Najafgarh: A Kingmaker in the Capital

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    Najafgarh is a suburb in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and figures prominently on Delhi’s Metro system as a stop on the city’s Gray Line. But the word ‘Najafgarh’ also tells the fascinating story of a prominent figure in Mughal history.

    Mirza Najaf Khan was a Persian military commander of the Nawabs of Bengal and the Mughal Emperor, and he played a pivotal role in North Indian politics in the late 18th century. It is in the present-day town of Najafgarh in South-West Delhi that Najaf Khan built a massive fort, to protect Delhi against attacks from the British, Sikhs and Rohillas, all of whom were threats to the seat of the Mughal Empire in Delhi. Sadly, no traces of the fort survive today.

    Ironically, most Delhiites are not aware of whom Najaf Khan was, yet his name is found in many places across the city. The Najafgarh Nullah or Drain is a channel of the Sahibi River, which enters Delhi at Dhansa village. The river starts in the Alwar district of Rajasthan and empties into the Yamuna near Delhi. Now, Najafgarh Nullah is synonymous with being Delhi’s most polluted water body.

    Then there is Najafgarh Lake in the Najafgarh area. Until the 1960s, the lake was fed by the Sahibi River, which during the monsoon spilled over into the Najafgarh basin, submerging an area that covered 300 sq km. Then, in the 1960s, a channel was built by the Flood Control Department of Delhi, to connect the lake to the Yamuna River, thus draining the area and preventing submergence.

    Another reminder of the man who lent his name to so many landmarks is Najaf Khan Road, which leads to his mausoleum in the Lodhi Estate area of Delhi.

    So who was Mirza Najaf Khan? And what role did he play in history? Let’s go back to the Battle of Plassey, fought in 1757 CE, to get a sense of who this great Persian commander really was.

    Trouble in Bengal

    After the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE, the British dethroned Siraj-ud-Daula as the Nawab of Bengal and installed Mir Jafar on the throne. Mir Jafar was a puppet of the British and he was soon dismayed at the endless demands being made by the British East India Company. So he started conspiring with the Dutch against the English. When his gambit failed, the British replaced Mir Jafar with Mir Qasim, his son-in-law, in 1760 CE, assuming that he would be more pliable than his father-in-law. They couldn’t have been more wrong!

    Mir Qasim soon fell out with the British East India Company. British merchants had gained an unfair advantage over their local counterparts and Mir Qasim wanted to give Indians a level playing field. He abolished all taxes for local traders, making local goods as cheap as foreign products as the Company refused to pay the 9-per cent uniform tax. This brought Mir Qasim in conflict with the British, who by 1763 CE, wanted to depose him. A series of battles between the two forces ensued.

    The most celebrated of Mir Qasim’s Generals was Mirza Najaf Khan, a cavalry commander related to the royal Safavid House of Persia and who had only recently arrived in India from Isfahan. He had chosen to emigrate to the Mughal court in Delhi in 1735 CE, after the Safavids were ousted from power by Nader Shah.

    As a General for Mir Qasim, Najaf Khan found innovative ways to stay informed about the movements of their enemy, the East India Company. For instance, during the Battle of Murshidabad in 1763 CE, he got local guides to lead a group of his men through the marshes at the base of a hill where the British camp was perched along with soldiers of Nawab Mir Jafar. (The British wanted to depose Mir Qasim and reinstate Mir Jafar to the throne). Najaf Khan destroyed this camp and inflicted massive losses on the Company.

    Najaf Khan was the most valiant of the Generals under Mir Qasim and inspired immense loyalty among his troops. Apart from being brave, he was also an outspoken man and had advised his employer, Mir Qasim, to enter into an alliance with Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, with a view to forming a grand Mughal alliance against the East India Company. The forces of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II were also part of this alliance.

    But the alliance failed. Its combined forces were defeated at the Battle of Buxar in 1764 CE. The East India Company lost about 850 sepoys but the Mughal grand alliance lost as many as 5,000 soldiers. Mir Qasim was a broken man and he died near Delhi in 1777 CE, in penury.

    Move To Awadh

    While Shuja-ud-Daula was continued in his position as the Nawab of Awadh by the East India Company, after the size of his kingdom was reduced and after paying hefty war reparations, the power in Awadh passed to the British. But Najaf Khan’s career continued to thrive. He shrewdly married his sister to Shuja-ud-Daula and was promoted as Deputy Wazir of Awadh.

    Meanwhile, Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was stuck in Allahabad after his defeat at the Battle of Buxar. Shah Alam II was allowed to remain in the city although he pined for Delhi and to be restored as Mughal Emperor in the Red Fort, which was under the occupation of Zabita Khan, a Rohilla warlord. The Rohillas were Afghans who had settled in the regions east of Delhi. Taking advantage of the collapse of Mughal power, they had seized vast regions around the Mughal capital.

    The Marathas, during this time, were reconquering parts of Northern India, following their defeat in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 CE. Their commanders, Mahadji Scindia and Tukoji Holkar, despite being rivals within the Maratha Empire, agreed to help reinstall Shah Alam II on the throne of Delhi, to have him as a nominal figurehead while they took control and ruled Northern India. To take him to Delhi, they needed a military general who was both popular with his troops and commanded their respect. The search ended with Mirza Najaf Khan.

    The Emperor meticulously planned his route from Allahabad to Delhi with his new general. First, they had to defeat the Jat Raja of Deeg and then the Rohilla leader Zabita Khan. The Jat Raja had occupied much of the land between Delhi and Agra and after reconquering these areas could the forces of Najaf Khan move onto Rohilkhand. On 17th January 1772 CE, Shah Alam II set off with Najaf Khan and Mahadji Scindia to attack the Pathargarh fortress of Zabita Khan. A turning point was reached during the ensuing battle when Najaf Khan managed to get his camel cavalry onto an island halfway across the river Ganga at Chandighat. This led Zabita Khan to flee and take refuge in Pathargarh (now known as Najibabad in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh).

    Najaf Khan ended the siege of this formidable fortress by cutting off its water supply. With the defeat of the Rohillas, the road to Delhi for Shah Alam II was laid open. After he was restored to the throne at the Red Fort, Shah Alam II rewarded Najaf Khan in full durbar with the post of Paymaster General and a gift of estates in Hansi and Hissar.

    But Najaf Khan was not finished. He used the revenue generated from these estates to raise further battalions, including one made up of destitute Rohillas. He made it a point to also recruit as many European mercenaries as he could, to train his troops. These included high-profile soldiers of fortune such as Bréton René Madec, an Alsatian assassin; Walter Reinhardt, known as ‘Sumru’; and Swiss adventurer Antoine Pollier, who had helped the East India Company reconstruct Fort William in Calcutta after Siraj-ud-Daula had destroyed the earlier structure. Comte de Modave, a French aristocrat, too joined the army of Najaf Khan. He even employed around 6,000 Naga Sanyasis as shock troops.

    Reclaiming An Empire

    Next, Najaf Khan set about reconquering parts of the Mughal Empire. Thus, on 27th August 1773 CE, he captured the northern-most outpost of the Jat Raja of Deeg, Nawal Singh, Maidangarhi, which was a large, mud fort back then (Now incorporated into Delhi, it hosts the headquarters of IGNOU). Najaf Khan was wounded later in the campaign against the Jats but he managed to defeat them.

    After winning the mighty fortress of Ramgarh, Najaf Khan renamed it ‘Aligarh’, now in Aligarh city around 130 km south-east of Delhi. He then laid siege and conquered the old Mughal Fort at Agra. In less than four years, Najaf Khan had reclaimed almost all the important strongholds of the Mughal dominions. He even reestablished control over many parts around Delhi.

    Despite his string of successes, Mirza Najaf Khan had to navigate complicated court politics. This included clashing with his archrival, Abdul Ahmad Khan, a Kashmiri Sunni Minister of Shah Alam II who resented the rise of Najaf Khan, a Shi’a Muslim.

    In 1775 CE, the Jats rose in revolt against the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II and his General Najaf Khan. In November 1779 CE, after the fall from grace of his arch rival, Abdul Ahmad Khan, Mirza Najaf Khan was made Regent, or Vakil-i-Mutqal, and he was only 42 years old. After his grand promotion, Najaf Khan started suffering from long spells of fever and sickness.

    He had contracted tuberculosis and had become bedridden by August 1781 CE. Mirza Najaf Khan died aged at age 46 on 6th April 1782 CE. He was given the title Zul-Fiqaru’d-Daula (Ultimate Discriminator of the Kingdom).

    Najaf Khan’s tomb is not far from that of Safdarjung, the second Nawab of Awadh, in the Lodhi Estate area of Delhi. Construction of the tomb started in 1782 CE, by his devoted daughter, Fatima. But the money ran out and the tomb complex is unfinished to this day. Only the first floor and the boundary walls are complete.

    Within two years of his death, almost all the territorial gains he had made and consolidated for Emperor Shah Alam II were lost and, ironically, there wasn’t enough money to build a decent mausoleum for him. Upon her death in 1820 CE, his daughter Fatima chose to be buried beside her father in this tomb complex.

    In fact, when the British were building their new capital, New Delhi, from 1911 to 1931, the tomb complex escaped demolition by a sliver. It was deemed as “being in poor repair and the family is said to be disloyal to the Government during old times”, an added reason to raze the structure.

    Although the tomb itself is unfinished, the entire complex has been preserved and is now a public park. The actual tomb’s entrance is out of bounds as is the first storey. The tomb complex bears only a hint of the signature Persian Char Bagh design, as was the norm for Mughal-era tombs. Grassy fields are divided into four distinct sections, according to the Char Bagh design, and the trees, even if not exotic, cast a gentle shade. Pause here and reflect on the fascinating story of a Persian adventurer who played a role in one of the most turbulent periods of Indian history.


    Barun Ghosh is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, New York. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he’s a landscape, architecture and food photographer. He is also a heritage enthusiast and currently pursuing a degree in history (honours) from IGNOU. He tweets at @barunghosh.

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