Indian History Part 84 Aurangzeb Section II Alienation of the Hindus 1. The Jat Rebellion

Canberra, 20 January 2021

BACKGROUND

Aurangzeb had won the Mughal throne as the champion of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy against the liberal-minded Dara, who had claimed the mantle of religious tolerance of his predecessors. On being defeated, Dara had been tried and convicted of being a heretic and subsequently executed, or more correctly, murdered. In the Islamic theory of kingship, the ruler was supposed to always enforce the Quranic Law in the administration of the kingdom. Aurangzeb genuinely believed in this Islamic injunction. By his own admission, he considered it his duty to wage a ‘jihad’, ‘holy war’, against infidels and to convert his lands from Dar-ul-harb (non-Mulsim land) to Dar-ul-Islam (realm of Islam). On ascending the throne, he set out to achieve these objectives, taking no cognisance of the political and social fallouts of such an enterprise.

Onset of Orthodoxy

Pursuing his personal agenda, and supported by his more orthodox nobles, Aurangzeb reversed the established Mughal religious policies and practices, first enunciated and, enforced by Akbar and followed by succeeding emperors. Only his own father Shah Jahan had attempted to bring in orthodox Islamic traditions into the kingdom in a minor way and with limited success. The impact of the reversal of liberal religious policies was felt almost immediately on non-Muslims of the empire and was the beginning of the social, political and economic oppression of the Hindus. The Hindus, majority population in the empire, almost overnight became second-class citizens in their own land, at the whim of a vicious, bloodthirsty, and supposedly puritanical ruler.

Admittedly, medieval emperors were prone to unilateral action. However, this unilateral action by Aurangzeb very rapidly alienated the majority non-Muslim population of his subjects. Giving him the benefit of doubt, it seems that Aurangzeb had not thought through the long-term ramifications of his wilful act. To this author—as a historian and with the actions being analysed with the benefit of hindsight—his decision smacks of absolute arrogance and so strong a belief in his ‘God-given’ authority to rule an ‘Islamic’ state that he did not imagine the consequences of his action to become the first set of hammer blows on the foundations of the Mughal Empire. His disdain for the very people who had been the pillars of strength of the empire and the dynasty for the past century and a half, was clearly visible. By a single unilateral action, Aurangzeb started to undermine the foundation on which the political edifice of the Mughal Empire had been erected. The strength of the foundation was the robust policy of extreme religious tolerance. Of course, to be fair to Aurangzeb, religious persecution was not confined to the Hindus. Parts of the Muslim community that were not of the Sunni persuasion, particularly the Ismailia and Bohra communities of Gujarat, also suffered serious persecution during his reign. This action only increased the number of people who were alienated from the central administration and the emperor.

After the initial set of ordnances proclaimed at the time of his ceremonial coronation, Aurangzeb introduced more religious ordnances on a regular basis, each more restrictive than the previous. In 1668, he banned music in the court and stopped all un-Islamic rituals that had so far been practised in court. For example, he discontinued the daily practice of ‘jaroka-darshan’, where the emperor showed himself to the people at a particular time through a designated window. By this time he had also attempted to impose his puritanical mindset and way of life on the people, rather unsuccessfully. For example, the habit of drinking and gambling, which was rampant in the country, could not be stamped out with an official proclamation, the proverbial stroke of a pen. He also wanted to stop the practice of sati, widow burning on the husband’s pier, but gave up the idea in the face of concerted opposition.

Aurangzeb’s attitude to temple-destruction was a classic case of incremental escalation. In 1659, when he came to power, he had given a ‘firman’, an imperial order, to a priest in Varanasi, in which he stated that the Emperor’s religion forbade him from giving permission to build new temples but that the same religion did not enjoin him to destroy existing ones. Subsequently in 1664, he forbade the repairs of old temples. On 9th April 1669, he ordered all provincial governors to demolish the schools and temples of the ‘infidels’ and to put down their religious practices vigorously. Following this order, a large number of temples were wantonly destroyed. It is reported that in the strongly loyal kingdom of Amber (Jaipur) alone, 66 temples were brought down. It is true that Aurangzeb’s predecessors, except for Akbar, had also demolished Hindu temples. However, there was a difference between their actions and that of Aurangzeb. While his predecessors in most cases destroyed temples at random and based on spur-of-the-moment decisions, Aurangzeb made it a deliberate policy of the state, implemented systematically and rigorously.   

After two decades of rule, on 2nd April 1679, Aurangzeb re-introduced the ‘Jizya’ tax on the Hindus, which had been abolished by Akbar in 1564. The tax and the implementation system were designed to hit the poor non-Muslims the hardest, with the intent of forcing them to convert in order to avoid starvation. This tactic succeeded to a certain degree. He also increased the custom duty on goods and commodities imported into the kingdom by non-Muslims for trade, thereby placing the Hindu merchants at a distinct disadvantage. Alongside these discriminatory fiscal policies, Aurangzeb also offered several other incentives for Hindus to convert to Islam—recruitment into posts in the public service, release from imprisonment etc. In 1671, the emperor dismissed all Hindu clerks and accountants in government service, although he had to reinstate many because of a lack of qualified Muslims to fill the essential positions. [It appear that the Islamic education system even in those days was only oriented towards rigid theological learning by rote, as it is in modern times too, and devoid of practicality and day-to-day usefulness.]

The religious oppression of the Hindus continued unabated and with increasing virulence. In 1688, the celebration of all Hindu religious festivals and associated fairs was prohibited. In 1695, all Hindus, apart from the Rajputs, were forbidden to bear arms in public, or ride in palanquins, elephants or good horses. Reports indicate that many Hindus, especially from the lower strata of society who had limited social and financial endurance to withstand the continuous onslaught to convert, changed religion under extreme duress.

The discriminatory measures, which were rigidly enforced upon the emperor’s orders, had disastrous and far-reaching consequences, which directly impacted on the stability and well-being of the empire. They rapidly spread discontentment in the majority Hindu community of the kingdom. The backlash was not long in coming. It started in Rajasthan, Bundelkhand, Malwa and Khandesh, wherein, as a first step of retaliation, a number of Hindu temples that had been converted to mosques were either reclaimed or destroyed to be re-built once again as temples and the Muslim call to prayer was forcibly stopped. A large part of the population also stopped paying the Jizya. Aurangzeb’s religious policies that resulted in the destruction of some of the most venerated temples of the Hindus, were the fundamental cause for the widespread fanning of resentment against his rule. The situation was exacerbated by the imposition of unnaturally high taxes on Hindus and their rigorous collection, with severe punishment being meted out to defaulters. Revolt, rebellion and revolution was not long in coming to the Mughal Empire.

THE JAT REBELLION

The Jats were farmers, domicile in the region of greater Punjab, Rajasthan and the western Gangetic plains, in what is modern-day western Uttar Pradesh.

The Jat People

The Jat people are traditionally an agriculture-based community in modern North India and Pakistan. They were originally pastoralists in the lower Indus valley of Sindh. At the time of Muhammad bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh in the 8th century, Arab writers mention agglomerations of Jats in the region. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, Jat herders migrated north along the river valleys to the Punjab region. From the 17th century, they settled down in the Delhi region, North-East Rajasthan, and the western Gangetic plains.

In Mughal times, ‘Jat’ was a broad term applied equally to simple land-owning peasants and to wealthy and influential zamindars. Over a period of time, the Jats of western Punjab became Muslims, the ones in eastern Punjab were mostly absorbed into the Sikh faith and the people around Delhi, Rajasthan and the Gangetic plains became Hindus. The division of the Jats by faith was more geography-induced than the result of any other influence.

The Jat people emerged politically in the 17th century. Their sense of group solidarity, pride and self-sufficiency was historically significant in many ways. In the late-17th century, Jat leaders captained the peasant rebellions against the Mughals, further entrenching their position as champions of local religion and culture.      

Exasperated by the continuous religious oppression unleashed by Aurangzeb, the Jats, basically peace-loving farmers, finally revolted. The proverbial last straw seems to have been the extreme oppression by the local Mughal ‘faujdar’, garrison commander, Abdunnabi Khan of Mathura. The leader of the revolt was the zamindar of Tilpat, Gokula. He received moral support from far and wide, with some itinerant mendicants even singing songs regarding the rebellion, which they claimed to have been God-ordained.

Gokula organised an army of nearly 20,000 and in the initial revolt, on 10th May 1669, Abdunnabi was shot dead. His replacement offered peace terms to the Jats, which was spurned by Gokula, who now led his army to overrun and plunder Sadabad. Aurangzeb deputed Hasan Ali Khan to quell the rebellion. The imperial forces defeated the Jat army and Gokula was captured. He was taken to Agra, where he was publicly executed, and his children were forcibly converted to Islam. However, this setback subdued the Jats only for a brief period. The resentment against the Mughals continued to simmer and as new leaders emerged, the Jat region erupted into turmoil.

Raja Ram, an earlier Jat leader’s son, was a capable organiser and gradually created a large army, training them in guerrilla warfare. However, the Jats continued to maintain a defensive posture, being careful not to be too provocative against the Mughals. Aurangzeb departed for the Deccan in 1680. This move provided a golden opportunity for the Jats to rebel again, which they gladly grabbed. The Jats now came out of their defensive positions and harried the countryside around Meerut. The officers left behind by the emperor to administer North India in his absence were incapable of putting down the growing rebellion. Very soon, the Jats had taken control of the highways and become unbeatable highway men, reducing travel and trade to a trickle. Aurangzeb realised the seriousness of the situation and appointed his foster brother, Jafarjang Khanjehan Bahadur, to bring the Jats under control. Jafarjang took up his post and made headquarters at Agra.

The Rajputs Side with the Mughals – Jats Isolated

In 1688, Raja Ram raided Sikandra and looted Akbar’s tomb. He carried away all the movable valuables and burned the mausoleum to the ground. Akbar’s bones were also exhumed and put to fire. Some later-day European historians have stated that Akbar’s tomb was vandalised by some ‘hooligans’ who did not know that it was the invincible emperor’s mausoleum that they were burning, perhaps basing this statement on the report from the imperial chroniclers who always referred to the Jats as robbers and hooligans. Although the following assertion cannot be authenticated, it is felt that Raja Ram was aware of the importance of the mausoleum and the body within it to the Mughals and burning them down was a preconceived act of revenge and retribution for the Mughal oppression of the Hindus. During this period, the imperial treasury suffered heavy losses.

Noticing that progress in bringing the Jats under control was slow, he deputed Prince Bedar Bakht to restore order and exterminate the Jats. Bedar sought the assistance of the Rajputs in fulfilling this task and the Hada Rajputs agreed to help him. At the same time, the Chauhans and the Shekhawats—the two predominant clans amongst the Rajputs—were at loggerheads over some petty matter. Raja Ram sided with the Chauhans and also managed to inflict a severe defeat on the Hada Rajputs who were assisting the imperial force. The Hadas fled the battlefield. Unfortunately for the Jats, in April 1688, Raja Ram was killed by a sniper. The Mughal forces managed to capture his body, which was suspended from a gateway in the Agra fort. On Raja Ram’s death, his son Zorawar, assumed the leadership of the Jat force.

To the simple Jat peasant, Brijbhoomi was sacred and their religion had been insulted—he would fight to the death to vindicate the honour of his Gods.

Brijbhoomi – The Land of Brij

The term Braj is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘vraja’. Vraja finds first mention in the Rig Veda and it means a pasture, shelter, or resort for cattle.

Braj, also known as Brijbhoomi, is the region on both sides of the River Yamuna, centred at Mathura, in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh. It covers an area roughly encompassed by Palwal and Ballabhgarh in Haryana, Bharatpur in Rajasthan and Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. Culturally the region is well demarcated. The region is associated with Lord Krishna, who according to Hindu legend was born in Mathura and grew up in Vrindavan. The epicentre of Brijbhoomi is located 150 kilometres south of Delhi and 50 kilometres north-west of Agra.   

Zorawar was supported by other Jat zamindars, who continued the rebellion, despite opportunistic heavy-handed reprisals from the imperial forces. Patriotism, religion, loss of land and the inherent need for revenge were the four major driving factors in their support for the rebellion. Religious oppression had effectively turned humble farmers into formidable soldiers—a true demonstration of turning ploughshares into swords. Although relatively a small force, the Jat army received assistance from multiple sources and different tribes. Unfortunately, they were unable to forge a united front against the Mughals at this stage.

The Raja of Amber, Bishen Singh Kachhwaha, who was aligned with the Mughals, volunteered to subdue the Jat rebellion. The actions initiated by the Raja were only partially successful and the Jat guerrillas inflicted a heavy toll on the imperial forces, even as they were forced to retreat and take refuge in their stronghold at Sinsini. The fort at Sinsini was besieged by the combined Rajput-Mughal forces. After ferocious fighting, the main gate of the fort was blown up and the fort captured. Zorawar and his family were taken prisoner and taken to Mathura, where Zorawar was executed in public, his body hacked to pieces and fed to the dogs.

Bishen Singh now concentrated on Abar, the next Jat stronghold. This time the siege lasted for more than 10 months. The Rajputs were led by Hari Singh Khangarwat, an experienced general who finally captured the fort in February 1692. Rajput forces under Bishen Singh hunted down the Jats across the entire territory. By February 1693, they also managed to capture the Jat forts, called ‘garhi(s)’, in Kasot, Pengora, Bhatawali, Sonkh and Raisis. In addition, the Rajput forces also inflicted heavy losses on tribes and clans that had aligned with the Jats during the rebellion. Throughout this campaign, the Jats continued to offer heroic resistance, but were no match for the Rajput-Mughal combine that was hunting them.

The Rebellion Continues…

Even after suffering serious setbacks, the Jats continued their fight for freedom. The next generation of leadership emerged—Chooraman, Ani Rai and Nanda. They assembled at Chenkora, were driven out and moved to Bharatpur territory. Hari Singh tried to surround them here and a great battle was fought in which even the Jat women took part, going into battle side-by-side with their men. Defeated, but not broken, the remnants of the Jat force and their families withdrew and took refuge in the forests of the Chambal. Nanda, who had escaped earlier, established a garhi at Jabra, which was protected by several smaller garhis surrounding it. From this base Nanda and his forces plundered the surrounding countryside.

In 1694, Aurangzeb ordered the Rajputs to mount another campaign, even though the region was at that time in the grip of a severe famine. Bishen Singh attacked Jabra in 1695, and after a fierce battle to defend it, the Jats fled into the fort. The fort was subsequently breeched, and Nanda fled to Hathras. He is not heard about again and it is presumed that he was betrayed and killed during his forced exile. Although repeatedly defeated in fierce battles, the Jats continued their fight for independence.

A Change of Tack

The Jat panchayat once again met in Sinsini and chose Chooraman as their leader. Only limited information is available regarding this panchayat and their election process. Chooraman was a redoubtable warrior, a great organiser and imbibed with unmatched leadership qualities. Working ceaselessly, he brought together the different clans of the region, forcing them to bury their differences for the common good. Rajputs, Gujars, Mina, Meos and even Muslim zamindars were brought under a common umbrella to oppose the tyranny of the Mughals and their iconoclastic fury.

Chooraman established himself in Sinsini, controlling about 80 villages surrounding the fort. Most of the prominent Jat chieftains and zamindars came under his banner, creating a united front. Chooraman continued the guerrilla warfare against the Mughal—by now the accustomed modus operandi for Jat forces—plundering imperial districts and also waylaying Mughal convoys carrying supplies and reinforcements to the Deccan. Aurangzeb appointed his son, Muazzam, as the governor of Agra with instructions to bring the Jats under control. For two years, battles and skirmishes were fought around Sinsini, but Chooraman continued to retain control of the fort and surrounding villages. This uneasy status quo continued till Aurangzeb’s death. At this juncture, Chooraman wisely kept aloof from the succession struggle that ensued and subsequently made peace with the new emperor, Bahadurshah. Chooraman was a visionary, able to gauge far-sighted advantages for his people while assessing an emerging situation.

‘He [Chooraman] had the stubbornness of a Jat and the dexterity of a Maratha and with his perspicacity of vision he could look into the future and predict and chronicle the results of political trends.’

—Iswari Prasad,

The Mughal Empire, p. 591.

The Jat Rebellion – An Appreciation

The story of the grim resistance offered by the Jats in the defence of their land and religion has never been chronicled in its full and unbiased details. The main source of information continues to be the Mughal records, which at best are accounts that are biased, one-sided, and almost always incomplete. Successive historians have ignored the brave deeds of these doughty patriots—perhaps the first ones to deserve the accolade of being freedom fighters—who fought and died for liberty and religion.

For long the Persian and Mughal accounts depicted the Jat rebellion as an uprising of looters, and the Jat people as nothing more than marauders and highwaymen. This is an incorrect assessment. The Mughal analysis of the Jat rebellion is extremely biased and written purely from the viewpoint of the imperial chroniclers. Unfortunately, the trend to depict the Jats who rose up against the Mughals in 17th century as plundering bandits continued well after India won ‘independence’ from the British Raj. The fact is that they were valiant heroes who took up arms to defend their land, liberty and religion, who endured great misery and sacrificed their lives for the proverbial ‘ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods’—nothing more, nothing less. The Jats were the harbingers of the secular forces that organised themselves to protect their religious independence and then repeatedly tore into the puritanical emperor’s sovereign state.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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No part of this website/Blog or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to http://www.sanukay.wordpress.com/. For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (sanukay@hotmail.com)

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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