When mighty empires like that of the Great Mughals decays and falls, it is because many factors and forces have been at work. The beginnings of the decline of the Mughal Empire are to be traced to the strong rule of Aurangzeb.
Aurangzeb inherited a large empire, yet he adopted a policy of extending it further to the farthest geographical limits in the south at great expense in men and materials.
In reality, the existing means of communication and the economic and political structure of the country made it difficult to establish a stable centralised administration over all parts of the country.
Thus Aurangzeb’s objective of unifying the entire country under one central political authority was, though justifiable in theory, not easy in practice.
One of the basic failures of Aurangzeb lay in the realm of statesmanship. He was not willing to accept to the full the Maratha demand for regional autonomy, failing to grasp the fact that Shivaji and other Maratha sardars represented forces which could not be easily crushed.
Akbar, placed in similar circumstances, had made an alliance with the Rajput princes and chiefs. Aurangzeb too would have been well-advised to win over the Maratha sardars.
Instead, he chose to suppress them. His futile but arduous campaign against the Marathas extended over many years; it drained the resources of his empire and ruined the trade and industry of the Deccan.
His absence from the north for over 25 years and his failure to subdue the Marathas led to deterioration in administration; this undermined the prestige of the empire and its army, led to the neglect of the vital north-west frontier, and encouraged provincial and local officials to defy central authority and to dream of independence.
Later, in the eighteenth century, Maratha expansion in the north weakened central authority still further.
Aurangzeb’s conflict with some of the Rajput states also had serious consequences. Alliance with the Rajput rajas with the consequent military support was one of the main pillars of Mughal strength in the past.
Aurangzeb himself had in the beginning adhered to the Rajput alliance by raising Jaswant Singh of Marwar and Jai Singh of Amber to the highest of ranks.
But his short-sighted attempt later to reduce the strength of the Rajput rajas and to re-extend imperial sway over their lands led to the withdrawal of their loyalty from the Mughal throne.
Wars with the Rajput rajas further weakened the empire and encouraged separation. In particular they tended to create a wall between the Hindu and the Muslim upper classes.
The strength of Aurangzeb’s administration was challenged at its very nerve center around Delhi by the Satnami, Jat, and Sikh uprisings.
Even though the number of people involved in these uprisings was not large, they were significant because they were popular in character peasants formed their backbone.
All of them were to a considerable extent the result of the oppression of the Mughal revenue officials over the peasantry. They showed that the peasantry was deeply dissatisfied with feudal oppression by zamindars, nobles, and the state.
Aurangzeb’s religious orthodoxy and his policy towards the Hindu rulers seriously damaged the stability of the Mughal Empire.
The Mughal state in the days of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shahjahan was basically a secular state. Its stability was essentially founded on the policy of non-interference with the religious beliefs and customs of the people, fostering of friendly relations between Hindus and Muslims, opening the doors of the highest offices of the state to nobles and chiefs belonging to different regions and professing different religions.
The Mughal alliance with the Rajput rajas was a visible manifestation of this policy. Aurangzeb made an attempt to reverse this policy by imposing the jizyah, destroying many of the Hindu temples in the north, and putting certain restrictions on the Hindus.
In this way he tended to alienate the Hindus, split Mughal society and, in particular, widened the gulf between the Hindu and the Muslim upper classes.
But the role of the religious policy of Aurangzeb in causing the decay of Mughal power should not be over-stressed. This policy was followed only in the latter part of his reign.
It was speedily abandoned by his successors. As we have seen earlier, the jizyah was abolished within a few years of Aurangzeb’s death. Amicable relations with the Rajput and other Hindu nobles and chiefs were soon restored; and some of them such as Ajit Singh Rathor and Sawaifai Singh rose to high offices under the later Mughals.
Relations with King Shahu and the Maratha sardars were also developed along political rather than religious lines. It should also be kept in view that the Rajput, Jat, Maratha, and Sikh chieftains of the eighteenth century also did not behave as champions of the Hindus.
Power and plunder were more important considerations to them than religious solidarity. They were often as ruthless in fighting and looting the Hindus as the Muslims. In fact, neither the Hindus nor the Muslims formed a homogeneous community at that time.
The upper classes of both the religious groups formed the ruling class while the peasants and artisans, Hindu or Muslim, formed the underprivileged majority of society. Sometimes the Hindu and Muslim nobles and chiefs used religion as a weapon of propaganda to achieve their political aims.
But even more often they formed mutual alliances against fellow co-religionists for gaining power, territory, or money. Moreover, the Hindu and the Muslim nobles, zamindars, and chiefs ruthlessly oppressed and exploited the common people irrespective of their religion.
The Hindu peasantry of Maharashtra or Rajputana paid as high an amount in land revenue as did the Hindu or Muslim peasantry in Agra or Bengal or Avadh. Moreover, cordial cultural and social relations prevailed between the Hindu and Muslim upper classes of India.
If Aurangzeb left the empire with many problems unsolved, the situation was further worsened by the ruinous wars of succession which followed his death. In the absence of any fixed rule of succession, the Mughal dynasty was always plagued after the death of a king by a civil war between the princes. These wars of succession became extremely fierce and destructive during the eighteenth century.
They resulted in great loss of life and property. Thousands of trained soldiers and hundreds of capable military commanders and efficient and tried officials were killed. Moreover, these civil wars loosened the administrative fabric of the empire.
The nobility, the backbone of the empire, was transformed into warring factions. Many of the local chiefs and officials utilised the conditions of uncertainty and political chaos at the center to consolidate their own position, to acquire greater autonomy, and to make their offices hereditary.
The weaknesses of Aurangzeb’s reign and the evils of the wars of succession might still have been overcome if able, farsighted, and energetic rulers had appeared on the throne. Unfortunately, after Bahadur Shah’s brief reign came a long reign of utterly worthless, weak-willed and luxury-loving kings.
After all, in an autocratic, monarchical system of government the character and personality of the ruler do play a crucial role. At the same time, this single factor need not be given too much importance. Aurangzeb was neither weak nor degenerate.
He possessed great ability and capacity for work. He was free of the vices common among kings and lived a simple and austere life.
He undermined the great empire of his forefathers not because he lacked character of ability but because he lacked political, social and economic insight. It was not his personality but his policies that were out of joint.
Apart from the personalities of the Great Mughals, the strength of the Mughal empire lay in the organisation and character of its nobility. The weakness of the king could have been successfully overcome and covered up by alert, efficient, and loyal nobility.
But the character of the nobility had also deteriorated. Many nobles lived extravagantly and beyond their means. Many of them became ease- loving and fond of excessive luxury. Even when they went out to fight they surrounded themselves with comforts and frequently took their families with them.
They were often poorly educated. Many of them even neglected the art of fighting. Earlier, many able persons from the lower classes had been able to rise to the ranks of nobility, thus infusing fresh blood into it. Later, the existing families of nobles began to monopolise all offices, barring the way to fresh comers.
Not all the nobles, however, had become weak and inefficient. A large number of energetic and able officials and brave and brilliant military commanders came into prominence during the eighteenth century, but most of them did not benefit the empire because they used their talents to promote their own interests and to fight each other rather than to serve the state and society.
In fact, contrary to the popular belief, the major weakness of the Mughal nobility during the eighteenth century lay, not in the decline in the average ability of the nobles or their moral decay, but in their selfishness and lack of devotion to the state and this, in turn, gave birth to corruption in administration and mutual bickering.
In order to increase their power, prestige, and income, the nobles formed groups and factions against each other and even against the king. In their struggle for power they took recourse to force, fraud, and treachery.
Their mutual quarrels exhausted the empire, affected its cohesion, led to its dismemberment, and, in the end, made it an easy prey to foreign conquerors. And the guiltiest in this respect were precisely those nobles who were active and able. It is they who shattered the unity of the empire by carving out their own private principalities.
Thus, the decadence of the later Mughal nobility lay not so much in private vice as in a lack of public virtue and political foresight and in its devotion to the short-sighted pursuit of power. But these characteristics were not the monopoly of the Mughal nobility at the center.
They were found in equal measure among the rising Maratha chiefs, the Rajput rajas, Jat, Sikh, and the Bundela chiefs, the new rulers of autonomous provinces, and the other innumerable adventurers who rose to fame and power during the troubled eighteenth century.
One of the major causes of the growing selfishness and cliquishness of the nobles was the paucity of jagirs and the reduced income of the existing jagirs at a time when the number of nobles and their expenditure was going up. So there ensued intense mutual rivalry among them for the possession of the existing jagirs.
The heart of the matter perhaps was that no arrangement could have been made which would satisfy all the nobles, for there were just not enough offices and jagirs for all. The paucity of jagirs had some other consequences.
The nobles tried to get the maximum income from their jagirs at the cost of the peasantry. They tried to transform their existing jagirs and offices into hereditary ones.
To balance their own budgets they tended to appropriate tyialisah (crown) lands, thus intensifying the financial crisis of the central government. They invariably reduced their expenditure by not maintaining their full quota of troops and thus weakened the armed strength of the empire.
A basic cause of the downfall of the Mughal Empire was that it could no longer satisfy the minimum needs of its population.
The condition of the Indian peasant gradually worsened during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While at no time perhaps was his lot happy, in the eighteenth century his life, was “poor, nasty, miserable and uncertain”. The burden of land revenue went on increasing from Akbar’s time.
Moreover, constant transfer of nobles from their jagirs also led to great evil. They tried to extract as much from a jagiras possible in the short period of their tenure as jagirdars. They made heavy demands on the peasants and cruelly oppressed them, often in violation of official regulations.
After the death of Aurangzeb, the practice of ijarah or farming the land revenue to the highest bidder, who was permitted to rise what he could from the peasantry, became more common both on jagir and halisah (crown) lands.
This led to the rise of a new class of revenue farmers and talukdars whose extortions from the peasantry often knew no bounds.
All these factors led to stagnation and deterioration in agriculture and the impoverishment of the peasant. Peasant discontent increased and came to the surface. There are some instances of the peasants leaving the land to avoid paying taxes.
Peasant discontent also found an outlet in a series of uprisings (the Satnamis, the Jats, the Sikhs, etc.) which eroded the stability and strength of the empire.
Many ruined peasants formed roving bands of robbers and adventurers, often under the leadership of the zamindars, and thus undermined law and order and the efficiency of the Mughal administration.
As a matter of fact, agriculture was no longer producing enough surpluses to meet the needs of the empire, of constant warfare, and of the increased luxury of the ruling classes. If the empire was to survive and regain its strength and if the people were to go forward, trade and industry alone could provide the additional economic resources.
But it was precisely in trade and industry that stagnation was most evident. No doubt the establishment of a large empire encouraged trade and industry in many ways and India’s industrial production increased to a marked extent. Both in the quality of its products and their quantity, Indian industry were quite advanced by contemporary world standards. But unlike in Europe at this time, Indian industry did not make any new advances in science and technology. Similarly, the growth of trade was hampered by bad communications and by the self-sufficient nature of village economy. Moreover, emphasis on land as a source of wealth and government revenue led to the neglect of overseas trade and the navy. Perhaps not even the best of kings and nobles could have changed this situation. In the absence of scientific and technological development and a social, economic and political revolution, India lagged behind Europe economically and politically and succumbed to its pressure.
An important socio-political cause of the downfall of the Mughal Empire was the absence of the spirit of political nationalism among the people. This was because India at the time lacked the elements which constitute a modern nation.
The people of India did not feel that they were all Indians, nor were they conscious of oneness or of having common interests, even though elements of cultural unity had existed in the country for centuries.
Therefore, there did not exist the ideal of living and dying for one’s nation. Instead people were loyal to persons, tribes, castes, and religious sects.
In fact no group or class in the country was deeply interested in maintaining the ‘unity of the country or the empire. Such unity as did exist was imposed from above by strong rulers.
The peasants’ loyalty was confined to their village and caste. Moreover, they did not take little interest in the politics of the empire; nor did they identify its interests with their own.
They realised that they had little stake in it and that even its defense from external aggression was not their concern. The zamindars tended to rebel against any central authority which showed signs of weakness. They were opposed to a strong, centralised state that curbed their power and autonomy.
The nobles had been earlier imbued with the exalted notion of loyalty to their dynasty. But this was mainly based on the high offices and privileges they obtained in return.
With the decline of the dynasty, the nobles placed their self-interest and ambition above loyalty to the state and attacked the very unity of the empire by carving out autonomous principalities.
Even those who rebelled against the empire, for example, the Marathas, the Jats, and the Rajputs, were interested in consolidating their regional, tribal, or personal power and had no notion of fighting for a nation called India or for its unity.
The reality was that the existing character of the Indian economy, social relations, caste structure, and political institutions was such that the time was not yet ripe for the unification of Indian society or for its emergence as a nation.
The Mughal Empire might have continued to exist for a long time if its administration and armed power had not broken down, mostly as a result of the factors discussed above. There was rapid decline in the administrative efficiency of the empire during the eighteenth century.
Administration was neglected and law and order broke down in many parts of the country. Unruly zamindars openly defied central authority. Even the royal camp and Mughal armies on the march were often plundered by hostile elements.
Corruption and bribery, indiscipline and inefficiency, disobedience and disloyalty prevailed on a large scale among officials at all levels. The central government was often on the verge of bankruptcy. The old accumulated wealth was exhausted while the existing sources of income were narrowed.
Many provinces failed to remit provincial revenues to the center. The area of the fyalisah lands was gradually reduced as emperors tried to placate friendly nobles by granting jagirs out of these lands.
The rebellious zamindars regularly withheld revenue. Efforts to increase income by oppressing the peasantry produced popular reaction.
Ultimately, the military strength of the empire was affected. During the eighteenth century the Mughal army lacked discipline and fighting morale.
Lack of finance made it difficult to maintain a large army. Its soldiers and officers were not paid for months, and, since they were mere mercenaries, they were constantly disaffected and often verged on a mutiny.
Again, the noblemen-cum-commanders did not maintain their full quota of military contingents because of their own financial troubles.
Moreover, the civil wars resulted in the death of many brilliant commanders and brave and experienced soldiers. Thus, the army, the ultimate sanction of an empire, and the pride of the Great Mughals, was so weakened that it could no longer curb the ambitious chiefs and nobles or defend the empire from foreign aggression.
The final blow to the Mughal Empire was given by a series of foreign invasions. Attacks by Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, which were themselves the consequences of the weakness of the empire, drained the empire of its wealth, ruined its trade and industry in the north, and almost destroyed its military power.
Finally, the emergence of the British challenge took away the last hope of the revival of the crisis-ridden empire. In this last fact lies the most important consequence of the decline of the Mughal Empire.
None of the Indian powers rose to claim the heritage of the Great Mughals for they were strong enough to destroy the empire but not strong enough to unite it or to create anything new in its place.
They could not create a new social order which could stand up to the newen from the West. All of them represented the same moribund system as headed by the Mughals and all of them suffered from! weaknesses which had destroyed the mighty Mughal empire.”
The other hand, the Europeans knocking at the gates of India Will benefit of coming from societies which had evolved a sup economic system and which were more advanced in science technology.
The tragedy of the decline of the Mughal empire that its mantle fell on a foreign power which dissolved, into interests, the centuries-old socio-economic and political strut the country and replaced it with a colonial structure. But some was destined to come out of this evil.
The stagnation of Indians; was broken and new forces of change emerged. This process it grew out of a colonial contact inevitably brought with its misery and national degradation, not to mention economic, political and cultural backwardness. But it was precisely these new for changes which were to provide the dynamism of modern India.