The Mughal empire is usually described from the perspective of a modern state. The accepted tenet in Indian scholarship is that it was more or less a successful forerunner of the British Raj, an united political structure with an all-powerful center. For example, Irfan Habib asserts, “For a hundred and fifty years the Mughal empire covered a whole subcontinent, united under a highly centralized administration. To what did it owe its great success? … The unity and cohesion of the Mughal ruling class found its practical expression in the absolute power of the emperor.” Similar beliefs are found in Anglo-American scholarship, for example, in John F. Richards. In his work, The Mughal Empire, he attributes the success of the Mughals to “autocratic centralism.”

This view was never espoused by contemporary travelers to the Mughal empire, and all contemporary observers describe Mughal politics as an unscrupulous double game. Niccolao Manucci, the 17th century Venetian writer and traveler, for example: “My third book will explain the way in which the generals and commanders behave in Hindustan. They aim only at their personal advantage, and ordinarily make no account of the royal commands, except only when it is necessary in order not to be expressly found out as traitors … This sort of thing is very common in the Mughal regime … I noticed that when vassals are in the royal presence they feign to be timid and afraid of His Majesty. These gestures please him, they being the custom. The combats and conquests made by both ancient and modern Mogul kings, it is to be noted, have for the major part been won rather by deceit and false oaths than by force of arms. Never does the Mogul attack any stronghold or give battle unless he is secure of having some traitor to help him.”

Andre Wink, in his book “Making of the Indo-Islamic World”, spends a considerable amount of time dismantling the commonly accepted version of the Mughal state, and makes a case for why the empire was unable to transition to a modern state. Mughal politics was the politics of sedition (fitna), and our modern concepts of the state, justice, and the law are fundamentally incompatible with the self-conception of Mughal India.

The political and legal foundations of the state were rooted in the matrix of clan rule and shared sovereignty in which feuding, sedition, self-help, and armed opposition were central and legitimate elements. The constitution of the Mughal imperialism was the tora (or code) of Genghiz Khan. The Mongols and the Timurids in Central Asia were always at war, because according to Turko-Mongol customary law, kingship was still the shared possession or property of a corporate clan. So once a ruler dies, all the successors have an equal claim to the throne, and these successors include not just direct descendants but also close and distant relatives.

The consequences of this heritage can clearly be observed in the Mughals1. Every single emperor came to the throne by displacing rival claimants to the throne, and this displacement included acts of blinding, imprisonment and murder of ones siblings, fathers, nephews, sons and grandsons. Humayun’s reign is a long uninterrupted narrative of dramatic scenes with his three younger brothers, each rebelling and setting up their own dominions, then being captured and begging for forgiveness and starting all over again. The Mughal nobles who rebelled against Akbar were Timurids such as his half-brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim in Kabul and other Mirzas in Hindustan and Gujarat. Akbar’s dominion only increased slowly, thanks to his alliance building with the Rajputs, who were used to keep the overweening power of Akbar’s immigrant Perso-Tunisian nobilities in check. The conquest of Bengal and Gujarat Sultanate by the Akbar happened over his lifetime and was not a single event. Under Akbar, an innovation was made to the succession politics. How exactly he effected that change is not made clear, but after Akbar, the competitors to the throne were only those in the direct line, and not the extended ruling family.

Akbar and Jehangir

Akbar and Jehangir, from an European chromolithograph produced in 1801. Image from this very interesting collection.

This change by Akbar did not so much signal a break with the customary law of the Turko-Mongol steppe nomads or the Code of Genghiz Khan as a transformation of it. Instead of undermining the consolidation and extension of the empire over generations by competing for loyalties within a single, delimited, fixed, and semipermanent territorial appanage, in the seventeenth century the princes were challenged to build up a support network of allies on a stage that spanned the entire empire. Rather than weakening the dynasty, princely feuding and sedition became an incorporative mechanism that allowed the empire to succeed as a distributive enterprise. It permitted the Mughal nobility to have infusions of fresh blood every few decades. As princes pursued alliances and built up their own political networks, they drew groups already subject to Mughal power into deeper relations with the dynasty. At the same time they also fostered ties to powerful individuals and groups who were on the political margins or even opposed to the dynasty. It was this transformation of Turko-Mongol succession practices that set the Mughal dynasty unique among all the empires – Islamic and otherwise – of the early modern world.

Jehangir and Shah Jahan Emperor Jehangir Weighing His Son, Khurram

Salim, later Jehangir, moved against his father Akbar, almost immediately when he was granted full adult status at the age of 16, even though he was the quasi-designated heir and his brothers had yet to reached adulthood. Inevitably, Jehangir’s reign can be described as an extended family feud, with the empire convulsed by the successive rebellions and feuds of the four sons and one grandson. Khurram, later Shah Jahan, blinded his brother and killed him, and also put to death his brother’s sons. He also killed his uncle’s two surviving sons within days of ascending the throne. Shah Jahan deliberately restricted the number of his children and only preserved four sons and four daughters, apparently by aborting other pregnancies, a practice of which his sons and grandsons also made use. Shah Jahan’s sons, virtually from the day they reached adulthood and were allowed to build their own households, and “animated by deadly hatred towards the others,” each of the sons exerted himself to the utmost to increase his political support at the expense of the others, and of their father, who “trembled for his personal safety.” Aurangzeb, who succeeded his father to the throne by first imprisoning him, put to death his brothers, and later in life, fought with his sons to keep his patrimony, killing his eldest. The career of Aurangzeb’s third son, Muhammed Akbar, is a record of almost constant obstruction, especially as viceroy of the Deccan, where he plotted with Golkonda, Bijapur, and the Maratha leader Shivaji, yet largely because of his connections in the Deccan among the Marathas and the Rajputs, as also among the Sikhs of the Panjab antagonized by his father, ultimately emerged victorious and succeeded his father in 1707 as Bahadur Shah I.

Shah Jahan and Sons Emperor Shah Jahan, with his father-in-law Asaf Khan, and his three sons, Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb. Aga Khan Musem

After Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah I, the Mughal empire became a shell of its former self, with the real power being wielded by the Mughal successor states like the Marathas, Hyderabad, Awadh, and briefly, the Nawabs of Bengal. There would be a Mughal emperor for another 150 years, but he was reduced to a figurehead. When the British Raj finally took over in 1857, it was the Marathas they had to confront, not the Mughals. The Marathas fought “to protect the Sultan of Taimur.”

Given the politics of succession under the Mughals, the absence of written law anywhere in Mughal India, and the confederate nature of the enterprise, a modern state based on formal rules and centralized legal order could have never arose during the time of one of the Great Mughals2 . Andre Wink suggests that it would be better to consider the Mughal empire a negotiated state with a customary legal order that was based more on diplomacy and pressure and not a modern state. A state not quite at war, but also not quite at peace.

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  1. It is interesting to note that the Mughals - the Persianized form of Mongol - didn’t call themselves as that. They referred to themselves as Gurkanid dynasty (silsila-i-gurkaniya). Babur, in his memoirs, in fact downplays his Mongol ancestry and preferred to identify with his Turkic forbears. Gurkan was the title Timur assumed after his marriage to a Chingisid princess. 

  2. Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb