The Battle of Buxar – A Tale Of Military Indiscipline

It was perhaps the most decisive battle in 18th century India, which made the East India Company the actual masters of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha.Buxar surely was a tale of military indiscipline, internal squabbles and, of course, betrayal of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam for his personal gains. What exactly happened on that fateful day of October 22, 1764 at Buxar? Why did the Indian forces retreat?

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Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

After the historic battle of Plassey (or Palashi in today’s West Bengal) in 1757 and thereafter a clean sweep over the French at Wandiwash (Vandavasi in Tamil Nadu) in 1760, the English East India Company (EIC) was spreading its wings in the sub-continent in a manner hardly contemplated by its predecessors in their 150 years of trade. With the Maratha power suffering a jolt at Panipat from the Afghans under Abdali, the grand alliance of three major Indian forces set up with Awadh’sNawabShuja-ud-Daula as the fulcrum seemingly posed as a formidable barrier, if not a final frontier for the EIC in north India.

The meeting point of the two antagonists at the right side of the Karmanasa River (at the present Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border) in Buxar would define the future political trajectory of the sub-continent. What exactly happened on that fateful day of October 22, 1764 at Buxar? Why did the Indian forces retreat? It was perhaps the most decisive battle in 18th century India, which made the EIC the actual masters of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha, with a beleaguered Shuja-ud-Daula as a buffer between Afghan-infested Delhi and EIC-dominated eastern India. Buxarsurely was a tale of military indiscipline, internal squabbles and, of course, betrayal of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam for his personal gains.

Even if we do not go by the result of the battle, it is pertinent to look at the lack of coordination among the three major allies, with Mir Qasim falling far short of Shuja-ud-Daula’s expectations and Mughal Shah Alam always thinking about his own self-preservation. Shuja’s hubris, too, was a major factor for the final debacle at Buxar on October 22, 1764

A celebrated 18th century poet of Benaras, Shaikh Muhammad Ali Hazin, had chastised Shah Alam, Shuja-ud-Daula and Mir Qasim, the Mughal Subahdar (governor) of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

“The Firangis are masters at strategy….only if unity and discipline entirely collapses among them will you ever have any chance of victory,” the Shaikh had told in a rather discourteous manner.

Hazin was very much unsure of the fate of the apparently intimidating yet bulky 150,000 strong-allied force of Shuja, Qasim and the fugitive Mughal emperor Shah Alam, who had been chased out of Delhi by his WazirImad-ul-Mulk.

“May God help this camel caravan, whose leaders have no idea of what is bad or good for them,” said Shaikh Hazin.

Perhaps the Shaikh was not wholly incorrect. Even if we do not go by the result of the battle, it is pertinent to look at the lack of synchronisation among the three major allies in this venture, with Qasim falling far short of Shuja’s expectations and Shah Alam always thinking about his own self-preservation. Shuja’s hubris too was a major factor for the final debacle at Buxar on October 22, 1764.

Bolstered by a King’s regiment from Calcutta, the EIC’s army marched towards Buxar under the able command of the 38-year-old Major Hector Munro. Shuja’s infantry was then commanded by a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Gentil, who advised Shuja to immediately attack the EIC instead of waiting for the English to set the siege.

However, as William Dalrymple quotes Khair-ud-Din Illahabadi’sIbratNama on page 198 of his book Anarchy, Shuja’s reply was rather curt: “You’d better leave the tactics and strategy of dealing with this lot to me, and to my judgement!”

The Backdrop

Mir Qasim did not just wish to be a puppet of the EIC like his father-in-law Mir Jafar. He acted swiftly and reformed his army:

  1. Incompetent and corrupt generals were dismissed
  2. New troops were recruited
  3. A 16,000 strong Mughal-styled cavalry was formed
  4. A European-styled 25,000 strong infantry was formed

Furthermore, Qasim employed two mercenaries: one was Walter Reinhardt, nicknamed Sumru or Sombre – being a gloomy and coldly emotionless German mercenary soldier. Second was Khoja Gregory – an Isfahani Armenian to whom Mir Qasim gave the title Gurghin Khan or the Wolf. These mercenaries started training Qasim’s soldiers. They also established armament factories to manufacture high-quality modern muskets and cannon.

Qasim was prudent enough to set up a new intelligence network, with three head spies, and hundreds of informers under them. However, all three of the head spies were executed for suspected conspiracies. Also, Qasim imprisoned and tortured rich landowners and bureaucrats, and unleashed a kind of ‘reign of terror’.

Shah Alam confirmed Mir Qasim as the Subahdar of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. In return, Mir Qasim announced he would resume Bengal’s annual payments to the Mughal emperor – promising an annual tribute of 2.5 million rupees. However, during 1761-62, relations between Mir Qasim and the EIC deteriorated. The private Company traders regularly arrested and ill-treated the Nawab’s officers and misused the dastaks (free passes for EIC’s official trade) by even selling them to other private traders. Though EIC Governor of Calcutta Henry Vansittart and his Council Member Warren Hastings had a soft corner for Qasim, their writ did not work over other council members.

The chief of EIC’s Patna factory Mr Ellis was a belligerent individual and decided to take matters in his hands. He planned to attack Patna city. Qasim got prior information because of his strong espionage network. Thereafter, intimating Hastings and Vansittart, Qasimmobilised his troops to take on the Company.

By 1 am on the morning of June 25, 1763, Ellis and his troops of 300 Europeans and 2,500 Indian sepoys began their assault on the sleeping city of Patna. The EIC captured Patna city and Mir Qasim’s governor fled towards Monghyr. However, General Markar, one of the senior Armenian commanders of Mir Qasim, came with reinforcements from Monghyr. Their combined use of rockets and musketry broke the Company’s resistance. EIC troops were heavily outnumbered and their much spoken discipline was shaken. The EIC troops fled and Mir Qasim was declared victorious. Many EIC men were imprisoned and sent to Monghyr Fort.

Shuja’s forces were varied – Persian cavalry, Afghan Rohillas who had fought with Ahmad Shah Abdali, and 6,000 fierce Naga sadhus who fought mainly on foot with clubs, swords, and arrows, under the leadership of Anupgiri and UmraogiriGossain

By the end of the week, out of 5,000 EIC troops in Bihar, about 3,000 had been killed, arrested or defected to Mir Qasim’s side. On July 4, 1763, EIC Council in Calcutta formally declared war on Mir Qasim. The EIC put Mir Jafar, who by then had turned a full-fledged opium addict, back on the throne of Bengal at Murshidabad. He agreed to reimburse the EIC a whopping 55 million rupees for fighting Mir Qasim.

The EIC was sinking under the burden of war with Qasim. To manage the financial issues, EIC borrowed great sums of money from their clerks and officials at 8 per cent rate of interest. But militarily, the series of battles and skirmishes with Mir Qasim was a gradual success for the Company.

The EIC emerged victorious at Katwa where Major Adams ambushed and killed Mohammad Taki, one of Qasim’s bravest generals. Qasim’s army gradually was pushed backwards and took refuge in the fortified hilltop of UdhuaNullah (in north Jharkhand of today). Here, the 20,000 troops of Qasim made their last stand against the EIC. The first month of the siege was in favour of Qasim’s men as the fortifications were strong enough to thwart any artillery attack by the EIC. One of Qasim’s generals, Mirza Najaf Khan, planned to harass the EIC troops by counter-attacking, whereas the other commanders were complacent with their apparent success.

Najaf used some local guides and attacked the Mir Jafar-led camp in a surprise move. Unfortunately, one local guide was arrested by the EIC and in turn aided the troops of Major Adams up the path to the fort. It was a night attack by the English on September 04, 1763. Nearly 15,000 of Qasim’s men met their end. 100 cannons were captured. It was a military disaster for Qasim. Najaf Khan however escaped. Another group led by Sumru also managed to flee. Mir Qasim incidentally was not in the fort that night.

Qasim now became obsessed with the idea of being betrayed by his own commanders, writes Dalrymple (p 179, Anarchy). He sent his treasures, jewels and his favourite wife to the fort at Rohtas and expelled all the other women of his harem onto the streets. Out of suspicion he also ordered the assassination of the Armenian Gurgin Kahn or Wolf, his most loyal commander. Next was Patna’s governor Raja Ram Narain – who was shot by Sumru. Thereafter Qasim killed the rich bankers, the Oswal merchant Jagat Seth. They had been housed in Monghyr itself but Qasim found some letters written by them in which they supposedly encouraged Mr Ellis to attack Qasim. Ordered by Qasim, Sumru shot them with his pistol, while they were in chains.

The siege of Patna continued for another 3 weeks. On June 14, 1764, Major Carnac was contemplating surrender since supplies were beginning to run out for him. However, a restless Shuja suddenly announced withdrawal since he was tired of the siege

On August 29, 1763, Qasim pleaded with Hastings to allow him to go to Mecca. Hastings was sympathetic but understood that Qasim had gone too far. When Qasim did not receive any help from Hastings, he provided an ultimatum to Major Adams that he would kill all EIC prisoners. Adams did not take it lying down and responded harshly to Qasim. Thereafter, Sumru was ordered to kill all the European Prisoners of War (PoWs), which he carried out with alacrity. Ellis, his deputy Lushington, and others – in total 45 Company officials – were killed in this so-called ‘Patna massacre’. Qasim also killed 200 Indian soldiers because they refused to join him.

Next morning, Qasim moved towards Awadh – taking 100 million rupees and 30,000 fighters. He had sent messages to Shah Alam and Shuja-ud-Daula for forming a tripartite alliance. Najaf Khan though cautioned Qasim against this alliance – since according to him, Shuja had a reputation for treachery and double-crossing. But Qasim ignored his warnings.

On November 19, 1763, Mir Qasim crossed over to Awadh. In February 1764, Mir Qasim finally met Shuja, while Shah Alam was already with Shuja. The three forces came together. A regiment of French PoWs under the leadership of Rene Madec further joined them. A grandearmee of 150,000 gathered.

Shuja’s forces were varied – Persian cavalry, Afghan Rohillas who had fought with Ahmad Shah Abdali, and 6,000 fierce Naga sadhus who fought mainly on foot with clubs, swords, and arrows, under the leadership of Anupgiri and UmraogiriGossain. Bolstered by the army, Shujasent an ultimatum to the EIC. With the news of the approach of this huge army, Major John Carnac of the EIC, heading a force of 19,000, retreated towards Patna.

The ‘Dual Rule’ between the EIC and Mughals turned out to be most rapacious and unaccountable. It ultimately led to one of the most deadly famines in Indian history in 1769-71, in which, by some estimates, one-third of the population of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha was wiped out

On May 03, 1764, the combined Indian forces arrived in front of the walls of Patna. The Naga sadhus were at the vanguard. Mir Qasim and his troops were at the rear and acted as mere observers. Shuja asked Mir Qasim to join the battle or at least send Sumru with his modern artillery. However, Qasim did not respond. The battle was fierce and Shuja was wounded twice by bullets. He again sent a message to Mir Qasim, who coldly replied: “Day has ended, it is time to go home to our tents! We can always resume tomorrow!” (Dalrymple, p 194, Anarchy)

The siege of Patna continued for another 3 weeks. On June 14, 1764, Major Carnac was contemplating surrender since supplies were beginning to run out for him. However, a restless Shuja suddenly announced withdrawal since he was tired of the siege.

Shuja went back and settled at the fort of Buxar (120 km to the west of Patna). From there, he planned to resume his attacks after the festival of Dussehra. But Dalrymple writes that Shuja ‘sank into a circle of entertainments, pleasures…..’ (p 196, Anarchy).

Interestingly, Shuja won over Sumru and made him betray Qasim. Sumru forcibly took away all the treasures of Mir Qasim. Such backstabbing made Qasim behave like a mad fakir while Shuja imprisoned him.

The Battle

Shuja sent his ladies and treasure back to his capital at Faizabad and was prepared for a night attack. However, this time around the EIC did not pursue their tried and tested tactic of a surprise night attack. On the day of the battle, Shuja ordered an advance out of his strong defensive position, writes Dalrymple. Madec opened up his heavy artillery fire. Naga and Afghan cavalry attacked the rear formation of Munro’s army.

The EIC flank was broken and Shuja’s cavalry had intruded into the EIC positions. As weird as it could get, Shuja’s cavalry went out of his control and began to loot once they saw the sight of victory (p 199, Anarchy).

On the other hand, Munro told his army: “Regular discipline and strict obedience to orders is the only superiority that Europeans possess in this country.” (Penderel Moon, The British Conquest and Dominion of India, p. III, 1989)

Remembering this advice, Munro’s sepoys held their ground, despite suffering heavy casualties from artillery fire. At the other end, Shuja thought he had already won the battle. And upon seeing the EIC PoWs, Shuja’s men were clamorous.

In fact, Munro planned to retreat by the river, whereas Shuja’s cavalry began pillaging the English camp. However, as one last desperate attempt, Munro charged against Shuja’s left wing. As Munro’s men gave that audacious charge by entering the grove, Shuja’s men gave way, leaving 27 guns behind them, writes Colonel Malleson in his now epic The Decisive Battles of India. However, the final fate of the battle was yet to be decided.

Quli Khan, the commander of mixed horse and foot, mistook the English volley fire in the grove as the fire of Shuja’s troops. Out of excitement, and without communicating with anyone, writes Malleson, Quli Khan then charged the English left wing ‘in front and in flank’. But the steadiness of the EIC forces flummoxed him.

Another commander of Shuja, BeniBahadur, was in charge of the fort and village of Buxar. He and his men were sitting idle and chatting, since they had the false notion of having won the battle. Naturally when the EIC forces attacked them, they were taken aback and dispersed in a chaotic fashion.

Fortunes in the battle suddenly changed. AnupgiriGossain persuaded Shuja to leave the battlefield. Shuja, Sumru and Anupgiri retreated to fight another day. Malleson writes (p 206) rather correctly perhaps that the battle of Buxar was won ‘by courage, endurance….by discipline and steadiness.’

Post-Buxar

Out of 7,000 men, the EIC’s losses were about 850 killed, wounded or missing. Shuja, on the other hand, lost about 5,000 men. Qasim at last was freed by Shuja. But he moved around and finally died destitute near Agra. Ghulam Hussain’s 18th century work of history Siyar-ul-Mutakherin says that Mir Qasim ‘eventually found his way to Rohilkhand, where he became a pensioner of Najib-ud-Daula’. His children were said to be unable to afford a covering sheet at Qasim’s funeral in 1777 (Dalrymple). Ironically, Qasim’s last shawl was sold to pay for his winding sheet, says Malleson.

Shuja continued his guerrilla attacks against the EIC. On the other hand, Major Carnac got hold of Shuja’sFaizabad mansion as his residence. Finally, Shuja was defeated on May 3, 1765. Thereafter, he took shelter among the Rohilla Afghans of the Doab. Shuja’s French general Jean-Baptiste Gentil negotiated terms of his surrender with the EIC.

Shah Alam did not participate in the battle and had been in secret correspondence with the EIC throughout the Buxar campaign. He expressed displeasure at Shuja’s confrontationist policy against the EIC and waited to meet Robert Clive at Allahabad.

Clive too reached Calcutta on May 3, 1765. The Treaty of Allahabad was signed between Clive and Shah Alam in August 1765, according to which the EIC earned the right to collect revenue of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, in return for an annual payment of 2.6 million rupees to Shah Alam.

In the wake of this treaty, Clive wrote to his friend and biographer, Robert Orme: “Fortune seems determined to accompany me to the last” (p 210, Anarchy).

However, for the people of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, Mughal Shah Alam’s deal was catastrophic. Tax collectors plundered the farmers. Merchants and weavers were forced to work for the EIC at far below the market rates. The EIC seized by force textiles made for their rivals. Recalcitrant merchants were caned, jailed, or publicly humiliated.

Mughal cavalry was effectively rendered unemployed as the EIC commenced recruiting infantrymen from Hindu Rajput and Brahmin backgrounds. Consequent unemployment of artisans followed as private karkhanas of the defeated nobility closed down. The EIC employed Indians to collect revenue. It appeared the Mughal rule existed, but in actuality, the Company pulled the strings. This was termed Dual Rule, which turned out to be most rapacious and unaccountable. It ultimately led to one of the most deadly famines in Indian history in 1769-71, in which, by some estimates, one-third of the population of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha was wiped out.

-The author is a Joint Director in India’s Central Civil Service. He is a prolific writer on insurgency, counterinsurgency, history and foreign policy. Any opinion expressed here is that of the author’s own.