The Dawn: Oct 19, 2014

Reassessing the Mughals

Mubarak Ali 

Every society has a collective memory of its past, but each generation interprets it according to their present perspective. Sometimes, the past may be rejected as an obstacle to future progress, but at other times it is used as an inspiration for a struggle against present weaknesses.

History shows that when a country is colonised, its people and resources are used to further strengthen colonial power. After acquiring political power in India, the East India Company was surprised at the widespread popularity of the Mughal Empire. Although, the Mughal Empire was in the process of decline and the emperor had lost his authority, the people of India were still loyal and respectful to him.

Nadir Shah, who occupied Delhi after defeating the Mughals in 1737, failed to replicate the glory of the Mughal rule. He left India with the looted treasury of the Mughals while the dynasty remained intact. Likewise, Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded the subcontinent several times, but had no aspirations to rule it. He looted and plundered, forcibly married a Mughal princess and left for Afghanistan along with the acquired wealth and the family of his newly-wed wife. This gave the Marathas an opportunity to oust the Mughal emperor and to plant their candidate on the throne, but they still preferred to rule in the name of the Mughal emperor.

History has shining examples of religious bigotry being shunned in order to accommodate marginalised communities into the mainstream

Following the same tradition, the East India Company recognised the emperor as the legitimate ruler of India and paid homage to him. Even though the company had political power, the Mughal emperor remained popular among his subjects. Therefore, in the first phase, the company ruled in the name of the Mughal emperor, posing as the inheritors of the Mughal Empire and retaining nearly all its institutions and etiquettes.

However, the policy and the attitude of the company changed when it gained power and decided to create its own administrative set-up to get recognition as the legitimate rulers of India. At this stage, the Mughal past was denied and portrayed as despotic and oppressive. The idea behind the motive was to convey a message to the people of the subcontinent that the company had liberated them from a tyrannical rule and established a benevolent and enlightened government.

The company further propagated their campaign through history writing. The British historians published a series of books on the Sultanate and Mughal history, distorting it in order to prove that the Muslim rule was tyrannical and biased against the Hindus. Elliot’s History of India: as told by its own historians I(1848) is one of the series of history books which condemned the Mughal past but justified the British rule.

The Mughal past was again interpreted differently during the freedom movement against the British Raj. The historians of the subcontinent, under the influence of nationalism, glorified the Mughals whose rule culturally integrated the Hindus and the Muslims as one community. Their argument was that the Mughal rule created a pluralistic society in which there was no religious discrimination. It was the basis of their popularity which had strengthened their empire.

In the 1920s, history was communalised and historians on both sides condemned as well as admired the Mughal past. There was also a conflict in history writing between secularist and religious minded historians. To the secularists, Akbar was a ruler who ‘Indianised’ the Mughal Empire and laid down the foundations of religious tolerance and communal harmony. During his reign both the Hindus and the Muslims shared administration and contributed in the expansion of the empire.

But according to the Islamist historians, Akbar was the cause of the Mughal decline as he appointed the Hindus on high posts, depriving the Muslims of their high status. They admired Aurangzeb who deviated from the policy of Akbar and introduced religious practices, which alienated the non-Muslim subjects. In Pakistani history writing, Akbar has no place while Aurangzeb is regarded as a pious ruler, admired and projected as the best emperor.

There is a need to reassess the Mughal past in view of our present situation. We must try to understand why their rule flourished for such a long period (1526-1857). The reason for its continuity and popularity was its policy of religious tolerance and providing opportunities to talented people to play their role in administration, irrespective of their creed, caste and ethnicity. It respected the local traditions and preserved their values and institutions. Marginalised communities can only be assimilated into the society as long as there is religious tolerance.

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