Indian History Part 83 Shah Jahan Section II: An Emperor’s Ambition Laid Low

Canberra, 22 November 2020

Even after the Khan-i-Jahan Lodi was chased down and killed, the Deccan campaign continued. Gradually all the major Shahi kingdoms—Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda—were involved in the conflict in different ways and to different extent. The fortunes of these three kingdoms and that of the Mughal forces in the Deccan ebbed and flowed with no decisive results for a number of years. At one time Bijapur even managed to chase the Mughal forces completely out of their kingdom. The next chapter analyses the Deccan campaign of Shah Jahan in detail. This chapter focuses on the other expeditions that he undertook, particularly the disastrous Central Asian Campaign, the failure of which had long-drawn consequences, both for Shah Jahan and for the Mughal Empire.  

The Portuguese Interlude in Bengal

In 1537, the Portuguese secured the grant of a site in Hooghly and rapidly raised a fort there. They fully exploited the instability created by the combination of two factors: the volatile political situation in Bengal; and the corruption of the Mughal governors and other minor officials in order to become rich, affluent and influential in the region. The Portuguese also had a tacit understanding with the pirates of Chittagong that enabled them to jointly control the immediate sea lanes while also plundering and devastating the countryside. Very soon they came to be despised by the local people. Even though reports of trouble being created by the Portuguese had reached Jahangir, he had turned a blind eye to the activities of a handful of foreigners at the extremity of his empire—they were too far away and it would be too much trouble to bring them under control.

Shah Jahan, on the other hand, commenced a ruthless campaign against the Portuguese of Bengal. During his rebellion against his father, when Shah Jahan had reached Bengal, the Portuguese had refused to provide him assistance and had in fact colluded with Parvez Shah who was on the trail of his rebellious brother. By 1632, Shah Jahan was sufficiently settled as the Emperor and was not yet embroiled in any serious military campaign. Therefore, he was relatively free to deal with the Portuguese of Bengal and exact his revenge. The Portuguese provided him with two immediate causes to move against them. First, they plundered a village in the vicinity of Dacca, which was the provincial capital of Mughal Bengal; and second, a Portuguese officer had assaulted a Mughal noble lady in Eastern Bengal. Qasim Khan, the newly appointed governor of Bengal request permission to suppress the foreigners, which was gladly granted by Shah Jahan. It would seem that a renegade Portuguese merchant, Alfonso, had also informed Qasim of the great amount of wealth that had been stockpiled in the Portuguese fort, an added incentive for the governor to initiate action.

The expedition was carefully planned. The passages to Hooghly, both by land and sea, were efficiently blocked. The Portuguese initially attempted to settle the dispute by negotiating through the Jesuit priests who wandered freely in the region, but this was not accepted by Qasim Khan. In response, the Mughal demands were declined by the Portuguese who barricaded themselves in the fort. The Mughals laid siege, but were unable to storm it for a few months. However, when Mughal reinforcements started to arrive, the Portuguese realised their untenable position and left Hooghly en masse by boat. In the battle that preceded this hurried departure, an estimated 10,000 people were killed. The Hooghly fort was occupied by Mughal forces and more than 14,000 locals, imprisoned there by the Portuguese, were freed. The Portuguese who were taken prisoner were initially treated very severely and then given a stark choice—either convert to Islam or be executed. A majority, it is reported, chose death over conversion. Shah Jahan had given instructions to treat the Portuguese harshly to avenge his earlier humiliation. Most historians also conclude that such treatment was merited for different reasons. The Portuguese had perpetuated great many atrocities in the Bengal region for many years and deserved to be punished.

From a military perspective, this was a minor action. However, viewed from a strategic historic vantage point, the expedition must be considered of great importance—this was the first notable clash in the sub-continent between a European power and a major Indian kingdom. Even though the Portuguese by this time were in complete command of the seas surrounding the sub-continent, the Mughals being a land-centric power, and not overly reliant on sea-borne trade for their prosperity were not unduly concerned about the maritime power of the Europeans. The Europeans were still circling the rich land, content to nibble at the outer layer of the Empire for the time being.

Unconquerable Assam

When Shah Jahan came to the throne, Cooch Bihar was ruled by Raja Bir Narain, while Kamrup was nominally under the Mughal commander Shaikh Zahid, and the indomitable Ahom kings ruled Assam, further to the east. The Ahoms had been sheltering rebel Mughal officers for some time and had been interfering in Kamrup’s internal affairs regularly. Instigated by the Ahom king of Assam, Bir Narain attacked Kamrup, drove out the Mughal garrison and occupied Hajo, the capital. However, Bengal had a new and energetic Mughal governor, Islam Khan, who recaptured the town and drove the Cooch Bihar forces out of Kamrup.

Islam Khan then went on the offensive and pushed into Assam, occupying the Ahom fort of Kalji. His attempts to advance further into Samdhara was met with unbeatable resistance from the Ahom kingdom. The Mughal forces were then pushed out of Assam, suffering heavy losses. They were conclusively defeated at Duminsila in November 1639 and Kalji was recaptured by Ahom forces. A tenuous peace was signed between the Ahom rulers and the Mughal governor. The Mughals avoided confrontation with Assam thereafter.

A Range of Petty Rebellions

Garhwal. In 1635, the Mughals made an attempt to capture Garhwal in response to a minor revolt in the region. The Mughal forces were soundly defeated and retreated, suffering great losses. The expedition, minor though it was, proved to be a disaster for the imperial forces. This defeat was the precursor of some other setbacks and marked the start of the gradual decline in the military prestige of the Mughal Empire.

Mahoba. In 1639, Champat Rai of Mahoba started to make regular incursions into Mughal lands, and threatening the route that was critical to ensuring on-going supply and reinforcements to the Deccan. Efforts by the imperial forces to rein in the Chief were met with defiance. The anti-Mughal activities were finally contained through the diplomatic intervention of Pahar Sign, the son of Bir Singh Deo.

 Dhameri. In the mid-1620s, Jahangir had installed Raja Jagat Singh Pathania to the throne of Dhameri (now called Nurpur) after expelling his elder brother Suraj Mal, who had been an annoyance to the Mughal Emperor. Their father Raja Basu Dev had received many favours from Jahangir and had been loyal to the Mughal throughout his reign. Similarly, Jagat Singh had also distinguished himself in the Mughal military campaigns in Bangesh and Kabul and had been honoured with gifts and titles. While Jagat was away from his kingdom, his son Rajrup had rebelled against the Mughals. Jagat Singh sought permission from Shah Jahan to return to his kingdom, in order to bring his son back into the Mughal fold. However, on his return to the kingdom, Jagat also joined his son in the rebellion against Shah Jahan. In 1641, a strong Mughal force captured two of Jagat’s primary forts—Mau and Nurpur—and the third, Taragarh was brought under siege. Jagat Singh sued for peace and was treated leniently by Shah Jahan on the intervention of the Raja’s friends in court who reminded the Emperor of the Dhameri family’s loyal service to the Mughal dynasty.

Jharkhand. The tribal chiefs of Jharkhand were head-strong and rebellious by nature. Shah Jahan gave Abdullah Khan the task of subduing these chiefs and reducing them to submission. Accordingly, the senior chiefs of the region were besieged, one at a time. The first to be attacked was Pratap, the zamindar of Ujjainiya, near Buxar. He withstood the siege of his fort for more than six months, after which the Mughal forces stormed the fort and destroyed it. Pratap was captured and executed. Next Bohra Lachman of Ratanpur was similarly defeated and forced to surrender. Around the same time the Bhil and Gond tribes—under Bhagirath Bhil and Marvi Gond—rebelled, one after the other. Both the uprisings were effectively subdued and their forts occupied.

Palamu. In 1590, Raja Man Singh had defeated the chief of Kharagpur and invaded Palamu, the country of the Chero dynasty, then ruled by Anant Chero. Even though the Cheros offered stiff resistance, they were defeated with heavy loss of life and Palamu was brought under Mughal rule. On Akbar’s death, Anant Chero drove out the Mughal forces and declared independence. In 1607, Jahangir ordered an expedition against Palamu. Although not fully defeated in battle, the Cheros prudently withdrew to the deep jungles. By the time of Shah Jahan’s ascension to the throne, the Cheros under Raja Pratap Rai had become strong again and were raiding Mughal territories regularly. Shah Jahan send the governor of Bihar, Shaista Khan to subdue the rebellious raja. In October 1646 a large Mughal army arrived in Palamu. Initially they were unable to make much progress because of the jungle and difficult terrain, but after six months of relentless warfare, Pratap was forced to sue for peace. He paid an indemnity, was granted a mansab, and permitted to continue to rule the Chero territories.

The Foothills. In 1654, another attempt to bring the minor kingdoms of the Himalayan foothills into the Mughal fold was made with a foray into the Kumaon hills. The Raja of Kumaon submitted after a token resistance and was accepted as a vassal. Further, in 1659, Medhi Singh, the Raja of Sirinagar (now in Dehradun district) voluntarily submitted to the Mughal emperor. Other minor chieftains of the foothills remained subdued almost throughout Shah Jahan’s reign. Similarly the tribes of the north-west provinces also remained relatively peaceful, in spite of some external efforts to stir trouble in the region.

The Ancestral Lands – Transoxiana

Transoxiana

Transoxiana is the ancient name used for the Central Asian region that covers, approximately, the modern states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and south-west Kazakhstan. The region is known in Arabic as ‘Ma Wara an-Nahr’, meaning ‘[what is] beyond the [Oxus] river’, and in Persian as ‘Fara-rud’, ‘beyond the [Amudarya] river’. Geographically the term indicates the region between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. The Romans named it Transoxiana, the land beyond the River Oxus.

The region was one of the satrapies (provinces) of the Achaemenid kingdom of Persia and was called Sogdiana. Some historical accounts in Arabic chronicles, subsume this province into the larger Khorasan territory. In Western writings, the name Transoxiana was often used, stemming from Alexander the Macedonian’s invasion of the region in 4th century B.C. The founding of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, by his followers brought in a distinctive Greek cultural influence to the region.

After the Muslim conquest of Persia, many Persian nobles fled to this region. After the Arab conquest between 705 and 715, the area came to be called by its Arab name, which was colloquially converted to, Mavarannahr. Genghis Khan overran the region and before his death in 1227, he gave the lands of Western Central Asia to his son Chagatai, the region thereafter assuming the name of the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369, Timur of the Barlas tribe became the ruler, and made Samarkand the capital of the empire that he would craft. Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty of Hindustan descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur, and therefore lays claim to the Chagatai title.

Samarkand and Bukhara are the major cities, commercial centres and cultural hubs of Transoxiana, located in the southern part of the region, though still north of the River Amu Darya itself.  

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, at the end of Jahangir’s rule, Mughal diplomatic relations with Persia had been strained for some time and Kandahar remained in Persian hands. However, the Persians were keen to normalise the relationship—they did not want to be hemmed in by great powers both in the west and the east, the Ottoman and the Mughal Empires. In 1629, Shah Abbas of Persia died and Shah Jahan the newly minted Mughal Emperor, send an embassy to the court of the new ruler, Shah Safi, to condole the death of the old Shah. Shah Jahan also reiterated old friendship and gratefully recalled the good treatment that he had received at the hands of the dead Shah, when as Prince Khurrum he had been in considerable trouble. Embassies were exchanged and gradually a spirit of cordially prevailed in the relationship.

Shah Jahan, however, had a more complicated agenda in his mind than to re-establish good relations with Persia. His ulterior motive was to take advantage of the young Shah’s inexperience and recapture Kandahar. On the death of Shah Abbas, there was a revival of anti-Persia feelings amongst its neighbours and even an attempt to form an anti-Persia league. Shah Jahan, focused on reclaiming Kandahar was intending to capitalise on the prevalent mood. The city not only straddled a rich cross-road of trade routes, but was strategically important for the security of the north-western provinces of the Mughal Empire. There are suggestions in some later day narratives that Shah Jahan felt responsible for the earlier loss of Kandahar, since he had defied orders from Jahangir to defend the city. The contriteness indicated in the story is unlikely, since Shah Jahan’s ambition was overriding at all times and he was hardly known to harbour feelings of remorse for any of his actions. The fact remains that his ambition was to capture and occupy the fabled ancestral lands of his forefathers; Transoxiana was his primary target and Kandahar was an essential stepping stone.

Shah Jahan initially resorted to diplomacy to regain control of Kandahar and when it failed attempted to forge an alliance with Persia’s enemies. Both these efforts were meant to conserve Mughal resources that were being readied for an eventual invasion of Transoxiana. An opportunity for subtle subterfuge came up for Shah Jahan when Shah Safi dismissed the Persian governor of Kandahar, Ali Mardan Khan, for not remitting the revenues of the province to the central exchequer and thereafter refusing to present himself at court when ordered to do so. Knowing that retribution would be on its way, Ali Mardan sought assistance from the Mughal governor of Kabul and the commander of Ghazni. Subsequently, he surrendered Kandahar to Shah Jahan—his treachery being valued by the Mughal Emperor at 300,000 ‘tankas’. (A tanka is a round silver coin weighing about 10-11 grams and first introduced in the Delhi Sultanate.) Ali Mardan was made the governor of Kashmir, to which Punjab was added later.

At the time of this surreptitious takeover of Kandahar, Shah Safi was heavily involved in his western border, engaged in a stand-off with the Ottoman Empire, and could not initiate any action to contain the events in Kandahar. In 1638, Shah Jahan send another embassy to the Shah, trying to justify his occupation of Kandahar and apologising for any misunderstanding. Shah Safi declined to acknowledge the embassy and there were no further diplomatic interaction between the two kingdoms till his death in 1642. However, Shah Jahan continued to make diplomatic efforts to ensure Persian neutrality for his Central Asian Campaign.

The easy capture of Kandahar, even though it was through vicarious means, whetted Shah Jahan’s somewhat dormant ‘Mughal’ ambition that had been passed on through generations from the paterfamilias, Babur. The conquest of Samarkand, the seat of power of Timur, was the magnificent obsession of the Mughal rulers of Hindustan. Fergana, the place of origin of his ancestor Babur, was discarded by Shah Jahan from being made an objective in the campaign as being too remote and of very little strategic importance. Further, he calculated that the Uzbeks of Transoxiana, riven as they were with internal dissentions, would be easy pickings. While Shah Jahan was busy planning his expedition, Shah Abbas II who had succeeded to the throne of Persia adopted a wait and watch attitude to the developing situation. As a Shia king, he was also wary of his isolated status among the Sunni powers of Central Asia and did not want to initiate any steps that could lead to a rebalancing of the existing, but precarious, political status quo.

For many decades the treaty of friendship that had been signed between Abdullah, the Uzbek ruler of the Khanate of Bukhara (the Khanate existed 1500-1785) and Akbar had held firm. Taking advantage of this non-aggression pact, Abdullah had waged a war against Persia from 1587 to 1598. The Khanate also controlled the province of Balkh. Jahangir was not able to maintain the easy relationship that his father had shrewdly cultivated and the truce had become tenuous. Early in his reign, Shah Jahan’s relationship with the rulers and chiefs of Transoxiana had become further strained.

Balkh

Balkh is an ancient city, which the Greeks called Bactra, from which the region came to be named Bactria. It was also the capital of the region which was locally called Tokharistan. Today the city is mostly in ruins, lying in the Balkh province of Afghanistan about 20 kilometres to the north-west of the current provincial capital of Mazar-e Sharif and about 70 kilometres to the south of the River Amu Darya.

Both Genghis Khan (in 1220) and Timur (in 1370) captured and sacked the town. It was rebuilt By Timur’s successor Shah Rukh in 1407. Babur ruled Balkh briefly in 1511-12 as a vassal of the Persian Safavids and then was driven out by the Uzbeks of the Khanate of Bukhara, being forced to retire to Kabul. Balkh was thereafter ruled by the Uzbeks of Bukhara as an integral province of their Khanate, barring a three-year rule by the Persians, till Shah Jahan arrived on the scene in the late 1630s and upset the political balance.   

In the early 1630s, Imam Quli of Bukhara was the governor of Balkh. His brother, Nazr Muhammad Khan, used Balkh as the launching pad for incursions into the Mughal province of Kabul. Although besieged, tThe Mughal garrison in Kabul offered stiff resistance and on the arrival of further reinforcements to the fort, Nazr beat a hasty retreat. Imam Quli quickly send an apology to Shah Jahan, even going to the extent of stating that he was unaware of the attack on Kabul. In 1633, Shah Jahan send a reply expressing regret and stating he was upset that Nazr had attacked a ‘Sunni’ power. Shah Jahan was playing a sectarian game, trying to garner support for his designs against ‘Shia’ Persia. His intentions were clearly noticeable since he thanked Ima Quli in advance for the assistance that the Uzbeks would provide to the Mughals against the Persians.

Shah Jahan now send a force under Prince Shuja to buttress the Kabul garrison as a precaution against any Persian manoeuvres, especially since Kandahar had lapsed into Mughal hands. Central Asian chronicles insist that Shah Jahan intended to capture and annex Balkh, whereas there is no mention of such an intention or any associated action in the copious Indian reports. It has to be assumed that in Shah Jahan’s mind, Balkh was a mere secondary curiosity to be annexed if the opportunity presented itself; it was never a centre-stage objective.

Imam Quli had become blind by this time and abdicated the governorship to his brother Nazr Muhammad, who proceeded to Bukhara, with the intention of taking power. The people of Bukhara detested Nazr, who was inherently cruel, leading to rebellions and then civil war. Shah Jahan took advantage of the on-going chaos and captured Kahmard in 1645. By now on the back-foot in Bukhara, Nazr requested assistance from the Mughal Emperor. Prince Murad, accompanied by a large army—50,000 cavalry, thousands of musketeers, artillery and rocketeers—was send to Balkh. The army met with initial success; Qundus was captured in June 1646 and the Mughal army pushed on to Balkh. Balkh was an insignificant prize: as compared to the Mughal army, the Balkh army was only 3000-strong and the revenue of the province a meagre 2.5 million rupees per annum, the same as the stipend granted to a middle-rung Mughal noble.

Nazr realised the mistake he had made in inviting the Mughals to assist him and shut himself up in his fort. Thereafter he fled to Persia. Balkh fell to the Mughals without bloodshed. After a brief halt Murad moved on to take Termez on the banks of the River Amu Darya (Oxus). 250 kilometres to the north lay the fabled Samarkand—the prize obsessed over by each of the Mughal rulers from Babur. Unfortunately Prince Murad refused to go any farther than Termez, even though Shah Jahan tried to entice him to proceed by offering him the governorship of a captured Samarkand. When all else failed, Shah Jahan who was furious with Murad’s refusal to take Samarkand, removed him from command of the army, stripped him of his rank and titles and banished him from the court. The fact was that Prince Murad and his Indian troops were uncomfortable in Balkh, and in addition, Murad was a poor administrator. Governing the annexed provinces, which were by nature tumultuous, was proving to be more difficult than capturing them.

In the meantime Shah Jahan wrote to Shah Abbas II explaining the reasons for the Mughal incursion into the region and laying out his plan for the conquest of Samarkand and Bukhara. However, the local population of Balkh was sullen and hostile to the Mughal forces, who they considered a new regime of foreigners. Further, the presence of Hindu troops in the Mughal army was clearly resented by the orthodox Muslims of the region, who considered them ‘kafirs’, non-believers. The result was that the Mughal forces were constantly harassed by Uzbeks and the Turkmen tribes, who fled when challenged and refused to engage in conventional give battle at all times. Shah Jahan may have considered the region to be the land of his forefathers, which gave him a claim to it, but it is clear that the local population by this time considered the Mughals to be Hindustani and therefore alien. The fact that Ali Mardan’s treachery was induced by the wealth of the Mughal Emperor also rankled the locals.

Shah Jahan relieved Aurangzeb from Gujarat and expedited his takeover of the Balkh region and the large army still stationed there. However, Aurangzeb was unable to make any headway towards Samarkand. By this time Central Asia had become a quagmire for the Mughals—the only option was to retreat, if possible in an honourable manner. Nazr Muhammad who had fled to Persia, now returned to Balkh with Persian reinforcements and Aurangzeb concluded a treaty with him. Accordingly, the Mughal forces started their withdrawal in October 1647, suffering great losses on their homeward march. After taking over the Mughal army of Central Asia, Aurangzeb has lost less than 500 men to skirmishes and battles. However, he is reported to have lost more than 5000 soldiers to the harsh elements on his return march, as winter was already setting in. [ A worse fate awaited the retreating British army after the Treaty that ended the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842. The details will be recorded in a forthcoming volume of this series.]

In 1648, Shah Abbas II turned to Kandahar; he had obtained Ottoman/Turkish neutrality and was now able to concentrate on his eastern borders. By then Mughal prestige in Transoxiana was at a low ebb and there was no doubt that Shah Jahan’s military adventure in Central Asia was turning into an unmitigated and disastrous failure. The Persian expedition commenced at the onset of winter, since it was well known that Indian troops were not comfortable engaging in winter campaigns. In February 1649, Kandahar fell to the Persians. Shah Jahan send three separate expeditions—in 1649, 1652 and 1653—to retake Kandahar, all of them ended in failure.

In 1649, Aurangzeb was send from Multan to relieve Kandahar from the Persian siege, but reached only three months after the fort had already fallen. He in turn unsuccessfully besieged the fort with the Persians inside for the next 110 days. Then Aurangzeb withdrew in early September, fearing the arrival of Persian reinforcements and the onset of the dreaded Afghan winter. Three years later, in 1652, Aurangzeb again laid siege to Kandahar with an army of over 50,000 along with heavy artillery, while at the same time Shah Jahan himself moved to Kabul with 40,000 troops to act as a morale-boosting back up. Two months of siege was indecisive and failed to make a dent in the Persian defences. Shah Jahan was bitter and blamed Aurangzeb for the inability of the Mughal forces to take back Kandahar. A year later, in 1653, Shah Jahan sent his favourite son, Dara Shikoh with an even larger force of 70,000 soldiers and artillery manned by Europeans to capture Kandahar. The fort was invested for five months, but once again the Mughals retreated at the onset of winter. These three enormous efforts, mounted at great expense, and all destined to fail in dramatic fashion was to have long-term influence on the future of the Mughal Empire.

The repeated failure on the part of the Mughal forces to capture Kandahar made the Shah of Persia boast that the rulers of Delhi knew only how to steal a fort through bribery and gold, not how to conquer it through the strength of arms. This was a belittling taunt to the ‘great’ Mughal Emperor, but he was unable to refute the claim, for the statement was true. It hurt the Mughals no end. The fact remains that every single time the Persians captured Kandahar—starting from the first time they took it and then gave it to Humayun—they overran to town militarily, by force. Whereas, every time the Mughals occupied Kandahar, it was done by stratagem and bribe.

Thus ended the great ambition of Emperor Shah Jahan, born of a somewhat bizarre dream of a succession of preceding Mughal emperors, to reconquer their old homeland; a land that only Babur could identify directly with, and to which even Akbar had only a tenuous connection. At this juncture, the Emperor Shah Jahan was a Hindustani king, not even Afghan nobility, let alone Central Asian royalty. Shah Jahan’s Central Asian campaign had far-reaching and unintended consequences. First, the continuous military campaigns left behind a battle-ravaged and devastated land that became prone to famine—the regular occurrence of the famines ruined the relative prosperity of the region and weakened the efficacy of its governance. In turn, the age-old trade between Samarkand-Bukhara and Hindustan started to reduce in volume, suffering a steady decline that was not immediately appreciated by either side.

Second, with Kandahar firmly under their control, the Persians started to divert trade to the ports located in the western and southern coasts of the Indian sub-continent. This move greatly benefitted the Europeans who had by this time already established a sort of monopoly on maritime trade in those regions. Over a period of time, this had a great detrimental impact on Mughal prosperity. The eternal lesson to be carried forward from a study of Shah Jahan’s Central Asian Campaign is that pure military ambition, when unleashed without consideration of all the various factors that affect such expeditions, cannot be assured of success. Perhaps more importantly, when such expeditions are not successful, they invariably lead to a definitive decline in the prestige, status and prosperity of the invading empire. It is estimated that the entire Kandahar and Central Asian Campaign cost Shah Jahan 120 million rupees—a little more than half the gross annual revenue of the entire Mughal Empire. It was a colossal loss, by any standards, but Shah Jahan was wealthy enough to merely wipe it off as of very little significance. In this instance, there is no doubt that Shah Jahan could afford the enormous expenditure—in men, materiel and treasure—that was incurred; however, the end of the Central Asian Campaign was the beginning of the slow decline of, what till then seemed to be, the endless wealth in the Mughal treasure chest.

Comments – The Decline of an Invincible Army

The Mughal failure in Kandahar and Central Asia was a direct indictment of the Mughal military forces. It brought into world view the sad degeneration of the Mughal army over the past three or four decades. The army and its commanders had got used to a life of ease; they were unable to plan and execute war-winning campaigns; lacked valour; and their morale was at a low ebb. More importantly, the army was subject to regular squabbles between commanders at all levels, stemming from a peculiar issue that had developed with Jahangir. The command structure was not unified, because of the habit of the emperor in appointing a commander for a campaign and then a subordinate second-in-command of equal rank. Disunity at the highest levels of command, because of inherent jealousy between the two, was the immediate and inevitable result. The unofficial dual-command structure led to bitterness between senior commanders, and differences of opinion leading to complaints to the Emperor, who was then forced to intervene and even institute change of command. The command situation deteriorated to such an extent that no campaign could be pursued by the general-in-charge without royal interruption—the fear of change of command and the accompanying banishment to irrelevance was a Damocles’ sword hanging over every senior commander. Such a situation could hardly be considered conducive to military success.

The invincible Mughal army under Akbar had become a moribund behemoth under his grandson, incapable of achieving even minor battlefield victories. It had become reliant on inefficient and self-serving commanders who preferred victory through bribery and treachery, rather than through valour and courage in the expert execution of well-planned battlefield manoeuvres. Shah Jahan’s Central Asian Campaign shattered the myth of the invincibility of the Mughal army and brought their prestige crashing down, never to recover to the original exalted status. Shah Jahan could not bear the loss of prestige and he would personally never recover fully from the humiliation his army had repeatedly been subjected to in Kandahar and Central Asia. His self-confidence was completely shaken and he became tentative in his approach to all new enterprises. From this point onwards Shah Jahan gradually withdrew from public life, increasingly delegating the routine functions of running the empire to his favourite son, Dara Shikoh.

Kandahar in itself is an insignificant town in the larger scheme of both the Mughal and Persian Empires. However, its loss and the inability of the Mughal forces to recapture it, even after repeated attempts, marks the beginning of the end of the glorious epoch of Mughal rule—it underscores the start of decline, and the eventual fall, of the imperial Mughals. The Mughal élan had vanished.

© [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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