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The Mughals – Rise, Decay and Fall  - Asia/Pacific

The Mughals – Rise, Decay and Fall

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on
(Pic is from the movie Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan) 

Genghis Khan had said in the beginning, “conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard”.

When the Mongol onslaught hit the Khwarizmi Empire that ruled areas today in Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Alaud Din Muhammad was their last fateful ruler in 1231. This was the beginning of the Mongol conquest of the Islamic states and here Chagatai one of Genghis Khan’s son formed his Khanate. In the Chagatai’s Khanate, in a local Mongol-Turkified confederation by the name Barlas, was born Timur the Lame, who took over the Khangate by 1370.

Timur, born a Muslim, advised by scholar Abdul Jabbar Khwarazmi and spiritual mentor Sayyid Baraka, took pride in his genealogy and sought to invoke the legacy of Genghis Khan's conquests during his lifetime. Timur made conquests all over Persian Lands, was in constant battles with the Golden Hordes and sacked Delhi, disintegrating the Tuglaq Dynasty. At the end of his reign, Timur had gained complete control over all of the Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde, 3 of the 4 Mongol Empires. 

Babur, a 5th generation descendant of Timur, ascended the throne of Fergana in 1495 at age 12. Babur constantly fought wars to save one city after the other in his kingdom, when finally he settled in Kabul. Here at the invitation of Daulat Khan Lodi, a rebel of the Lodhi dynasty, Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 and founded the Mughal Empire. Like this the Mughals ended 320years of the Delhi Sultanate for another 330years rule of the Mughals.

The first 6 rulers of the Mughals ruled for close to 180 years - they were politically agile, receptive of the new cultural and religious matrix they had landed in and were battle-strong. For the reason that Babur, Humanyun, Akbar and Aurangzeb loved their horsebacks so much, they kept conquering more and more of India until with Aurangzeb almost the whole subcontinent was under Mughal rule. But with Aurangzeb’s son Bahadur Shah 1(1707), it seems that the Mongol spirit had died in the Mughals. He took the help of Aurangzeb’s two generals the ‘Sayyid Brothers’ to get the throne, this dependence increased the influence of the brothers, and they came to be known as the kingmakers as they managed to replaced 6 kings in a matter of 12years – how would such weak a court, control an over-stretched empire, already vying between a variety of cultural, religious and ethnic affinities. 

It was not as if Bahadur Shah I had inherited a peace-bound India, the Maratha had rebelled throughout the last 27 years of Aurangzeb’s rule – and the court could not afford internal strife. By the time Muhammad Shah was able to eliminate the Sayyid Brothers by 1722, Dehli was ready for its second sacking at the hands of Nadir Shah of Persia.

Capturing Ghazni, Kabul, Peshawar, Sindh and Lahore in the way, Nadir crushed a 6times larger Mughal army of 300,000. He entered Delhi with the Mughal king at his side – 30,000 residents were killed. Nadir look away so much riches from India and the Mughal court that he did not tax the Persians for 3years coming – in return Mohammad Shah could just as much keep his throne.

In all this time the Marathas had gained large swaths of territories all around Delhi, rendering it impotent. Soon Hyderabad, Oudh, Bengal and Rohilkhand became autonomous states sending annual tributes to Delhi and the Sikhs started organizing in Punjab. Still the real menace were the Marathas, who were about to engulf the Mughals, when Ahmed Shah Abdali crushed them decisively in the 3rd Battle of Panipat at the invitation of Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi, in 1761, in the ruling days of Shah Alam II – this gave the frail Mughals a lifeline of more or less another century to cling to.

In a manner of speaking, it is true that the British East India Company came to India only for trade, but it was really meek of the Mughals to be unable to ascertain that trade it is that wars are fought for gaining and protecting. Here is from the letter Jahangir wrote to James I, when he sent Thomas Roe to visit Jahangir to arrange for a commercial treaty:

‘Upon which assurance of your royal love I have given my general command to all the kingdoms and ports of my dominions to receive all the merchants of the English nation as the subjects of my friend… that neither Portugal nor any other shall dare to molest their quiet… to sell, buy, and to transport into their country at their pleasure. For confirmation of our love and friendship, I desire your Majesty to command your merchants to bring in their ships of all sorts of rarities and rich goods fit for my palace; and that you be pleased to send me your royal letters by every opportunity, that I may rejoice in your health and prosperous affairs; that our friendship may be interchanged and eternal’

Do these words sound like the words of a Mongol warrior, under whose feet are all the treasures of India –  or do they sound like the words of a man with scant command (Noor Jahan was de facto ruler of the empire as reportedly Jahangir was an alcoholic), just finding an opportunity to satiate his lust.

Thus the British had enjoyed a special place in the royal court since that early time and they were able to establish trading posts in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668) and Calcutta (1690) and later the Portuguese ceded Goa and Chittagong posts to them as well. The Dutch posts in Hooghly (Bengal) and Surrat (Gujarat) were ceded to the British after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, even before that they were docile to the British, so the main rival of the British Company were the French, having posts in Pondichéry on the east coast and Chandernagore in Bengal.

Ali Vardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, was especially scorned with the British Company and disavowed the concessions the British claimed to have gotten from the Mughal Court. This was a decisive time for France and Britain, who were vying with each other at several colonial fronts, the results of which were to define Britain’s dominance over France in world affairs in the coming times. In such unfolding of events, Asaf Jah I, the longtime Nizam of Hyderabad, died and a strife on succession arose between Nasir Jung, who was supported by the British and Muzaffar Jung supported by the French. At the same time the British wanted to see Muhammad Ali as the Nawab of Karnataka in place of Chanda Sahib, the French’s favorite. The British won the 2cd Carnatic War (1749-54) for Muhammad Ali having him made the Walajah of Karnataka, while Muzzafar Jung got to be the new Nizam.

After this episode both the British and the French started fortification of their Bengali ports at Calcutta and Chandernagore. Aware of the games they were playing in Karnataca, Ali Vardi Khan, Nawab of Bengal, was suspicious of both the French and British and had strictly kept their interests at bay. At his death Siraj-ud-daulah became the Nawab and immediately forbade both parties to fortify their posts – but they did not pay heed. At this the Nawab occupied and pillaged the Calcutta post in 1756. Col. Robert Clive recaptured Calcutta in January 1757 and the two forces battled again in February. The Nawab was defeated and he signed the Treaty of Alinagar, agreeing to restore the Company's factories, allowing the fortification of Calcutta and resuming trade concessions. In March, Clive attacked the French garrison at Chandernagore. Siraj was infuriated at the British’s unilateral attack and sought to assist the French, but the governor of Hooghly, Nandkumar had been bribed to remain inactive and prevent the Nawab's reinforcement for the French at Chandernagore. At this Siraj started secret negotiations with French general de Bussy and moved a large division of his army under Rai Durlabh to Plassey.

The British had been in contact with dissentious elements in the Nawab’s court for long, such as Siraj-ud-Daulah's demoted army chief Mir Jafar, Yar Lutuf Khan, the Jagat Seths, Omichund and army chief Rai Durlabh. The British conspired with them against the Nawab and offered Mir Jafar to be made the next Nawab after getting rid of Siraj. On 4th June the British signed secret treaties with Mir Jafar and the rest.  Thus was Siraj ud Daula defeated in the Battle of Plassey (late June 1757), surrounded in his own tent by trickeries of his generals who had colluded with the enemy in the aft. This victory opened the whole of Bengal to the British, they were its effective kingmakers now, and from here they would now look forward into capturing the whole of North India.

Why did the Mughal Court make no effort to aid their deputized Nawab in Bengal in such difficult times? Alamgir II was the Mughal emperor at that time. Depressingly, at the time the Court was being played in the hands of Vizier Imad-ul-Mulk, of the house of the Nawabs of Deccan. Imad-ul-Mulk had deposed Ahmad Shah Bahadur, had taken inexperienced, aging Alamgir II out of the prison cell and placed him on the throne. Alamgir II had no power, so much so that later he was also killed by the Vizier. At the time when Siraj ud Daula was fully engaged against the British, Imad invited the Marathas to invade Delhi in order to drive the Afghans and Rohillas, who had been in places of power since Nadir Shah, out of Delhi. Delhi was captured by the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Durrani declared Imad-ul-Mulk an ‘apostate’. At this time the Marathas in collaboration with Imad-ul-Mulk dominated the whole of northern India and threatened Bengal too at their eastern extremity. 

On January the 14th, 1761, Ahmad Shah Abdali, King of Afghanistan and his two allies, Najib ud Daula, leader of the Rohilla Afghans of the Doab, and Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh came together at the battleground of Panipat, to fight a decisive battle against the Maratha Empire and to return the rule in the hands of the Mughals.

The Marathas had been gaining territory since 1707 and by 1757 their empire extended in the north to the Indus and the Himalayas, and in the south nearly to the extremity of the peninsula. In 1758 they occupied Delhi, captured Lahore and drove out Timur Shah Durrani, the son and viceroy of the Afghan ruler, Ahmad Shah Abdali. The Peshwa, talked of placing his son Vishwasrao on the Mughal throne.

Ahmad Shah Abdali had several skirmishes with the Marathas, and had reached Lahore and Dehli in 1759 but retreated to Anupshahr, on the frontier of the Rohilla country. Here he convinced the Nawab of Oudh Shuja-ud-Daula to join his alliance against the Marathas. The Marathas had earlier helped Shuja’s father Safdar Jung in his battle against the Rohillas but it was evident that they would engulf Awadh too when they would find the power to, so it was only sensible for the Nawab to join the Shah.  The Marathas had previously been successful on account of their guerilla warfare tactics and had little experience of round battle. Moreover, despite the fact that previously the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs had been their allies, but now they were unhappy with their harsh policies over them and at heart were unwilling to ally with them in battle again. On top of that, the Marathas had brought an impossible load of 300,000 pilgrims with them, whose protection starkly impeded their maneuverability. In contrast Abdali had a battle-hardened army, with large flanks of mounted artillery and had allies that were gathered under the uniting slogan of Jihad. The Abdalians massacred and routed the Marathas, shattering their dream of kingship for good. Before returning the Shah restored Shah Alam II to the throne and sent Royal Firman to all provinces to recognize Shah Alam II as Emperor.

Though the 3rd Battle of Panipat (1761) effectively crushed Maratha’s expansionism but they were still strong in their province, today’s Maharashtra, which along with Hyderabad and Karnataka topped the province of Mysore. At this revitalization, when they found themselves stronger after Panipat, the Mughal Court tried to undo what they had lost in Bengal, one last time, in the Battle of Buxar. But Buxar (1764), turned out to be another show of mistrust and treachery between the Nawab of Bengal, the Nawab of Awadh and the Mughal King Shah Alam II. Defeat at Buxar resulted in the Treaty of Allahabad wherein Company was given rights to collect revenue directly from the people of Bengal, Bihar and  Orissa, thus marking the constitutional involvement and the beginning of British rule in India. In this treaty the British also had their man, the governor of Karnataka, made a Walajah, meaning he would be independent of the Nizam of Hyderabad from now.

As chief of army, Haider Ali was the de facto ruler of Mysore and upon seizing the throne; he expanded the territory of Mysore from Krishna River in the north, the Eastern Ghats in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west. Haider fought two unfruitful wars with the Marathas over territories in Karnataka.

Haider Ali had founded the Sultanate of Mysore, formally styling himself Sultan Hyder Ali Khan but he was weary of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was, according to Mughal firman, the sovereign of all Muslim-ruled territories in southern India. In fact, owing to the weakening Mughal Court and the increasing interference of the French and the British in the affairs of the empire, Haider Ali had become suspicious of both. On top of all that, Asaf Jah II, the Nizam of Hyderabad, which was by far the richest province of the Empire, kept dwindling between alliance with the French and the British, making it hard for Haider Ali to keep up with him.

All these frictions resulted in the 1st Anglo-Mysore War (1767–69), wherein Haider Ali almost captured the British post of Madras. Haider’s failure to gain a decisive victory was due to the Nizam’s secretly changing of sides, from Haider’s to the British during the war. The treaty signed at Madras on 29 March 1769, restored the status quo ante bellum. The 2cd Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780–84) also ended in a stalemate and status quo. This war disillusioned the Sultan of the French, who had withdrawn their support for Mysore in the wake of a peace treaty back home. Haider died in camp during this war and Tipu took over.

In 1783, Tipu approached the Mughal Court for an independent recognition of the Mysore Sultnate, but the Mughals decline to do so. Disillusioned by the French and the Mughals – Tipu, in following his father’s plans – sent missions directly to the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Afghanistan, France, Oman, Mauritius and Egypt. Tipu thus became an internationalist that was to be reckoned as a champion of freedom in the Muslim world. King Zaman Shah of Afghanistan, the French King Louis XVI and the Persian monarch recognized Tipu’s sovereignty over Mysore.

Tipu did not just require recognition, he also seeked military alliances and trading ports that could compromise British and French trade in the region. In 1787 the Ottoman Sultan Salim-III received Tipu’s emissaries with honor and decorated them. The Sultan accorded permission to Tipu to assume the title of an independent monarch and the right to strike coins and to have the khutba read in his name. But Tipu’s request for military assistance was had to be turned down, because at that time the Ottomans were depending on the British to formulate peace between Turkey and her enemies, Russia and Austria. From henceforth Tipu had himself called Tipu the Sultan.  

The delegation also forwarded Tipu’s desire to have a trading post in Basra in exchange of an Ottoman trading post in Mangalore. Tipu wanted the Caliph to send him technicians specialized in the art of making muskets, guns, glass and chinaware to help him establish factories in Mysore and in return Tipu would send agricultural products and workers required by the caliph. The Caliph approved of this proposal but time did not allow its fruition.

In 1789, Napoleon, at his advent of Egypt wrote to Tipu, ‘You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible army, full of the desire of releasing and relieving you from the iron yoke of England’. But fatefully the French alliance was to again prove unfruitful for Tipu in the 3rd Anglo-Mysore War (1790-92), wherein Tipu would have to surrender half of his kingdom to the British East India Company and its allies.

Why did the Mughal Court again not embrace the sons of valor in Haider and Tipu and not think of them as the last chance for the revival of the rotting Muslim rule over the subcontinent? Well, after the defeat at Buxar, Shah Alam II (king from 1759 to 1806) had been reinstated to the throne of Delhi only under the protection of the Marathas. After that he was merely a puppet in the hands of the Marathas, the British, the Nizams and whoever would give him a pension. The Persian saying, ‘Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam’, meaning 'the kingdom of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam', Palam being a suburb of Delhi, was a practical truth. The Maratha’s protection of the Mughal Court was also ended after their defeat in the Anglo–Maratha Wars (1775–1818), rendering the last two emperors, Akbar Shah II and Bahadur Shah II, mere pensioners of the British.

The British had left no leaf unturned in the field of deception and double-dealing, conquering most of the states through deals with traitors of the states. Many a battles were won by bribes and fifth column politics. So they had found a fifth column in Tipu’s cabinet in one of his general – Mir Sadiq. In the final Anglo-Mysore War, the combined strength of the Nizam, the Marathas and the British was 50,000 against Tipu’s 30,000 strong force.  Yet the Maysorean front was known for its valor and its newly invented iron-cased rocket brigades and perhaps the British did not believe in an equal-footed fight. So they had secretly plotted with Mir Sadiq and he pulled the Mysorean army from the battlefield to collect their salaries, at a time in the Siege of Seringapatam and gave a signal to the British to enter the Fort. The British troops forcefully hurled in, scattering the baffled ranks of Tipu’s men. Tipu instead of choosing to run away decided to fight till his last breath, which he gave away as a token of love of freedom and defense of his state and people.

"Mir Jafar-e-Bengal o Mir Sadiq-e-Deccan - nange deen, nange adam, nange watan" – Allama Iqbal

With this Muslim power had been squashed from the subcontinent, the British squashed the Marathas power by 1818 and the Sikh power was compromised in the Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–1849).

At the time when the Sepoys (armymen) mutinied against the East India Company's army in Meerut, in 1857, Emperor Bahadur Shah II must be busy compiling his Diwan and painting his calligraphy.

Mutiny is always a lingering possibility when an alien force, 7000km away from their home-base, is struggling to control an area of over 4million square kilometers, with the largest variety of ethnicities and religious groups, all disgruntled from the other. Half of the Subcontinent comprised of around 565 large and small Princely States that were in ‘subsidiary alliances’ with the East India Company, meaning that the Company would control the foreign policy of these states and Company forces would be responsible for the protection of these states and for this they would dissolve their own armies and pay the Company instead for maintaining its protection army. Disgraceful as these limitations were, they were embraced for the reason that each prince wanted his own little kingdom and everybody’s neighbor was an enemy – and precisely feeding on this discord, the British had succeeded in acquiring an intricate balance of control over an alien population. But balance and peace does not suit the vainglory of imperial might –that is not what it came here for, it came for complete subjugation and maximum extraction. So naturally the British where expanding their interests in the affairs of the states, not only economically, but also politically, because all princely states had to entertain one British Resident in their court and in time the Resident would become the ultimate authority over the affairs.

The British troops in the Subcontinent were 50,000 in number and 300,000 local sepoys were under their command. There were 3 major British military bases, one each in Bombay, Madras and Bengal. Knowing they were employees of a foreign force, the sepoys had little hope of due promotions and the salaries were low. Salaries were also decreased whenever British occupied or controlled via treaty a new state, as the ‘foreign mission’ allowance would be zeroed. Many Hindu sepoys, especially of the Bengal army were of high-caste Brahmins or Kshatriya belonging to landowning families, and for instance when Oudh came under subsidiary alliance in 1856, and excessive land-revenue was levied on the land-owners , they came under debt. Moreover, when the Nawab of Oudh was unable to pay the army-fund to the Company, he had to give away half of the province to the Company.

The people and the sepoys were also weary of Company facilitated missionaries, suspecting them of having schemes for mass conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. Having to serve parallel with comrades of all castes and faiths, high-caste Hindu sepoys also resented pollution of the castes, along with the resentment for the high-handedness of the British officers. Muslim sepoys, who were much less in number, too had their own dissent against occupiers that had made them slaves from kings. Mutiny was awaiting only a spark.

So just 9yrs after subduing the Sikhs and one year after taking up Oudh, the 300,000 sepoys had become dangerously reciprocal over the 50,000 British and they were both in the same camps. The tallow and lard greased cartridges had become a point of contempt for quiet some months now – when Colonel Smyth of the Meerut garrison, ordered 90 of his men to parade and perform firing drills with the new cartridges, in hubris. 85, who refused to use the cartridges were court martialed and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment with hard labor. The next day, the 3rd Cavalry broke into revolt, killing several British officers. From here the mutineers headed to Delhi on the 10th of May 1857.

Bahadur Shah Zafar II had no idea, when the mutineers first arrived beneath his palace window and paid no heed to their vow – but several other desperate courtiers were quick to join them. 3 battalion-sized regiments of Bengal Native Infantry were stationed in Delhi, riot broke in the evening, several officers were killed in the clashes and many fled. Bahadur Shah held his first formal court in many years, re-proclaiming himself Emperor of the Subcontinent – 50 prisoners were executed outside the King’s courtyard after a few days.

News of Delhi spread quickly, sepoys mutinies followed in several garrisons including those in Agra, Muttra, Lucknow, Rohilkand, Bharatpur, Allahabad and Indore. The fact that most of the sepoys that were gathering in Dehli were Hindus, means that Delhi was still considered by the populace as their only hope for meaningful freedom. As a whole the people could not find unity in the Marathas or in the Nawabs of Oudh, nor in the Sikhs of Punjab, even though they had fought valorous wars against the British in the preceding decades – and the feeble throne of Delhi was seen by most as the symbol of a united Indian power.

Nana Sahib of Kanpore and Rani of Jhansi also became leaders of the revolt, but they were actually fighting their own wars as they were victims of the Doctrine of Laspe, which had seized their powers under its inheritance law. In contrast Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah Faizabadi and Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi were two venerated Muslim scholars who made calls for a universal Jihad against the English. The veteran Subedar Bakht Khan was among those who answered this call of Jihad. He was a Pashtun of Rohilkhand and arrived in Delhi with a large force of Rohillas with him, on the 1st of July. The King titled him Saheb-I-Alam Bhadur or Lord Governor General, but since Delhi was dried of reserves and lacked logistics to support a big force, it became increasingly difficult for Bakht Khan to keep hold of the besieged city. Meanwhile spies and agents of the British in the city were constantly pressurizing Bahadur Shah to surrender – to which the weak-hearted Mughal fell and fled – leaving the people of India alone in their battles for liberation from the yoke of the English – showing not a distant semblance to the strong, warrior-hearted Mongol, of whose seed he was bore.

It took over a year for the British to quell all the rebellions ignited in this revolt. They called in English forces from other fronts and reconsolidating themselves, viciously massacred all Indians that came in range. Over a 100,000 Indians were killed, the Mughal line was severed and there was no mention of freedom for another 90 years.