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Raja Tej Singh: Mughal Rajput Soldier And Tamil Folk Hero

Gingee Fort

The Mughal Empire depended heavily on the fidelity, valor and skills of Rajput princes, nobles, and countless Rajput soldiers. Mughal alliances with key Rajput clans were established and maintained through marriages, modes of formal patronage – and sometimes by force. Even as the Empire unraveled, many Rajput clans continued to serve the Mughal Emperor. A scion of one such clan, the very young Raja Tej Singh Bundela, lord of Gingee in Tamil Nadu, entered Tamil folklore as the brave and virtuous “Desing Raja” – the Tamil moniker being a corruption of his real name.

 

The Carnatic province – comprising of parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – was the Mughals’ southernmost possession. Gingee was critical to its control and was wrested from the Marathas in 1698 with great difficulty. Shortly after the conquest, the Rajput lord Raja Swarup Singh Bundela, was appointed as Commander of Gingee. Nine additional forts and substantial lands were also bestowed. Swarup Singh’s clan was a key Mughal ally for generations. He apparently had a good relationship with the Nawab of Arcot, the provincial Mughal governor. Swarup Singh was also respected by the Nawab’s superior, the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah (who later became the first Nizam of Hyderabad). Swarup Singh’s son, Raja Tej Singh, was a famed young warrior who also served the Empire. Swarup Singh died in late 1713 and the question of succession arose. On the ensuing events, there are four versions, with key commonalities but different content, tone and style.

 

 

Firstly, European records mention that in 1714 C.E., the Arcot Nawab suppressed the rebellion of Gingee’s new lord, the son of the previous Rajput lord. He had claimed Gingee as a hereditary right granted by the Emperor. This was not accepted by the provincial governor, who also raised the issue of tax arrears. The new lord was killed in an ensuing battle. Even these ostensibly unbiased records vary on the origin of the conflict. Perhaps the Nawab feared Tej Singh and used a pretense to destroy him, perhaps Tej Singh was guilty after all. Nevertheless, these sources describe Tej Singh’s stubbornness, daring exploits, and his heroic death.

The second narrative is provided by imperial chroniclers sympathetic to Arcot and Hyderabad. They blame Tej Singh’s rashness and pretenses of sovereignty for the war. The Emperor had never bestowed Gingee to Tej Singh: the latter had broken faith with his ultimate liege lord. These sources also mention the fidelity and courage of Tej Singh – and that of his friend and feudatory, Mahabat Khan. The Nawab is portrayed as chivalrous and compassionate. He pardons Tej Singh’s followers and even organizes the Sati of Tej Singh’s wife after futile attempts to convince her to live.

Asaf Jah I

Asaf Jah I

The third narrative from certain Marathi chronicles diverge significantly. Tej Singh – also termed Jai Singh – is portrayed as a flawless hero and Asaf Jah is the main villain. This narrative incorporates dubious claims of pedigree and many fantasy elements, and Muslim rulers are shown negatively. This is unsurprising as Mughals and Hyderabad (ruled by Asaf Jah’s successors) were the Marathas’ mortal enemies. The Emperor is also portrayed as rather malevolent.

Finally, we have the ornate and fantastic Tamil folklore. This incorporates themes of Vaishnavism, and even more fantastic and dubious episodes. The Mughals as portrayed as wholly steeped into Hindu traditions. Desing Raja’s bride, the Sati-mata, is the daughter of the Mughal Emperor himself and Mahabat Khan invokes Narayana along with Allah. At the end of an epic battle caused by miscommunication and pride (and tax arrears), Tej Singh dies by his own hand – heartbroken by Mahabat Khan’s death – after annihilating his enemies. The popularity of the Desing Raja emanates from this folk narrative, which wove together many popular themes. Artists and poets undoubtedly helped popularize this version regionally to inspire and entertain.

 

 

Jaswant Singh's shrine

Jaswant Singh’s shrine

Ghazi Miyan's Dargah

Ghazi Miyan’s Dargah

In India young warriors who attain Veergati have been canonized – or even deified. Folklore, artistic interpretations and colored chronicles play a great part in this. Even in modern times we have the shrine of Jaswant Singh Rawat in Tawang. In some cases, communities once preyed by such personalities in life have later turned out to worship their old enemy. The “Ghazi Miyan” of Bahraich, and the “Nikal Seyn” Sect are case in point.  Tej Singh’s reputation, his qualities and accomplishments, and his heroic death at a very young age made such an impression that legends blossomed.

 

Raja Tej Singh, however did not become a saint like Jaswant Singh, Ghazi Salar Masud and John Nicholson. Regardless of the origin and course of his war – and the question of the rightness of his cause – the Rajput Raja Tej Singh has been immortalized in the regional memory as the valiant “Desing Raja” through numerous literary works, art forms and even movies.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on May 27, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Second Anglo-French Contest For India

Napoleon planned to topple the British rule in India

By 1763 C.E., the British had defeated the French in a series of long, drawn-out colonial conflicts in India such as the Carnatic Wars. In Europe and North America also the British ended French supremacy, in the course of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The ensuing Treaty of Paris returned French territories conquered by the British, but it included stringent provisions which forestalled French imperial ambitions in India. For the next three decades the French chafed in their tiny coastal enclaves watching British tighten their grip on India. However, events during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule made a second round for India quite possible – a threat the British took very seriously.

Anglo-French Carnatic Wars

Anglo-French Carnatic Wars

Britain drained great wealth from India and became a superpower. The French resented their ancient enemy’s rise but their nation was enfeebled by the weak and degenerate French monarchy. In this period enterprising French soldiers served Indian rulers and made great fortunes. Their example attracted thousands of French adventurers into the large European detachments fielded by Indians. Unlike the officers commanding the British imperial machine, most of these Frenchmen did not hail from the nobility or gentry. Poverty, the ossified society and extreme inequality in France had forced these middle and lower-class Frenchmen to become mercenaries.

The French Revolution erupted in May 1789 primarily due to social antagonisms. The Revolution’s initial liberal, constitutional phase ended in 1792, and a phase of authoritarian terror began. This three-year phase saw the radical Jacobin movement capture power. The Jacobin leaders were hardline, left-wing revolutionaries mostly hailing from the middle-class. However, the radicalized, long-suffering lower classes were their main constituency. This bloody phase of authoritarianism, known as the “Reign of Terror”, set off the French Revolutionary Wars – global conflicts in which many European nations fought France. France mobilized and slowly overcame its enemies: a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte now emerged as the national hero. Jacobin rule collapsed in late 1794, but their radical ideas spread overseas. Many Frenchmen in India apparently embraced Jacobinism. After all, they hailed from the classes that supported Jacobinism back home.

Cap of Liberty

Cap of Liberty

Michel Raymond, the French commander of the Nizam’s enormous European Corps, became a Jacobin: his officers and troops followed. Scindia’s French general Perron was also a Jacobin and corresponded with Raymond and his officers. French troops across India began to adopt the new French tricolor and revolutionary symbols such as the Cap of Liberty. A “Jacobin Society of Mysore” was formed by a self-professed Republican envoy and Tipu Sultan’s French officers. This led to diplomatic activities and the arrival of French volunteers from Mauritius (then a French colony) in 1798 to aid Tipu.

The British became paranoid about Jacobinism radicalizing French troops in India. They were even more fearful for their infant Indian empire: French expeditionary forces could land in India and ally with hostile Indian powers, who already possess radicalized French forces. Moreover, since 1795 French ships based in Mauritius had been conducting destructive naval raids on British shipping. Napoleon, now very influential in France, invaded Egypt in 1798. He planned to subsequently conquer Palestine, sail to India, ally with Indian rulers, and topple the British. The British now acted quickly. French forces in Palestine were defeated by a British-Ottoman alliance. Further reverses forced Napoleon to abandon Palestine and his plans for India in 1799. The British conspired with the Nizam’s courtiers against Raymond – the Nizam also soon feel in line. Raymond died suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Shortly after, the British and Nizam’s troops surrounded and disarmed the French soldiers. The captives were shipped to Europe. Next, the British killed Tipu Sultan and annexed Mysore in 1799.

Tsar Paul I

Tsar Paul I

Napoleon was however not done. Russia’s Tsar Paul I allied with Napoleon (after abandoning the existing Anglo-Russian alliance) in 1800 and planned a joint invasion of India. Paul I sent a huge vanguard into Central Asia to secure the invasion route. However, the Tsar was brutally assassinated and the plan was shelved. Some allege that the British had a hand in the assassination – a Russo-French alliance would have been very formidable. The British also managed to bribe, undercut or eliminate the Frenchmen serving the Marathas. By the end of the 2nd Anglo-Maratha War (1805), French mercenary presence in India had practically ended. In 1810, the British conquered Mauritius after suffering years of naval raids, thus eliminating the last vestiges of the French threat.

Many historians feel that the British overreacted to a minor and ultimately meaningless revolutionary wave among French mercenaries. Some even argue that the Jacobin bogey was completely fabricated by the British as a pretext to conquer more Indian kingdoms and remove French soldiers from India. Nevertheless, the Napoleonic threat was real and the risk to the British Empire in India was not negligible. A healthy mix of paranoia and strategic thinking – and the willingness to use any means necessary – had made the British victorious once again.

 

PS: This is the slightly edited version of my article in DNA, published on May 13, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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