Zoya Ansari describes the breakup of a great empire
Mughal Empire started breaking up during the first two decades of the 18th century and the most unfortunate aspect of this historical tragedy was that just in the beginning of the century the Empire was ruled by Aurangzeb, one of its more competent rulers. The ironic fact about the fall of Mughal Empire was the rapidity of the process though just decades before its denouement it appeared infallible. Half a century after the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughals became virtually powerless in their palaces in Delhi as the imperial system that had held up for centuries had crumbled almost entirely and Mughal emperors were now increasingly dominated by those who were previously their subordinates. The semblance of Mughal authority remained however intact for some time after Aurangzeb but then the notorious succession wars between Mughal ruling dynasty fatally damaged the imperial authority. The weak imperial grip encouraged many members of the nobility and ruling class to look for alternatives and seized the opportunity to defect.
During the heyday of the Mughal Empire the imperial nobility was often unhappy with the imperial policy of frequent transfers and even dismissals and there were occasional rebellion against imperial authority that was quickly suppressed by the overarching Mughal authority. The Mughal emperors retained their loyalty by making them to live ostentatiously and granting them tremendous privileges. Mughal emperors however kept a close eye on these nobles and their actions were closely monitored through the widespread intelligence network of the Empire. The disappearance of Mughal authority though did not provide them the guts to declare formal independence as their authority was still based around a Mughal system whereby the Mughal Emperor was formally acknowledged as the highest ruler.
However with the weakening of imperial authority the prominent members of nobility started distancing them from the imperial centre though they emphasised their growing power by moving their residence from Delhi to their regions. They also started showing courage by appointing their own successors and some established their own mint. It was evident that they became de facto rulers of the territories they had sway over but still recognised the de jure position of the Mughal Emperor. With the passage of time fragmentation of Mughal power into smaller units and largest of them filled the void of the Mughals from around halfway through the eighteenth century. With the downfall of the Mughal Empire came increased influence of regional powers but Mughal elements could still be found all over the Indian peninsula during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Though the successor states were many, some formed by the Muslim element of nobility particularly larger states of Hyderabad Deccan and Awadh in north and central India followed by smaller states such as Mysore and Bhopal but a significantly large number of such states were dominated by Marathas. The Muslim states were in a minority and had no option but to ally themselves with their neighbours as well as ethnic power centres. The Muslim supremacy was permanently fractured after the invasion of India by Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1737 spelling the final doom of the Mughal Empire. After this cataclysmic event the onus of governance shifted towards non-Muslim elements of power though the victory of Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1761 did defeat the rising military might of the Marathas but it proved to be a temporary reprieve.
Despite the temporary upset, the Marathas were already in the process of establishing their own empire in western and central India and their efforts began on the Deccan plateau in the seventeenth century when the Mughal power was challenged by Shivaji who also proclaimed empire in 1671. The Marathas played a large role in the downfall of the Mughal Empire, with aggressive campaigns to enlarge their sphere of influence. This ultimately resulted in a territory that encompassed most of the western and central parts of the former Mughal Empire. Maratha power however declined giving rise to the European mercenaries who were initially hired to help bring the Maratha army to modern standards but gradually took over governance.
Though these new states acted as autonomous units but keeping in view the lack of a central authority many states were vulnerable to surrounding powers. Amidst this new political dynamic, the European trading companies tried to pursue their economic interests. The Europeans came into heterogeneous societies wherein both Mughal as well as many regional elements were present. In some regions, the Muslim elite had still retained their power. Slowly the English and – to a lesser degree their French counterpart – turned to the Indian as a prime target for trade in the East. Both the English and French companies initially operated from a number of lightly fortified trading posts and factories along the coast, established and run with permission from local rulers. This first signs of change in policy of the Europeans became visible from 1744 when the English and French trading companies engaged in economic competition and started siding with indigenous states by providing them trained army personnel and advanced war materials.
The dominance of the Europeans was the result of hiring of outsiders for defence matters and since large standing armies were not common mercenary armies provided manpower for military action. Some groups were particularly famous as mercenaries and amongst them the Marathas were often hired by Mughal lords to fight their battles. Afghans, Iranis and Turanis from surrounding regions were also often hired for their military service and local mercenaries often hired themselves out to European forces as well and the armies of European forces generally consisted of a majority of these sepoys under European command. Gradually through a number of proxy wars through their allies, often with help of European material both trading companies tried to increase their sphere of influence. From 1760 onward, a gradual change of policy took place whereby the French increasingly started to use violence towards Indian powers through which large territories were acquired driving the English away from its relatively restrained attitude. The renewed ambition of the English resulted in their victory over the French in 1761 and they also used their military power against Indian forces as well, attempting to build a greater sphere of influence. In 1784, the English government nationalised the company’s political activities implying that the Company’s interests in the country were now backed by the British state directly.
The situation remained murky in the eighteenth century though during the conflicts between European powers and Indian powers it became apparent that the traditional Indian style of warfare had become obsolete. This was a result of gradual improvements on both organizational and technological fields in European militaries while the Indian armies mostly relied on large numbers of unorganized cavalry complemented by some artillery and infantry. In the meanwhile the Maratha states challenged and fought the English until 1818, when they lost to the English and became a subsidiary of the British power. Another powerful faction was formed by the Sikhs in the northwest corner of the subcontinent and this religious group became a regional political power and held sway over large areas and their power spread over to Peshawar and Kashmir. TW