Law & Order: Mughal Sindh

Posted by sepoy on August 21, 2010 · 36 mins read

This was also a seminar paper, long while ago. However, this one became a conference paper (which I gave at Madison) and then I thought of trying to turn it into an article but never managed to do it. If any enterprising editors reading this, want it, I would be happy to send it.

Law and Order in 17th Century Mughal Sindh

The regions of the realm from the palm of ill-intent
By an army keep safe and the army by payment!
-Sa'di (Bustan)

In recent historiography, studies of resistance movements in Mughal India have been limited to simple causality links in the decline of the Mughal Empire. Viewed from the centrality of the Mughal State, all uprisings and resistances are seen as the weakening of the Mughal power — either economically, militarily, or administratively. However, we cannot conversely make the argument that at the height of a central Mughal polity, there were no such movements or uprisings. Indeed, we have to separate from the Decline Model Theory to look at local regions and the tribal, political and economic factors at play to understand these movements. The argument advanced here is that in seventeenth century Sindh, these movements are more accurately described as peasant protest movements and were not against the Mughal State but against the tribal elements and were clashes between nomadic and sedentary communities in the region. They arose from various factors, including oppression from Mughal-appointed administrators. Prior to the 17th century, the Mughal state was able to reach the locale and respond energetically to these incidents. However, with the reign of Shah Jahan (1592-1666), the Mughal State began to lose its ability to control the region and bring justice to the peasants.

This paper looks at Mazhar-i Shahjahani (A View for the Emperor), a contemporaneous source from the region, and examines sources of disorder in the region as well as the response of the peasant communities. I will begin by giving a brief overview of the studies on resistance movements. I will then introduce and situate my source text. In the next section, I will use examples and incidents to show the forms of disorder in the region under Shah Jahan and the peasant responses to them. In conclusion, I will highlight the importance of such regional histories and how they can help us in formulating a picture of the Mughal State as a whole.

The Mughal State faced constraints common to other early modern empires like the Safavids and the Ottomans. It needed to collect revenue that would support its armies and allow for constant expeditions. It needed allegiance from the landed elites to provide loyal officials for government services as well as local appointed authority. It had to insure a standard of living for the cultivators, along with protection from rebels, bandits and predatory elites. Above all, it needed to provide sufficient stability and sustenance for the working and cultivating population so that these groups could pay their taxes and other obligations and avoid becoming fodder for rival faction in rebellions.
The Mughal State depended on the rule of the appointed elite over the local landholders and the collection of various taxes and revenue through the chain of authority from the local village raiyat to the Mughal emperor. Irfan Habib, in his seminal work The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707, laid out the triumvirate power structure of the faujdar (military elite), Mansabdar (court-appointed administrative elite) and the Zamindar (land-grant elite). He focuses on the rise of the oppressed peasants against the elite who had no intentions of helping the raiyat. Over-cultivation of agrarian land, failure to extend cultivation and harsh penalties for the decline in revenue payments led to the flight of the peasants to zamindars who floated flags of resistance against the Mughal monarchy. Habib posits that it was the struggle between the imperial administration and the local zamindars that played out over the peasants, who were the victims of the oppression. The zamindars were able to recruit the peasants in their struggle against the imperial administrators and provided the leadership and impetus behind many peasant revolts.

Can we really put forth one common scenario to explain the entire Mughal dominion and its decline? Given the regional and local variation in the Mughal state, that would be a shaky proposition. In fact, recent studies that looked at regional histories have given us a more nuanced and balanced picture of the Mughal state than before. Chetan Singh, in Conformity and Conflict: Tribes and the 'Agrarian System', stresses the complexities of tribal and class formation in Punjab, which led to the differing state policies. Irfan Habib's “peasant” is no longer just a peasant but is divided into tribes, classes and clans. Singh brings as evidence the tensions between nomadic tribes and settled populations. The nomadic tribes often sustained themselves by launching raids at the settled villages. These raids disrupted both the supply of revenue and production and also caused populations to migrate from the area. The local landlords attempted to settle the nomadic tribes by offering them grants and land holdings. However, even the process of sedentarization created tensions between the populations and led to unrest in local areas. Singh points to these tribal tensions as causes behind many peasant uprisings. Muzaffar Alam, in Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India, shows us the many variations in the relationships between the zamindars and the Mughals in Awadh and Punjab. He shows that the zamindars were not always fighting the Mughal state but also each other. Similarly, the peasants participated with the Mughal armies in their quest to curtail the zamindars. It was largely the weakening of central control and the rise in local-landed elite that sought to disrupt the Mughal's balance of power.

We also have to keep in mind that all resistance movements are not equal. As evidenced by Michael Adas in his study, "From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia", the correct term in most case is peasant protest movement rather than peasant rebellions. In this article he describes the reluctance of precolonial peasant populations to engage in outright rebellion against their landlords. He states:

A careful scrutiny of many of the rebellions which have been attributed to peasant unrest or labeled as agrarian uprisings often leads to the conclusion that these conflicts were in fact inter-elite feuds or dynastic struggles…The peasants themselves understood that they had little to gain and very often much to lose. It is not surprising then, that the peasant's usual response was flight en masse. ((Michael Adas, "From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia" in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 23, Issue 2 (Apr 1981) p. 227))

Along with flight, he discovered that petitions, relocating to the land of a more sympathetic ruler, and joining messianic or religious movements were the main defense mechanisms available to the peasants.

Three main themes emerge from the present scholarship on resistance movements. First, Mughal administrators sought to extract higher and higher revenue payments from peasants who were already unable to bear their tax burdens. Second, the zamindars were engaged in a power struggle with other landholders as well as with the Mughal administrators. Lastly, the peasant uprisings were led by — and often fueled by — the zamindars as pawns in their struggle for autonomy from the central powers. Sindh, in the seventeenth century, provides an excellent venue to examine these themes.

As a region, Sindh's political history is filled with tensions with centralizing forces. It goes in and out of political domination of the Delhi Sultanate. From the 13th to 15th centuries, local rulers — the Soomras and the Sammas — exercised de facto rule over the territories. Feroz Shah Tughluq attempted an invasion of Sindh in 1364 C.E. and succeeded in having his rule recognized by the Sammas. However, Riazul Islam concludes that, “even after the imperial victory over the Samma dynasty the control of the Central Government over Sindh was slight. Probably it did not go beyond a formal recognition of the suzerainty of the Sultan of Delhi and payment of an annual tribute to him by the Samma rulers who, in effect, continued to rule Sind”. ((Riaz ul Islam. "The Rise of the Sammas in Sind" in Islamic Culture v 22 (1948): 359-82)) He summarizes that the 200-year rule of the Sammas was, in part, due to their popular support among the people of Sindh. The Sammas were followed by the Arghuns and the Tarkans. The Arghuns were also of Central Asian descent and held sway over the Sindh in the 16th century. They were reputed for being just and legitimate rulers who did not oppress the people they ruled over. They tried to maintain good relations with the Mughals by claiming joint ancestry. However, Akbar (1542-1605) rejected any marital alliances with them and insisted on bringing them into central domain. His desire to do so may have been fueled by the growing Portugese presence in the region or Akbar's plans to take over Qandahar. In 1511, he sent an expedition that failed completely. The local ruler at the time, Mirza Jani Beg, tried to appease him by issuing coins in Akbar's name and saying his name in the Friday Khutba. In 1589/90, Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan was sent to conquer Thatta. Mirza Jani Beg's forces were not able to resist for long against the imperial armies and he capitulated. He accepted the position of banda-i dargah and was taken to stay at Akbar's court. He was granted a mansab of 3,000 and assigned a jagir in Multan. After taking over Sindh, Akbar made it into a suba (administrative unit) with five sarkars (districts) and appointed mansabdars to them, the relatives of Mirza Jani Beg among them. After Akbar, Jahangir (1569-1627) kept cordial relations with the Mirza's son. He was allowed to hold local court with up to 1,000 ranks (Mughal court standing system) present.

Beginning with Shah Jahan's reign, Mazhar-i Shah Jahani provides us with an amazing amount of local detail about the conduct of the central administrators and the response of the local population. Yusuf Mirak was a nobleman and a Mughal administrator who wrote Mazhar-i Shah Jahani for the Mughal emperor in 1634 as a depiction of the conditions in Sindh, describing the Mughal administration in Bhakkar, Siwi and Thattah. He describes the atrocities committed by the local mansabdar, the lack of military control exercised by the Mughals against the tribal elements, the subordination of the military commander to the jagirdar, and the prevalence of rent farming and extortion of monies by the 'amil (scribe) and the 'arbab (leading members). Mazhar-i Shah Jahani is invaluable in its depiction of the imperial jagirdari system in Sindh. Written as a “Manual on Management” as well as a “Mirror for Princes”, it follows the conventions of the genre and, hence, concludes with an advisory section, putting forth all the necessary steps that the Mughal administration has to undertake to maintain law and order in Sindhi society.

We will begin by looking at an example provided by Yusuf Mirak of an ideal Mughal administrator and his companion military commander:

The fifth parganah is Darbelah. In this parganah(district) live the mardum (people) Sahtah. And two quam (community) of Samejah, first Rajel and second Behan, also cultivate in this land. In olden times they were rebellious and gave the hakim (ruler) of Bhukkar in charity. At that time, Syed Bayazid Bukhari was appointed the faujdar. His sons attacked these two groups and killed many of their men, and arrested their wives and relatives. Since that day, they became as raiyat (citizens) and never risen against the order of the hakim and gave the tax amounts.

During the days of Hazrat Arsh Ashiyani (Akbar) this was the jagir of Mir Masum Bhakkar. He raised this parganah to the zenith of prosperity. Where a canal was needed he spend his own money and bought water to that place. Hence, the peasants did nothing except cultivation. As a result of his well management, these parganah were such that there was no jungle land between them. All available land was bought under cultivation and populated. And hence, this author has heard from reliable sources that when the parganah was given to Mir Masum as a jagir, the cultivated land was 500 begah belonging to both the peasants and the nobles. When the peasantry was impressed by his judicious behavior and encouragement, within one kharif (season) the cultivated land arose to 50,000 begah. And these parganah paid their revenues and none were rebellious. ((Hassamuldin Rashid. Mazhar-i Shah Jahani. Sindhi Adabi Board. Sukkur, 1972. p. 11-13. All translations are mine.))

From this passage it is clear that the author wishes to portray the ways in which the Mughal administration ideally prospered. The rebellious factions were bought under control by military exercise and forced to settle down as cultivators. The jagirdar was sensitive to the needs of the citizenry and was just to them. Revenues were increased by bringing new lands under cultivation. In fact, the triumvirate power structure was balanced in favor of the central Mughal state.

The destabilizing factor, at that time, in this balance were not overachieving imperial administrators but tribal clans who are described as “seditious and rebellious”. These were mountain and hill people who belonged to various ethnic and linguistic clans and were unimpressed by the efforts of the Mughal state to bring them under control. Mirak details the following about the composition of these tribes:

Know that there are three groups who cause mischief in this land. The first group is the Samejah, who are divided into twelve clans. Ten [of these] are submissive and pay their revenue. The eleventh clan of Mangiwanah are thieves. … [Lastly] are the Únar. The Sanaryah are also the source of riot and rebellion and cause trouble in all these clans. They are not afraid of any punishment. When the jagirdar is a weakling, other factions of the Únar will join hands with the Sanaryah and start causing trouble. The Sanaryah are around 5,000 total in the parganah of Lakut, 4,000 men and 1,000 horses. In battle, their foot soldiers are braver than their horsemen. These darkskins engage in cultivation in their village but do not pay the revenue or grain like other peasants do. In fact, they have killed and destroyed the imperial peasants.

The second group is that of the rebellious Baluch Chandiyah who live south of the Baghbanan parganah in the midst of the mountains. They cultivate the land and have many cattles. No one has gotten any revenue from them. In all they are 1000 horse and foot. These type of trouble-makers are rarely found. They do business in human kidnapping and cattle-lifting. They sell their captives. From their oppression the parganah of Baghbanan has been destroyed as well as the decline of the parganah Kahan, parganah Patir and parganah Akbarabad.

The third group of rebellious elements is the clan of Nuhmardis. They are around 6,000 with 1500 on horses and 4500 on foot. They are not cultivators but own plenty of horses, camels, goats, cows etc. They are not short of anything but are quite rich. Their occupation is destruction. ((ibid., p. 82-88))

This Mughal official's description of the district of Sindh illustrates a large population of tribes and clans who are said to be "constantly attempting to wreak havoc in the lives of the local villagers". In Mirak's understanding, they were not doing this as a power play against the Mughal state or at the behest of a local landed elite; they were recently nomadic populations making a difficult transition to sedentary modes of production. Hence, they were averse to paying any sort of revenue payments and when forced to do so under threat of the Mughal armies, they simply raided the peasants. Yusuf Mirak details the following incident from the parganah of Thatta that shows the amount of damage inflicted upon the local peasants by these clans as well as the loss of revenue for the imperial coffers:

Another seditious element of this sarkar was the Samejah Únar. They ravished a parganah that had the joint income of 2 million dams. Most of this parganah's destruction took place during the tenure of Mirza Husam al-Din Murtada Khan. The wretches plundered the villages and ran away. [When] one of their arbabs (member) was arrested and a heavy fine was placed on them. Being unable to come up with the fine, they extorted contributions from the poor peasants. …[O]ne night they fell upon the village of Thatti and killed most of its inhabitants. The surviving villagers ran to the Halah Kandi and settled there. ((ibid., p. 36-8))

Again there is no historical evidence in the text that these clans were acting at the behest of a local zamindar against the Mughal administration. The only indication is a slight reference that some zamindars might start thinking about creating ties with these clans and that that possibility should be prohibited.

The main argument we can state so far based on Mazhar-i Shah Jahani's evidence is that the regional area of Sindh had a serious problem maintaining law and order and protecting the local cultivators and villagers. The Mughal state responded to this with swift military responses to the rebellious tribes and by keeping the imperial appointees in check. Akbar and Jahangir kept strong garrisons of military personnel in the region. They also established thanas (police stations) in the cities as well as in the outlying regions to curtail any raids or attacks by the clans. In addition, they carried out expeditions against the various tribes during which they slaughtered many clan members and took women and children as prisoners. For example, when the Samejah Únar killed a revenue collector, the military commander dispatched an army that killed many members and drove the tribe into exile. Having no recourse against the superior army, the Samejah came back and adopted cultivation and became loyal peasants. They were also quick to help rehabilitate the peasants after an attack. As Yusuf Mirak writes,

When Pir Ghulam reached Sihwan, he found a weak and destroyed land. He called upon the qanungus (jurists) and said: Write a detailed report of all villages in every parganah and indicate which are in ruins and which are populated. With this paper in hand, he tracked the peasants of the destroyed villages from wherever they had gone and re-established them in their previous homes. He encouraged them with a crop sharing system with reduced State portions, and gave written assurances to everyone. He took no notice of the liars and slanderers. He stationed strong garrisons on the frontiers of the region and appointed a shiqdar (revenue-collector) on the Samejah. During his first year of reign, the region was back to prosperity. ((ibid., p. 108))

The Mazhar-i Shah Jahani provides us with the example of Shamshir Khan Uzbek as an exemplary Mughal administrator. He was appointed as the governor of Thattah and the jagirdar of Sehwan by Jahangir. He was quick to respond to the raids on peasants with military force. For example, “when he was near the village of Pallí Sammah, which was in the Samwati parganah, the Samejah Dal attacked that village and carried away the cattle. Shamshir Khan Uzbek gave chase to them and killed the men and freed the cattle of the peasants from the hands of the wretched ones.” ((ibid., p. 37)) Shamshir Khan's policies did much to spread safety among the villages in Sihwan and Thatta. He forced many of the tribes to bear the royal taxes and refrain from acting against the villages. When he had to leave the region for a campaign, some of these newly habitated villagers decided to revert to their earlier ways. However, Shamshir Khan's brother who was in charge, “swooped upon them and killed a number of them and took many captives, among them the wife of the local leader, Da'ud Shurah. Finding himself helpless, Du'ad Shurah went to Sihwan and paid the fines and outstanding dues of his village and liberated his wife from the captivity. Thus, they were chastised. Abandoning their old habitation in the foothills, they settled in Belah, the recently relinquished land”. ((ibid., p. 48))

Shamshir Khan's tenure over Sihwan lasted for 15 years. He never charged the peasants above the royal decree and gave jagirs to all his armies. He was always accessible to the peasants and they were allowed to approach him at any time of the day or night. According to Mirak, during his tenure, one could find the products of Hindustan, al-Iraq, and Farang (Europe) — in the bazaars of Thatta. And the “peasants, merchants, and artisans all lived comfortably. If a merchant should be looted his goods, he would strive to recover the goods and have them returned to the merchant”. ((ibid., p. 145))

This high point of Mughal administration deteriorated under Shah Jahan. The main reason Yusuf Mirak offers for the decline in Mughal central control over the region is lack of military presence and the slow response of the Mughal administrators to the various atrocities committed by the local tribes. However, the region suffered heavily under poor Mughal administrators during Shah Jahan's reign. Yusuf Mirak lists a number of ineffectual appointees that failed to notice the growth in rebellious tribal factions and the unrest among the peasant populations. He names Ahmed Beg Khan and his brother Mirza Yusuf as the worst of the bunch. They established arbitrary taxations on the people. Mirza branded all the cattle in the region, imprisoned numerous local chieftains and landholders and subjected 200-300 people to daily floggings at his residence. He repossessed property belonging to the people of the village and instituted draconian taxes on boats and highways in the region. ((ibid., p. 155))

These are the types of practices that Irfan Habib points to as leading the peasants toward open rebellion against the Mughal state. However, the Mazhar-i Shah Jahani reveals a nuanced picture of the peasant response to a wayward and oppressive Mughal administrator. They resorted to extreme measures only after exhausting all other options available to them. Even then only a handful participated in open revolts against the Mughals. The majority chose to flee the land toward Punjab. Yusuf Mirak describes group after group of the impoverished people reaching Lahore to seek redress of their grievances. There was little immediate help from the center. “Seeing no alternative those of the peasants who were still outside the Mirza's jail and still owed part of their revenue obligations abandoned the standing crops and took to flight. Some Hindus from the town of Bubakan carried their grievances against this treatment to the royal court and returned from there with a farman prohibiting excessive taxation and undue hardship”. ((ibid., p. 159))

The first venue of grievance resolution available to the peasants was utilized soon into the seventeenth century. Even Mazhar-i Shah Jahani itself is a grievance register written explicitly for the eyes of the Emperor himself. However, as Yusuf Mirak describes in the text, he was never able to reach Agra to present it to the throne. He fell ill. The news of his intent, however, reached Ahmed Beg Khan who immediately “released 200 to 300 men from jail…He also relieved the people of the villages from forced labor”. ((ibid., p. 160))

Eventually news reached the imperial court through the reports of the waqai-nawis (news writer) of Thattah and redress came in the form of a new administrator Dindar Khan. Ahmed Beg Khan, though, was merely transferred to Multan. Dindar Khan was not an oppressor, but was completely ineffectual against the resurging Samejah and Nuhmardi clans. During his tenure, “the Samejahs plundered the horses of his soldiers right from the middle of the city of Sihwan, slew people under the city wall and took their belongings. They killed whosoever was a man and amputated the ears of the womenfolk and took the children captive. While all this was going on, Dindar Khan sat unmoved in the fort of Sihwan”. ((ibid., p. 165))

The peasant tribes, such as the Halahpotrahs, who had been loyal citizens and were once able to defend themselves against the Samejah, could not protect themselves without any help from the Mughal military. Dindar Khan failed in other respects as well. He refused to send the annual report of the region to the imperial court. He delayed and cancelled the appointments of the law enforcers. His actions, and the inaction of the imperial court, led mass migrations from the region. As Mirak narrates:

The details of the oppression of Ahmed Beg Khan and Dindar Khan have already been described to the royal throne. But Ahmed Beg Khan was transferred from the region; no trace of wrath has touched him. It was the sight of this state of affairs that dismayed the victims of his oppression and so, instead of going to the heavenly court for the redress of their grievances, they retraced their steps back to their native places. ((ibid., p. 177))

While in the regime of Shamshir Khan, the peasants had worked alongside the imperial forces to defeat the Samejah. Now, they scattered and joined some of the Samejah clans. There is a hint in the text that some groups who had joined with the Samejah later went back to cultivation when they relocated to the Multan region. Overall, though, the land was ravaged and the Mughal administration in Sindh came to a halt. Mirak describes the administrative disconnect between the center court and the regional administration: when a “sazawal (land steward) arrived with an imperial decree ordering the qanungu (jurists) to accompany him to the court with a statement of a ten-year settlement and to explain to the Emperor all the factors contributing to the destruction of this region, including all the excesses of the jagirdars, as well as the control of the rebellious elements. No efforts were made in sending the qanungu”. ((ibid., p. 179))

There are hints scattered throughout the text, and especially in the recommendations chapter, which indicate that for Yusuf Mirak the reason behind the collapse of the Mughal administration in Sindh was the absence of a strong army. He describes the many abandoned police stations, garrisons and checkposts that in the past ensured the safety of the peasants, merchants and trade routes. All were now waylaid by the criminal clans of robbers and bandits. He describes the absence of fear in the jagirdar because they were beyond the reproach of the Imperial court. Even if word of their misdeeds reached Delhi and Agra, they were able to escape with a transfer. He bemoans the fact that it took two months of preparation to undertake a military expedition when it once took only two nights. He stresses that each police station should hold at least 100 horsemen and 50 barq andaz (musket-bearers). His description of the destruction of the cities and villages by the Samejah and Nuhmardis is long and repetitious. However, there is no indication of any rebellion against the imperial armies by the peasants. One can surmise that, lacking any protection, those that did not flee simply joined the criminal clans and engaged in some malpractice of their own.

Mazhar-i Shah Jahani is immensely helpful in creating a picture of the Mughal administration in a crucial trading and political center of the Empire. The Mughal state managed to bring an incredible level of centralized control to the region during the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir. The seventeenth century was not so kind to the people of the Sindh. The decline in military presence, the rise in burdensome taxes and recalcitrant jagirdars caused the criminal elements in the society to wreak havoc. Though there was the opportunity for redress all the way to the Emperor, we find that actual results were hard to come by for the peasants of the land. We do not find Irfan Habib's zamindar vs. zamindar duality in which the peasants were mere pawns. Instead, we find Chetan Singh's study on the role of intertribal and inter-clan strife to be a much truer picture of Sindh. The peasants were victims of oppression by both the Mughal administrators and the rebellious clans. Their only available venue was flight. With the influx of international trade into the region, the growing presence of the Safavid Empire, it is surprising that the Mughals did not pay closer attention to the region. Under Aurengzeb, with his Deccan offensive, the conditions of the region could only have deteriorated further. By the late 17th century, the Mughals had ceded much of the control over Sindh to the Kalhoras and the Balochs.

While I have concentrated mainly on the law and order condition in seventeenth century Sindh, there are several other venues that should be explored within this text. First are the excellent details about the trade and taxation of the region and the amounts that went into Mughal coffers. This economic data could be invaluable in comparing the growth of this region to other around it, mainly Punjab. Second, we should compare the political and economic picture provided in this text with the social and cultural picture of the region available in a text like Tuhfatul Kiram of Mir Ali Sher Qani Thattavi. Finally, it could prove useful to do an against-the-grain reading of Mazhar-i Shah Jahani, reading the rebellious clans as indigenous people of the region who refused to submit to Mughal imperialism. I will leave that reading for my second seminar paper.


Tehseen Baweja | August 23, 2010

Very insightful. It does however, makes one curious about the possibility of religion being a reason for these inter-tribal atrocities. At the time of Shah Jahan, Islam was still spreading in parts of the region and uprisings based on a difference in ethnicity and religion were not un-common. Also, at some places the source conveniently skips the reason for some of these atrocities. For example, Mirak describes the "Baluch Chandya" and couple of others as clans that did cultivation but did not pay any revenue. Why, one asks, were they the rebellious type when a number of other clans living in the same region were loyal peasants. Was it a different faith? Was it a strong political backing of some zamindars? Was it something in the recent past that had made these clans wary of the rulers? It is hard to think, as suggested by Mirak, that they are simply too primitive to understand the benefits of conforming to an established economic and political system.