Shobha Singh

Shobha Singh a petty zamindar of Chetwa-Barda in the Chandrakona subdivision of Midnapur. He revolted against Mughal rule in Bengal in June 1695. Historians have debated over the ancestry of Sobha Singh, one scholar claiming his descent from Raghunath Singh of Chandrakona, who, according to a farman of 1734, was the zamindar of Chandrakona at the end of the seventeenth century. A contemporary French letter from chandannagar referred to the 'good family' of Sobha Singh, which would suggest that he might not have been a Bagdi as generally alleged, but perhaps of an inferior variety of ksatriya. According to this French letter, Sobha Singh was a petty ijaradar under Krishnaram Ray, zamindar of Burdwan, who was the principal ijaradar of the area. Sobha Singh used to pay annually Rs 22,000 for the ijara, while Krishnaram's ijara was Rs 22 lakh, making the latter a very wealthy man.

The immediate cause of Sobha Singh's revolt cannot be ascertained. A contemporary French letter suggested that the reason behind Sobha Singh's revolt was a more far-reaching one than simply a quarrel over land with his superior. The time was opportune as Emperor aurangzeb was then in the Deccan fighting the Marathas, while there was a possibility of continuing conflict between the subadar and the diwan in the Mughal court at Dhaka, then the Mughal capital of Bengal.

The attack of Sobha Singh on Burdwan was not sudden, although very well planned. There were several skirmishes before Sobha Singh attacked Krishnaram Ray at Burdwan, which perhaps was not expected by him. It appears from contemporary European documents that the attack occurred in the later months of 1695. The farman of 1734 put the death toll of Krishnaram's family to twenty-two, excepting a son, Jagat Ray, who was then away. The merciless killing of innocent family members, including ladies, would suggest that the conflict had deeper causes and not merely a land dispute. A temple inscription of Daspur, belonging to his zamindari, depicts Sobha Singh as a cruel person.

After wiping away Krishnaram and his family, Sobha Singh began to seize all the estates of the late zamindar. With a huge fund at his disposal, Sobha Singh began to recruit disgruntled Afghans from north India. The contemporary English report speaks of the plundering of the country by these Afghans, leading to the ruination of several mansabdarI.

The involvement of the court of Dhaka in the revolt comes from the rivalry between the subadar ibrahim khan and the diwan, whose favourite was Manikchand, ancestor of jagat sheth. His brother, Golulchand, a contract merchant of the English east india company, had made contact with Sobha Singh and had passed his bills for money, disregarding the advice of his friends. This liaison became known to the subadar, who secretly began to intercept letters and bills of the two merchants. This led to his imprisoning Hiranand Seth, father of the two merchants, possibly at Patna, where the sarrafs led a strike against the arrest. Ibrahim Khan also arrested Manikchand at Dhaka and kept him in iron chains under heavy guard. Golulchand, on his way to Dhaka, had heard of the imprisonment and had escaped to Mukhsudabad (later known as Murshidabad) to find that all his properties and estates had been seized, sealed up and secured. The sarrafs of Hughli however struck work, possibly with the tacit support of the diwan. Golulchand was arrested at kasimbazar possibly before August 1696. The action of the subadar would reveal his liaison with a section of the rebels, since without their cooperation, it would have been difficult to intercept the letters and bills of Manikchand.

Meanwhile the emperor had rebuked the subadar for neglecting to suppress the revolt. It appears that the subadar was asked to recover Rs 39 lakhs, looted by Sobha Singh from Burdwan, from the faujdar Nurulla Khan for his failure to arrest Sobha Singh. The mention of such a specific sum would suggest that the diwan's report against the subadar had gone home, although the diwan was equally alarmed of the seizure of the merchants since their papers might reveal his link with the rebels. The conflict within the Mughal polity at Dhaka had fuelled the revolt and further helped to dislocate the economy.

Such dislocations were caused more by the unrestrained plunder of Afghan mercenaries, whose numbers had swelled to nearly eight thousand horsemen. Sobha Singh had also recruited several thousand infantrymen, possibly bagdis of the villages around. Such an anarchical condition discouraged the merchants and restricted trade and commerce. Radhanagar, noted for its textile production and market, was controlled by the unruly soldiers belonging to Sobha Singh. It is not surprising therefore that the sarrafs had left Hughli and all financial transactions on the Bhagirathi belt were interrupted.

The European companies had begun to take precautions. At Qasimbazar, under the rebels then, the dutch built high walls enclosing their factory, while the rebels wanted the Dutch to pay sixty thousand rupees or deliver their gomostah to them on the ground that the Dutch were indebted to Krishnaram. On the Dutch refusal to pay, Sobha Singh threatened to personally visit their factory at Hughli and to stop their trade. The Dutch paid a few thousand rupees, which did not pacify Sobha Singh. By that time, Sobha Singh had established chowkies on the river between Hughli and Mukhsudabad to collect tolls from the passing boats.

Rebuked by the court, subadar Ibrahim Khan had ordered his son Zabardast Khan to prepare an army. At the same time he had asked the companies to join the King's forces, which they refused, perhaps more out of fear that the rebels would plunder their factories. The subadar gave parwana to the three companies to fortify their factories, which they did with bastions and ditches.

While the merchants were refusing to send goods, the rebel chowkies began to stop European boats on the Bhagirathi. The companies complained to Sobha Singh and the Raja ordered these to be released. By the end of April 1696, Sobha Singh had begun to collect revenue from the land by force and was settling down to rule the country in his name. The boats of the merchants were allowed to pass if they paid duties, which seemed to be quite high in comparison to pre-revolt days.

The character of the rebellion began to change perhaps from the first week of July 1696, when the rebels began to take up a far more aggressive posture in an attempt to expand their operations. But this was largely caused by the sudden accidental death of Sobha Singh.

The historian Salimulla, writing 67 years after the event, narrated the romantic story of Sobha Singh's death caused by stabbing by Krishnaram's daughter, when Sobha Singh tried to molest her. jadunath sarkar believed it in his History of Bengal, but discounted it in favour of the report (Akhbarat) that Prince Azimuddin had killed Sobha Singh in 1698. Both these accounts are found to be inaccurate. The farman of 1734 and the contemporary European documents clearly mention that, excepting a son, who was given back the zamindari later, all family members of Krishnaram were killed. The contemporary French letters of 21 November 1696 and 15 January 1697 clearly mention that while Sobha Singh was regaling with ladies, he died of a fall from a high terrace. The despatch of Prince Azimuddin (Akhbarat) is suspect since the rebels held out till 1703-04 and were finally flushed out by murshid quli khan for which he was rewarded by the emperor. After the death of Sobha Singh, his uncle Maha Singh, and not his brother as ascribed so far, took over the command nominally, while for all practical purposes, it was the Afghan leader, rahim khan, who controlled the movement.

This revolt had far-reaching effects on the economic and political structure of Bengal. The European companies were allowed to fortify their factories, which enabled them to obtain extraterritorial concessions and privileges later. The English accession to three villages in 1698 became the nucleus on which the later capital of British India grew up. The other effect was the propensity of the new subadar and the diwan to collect easy money from the merchants, creating an ethos of coercion by the state apparatus on the mercantile community that was earlier absent. The anarchical condition caused by unrestricted plunder, particularly of urban areas on the bank of the Bhagirathi, created scarcity of liquid cash for a few years. It took the astute diwan Murshid Quli Khan some time to bring order in the dislocated politico-economic structure of Bengal in the early eighteenth century. [Aniruddha Ray]