As the Assembly elections in West Bengal draw closer, the ‘insider-outsider’ theme has grown to become one of the topics of political debate. Bengali politicians have been terming outsider campaigners as ‘Bargis’.
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The Term Bargis
- The term ‘Bargi’ is of special significance in Bengal’s history.
- It is a reference to the several Maratha invasions of West Bengal between 1741 and 1751, which resulted in looting, plundering and massacres of what was then Mughal territory.
- The happenings of this specific period have affected Bengal’s consciousness so much that they have an established presence in Bengali folklore and literature.
- Today this term is used as a casual reference to troublesome outsider forces.
Who were the bargis?
- Simply speaking, the word bargi referred to cavalrymen in Maratha and Mughal armies.
- The word comes from the Persian “bargir”, literally meaning “burden taker”, notes historian Surendra Nath Sen in his 1928 work The Military System Of The Marathas.
- But in the Mughal and Maratha armies, the term signified a soldier who rode a horse furnished by his employer.
- In the Maratha cavalry, any able-bodied person could enlist as a bargir, unless he had the means to buy a horse and military outfit.
- Both the Bargirs and silhedars were under the overall control of the Sarnobat (Persian for “Sar-i-Naubat”, or Commander in Chief).
Why did the Marathas raid Bengal?
- Maratha incursions into the Mughal province of Bengal (which included the regions of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa) between 1741 and 1751 came at a time of intense political uncertainty of then Mughal India.
- At the Maratha capital in Satara, Chhatrapati Shahu was trying in vain to resolve the differences between his two top power centres– the Peshwa dynasty of Pune and Raghoji I Bhonsale of Nagpur.
- As the Mughal Empire was crumbling by the 18th century, the two Maratha chieftains were scrambling to secure taxation rights in its far-flung regions, and violently disagreed over their spheres of influence.
- In Bengal – a Mughal Subah (subdivision) during this era– Nawab Subahdar Sarfaraz Khan had been overthrown by his deputy Alivardi Khan.
Stir within the Maratha empire
- After Khan’s inauguration, the provincial governor of Orissa, Zafar Khan Rustam Jung, more commonly known as Murshid Quli II, rebelled against the usurper.
- The revolt failed, and Jung enlisted Raghoji’s help to oust Khan.
- Raghoji was also motivated by internal politics within the Maratha camp, fearful as he was of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, also known as of Nana Saheb who trying to establish his claim over Bengal first at this time of political disturbance in the province.
Maratha invasions of Bengal
- The Marathas first entered the Mughal province in August 1741, when Raghoji’s infantry troops accompanied Mirza Baqar Ali, the son-in-law of Jung, to conquer Orissa.
- In 1743, the Bengal province faced the wrath of two Maratha armies – both, as it happened, at loggerheads with each other.
- The Peshwa forces proceeded further, committing all sorts of atrocities on the way in a land which they had ostensibly come to protect.
- Raghoji’s armies were also doing the same, but at least he had openly arrived as an invader.
Ousting the ‘local’ invaders
- Finally, in 1751, after remaining encamped in western Bengal for a significant amount of time, the Marathas reached an agreement with Alivardi Khan.
- The Nawab promised an annual tribute of 12 lakh rupees and the cession of Orissa to the Marathas. In return, the Bhonsales gave word to not return to Bengal.
- Ten years of Maratha invasions had crippled Bengal’s economy.
- The Dutch believed that 400,000 people had been killed. Losses of weavers, silk winders and those who cultivated mulberry were particularly high.
- Historian P J Marshall noted that people were so distressed that they would take flight even on imaginary alarms, and wander around.
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