18TH CENTURY SUCCESSOR STATES
11.2 18th Century Debate
18th Century Successor
The 18th century has been a subject of historical debate among scholars. It represents a phase of transition between medieval and modern periods. The decline of Mughal power in the 18th century was characterized by the rise of autonomous states in the
18th century. Earlier the historians regarded this period as crisis torn but recent researches have tried to study 18th century states as separate entities possessing elements of dynamism and growth.
11.2 18TH CENTURY DEBATE
It is important to study the 18th century debate among scholars for understanding the nature of successor states which emerged in this period. 18th century has been largely analysed in the context of the Mughal empire. However, recent writings focus on 18th century as an epoch in which certain trends emerged which were not wholly governed by the presence of Mughal empire. Therefore, an attempt is being made to study 18th century as a period in which many positive features existed thus demolishing the
‘bleak-century’ postulate. This phase represents a transitional era between the medieval and modern period. The earliest interpretation of 18th century is contained in Sir Jadu Nath Sarkar’s History of Bengal Vol. II and The Fall of Mughal Empire Volum IV in which the 18th century was categorized into pre-British period and the British period. He subscribes to the dark age postulate of 18th century. Historians like Athar Ali refers to the rise of successor states in the 18th century but feel that these should be analysed within the frame work of Mughal decline. Hermann Goetz in his lecture on the crisis of Indian Civilization in the 18th century and early 19th century laid emphasis on the cultural development in India in the 18th century. This was a marked departure from the ‘overall decay’ theory of 18th century. However, deviating from these approaches recently historians have tried to analyse the successor states and emergence of new states in the 18th century. These comprised of Awadh, Hyderabad, Bengal, Mysore, Marathas, Sikhs etc. These polities are analysed as preparing the ground for the metamorphosis from the Mughal imperial system to the British system. The 18th century polities should also be seen in the context of continuity with the Mughal political system and also changes introduced to suit the new political situation. Thus the 18th century reflected the political transformation from Mughal decline to British colonialism but the socio economic forces at the local level continued to operate as before but the local groups shifted their political allegiance. With the decline of Mughal empire the virtually independent zamindars performed the task of collection of revenue and the local rulers used these resources for sustaining court and armies. This income also penetrated into towns and urban centers which thrived continually. Several types of political formations emerged in this period ranging from successor states to zamindaris which later got absorbed into the category of Princely
states under the British. 1
State in Medieval Times However, the early British writers of Indian history (Elliot, Haig etc.) painted the 18th century in dismal colour since they wished to demonstrate that their predecessors were incompetent. The contemporary Persian works also portrayed the period as anarchic. The Persian writers were patronized by the nobles and with the decline of the Mughal empire their position was adversely affected. The contemporary historians were either lower officials or ‘prebendiaries’. However, some of them like Ghulam Husain Tabatabai in Bengal who wrote Siyar ul Mutakhkhirin or Shah Nawab Khan in Hyderabad who authored Maasir ul Umara or Ghulam Husain Salim of Bengal the writer of Riyaz us Salatin documented for the purpose of instructing the British officials and laboured under British auspices. This was a part of the broader project of recording colonial knowledge. The erosion of the traditional power and the adversity and the reversals which the older regime suffered were mirrored in these works. Recently scholars like M. Alam suggest that the 18th century was caught between the grandeur of the Mughals and the indignity of colonial rule.
The author of Maasir ul Umara writes: “That Nadir Shah’s invasion resulted in a setback to the prosperity of Delhi, but in a short while it returned to normal and in fact in every thing it is now better and shows progress….its industries and manufacturers are flourishing.” The Urdu Shahr Ashobs (Ruined cities) of the contemporary poets Mir and Sauda have been analysed by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam. The poets lament the destruction of Delhi and Agra and the degeneration of the ethics and principles. The Ashob-I-Zamana of Jafar Zatalli written in 18th century refers to the decay of a pattern of life and setback to a group of people (umara) who gave protection to creative classes (poets, writers) and gains of the
‘lower’ categories (weavers, butchers etc.) from the changed social milieu. It seems that the British historians of the 18th century were not guided by any bias or prejudice towards the Muslim rulers of the previous regime. Col. A. Dow and Col. Kirkpatrick the historians cum officials (in Lucknow and Hyderabad) of 18th century represent the above mentioned category. Dow in his History of Hindustan refers to company rule as mercantile misrule and desired the reverting back to Mughal practices. Dow’s glorification of Akbar made Warren Hastings to order the publication of Francis Gladwin’s pioneering English translation of Ain-i-Akbari or the institutes of Akbar. Kirkpatrik believed that Mughal rule was based on a variegated set of laws and customary traditions which found favour with Lord Cornwallis too. The concept of Mughal maladministration was propounded by British officials of mid 19th century viz. Sir Henry Miers Elliott in his Bibliographical Index to the Historians of Mohammadan India. This view point was carried further by British as well as Indian historians like Sir Wolseley Haig, Sir Jadurath Sarkar and Dr. R. C. Majumdar.
Sir Jadunath Sarkar propounded a dark age postulate of the 18th century, which has been refuted and challenged by scholars like Athar Ali, Satish Chandra and Muzaffar Alam. It is based on an untenable premise focusing on degeneration which eroded the political organization which was a consequence of incompetent kings and nobles and their extravagant lifestyles. The 20th century ideology of polity also influenced the perceptions of writers of this period who regarded a centralist system as imparting stability as opposed to the regional or local assertion of authority and power which brought about destabilization.
Athar Ali’s fresh interpretation of Mughal decline in an article in the Modern Asian Studies, provided new insights into the understanding of the problem of degeneration of Mughal empire and the 18th century. The focal point shifted from the study of personalities held responsible for the catastrophe in the 18th century to the analysis and evaluation of the administrative structures of Mughal empire. He tried to understand the decay of Mughal power in the wider context of socio-economic and political vibrance in North western Europe in the 18th century and regarded the decline as a form of cultural degeration.
Satish Chandra is skeptical regarding economic deterioration in the riyasats or successor states, which emerged in the form of political formations from the erstwhile Mughal system and were later integrated into the British colonial system. He refers to them as possessing a vibrant political ethos. Muzaffar Alam’s work suggests “that in the first half of the 18th century the Indo-Gangetic subas of the North, from Allahabad to Lucknow and Multan to be precise, experienced multivariate manifestations of crisis rather than a positive linearity of decline.” He regards Awadh as being a picture of progressive activities with scope for emergence of a regional political system but in the Punjab suba he finds few indications, which testify to modifications in the Mughal system in the sphere of polity and economic growth.
Athar Ali adopts J. N. Sarkar’s periodization paradigm with regard to establishment of British colonialism and places it at the middle of the 18th century. Barun De in his presidential address to the Indian History Congress in 1989 tries to unentangle the complicated web of historical perceptions regarding 18th century. He points out “Prof. Athar Ali identifies transition with the collapse of Mughal empire and then with the apparent chronological gap in which transitional regimes intervened (with) the rise of British power.” Athar Ali puts the 18th century polities in the middle phase of 18th century. Satish Chandra studies the 18th century in totality placed between the indigenous and exogenous imperialism represented by Mughal and British respectively. Therefore, the 18th century regimes are studied in the context of their continuity with earlier regime and the changes subsequently introduced and their final subordination by the British system.
Sarkar’s understanding of 18th century is clearly reflected in the following paragraphs from History of Bengal (Dacca University) Vol II: “On 23rd June 1757, the middle ages of India ended and her modern age began. When Clive struck at the Nawab, Mughal civilization had become a spent bullet. Its potency for good, its very life was gone. The country’s administration had become hopelessly dishonest and inefficient and the mass of the people had been reduced to the deepest poverty, ignorance and moral degradation by a small selfish, proud and unworthy ruling class. Imbecile lechers filled the throne…. the army was rotten and honeycombed with treason. The purity of domestic life was threatened by the debauchery fashionable in the Court and the aristocracy…. Religion had become the handmaid of vice and folly.
On such a hopelessly decadent society, the rational progressive spirit of Empire struck with resistless force. First of all an honest and efficient administration had to be imposed on the country and directed by the English if only for the sake of the internal peace on which their trade depended and the revenue by which the necessary defense force could be maintained…. In the space of less than one generation in the twenty years from Plassey to Warren Hastings (1757-1776) the land began to recover from the blight of man’s handiwork and political life, all felt the revivifying touch of the new impetus from the west. The dry bones of a stationary oriental society began to stir, at first faintly under the wand of a heaven sent magician.”
Satish Chandra produced his magnum opus ‘Parties and Politics at the Mughal court
1707-1739’ in 1959. According to him the end of Aurangzeb’s reign represented the beginning of 18th century and this late medieval period was marked by transition brought about by the break down of the Mughal imperial system. He analysed the disruption of the socio-political system as follows: “social problems which no mere devices for expanding cultivation could solve …. What was really required was the rapid expansion of industry and trade based on the introduction of new technology and the removal of old barriers hindering that expansion…. the existing social order encompassed trade and industry in too narrow a sphere. Hence a basic improvement in the situation was beyond the competence of any one king.”
18th Century Successor
State in Medieval Times In a number of articles published in the next twenty years, Satish Chandra laid stress on the inability of the ruling class to find new avenues when the tripolar relationship between the center, the zamindars and the Khudkasht (resident cultivator who cultivates with his plough and bullock) was under stress. In 1982 the earlier view held by Satish Chandra which regarded the first half of the 18th century as a dead end was modified by him. He was now receptive to the idea of the Western Scholars (Sociologists and Indologists) that the 18th century was teeming with opportunities and though the old system was tottering but the possibility of growth existed for worthy people.
Another important work was written by Irfan Habib titled ‘The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707’. Habib refers to the Maratha “plundering and warfare” activities which he thought were responsible for ravaging the countryside and causing ruination of the peasantry. He cited Aurangzeb’s letters as evidence of the Maratha pillaging in the beginning of the 18th century: “there is no province or district where the infidels have not raised a tumult and since they are not chastised they have established themselves everywhere. Most of the country has been rendered desolate and if any place is inhabited the peasants have probably come to terms with the
‘robbers’ ashqiya, official Mughal name for the Marathas. According to Habib “…. the Mughal empire had been its own gravedigger.” The crisis in the agrarian economy was reflected in the peasant rebellions which took place frequently and led to the collapse of the imperial system. Habib is of the opinion that the political forces which emerged subsequently on the debris of Mughal empire represented “reckless rapine, anarchy and foreign conquest.” The state’s appropriation of the agricultural surplus was based on oppressive practices since those who subsisted on peasant’s produce continued to increase the demand and a large part was utilized by the parasitic ruling class in urban areas for extravagant purposes but there was no corresponding increase in the agrarian production which resulted in agrarian distress.
Satish Chandra and I. Habib characterized the Mughal ruling elite as possessing a narrow class disposition. They feel that it was not broad-based. The absolutist character of the state is reflected in the authority of the racially and hierarchically organized ruling class. Barun De opines that “….medieval imperialism…. of the Mughals in South Asia .… was more sterile like the despotism of Bourbons….finally replaced by an equally authoritarian and absolutist colonial imperialism.” Therefore 18th century was a period of transition anterior to the modern period. Periodisation presents a complex problem. Should 1707 marking Aurangzeb’s death be regarded as the beginning of modern period? Or should the first half of the 18th century be merely regarded as a period of transformation till the beginnings of the British colonialism in 1757?
Athar Ali is known for his writings on administrative history of Mughal India. He too like I. Habib and S. Chandra lays emphasis on economic factors which caused the weakening of the Mughal state edifice and paved the way for the establishment of colonial rule. The Mughal imperial structure is considered by Athar Ali as analogous to a pan-Indian structure though peripheral (marginal) areas such as Kerala, Dakshin Kanara, Madura Nayakdom in Sothern Tamil Nadu, North East fell outside the pale of Mughal hegemony. They were later absorbed into the colonial state. 1700 onwards impediments and obstacles (peasant revolts, parasitical urban populace) hindered economic growth, which was considerably stifled. Therefore for many scholars (Athar Ali, I. Habib) the beginning of 18th century was crisis torn. The reasoning offered by these historians was in contrast to the exaggerated account of J. N. Sarkar depicting
18th century as a dark age.
Athar Ali mentions three categories of state formations in 18th century India:
1) Successor states like Hyderabad, Awadh and Bengal which were part of the
Mughal empire and emerged due to the disintegration of Mughal empire. Their
4 administrative structure was a continuation of the Mughal model.
2) The Maratha confederacy, Jats, Sikhs and Afghans rose to power as a consequence of the crisis which had weakened the Mughal imperial structure.
3) South Indian state of Mysore under Hyder Ali Khan and Tipu Sultan.
Athar Ali describes the distinction between the successor states and other states especially Maratha thus “while they might use certain Mughal administrative institutions for their own purposes their model of government was by and large antithetical to the empire and could not be reconciled with it.” Though the Aligarh school regards the 18th century as a period of crisis on account of Mughal decline and emergence of colonialism but this argument is replete with many loopholes. The focus of Mughal empire as representing pan-Indian aspirations and neglect of the peripheral polities is unwarranted. The centralization aspect of Mughal Empire is equated with stability and growth to the extent that the regional polities, which emerged with the decline of Mughal empire are regarded as anarchical. This proposition of the Aligarh school has been challenged in many writings recently (Cohn, Wink etc.)
In the 1983 Calcuta Deushkar Lectures Satish Cahndra was able to discover possibilities for economic growth in the 18th century. He refers to the elasticity and adaptability especially in the sphere of cloth production, long distance trade, dadni (term of agreement for providing means for production to artisans), cash crop, insurance, banking and other categories of rural fiscal mechanisms which led to the emergence of sahukari class to a position of economic and social prominence. He referred to the categorizaiton ( of rural society into two groups – the riyasati or privileged and the raiyati or others) The riyasati class was the rural aristocracy comprising of the upper strata, the customary holders (malik) of village lands (khud kashta) and those who held official positions at the village level. These constituted the core of the rural gentry (elite) and they played an important role in the new state structures which emerged in the 18th century. Satish Chandra suggests that “there were greater possibilities for upward social mobility for the rural privileged sector than in the earlier period but within the broad framework of feudal society”. He finally infers that “the 18th century was thus pregnant with possibilities…. The old mould was cracking and there was a possibility of growth in various areas. Everywhere capable, ambitious people were pushing forward. What was lacking was direction.”
Bernard S. Cohn in his important article, in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, titled “Political systems in 18th century India: the Banaras Region” deviates from the earlier position of scholars who analyse the 18th century in the context of the crisis which developed in the Mughal administrative and economic system. He attempted to study the political system which developed in the 18th century especially the micro system i.e. the Banaras zamindari as an autonomous domain under the Nawab of Awadh which was finally subordinated to the control of British East India Company. Cohn did not contest the proposition of the pan-Indian imperial structure which developed cracks. His originality lay in the attempt to find resilience in the political configurations and the process of building up of power and dominance in the society of that period. He followed the systems approach. According to this approach political structures comprise of not only the centralized states, which lie at the pinnacle of the graded and hierarchical system, but also consist of clan dominated villages, bands, groups, associations etc. at the local and community level. The latter too played an important role in the policymaking and implementation. Cohn argued that political control in pre-modern times was organized along vertical lines (hierarchical). The dominance of the hierarchically superior powers was sustained through antagonism among the different categories in society. Although state power was legitimized through traditions, rituals etc. but it could be maintained only through rivalry and balance among the various groups in society. On this premise Cohn was able to formulate four types of political systems in pre-modern India: 1. Imperial 2. Secondary 3. Regional 4. local. The Mughal power represented the imperial category
18th Century Successor