BOOK EXCERPT

How the prince of Surat convinced England to give him justice against the East India Company

Moin Mir’s book tells the forgotten story of Meer Jafar Ali Khan, who won an arduous legal battle against the Company’s usurping of his family inheritance.

Over the following months Kelly and Perry worked tirelessly debating about the nature of the intended Bill. In Victorian England, Private Bills changed, altered or created new laws as they applied to specific individuals or even organisations, rather than the general people. Public Bills changed the law as applied to the general population. Both types of Bill, however, needed to be passed through both the House of Commons and then the House of Lords. For the Bill to become law it would need to be signed finally by the Crown. Both Bills also had to be brought to public awareness before and while they were going through Parliament, via regular interactions with the press.

In Jafar’s case the fundaments were those of a Private Bill, but there were also angles that could have a political affect on the Company, that great colonising power in Hindustan. And while the argument in the Bill would be for the restoration of private property, Jafar’s family pension was a political matter. The violation of the treaty of 1800 was a political violation, and so for the passing of the Bill it would have to be fought politically, too. If the Bill passed and Jafar won back the pension and the estates then it would be the first- ever political defeat for the Company in its own Parliament at the hands of a Hindustani. The two MPs then took the advice of the Speaker who recommended the Bill to be tabled as a Private one. Kelly and Perry would do as the Speaker suggested while making the case with strong political arguments.

Kelly and Perry then identified certain MPs who had long wanted to see the Company brought to book for its unseemly conduct in Hindustan. A large number of these gave a patient hearing to the outline of Jafar’s case and promised to support the Bill. Further, Kelly and Perry got more endorsements in favour of Jafar including GL Elliot who was Arbuthnot’s predecessor as Agent in Surat. Elliot knew the family well and was happy to recount his memories of splendid dinners at the palaces in Surat.

Addressing Jafar with respect as “His Highness”, Elliot sent correspondence in Jafar’s favour in no uncertain terms supporting his cause and stating “You know my opinion of the case – I think you are entitled to all you claim.” This was sound endorsement from the predecessor to Arbuthnot and having been Agent at Surat for six years.

Jafar briefed his secretary Ali Akbar to get the word out around London. A Private Bill meant the public had to be informed of its contents. This was a great opportunity to make the English public aware of the injustices wrought by its Company. Mary Jane and Ali Akbar went to work together, supervising the writing and publication of pamphlets that presented Jafar’s case including letters and endorsements from Bethell as Solicitor General to the Queen and the plight of his daughters in bold headlines – these to be distributed all over London. Ali Akbar then instructed Dost Shah and Noor to stand with these pamphlets in Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner and other key thoroughfares.

As people walked by them, this pair cut exotic figures. Dressed in Hindustani long flowing robes, they distributed the pamphlets with great eagerness. The public couldn’t get enough, and the pamphlet quickly required a second print run, for which purpose Mary Jane and Ali Akbar went personally to the printers in East London. Shaikh, Raheem and Mishameeram and half a dozen of the attendants also got involved. Shaikh and Raheem stationed themselves in Paddington, distributing as many pamphlets as they could, creating a stir in the marketplace. The impact was extraordinary. Regular English people began thronging around 15 Warwick Avenue. Often they would be entertained in the now- renowned kitchen, the hospitality of which won over all comers.

Being treated daily to kebabs and chicken korma, the grateful crowd was happy then to stand outside chanting, “Justice for the Indian Prince!”

Seeing the nature of this unusual case, the Speaker advised Kelly and Perry to first present the Bill to a Select Committee appointed by him, who could give an opinion on the legality of the claim. The Select Committee unanimously ruled that it was just, meaning that the Bill could be tabled in Parliament immediately. It was to be named the Nawab of Surat Treaty Bill.

By now, word had reached the Company about what they considered an audacious legal attack. Caught unawares, they hurriedly identified two MPs who might act as counters to the brilliant Kelly and Perry. These were Vernon Smith and James Weir Hogg. Smith, besides being MP for Northampton, was also the President of the Board of Control of the Company, having replaced Lord Ripon. Hogg, MP for Honiton, was also a Director in the Company. It fell to this duo to thwart Jafar’s Bill in Parliament.

After months of painstaking correspondence Kelly and Perry extracted a date – June 5, 1856 – on which the Bill would be presented in Parliament. On the preceding day, however, Smith and Hogg were successful in a request to delay the reading, on the grounds that not all relevant materials had been submitted and that the evidence against the Company was insufficiently strong. That evening Kelly and Perry briefed Jafar about the determined resistance they could expect from MPs supportive of the Company. Kelly and Perry knew well of all the delaying tactics that could be used to thwart the tabling of the Bill, some of which they were already witnessing. What was of pressing concern, though, was that the Speaker had announced the last date for hearing all Private Bills in both Houses of Parliament would be June 28, 1856. If the matter was not in hand by then a delay of another year would be imposed. With only two weeks remaining with which to work, this was going to be a race against time. A new date was now issued for the reading – June 11, 1856. Jafar asked if he could drive with the MPs to Parliament on that day.

Kelly, though, had a yet more brilliant idea: he wanted Jafar to enter Parliament with him. Kelly believed Jafar’s presence in the House would generate great interest and sympathy for his cause.

He immediately made arrangements for Jafar to gain admission in this way as a special case. Being one of the leading lawmakers in England and having held the position of Solicitor General to the Queen, Kelly’s application was accepted.

On the morning of June 11, after breakfasting with his steadfast MPs, Jafar entered his living room, followed by Kelly and Perry, to find all his attendants lined up and awaiting him. Knowing this was a critical day, each one of them reached out to him, bowed as he walked past, took his hand, kissed it and placed it on their eyes as a sign of reverence. Then the team of three climbed into Jafar’s light blue carriage and drove to the Houses of Parliament.

As the horses galloped up the bridge across the Thames and approached the final destination, Jafar couldn’t help feeling a sense of anxiety. What if the reading was thwarted again? On reaching Parliament Jafar witnessed the streaming passage of carriages belonging to other MPs. Disembarking along with Kelly and Perry, Jafar gazed long and hard at England’s great bastion of law and justice. It was here that the fate of his daughters would be decided. Some MPs who were coming in and had heard of Jafar stopped to have a look at this man from distant Hindustan. Struck by his presence, a crowd soon gathered around him. Some wished him luck and even asked him to sign autographs. Others coldly stared and walked past. Paying such reactions no mind, Jafar walked past the main gate and examined the building with further interest. It wasn’t large, and reasonable in beauty. He then turned and studied some work that was being done on a tower of considerable height – a clock tower that was to be known on completion as “Big Ben”. Then, turning and shaking the hands of his allies, uttering a few encouraging words, Jafar placed himself between the two, ready to walk into Parliament.

Excerpted with permission from Surat: Fall Of A Port, Rise of a Prince, Moin Mir, Roli Books

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