Zoya Ansari examines a contentious historical process
Mughals ruled the subcontinent with panache but almost all rulers suffered from misfortune at the end of their reign. Mughal emperors virtually lived under the perpetual danger of being ousted and were keenly aware that the struggle through which they ascended the throne would be repeated when their reign ended. Despite this awareness, the successive rulers did not try to devise a strong succession system that proved to be the ultimate undoing of their rule. It is a matter of historical curiosity that such a sharp and eclectic dynasty as the Mughals failed to design and implement an orderly succession regime that would have given them tremendous security and would have kept them on their thrones. It is well known that the Mughal emperors did try to assuage the ambitions of their successors by providing them with large geographical areas to manage during their suzerainty but this proved an unsatisfactory solution to this overarching menace that proved to be an existential threat to their very rule.
The failure to devise a succession system proved to be a fatal flaw in the scheme of Mughal rule and surprisingly successive and successful rulers failed to reverse this trend. Their failure to do that resulted in the obvious chaos experienced after the last Mughal emperor passed away. Quite intriguingly, the succession struggle was taken as a necessity by the Mughal ruling family and its fluidity created problems for the dynastic rule once an emperor passed away. The rules and norms of the succession of Mughal princes may have continuously modulated over the course of their rule but the principle of an open-ended system was never called into serious question. It was the central dynamic that shaped the lives and activities of generations of Mughal princes as succession politics formed the backdrop against which all manner of activities occurred. The succession politics ensured that at its heart rankled the ambition of every prince of the line to succeed to the Mughal throne.
The worries over succession are consistently present throughout the Mughal rule beginning with Babur and progressing through changing succession approaches adopted in the subsequent reigns of Humayun Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. Over the long course of 181 years, the imperial commitment to an open-ended system of succession never faltered. Broader norms characterizing Mughal succession practices were not static, however, and there occurred shifts in the system though it remained loyal to its essential premise. After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the central imperial authority declined and the rulers became dependent upon the power of their powerful warlords who unscrupulously handled imperial succession making the gradual demise of the empire a painful reading.
The Mughal ruling ethos evolved through their association with Central Asia where imperial traditions were laid down by the dynastic visions of Chengiz Khan. The Central Asian steppe tradition of the time allowed all male members of the broader Chagatai and Timurid families to assert individual claims to political sovereignty. The custom was practiced by an imperial clan, each of whose members competed fiercely with one another in a world of aggressive and shifting loyalties. At the base of succession, the system was a royal descent group tracing its lineage through a number of similar groups but a stem dynasty always tried to maintain agnatic succession and it was Babar who made sure that his sons were the primary focus of his growing realm.
In this context, it must be appreciated that the milieu then was that nomadic warriors were notorious for shifting loyalties and territories in a world still dominated by princely appanages implying that the heir apparent was nothing more than a first-among-equals. The formula of designating a son as heir-apparent did not hold water in the Mughal ruling system and in this context Humayun eventually ascended the throne signaling Babur’s success in focusing imperial attention on his sons as well dominating the political ambitions of all other clan members. This shift of emphasis indicated the transfer of the royal descent group to the stem dynasty and would remain the singular principle throughout the Mughal rule. This succession practice was sustained through Humayun’s reign and was amply consolidated in Akbar’s reign when it was made clear to all that the only legitimate contenders for the imperial throne were males in the emperor’s direct line.
The strength of the stem dynasty principle could be gauged from the fact that at the death of Humayun there was found a broad consensus among the Mughal nobility that Akbar was the rightful heir despite his being only thirteen years old. Once Akbar had assumed his father’s place, however, there was a general willingness on the part of the Mughal nobility to accept his legitimacy. Humayun had another son, Mirza Hakim and he consistently impressed his right to the imperial throne in this perspective, Akbar signaled his determination to abandon the custom of granting princes individual appanages, and henceforward, succession politics would be focused exclusively on Akbar’s direct heirs and played out on an imperial stage that spanned the entire Mughal Empire.
Akbar himself was greatly disappointed at the conduct of his eldest son Salim and tried to ensure that Salim’s imperial claims might somehow be thwarted but the premature deaths of both his younger sons Murad and Danyal spared the Mughal Empire its first war of succession in the post-appanage period. Only Akbar’s grandson Khusrau remained as an alternative to Salim but just days before Akbar’s death, a gathering of powerful imperial nobles met to override Khusrau’s candidacy and Akbar acquiesced to the wishes of his nobles. Jahangir elected to groom his third son, Khurram and his rise marked Jahangir’s efforts to shift the Mughals toward a system of quasi-designated succession.
In October 1627, Jahangir died and fighting broke out at the imperial court. The first round of conflict pitted the resident princes and their supporters against each other. Khurram watched from the sidelines. With supporters of Khurram winning the struggle, Khurram ordered all five princes to be put to death asserting his exclusive right to the throne. His execution of five princes also set a bloody precedent for future princely rivalry as no longer would princes escape with their lives in lieu of their eyes. Henceforth, and until the end of competitive successions in 1719, Mughal princely wars of succession were expected to be bloody and brutal affairs that would result in the death of all claimants to the imperial throne, barring the one who rose to the top.
As the events unfolded it was witnessed that the surviving sons of Shah Jahan – Dara Shikoh, Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad – were full brothers, all sons of Mumtaz Mahal, which was unusual for Mughal princely competitors. Shahjahan favored the oldest, Dara Shikoh and in contrast to both Akbar and Jahangir, who eventually revisited their original choice, Shah Jahan never shifted in his support of Dara Shikoh but such favoritism bred enormous resentment among Shah Jahan’s other sons. The incapacitation of Shah Jahan in the last months of 1657 led to a full-blown war of succession among his four adult sons seriously weakening the Empire and soon it was on its way to decline. TW