MUrshidabad, along with Chittagong, Midnapore and Nadia, was one of the first districts established by the East India Company in the late 18e century. All four claim to be the first, but the possibility of Murshidabad being the first among equals is higher because that is where the foundations of the British Raj were laid. During the Viceroyalty of Warren Hastings it was the capital of the EIC except from 1772 to 1775 when the Supreme Civil and Criminal Courts were moved to Calcutta. But in 1790 his successor, Lord Charles Cornwallis, transferred headquarters to Calcutta, and the house built for the Governor-General became the Deputy Minister’s Bungalow and Circuit House. This was the house I stayed in for two years when I was appointed Collector and Magistrate of Murshidabad in 1994. Two hundred and twelve years ago the occupant was a certain John Barrington Mart Jr, on whom I am trying to research because his is the first name on the list of Murshidabad district collectors.
It is this district that the government of Mamata Banerjee has now decided to divide into Murshidabad, Jangipur and Kandi. This was perhaps unavoidable because with a population exceeding 70 lakh, five subdivisions, 29 development blocks and an equal number of police stations, and a 95 kilometer border with Bangladesh, it became extremely difficult to administer. The population had crossed 60 lakh even three decades ago, and I remember when Governor KV Raghunath Reddy saw the profile of the district, he congratulated me for managing a district with a population three times larger than his old state, Tripura!
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Rise of Murshid Quli Khan then fall of Murshidabad
Murshidabad’s appointment with history began when Murshid Quli Khan moved the head office of Bengal Suba from Dhaka to this riverside city.
According to historian Jadunath Sarkar, he was born Surya Narayan Mishra to a poor Brahmin family in the Deccan in 1670. He became an apprentice under Haji Shafi, a Persian Mughal court official who gave him his new name, identity and his income expertise. Questions. He was noted for his administrative skills by Aurangzeb. In 1700 Khan was appointed Diwan of Bengal and sent to Dhaka, then the provincial capital of Suba. However, he requested permission to move the Diwani office in Mukshudabad, a city on the banks of the Ganges and well connected to all parts of the state. European trading companies had also set up their factories in the city. He caused the bankers, including the house of Jagat Seth, to settle there.
The city became prosperous and increased revenue collection. This pleased the emperor who gave it the title ‘Murshid Quli’ in 1704 and permission to rename the city to Murshidabad (the city of Murshid Quli Khan).
At the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Khan had been appointed Subadar of Bengal, but as the Mughal Empire weakened he assumed the title of Nawab of Bengal in 1717. Although he continued to transmit a annual income of one crore to 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 Suba of Bengal included present-day Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. With the establishment of Dutch, French and English factories, the city became the hub of the silk, cotton and muslin trade.
In 1757, it was at Plassey on the outskirts of the district that the EIC recorded its decisive victory against the French forces and the last independent nabob of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, which forever changed the course of the history of the ‘India.
Over the following 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 which had been the epicenter of political unrest and succession. As the weaving industry declined due to cheap imports, the district became even more impoverished and the cultivation of jute and indigo according to the dictates of the EIC jeopardized food security.
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The four flags
The district provided many volunteers to the Indian freedom movement, first to the Indian National Congress and then to the Forward Bloc established by Subhas Chandra Bose, as he was the leader with whom most of the congressmen in the district were aligned. Many had also joined the Anushilan Samiti, which under the leadership of Tridib Chaudhary transformed into the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Tridib Chaudhary was elected to the Lok Sabha six times in the district. As a united opposition candidate for president in the 1974 presidential election, he lost to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad. Finally, of course, in 2012, Pranab Mukherjee was elected president, but his constituency of Jangipur will now be a new district.
Before concluding, I must mention that in the schedule to the Indian Independence Act issued in July 1947, the schedule of provisional allocations of districts between East and West Bengal allocated Murshidabad with its overwhelming Muslim population in Pakistan . No wonder, then the District Magistrate, Ikram Ahmed Khan of the ICS, flew the flag of Pakistan over the DM’s bungalow on August 14. However, when the Radcliffe Prize was announced on August 17, Murshidabad was handed over to India to ensure the flow of water through Bhagirathi for the port of Calcutta. The Indian tricolor then flew over this bungalow for the first time on August 18.
This bungalow saw four flags on its mast – that of the East India Company from 1758 to 1858, the Union Jack of the Queen’s Proclamation from 1 November 1858 to 14 August 1947, the Parchama-e Sitara of Pakistan for four days and the Tiranga of August 18, 1947!
Postscript: In 1997, the Golden Jubilee year of Indian Independence, the LBSNAA invited all surviving members of the ICS for a meeting, and wonder of wonders, I had l ‘opportunity to encounter Ikram Ahmed Khan, the DM of Murshidabad in 1947. He had received the framework of Sind after the division of Pakistan in 1971!
Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and director of the Valley of Words festival. Until recently, he was 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 which analyzes politics, public services and governance in India.