NEW DELHI: A year before the country burst into a bloody revolution against the East India Company, a war was waged by a young Indian prince against the British — thousands of miles away in the House of Commons in London.
In the legendary but now forgotten battle of 1856, the prince of Surat, 26-year-old Meer Jafar Ali Khan, legally fought and won against the British empire for the rights of his two daughters.
The lost chapter in the history of India’s colonial past is the subject of a new non-fiction ‘Surat: Fall of a port, Rise of a prince’ by Moin Mir.
“Not many people know that after the annexation of Surat, the English East India Company violated the treaty with the local Nawab, stopped his family’s income, usurped his houses and left his little granddaughters on the verge of poverty,” Mir told PTI.
After the annexation of Surat in a treaty with Arthur Wellesley in 1800, the then Nawab, Nasir-ud-deen, was promised a large pension and a part of the city’s revenue from “generation to generation”.
The accord was broken after the death of Nasir-ud-deen’s son, Nawab Afzal-ud-deen, who had named his son-in-law, Jafar, as his legal heir.
The company refused to consider the prince and the Nawabs daughter as heirs to the royal house of Surat, and denied them the pension and revenue.
Jafar, Mir writes, was left with nothing but a small section of the royal property to house his family and staff.
Every palace and garden was seized. Horses, elephants, farm lands and jewellery were taken away, he says.
“Jafar and his young family were now confined to living in small quarters in Hushmut Mahal with keys to only one part of the Dariya Mahal that housed certain personal belongings,” he writes.
Jafar vowed to fight back.
“He decided to voyage to England and mount a legal campaign against them on their own soil, in their bastion of law of justice – their Parliament- the House of Commons, the author said.
From his first voyage to England (1844) to the last one (1853-1856), he raged a campaign against the company.
Despite its stakeholders in Parliament — MPs, Lords, Earls, Barons and Dukes — the Indian prince took on and defeated the powerful East India Company.
“… At the peak of its powers an Indian managed to lead a powerful legal campaign against the Company and compelled British Parliament to rise against their own colonising corporation,” says the author, a descendant of Hazrat Modud Chishti, one of the founders of the Chishti Sufi order, and of the erstwhile royal family of Surat.
Born and raised in India, Mir, who has worked extensively in advertising and brand consulting across Europe and Asia, says he has a passion for history and Sufism.
For his research, Mir went through a book on the final judgement and troves of documents and manuscripts” at the British Library in London and the Asiatic Library in Mumbai.
“Finally, on 20 November 1856, the Company made the formal offer to Jafar that he had so longed for. The deal would see the restoration of the entire pension of 15,000 out of which 10,000 would be for the girls and 5,000 to be divided between the last Nawab’s two widows,” the book states. Pressed hard for damages, the Company agreed to pay Jafar another 20,000. “This would be accounted for as a ‘face-saving gift’ for the girls’ marriages along with the arrears since 1842”, it adds.
The book, published by Roli Books, also recollects another side of the young prince.
Meer Jafar Ali Khan while pursuing his righteous cause was also a vulnerable man who lost his heart to an English actress in London and brought her back to India at the height of the 1857 war of independence, says the author, currently working on a book on 16th century Hungary and Transylvania.