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Mogul Decline in the 18th Century
British control of India was largely brought about by the fall of the Mogul Empire and the subsequent division of India. Babar (1482-1530), a Turkish-Mongol prince from Afghanistan and the founder of the Mogul Empire, invaded India in 1526. His grandson Jelaleddin Mahmomet Akbar (1542-1605) was the greatest of the Mogul emperors and under his 49 years reign, conquered all of Northern India and Afghanistan, extending his rule as far south as the Godvari River. The Moguls were Muslims who ruled over a Hindu majority. Akbar maintained his rule by his religious tolerance and Mogul military might, much like the British later. But after his death, the empire began to decline. This decline continued with the rule of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), who became emperor in 1658. Mogul control in south India came under more pressures with the increase of strong attacks by the Hindu Maratha princes. To worsen matters, Aurangzeb, who lacked Akbar's religious tolerance, imposed special taxes on Hindus, destroying their temples and forced them to convert to Islam. Soon after Aurangzeb's death, the empire began breaking up, enabling the British to step into the void.
The new emperor, Bahadur Shah I (1707-12), thought more tolerant, was unable to prevent Mogul decline. He never abolished jizya, but his effort to collect the tax became ineffectual. Bahadur Shah I tried to impose greater control over the Rajput states of Amber and Jodhpur, but was unsuccessful. His policies toward the Hindu Marathas were also half-hearted conciliatory as they were never defeated by the Moguls and resistance to Mogul rule persisted in the south.
Political and Economic Decentralization During the Mogul Decline
With the decline of Mogul central authority, the period between 1707 and 1761 witnessed the rise of the provinces against Delhi. This resurgence of regional identity accentuated both political and economic decentralization as Mogul military powers ebbed. The provinces became increasing independent from the central authority both economically and politically. Aided by intra-regional as well as inter-regional trade in local raw produce and artifacts, these provinces became virtual kingdoms. Bengal, Bihar, and Avadh in Northern India were among the new independent regions where these developments were most apparent. Their rulers became almost independent warlords recognizing the Mogul Emperor in name only. These provinces laid the foundations for the princely states under the Raj.
In due course, the growth of the regions at the expanse of Mogul central authority, gave local land- and power-holders enough influence to take up arms against Mogul authority and declare their independence. This gave rise to the princely states of British India. More often than not, narrow and selfish goals prevented these rebels from consolidating their interests into an effective challenge to the empire. These princes relied on the support from their relatives, lesser nobility, and peasants. Their rule was very personalized with followers swearing allegiance to the ruler alone and not to the state. As such, with the death of a prince, allegiance was reshuffled and loyalty divided. Next, the selfish motives of each princely state, made cooperation impossible. Each local group stroved to maximize its share of the spoils at the expense of the others. The princes were thus never strong enough to dominate any sizeable territories and the Mogul Empire, shrank thought it was lasted till 1858.
The Mogul rulers were not replaced by the princes. Their presence was necessary to act as a balance and arbitrator between the powerful princes, each having his own agenda. The princes in the regions, were always alert for opportunities to establish their dominance over the others in the neighborhood, yet at the same time feared and resisted similar attempts by the others. As such, they all needed for their vices a kind of legitimacy, which was conveniently available in the long-accepted authority of the Mogul Emperor. With Mogul authority so weak, the princes had no fear in collectively accepting the Mogul Emperor as the titular head-of-state.
Bibliography and Web Resources
- Kamat's potpourri, "When the Moguls Ruled..."
- Benton W. (1972), "India" and "Pakistan" Encyclopedia Britannica
Last modified 6 November 2000