Mir Jafar (1691-1765) was the nawab of Bengal from 1757 until his death in 1765. Mir Jafar was a long-serving and effective Bengali military leader, rising to become commander-in-chief under the popular nawab Siraj ul-Daulah. But by the 1750s, Jafar had become paranoid, inconsistent and power-hungry, possibly a by-product of his worsening opium addiction.
In 1757, Siraj ul-Daulah was threatened and besieged by British East India Company troops. Mir Jafar double-crossed the nawab by holding back his own army and signing a secret agreement with Robert Clive. Siraj ul-Daulah was defeated, captured and executed and Mir Jafar was installed as nawab.
Mir Jafar quickly learned that Clive’s backing came with a heavy price. Faced with constant demands of money from the British, Mir Jafar sought to extract it from the local population. By 1760 tax collection in Bengal could be a brutal affair, both for officials and civilians. Non-payers were starved, denied water, stripped naked and flogged. Tax collectors who failed to fill quotas were strung up by the ankles to have the soles of their feet rubbed raw with a brick.
One of Mir Jafar’s advisors developed his own particularly nasty methods, described in a 1763 Persian account:
“The dewan [bureaucrat] Syed Rezee Khan, whom Jafar appointed to collect government revenues, exceeded his master in cruelty. He ordered a pit to be dug about the height of a man, which was filled with human excrement, in such a state of putrefaction as to be full of worms. The stench was so offensive that it almost suffocated whoever came near it… Syed Rezee Khan, in contempt of the Hindus, called this infernal pit Bickoont [Hindu for ‘paradise’]… Those who failed in their payments, after undergoing the severities before described, were ducked in this pit.
And if that wasn’t bad enough:
“He also obliged them to wear long leather drawers filled with live cats. He would force them to drink buffalo’s milk mixed with salt, till it brought them to death’s door by a diarrhoea. By these means he used to collect the revenues…”
Unsurprisingly, Mir Jafar is still a despised figure on the subcontinent. Most consider him the man who sold out Bengal and opened up the rest of India for British colonisation. The word “mirjafar” is a Bengali insult meaning ‘traitor’. The fate of Mir Jafar’s inventive tax collector, Syed Rezee Khan, is unrecorded.