A Revaluation of their Role in Indian History
No period in Indian history has drawn as much attention and scholarly research as has the period in Indian history that corresponds with Mughal rule. Western and many Indian historians alike have focused on the reign of the Mughals almost to the point of total neglect and exclusion of other periods in Indian history. In-depth investigation of other ruling dynasties whether subordinate to the Mughals (such as the lesser-known Rajputs or Bundelkhandis) or preceding them (such as the Parmars, Kakathiyas, or Sharqis) or their southern contemporaries (such as Tamil Nadu’s Pandyas) has rarely attracted the scholarly attention of influential historians, and often their role in Indian history has been seen as peripheral to that of the Mughals, or their contribution to Indian civilization seen as tangential and marginal.
Journalists, art critics and popular historians have been particularly infected by such biases, and even highly respected art critics and social scientists have written quite dismissively of India’s regional kingdoms that preceded Mughal rule or rose in the wake of it’s precipitous decline.
While the romance of the Taj Mahal (and other such grand monuments) and the extraordinary brilliance of Mughal artifacts might partially justify and explain the special attention Western and Indian scholars have paid to the Mughal courts, it cannot be denied that at least some of this interest echoes colonially motivated biases leading to slanted interpretations of Indian history. It is also motivated by the tendency to view history from the perspective of the most powerful rulers and elites rather than from the perspective of the masses or intermediate categories.
While the Indianness or foreignness of the Mughals has been quite hotly debated in recent years, one aspect of the history of the Mughals that has largely escaped scholarly attention – (even by subaltern scholars) has been the role of expansionist militarism in shaping the reign of virtually every Mughal ruler up to Aurangzeb (with the possible exclusion of Jehangir).
Although war-making was not a uniquely Mughal practice, the centrality of the military campaigns in Mughal decision-making and administration does stand out. In the frequency, scale and intensity of their military campaigns, the Mughals had more in common with the ruling heads of the Delhi Sultanate than is commonly acknowledged.
This is not to say that there weren’t important distinctions. Unlike many of the earlier invaders, the Mughals were relatively more conscious of being in a foreign land, andin his memoirs Babar spoke very deliberately of the need for conducting a secular policy in a country that was predominantly non-Islamic. In this respect, the Mughals were much more aware of the need to gain legitimacy and to win political allies in an alien land.
Their taste for the fine things in life – for beautifully designed artifacts and the enjoyment and appreciation of cultural activities also distinguished them from other interlopers who were skilled at war-making and little else. But it should be noted that the reigns of Akbar and Aurangzeb in particular, were marked by a shrewd (and sometimes ruthless) approach in the conduct of their political and military strategies.
Several aspects of their policy illustrate the importance of their military campaigns. Capitals were frequently moved to centers more suited to the conduct of specific military campaigns. Alliances with Rajput rulers were sought based on their ability to contribute to the Mughal war efforts. Investments were made in upgrading the weapons of war and ensuring that Mughal military technology maintained it’s edge. Every Mughal prince was groomed in the battle arts not only through early training but through hands-on experience in real battles. So entrenched was the culture of war that it pit brother against brother in battles of succession.
This concentration on war efforts emerges quite vividly from court chronicles and surviving correspondence between Shahjahan and the young Aurangzeb where almost nothing else is discussed but the progress of the latest war effort. War scenes and gory depictions of battles were also common themes in the miniatures commissioned during the reign of Akbar.
The militarist character of the Mughals was not entirely unexpected since had they not been seeped in the tradition of warfare, they would have never attempted to conquer Northern India and extend their control over the rest of the Indian subcontinent in the first place.
In this respect, the Mughals were very much in the tradition of the nomadic warrior clans that periodically swooped down from the grasslands and deserts of Central Asia and either plundered and raided the settled agricultural civilizations or succeeded in conquering them. Not only India, but China, Eastern Europe, and the fertile crescents of the Middle East also experienced such attacks and invasions. Since the nomadic hunter clans lacked agricultural territories that could be tapped for their surplus, the only means to wealth in such parts of the globe were raids on settled civilizations or looting or taxation of trade caravans. Trading in slaves was another source of income. Seasoned and practised in the art of warfare, the nomadic warrior clans often prevailed with considerable ease over the armies of the settled civilizations who were usually taken by surprise and were inexperienced at handling the unconventional (and terrorist-like) tactics of the invaders.
Over time, in settled civilizations, the cost to both sides of protracted battles and the potential destruction of vital crop-lands and urban settlements created a natural resistance to internecine warfare. When the combatants were roughly evenly matched (as was often the case) decisive victories were virtually impossible. Even if one side finally prevailed, the cost of victory would be very high.
In India, this led not only to critiques of war from Jains and Buddhists but also from followers of the various Bhakti streams that drew the artisans and the peasantry. Even Kautilya’s Arthashastra (which did not call for eschewing war) counseled kings in approaching war with shrewd caution and foresight. Kings were advised to make peace and offer diplomatic treaties in exchange for war whenever decisive victories were deemed unlikely. While such pragmatism did not eliminate wars, it did help in limiting their frequency and length. And since agricultural taxes were the primary source of income for both the warring factions, it was in the mutual interest of both parties to enforce a culture of chivalry and ethics in war that prevented civilian casualties and avoided the destruction of farmland, orchards and irrigation works.
When the Arab armies invaded Sindh, the local populations were caught completely off guard when their irrigation systems were destroyed and all the rules of chivalry considered customary in the subcontinent appeared to have little relevance for the invaders who sought victory at any cost. Of course, by the time the Mughals arrived in the Indian subcontinent, Northern India was no longer ruled by Hindu kings. But the Islamic rulers were no more adept at preventing conquests from new invaders. Once victorious, no Islamic conqueror was able to establish a stable dynastic reign for any length of time. New invaders arrived on the scene with regularity, and defeated previous rulers, many of whom were hated and despised by the local populace. Lacking popular support, none were able to establish kingdoms of any size.
Thus the initial victory of Babar over the Lodhis was not a particularly remarkable event. An event of far greater consequence was the defeat of Humayun at the hands of Sher Shah Suri – the Narnaul (Haryana) born son of a regional Mughal administrator. Born and raised in India, Sher Shah Suri was much more familiar with Indian conditions and keenly aware of how Humayun’s hold on power was extremely tenuous. Taking advantage of the hollowness of support for the second Mughal, he succeeded in subduing Mughal holdouts and unifying Punjab and the Gangetic plain. The construction of the Grand Trunk Road and the launching of new (and specialized) manufacturing towns in the plains facilitated in the expansion of trade and industry. Administrative changes and social reforms that helped in creating a stable tax base and a modicum of legitimacy for the kingdom were also introduced. When Humayun returned to the throne in Delhi, he thus inherited the foundations of a potentially larger and more wealthy empire.
During Akbar’s reign (and to a much greater extent during the reign of Jehangir), trade activities were further facilitated by the construction of numerous caravansarais (inns) and hospitals along the Grand Trunk Road, especially in Punjab. State-owned karkhanas (factories) were commissioned so as to produce high-quality luxury goods for use in the courts and for export. Income from agriculture and trade filled the Mughal treasuries and was used to fund the series of war campaigns that took the Mughal armies deep into the Deccan plateau and as far east as Assam, and westwards to the Afghan border with Iran. These war campaigns depended in large measure on the collaboration of the Rajput and Bundelkhand armies, who were won over through a combination of incentives and political coercion.
The sizeable tax base of the fertile plain of the Ganges enabled Akbar to entice the allegiance of the most powerful Rajput chiefs (such as those of Jaipur and Bikaner), who were granted tax rights on parts of the Gangetic plain. Marriage alliances cemented the relationships, and some of the most decisive Mughal victories were achieved under the military leadership of Jaipur’s Raja Man Singh. Others were coerced into accepting Mughal “partnership” on unequal terms through a combination of military threats and by holding members of the royal clans hostage in Delhi. The hill Rajputs, the kingdoms of Datia, Jhansi and Orchha, were all required to pay tribute, and provide soldiers for the Mughal expeditions. Those who resisted such coercive collaboration (such as Gwalior) were suitably punished so as to warn others of what may befall them if they rebelled.
In this manner, the Mughal empire expanded to cover almost the entire length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent (excluding only the deep South). But military success did not guarantee stability or popular acceptance. While initially, income from agricultural taxes and trade exceeded the cost of the incessant war campaigns (and the lavish expenditure on locally procured and imported luxury goods), by the time Aurangzeb took over the throne, the Mughal treasuries had been virtually depleted.
The earliest of the Islamic invasions into the Indian subcontinent had paid for themselves through the pillage and plunder of temple wealth and jewelry and other savings of the defeated populations (which may have been accumulated over several generations). The invading armies also profited from the sale of captured soldiers and civilians taken as slaves. However, by the time the Mughals arrived on the Indian scene, all the temples with any wealth had already been plundered, and considerable resistance had developed to the practice of taking slaves through warfare. As a result, these avenues of wealth were no longer available to the Mughals who had to rely mainly on agricultural taxes. Trade was not heavily taxed because like their predecessors, the Mughals depended on the support of the mercantile classes in legitimizing their rule. Agricultural taxes thus reached an all-time high in India during Mughal rule (and were exceeded only by the British colonizers).
This naturally led to constant rebellions in large parts of the Mughal territories. The hill Rajputs, the Mewar Rajputs and the Central Indian kings resisted paying tribute, while many local nobles reneged on passing on the taxes to Delhi. Many local officials (in attempting to emulate the luxurious lifestyles of the Mughal courts) spent all the tax income locally, and got away by bribing Mughal officials in Delhi. During the reign of Shah Jahan, a new problem appeared. Even though the demand for Indian manufactures and exports had reached unprecedented levels, little of that wealth reached the Mughal treasuries since traders outside India began to hold on to most of the profits. A series of unsuccessful military campaigns were initiated in an attempt to achieve greater control over India’s export trade, but these efforts came to naught. At the same time, Shah Jehan’s appetite for grand building projects and luxury imports remained undiminished.
Fearing the bankruptcy of the Mughal state, Aurangzeb staged a military coup against his father and put an end to all lavish spending. But without the ability to dole out expensive gifts and tax rights, Aurangzeb relied more and more on the orthodox clergy to legitimize his rule (a trend initiated by Shah Jahan). But this was hardly the solution for the Mughal state’s diminishing credibility. Although Aurangzeb managed to keep up the outward appearance of invincibility, the Mughal state was in fact in severe crisis. After Aurangzeb’s death, centrifugal forces quickly spun out of control, and only some of the plains close to Delhi eventually remained in Mughal hands.
The peasantry almost throughout the Mughal territories had been chafing under the burden of high taxes. In Punjab, the peasants and artisans had been radicalized under the influence of Guru Gobind Singh who encouraged the equal participation of women – both in matters of religion and on the battlefield. In Haryana, Jat and Yadav allies declared their independence. In the Marathwada region, a multi-caste alliance of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, volunteers from peasant and artisan castes, along with disaffected Muslims joined hands in the Maratha rebellions. Regional administrators declared their independence in the Afghan region, and in Kashmir, Awadh and Bengal. The hill Rajputs, the Bundelkhandis and the Adivasi-origin rulers of the Jabalpur/Nagpur belt – all refused to pay tribute.
Some historians have attempted to lay the blame for this Mughal collapse entirely on Aurangzeb’s zealotry, contrasting Aurangzeb’s religious conservatism with Akbar’s eclectic tolerance which led to architectural innovations and cultural synthesis. Admirers of the syncretic traditions that developed in Akbar’s court point to the stylistic fusion that took place in Fatehpur Sikri, and how some talented Hindus played an important role in his administration.
But even as Aurangzeb’s sectarian messianic tendencies may have been the immediate catalyst for some of the rebellions that triggered the downfall of the Mughal empire, they should not be seen as the sole explanation for the disintegration of the Mughal empire. Challenges to Mughal rule had already begun right after Akbar’s military successes. And although Aurangzeb identified closely with Islamic orthodoxy – the employment of Hindus in Aurangzeb’s court was at a higher level than what prevailed in the court of Akbar. Like his predecessors, Aurangzeb also continued with the practice of seeking alliances with Hindu rulers, but abandoned the practice of developing marital ties with them. Without the bonds of inter-marriage, and with a tax base that was becoming less stable, the motivations for the Rajputs to fight Mughal battles was waning, and coercion was becoming less effective.
But even more fundamental factors were also in play. The high rate of taxation on the peasantry was simply unsustainable. Another important reason for the unraveling of Mughal power was that beyond Sindh, Punjab, Kashmir and the Yamuna and Gangetic plains, Mughal rule had simply not made enough of a positive contribution to justify its continuance.
It is therefore ironic how some of the most ardent fans of economic and political decentralization in modern India have written admiringly of the “unified” Mughal empire, as though centralization was an end in itself. It is important to note that the “unification” of India that Akbar had achieved was almost entirely through war and coercion. But more important, the benefits of this centralization did not flow throughout the empire. Some territories paid tribute but received no tangible gains in exchange. In particular, the regions corresponding to present-day Gujarat, Chhatisgarh, Chota Nagpur and Vidarbha, Eastern Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and much of North Bihar were starved of investment, and experienced stagnation or decline.
Beyond the main trade routes that linked Northern India to the rest of the world, the Mughal state invested neither in agricultural expansion nor in manufacturing or infrastructure to promote trade. Since the bulk of the Mughal manufacturing towns were located either along the Yamuna and Gangetic plains (or along the Indus), it is no coincidence that Mughal legitimacy survived primarily only in these regions of India.
Historians who write admiringly and uncritically about Akbar’s “secularism” and eclectic tastes, and draw too sharp a distinction between Akbar and Aurangzeb miss such crucial points. It should be clarified that although most of the Mughals were consciously “secular” – at no point during their rule did the Mughals allot administrative posts in proportion to the actual population of Hindus and Muslims. Muslims were always over-represented. And in their support of the arts and music, the tastes of the early Mughals remained strongly biased towards Central Asian, Persian and Chinese traditions. Miniatures sponsored by Babar were entirely in the Samarqand/Bukhara tradition, while during the reign of Akbar, Persian and Western imitations also became popular. Only with Jehangir did the Mughal arts lose their hotchpotch and uneven character and begin to develop into a distinctive and more consistent style.
Jehangir (born of a Rajput mother) was considerably influenced by Rajput tastes, and rewarded skilled Hindu artisans with prominent positions in his court. With a remarkable eye for excellence in design and execution in the arts and crafts, he encouraged talent and promoted merit without discrimination. He also took an interest in local flora and fauna, and like his father, had an interest in philosophy. Dara Shukoh and Shah Jahan were inheritors of this taste for creative sophistication and ornamental exuberance. With Shah Jahan, a refined delicacy came to define courtly tastes, but there was also a trend towards rarified formalism, which prevented the Mughal tradition from imbibing popular and folk influences in the manner of the Rajput or Bundelkhand rulers.
Mughal courtly culture also remained somewhat apart from the folk traditions of the Indian masses through the promotion of Persian as the language of culture, and Urdu as the language of administration. Although popular with urban intellectuals and the cultural elite, Urdu with it’s plethora of Persian and Arabic words, and non-Indian script could not have gained mass acceptance, and remained a language primarily of the elite. Outside the Hindi belt, this was an even bigger problem. Considering the steady drain of wealth from areas further away from the Mughal capitals and urban centers, it was almost inevitable that alienation from Mughal rule would set in very quickly. The plateau regions of Central India (and other outlying regions) had simply no stake in a unified Mughal empire and that is why a broad and secular coalition of forces arose in defiance of Mughal authority in such areas.
A grave drawback of Mughal rule was the failure of the Mughal rulers to devote even a fraction of their treasuries on anything resembling modern education. Aurangzeb was especially skeptical about the relevance of modern science and technology. Whereas the European nations had begun to invest in printed books and public universities, the Mughal rulers demonstrated at best a passing interest in the sciences. As a result, even though the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb had successfully fended off the expansion of European trading settlements in India, no durable foundation for the unity and scientific advancement of India had been laid by the Mughals. Mughal rule had left India largely incapable of dealing with the challenge of European military and cultural ascendance.
Unfortunately, such shortcomings of Mughal rule have largely escaped the attention of serious historians in India. And those who have been critical have focused almost exclusively on the communal angle (on the repression of Hindu religion and culture), ignoring socio-economic and political factors that may have been equally, or far more germane. Communally focused critics of Mughal rule have often ignored how particular caste categories offered their services and allegiance to Mughal rule, and received tangible benefits in exchange. Kayasthas in particular experienced upward mobility as they rose from being scribes and junior record-keepers to hold important administrative posts, and achieved a social rank comparable to court Brahmins. Mercantile caste categories also had a stake in the success of Mughal rule. Hindu money-lenders and shop-keepers did quite well in the prosperous Mughal towns, and a majority of the top revenue administrators under the Mughals (even during the reign of Aurangzeb) were either Hindu Banias or Brahmins.
Bihar’s Maithil Brahmins had been promoted by earlier Islamic rulers, and their regional and local authority was not challenged by the Mughals. And while other regional Hindu rulers (such as the Mewar and Hill Rajputs, or the Bundelkhandis) often felt oppressed by Mughal rule, they lived lives of considerable comfort and leisure, and this restrained them from organizing collectively and mounting any serious challenge to Mughal rule.
On the other hand, the fascination for the Mughals amongst British (or British-influenced) historians, art critics and Indologists is not too hard to explain. By treating Mughal rule as the high point of Indian civilization and by over-emphasizing its Persian inspiration, British scholars of Indian civilization have tried to create the false impression that all great things in India have required external stimulus.
Their interest in Mughal rule has also stemmed from the subconscious desire to represent colonial rule in India as not too different from that of the Mughals. The fact that the Mughals came as alien conquerors and created a vast empire on the basis of shrewdly conceived coercive political strategies and military victories gives apologists for British colonial rule almost an excuse to ignore the uniquely devastating consequences of colonization. That the Mughals increased the taxes on the peasantry, introduced a language that was laden with foreign words and written in a foreign script, that in certain respects they remained aloof and apart from indigenous cultural trends – all this made British rule appear more as continuation than sharp departure from the Indian experience.
But in spite of such parallels, there are vital and important distinctions that separate Mughal rule in India from British rule in India. Firstly, at no point during Mughal rule was the impoverishment of the peasantry and the broad masses as extreme as it was during the period of British colonization. It should also be noted that whereas Indian manufactures acquired a well-deserved reputation for outstanding quality, and were in great demand during the reigns of Jehangir and Shahjahan, India became a dumping ground for European exports and manufacturing suffered a precipitous decline after the defeat at Plassey.
For all their flaws, and their alien instincts, the Mughals came to settle in India. Over time, they became steadily indigenized, and that is why the last Mughals resisted the British during the rebellion of 1857. Akbar’s policy of inter-marriage with Rajput princesses not only served a tactical purpose in the realm of military policy, it also had the effect of indigenizing Mughal tastes. Although British historians and art critics have written at great length on how Akbar drew from the courts in Herat (now Afghanistan) and Shiraz or Tabriz (now Iran) – Jehangir’s encouragement of bold colors and creative naturalist designs in the artifacts he commissioned owed much to Rajput traditions. Local influences rubbed off on the Mughals to a much greater extent than on the British rulers who virtually destroyed the cultural traditions of the areas they ruled directly.
But more importantly, even as the Mughals frittered away the wealth they extracted from the peasantry – their legacy of fine arts and architecture remained in India. India’s wealth was not systematically transferred to another country. In the aftermath of their collapse, regional forces with greater popular acceptance took over and some indigenous cultural traditions reasserted themselves fairly quickly and easily. But the legacy of colonial plunder and cultural indoctrination has been much harder to reverse and erase. It continues to have an insidious effect on many aspects of Indian life.
Thus no matter how artfully British intellectuals have used their representations of Mughal rule to rationalize the immiserization of India during British rule, the colossal drain of wealth and psychic destruction that took place simply has no parallels in Indian history. For that reason, Mughal rule cannot and should not be equated to European colonization.
At the same time, for Indian (or Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Afghan) historians and social scientists interested in expanding democratic rights and furthering the process of social equity in the subcontinent, it is critical that Mughal rule be subject to greater scrutiny. The romance and mystique surrounding the Mughal era in India needs to be overcome but without falling into the communal trap where Mughal rule is seen as an even greater evil than colonization.