Record straight

Forgotten Indian history: The brutal Maratha invasions of Bengal

For medieval India history, incidents that don't fit into an overarching Hindu versus Muslim narrative tend to be removed from popular discourse. The 1741 Maratha invasion of Bengal is one such example.

Road names often have a story to tell. In Calcutta, given its long continuous history, even more so.  One of those is the curiously named Marhatta Ditch Lane in Baghbazar in North Calcutta.

The lane refers to an actual ditch built in the 1740s along what was then the northern extremity of Calcutta. Its purpose? To stop the marauding bands of Maratha cavalry who were pillaging Bengal at the time.

In 1741, the cavalry of Raghoji Bhosle, the Maratha ruler of Nagpur, started to pillage western Bengal under the command of Bhaskar Pandit. Bengalis called these Marathas “Bargis” which is a corruption of the Marathi word, "bargir" (etymology: Persian) which means “light cavalry”. Malik Ambar, the celebrated Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, had instituted the Deccan practice of guerrilla warfare, which at that time took the name bargir-giri. These swift hit-and-run guerrilla tactics became a part of the military heritage of the Deccan, being used to great effect by Shivaji and, eventually, by the Marathas against the hapless residents of Bengal.

Bargir-giri

In the 1740s, the bargir-giri of Bhosle’s army confounded the forces of Nawab Alivardi Khan, the ruler of Bengal. While the Bengali army tried its best and even defeated the Marathas in the few times they fought head-to-head, most of the time, the Maratha cavalry would simply skirt the Khan’s slow-moving infantry, being interested only in looting.

In the 10 years that they plundered Bengal, their effect was devastating, causing great human hardship as well as economic privation. Contemporary Dutch sources believed that the Bargis killed 4 lakh Bengalis and a great many merchants in western Bengal, writes historian PJ Marshal, "were permanently crippled by losses and extractions".

In the Maharashtra Purana, a poem in Bengali written by Gangaram, the poet describes the destruction caused by the raiders in great detail:
This time none escaped,
Brahmanas, and Vaisnavas, Sannyasis, and householders,
all had the same fate, and cows were massacred along with men.

So great was the terror of the Bargi that, in a Gabbar-esque twist, lullabies were composed in which mothers would use the fear of a Maratha raid to get their children to go to sleep. These poems are popular amongst Bengalis even today. One of them went something like this:
Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe 
Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?
Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi 

A very inelegant translation:

When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our country
Birds have eaten the grain, how shall I pay the tax (to the Bargi)?
All our food and drink is over, how shall I pay the tax?
Wait for a few days, I have sown garlic.

The ditchers of Calcutta

Not only did the Bargis loot the countryside, but in a sign of their effectiveness, managed to raid the capital of Bengal, Murshidabad and even sack the house of one of the richest Indians at the time, the Marwari banker, Jagat Seth.

In spite of this, the Marathas never did attack Calcutta, in all probability being paid off by the British. The ditch, though, did serve to provide citizens with a nickname: ditchers, i.e everyone who lived south of the ditch, in "proper" Calcutta. Eventually the ditch was filled up and was made into what is now Upper Circular Road.

After a decade of pillage, the Marathas eventually stopped their raids after the harried Nawab, accepting defeat, handed over Orissa to Raghoji Bhosle.

Past through the lens of the present

Of course, as Aakar Patel points out in his column, this history of the Marathas is usually never given popular currency. The Marathas are often portrayed as a proto-national force, acting as agents of either India or Hindu nationalism. This is a common tendency and modern nations often construct myths where they extend themselves back into time. Many Pakistanis imagine that its Islamic nationalism existed during the time of Qutb-ud-din Aibak and many Indians think that a Hindu nationalism was furthered by the Marathas looking to set up a – to use Vinayak Savarkar's term – "Hindu Pad Padshahi".

Ironically, the very phrase "Hindu Pad Padshahi" is taken entirely from the Persian language, showing how seamless the transition was from the so-called Muslim Deccan sultanates and the Mughals to the so-called Hindu Marathas. And, of course, such a simplistic view of history must also leave out pillaging bands of Marathas attacking a predominantly "Hindu" West Bengal even as a "Muslim" Nawab struggles to push them out. Today's India is so caught up with the binaries of "Hindu" and "Muslim" that it tends to see the past in those terms as well. But the past is a different country.

Note: an earlier version of this article referred to the existence of semaphore towers in Bengal being connected to the Bargi raids. This is incorrect and has been removed.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.