Zoya Ansari describes Mughal Rule and Escheat provisions
The fulcrum of Mughal Rule and Escheat provisions was the persona of the emperor that wielded overweening dominance over the entire imperial establishment. He not only exercised dictatorial control affairs of the state but also controlled the personal existence and livelihoods of functionaries of his domains. The emperor, however, was constrained to allow his nobility to exercise authority and amass wealth from all possible sources and enjoying it to their hearts’ content but only during their life-time. It was the established practice during the Mughal period that at the death of a noble all his movable and immovable possessions was reclaimed by the government on behalf of the emperor. This provision known as the law of Escheat implied that all the possessions of a noble were essentially the property of the state and they were taken as the extension of the imperial property temporarily given under the use of members of the nobility. Therefore, immediately after the demise of the noble the emperor’s establishment was on the spot making an inventory of the entire estate, recording everything to the value of a single piece even to the dresses and jewels of the household ladies for presenting it to the emperor whose property then it actually became.
This law was followed rigorously ensuring that nothing was concealed from the imperial officers as all the transactions of the noble were managed by his diwan, subordinates and accountants. When the noble died all his subordinates were detained and ordered to show all books and papers to the officers of the emperor and if there was any suspicion about their disclosure, they were tortured till they told the truth. The emperor took back the whole estate except in a case where the deceased had done good service in his lifetime and in consequence members of his household including his wives and children were left with adequate resources to live on but no more while most of the servants were thrown out of employment or were taken on rolls of other nobles.
On the face of it, forfeiture of the property of a deceased noble looks unjust but in reality it was not. Under the escheat system the emperor saved the usually corrupt noble and also himself the bother of instituting an enquiry and presenting a charge-sheet. He let the grandee undisturbed to enjoy his ill-gotten wealth as long as he lived but after his death acquired it in full. In his discretion the emperor sometimes left part of the wealth as pension to the widow and heirs, but generally the sons of an Amir had to start life anew. It was a draconian regulation and applied to both the innocent and the guilty but there were hardly any innocent grandees. They knew very well about the law and therefore spent so lavishly while in office that in addition to their great income most of them took huge amounts as loan from the state treasury and the emperor was justified in recovering the loan from their property.
This practice was justified under the long-held convention that the emperor was the ultimate heir of the nobility. The Mughal emperors followed the Delhi Sultans in making a claim upon their nobles as if they were their slaves. Though it was not openly declared yet the Mughal nobles in status were not much better off than slaves. The grandees were prohibited from contracting marriage alliances without the emperor’s permission. The noble was obliged, whatever be his rank, to fall prostrate on the ground in obeisance to his master. Although the price paid in human dignity was terrible yet he paid it as his position, his promotion, indeed his very existence depended on the pleasure of the king. It was often observed that imperial service took a heavy toll on the members of nobility and to obtain higher and profitable ranks they had to wait a long time and work hard.
On the other hand the members of nobility maintained a measure of individual independence though they always were wary of the imperial informers who relayed the details of their activities to the emperor. Nevertheless, the pleasure of enjoying oneself with vigour and liberty amidst the chances of war and of life, the delights of activity without degrading labour and the taste of an adventurous career full of uncertainty, inequality and peril, instilled in them a passionate desire of personal independence. There was a degree of brutality and apathy for the weak and the poor but at the bottom of this mixture of brutality, materialism and selfishness, lay the love of independence. It drew its strength from the moral nature of man, from a desire to develop one’s own personality which the upper class elites loved and cherished. Their status might have been that of a servant of the ruling power but they themselves felt as mini-rulers in their own assignments and carried their swords like whipping sticks. It was noted that the houses of the nobles at Agra were hidden away in alleys and corners and their dwellings were scattered in every direction. It was also observed that in Delhi many nobles were very pleased to have their dwellings far from the royal palace. The reason was that these people enjoyed the pleasures of idleness and women’s company away from mutual suspicion and court intrigues and had it not been for official and court duties, the grandees would never have bothered to leave their houses at all, in order to enjoy uninterrupted intimacy of their female beauties.
The private and public life of the nobles, the system of seraglios, the widespread corruption, the custom of escheat, and so many other conventionalities of the upper classes, all left a legacy which is visible in many spheres of Muslim social life even now. In this context, it was obvious that wealth, position, love, friendship, confidence, everything hung by a thread. The nobles built mansions spending high levels of expenditure and yet because of escheat kept them in repair only so long as the owners lived. Once the builder was dead, no one cared for the buildings reflecting the pity or distress associated with such an existence. Throughout the length and breadth of the subcontinent numerous such ruined buildings could be witnessed speaking volumes about the severity of the law of escheat.
It was well known that the extravagant lives of the Mughal nobility was mostly due to the pervading corruption in their ranks that was described as taking place in shape of polite custom and outright bribery and embezzlement. In the first instance any person calling-on the dignitary never came empty-handed and was obliged to present him some gift. The other method was sheer extortion along with widespread embezzlement of state funds and was described to be widely prevalent under the Mughal rule and the roots of present day corruption in the subcontinent could even be traced to earlier times. The high levels of corruption provided for the extremely ostentatious lifestyles of the nobility and since their wealth was earned through fleecing the state therefore it was reclaimed by the exchequer through the law of Escheat after they permanently exited the scene. TW