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Rahim Khan

Rahim Khan Afghan mercenary of north India, joined shobha singh principally for plunder. His patron Sobha Singh was a petty zamindar of Chetwa-Barda pargana of the district of Midnapore and had rebelled and killed Krishnaram Ray, the zamindar and the chief ijaradar of Burdwan around June 1695. Sobha Singh began to raise troops with the money plundered from Krishnaram's house. Ghulam Hussain Salim has placed the rise of Rahim Khan around this time. By the third week of November 1696, Sobha Singh's troops included seven to eight thousand horsemen, all probably Afghan mercenaries. The sudden death of Sobha Singh of a fall from high terrace before the end of November 1696, made his uncle Maha Singh the leader of his forces. The real leader, however, was Rahim Khan, under whose leadership the rebels became more aggressive and undertook large scale plunders, particularly of the rich towns of northern Bengal.

Maha Singh tried to normalise the situation by assuring the merchants and collecting revenue in the usual fashion. It seems that the rebels had divided their forces as well as the areas of operations. While Maha Singh concentrated on the seizure of the Hughli fort and the areas below it on the Bhagirathi, Rahim Khan shifted his operations in the northern part of the Bhagirathi.

By the end of November 1696, rebel forces led by Rahim Khan had pushed towards Maksudabad. On the way, they had defeated a mansabdarI coming with 5000 horse and 5000 foot and plundered the city of Maksudabad. By then the merchants fled and the trading activities had entirely stopped. Salimullah, the late eighteenth century historian, has given the credit of the victory to Rahim Khan.

With an army rapidly swelling to ten thousand horse and equal number of foot, the rebels had reached the outskirts of rajmahal without opposition. They had also sent 2000 horse to Cottapore to prevent Zabardast Khan, who was coming with a Mughal army from Dhaka crossing the Ganges. The western bank of the Bhagirathi, with its rich and open market towns, lay completely at the mercy of the marauding Afghans.

It appears that the 'Raja' Maha Singh, after his failure to take hughli and the areas below it, thanks to the resistance of the Europeans, had come to the northern part. The merchants of kasimbazar as well as the vakil of the Dutch company had visited the Raja, who had prevented immediate plunder of Kasimbazar.

The victory of Maksudabad induced the neighbouring zamindars to submit to the rebels particularly when the rebels had seized the Mughal faujdar of the area. The French letter of 16 January 1697 estimates the plunder of Maksudabad to twenty lakh rupees. Most of the people of the west bank had crossed the Ganges and were fleeing towards Dhaka. The rebels had begun to fortify Maksudabad. It appears that Rahim Khan had not formally proclaimed himself leader. The English reported that Maha Singh, the general of the rebel forces, had declared his intention to become the king of Bengal. The rumour of the next rebel attack on Dhaka, never realised, merely revealed the fragile nature of the Mughal rule in northern Bengal.

Trade had not been normalised till the end of December 1696 and the English saw no possibility of its resumption in the immediate future. Excepting some isolated thanas and fortified enclaves of the European companies the rebels held the western bank of the Bhagirathi. Apart from the plunder of the rich merchants of Makhsudabad, the rebels had seized one lakh ten thousand rupees from the treasury of Makhsudabad with which they could pay the mercenaries at higher rates. They had established chowkies (toll stations) on the Bhagirathi and had begun to issue the dustak (permit) of the 'Raja' for safe conduct of boats at a price. However, in some isolated places, the Mughal thanadars would seize the rebel boats and send these to Dhaka from time to time.

A detachment of the rebels had advanced close to the European factories on the Bhagirathi, which the Europeans resisted. The route from Hughli to Dhaka was open but the merchants were unwilling to send either goods or money. Partitioned in two halves, Bengal was witnessing the operation of two parallel authorities. However the contradiction within the structure of the revolt was also clear. While the higher command was trying to set up the usual paraphernalia of an established authority, the lower command was bent on plunder.

By the middle of January 1697, some of the Afghan captains, not willing to risk their ill-gotten riches, had left Bengal to return to their homes laden with plunder. From the end of January 1697, the rebel leaders had begun to extend their operation of plunder of defenseless towns. Despite the payment of forty thousand rupees by the merchants, the rebels plundered Kasimbazar, where they besieged the European factories, demanding a payment of Four lakh rupees from the dutch and Nine thousand rupees from the french. The rebel commanders, desperate to get fund to pay their soldiers, were forcibly exacting money from the merchants. Fonneville, the French merchant, escaped at night with a clerk to Chandannagar and the French factory at Kasimbazar was plundered.

After March 1697, it was still hazardous to send goods to Rajmahal from Patna. The rebels had plundered Malda after defeating Muhammad Taqi, a big Mansabdar. By that time, Zabardast Khan was rapidly advancing towards the river. The rebels, with the strategy of defeating him before the arrival of troops from north India, had several skirmishes with his advanced detachments. They had concentrated at Makhsudabad, which had saved Hughli from further attacks.

According to the contemporary English report, Rahim Khan was then controlling the revolt since his Afghan forces formed the principal element of the rebel army. At Rajmahal, the rebels had seized Sheddon and Teshmaker of the English company. The English tried to get their release through the intervention of Sobha Singh's widow. But Rahim Khan paid no heed since the English had failed to supply ammunition demanded by the rebel faujdar, Gujrat Khan, at Makhsudabad.

According to Salimullah, Rahim Khan had taken the title of 'Shah', although there is no contemporary evidence to support it. They appear even to have begun to mint coins at Barda. By the end of May 1697, Muhammed Yusuf, former faujdar of Rajmahal, had defeated and killed Gujrat Khan. This victory not only enabled Zabardast Khan to seize Maksudabad but also opened the route for the Mughal army to come from north India. Prince azimuddin, the new subahdar of Bengal had arrived at Patna with a large force.

Niamat Khan with his son tried to resist Rahim Khan before the arrival of Zabardast Khan. In the battle that ensued, both Niamat Khan and his son were killed and the injured Rahim Khan managed to escape. This was followed by another battle at bhagwangola between Rahim Khan and Zabardast Khan in which the former was thoroughly routed. Rahim Khan fled to Burdwan pursued by Zabardast Khan. By the second week of June 1697, Zabardast Khan had become master of Burdwan area and the rebels were fleeing towards Barda. In December 1697, Zabardast Khan had left for Hindustan with the arrival of the new Subahdar Azimuddin at Burdwan in November. The Prince had nearly ten thousand cavalry and twelve thousand foot soldiers. The rebels had nearly the equal number of soldiers. The departure of Zabardast Khan with his troops gave Rahim Khan and Maha Singh some breathing space. They had placed toll stations on the river below Uluberia and had easily defeated Kamdar Khan, subahdar of Orissa, who had come forward to negotiate.

Ghulam Hussain has described the negotiation between Rahim Khan and Khwaja Anwar, a companion of the Prince and his murder by Rahim Khan in the midst of negotiation. The English letters suggest some kind of negotiation but reported that the Prince had finally refused their offer. In early 1698, the Prince with his army had crossed the Damodar, by which time, the rebels had plundered Balasore and had advanced up to Nadia, from where Father Pierre Martin had fled.

jadunath sarkar, on the basis of the Akhbarat of the Prince, has stated that the Prince had marched up to Chandrakona and defeated and killed Sobha Singh and Rahim Khan. But that despatch is a suspect, since in 1704, murshid quli khan, the new Diwan, had to undertake an expedition to Chandrakona to pacify the area. Besides, Sobha Singh was already dead. Probably the Prince had killed Rahim Khan and Maha Singh, who was then succeeded by Himmat Singh. Ghulam Hussain has described the death of Rahim Khan in the battle in detail.

The transformation of the revolt of a petty zamindar to the ruler of the west bank of the Bhagirathi was largely the work of Rahim Khan, who took almost the entire northern and western part of Bengal under his control. But he had failed to establish a civil government that would generate regular revenue. This failure led him to maintain his Afghan mercenaries whom he had to pay at higher rates by plundering the rich towns on the Bhagirathi. Such unrestricted plunder not only alienated the European companies but also the peasants and the merchants. While the 'Raja' tried to establish a regular government, the plundering activities of the other section of the rebels, led by Rahim Khan, had allowed the Mughals to overcome them.

While the rich urban areas of northern Bengal was devastated by such plunder, affecting trade and commerce and creating scarcity of money, the European companies took the opportunity to fortify their enclaves, that enhanced their powers in Bengal. It is no wonder that the contemporary European documents stated the revolt as the fall-out of the impending civil war on the approaching death of emperor aurangzeb. [Aniruddha Ray]

Bibliography Salimulla, Tarikh-i Bangla (tr. by F Gladwin), Calcutta, 1788; GH Salim, Reaz-us Salatin (tr. into Bengali), Dacca, 1974-; Om Prakash, The Sobha Singh Revolt, Dutch Policy and Response, Bengal Past and Present, January-June 1975, Pt-I; Aniruddha Ray, Adventurers, Landowners and Rebels, Bengal c.1575-c.1715, New Delhi, 1998.