Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section IV: The Conquering Emperor (1)

Canberra, 28 June 2020


Akbar continued the policy followed by Biram Khan, of steady and ceaseless expeditions to expand the territorial spread of the Empire. Akbar is supposed to have said, as reported by Abul Fazl and quoted by Bamber Gascoigne in his book, The Great Mughals (page 72), ‘a monarch should be ever intent on conquest, otherwise his neighbours rise in arms against him.’ What was left unsaid in this terse aphorism is that without conquest on a regular basis, the imperial exchequer would run dry—territorial expansion was an economic necessity, especially in a predominantly military-economic State, such as the Mughal kingdom. Catering to this critical prerequisite, and like his illustrious ancestors—Genghis Khan and Timur—Akbar was constantly on the move. This dynamic state was in direct contrast to the preference of his father Humayun, who liked to rest and relax in one place after the initial success in a battle, never even pursuing a fleeing adversary.

Akbar firmly believed that peace and stability could only be secured by war. He justified his invasions citing humanitarian grounds of liberating the people from oppressive regimes—a thin veneer of a pretext to hide his incessant urge for conquest. Like all medieval emperors, and despite his obvious intellectual refinement, Akbar was essentially a ruthless warlord, revelling in conquest and driven by an inherent blood lust that brimmed out of him. In medieval India, as elsewhere in the contemporary world, a great monarch also had to be a great and triumphant warrior of proven bravery and brilliance on the battlefield. Visible and demonstrated success on the battlefield was a precondition for success on the throne as a king. Accordingly, Akbar spent a large part of his life on military campaigns, either directly leading his forces or staying in the rear as a backup to provide a morale boosting moral bulwark for his commanders in the field.

It is obvious that Akbar enjoyed war—and the blood, gore and death that accompanied it—as much if not more than he enjoyed hunting wild animals. Both were perilous activities and he seems to have been inordinately found of putting his own life on the line, both in battle as well as in hunting expeditions. In relative terms, Akbar’s personal bravery definitely exceeded even the legendary courage of his grandfather, the intrepid Babur; he often led the initial charge against the enemy personally, a most dangerous activity. Akbar’s foreign policy dictated war, but for the Emperor war for its own sake was also equally enjoyable.

‘Explosive energy characterised Akbar’s reign. From the time he took over the reins of government until his death, for over forty years, he was ever o the move, engaged in incessant wars, directed internally against rebels or externally against his neighbours along the ever-widening frontiers of his empire.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 139

Territorial expansion undertaken during Biram Khan’s de facto rule had already been successful in annexing Ajmer, Gwalior and Jaunpur to the Mughal kingdom. When Akbar actually took over, Mughal power controlled most of the regions that Babur had briefly ruled. It was not large in area, but a strategic swath of land that stretched uninterrupted from Afghanistan to the modern Uttar Pradesh—across the sweep of the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was by no means a large kingdom. However, since North India was fragmented territorially into even smaller kingdoms at that time, it was the largest and most powerful in the region.

An Aggressive Expansionist Policy

As narrated in the previous chapter, immediately after Biram Khan was retired, Malwa had been annexed. While internal trouble was brewing between Akbar and Maham Anga, the Gakkhars od Punjab had refused to acknowledge the governor who had been appointed by Akbar. Gakkhers were a turbulent tribe, occupying the region around Rawal Pindi and had not yet accepted Mughal suzerainty. They had continuously defied Mughal orders regarding the control of their territory. Akbar now send an army to enforce Mughal control. The army had to fight some bitter battles and suffer high casualties before the tribe could be subdued and order restored. The chief of the Gakkhars was taken prisoner and died in captivity.

There was also another minor uprising in Kabul because of a conspiracy instigated by Abul Maali, who had been one of Humayun’s favourite nobles. He destroyed a Mughal army contingent near Narnul and Akbar send another force to pursue him. Maali retreated to Kabul and send a series of penitent letters to Akbar, asking for clemency. Akbar refused to show any mercy—Abul Maali was captured and strangled to death.

Akbar’s Expansionist Policy

By this time Akbar had already formulated his expansionist foreign policy, which dictated the annexation of all possible territory through wars and conflict. He was firm in his belief that wars of aggression were the best tools that a king possessed and employed it ruthlessly and without any remorse. Some later day historians have attempted to gloss over this fundamental fact and character trait of Akbar. They have attempted to insinuate that Akbar resorted to war and the use of extreme force to redeem discord and conflict in unstable regions. According to these historians, Akbar only resorted to intervention with force, either because of religious bias or because of enmity between two warring parties, with Akbar wanting to bring peace between them. This is sentimental rubbish.

Akbar’s expansionist policy of annexation at all costs was the end result of purely kingly ambitions backed by adequate military power. He had no scruples about initiating war and prosecuting it without mercy and with ruthless efficiency. Akbar had no qualms of conscience about creating bloodshed. He had the inherent ferocity of his Turk and Mongol ancestors, almost an inherent characteristic of a warrior king of the time, which exemplified his conduct on the battlefield. The difference between him and his ancestors was that Akbar managed to keep his more base instincts under check most of the time. However, as has already been narrated, occasionally he let this side of his character take the lead in making decisions.

Akbar’s so-called better instincts almost always kicked in only after victory was assured and secured in a battle or war. In the actual conduct of all wars, he was cold-blooded and efficient.

Invasion of Gondwana

Few years later, in 1564, he turned his attention to Gondwana—the country of the Gonds—governed for the past 15 years by a gallant Queen, Rani Durgavati, on behalf of her son. Although the son had come of age and also been crowned king, the Rani was very popular and continued to rule. Rani Durgavati was a princess of the famous Chandel dynasty of Mahoba, who had been great powers about five centuries earlier. She had been given in marriage to the Gond raja, who was wealthy but lower in status, an indication of the reduced circumstances of the Chandels. True to Chandel traditions, she was an able and courageous ruler, much revered by her subjects.

Akbar’s attack on Gondwana was unprovoked and devoid of any justification. Even his apologists have not been able to find a reason for the invasion. Akbar had reached such a level of military power that he did not deem it necessary even to drum up some petty reason to invade a neighbouring kingdom. Durgavati made a gallant defence of her kingdom, even though she was greatly disadvantaged by desertions from her army, presumably by personnel who were overawed by the might of the invading Mughal army. Suffering a series of defeats, the brave Rani made her final stand between Garha and Mandla, in the modern Jabalpur district. She personally led her army, mounted on an elephant. She was severely wounded and on the verge of defeat, took her own like by stabbing herself in the heart. A noble end to a noble Queen.

The Gond kingdom was annexed and a few months later, the fortress at Chauragarh, which was the repository of the kingdoms’ treasure was also captured by a senior Mughal general, Asaf Khan. The young Raja Bir Narain also died bravely on the battlefield, while his household committed traditional Jauhar before the final battle. Asaf Khan did not submit the full booty to the emperor, as was customary, sending only a small part to the royal treasury. Akbar, while monitoring this deception on the part of his general, did not take any immediate action. Retribution would come later.

Internal Rebellions

A number of adventurous nobles had assisted Humayun from the time he set out from Kabul to regain the throne of Hindustan. A majority of them had continued to assist the Mughal rule during the regency of Biram Khan. They had not been able to, or in some cases were not ready to, settle down into minor positions of power as sedate and largely inconsequential noblemen, in what was gradually becoming a stable and ordered kingdom—after all they had been the support arm on which Humayun had relied to reclaim his inheritance. Personal ambition, an exaggerated sense of their own importance and a slight amount of disenchantment with Akbar’s rule pushed them to attempt gaining sovereign power for themselves. The rebellions were more individualistic and not a mass movement, but they were not rare.

In July 1564, Abdullah Khan Uzbeg, who had replaced Pir Muhammad as the governor of Malwa revolted. Akbar personally led an expedition to Mandu, defeated Abdullah Uzbeg’s army and chased him out of the kingdom to Gujarat. Akbar then returned to Agra, after enjoying a grand elephant hunt on the return journey. Abdullah never attempted to regain his position or territories. In early 1565, Ali Kuli Khan who had been created a Khan Zaman for his role in the defeat of Hemu in the Battle of Panipat and was the governor of Jaunpur, rebelled. Ali Kuli Khan was also an Uzbeg and had sheltered Abdullah Khan for a period before his death, in defiance of an imperial order that prohibited Abdullah returning to Mughal territories. An added factor for the disgruntlement in the Uzbeg nobles was that they believed Akbar favoured Persian nobles, rather than the Uzbegs.

The initial Mughal attempt to put down the rebellion was a failure. The defeated Mughal army withdrew to Nimkhar in Oudh. It is here that Raja Todar Mall, who was to become famous as Akbar’s minister for finances and later Prime Minister, is mentioned for the first time in any available historical narrative. Even though he was personally opposed to any compromise with rebels, Todar Mall led the negotiations with Ali Kuli Khan. In May 1565, once again Akbar took to the field, crossed the River Yamuna and drove the rebels east. The Khan Zaman retreated and ensconced himself at Hajipur, opposite Patna, while Akbar, having invested Jaunpur, made it his headquarters.

At this juncture, Asaf Khan who had misappropriated the Gond treasure and was accompanying the Mughal army, defected and fled to the opposition, perhaps fearing that the emperor would hold him to account for the treasure that he had withheld. In the next nine months or so, the Khan Zaman was pardoned twice by Akbar. In March 1566, Akbar returned to Agra, without having put down the rebellion comprehensively as was his normal custom. The situation with the rebels remained vague and the promise made by Ali Kuli Khan to ‘behave’ was broken almost immediately on the departure of the Mughal army. This uncharacteristic decision of Akbar’s may have been taken because he felt that the royal forces were insufficient to achieve a decisive victory over the rebel forces. Akbar normally entered battle with overwhelming forces, which assured him battlefield victory. In any case, this was the second time that he decided to turn a blind eye towards the rebellious activities of untrustworthy nobles in his service. It is clear that he had a higher strategic vision of what he wanted to achieve and did not want to get entangled in the less important irritants, which could hold him back.

Akbar – The Art of Dissimulating His Feelings

Before every battle, other than the ones that he entered impetuously, Akbar assessed the relative strength of his forces relative to the immediate adversary. In this analysis if he felt even the slightest doubt regarding his ability to ensure victory, he did not provoke confrontation. This was the reason for his ignoring the blatant disobedience of Asaf Khan in Gondwana and Ali Kuli Khan in Hajipur without chastising either one.

By this time Akbar had become a master at concealing his real feelings from everyone. He never gave away his innermost feelings, which made it impossible for anyone to clearly discern what he was thinking at any given time. Akbar made it a point of projecting the image of a man without guile, displaying a profile of being openly honest and candid. In reality he was a closed book—completely self-contained and always providing contrary clues to his thinking through words and at times even deeds, keeping all observers guessing as to his actual analysis of all developing situations.

In the period 1560 – 1566, Akbar embarked on a building spree, which will be listed in a later chapter.

A Brother’s Rebellion

A few months after Akbar had returned from the indecisive campaign in Bihar, he received news that Muhammad Hakim, his stepbrother and prince of Kabul had invaded Punjab. Hakim was instigated to this rebellious action by the Uzbeg faction, who incited him to claim the throne of Hindustan. The Khan Zaman in Bihar, one of the leaders of the Uzbeg nobles, even went to the extent of proclaiming him the king. Hakim’s actions definitely crystallised because of the Uzbeg support, but the underlying reasons were different. His actions were prompted because he was aware of the contrast between Akbar’s already vast empire and the tiny domain that he controlled, and that too as a nominal vassal. In truth, it was envy, rather than ambition that dictated the young prince’s actions.

Akbar is reported to have been extremely annoyed at his brother’s affront and set out immediately for the Punjab, on 17th November 1566. He stopped on the way in Delhi to inspect the on-going construction of his father’s mausoleum and reached Lahore by end of February 1567. Hakim immediately retreated west across the River Indus, gradually withdrawing to Kabul. Asaf Khan, now pleaded for clemency and submitted to Akbar’s suzerainty, perhaps realising the Uzbegs’ untenable situation.

Settling Scores

While Akbar was in faraway Lahore, a group of nobles titled Mirzas, who were descendants of Timur and therefore distantly related to Akbar, rebelled in Sambhal near Moradabad where they had estates. They calculated on gaining ground because of the absence of Akbar from the capital. The imperial forces took prompt action and the rebels were defeated, most of them fleeing to Malwa and then out of the kingdom itself.

In May 1567, the Khan Zaman once again revolted. He was now more confident than before because Akbar had left him alone, even after promises had been broken. However, Akbar was now furious and decided to settle scores. He proceeded personally to the east and encountered the rebel army near Allahabad. In the ensuing battle Khan Zaman was killed, his brother captured and beheaded, and a number of subordinate leaders of the rebel army executed after capture. No clemency was shown, in fact Akbar was displaying his true and ruthless nature, which he mostly kept under check. He then moved to Benares, which was sacked and then went to Jaunpur, which was also comprehensively sacked. Akbar systematically executed rebels all along the way, showing no mercy and sparing no one. The royal orders were to execute all captives and rebels on the spot.

The Khan Zaman’s fiefdom was divided and redistributed. Akbar returned to Agra on 18 July 1567. Two months later he was on the march again, this time to undertake what was to be the most tragically important invasion and conquest of his military career.

© [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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. 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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