Indian History Part 82 Jahangir Section III: Intrigue, A Coup and the Death of an Emperor

Canberra, 02 November 2020

Shah Jahan was humiliated at the abject failure of his revolt and Nur Jahan overjoyed at having come out the ‘victor’ in the power struggle. However, the wheels of fortune were continuing to rotate and Mahabat Khan emerged as the most powerful noble, having been instrumental in crushing Shah Jahan’s rebellion. Mahabat harboured an intense dislike for Nur Jahan because of her overbearing influence on the Emperor. He also hated Asaf Khan whom he considered responsible for having been sidelined by the Queen—Mahabat had not received a single promotion in almost 12 years. In turn, Nur Jahan was unhappy that gradually Mahabat Khan had aligned himself with Parvez Shah and thus diminished her own son-in-law Shahryar’s chances of claiming the throne.

Parvez was a weak and self-indulgent prince, already given to alcoholism. However, with the nominal role that he had played in putting down Shah Jahan’s rebellion, and being the eldest surviving son of Jahangir, he now had a more than even claim to succeed to the throne on Jahangir’s death. Shah Jahan was completely out of favour and had been banished to the governorship of Balaghat in Central India, an insignificant province. Nur Jahan now felt the necessity to reduce the stature and power of Mahabat Khan; after all he had had the temerity to write to the Emperor requesting that he curtail the Queen’s power and interference in the governance of the Empire.

Intrigue was an intrinsic part of Nur Jahan’s behaviour pattern. She now ordered Mahabat to present himself at the court to answer some trumped up charges regarding misappropriation of royal funds. Failing this, he was ordered to proceed to Bengal as the governor. For good measure she also ordered Parvez to move to Gujarat, in an attempt to keep the two separated. The false charges against Mahabat Khan were instituted to cast a slur on his integrity and loyalty to Jahangir. Further, Mahabat had married off his daughter to a noble without obtaining royal permission, which was a customary requirement for senior nobles. Jahangir, at the insistence of Nur Jahan, insulted the bridegroom, confiscated all the presents that Mahabat had bestowed on him, and incarcerated him.

Mahabat Khan decided to answer the royal summons. He started north from the Deccan, with a retinue of 4000 Rajput warriors who were personally loyal to him. Since the Emperor was on his way to Kabul, Mahabat and his entourage proceeded towards Lahore, where he hoped to intercept the royal caravan. It is uncertain whether or not he was contemplating rebellion at this stage. The number of troops is not an indication of that he was considering sedition, since it was common practice of the time for senior nobles to travel with large bodies of soldiers as escorts.

Jahangir was at this time camped on the east bank of River Jhelum. In order to indicate his displeasure, Jahangir instructed Mahabat not to come to the royal enclosure till summoned by the Emperor. It is obvious that no one feared any danger from Mahabat Khan, although he had a sizeable force with him and was also extremely displeased with the manner in which he was treated earlier. Jahangir’s display of royal displeasure must surely have rankled Mahabat. However, the imperial army, its officers and their families crossed River Jhelum to the west bank by the evening of the day that Mahabat had arrived and pitched camp close to the royal enclosures. This left Jahangir and the royal household alone on the east bank with minimal protection; the plan being for them to cross over the next day. Considering Mahabat’s past record of absolute loyalty to the Emperor, no one even had the slightest suspicion that he would act against the person of the Emperor.

When Mahabat Khan realised that Jahangir was alone on the east bank, his thinking went into overdrive. He decided to capitalise on this unique opportunity of the Emperor being on one side of the river while his entire army was on the opposite bank. At dawn he send a detachment of troops to capture the bridge of boats and himself went into Jahangir’s camp and placed him practically under arrest. However, he was completely deferential to Jahangir at all times, continuing to behave as one of his most loyal courtiers. Mahabat made Jahangir mount an elephant and took him away to his own camp. In the confusion of this action, Nur Jahan crossed over to the west bank, the Rajput guards raising no objections since their orders were to ensure that the Mughal army in the west bank did not cross over to the east.

Nur Jahan now exhorted the imperial army and its commanders to free Jahangir from Mahabat’s camp, herself leading a part of the retrieval force mounted on an elephant. This attack across the river was a complete disaster and the Mughal army retreated with heavy loss of lives. Asaf Khan fled the scene, taking refuge in the fort at Attock and subsequently surrendering to Mahabat. In the melee, Nur Jahan had returned to the west bank but on realising that the attempt to free Jahangir had failed, crossed the river once again and joined her husband in what was a very civil captivity.

With Jahangir and Nur Jahan in his control, Mahabat Khan took command of the imperial army. However, outwardly he continued to behave as a humble servant of Jahangir. The convoy then moved towards Kabul, its original destination and Jahangir entered the city in May 1626. It seemed that Jahangir and Nur Jahan had reconciled to their new status of being mere figureheads. In Kabul, once the royal party settled down, Mahabat was no match for the scheming Nur Jahan—her intrinsic knowledge of court intrigue and the functioning of the government ensured that she garnered the support of the nobles, which gradually left Mahabat isolated and in a quandary. Neither did he have the number of troops needed to hold on to power firmly and indefinitely, nor did he have the chutzpah necessary to mount a successful and full coup d’etat, which would have meant deposing Jahangir from the throne. Mahabat therefore continued to play the power behind the throne, while maintaining the façade that he was only carrying out the orders of Jahangir, and in this case that of Queen Nur Jahan.

In November 1626, the Mughal entourage started its return journey from Kabul. Mahabat was ostensibly leading the march, but on arrival at Rohtas, he fled from the main army, taking the sons of Shah Jahan, as well as Asaf Khan and his son hostage with him. Nur Jahan called his bluff and asked Mahabat to return, at which time he lost his nerve and fled, after releasing the hostages. Jahangir and his queen were now free and once again Nur Jahan was in control. Mahabat proceeded towards the Deccan.

In the meantime Shah Jahan, on hearing of the coup had started to move north, ostensibly to free his father, but in reality to be near the seat of power when Jahangir died, since it was by now well-known that the Emperor was not in the best of health. However, Shah Jahan’s forces, relatively small to start with, had continuously dwindled during the march because of a constant stream of desertions. This state of affairs is indicative of the low status and power-base enjoyed by the prince, who had been the presumptive heir apparent just a few years back. By the time the motley force reached Sind, Shah Jahan was ill and was being carried in a litter. At Sind he received instructions from Nur Jahan to return to the Deccan and his governorship, without advancing any further. Nur Jahan was once again the de facto ruler of Hindustan.

Shah Jahan had no recourse but to obey, he was in no personal, official or military shape to oppose the command—he backed away towards the Deccan. In the meantime Parvez died of an alcohol-induced coma in Burhanpur. It became clear that the imminent contest for succession, if it took place, would be between Shah Jahan and Shahriyar; unless another external coup took place successfully, which was highly unlikely in the prevailing circumstances. The royal camp was divided in their support for either of the princes and the battle lines for an anticipated succession struggle were being hastily drawn. After ordering Shah Jahan to retreat, Nur Jahan passed instructions to the fleeing Mahabat to proceed to Sind and block Shah Jahan from proceeding towards Agra or the north. However, Mahabat seems to have finally decided that he had enough of being bullied by the Queen and fled towards Mewar, where he joined forces with Shah Jahan at Junnar—his silent rebellion had lasted just eight months. This unexpected infusion of strength to his rag-tag army gave Shah Jahan an impetus for further action.

While these power manoeuvres were being put in place, Jahangir’s health had continued to deteriorate and he was very ill. He had been suffering from asthma for more than a decade and the ailment had taken a turn for the worse. The Mughal party now turned northward from the Punjab towards Kashmir, where it was hoped that the cool and crisp air would provide some relief to the Emperor. During this journey, Jahangir died on 7th November 1627 at Chingiz Hatli near Bhimbar, aged 58 years. He had ruled the Mughal Empire for 20 years. With Jahangir’s death, Nur Jahan uncharacteristically became inert, the fight had gone out of her. The Emperor’s death set off a flurry of activities that had been plotted earlier to cater for this inevitable eventuality.

And So …

His flight from the command of the imperial army on the journey from Kabul to Lahore completes the picture of Mahabat Khan—of a great, loyal and valiant general pushed to take drastic action out of sheer frustration at the dealings and intrigue of the royal court. However, as mentioned earlier, he did not have the overall strategic ability to take hold of the reins of power that had come tantalisingly close to his hands to gather. A ‘Sher Shah’ is obviously not born every day. The biggest tactical mistake Mahabat made was continuing the journey from River Jhelum to Kabul, with Jahangir as his virtual prisoner. This one error was actually a strategic blunder, which he had no means to control or ameliorate. If Mahabat had returned to Hindustan and the Rajputana region with the royal couple, instead of going to Kabul, his Rajput alliances would have ensured the continued success of his coup; whereas in Kabul, he was isolated, out of place and easily defeated—not on the battlefield, but in the more venomous arena of the royal court. He was an amateur playing against the greatest champion of the game of intrigue, Queen Nur Jahan.

Mahabat Khan was a man of great self-esteem, but he lacked the ruthless élan and the cunningness necessary to deliver the coup de grace, which in turn ensures success in the pursuit of power. If Mahabat was a man of decisive action and high ambition, the history of the Imperial Mughals would have been very different: the dynasty would have ended with the Battle of Jhelum in 1626. Nur Jahan, almost single-handedly outwitted the ablest general of the time and ensured the continuation of the Mughal rule in Hindustan—her greatest contribution to the Chagatai dynasty.

   

© [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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