The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 27, 2003

A grand narrative of the later Mughals
J. S. Grewal

The Forgotten Mughals:
A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babur (1707-1857)
by G. S. Cheema. Manohar, New Delhi. Pages 552.

The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babur (1707-1857)THIS book reads well. It gives a fascinating narrative of events connected with emperors and courtesan-queens, parties and politics at the court, foreign invaders and native rebels, armies and camps, commanders and soldiers, based largely on the classic works of William Irvine, Jadunath Sarkar, and Percial Spear, and the contemporary sources like Ghulam Husain’s Siyar al-Mutakhkhrin. An essentially political narrative is punctuated with anecdotes, asides, and reflections on personalities, institutions and administration, society and culture, ethics and manners, ethos and the spirit of the times. Apt or ample quotations add poignancy and colour to the narrative. Regicide, destruction of life and property, brutality, cowardice, sensuality, disloyalty, duplicity, betrayal, and moral degradation are brought into high relief. The sombre atmosphere is relieved by mild irony, subtle humour, and an undercurrent of pathos.

The century and a half of the Later Mughals, known for its wars of succession, was nonetheless marked by some long reigns. Muhammad Shah ruled for nearly thirty years (1719-48) to witness the invasion of his vast dominions by the Marathas and Nadir Shah. While Malwa and Gujarat came under the control of the Marathas and territories beyond the Indus were formally ceded to Nadir Shah, the Deccan became autonomous under Nizam ul-Mulk. The process of dismemberment was complete in the long reign of Shah Alam (1759-1806). Bengal and Awadh became independent under Mughal governors. The Rajputs vassals became de facto rulers. The Marathas expanded their dominions. The Rohillas and the Jats established new kingdoms. The Sikhs began to rule over the Punjab. Delhi itself was eventually conquered by the East India Company. The stories of all these powers are interwoven into the grand narrative of the later Mughals who recede into the background. Even the chapter headings announce the dictatorship of the Syeds, the ascendancy of the Turanis, the ministry of Safdar Jang, the rise of Imad ul-Mulk, the dictatorship of Najibuddaula, the regency of Mahadji Scindia, and his dictatorship. The ‘dawn of a new age’ refers to the rule of the East India Company.


During 1765-72, the court of Shah Alam had all the trappings of royalty but ‘he was not really the master of his house.’ The commander, the English garrison at Allahabad, was brutal enough to demonstrate that he held the real power. Three decades later the East Indian Company was determined to demonstrate its superior authority at Delhi. No treaty was signed with Shah

Alam to ignore his status as a ruler. The right of his successor, Akbar II (1806-37) to nominate a successor was not conceded. The Company began to strike coins with the portraits of British monarchs without any reference to the Mughal emperor. The silver throne of the Diwan-i-Khas was removed in 1844, and the practice of holding a public darbar in the Diwan-i-Am was forbidden. The Company had decided even before 1857 to dissolve the royal status of the Mughal monarchy. After the uprising of 1857, one of the charges brought against Bahadur Shah was that he proclaimed himself to be the sovereign of India as ‘a subject of the British government.’

In a ‘gripping story’ of what he regards as the ‘great anarchy,’ G.S. Cheema can empathise with the wazirs who had to deal with vicious court intrigues, recalcitrant provincial governors, and an utterly corrupt and unscrupulous ruling class. He thinks that there are fascinating parallels with ‘the political scene of today.’ Indeed, in his view, the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire has lessons for contemporary India. Moral degeneration precedes political failure. The foreign invaders and domestic rebels succeeded against the Mughal Empire because of the moral foibles of the royalty and the nobility. In a situation marked increasingly by moral degeneration, economic, technological, and institutional factors became contributory causes. The story is ‘tragic’ because even its villains had their redeeming features.

There was no nationalism in Mughal India but there was a sort of patriotism, there was no secularism in Mughal India but there were secular attitudes. There were patriots of a kind even in the 18th century. The object of their patriotism was not the country but the Mughal state. Loyalty to the empire cut across religious communities, races, and castes. Till the very end, any kind of fanaticism seemed out of place in the benign atmosphere of Delhi. The imperial household had become ‘quite secular in its outlook.’ The popular festivals like Holi, Dasehra and Diwali were observed by the Mughal court, besides the usual festivals of the Muslim calendar. The Mughal emperors and the Mughal nobles watched cockfights and pigeon-flying but they were also fond of literature and art. The early 19th century Delhi was the golden age of Urdu poetry: the city can boast of the galaxy of Mir, Sauda, Insha, Zauq, Momin, and the great Ghalib. The consciousness of a dying world tinged this poetry with melancholy — an appropriate epitaph for an empire bereft of power and authority.

Cheema’s book has been written ‘primarily with the general reader in mind.’ The general reader cannot find a better book on the subject. Incidentally, his book carries greater authenticity as a work of history than many another book written for the general reader by journalists, administrators, and professional writers.