Earlier this month, former prime minister Imran Khan stirred up a storm when he lashed out at his opponents, terming them the 'Mir Jafars and Mir Sadiqs' of today.
During the same speech, delivered at a rally in Abottabad, the PTI chief had said that Mir Jafar was the commander-in-chief of Sirajud Daula, the governor of Bengal, and that he had joined hands with the English to topple the Mughal government. He then drew a comparison to his own ouster, saying his government had been toppled through “the Mir Jafars and Mir Sadiqs of today”.
In his address to the National Assembly, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took strong exception to his predecessor's remarks, terming them a "vilification" of state institutions" and accusing him of “hatching a grand conspiracy against Pakistan”.
A week later, Imran clarified that Prime Minister Shehbaz was the 'Mir Jafar' he was referring to, as he appeared to deny that any institution was the focus of the analogy he often draws.
This wasn't the first time Imran Khan or other politicians, for that matter, have brought up the mention of Mir Jafar or Mir Sadiq in their political commentary. From talk shows to legislative proceedings, the two personalities are often used to describe political opponents whom the speaker wishes to label a traitor.
But who were Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq and how did they come to be regarded as the ultimate villains in Pakistani political parlance?
In the 18th century, there was no nation state in India, neither was there any concept of nationhood. There were dynastic rulers and people used to easily change their loyalty if a new dynasty came into power. This switching of loyalties had become usual practice and society also recognised it as a necessary evil, without blaming or ostracising those who shifted their loyalties.
In the case of Tipu Sultan (d.1799), the Muslim community of South India regarded his family as lower caste. His father, Hyder Ali (d.1782), had been a common soldier before he proved his military acumen and over the years, came to be promoted to the post of commander-in-chief by the then rulers of Mysore — an independent state at the time. Later, Hyder overthrew the government, imprisoned the king of Mysore and declared himself king.
Hyder may have amassed power but the caste system in the subcontinent was so deeply entrenched that when his son, Tipu, wanted to marry into the family of the Nizam of Deccan, his proposal was rejected because his social status was lower than that of the Nizam.
The muslim community of Seringapatam — the capital of Mysore — shared this sentiment and regarded the family of Tipu Sultan as being from a lower status. Throughout his reign, their motive was to dislodge him from power. Mir Sadiq, who was prime minister under Tipu Sultan, was also a member of this community that shared their feelings towards Tipu Sultan's caste.
Thus when the British laid siege to Seringapatam in 1798-99, Mir Sadiq allegedly betrayed Tipu Sultan, paving the way for a British victory. Soon after, he was killed by Mysorean troops as he was on his way to welcome the British.
After the decentralisation of the Mughal Empire, three independent states emerged, including the Avadh, Murshidabad of Bengal and the state of Deccan. Sirajud Daulah (d.1757), the last independent Nawab of Bengal, was a great grandson of Murshid Quli Khan (d.1727), who assumed power in Bengal during the Mughal downfall. Therefore, there was no legitimacy to his dynastic rule. His commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar, whose family originated from Iran, was not interested in protecting India from the East India Company. He was, in fact, more interested in becoming Nawab and enjoying political power.
During the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Robert Clive — who commanded the expedition on behalf of the East India Company — bribed Mir Jafar and and also promised to make him Nawab of Bengal. Subsequently, Sirajud Daulah was killed in battle and his forces were defeated, giving the British complete control of the state of Bengal, with Mir Jafar as the Nawab.
What was interesting was that when he was placed on the throne, there was no protest against his rule and people started recognising him as the sovereign. Mir Jafar ruled the state until his death in 1765, with the exception of a brief period between 1760 and 1763 when the British forced him to abdicate in favour of his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, before reinstalling him.
Vilification through poetry
So how have these characters, who may well have been forgotten in the annals of history like others before them, come to capture the minds of Pakistani politicians?
Perhaps the biggest contributor to their notoriety has been the poetry of Allama Iqbal — the poet of the East. "Jaffar az Bengal, Sadiq az Deccan; nang-e-deen, nang-e-millat, nang-e-watan [Jafar of Bengal and Sadiq of Deccan are a disgrace to the faith, a disgrace to the nation and a disgrace to the country]," he wrote of the two personalities.
Many other poets have also drawn analogies between the two Mirs to vilify characters in their writings, but it is Iqbal's poetry that has been most effective in perpetrating the narrative.
It is, however, important to contextualise the situation in which Iqbal wrote the famous couplet. This was a time when the subcontinent was divided politically along the lines of religion — specifically Hindus and Muslims. At such a time, Iqbal's purpose was to urge muslims to pledge their allegiance to the Muslim League. It was his belief that for political mileage, Muslims must be united under one banner.
Besides poetry, the two Mirs have over the years also found mention in several novels, which again portray them as villains or use their names for the antagonists.
Nations versus dynasties
Both Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq were disloyal to the person or dynasty they had pledged fealty to, not to a nation state. For at the time, there was no nation state to speak of. The concept of the traitor to a country or a nation emerged after the establishment of the nation state, because as a member of the nation state, it is the duty of every citizen to safeguard its interests.
This write-up is not an attempt to justify the actions of Mir Jafar or Mir Sadiq, because they indeed changed their loyalties for personal gains. As a result, the British extorted a lot of money from Mir Jafar who died disgracefully. Meanwhile, Mir Sadiq disappeared in the annals of history, leaving no traces of his progeny or legacy after Tipu Sultan's death.
Imran Khan terms his opponents and detractors 'Mir Jafar' because he wants to label them traitors to the Pakistani nation. That is neither what the two Mirs were, nor what our present-day politicians are doing.
Like the Mirs, today's politicians too change loyalties from one party to another, depending on their personal interests. This shows unprincipled and often times, immoral behaviour, on the part of the politicians, which is criticised and condemned by the people. It is, however, disloyalty to that party, not to the nation. It is also a continuation of our history, where politicians preferred personal interests over loyalty to the ruler of the day.