Zoya Ansari takes account of the achievements of The Suri Interlude
The Suri interlude only setback the Mughal Empire faced in its long stay at the helm of affairs till it finally faded away in the 19th century was the defeat and subsequent exile of Emperor Humayun to Persia. Humayun’s nemesis is known to history as Sher Shah Suri rise from small-town position to being the ruler of one of the biggest empires which had risen in north India is a saga of courage and determination which has aroused a lot of admiration. Right from when Humayun took over the throne, his weak rule resulted in fragmentation of Mughal territories and Sher Shah’s first achievement was the unification of North India under one aegis. The rise of Sher Shah to supreme power from the position of a small noble was an ample witness to the social and political conditions in north India at the time when bold, unscrupulous men could forge ahead. Political duplicity, intrigues and occasional lack of moral scruples were the ingredients of the growth of Sher Shah as a victorious overlord. History remembers Sher Shah’s rule as the brilliant interlude to the Mughal rule that was full of remarkable innovations appearing to be far ahead of the age he existed in.
After his victory over Humayun at Kannauj, Sher Shah formally crowned himself and concentrated on hounding the Mughals out of India ensuring that they were not able to return. He was able to do this without much difficulty on account of the deep division in the Mughal camp. Sher Shah was resolute in his ambitions and he brooked no opposition to his rule and toughly tackled his opposition. Though the duration of his rule was extremely short but during the five years he was on the throne he took measures that are highly lauded in the annals of history. The crowning glory of his rule was the steps he took to ensure maintenance of law and order throughout his realm. While doing so he devised a comprehensive plan aimed at ensuring peace and amity in the land and such measures proved so effective that they became the standard format for future rulers. Luckily he had good experience of administrative matters as he had supervised his father’s estate for quite a long time. He was also blessed with high degree of learning that gave him the ability to form a discerning view of the situation and take actions as a hands-on chief executive.
He began with emphasising on providing for required access to the people of his empire and started constructing roads and then took great pains in ensuring that they remained safe. His stern actions against dacoits who waylaid travelers made the roads safe and increased trade. He was convinced that the safety of the roads could only be ensured if the zamindars, some of whom were in league with the robbers, were kept under control. One reason that he improved the system of communications was to help military movements and Sher Shah had to undertake various military campaigns to chastise recalcitrant elements in his kingdom. The roads also ensured greater control over the countryside enabling Sher Shah to restore the old imperial road from the river Indus in the west to Sonargaon in Bengal. He also built a road from Agra to Jodhpur and Chittor, which must have linked up with the roads leading to the sea-ports of Gujarat. He built a third road from Lahore to Multan which was the starting point for caravans to west and central Asia. He built a fourth road from Agra to Burhanpur again linking it with the roads leading to the seaports of Gujarat.
Sher Shah has a strong welfare streak in him and for ensuring safety on the roads and for extending comforts to the travelers he built sarais on the highway at a distance of two to 4 miles. Separate apartments were built for the Hindus and the Muslims where they could get beds and cooked food and Muslim and Brahman cooks were appointed for the purpose. There also was provision for uncooked food-supplies being given to Hindus who had their own caste rules. Sher Shah made a rule to the effect that whoever came to the sarai was to be served with food out of government money according to one’s rank and his pony was given grain and drink. A custodian (shahna) was appointed in each sarai to safeguard the goods of the merchants and rent-free lands were allotted in the neighbourhood for their expenses and for the expenses of the imam and the muezzin for the mosque which was built in each sarai. Sher Shah was indefatigable in his efforts and it was mentioned that he built more than 1,700 such sarais. They were really fortified inns and were built strongly because some of them have survived even to this day. Sher Shah caused markets to be set up in every sarai and many of the sarais became mandis where the peasants came to sell their produce and were the nucleus for the growth of towns (qasbas) where trade and handicrafts developed and they were also used for dak chowkis (postal service) for which two horses were kept at every sarai. By this means, by relays of horses news from a distance of 300 kms could reach in a day.
Sher Shah was a pragmatist and knew that he needed revenue for running his kingdom and therefore undertook measures to promote trade and commerce. Being mindful of the financial angle he undertook to streamline the economic system and struck fine coins of silver and copper of uniform standard in place of the debased coins of mixed metals of earlier times. His silver rupee remained a standard coin for a long time and was considered a revolutionary measure that went a long way in establishing a stable financial system. The rupee survived the stress and vagaries of time and is now considered a symbol of monetary system of the subcontinent. He also made some effort to standardize weights and measures and largely succeeded in it.
It has been said that the most striking contribution of Sher Shah was his reform of the revenue system. He was well qualified to do so because he was fully acquainted with the prevailing revenue system as incharge of his father’s jagir and as the virtual ruler of Bihar for ten years. Sher Shah wanted that neither the assessment of land-revenue should be based on crop-sharing or estimation nor should the village head-men and zamindars be allowed to pass their burden on to the shoulders of the weaker sections. In this context he insisted upon the system of measurement (zabt). He divided lands into three categories — good, bad and middling, and the average yield computed and one-third of the average yield was the share of the state. On this basis, a crop-rate was drawn up so that as soon as the sown field was measured the share of the state could be determined. This could then be converted into rupees on the basis of local rates with the peasants given the option of paying in cash or kind though the state preferred cash as it suited the multifarious activities of the kingdom. TW
Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense