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Why Murshidabad lost out to Calcutta—Unlike Mughals, British didn’t depend on banking families

Murshidabad was one of the first districts established by the East Indian Company. Now Mamata Banerjee govt is set to trifurcate it.

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Murshidabad, along with Chittagong, Midnapore and Nadia, was one of the first districts established by the East India Company in the late 18th century. All four claim to be the first, but the possibility of Murshidabad being the primus inter pares is higher because this was where the foundations of the British Raj were established. During the Viceroyalty of Warren Hastings, it was the capital city of the EIC, except from 1772 -1775 when the supreme civil and criminal courts were shifted to Calcutta. But in 1790, his successor Lord Charles Cornwallis shifted the headquarters to Calcutta, and the house built for the Governor General became the DM’s bungalow and Circuit House. This was the house in which I stayed for two years when I was appointed as Collector and Magistrate of Murshidabad in 1994. Two hundred and twelve years ago, the occupant was a certain John Barrington Mart Jr, about whom I am trying to research because his is the first name on the list of District Collectors of Murshidabad.

It is this district that the Mamata Banerjee government has now decided to trifurcate into Murshidabad, Jangipur and Kandi. It was perhaps inevitable because with a population exceeding 70 lakh, five subdivisions, 29 development blocks and an equal number of police stations, and a 95-kilometre border with Bangladesh, it was becoming extremely difficult to administer. The population had crossed 60 lakh even three decades ago, and I recall that when Governor KV Raghunath Reddy saw the district profile, he complimented me for handling a district with a population three times the size of his former state, Tripura!

Also read: ‘Erasing history’ — why Mamata’s plan to create new districts is causing protests in Bengal

Rise of Murshid Quli Khan and then fall of Murshidabad

Murshidabad’s date with history started with Murshid Quli Khan shifting the revenue headquarters of the Bengal Suba from Dhaka to this riverside town.

According to historian Jadunath Sarkar, he was born Surya Narayan Mishra in an impoverished Brahmin family in the Deccan in 1670. He became an apprentice under Haji Shafi, a Persian official in the Mughal court who gave him his new name, identity and expertise in revenue matters. He was noticed for his administrative skills by Aurangzeb. In 1700, Khan was appointed as the Diwan of Bengal and sent to Dhaka, then-provincial capital of the Suba. However, he sought permission to move the diwani office to Mukshudabad, a city on the banks of the Ganges and well connected to every part of the state. European trading companies had also set up their factories in the city. He nudged the bankers, including the house of Jagat Seth, to relocate there.

The city became prosperous and increased revenue collection. This pleased the Emperor who gave him the title of ‘Murshid Quli’ in 1704 and the permission to rename the city to Murshidabad (the city of Murshid Quli Khan).

By the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Khan had been appointed the Subadar of Bengal, but as the Mughal Empire weakened, he assumed the title of Nawab of Bengal in 1717. Though he continued to forward an annual revenue of one crore to the Mughal court, for all intents and purposes, he had become independent de facto. Bengal was now the most prosperous province, and Murshidabad its most famous city. The Bengal Suba included present-day Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. With the establishment of Dutch, French and English factories, the city became the hub for silk, cotton and Muslin trade.

In 1757, it was at Plassey on the outskirts of the district that the EIC registered its decisive victory against the French forces and last independent nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, which changed the course of India’s history forever.

In the subsequent decades, Murshidabad lost out to Calcutta mainly because unlike the Mughals, the EIC did not depend on the banking families to manage their finances. This was the beginning of the decline of the city that had been the epicentre of political turmoil and succession. As the weaving industry declined on account of cheap imports, the district became even more impoverished, and the cultivation of jute and indigo as per the diktats of the EIC imperilled food security.

Also read: Bengal banker Jagat Seth who gave loans to East India Company, financial tips to Aurangzeb

The four flags

The district contributed many volunteers to the Indian freedom movement, first to the Indian National Congress, and later to the Forward Bloc established by Subhas Chandra Bose, because he was the leader with whom most Congressmen in the district were aligned. Many had also joined the Anushilan Samiti, which under the leadership of Tridib Chaudhary morphed into the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Tridib Chaudhary was elected to the Lok Sabha six times from the district. As the united opposition candidate for the post of President in the 1974 Presidential election, he lost to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad. Finally, of course, in 2012, Pranab Mukherjee was elected as the President, but his Jangipur constituency will now be a new district.

Before closing, I must mention that in the Annexure to the Indian Independence Act published in July 1947, the schedule of tentative allocations of districts between East and West Bengal assigned Murshidabad with its overwhelming Muslim population to Pakistan. No wonder, then District Magistrate, Ikram Ahmed Khan of the ICS, flew the flag of Pakistan on the DM’s bungalow on 14 August. However, when the Radcliffe Award was announced on 17 August, Murshidabad was given to India to ensure the flow of water through Bhagirathi for the Calcutta port. The Indian tricolour then flew over this bungalow for the first time on 18 August.

This bungalow has seen four flags on its flagstaff – that of the East India Company from 1758 to 1858, the Union Jack from the Queen’s proclamation on 1 November 1858 to 14 August 1947, the Parchama-e Sitara of Pakistan for four days, and the Tiranga from 18 August 1947!

Postscript: In 1997, the Golden Jubilee year of India’s Independence, the LBSNAA invited all surviving members of the ICS for a reunion, and wonder of wonders, I got an opportunity to meet Ikram Ahmed Khan, the DM of Murshidabad in 1947. He had been allotted the Sind cadre after the division of Pakistan in 1971!

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.

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