Twilight of Mughals and the British

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


June 28, 2022

Twilight of Mughals

Twilight of Mughals subcontinent got quite used to the presence of the Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries as they were a regular sight in its coastal areas. Their undoubted advantage of mastering the seas provided them with a crucial exit route that also brought in help and assistance from across the water whenever needed. The English, Dutch, French and Portuguese activities slowly changed into two-pronged presence whereby along with trade they got involved in power politics due to the weakening of the central Mughal power giving rise to a host of regional centres of power mostly dominated by erstwhile members of Mughal ruling elite as well as the emerging Maratha power. In this context, Mughals were used to Europeans by now as they had fought with or against the Portuguese. The Portuguese were followed by the as the demand for Indian goods grew throughout Europe. The British were quite reluctant to join the fray as they arrived on the scene rather late but soon became an integral part of the geopolitical tensions besetting the ruling fabric of the subcontinent.

There is hardly any doubt that in the 16th and 17th centuries, trade was indeed the main focus of the East India Company but with the eclipse of the Mughal power their focus shifted to owning its territory. The British had already wrested Bengal after hard-fought Carnatic Wars between 1746 and 1963. The East India Company thus became a major political power in the Indian subcontinent. It had either direct control over the territories it ruled or had it through puppet rulers and governors who were under constant military pressure from the British. The crucial factor in British dominance was the locally-trained army as they hired Indian infantrymen, who were then trained in the European style of warfare. This well-trained and motivated army was always officered by Europeans who were well-versed in technologically advance tactics of waging war along with modern weaponry particularly the fast-advancing artillery. By the time Shah Alam was placed on the Mughal throne he found that his writ ran only to the municipal limits of Delhi. While the Mughal emperor was trying hard to keep his throne and assert his fast-fading authority, the British decisively defeated the Mughal governor of Bengal, Sirajudaulah in 1757, completely disrupting the balance of power in the subcontinent.

There was no other option available to Shah Alam to submit to the East India Company in 1763, giving the British even more legitimacy to the rule of the Indian subcontinent. Despite facing such a setback, Shah Alam was not prepared to give up and by 1764, he had escaped the British and joined his forces with Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Oudh, who previously helped him attack Bengal and Bihar. There arrayed against the Company were the combined forces of Shah Alam, Nawab-Wazir of Oudh and deseated governor of Bengal Mir Kasim but the Company would not surrender its interests to a weak Mughal emperor and since they owned a private British army, they resisted Alam’s advances. Shah Alam invaded Bihar on three occasions but his army of 30,000 soldiers was no match for the highly trained British sepoy army. They tried to invade these territories once again and the losses they suffered at the Battle of Buxar in 1764 and the Battle of Kora in 1765 were devastating resulting in the Company assuming full control of the Bengal territory and it thus became a major political power in the Indian subcontinent.

The British Company had hitherto either direct control over the territories or it ruled it through puppet rulers and governors who were under constant military pressure from the British. Shah Alam was again forced to accept the Company as his superior but he did manage to negotiate a settlement. The Company returned the province of Allahabad to the Mughal emperor and they promised him an annual tribute of 2,600,000 rupees and in exchange, Shah Alam allowed whomever the East India Company chose to govern Bengal and Bihar. He also appointed the Company as his diwan in these territories. Diwan was a title used for various offices of the states, and to the Company, it brought legal power to collect revenues in Bengal and Bihar, but it would take the Court of Directors of the East India Company another six or seven years to officially accept the title.

By 1770, the East India Company paid only 18 per cent of their promised annual tribute to Shah Alam II, and in 1772, they paid 23 per cent. Yet the Mughal emperor had no other choice but to remain under British protection. The reason might be due to his own weakness and inability to claim what was his by right, or it might have been due to the fact that even such a low amount of money was still a much higher income for the emperor than what he received decades before. Also, aside from some minor issues with the reception protocol, the British officials treated the Mughal emperor with much more respect than his previous regents, the Sayyid brothers, Imad-ul- Mulk, and Ahmad Shah Durrani. Shah Alam however remained dissatisfied and when the Company refused to help him retrieve his lost capital Delhi he decide to look somewhere else. In 1771, he gave four million rupees to the Marathas to help him gain control of his previous capital along with promising them the revenues of Allahabad and some other imperial cities. By this time, however, the British Company had won its war with the French and could care less about the Mughal emperor. As such, the warlords and regional powers constantly changed, and the emperor lost what little control of the administration of his empire he held in his hands.

In 1788, Shah Alam was blinded by an insane Ghulam Qadir Rohilla and with this event the prestige of the Mughal Empire was at its lowest. It were the Marhattas that rescued the Mughal emperor from the clutches of his vile adversary and the Marathas ruling northern India for the next fifteen years till the time their conflict with the British Company resulting in their overthrow in 1803. The British however recognised Shah Alam II as the sovereign of the Mughal Empire. In 1835 the Company took away his title of emperor, and named him King of Delhi and stopped issuing currency in his name and proclaimed themselves as the rightful rulers. In 1850, the British decided that Bahadur Shah would be the last emperor of the Mughals but a massive mutiny completely unbalanced the entire situation with the British putting the Mughal emperor on trial for treason against the East India Company. His life was spared but he and his whole and family were exiled to Burma where he died in 1862. It was an ignominious end of the most glorious ruling dynasty of the subcontinent that has ruled it magnificently for centuries. It was a tragic end of the Muslim rule in the subcontinent subjecting the minority Muslim community to a long-drawn struggle to keep their identity intact along with wresting its rightful place within the vast subcontinent that was finally achieved in shape of Pakistan. TW


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