Indian History – Part 55 Khilji Militarism Section II: Ala ud-Din Khilji


23 January 2017

Securing the Throne

Immediately after the aged Jalal ud-Din was assassinated, Ala ud-Din was declared sultan in Kara-Manikpur. He had waded through blood to achieve his ambition of being the sultan. There is no doubt that he had displayed daring and dash in the conduct of the successful expedition to Devagiri. This success had made him arrogant and he nurtured a belief of his inherent qualifications to be the sultan. Therefore, he presumed that he would be welcomed by the people of Delhi as their legitimate ruler. However, this was a fallacy and Ala ud-Din found it very difficult to gain the acceptance of the people of Delhi. Contrary to Ala ud-Din’s expectations, he was considered a usurper and also guilty of the murder of his uncle, who had been his greatest benefactor from birth. He became an object of hatred, especially for the nobles loyal to Jalal ud-Din.

Under these conditions, it was only natural for plots and rebellions to be hatched. A group of nobles known as the ‘Jalali nobles’, who were fiercely loyal to the old sultan, plotted revenge for his murder. In these early days Ala ud-Din was at a distinct disadvantage, being far away from Delhi, which was the seat of power. Further, Ahmad Chap, by far the bravest and best commander of Turkish forces of the time, was aligned with the anti-Ala ud-Din faction. As is so often the case in history, at this stage fate intervened in the person of the murdered sultan’s widowed queen, Malika-i-Jahan.

Malika Jahan, was not particularly shrewd or intelligent, although she felt that she was up to playing political intrigue against the likes of the ruthless Ala ud-Din and his brother. In the belief that keeping the throne of Delhi vacant was dangerous and could lead to Ala ud-Din being accepted as the sultan, she pushed forward the claim of her sons to the throne as the legitimate successors to Jalal ud-Din. She extended their claims through some amount of unnecessary intrigue. Malika Jahan bought off some nobles who were not supportive of her sons’ claims by plying them with gifts and the promise of high positions. In her haste to fill the throne, the queen raised her second surviving son Qadr Khan to the throne, with the title Rukn ud-Din Ibrahim. This one impulsive action paved the way for disaster. Her elder son Arkali Khan, considered unanimously by all to be more capable than his younger brother, was at this time in Multan. He was upset by his mother’s actions.

Ala ud-Din realised that if Qadr Khan was well supported, he would be a formidable adversary in the contest for the throne, especially since some amount of legitimacy was attached to him as Jalal ud-Din’s son. The claim was strengthened by the fact that the sultan had been murdered and Ala ud-Din was responsible for the assassination. The circumstances of the sultanate was precarious at this stage with the indigenous Hindu princes baulking under foreign rule and waiting for an opportunity to throw the invaders out. There was also the threat from the Mongols who had once again become restive in the north-west region. The situation was not looking very conducive for the success of Ala ud-Din’s plans. This is when he displayed the stoutness of heart required to face and overcome formidable challenges and which transforms princes to kings. He decided to strike at Delhi with vigour and determination without wasting any time and started to march towards Delhi. The saying goes, ‘fortune favours the brave’ and in this particular instance luck or fortune, call it by whatever name, favoured Ala ud-Din.

When it became apparent to the Queen Mother and the newly enthroned sultan that Ala ud-Din was not a problem that would solve itself, they requested Arkali Khan for help to ward off the oncoming assault. During the short period that had elapsed, Malika Jahan had created sufficient factionalism amongst the Delhi nobles through her dealings and intrigue. Arkali Khan, peeved at being superseded to the throne and upset at his mother’s shenanigans, made no move to assist his brother or defend the family throne. Many nobles loyal to Jalal ud-Din had left Delhi and joined Arkali Khan in Multan, depleting Delhi of effective military leadership. Arkali Khan replied to his mother that the defection of a number of nobles to Ala ud-Din’s camp had made securing the throne for his younger brother a difficult task. He continued to sulk in Multan.

Arkali Khan has been described in several records as being, ‘one of the most renowned warriors of the time’. It is highly probable that he would have made an effective and perhaps even a great sultan. However, he did not grasp the one opportunity that was being presented to him to secure the throne of his father and then succeed to the kingship itself after defeating the usurper. Such are the vagaries of history and the analyst is left pondering the proverbial ‘what if’?

In any case, Arkali Khan’s discontent and complete inaction provided a much needed impetus to Ala ud-Din’s march to Delhi. Acutely aware of his unpopularity amongst the people, he started to placate the general population by distributing money, literally showering them with coins using a catapult built for the purpose, daily during his march. This generosity brought a large number of soldiers to Ala ud-Din’s camp, the numbers increasing on a daily basis. According to one estimate, by the time he was close to Delhi, the army had swelled to 50,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry. The visibly increased size of the army, assisted by the lavish distribution of wealth, started to change the public perception regarding Ala ud-Din, with people now considering that the future belonged to him.

The nobles were not far behind in appreciating the changing tide and were themselves influenced by the profligate spread of wealth. Greed overcame altruistic loyalty and the murder of a benign sultan was rapidly forgotten. Qadr Khan, the presumptive sultan, send out an army to battle Ala ud-Din. However, once again bribery played its dishonourable role and the army, instead of fighting him switched sides and joined Ala ud-Din at Badaun. This was perhaps the only victory Ala ud-Din won in his entire military carreer without having to fight. The hapless Qadr Khan and his witless mother Malika Jahan hurriedly collected whatever treasures they could lay hands on and decamped for Multan in the night, towards the prospect of safety in Arkali Khan’s camp.

Ala ud-Din triumphantly entered Delhi at the plains of Siri towards the end of 1296. The progress of his march from Kara-Manikpur had been slow because of the rainy season and he had taken five months after the murder of his uncle to physically claim the throne of Delhi.

Ala ud-Din was an astute ‘politician’ who understood the importance of public opinion and appreciated very clearly the need to have both the people and the nobles on his side. He therefore prioritised three objectives to ensure that the throne was secure and his hold on power not questioned. The first objective was to reconcile the people’s opinion and to smooth over the antagonism that was still prevalent in some pockets. The people had to be made to forget the heinous crime through which he had come to power. He therefore continued the practice of catapulting gold and silver coins to the masses for some more days after ascending the throne of Delhi. Public memory is proverbially short, much more so when the thought process is influenced by the lure of gold. Very soon, Ala ud-Din’s treachery and ingratitude were forgotten by the masses and the people were vying with each other to sing the praises of his generosity.

The second objective was to eliminate any and all possible claimants to the throne, however far-fetched the legitimacy of the claim. Accordingly he send an army of around 40,000 troops under the command of Ulugh Khan to Multan to dispose of Arkali Khan, his brother Qadr Khan (Rukn ud-Din Ibrahim), Malika Jahan and their supporters. Ulugh Khan captured Multan without much difficulty, imprisoned the princes and their mother and send them to Delhi. The ease with which Multan was captured is an inexplicable event since Arkali Khan was considered an effective military commander and he also had a sizeable army under him. The use of bribery to win the battle cannot be ruled out in this expedition also. On their way to being transported to Delhi, the princes were blinded and then killed near Hansi on the express orders of Ala ud-Din. Along with them Ahmad Chap and Ulugh Khan, the Mongol prince and son-in-law of Jalal ud-Din (not Ala ud-Din’s commander of the same name), were also put to death. Malika Jahan was thrown into prison and never released. Ala ud-Din now appointed Ala-ul-Mulk, his trusted lieutenant from Kara-Manikpur as the kotwal of Delhi. The throne of Delhi was secure, at least for the time being.

The third objective was to establish complete control over the nobles. Ala ud-Din was fully aware of the fickleness of the loyalty of these nobles and also their proclivity for intrigue and treachery. He obviously knew this facet of the nobles’ character since he had proved to be the most treacherous of them all. During his march to Delhi and even after claiming the throne, he had bought off most of the nobles and Ala ud-Din was sagacious enough to understand the risks involved. On their part, the nobles, who had fairly inflated egos, believed that they had secured the throne for Ala ud-Din and his continuing to rule was dependent on their support. Ala ud-Din wanted to alter this situation and to ensure that the perception changed the other way. He was set on ensuring that the nobles clearly understood that their continued well-being depended solely on their being in the sultan’s favour.

In order to achieve this, he dismissed from service several nobles, and disgraced some other top officials. These actions were focused on the nobles who had switched sides to Ala ud-Din during the succession struggle. Obviously the lesson that had been taken forward was that they were deemed untrustworthy—after all someone who betrayed a former master could very well betray the current master also. Ala ud-Din caught and imprisoned almost the entire group of nobles and army officers who had defected to his camp; some of them were blinded and others killed. Uniformly, their wealth was confiscated to the throne and the families were reduced to beggary. It is reported that during the transition only three nobles loyal to Jalal ud-Din’s refused to accept bribes. These three were spared by Ala ud-Din who lauded their loyalty and integrity, appreciating their principled stand. The ‘Jalali nobles’ were thus exterminated. The initiative to put an end to treacherous behaviour amongst the nobles was a strange action for a person who came to power through practising the ultimate treachery.

Ala ud-Din’s Concept of Kingship

Ala ud-Din implicitly believed in the majesty of the monarch, in a similar manner to how Balban had evinced kingship earlier, as the representative of God on earth. He was convinced that God had granted the sultan more wisdom than the common man and therefore his decisions and will were to be the law. It follows then that all inhabitants of the country are either subjects or servants of the sultan. To maintain his aloof gignity, Ala ud-Din ensured that the distinction between sultan and the rest of the nobles were visibly maintained. He also decided that he would not be influenced by anyone in laying down the policies for the governance of the sultanate.

Traditionally in the Delhi sultanate so far, two extremely powerful groups had exercised immense power and influence over almost all decisions of the sultan—the entrenched nobility and the brotherhood of the order of priests, the ulema. Ala ud-Din, once again in his usual forceful manner, set about remedying the situation to better suit his way of thinking and his style of ruling. By attacking the stature of the nobles, he had managed to completely emasculate the nobility. They were brought down to the status of ‘servants’ who could be appointed or dismissed and even maimed or killed at the pleasure of the sultan. The courtiers were in such awe of the power of the sultan that none of them had the courage to oppose the edicts issued by him.

The ulema was slightly more difficult to handle. Ala ud-Din started to bring them under control by first declaring that he would not permit the interference of the ulema in matters of purely administrative nature. Subsequently he ensured that the ulema could no longer dictate to the sultan even on matters of religion, let alone in matters not connected to the church. He declared that he knew much more than the ulema about the needs of the state and how to govern for the betterment of the sultanate. This was the first time in the history of the sultanate that such a decision had been handed down by the sultan. This was also a bold step, since the power of the sultan was based predominantly on an army that relied on religious zeal to outperform the opposition. Further, being ‘outsiders’ in a majority Hindu region, the sultan was dependent on his co-religionists to ensure the continuation of his rule and dynasty.

Ala ud-Din should be credited with being the first Turkish sultan of Delhi to bring the church under the executive control of the state, which is always the first step towards creating a secular nation, at least in theory. However, it is almost certain that he did not intent to make the state secular and the reforms were purely oriented to enforcing his will and writ as supreme across all aspects of life in the sultanate. Whatever the ultimate objective, the state had moved at least a bit away from being completely theocratic in nature. Even so, it does not mean that the non-Muslim, read Hindu, population was treated well. Quite the contrary. Ala ud-Din did not consider himself the king of the Hindus in the same manner and sense as he was the sultan of all Muslims. He did not feel responsible for the welfare of his Hindu subjects. In fact the basis of his ideology regarding dealing with the Hindus was total and complete repression. According to law, Hindus were seen only as payers of tribute (Kharaj-guzar), and therefore the jiziya was imposed strictly. In all other respects, the Hindus were almost at the sub-human level, with no rights and no recourse even to minimal justice. In any case this experiment with keeping the ulema at bay did not survive Ala ud-Din’s death, when the sultanate rapidly reverted to being an absolute theocracy.

An interesting facet of his reign is that he displayed contradictory characteristics, especially when dealing with religion. Although he had consciously prevented the ulema from interfering in the functioning of the state, Ala ud-Din he continued to be a pious Muslim, following strict Islamic laws. He regularly took advantage of Muslim fanaticism in the conflicts against indigenous kingdoms and incited the Muslim population into a high level of bigotry to ensure their military cooperation. It is obvious that Ala ud-Din did not believe in anything and used whatever means were required to achieve his objectives. The steadfast aim was to achieve his personal ambitions.

Ala ud-Din – The Individual

Contemporary chroniclers have been unanimous in declaring Ala ud-Din as being bad tempered, obstinate and hard-hearted. He was by nature cruel and implacable. Throughout his rule, he was only concerned about the state of his kingdom with no consideration being given to religion, no regard for ties of brotherhood or filial affections, and absolutely no care regarding the rights of others. In keeping with the arrogance and haughtiness that he displayed permanently, he moved away from tradition and did not evoke the sanction of the Khalifa (Caliph) to proclaim his sovereignty. In fact he stopped paying even token homage to the caliph and acknowledging him as his political superior. However, true to his contradictory nature, he kept alive the concept and traditions of the khilafat (caliphate).

Ala ud-Din was illiterate, but it became an advantage in his contradictory personality. Since he was not burdened or encumbered with conventional wisdom as passed down through books and chronicles, he was able to give flight to his own imagination in formulating policies. He introduced several innovative administrative reforms, some of which could be considered brilliant for the time. He even toyed with fundamental economic reforms, although none of them came to fruition. It is reported that he enjoyed the company of scholars and creative people. He was also the patron of two of the most renowned poets of the time, Amir Khusrao and Amir Hasan. At a time when traditionally sultans practised the art of minimal governance, Ala ud-Din went against the trend and introduced a maximum government. He was a completely hands-on monarch who controlled and manipulated every single function and activity of the government.

There is definitely no doubt that Ala ud-Din was an absolute despot, intolerant of even the slightest murmur of dissent. But then, all effective rulers of the time were despots, and the ones who were not did not last long on the throne. It can be said in Ala ud-Din’s defence that his despotism was reasoned, if such a dichotomy is possible to understand. All the policies that he initiated were the result of careful study and much consideration. No initiative was embarked upon purely on impulse or the whim of the sultan. Ala ud-Din consulted with wise men, debated with them regarding the merit of a proposal and then decided on the best means to implement the policy and achieve the desired goal. There is even some mention of his having been tolerant of criticism in these discussions. However, this claim is hard to believe considering his inherent belief of the superiority of his intellect, and his proclivity to be completely intolerant of even the slightest dissidence.

Perhaps the only positive trait in the sultan was his genuine concern for the common people, even though it was reserved exclusively for his Muslim subjects. Fortune favoured Ala ud-Din. He was amazingly successful in everything that he attempted to do or did. He was unsentimental and efficient—success in every endeavour was all that mattered. It was but natural that unmitigated success inflated his ego and furthered his already mighty ambition, leading to megalomania—Ala ud-Din started to dream of world conquest.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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