The process of disintegration of the Mughal empire began during the reign of Aurangzeb, but it picked up momentum only after his death in 1707. Even so, conditions were not so deplorable that the process could not be checked.
Although Mughal authority was challenged by several chiefs and rulers, none could assert independence in the face of the Mughal might. The Sikhs, Marathas and Rajputs did not possess the capacity to overthrow the empire; they merely resisted Mughal power to gain independence in their respective territories. Thus, if the successors of Aurangzeb had been capable rulers, the empire might not have fallen.
During the medieval age, an empire’s fate depended on the capability or otherwise, of the emperor. The successors of Aurangzeb however, proved to be a group of incapable, weak and licentious monarchs who hastened the process of disintegration and finally, contributed to its collapse.
There were other problems facing the later Mughals as well after Aurangzeb’s death. Two classes shared the power of the state with the emperor during the medieval period-the zamindars and the nobles. The zamindars were hereditary owners of their lands who enjoyed certain privileges on hereditary basis, known variously as Rais, Rajas, Thakurs, Khuts or Deshmukhs. They occupied an important place in the empire because they helped in the collection of revenue and in local administration, for which they maintained soldiers.
Though the Mughals had tried to curb the power of the zamindars and maintain direct contact with the peasants, they had not succeeded wholly. During the reign of Aurangzeb itself, there was a marked increase in their power and influence.
The biggest fallout of this was that it led them to encourage regional loyalties. Many local zamindars helped the other powerful class within the empire, the nobility, to take advantage of the weakness of the empire and carve out independent kingdoms for themselves.
The nobility consisted of people who were either assigned large jagirs and mansabs or appointed subedars of Mughal subas and given the responsibility of maintaining these. The class included many Rajput rulers, subedars and mansabdars.
Mughal rule has often been defined as “the rule of the nobility”, because of the Mughal nobles played a central role in administering the empire. Although Akbar had provided a well-knit organisation for them, the nobility was divided due to distinctions of religion, home-land and tribe, and each category formed a group of its own.
Mutual rivalry, jealousy and contest for power among the various groups during the rule of the later Mughals not only reduced the prestige of the emperor, but also contributed to the decline of the empire.
Aurangzeb’s reign witnessed powerful regional groups like the Jats, Sikhs and Marathas fight the Mughal state in their bid to create kingdoms of their own. They did not succeed in their efforts then, but each of them made an impact on the future course of political events in their respective regions.
Their continuous struggle against the empire for political ascendancy weakened it considerably. Aurangzeb, and after him Bahadur Shah, by attempting to suppress the Rajputs, spurred them to wage battle after battle against the Mughals.
The later Mughals did attempt to follow a policy of reconciliation with the Rajputs, but by then it was already too late. The Rajputs would no longer trust the Mughals to forge an alliance with the latter for the welfare of the empire.
The Marathas too proved to be a formidable enemy. There aim, at first limited only to regaining control over Maharashtra, broadened to include getting legal sanction for collecting sardeshmukhi and chauth from the Mughal emperor, throughout India.
They penetrated territories of North India and by 1740, succeeded in spreading their influence over the provinces of Gujarat, Malwa and Bundelkhand. The Rajput struggle against the empire and the growing ambition and power of the Marathas, thus, adversely affected the Mughal might.
Then there were several economic and administrative problems plaguing the empire. The number of amirs and their ranks or mansabs had increased so sharply that there was little land left to be distributed among them as jagirs. Aurangzeb tried to resolve the problem of acute shortage of jagirs or bejagiri by showing enhanced income from the jagirs on record.
But this was a short-sighted measure which resulted in the amirs trying to recover the recorded income from their jagirs by pressurising the peasantry. The move resulted in antagonising both the amirs and the overburdened peasantry.
Added to this were the wars, the luxurious lifestyles erf emperors and amirs alike, the reduction in khalisa land, all of which burdened the state. The net result was that the income of the state failed to meet its expenditure.
The declining economic situation had a negative impact on all classes of people whether amirs, traders, artisans, labourers or peasants. The political implications included increased group-rivalries at the court, attempts at carving out independent kingdoms by the amirs, and a weakened central administration and military.
These economic and administrative problems only multiplied following the death of Aurangzeb.
Some of the main causes for this downfall, briefly put, were as follows:
(i) The government of the Mughals was a personal despotism and so its success depended on the character of the reigning autocrat. The later Mughals were worthless and neglected the administration of the state.
(ii) With the absence of a definite law of succession there always occurred a war of succession; this weakened the stability of the government, and fostered partisanship at the cost of patriotism.
(iii) The degeneration of the rulers led to the degeneration of the nobility, with factious quarrels and intrigues costing the empire heavily.
(iv) The deterioration of the army also proved disastrous for the empire.
(v) The empire had become too vast and unwieldy to be efficiently governed from a central authority under weak rulers, especially in the medieval conditions of transport and communication.
(vi) Aurangzeb’s religious policy was largely responsible, causing revolts by Rajputs, Sikhs, Jats and Marathas.
(vii) Aurangzeb’s Deccan policy was a complete failure and to a major extent caused the downfall of the Mughal Empire.
(viii) Invasions of Irani and Durrani kingdoms gave a death-blow to the Mughal empire.