It is widely known that then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao (June 28, 1921 – December 23, 2004) and his then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had initiated the Economic Liberalisation in India in 1991 by making the economy more market and service-oriented and expanding the role of private and foreign investment. However, people forget Khwaja (a Persian title of respect) Israel Sarhad – an eminent Judeo-Persian merchant of Armenian origin in eastern Indian Province of Bengal during the late 17th and 18th Centuries – who had helped the British East India Company to explore business opportunities in the South Asian Nation.
The Company’s envoy had the opportunity to submit a petition in this regard to Farrukhsiyar (September 11, 1683 – April 28, 1719), the Mughal Emperor who ruled India from 1713 to 1719. He had to file the petition indirectly. Furthermore, the East India Company had amended the petition thrice after Emperor Farrukhsiyar rejected some of its clauses. Eventually, the Company obtained a Hukum-Namah or a decree from the Mughal Court. In fact, it was a Hasb-e-Hukum signed by a senior Mughal official, and not a decree signed by the Emperor!
In April 1716, Emperor Farrukhsiyar arrived in Lahore (now in Pakistan) to wage a war against the Sikh rebels. Some Company officials, accompanying the Mughal Emperor, came to know that a close aide to the King could help them obtain a decree. Although they had doubt about the efficiency of the official, Khwaja Israel Sarhad handed over to them a decree, signed by a senior Mughal official with a seal, within a few days!
Later, the Company officials learned the secret! A British fleet attacked a Mughal vessel in 1686. As a result, the Mughal Authorities imposed restrictions on the East India Company, making it difficult for the Britons to run their businesses in the Indian Subcontinent. The Company was even forced to shut down its factory in western Indian city of Surat. The local ruler in Gujarat, who was a friend of Khwaja Israel Sarhad, was worried about the activities of the British Navy in the Indian Ocean Region. He advised the Khwaja to convince Emperor Farrukhsiyar to accept the Company’s business proposal. Finally, the Company envoys left India with the Hasb-e-Hukum in July 1717.
Some of the Historians have claimed that Khwaja Israel Sarhad was one of the interpreters of the Company delegation through whom the head of the delegation, Captain John Sarmon, could obtain information about the Mughal Court. However, he was not a mere interpreter, but an important member of the Company delegation.
Even before the formation of the British East India Company in 1600 AD, merchants from Armenia established trade ties with Mughal India. They reached India by road through Afghanistan and Persia (now Iran) and settled in major business hubs, like Surat, Agra, Dhaka (now in Bangladesh), Murshidabad, etc.
Earlier in 1696-97, sixth Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (November 3, 1618 – March 3, 1707) – who ruled over almost the entire Indian Subcontinent for a period of 49 years from July 31, 1658 to March 3, 1707 – sent Zabardast Khan to Bengal in order to suppress the revolt triggered by local ruler Shobha Singh. The Company officials decided to hold trade talks with Khan, as he was an important Mughal official. However, they needed the help of a local influential person to meet Khan. Hence, the Company officials approached Khwaja Israel Sarhad, who was an established businessman based in Hooghly District of Bengal. Moreover, he was the nephew of the renowned Surat-based businessman Khwaja Fanous Kalantar.
When discussions were going on in this regard in June-August 1697, Emperor Aurangzeb appointed his grandson Prince Azim-us-Shan as the Subahdar (Governor) of Bengal. Emperor Farrukhsiyar was the son of Prince Azim-us-Shan. Khwaja Israel Sarhad won young Farrukhsiyar’s heart with the gift of foreign toys. Then, he came closer to Prince Azim-us-Shan. With the help of the father-son duo, Khwaja Israel Sarhad obtained permission from Emperor Aurangzeb on November 10, 1698 that allowed the Company to financially acquire from the existing holders the right to rent the three villages of Calcutta, Sutanati and Govindpore in Bengal for the grand sum of INR 16,000. It was the first step of the expansion of the British Empire in the Indian Subcontinent!
The second step was the Hasb-e-Hukum that the Company received from Emperor Farrukhsiyar in July 1717. Khwaja Israel Sarhad was included in the Delhi-bound Company delegation formed under the pretext of complaining against the unwanted interference of Nawab of Bengal Zafar Khan in British trade. The British Historians, as per their tradition, have given William Hamilton the sole credit for winning the Hasb-e-Hukum from Emperor Farrukhsiyar. Hamilton was a surgeon, associated with the Company, who reportedly cured the Mughal Emperor of a disease. The real fact is Hamilton secured his place in the delegation, accidentally! On the other hand, Khwaja Israel Sarhad, who actually played an important role in this regard, is described as a mere interpreter by Colonial Rulers and the British Historians.
The Englishmen did not forget to show gratitude to the Armenians for helping the former in establishing trade ties with Mughal India. When last independent Nawab of Bengal Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah, commonly known as Siraj-ud-Daulah or Siraj ud-Daula (1733 – July 2, 1757 ), invaded Calcutta in 1756, British men and women fled from the eastern Indian city and took refuge in Falta. Then, Siraj went on to put a stop to the supply of rations in Falta. At that period of time, another Armenian businessman, Khwaja Petrus Aratoon, secretly fed hundreds of Britons, saving them from certain death. However, the Company called Khwaja Petrus Aratoon Siraj’s spy after defeating the Nawab in Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757. Outraged, Khwaja Petrus Aratoon wrote a lengthy letter to the Company authorities in Britain. The Company not only refrained from replying to his letter, but also erased the event from the British Colonial History. An Armenian researcher found the letter many years later.
This is the eternal story of the British Imperialism. The Britons established the Colonial Rule in the Indian Subcontinent with the help of many influential people. However, they did not hesitate to throw them in the garbage pit of history when the need was over!
History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (Vol. II); Robert Orme
The Early Annals of the English in Bengal (Vol. II); C R Wilson
Kolkata; Sripantha, Ananda Publishers Pvt Ltd
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