Zoya Ansari talks about the pre-eminence of the Mughal rule
The Mughal rule in India is rated to be a historically pre-eminent presence in the subcontinent having far-reaching results. Mughal rule came at the cusp of shifting from nomadic to the quasi-modern system of imperial rule. This was a major shift in the patterns of governance in the subcontinent with Mughals laying down the foundations of an imperial order that very easily shifted gears to modern practices of rule. This graduation was not without a clear historical continuity as the Mughals got a land prepared for taking the governance further and while retaining the essential governance attributes, they never hesitated to adopt almost modern techniques of rule. This was an important factor in determining the Mughal’s place in history and that is where the history judges their rule. By all accounts, history has assigned a specific place to the Mughals though it is generally felt that a lot of further research is required to throw more light on their rule.
The Turco-Mongol groups had been coming to the subcontinent from the eleventh century creating a decisively potent role for themselves and in the process facilitating the Mughals in establishing a strong imperial state. In this connection, it must be borne in mind that as inhabitants of the steppes, the Turco-Mongol people in medieval times distinguished themselves by the practice of mounted archery and this allowed them to prevail over their sedentary neighbors in India. It is a widely recognized fact that the post-nomadic empires established by the Turco-Mongol conquerors created the first real empires in India. They were not just invaders but were duly imbued with an advanced religion-cultural tradition and well-equipped with new administrative methods. They were keenly conscious of the trading aspects of trade between their ancestral lands and India and entered into it with gusto particularly enjoying a monopoly over the trade of the horses that was vital for their high levels of mobility. They also developed a specific ruling class that, with subsequent changes over time, was found present till the end of the Mughal rule.
When they took over the reins of power in the subcontinent, the Mughals were very competent rulers and fine-tuned the governance to a very high degree. Mughal Empire held sway over the entire subcontinent and was able to carve out a social code that was sustainable and had left indelible marks on the social pattern of current life in all areas they held in their sway. The cities of the empire were sprawling places and their prosperity is attested to by many foreign travelers who visited them. The sprawling urban centers were hubs of commerce and trade and also were known as cultural trendsetters. The Mughal ruling class retained their access to almost all segments of the population and they were frequently found in the thick of things for most of the time. The Mughals were keenly aware of their place in history and reformed all aspects of life keeping a keen eye on historical assessment. With the exception of Aurangzeb, all leading Mughal emperors paid high value to recording their actions and assigned great value to the task of the waqai-navees or court reporters placed in all major centers of the Empire.
Mughals were efficient rulers and their effective governance, particularly among the urban areas encouraged trade. Though the mainstay of earning for the Mughal Empire remained land revenue yet the rulers tried to branch out to increase their earnings. The requirement of enhancing revenue remained a primary concern for the Mughals and their proverbial land-hunger was ostensibly geared towards this goal. Mughals tried hard to reform and improve the revenue system and the ruling class was very conscious of improving the lot of the agricultural sector enabling it to yield more revenue. Being mostly urban dwellers the Mughals paid tremendous attention to urban administration and the urban centers emphasized executive and judicial powers and the urban administrators duly prevented crime and performed many of the functions now assigned to the municipal boards. The efficient discharge of these duties depended on the personality of the individual city governor and the Mughals ensured high standards by making them personally responsible for the property and the security of the citizens.
The field of commerce and trade was usually handled by the traditional Hindu merchant classes, whose business acumen was proverbial. Mughals greatly appreciated their skills and valued their contribution. Their caste guilds added to the skills in trade and commerce that they had learned through the centuries. Hindus preferred settling their disputes through their panchayats and the Mughals hardly interfered with them. Mughals were very sensitive to business affairs and always swiftly tried to redress their complaints though sometimes the despotic form of government created much heartburn and acrimony.
Muslims certainly enjoyed advantages in higher administrative posts and in the army but the Mughal Empire let the Hindu merchants maintain the monopoly in trade and finance that they had had during the sultanate. Few Muslims were engaged in handicraft industries and even when a Muslim merchant did have a large business, he employed Hindu bookkeepers and agents. Banking was almost exclusively in Hindu hands and it was witnessed that in the years of the decline of the Mughals, a rich Hindu banker would finance his favorite rival claimant for the throne. In this context, the career of Jagat Seths who initially lent money to Aurangzeb during his campaign for the throne is quite relevant.
Following the centuries-old tradition, Muslim Mughal Empire remained essentially an urban affair. Mughals scarcely disturbed the old organization of the villages and the panchayats continued to settle most disputes, with the state impinging very little on village life, except for the collection of land revenue and even this was very often done on a village basis rather than through individuals, with the age-old arrangements being preserved. The incidence of land revenue was substantially higher under the Mughals than in British India but the administration was more flexible, both in theory and in practice, in its assessment and collection. Apart from the remission of land revenue when crops failed, there was a reduction in government demand even when bumper crops caused prices to fall. The state also advanced loans to the cultivators and occasionally provided seeds as well as implements for digging wells.
The top echelons of the Mughal hierarchy lived in great houses decorated with rich hangings and carpets wearing the finest cotton or silk, decorated with gold, and carrying beautiful scimitars. There was a considerable element of ostentatious display involved in this, however, for their domestic arrangements did not match the outward splendor of their dress and equipment. The courtly manners and the elaborate etiquette of the Muslim upper classes impressed foreign visitors and these manners infiltrated the middle classes. The rural population usually followed the traditional forms of behavior and lived and acted simply.
Mughal society was celebrated for its cultural finesse and fundamental courtesy and respectful manners were in vogue. The society was fundamentally generous and underpinned by hospitality and all visitors were served soft drinks accompanied by nicely and richly wrapped betel and betel nuts. They were very respectfully received and civilly escorted out at the time of departure. Mealtime was considered sacred and strict etiquette was observed while having dinners. The decorum established by the Mughals for the social conduct proved longer-lasting and endured even after the end of the Mughal rule. TW