Critique of ‘Aligarh School’ Theories of Mughal Decline

A critique of Aligarh group of theses has been developed by a number of historians from outside Aligarh, especially those belonging to the ‘Cambridge School’. Some of these theories try to demolish the basic class frame-work in which the thesis is developed by Irfan Habib. These attempts seem to reinforce the thesis in which the Indian society is viewed as an unchanging society. India had no class development. States existed before the colonial period with roots in the society. They were organized as oligarchies on patron-client basis and no social commitment, loyalty or legitimacy.

M.N. Pearson: One of the proponents of such a thesis is M.N. Pearson (“Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire”, Journal of Asian Studies, 35, ii, 1976). He suggests all this when he tries to argue that the only tie between the king and the 8,000 mansabdars “was the tie of a patronage and loyalty” which depended upon ‘continued military success’ and “neither religion nor racial origin provided any reason for loyalty”. He further suggests that the Mughal rule was was ‘indirect’: the subjects of the state constituted themselves into ‘one or more groups’ and each group had a head of some sort who according to Pearson, ‘was the intermediary with the Mughal administration on rare occasions when the group or member needed to be connected to this administration’. The 8000 mansabdars in an empire of ‘sixty or seventy million people’ was the maximum core of the empire: others were connected through them by their own patron-client ties. He then further goes on to reduce this number to 1000 men. His thesis is in fact such as to destroy the basic frame-work of the empire. And what was/ were the sources cited for his contentions? Secondary works. Further in Pearson’s view, we may find in Aurangzeb’s failure of 1666 the entrance to the circle of failure and decline from which the Mughal Empire was never to escape. Military failures demoralized the military nobility and they began to despair and calculate their personal loss or gain at the expense of the empire. “Since the fundamental ethos of the empire was military, and loyalty between ruler and servant personal rather than impersonal”, the Mughal mansabdars could afford to think “it was not their empire that was failing, it was Aurangzeb’s”. The setback that the Mughals had with Shivaji was the beginning of the end of the empire of the empire. The clients deserted and the empire crumbled: in 1663 Shivaji attacked Poona; 1664, sack of Surat; 1666, his escape from Agra.

Pearson is not alone in coming out with a critique of the Aligarh historians. C.A. Bayly, Om Prakash and Muzaffar Alam are some others who talk about the vigour of the 18th Century. According to all of them there was no agrarian crisis, no class consciousness. To them the Mughal Empire collapsed not due to any upheaval in the society but due to contradictions in the Mughal Empire itself. In fact there was growth in every sphere and the Indian economy developed without any hindrance.

Pearson also had rejected the agrarian crisis as “less than convincing”. The peasant revolts were a regular phenomenon and the intensity of revolts in the second half of the 17th C can’t be taken as a symptom of crisis. Pearson fails to distinguish between the zamindar revolts and the agrarian revolts. Revolts with peasant initiative were a new character which he fails to recognize. Thus there is a conceptual problem with him.

Secondly he fails to see that Irfan Habib mentions ‘agrarian crisis’ only in the context of late 17th Century. Thirdly, the evidence – the only piece of evidence which Pearson cites, is wrong: He cites Hamida Khatoon Naqvi for 144 ‘zamindar’ revolts under Akbar to build up his thesis of continuous revolts. But if one reads Naqvi on finds that this is the number ot total revolts including that of princes, nobles etc.: Out of these 30 were by princes and nobles; 80 by ‘leaders of annexed provinces (e.g., Gujarat, Bengal, Khandesh, Kashmir etc.) and 28 by zamindars (including stray references to individual acts).

In 1979 Karen Leonard came up with the ‘Great Firm’ theory of the decline of the Mughal Empire, published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (vol.21, no.2). According to her the analyses of the availability and distribution of economic resources had neglected one group whose relationship to the Mughal state and whose roles in the political system was quite crucial: the bankers – sahukars, shroffs and mahajans – particularly those in the ‘great firms’. It was these great firms which played a key role in the decline of the empire. According to her, the indigenous banking firms were indispensable allies of the Mughal state, and that the great nobles and imperial officers ‘were more than likely to be directly dependent upon these banking firms’. And thus the great firms’ diversion of resources, both credit and trade, from the Mughals to other political powers in the Indian sub-continent contributed to its bankruptcy and ultimately the downfall. The period of imperial decline coincided with the increasing involvement of banking firms in revenue collection at regional and local levels, in preference to their continued provision of credit to the central Mughal government. This involvement increased from 1650 to 1750, and it brought bankers, more directly than before, into positions of political power all over India.

J.F. Richards On first consideration, this theory does offer a plausible explanation for the downfall between 1690 to 1720. But then a serious challenge to the thesis is given by J.F. Richards who finds ‘serious problems of documentation’ in this theory. In fact she herself concedes that all her data is derived from secondary sources. Further Richards finds it hard to agree with her on the term ‘great firm’ in context of the the economy of Mughal India. According to him there were different kinds of commercial groups who carried on the essential services: graindealers/moneylenders (baqqal, mahajan) engaged in financing the land-tax system by lending cash to peasants, village headmen, rural aristocrat; and they also purchased, stored, shipped and sold grain etc from qasbas to larger towns and imperial cities. The moneychangers/money lenders (sarrafs) specialized in short term finance through hundis (bills of exchange) and a limited form of deposit banking. They also dealt with the coins and metal. Similarly, another group was that of brokers (dallals) who were ‘a highly specialized commercial group’. Then there were merchants and traders (seth, sahu) some of whom were very prosperous. Most of these commercial groups were of Hindus and Jains. However, even the wealthiest of these men were not ‘direct participants in the imperial system’ nor were they ‘indispensable allies of the Mughal state’. Their services were limited and dispensable. Further, her thesis is inconsistent: on the one hand she talks of Mughal indifference towards the money-lending firms. But then approvingly quotes information provided by Irfan Habib on advances to nobles: ‘the Emperor Akbar tried to establish a royal treasury and avoid reliance on money lenders, and he tried to advance loans from the treasury at an interest below that asked by bankers’. Then he cites that Aurangzeb tried to prevent petty officials who acted as intermediaries to recover debts for bankers from nobles and claimed one-fourth of the debt for this service!

Christopher A. Bayly ( Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983) and Muzaffar Alam ( The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab, 1707-48, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1986) of the Cambridge School try to argue that the political collapse of the imperial centre was not necessarily coterminous with general and overwhelming economic dislocation and social chaos. In his book Bayly argued that the Mughal rule was more like a grid of imperial towns, roads and markets which pressed heavily on society and modified it, though only at certain points. The system depended on the ability of the Mughal state to appropriate in cash as much as 40 % of the value of the total agricultural product (S. Moosvi). He further argued that the military power was the ultimate sanction, but like the medieval canon, the Mughal main force was a cumbersome and hazardous weapon to point at an adversary. It failed as, “the problem was that in the longer term it did not secure the obligation of its subjects ans so lacked the resources to carry on its course of military expansion”. The empire could only survive if it penetrated further beneath the level of the pargana administration, and into tight clan-like brotherhood of peasant farmers in the lands away from the great roads and the country towns – penetration required an ideology which justified appropriation of growing quantity of revenues. In one of his later works (Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830, Longman, London, 1989) Bayly has argued for a radical revision of the entire causal schema of arguments that turn on themes of cultural stagnation, military decline or elite debauchery. Instead, Bayly suggests that the Ottomon Safavid and Mughal empires were shattered by an aggregation of political tremors, which originated chiefly from within the folds of these empires. He argues that the relative peace and stability provided by the imperial authorities over centuries led to a gradual deepening of commercial networks, the extension of urbanization and the congealing of landed classes in the OSM territories. These interests then hardened into a new economic and social bloc that subsequently began to batter the main frame of empire and ultimately wasted and muscled out the previous institutions and accoutrements of rule.

Bayly is keen to emphasise that a combination of “accommodating indigenous capitalism” and fiscal emaciation caused the fatal unsettling of these gargantuan centralized bureaucracies. The decline, therefore, acquired the rhythm of a “structural adaptation” in which new commercial and landed interests moved vertically upwards and collided with the overarching frame of empire. Consequently, when the dust clouds cleared after imperial collapse, the former landscape was not heaped with inert social and economic debris but instead overlain with vibrant regional and provincial formations. Though appealing and seductive, Bayly’s argumentation leaves fundamentally unanswered the question he sets out himself: Why then did powerful interests in the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid empires decide progressively to withdraw their support during the early eighteenth century?

Richard Barnett In other words,according to Richard Barnett (North India Between Empires: Awadh, the Mughals, and the British 1720-1801, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980) and Andrea Hintz (The Mughal Empire and its Decline: An Interpretation of the Sources of Social Power, Ashgate, Brookfield USA, 1997) the great Mughal canopy that extended over the subcontinent gradually acquired a number of large discolorations, throughout the eighteenth century, in the form of patches that marked the emergence of a slew of “successor states” viz., Awadh, Bengal, Hyderabad, the Marathas and the Sikhs. These successor states worked the same type of networks to not only stem or intercept the flow of resources to the imperial center but also reverse them permanently by annexations, usurpations and expropriations. Much of the dissolution of the Mughal state was effected not by the regional elites and military aristocracy carrying out acts of outright defiance or opposition, but by wresting from the imperial authorities tax-farming (ijara) rights, jagirs on long term tenures and by securing appointments to administrative or governing offices. These regional formations, in fact, continued their formal genuflection to the Mughal authority, precisely because their differences with the imperial centre were one of degree and not of kind. Some distinctness from the imperial centre nevertheless existed and was reflected most acutely in the manner that the successor states were able to develop more efficient circuits for taxation and collection, and weave tighter linkages with local magnates and powerful social groups. Only towards the latter half of the eighteenth century were regional formations such as the Sikhs and Tippu Sultan of Mysore provoked to radically overhaul their social and political systems in order to harness firepower through modernized infantry and standing armies.

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A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

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