Indian History Part 80 Humayun Section IV: Interlude – The Ambitious Sher Shah Sur

Canberra, 2 May 2020

[The description of the 15-year reign of the Sur dynasty, founded by Sher Shah after the defeat and flight of Humayun, is being included as two independent chapters within the section on Humayun. While Sher Shah and his successors did indeed rule North India during Humayun’s exile; neither did they leave any significant monuments for antiquity, nor did they create any noteworthy socio-political changes that make them stand apart as such. An in-depth analysis does provide some idea of Sher Shah’s active rule, but once again in the broader analysis of Indian history, the Sur dynastic rule is just one blip, and event that definitely merits mention but one that is overwhelmed and subsumed by other more critical events in the flow of the greater narrative. This author believes that the Sur dynastic rule forms an integral part of the broader study of Humayun’s reign.]

Early History

The early life of Sher Shah is not recorded properly and the narrative is generally based on legend and derived from the nostalgic recollections of Afghan nobles after he was dead and the dynasty had been destroyed. Therefore, the descriptions are not fully reliable vis-à-vis their accuracy, but can be taken as indicative of events as they would have happened.

The family originated from Roh, located in the highlands of the Sulaiman Ranges (Koh-e-Sulayman) in South Afghanistan, near the River Indus. Sher Shah’s grandfather, Ibrahim, was a horse trader and a lowly member of the Sur tribe. The name of the dynasty is derived from the tribe, Sur Dynasty, and some chronicles provide Sher Shah and successors with the surname ‘Suri’, a further Indian derivative of Sur. This narrative uses the original ‘Sur’. Ibrahim migrated to India looking for his fortune and initially settled in Punjab. Subsequently he moved to Narnaul near Delhi and entered the service of the Delhi Sutanate as a soldier during Bahlul Lodi’s reign. He became the ‘commander of forty’ and a small jagir was bestowed on him. On Ibrahim’s death, his son Hasan Khan inherited the jagir. Around 1486 Hasan’s first child, a son, was born. He was named Farid and would go on to become the future Sher Shah Sur.

Hasan was hard working and gradually prospered in military service. He moved to Bihar in the service of the Lodi governor Jamal Khan and rose to be a ‘commander of five hundred’. His jagir now consisted of Sasaram and Khavaspur Tanda in South Bihar, close to the Rohtas hills. By the time Farid was a teenager, Hasan had taken a second wife and almost abandoned his first wife, Farid’s mother. Farid fell-out with his father over the treatment of his mother and moved to the capital of Bihar, Jaunpur. The capital was the centre of Islamic learning in the region and Farid plunged into the academic world, intent on getting an education. It is highly likely that during this period he gained employment in the provincial administration. In any case, it is certain that he spent sufficient time in the academic circles to be recognised for his learning and ability.

A reconciliation with his father was effected by some well-meaning relatives and Hasan handed over the administration of his jagir to Farid. He proved to be an efficient, if ruthless, administrator. In Sasaram he put into practice the theoretical knowledge he had gained in Jaunpur and established a clear understanding between the peasants and the village heads of each other’s responsibilities. With the result, the jagir prospered. Chroniclers mention that the administration was based on Farid’s belief in bringing justice to the common people, which subsequently became a lifelong passion for him. He ‘ruled’ the jagir for seven years before his step-mother plotted to remove him. His step-mother was uncomfortable with Farid being given the jagir and troubled by the popularity he had gained by being even-handed in the delivery of justice. She worried about the future of her own children and poisoned Hasan’s mind against Farid. Hasan fired Farid peremptorily and Farid left home for the second time.

Rise to Importance

On Hasan’s death, Farid petitioned Ibrahim Lodi in Agra and managed to get the jagir transferred to his name. However, on the death of Lodi in the Battle of Panipat, the firman, meaning edict, decree or administrative order, became defunct and lost its validity. Farid now moved back to Jaunpur and joined service at the court of Muhammad Nuhani, ruling Bihar. Nuhani recognised Farid’s bravery in some action and gave him the title Sher Khan, by which he was thereafter known. He became well integrated in the court and gradually rose in the pecking order. However, Nuhani was an insecure king and suspicious of all nobles who were gaining prominence and becoming powerful. It was only a matter of time before Sher Khan fell out with the king and was deprived of his jagir, once again losing Sasaram.

Once again at a loose end, Sher Khan moved to Agra and through the good offices of a noble, Junaid Barlas who was close to Babur, entered Mughal service. He participated in Babur’s eastern campaign and managed to regain Sasaram. This was a time of opportunity for the ambitious and enterprising in North India. The more than three centuries old power structure, personified by the Delhi Sultanates, had collapsed or been dismantled by external aggression. However, there was no alternative to replace it being put in place. The space was wide open, a vacuum waiting to be filled. It was at this time that Sher Khan, ambitious, educated and scheming, perceived an opportunity to expel the Mughals from India. This seed of ambition was further encouraged by his careful study of the Mughals’ lackadaisical approach to the process of annexing their conquests and the further administration of their territories. This trait became even more apparent to Sher Khan as soon as Babur passed away and was replaced by Humayun at the head of the Mughal hierarchy.

Sher Khan now started a low intensity move to unite the Afghans, which became palpably visible to many very soon. However, his zealous perusal of this objective made him the laughing stock amongst the Afghan nobles, especially since he secretly vowed to rid North India of the Mughals. However, Babur noticed the growing stature of Sher Khan and considered him to be far too ambitious to be ignored. Fearing that he was soon to be arrested by the Mughal king, Sher Khan fled to Sasaram. From there he returned to the Bihar court where the Sultan reinstated him as Vakil, the equivalent of Prime Minister. When the Sultan died he left behind a minor son, Jalal Khan, to the throne and his wife the Queen as regent. The Queen also died soon after, paving the way for Sher Khan to become the regent—the de facto ruler of Bihar.

Dream Turns to Obsession

As the regent, Sher Khan also turned his attention to increasing his personal wealth. Towards this end, he married two childless but wealthy widows—one brought him enormous wealth and the other came with the ownership of the fort of Chunar. With these acquisitions through marital alliances, Sher Khan became a man of substance and, more importantly, the virtual ruler of Bihar. However, before he could set his mind to realising his dream of evicting the Mughals from India, he suffered yet another setback. Mahmud Lodi, the defeated Ibrahim’s brother, took over Bihar, replacing the boy-sultan Jalal. Sher Khan once again became a mere jagirdar, albeit now a prosperous one. The fact that he did not fight back, although he was the virtual king of Bihar is noteworthy and indicates an underlying strain of under-confidence and weakness that was to plague him throughout his career.

Although he was certain that the enterprise would end in defeat, he reluctantly joined the Afghans under Mahmud Lodi in his campaign against Humayun. Once again, the extreme reluctance to go against the common flow—a definitive weakness in his character—can be clearly noticed in this decision. However, Sher Khan’s character had another flaw, a taste for deceit, which he would display repeatedly throughout his life. This trait came to the fore at this moment—he established a back channel to communicate with Humayun and promised to withdraw his contingent from the fray before battle was joined. From the very beginning of his soldierly career, Sher Khan protected his own interests first and at all costs before he initiated any other action. In this case, the Afghans scattered before giving battle to the Mughals and Jalal Khan was reinstated as the vassal king of Bihar. Sher Khan was once again made the regent, especially since he had reached some kind of an agreement with Humayun.

In February 1533, Sher Khan entered into an informal treaty with Humayun that gave him complete and independent control of Chunar fort, which in a manner already belonged to him. Chunar was a critical fort since it controlled the road eastwards to the rest of Bihar and to Bengal. Having independent control of the fort greatly increased Sher Khan’s power and prestige in the region. Becoming the regent once again and Humayun’s acceptance of his position rekindled Sher Khan’s dream of re-establishing Afghan rule. Gradually it became an obsession with him although it was overlaid with abundant patience. His actions hereafter were all carefully orchestrated towards achieving what had become the central goal of his life.

The Afghans in North India were divided into two groups, one that supported Sher Khan that obviously included the Sur tribe to which he belonged and the other led by the Lohani Afghans who were opposed to the Surs. Jalal Khan had now reached majority and was old enough to rule on his own, although Sher Khan was reluctant to hand over the reins of power. Jalal therefore supported the Lohanis, calculating that he would win independence only if Sher Khan was removed from his position of prominence. At this juncture, when the circumstances were tense, there was a minor invasion from Bengal into Bihar territories, which further increased the complexity of the situation. Sher Khan took to the field and repulsed the invasion. Thereafter he took the offensive and annexed a large swath of Bengal territory to the Bihar kingdom.

Realising that his plans to rid himself of the regent was not working, Jalal got involved in a plot to assassinate Sher Khan. However, the plot was discovered and Jalal Khan fled from the country, leaving Sher Khan in independent charge of Bihar. Sher Khan had the opportunity now to declare himself king, but he did not do so. Becoming the independent king of Bihar would have brought him into open conflict with Humayun, which he was not yet ready to do. Therefore, exercising caution once again, Sher Khan decided to continue to rule Bihar as the nominal vassal of the Mughal king in Agra. It suited his plans to leave the throne of Bihar vaguely vacant.

Having stabilised Bihar, Sher Khan now turned his attention to Bengal. He was careful not to give the impression of becoming too powerful to the Mughals, ensconced in faraway Agra, with Humayun not paying any attention to the eastern borders of his kingdom. After winning a series of major battles, Sher Khan managed to annex the whole of Bengal to his own holdings. Sher Khan now controlled the entire territories to the east of the Doab. These victories had the unexpected result of bringing a large number of Afghans under his flag. Since he was now the undisputed leader of the Afghan nobility in India, Sher Khan assumed the title of Shah, a monarch; he was no more a Khan, a minor or petty chief.

Ambition Realised – King of North India

It was only now that Humayun seemed to have realised the growing power of Sher Shah in the eastern Gangetic Plains. Even so, the Mughal governor of Jaunpur downplayed Sher Shah’s power and prestige, assuring Humayun that he was still only a Mughal vassal of limited importance. Technically this report was true, Sher Shah was still a Mughal vassal, but it did not provide the Mughal king with a realistic appreciation of Sher Shah’s power and influence.

In July 1537, Humayun marched east against Sher Shah. He was defeated and returned to Agra to mount another campaign against Sher Shah in March 1540. This campaign culminated in the Battle of Kanauj where the Mughal army was once again routed. (The details of Humayun’s first Eastern Campaign and the Battle of Kanauj, where Humayun lost the Mughal throne, have already been detailed in the previous chapter. They are not being described here again.) The throne of Agra now belonged to Sher Shah. The Mughals fled north-west and encamped at Lahore, pursued at a leisurely pace by Sher Shah. Both Humayun and Kamran made attempts at arriving at a negotiated peace with Sher Shah that would permit them to stay on at Lahore, but the new king of Hindustan was adamant that the Mughals exit India and retreat to Kabul. In his mind, Sher Shah conceived of North India as being Afghan territory and the Mughals had no place there; they had to stay to the west of the Hindu Kush Mountain ranges. The Mughals accordingly withdrew to Kabul and its environs.

Sher Shah Sur – The New Sultan of North India

Establishing the Sur Dynasty

‘The Afghan Surs, dynastically sandwiched amongst the great and magnificently documented Mughals, easily elude the credit that is their due. Their fifteen-year supremacy is sometimes portrayed as a reactionary interlude or an impertinent interruption to the glorious Mughal succession. Yet the interlude was rich in inspiration.’

John Keay,

India:  A History, p. 299.

Sher Shah remained in the Punjab for some more time, wanting to secure the vulnerable North-West Frontier of his kingdom. This was a more complex challenge than chasing the Mughals out of India. The districts of Shahpur and Mianwali in the hill ranges of the northern part of the River Jhelum was part of greater Punjab. They were also home to the turbulent and rebellious Gujam, Bhatti and Khokhar tribes who had never been under Delhi Sultanate control. They were used to raiding Sultanate territory for loot and plunder. Sher Shah constructed a large fort to the north-west of the River Jhelum and named it Rohtas, after his stronghold in upper Bihar. This fort was meant to check the pillaging raids of the hill tribes into the plains that belonged to the Delhi Sultanate, now ruled by Sher Shah Sur.

Trouble Brews in Bengal

While Sher Shah was still in the process of stabilising Punjab, he received news that Khizr Khan, his governor in Bengal had started to rule and behave as an independent king, although he had not yet dared to assume any royal titles, nor formally declared independence. Sher Shah immediately set course for Bengal and through a series of forced marches reached Gaur much earlier than expected, during the monsoon of 1541. Khizr Khan realised that he had no hope of winning a contest for power against Sher Shah and therefore attempted to mollify him by stating that he had never assumed independent status and had only ever been governor. Sher Shah did not succumb to flattery and subservience, but had Khizr Khan put in chains and made a prisoner. This action was more to provide a warning to other would-be rebels and also as a demonstration of his control over his territories. While ruthlessness was not a predominant character trait in Sher Shah, he nevertheless displayed vicious and brutal cruelty whenever he felt threatened or his authority was questioned. This was one such case.

Sher Shah had already realised the structural weakness of the State in having independent and omnipotent governors appointed to rule provinces. He was aware that provincial insubordination had been an on-going challenge to the Delhi Sultanate throughout its existence; he himself having benefitted from insubordination to central authority. Sher Shah had thought through the situation and arrived at some reforms that he wanted to institute during his march from Punjab to Bengal. He now split Bengal into different districts, reorganised the administrative set up and appointed a coordinator, instead of the governor as his representative. (The details of the reform and reorganisation of the provinces and their administration is provided in the next chapter.)

Other Conquests

Having consolidated both the Punjab in the north-west and Bengal in the east, the extremities of his kingdom, Sher Shah now set his mind to expanding his territorial holdings. Even though he had now become the master of North India and realised his long-held dream, Sher Shah had not risen above employing deceitful and cunning ways to achieve his ends. In medieval India, as in other parts of the world, cunningness and even deceit were not considered disqualifications—the ultimate aim was to be victorious at all costs. Sher Shah commanded an extremely well-trained and equipped army. Even so, he preferred coercion, persuasion and guile to the actual employment of forces to achieve his objectives. It can be noticed that he planned and executed all his battles with the secondary purpose of minimising his own casualties, the primary aim of course was always to achieve victory.

On his way back to Agra and Delhi from Bengal, Sher Shah persuaded Gwalior, Malwa and Ranthambhor to accept his suzerainty, without going to war. However the Raja of Raisen, Puran Mal, resisted and his fort was besieged. The siege continued indecisively for several months and then Sher Shah decided to use his normal perfidy to capture the fort. The long siege had wearied the people of Raisen and Puran Mal agreed to come out of the fort on Sher Shah’s personal assurance of the safety of the people. On Puran Mal and his soldiers coming out of the fort, Sher Shah had the Rajput soldiers surrounded and slaughtered. To his eternal shame, Sher Shah treated the women and children abominably, having made arrangements to sell them into sexual slavery and to street performers. Sher Shah subsequently attempted to provide an excuse for this treachery that he personally directed, stating that there was no need to honour a promise made to an infidel. More than three centuries of continuous battle with the Hindus had hardened the attitude of the Muslims towards the so-called ‘infidels’ and made it morally correct to ill-treat women and children. At the same time, the Muslim chroniclers did not give the same latitude to the Hindus, who were expected to morally and ethically hold the high-ground when they gave battle and to treat the women and children of defeated Muslim chiefs with great dignity. [The situation has not changed even in the 21st century, when the Muslim irregular forces are permitted to carry out the most heinous actions against non-Muslim soldiers, whereas even the slightest transgression of the so-called moral code by a non-Muslim soldier is highlighted and the perpetrator even taken to court. The ‘liberal’ press, which is normally biased against the regular soldier, has a lot to answer for in these situations.]

Maldeva of Marwar

Marwar was ruled by an astute, capable and brave Raja, Maldeva, who had profited from the Afghan-Mughal power struggle and managed to expand his territorial holdings. His kingdom shared a border with the Sultanate a bare 50 kilometres from Delhi. Since there was a common border between Marwar and the Delhi Sultanate, clashes were bound to happen. True to the timeless Rajput and Indian tradition, a group of disgruntled Rajput chieftains who were jealous of the increasing power of the Raja of Marwar had approached Sher Shah and requested him to come into Rajasthan to curb the rise of Maldeva. Internal acrimony and infighting, leading to mutual downfall, has been the bane of Indian politics from time immemorial.

Sher Shah, assured of Rajput assistance, advanced into Marwar territory with a large army. Maldeva also assembled his forces and marched out to meet the Afghans. The armies met between Ajmer and Jodhpur and camped, facing each other inactively for more than a month. The territory belonged to Maldeva and therefore Sher Shah was gradually running out of provisions. However, as was his character, Sher Shah was still unwilling to go into battle—a defeat would have risked his newly gained kingdom and position as the ‘Delhi Sultan’. He was not one to gamble his life’s work on the outcome of one uncertain battle.

Sher Shah once again decided to use deceit to win the encounter. He spread a rumour that some of the Marwar commanders had approached him and promised to withdraw from the battlefield and defect to the Afghan side, which he substantiated by forged letters that were permitted to be ‘captured’ by Maldeva’s officers. Although the generals named in the letters swore an oath of allegiance to Maldeva, he did not believe them, probably because of the historical precedence of Rajput generals defecting to the enemy. Maldeva withdrew from the confrontation with his army. The generals who had been accused of treachery, collected their individual forces and attacked Sher Shah. They had no other choice, if they were to keep their honour intact. The attack, though futile, was so ferocious that some of them managed to reach the very person of the Sultan before being cut down by his bodyguards. The entire Rajput force that attacked the Afghans were killed in the action.

As was the case in so many episodes before this, and incidents that would play out in the future too, Rajput honour was redeemed and remained unsullied—a large number of brave and loyal commanders and soldiers were lost for no strategic gain. If Maldeva had accepted his generals’ declaration he could have won the battle against Sher Shah and the history of North India would have flowed in a different track. This is yet another point in Indian history that creates a ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ situation for speculation. Sher Shah subsequently overran the Mount Abu region.

Death Comes Without a Warning

Sher Shah continued his annexations, and moved to Mewar. Rana Udai Singh surrendered Chitor without a fight and the Kacchwaha king of Dhundar near Jaipur, also surrendered. The Afghan army then proceeded to Bundelkhand and Kalinjar, where the fort was besieged. There is an unsubstantiated story that Sher Shah was lured to Kalinjar by the proverbial beauty of a dancing girl who belonged to Raja Kirat Singh of Kalinjar. It is certain that this titbit information is a later-day addition to the narrative, made in order to spice it up. Kalinjar was an impregnable fort and the siege continued without any progress for more than a year. During the siege, Sher Shah had built an observation tower from which arrows and muskets could be fired into the fort. It was Sher Shah’s habit to go up the tower and shoot arrows into the fort every day and then supervise the siege arrangements and its progress.

On 22 May 1545, Sher Shah was supervising the firing of rocket-grenades into Kalinjar when one of the grenades ricocheted off the fort wall. It fell on a store of grenades, which in turn exploded. Sher Shah who was standing close to the cluster of grenades was hit by the explosion and extensively burned from head to foot. The doctors immediately removed him from the scene. Even in this condition, Sher Shah encouraged his generals to take the fort, which finally fell that afternoon. Sher Shah himself succumbed to his injuries soon after.

The chronicles record that on being informed of the fall of Kalinjar, Sher Shah is reported to have stated, ‘that was my very desire’ and then died. So ended the reign of Sher Shah Sur, a brief period of five years in which an extremely active, almost restless, Sultan enacted a great deal of reform to a moribund administrative apparatus. Sher Shah’s reformatory improvements would later form the basis for the much acclaimed Mughal administrative machinery.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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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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