Challenging Mughal imperial authority

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


January 14, 2023

Challenging Mughal imperial authority

Zoya Ansari glances at the dissent and disturbance in the Mughal Empire

Like any other human activity, ruling is also subjected to opposition that sometimes crosses the boundaries of reasonable dissent and spilt into open resort to arms with violence invariably following. Though revolts against the rule of Challenging Mughal imperial authority emperors kept on happening periodically but only some of them were significant enough to cause widespread tremors in the entire ruling matrix.

Emperor Babar had started the tradition of transfer of authority from the reigning emperor to his sons though it was not completely recognised till the reign of Emperor Akbar as during their reigns Emperor Humayun and Akbar both had to face contests to their authority from other close members of the royal clan. The shift of authority into the members of nuclear family finally took hold during the reign of Emperor Akbar and it was so strongly entrenched that the personal imperial authority of Mughal emperors was not seriously challenged from the reign of Akbar to Aurangzeb between 1560 and 1707. This is indeed a long period of almost one and a half century considered unprecedented in the annals of history and it witnessed four emperors holding sway over temporal affairs.

Akbar became emperor at the tender age of 13 and though precocious by nature he still was dependant on senior courtiers to assist him reigning. He was given under the tutorship of Bairam Khan who was greatly valued by his father emperor Humayun and he was primarily instrumental in taking him to Persia and once there galvanizing the support of the Safavid Persian ruler with the object of re-conquering his lost Indian kingdom. Bairam Khan was of Persian origin but was completely loyal to the Mughal cause and supported Humayun to the hilt.

An unconventional child Akbar, however, idolized Bairam Khan whom he lovingly and respectfully called Baba. In the absence of his parents Akbar was naturally well-disposed towards Bairam Khan and was convinced that he could do no wrong. Akbar developed into an intrepid and ferocious warrior like Bairam Khan and during his long association learnt many tricks of trade from him. With the passage of time however Akbar slowly started having conflicts with Bairam Khan’s way of thinking and started disputing his strategy.

It was quite obvious that in their teens sons experience a period of discord in which conflict is the central theme they share. They often reject the expectations, values and directions their fathers have embraced and take on more non-traditional philosophies, placing them regularly at odds with one another. The teen may resent or even fear his father depending on the intensity of their differences, at times, carrying over into the son’s early twenties. It was therefore expected that Akbar and Bairam Khan started having major differences and these differences were highlighted by the equally powerful hold Akbar’s foster-mother Maham Anga had over him.

Matters were not facilitated by the arrogance of Bairam Khan who started considering himself as invincible and paying scant attention to the rights and privileges of Akbar as the ruler. Bairam Khan started appointing functionaries who had contentious reputation that caused widespread discord within the royal court. The most pinching step taken by Bairam Khan was putting financial pressure on Akbar by withholding money for the royal expenses enraging Akbar. His family members particularly his powerful mother Hamida Banu resented this behaviour and it was a classic case of both the sides fighting it out. Consequently, Akbar decided to break out of the hold of Bairam Khan and this act ruined the career of the once-favourite Baba and ultimately resulted in his assassination.

The problem was seen to come to fore again in case of Akbar’s son Saleem revolting against him. It is often mentioned in this respect that a son thinks that the father is thinking like old generation and his thinking is of a new generation and father thinks that the son is trying to dissent against his rule as head of family. That is what happened between Akbar and Salim and well into the next generations of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Luckily for Akbar, Bairam Khan accepted to go to Hajj and was killed on the way thus eliminating the fight once and for all but unluckily for Salim and Shah Jahan their fathers lived till their mid 30s that led to insecurity and revolts.

Jahangir’s motivation to gain power early was that two of his brothers had died of excessive drinking and he himself was quite an addict and he was scared that he may die young without becoming the king. Jahangir also had a different way of thinking of how the kingdom should be ruled and he felt till his father is alive he cannot experiment his way of ruling making him to go his own way after the age of 30. Jahangir was also scared that his father may make Daniyal or Khusrau as his heir instead of him as Akbar was fed up with his addiction and his cruelty that were usually exaggerated by courtiers who did not necessarily like Salim. The situation was exacerbated when Khusrau, on instigation of Akbar, stopped calling Jahangir as Shah-baba and instead called him Shah-bhai. Khusrau’s supporters in the court included his maternal uncle, Raja Man Singh who was the favourite courtier of Akbar. He also had an enemy in shape of Abul Fazl who condemned his action privately and publicly and his closeness to Akbar was well-known.

Jahangir revolted against Akbar but was not powerful enough to cause much harm. Any dissent with his authority was however taken very seriously by Akbar who felt that such revolt will give way to fissiparous tendencies in the empire and may harm imperial authority. Akbar was also worried that Salim was his only surviving son and this eventuality restrained him to take tough action. He even condoned Salim’s gross atrocity of getting Abul Fazal killed through a proxy noble and luckily the imperial ladies prevailed upon both the father and son to come to an amicable arrangement. The rivalry between Salim and Khusrau was so intense that the court was openly divided into two factions but ultimately the senior courtiers found the rational way and convinced Akbar to openly declare for Salim as the new emperor.

The tensions of high office rolled over to the new generation and were palpable during the rule of the troika composed of himself, empress Nur Jahan and chief minister Asaf Khan who was the brother of the empress as well as father-in-law of Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan was comfortable with Jahangir being in the saddle till he exercised power with Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan but was gradually fed up with all the games Nur Jahan played with him including keeping him away from the court in Agra. He felt that he was doing all the hard work of winning wars and Nur Jahan was taking credit of it and enjoying fruits of his work. Shah Jahan was also worried that since his younger brother Shahryar was Nur Jahan’s son-in-law, therefore, Nur Jahan may do everything to make him king and through him cling on to power. She originally offered her daughter from her earlier marriage to Sher Afgan, Ladli Begum, to Khusrau but Khusrau refused to accept the proposal. Nur Jahan then got Ladli Begum married to Jahangir’s other son Shahryar. Shah Jahan rose in revolt but was fortunate to survive mainly due to the ill-health of Jahangir. During his time in revolt Shah Jahan was made to roam around helplessly in the southern part of the empire, bereft of his erstwhile support till the death of Jahangir ultimately gave him the coveted throne. TW


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