The Mahratta Ditch & The English Itch – How Bengalis Crossed it to Invite the Final Doom

Invaders from the West were pressing hard .

Bengalis were restless and the state was in total disarray and confusion .

Outsiders ,feted by local powers , were sitting pretty in Bengal .Forget about being branded as enemies ,they were welcome to trade and establish settlements .

We are talking about 1742.The script of the day has an eerie resemblance.

The recent flashpoint (Calcutta and Vidhyasagar University clashes) is not far from the original Mahratta (Maratha) Ditch which was dug up in 1742 to keep the Maratha invaders at bay . The ditch followed the Upper Circular Road (now Acharya Praful Chand Ray Road) and the Lower Circular Road (now AJC Bose Road) till the Entally corner . The original plan was to extend it till Gobindpur,but was given up .

How can Kolkata be now saved since the Ditch was filled up in 1799 itself ? (A remnant still exists- Maratha Ditch Lane in the northern part of the city)

The Bargis (Persian bargirs or light cavalary ),as the Bengalis used to refer them, were Maratha bands who had lain waste the western districts of Bengal , and overrun Orissa. Even Murshidabad, the capital of the then Nawab Ali Vardi Khan was not safe . Loot ,murder and mayhem were unleashed by these marauders of the worst kind ,Hindu Pad Padshahi be damned .

Only Hoogly kept them from pillaging the English trading settlement which stretched from Sutnauti in north to Kalikata and down to Gobindpur. But the question was for how long ? It was then that certain powerful locals like Umichand and Gobindram Mitter,as well as victims and refugees from the western bank implored the British for protection, who in turn sought the Nawab’s permission to build an entrenchment round their territory ,cutting across the only pathway ,north of Kolkata ,through which a land invasion was possible.

The original plan extended to digging of seven miles of moat from Sutnauti to Gobindpur ,but only three of those could be dug in six months. By then it was felt that the threat had receded ,and work was stopped . The Marathas raided western districts every year till 1752,but didn’t cross the Ditch. Perhaps ,the English made some payments to buy peace. Ali Vardi Khan also came to some sort of settlement with the Bhonsles by cessation of Orissa in 1751.

But the moat could not halt the next Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula, in his tracks . On June 18, 1756 , he easily crossed it and captured the English settlement, destroying their fortifications. The English themselves set fire to the Old Fort William. Black Hole Tragedy occurred on June 20,1756 . An all-out struggle became imminent , and finally happened at the mango grove of Plassey in June 1757. The Ditch proved to be the Rubicon .There was no going back once Siraj had crossed it.

Khal (ditch)-kata (excavated) altered the landscape and remained a prominent feature of the town for almost 50 years ,till it was refilled on the orders of Marquess of Wellesley in 1799,and later fully so in 1892-93. Some even suggest that Kolkata derives its name from Khal-kata. The fear and disgust of Bargis took a firm grip over the local psyche ,and found mentions in lullabies, literature and folklore.

Of course , it was not the invader from west who ended up dominating Bengal ,but the Outsider , who was tolerated,feted and not even considered a threat . For the next two centuries , English ruled the roost . Therein lies the lesson for the present. Because history is again repeating itself ,as it always does . One hopes it does so not in tragedy ,rather only in farce.

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