Zoya Ansari looks at the
travails experienced by Mughal princes
The main issue of the Mughal princes power matrix was an incessant tug of war within the ruling family. These tensions were inherent in the Turco-Mongol system that was inherently open-ended and was open to entertaining claims to the throne enabling all living male heirs of the reigning monarch to keep them in readiness till the day of reckoning arrived. The competition within the claimants was murderous in intent and there was no way-out for them. Unsurprisingly therefore it was a tussle that began the day the male claimants entered adulthood and most of them ended their lives violently in pursuit of imperial power.
The Mughal Empire actually stabilised during the reign of Emperor Akbar who inherited the system of grant of a semi-independent appanages for the upkeep of the princely household but realising its dangerous potential Akbar abolished this practice in 1585 and after that a prince’s adult status was recognised by the grant of a formal rank known as a Mansab, an administrative innovation designed by Akbar that was a designation in the imperial hierarchy with concomitant access to income via jagirs that were reshuffled every few years. The top of the hierarchy was occupied by the princes and their status was far higher than rest of the functionaries of the Empire.
Once the prince reached adulthood the princely household grew substantially and this growth was linked to the infusion of large numbers of personnel that had to be paid for and looked after. The princely household also required individuals with administrative and military skills whose overriding responsibility was to enable the prince to collect the financial resources promised to him. The search for money consumed an increasing part of an adult prince’s attention and he deputed members of his entourage to arrange for it. The ultimate aim of the prince was to design his establishment in a pattern that would benefit his imperial claims at a later stage.
When Akbar abolished the appanages he weakened the position of the princes though the hold of the emperor was accordingly strengthened. The difficulty grew manifold because the princes and their jagirs were regularly transferred around the empire often to distant areas far from the capital. It was therefore expected that with his household’s help and resources, a prince could organise imperial campaigns that mostly comprised of investing and conquering new forts for raising more revenues. Moreover, they were often deputed to provide support and protect convoys carrying tribute or tax payments.
This was not the end of the difficulties for a Mughal prince as he had to additionally confront the offshoot of his quasi-independent status that was bound to evoke considerable intra-familial conflict in which a prince was viewed as a perpetual threat and was always required prepared to ward it off. Such prickly issues often pitched him against his fellow princes or even against imperial establishment. The tenuous situation compelled the princes to lookout for important or talented individuals and groups to recruit into their households. Preference however was often accorded to men not already linked to competing princes or the emperor.
The households of the princes were always expectant that their prince will elevate them once he assumes the imperial mantle. This hopeful encouragement simultaneously replenished the nobility’s ranks and provided a counterweight to holdovers from the previous reign. The result was that the princes never stopped building alliances with notable individuals and groups beyond their households. Rather than focusing on single or even contiguous territories, princes now had to compete and cultivate friends and allies across the entire expanse of the empire.
In the positive side it implied that by abolishing their appanages Akbar tried to infuse his sons to venture forth and cultivate their influence and expected that will gel well into the socio-political world and would be more receptive to the requirements of the nobility. Akbar not only connected his young sons with powerful people but he also experimented with sending them on temporary and varied assignments. It was his intention that his princes may develop into well-rounded characters well-versed in the arts of ruling. He was keen that his successors adopt policy that not only kept their household cohesive but also that they become attuned with the aspirations of the subjects of the empire. In this context, Mughal princes approached each and every group, regardless of religion, as potentially useful in their alliance building efforts. Akbar himself led the way and co-opted the Hindu Rajput fighting class into filial bonds by marrying himself and his sons into them.
The Mughals were inherently aware that political loyalty and support could never be automatically assumed and was always being contested compelling the princes to constantly renew earlier claims to friendship. One crucial impact of such frenetic activity was that imperial political, social and monetary resources remained in constant circulation creating powerful and widespread investment not only in individual princes but also in the dynasty as a whole. Between Akbar’s and Aurangzeb’s reigns, imperial expansion into new regions was often accompanied or immediately followed by local recruitment drives by princes in their capacity as governors, generals or even rebels.
Not only Mughal administrative and political consolidation in the northern heartlands was crucial to the construction of the empire, it was the almost unique ability of the Mughals to accommodate and harness the energies of formerly non-subject and even oppositional groups along the edges of their growing realm that enabled and indicated the empire’s vitality. By understanding these transactions, which often occurred in the context of princely initiatives aimed at winning friends and allies, one can comprehend the empire’s reach even in regions where its administrative institutions were weak or nonexistent.
The rigours of princely adulthood matured the princess early in their ages and the history reveals that the best networked prince inevitably became the next Mughal emperor. The decision by an emperor to grant a prince full adult status, sometime between the late teens and the mid-twenties led to an intensification of efforts to build a powerful household and gather allies around the prince’s person. It was a laborious but productive adulthood.
On the other hand, the princely adulthood also imposed important limits on the emperor’s capacity to control the actions of his sons. The result was continuous spurt of rebellions against the imperial authority as the princes tried to assert their own political identities and sought to protect resources they considered vital to their political future. An emperor’s ability to respond effectively to these challenges was a sign of his continued political relevance. An inability or unwillingness to assert his authority was liable to be read as a mark of weakness that could encourage more direct political challenges.
The system constrained the Mughal emperors to strike a fine balance between keeping rigorous oversight of male relatives and undue restraint of their activities. Allowing for some measure of princely dissent and disobedience was a crucial safety valve that prevented the Mughal Empire from being constantly wracked by destructive princely rebellions. Decision by the princes to rebel was always a difficult one as it taxed both the loyalty of supporters and household resources. In addition there was the possibility of the prince losing his life. A rebellious prince therefore was the one who thought rebellion as the last resort. TW