BOOK REVIEW

An Indian prince and his legal war against East India Company

mir-moin-surat-credit-roli-books Author Moin Mir at the launch of Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince | Roli publishers

History served as fiction is the best way to know about our past. Moin Mir writes engagingly about the early 17th century Surat in Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince.

India has always been a beacon for the plunderer, the invader and the coloniser. Surat, particularly so. Mughal emperor Humayun was unable to capture it, but his son Akbar did. The Portuguese fought over it and the English engaged in dirty politics to acquire it. With its varied ethnicities of Jew, Marwari and Chalebi Turk, it has always been a place of commerce. If the Mughal emperor Jahangir had not issued a trading permit to the English, favouring them over the Portuguese, who knows what India's trajectory would have been.

The traders in that city always backed the person who allowed them to conduct their business with ease. Tegh Bakht Khan, a chieftain from Delhi on the lookout for a stronghold, captured Surat Castle and spread his influence far and wide. His attempts at every turn were thwarted by the English East India Company who wanted to wrest control of this thriving port. Their superior naval powers gave them an edge, but that did not deter the Indian rulers, who succeeded Tegh Bakht Khan, from fighting to maintain it. His successors turned to opium and brothels, making it easier for the English to impose their might and get what they wanted at any cost. “The interest in the castle was obvious: the English Company, for one, knew that it came with the revenues of the tankha (privy purse), and such funds would enable them to equip and maintain an efficient fleet, so that both on land and sea, their mastery would be firmly established to the great discomfiture of their enemies”.

A forgotten name who fought against the the Company's attempt to capture Surat is the prince Meer Jafar Ali Khan. After the unjust measures of the East India Company pushed his family to the brink of destitution, Jafar fought back, a lengthy battle that reached the House of Commons.

As a young man, Jafar showed a marked distaste for killing animals, a cause of worry for his father, and the subjects who welcomed the birth of the heir. He refused to kill a fawn explaining that it was wrong to kill it, as its parents were only teaching it to drink water. “Shouldn't children always be protected.... Shouldn't rights be respected?” Months later, a village in the protectorate was attacked by a man-eater. A clean shot by the prince stopped the beast in its tracks, saving the child it was going to attack. When asked why he had not hesitated in shooting the animal this time, Jafar replied, “Every action should have a justifiable reason. When there is abundance in the forest, the beast had no right to take a child from our villages. It wasn't his right. But it was my right to protect the infant.” This compassion and the sense of right and wrong was the result of hours spent with Hasan Shah Pir, a Sufi poet and mystic, at his mother's behest. To ensure that the child had a balanced upbringing, his father made sure Jafar was by his side when he held court and passed judgment, even making the boy read out the sentences.

When it was time to marry, he didn't object, pragmatically viewing the benefits of an alliance with the daughter of a nawab. He made the marriage work by spending time with his wife, sharing his interests and cultivating in her his love of Sufi philosophy and poetry.

Soon after Jafar Mir stepped into his inheritance, the infamous Doctrine of Lapse came into existence, whereby families without male heirs were deprived of their legal rights, their natural succession cast aside, paving the way for easy annexation by the East India Company.

Jafar Mir, at the age of 26, faced destitution when his wife, Bakhtiar-un-nisa, the surviving daughter of the previous Nawab Afzal-ud-deen, was deprived of her inheritance. His daughters would inherit only half of the properties, a mere pittance. As a result of the Special Act, he could not fight the company in Hindustan. He resolved to fight it on its own turf in London. He was fortunate, as his friends who were the best attorneys of the time were able to nudge him to lobby his cause with powerful men who were not comfortable with the East India Company's modus operandi. They fought on his behalf.

Away from home for years, fighting to save the rightful legacy of his daughters, he found love in the form of a young actress who came back to Surat with him. Painting vivid pictures, Moin Mir flits easily from the havelis in Surat to Parliament in London, and even a soiree with Victoria and Albert. 

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