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Christian Schwartz: Raj-Guru of Thanjavur

Christian Friedrich Schwartz

Before the British became the undisputed master of India in the early 19th century, the European view of India was not as disdainful or prejudiced as it would come to be. In this “pre-colonial” phase foreign scholars and missionaries had immense curiosity and respect for all things Indian. India was known to be fabulously wealthy and industrious for centuries. Thousands of Europeans fired by religious zeal, or desire for knowledge, or personal ambition traveled to India. Many of them succeeded: some even became powerful lords, generals and advisors. The pre-colonial European missionaries who arrived to “dispel heathen darkness” were respectful of Indian faiths and traditions, barring some notable exceptions. They learned Indian languages and observed and local recorded traditions. Christian Friedrich Schwartz, a Lutheran missionary from Prussia, was perhaps the most fascinating of them all. During his 48 years in India, he founded numerous congregations and schools in present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He was also diplomat, and an advisor and mentor to kings. Christian Schwartz arrived when war raged in India. The British, the French and numerous local powers were fighting for supremacy: the missionary was soon swept into this maelstrom.

 

Schwartz studied Tamil and Telugu, along with multiple European languages, before sailing to India in 1750. In India he became proficient in Sanskrit, Marathi, Urdu, and Persian. His fame spread, and thousands flocked to his schools. Schwartz’s unplanned foray into the turbulence began in 1762. Despite being a Lutheran, he agreed to provide last rites for Anglican British soldiers killed in a gunpowder explosion.  The British were impressed by his services: when they captured Madurai, they approached him again for similar services. The Company even engineered an agreement between the Lutheran and Anglican churches: Schwartz could now officiate services for Anglicans but remain a Lutheran. In 1773, the Arcot Nawab’s forces invaded and conquered Thanjavur. Thanjavur was ruled by the Maratha Tuljaji Bhonsle. Schwartz and his followers entered Thanjavur to serve the affected Christians. He soon expanded aid to non-Christians. He executed relief measures and became very popular with the people. This led to Maharaja Tuljaji (restored to his throne in 1776) inviting him to be an advisor in his court. In return for endowments to spread his faith, Schwartz agreed. However, the Company suddenly requested him to undertake a sensitive mission to Hyder Ali, King of Mysore – Hyder Ali had specifically requested that Schwartz be sent. Apparently, his fame as a polyglot of impeccable honesty had reached Mysore. For his secret messages to the British, Hyder Ali could not trust even his own men. Schwartz agreed, in the cause of peace. In Mysore, Schwartz and Hyder Ali conversed and Schwartz relayed the terms to the Company. The British refused, and Anglo-Mysore rivalry continued. Schwartz now took up his post in Thanjavur. During the 2nd Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784), Mysore’s armies stormed into Tamil Nadu. Schwartz once again lead the relief work. Hyder Ali continued to display respect of Schwartz by allowing him to work unmolested. Three more times Schwartz acted as the intermediary between Mysore and the British. As the Mysore armies laid waste to Thanjavur, unscrupulous court officials engaged in hoarding and corruption. This led to a major revolt, but Schwartz was able to convince the rebels to disband. After Mysore retreated, Tuljaji requested Schwartz to investigate the corruption. After Schwartz’s successful investigation, Tuljaji dismissed the corrupt officials. Tuljaji and Schwartz became closer, and the German missionary became the de-facto Raj-Guru of Thanjavur.

 

In 1787 Tuljaji became severely ill. On his deathbed he requested Schwartz to protect his adopted heir, the 10-year old Serfoji II. Schwartz agreed, well aware of plots to eliminate the heir. Tuljaji appointed Schwartz as the guardian and Raja-Guru of Serfoji before dying. The regent, Tuljaji’s half-brother, usurped the throne in 1793 but Schwartz fled with the prince to Madras. In 1797, the British Governor General agreed to reinstate Serfoji at Schwartz’s insistence. Company forces escorted Serfoji to Thanjavur and deposed the usurper. However, a few months before his mentee was formally crowned, Christian Schwartz passed away. The grieving Serfoji commissioned an impressive monument – a white marble sculpture depicting Schwartz on his deathbed and holding Serfoji’s hand.

Marble Monument for Schwartz

Marble Monument for Schwartz

Christian Schwartz’s work as a missionary helped spread Christianity in South India.  The alumni of the public schools he founded served the civil service for decades. His institutions also trained many reputed scholars and artists. Schwartz’s role as protector, teacher and Raja-Guru to Serfoji also had a lasting impact. Serfoji proved himself to be a highly accomplished and enlightened King. During his long reign, Thanjavur became a quite well-developed state and a major cultural center. The British absorbed Thanjavur in 1855, after the last king Shivaji II died heirless, but Thanjavur remained a model kingdom emulated by princely states such as Mysore and Travancore.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 30, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Pirates of the Persian Gulf

Arab Pirate Dhow

Bombay port was a scene of hectic activity in November of 1819: a great imperial expedition was underway. Warships, troop carriers and support ships were being readied to carry three thousand British and Indian soldiers to wage war in the Persian Gulf. For decades, the so-called “pirate kingdoms” of the Persian Gulf’s southern coast(present day UAE, Qatar and Bahrain) had been preying on British shipping. The British had launched naval patrols and a punitive naval campaign ten years ago, to no avail. This time the authorities resolved that Arabian threat had to be put down for good. Also, the political system of that region had to be shaped to suit the Empire’s strategic objectives. The 1819 campaign turned out to be successful for the British and the impact of the expedition and the subsequent treaties endure to this day.

 

In the 17th century, the Al-Qasimi tribe (the line of the current Emirs of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah) established control over large parts of the Persian Gulf Coast. Other tribes held sway over Qatar and Bahrain. These tribes adopted what western historians called “piracy”, due to the lack of productive land, means of livelihood, and strong maritime authority in the region. Moreover, these states perceived themselves as legitimate authorities and claimed toll from vessels passing through their littoral regions. The imperious British did not acknowledge such claims and refused to pay. The Al Qasimis, the most warlike tribe of the lot,began plundering British ships. Imperial narratives portrayed this as piratical acts by predatory groups. (Multiple sources do point out that the tribes of this region had been known for preying on commerce and travelers for centuries). Within a few years the Qasimis grew bolder and bolder and even ventured into the Arabian Sea. Additionally, fundamentalist Wahhabism gained influence across the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabi clerics directed the Qasimis to plunder all infidel and “apostate” Muslim shipping, without exception. The religious aspect made the British very worried; they feared Wahhabism inching closer to India with her millions of Muslims denizens. Besides, the British had a history with piracy too. Down the ages, many nations had made piracy the cornerstone of their policy: England’s growth as a maritime power owed a great deal to slavery, piracy and privateering (privately owned vessel commissioned by royal letter of marque to attack enemies). She had preyed on Europe’s Catholic kingdoms, sometimes in league with Protestant Dutch and Muslim powers. By the 18th century, England had morphed into Great Britain. She adopted the trappings of a modern state and abandoned slavery and piracy. However, she had not forgotten the impact of piracy on her rise: perhaps today’s tiny pirate states could grow into a serious threat. Such a threat could not be allowed to fester so close to India, the Jewel in the Crown.

 

Dhayah Fort ruins

Dhayah Fort ruins

In November 1819 the British-Indian force set sail under General William Keir Grant. The Qatari state under Rahmah ibn Jabir, a much-feared raider, supported the British. He had long realised that the British were too powerful. Moreover, the Qasimi were his rivals in those waters. Sultan Said bin Sultan of Oman also supported the British for similar reasons. The British-Indian forces, the Omanis and the “good pirates” attacked the Qasimis in December 1819. Within a week the Qasimis were crushed. Their capital, Ras Al Khaimah, and other towns were razed to the ground. The Qasimi surrendered after suffering heavy casualties. General Grant navigated skillfully across the political landscape and brought in line every chief of the Persian Gulf’s southern coast. The landmark General Maritime Treaty of Peace was signed in 1820. Slavery, piracy, and inter-tribal conflicts without British sanction were banned. The chiefs had to fly “white pierced red flags”, instead of the blood-red flags they hitherto sported. The white signified that they had abandoned piracy. Even today, the flags of the Emirates of the UAE feature variations of this rule.

 

UAE Emirates' Flags

UAE Emirates’ Flags

Such provisions defanged the Arab states and made the Empire their de-facto master. Minor inter-tribal conflicts persisted till 1835, when the states agreed to a “perpetual maritime truce”. The former pirate states became known as ‘Trucial States’ as they were bound by a truce with the British Empire. For a long time, security and support were provided by British India. This engagement was deep, and the Indian Rupee became the de facto currency in the region. In 1968 Britain abandoned its protectorate of the Trucial States. After some political upheaval, the sovereign nations of Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain emerged. It is interesting to note that Indians have been always involved in the fortunes of the present-day Persian Gulf states. Two centuries ago Indians helped forge the Trucial States in blood and fire. Since the 1970s, Indians played a major role in building the sovereign nations that emerged.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 16, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Operation Jackpot: August 15, 1971

Bangladesh Liberation

Pakistan’s horrific military campaign “Operation Searchlight” (March-May 1971) was a success by most yardsticks. The Mukti Bahini, the resistance movement of ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan, was severely mauled. A genocide of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis had commenced under the explicit directions of General Yahya Khan and his Junta. Many Bengali leaders, intellectuals, and students had been captured – and, in many cases, massacred along with their families. Even soldiers and officers of Bengali ethnicity were rounded up and murdered. Operation Searchlight also crushed pockets of resistance by unleashing legions of West Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators: the Mukti Bahini’s defense units were simply outfought and outnumbered. By June 1971, East Bengal seemed to be “pacified”.

The genocide

The genocide

However, the Pakistani Junta had underestimated the determination of the Bengalis. Those who escaped to India planned to strike back before the invaders dug in further and wrought even more destruction. Many leaders had managed to escape Searchlight and had set up a government-in-exile under the Indian Government’s aegis. East Bengalis chafing under the occupation risked their lives to aid the Mukti Bahini. India did not want to be rushed into a war with one of America’s closest allies – not without adequate preparations. Moreover, the East Bengal terrain was difficult, and Pakistan was no minnow. With Operation Searchlight the Junta had also demonstrated its capacity for bloodshed. Nevertheless, India was also keen on surgical strikes before war erupted: the Junta had to understand that the continuing genocide and Pakistan’s increasing belligerence towards India would not go unpunished.

 

 

After Sheikh Mujib Rehman was arrested, Major Ziaur Rahman declared Bangladesh’s independence on March 26, 1971. At this juncture, in a French dockyard a new submarine (PNS Mangro) had just been built for Pakistan. The naval crew which had travelled to France to take over the submarine had thirteen ethnic Bengalis among them. As per the accounts of one of the Bengali officers, the Junta’s actions during the past few months had greatly disturbed the Bengali sailors. When the news of the declaration of Independence and the genocide reached them, eight of the East Bengali sailors escaped before their comrades turned on them. After a harrowing journey crisscrossing four European nations they reached India (thanks to timely action of the Indian government) and joined the Mukti Bahini. By this time the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini had planned a naval commando force to target Pakistani assets in Bangladesh: the eight defectors and fifteen more Bangladeshi seamen would form the nucleus of this force. India had blocked the air route from West Pakistan, only the sea route was now open. The Pakistanis had commanded every seaworthy vessel it could find to ferry men and material into Bangladesh’s coastal and riverine ports. This lifeline had to be severed. There was also the matter of revenge – during Searchlight and afterwards, Pakistani combat vessels transported thousands of soldiers and militia across Bangladesh. In horrific cases of overkill, these vessels’ weapons were turned on civilians and Mukti Bahini combatants. The commandos would target these combat vessels also.

 

The secret training camp “C2P” was operationalized in Plassey, West Bengal. Over 500 men were trained in an arduous 3-month commando course. Some trainees were combatants, but most were university students and other civilians. When training concluded, leading commandos were infiltrated into Bangladesh. Pakistan deployed her own special forces to intercept these commandos but met limited success.  In the early hours of August 15, “Operation Jackpot” was executed: nine ships in Chittagong harbor were blown up by commando frogmen using limpet mines. This operation nearly crippled the crucial port of Chittagong. Operation Jackpot continued, and another thirty-six vessels were soon sunk in other ports. This action showed the world that the resistance was alive, and that Bangladesh has not been “pacified”. By November, the commandos sunk over 100,000 tons of shipping, suffering very few causalities. The fighters were now provided gunboats; two patrol boats were also loaned by the Indian Navy. This flotilla struck Pakistani and allied ships in the sub-campaign “Operation Hotpants”. Ports, rivers and waterways were soon clogged with damaged or sunken vessels. Around this time, Gano Bahini guerilla units entered Bangladesh from India’s North East. All lines of communications of the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh were now throttled; Pakistani control shrunk to urban areas. Consequently, the occupation crumbled when war erupted on December 3. When Pakistan surrendered on December 16, the nation of Bangladesh was born.

 

Operation Jackpot

Operation Jackpot

If Pakistan had retained a measure of control over the rivers and coast (and thus their lines of communications and the countryside), perhaps Bangladesh’s liberation would not have been accomplished within a fortnight. Given Cold War dynamics, India’s window of opportunity would have narrowed considerably. History would have been very different indeed if the intrepid warriors of Operation Jackpot had not succeeded.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 2, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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