This bias precludes the possibility of Siraj actually playing a balancing game similar to that of the French from early 1757 onward — only month into his reign — of being desperately worried, feeling quite cornered, and therefore playing all sides as the reality of opposition closed in on him.

Law’s memories add to such colour.

Witness the letter written to the English Admiral Watson, by which it is pretended the Nawab authorized him to undertake the siege of Chandernagore. The English memoir [here he refers to the work of Luke Scrafton] confesses it was a surprise, and that the Secretary must have been bribed to write it in a way suitable to the views of Mr. Watts. The Nawab never read the letters which he ordered to be written; besides, the Moors never sign their names; the envelope being closed and well fastened, the Secretary asks the Nawab for his seal, and seals it in his presence. Often there is a counterfeit seal.


(According to Hill this also provides a convenient exit strategy to the nawab — in this case, Siraj. In case of an objection it can be interpreted as the scribe exceeding the instructions of the nawab; and it also leaves the correspondent — in this case, Watson — to interpret with expediency.)

Even the eunuchs stationed in Siraj’s harem harboured hatred against the nawab and conspired against him, suggests such lore. With the wheels of inevitability greased by the Seths and destiny urged by the British, what would these near-future rulers of Bengal ‘not expect to achieve by the union of all these forces’, asks Law, ‘when guided by so skilful a man as Mr. Watts?’

Law remained convinced that the bankers had it in for the French — because they had in effect chosen the British as their instrument for Siraj’s destruction. Law claims he had actually influenced the court enough for a detachment of the nawab’s troops to be readied for a march to Chandannagar to counter the English advance. And although he thought of Rai Durlabh as undependable and somewhat of a coward he went to see him as he did his second-in-command Mir Madan – ‘a good officer’, in Law’s words. This Frenchman at ground zero, as it were, claims that he promised Rai Durlabh ‘a large sum if he succeeded in raising the siege of Chandernagore’ and he also visited ‘several of the chief officers, to whom I promised rewards proportionate to their rank’. But Law holds that his entreaties to Siraj to urgently provide troops met with words of caution from the nawab. “All is ready,” replied the Nawab, “but before resorting to arms it is proper to try all possible means to avoid a rupture, and all the more so as the English have just promised to obey the orders I shall send them.” (The promise is evidently a reference to Clive’s letter of 7 March 1756 in which he expressed a wish to attack Chandannagar and Clive’s willingness to await word from Siraj before precipitating action.) Law insists this delay in aiding the French was the subtle work of the Seths.

While that is eminently logical, seen without the French lens it also suggests a move by a badly stung and nervous Siraj to calm Clive, and not tip his own hand too much towards the French. It could also be interpreted as a move to calm things down to the extent Clive wouldn’t be driven to take Chandannagar and, therefore, clear the way for Siraj to ally with the only meaningful military opposition among European powers, a move that would, in one stroke, also prevent a relatively uncontested drive upriver towards Murshidabad. It could even be interpreted as a hedging of bets by a nawab who learnt his lesson too late even if he was unaware that Clive was determined to push on to take Chandannagar, ignoring and once again humiliating the highest authority of Bengal: a nawab who had inexplicably withdrawn when the going got tough in Calcutta. Besides, to actually send aid to the French openly would be like waving a red flag to Clive & Co., providing the merchant-marauders with a compelling reason to take the battle directly to Siraj’s door.

Much of the run-up to Plassey is a matter of interpretation by diverse and sometimes conflicting sources and tellings — as is the character of Siraj. But to be fair, Law’s accounts make for fascinating reading and offer great insight into the several layers of court and conspiracy from a person actively involved in Bengal’s dynamics, and blessedly bereft of the grandstanding, self-congratulatory tone in British and British-sponsored accounts in the years after Plassey. Even Law’s bias largely takes the tone of a particular perspective, not gratuitously damning except the hearsay instance of describing Siraj’s blood sport as a prince. His is a compelling tale with its own parameters of logic: Law doesn’t deny Siraj was in a tricky place even though he is always insistent that Siraj ought to take primary responsibility for that situation.

Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History
Sudeep Chakravarti
Aleph Book Company, Pg 383, Rs 799


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