Middle and Early Modern India

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Middle and Early Modern India


Islamic rulers came into the India sub-continuant region establishing sovereignty during the middle age of India lasting up until the time of 18th century when Maratha soldiers began to wrestle away Mughul control and then onto the middle of the 19th century officially ending with the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the East Indian Company’s taking over of Indian sovereignty.  Yet, various contemporary authors established radically varying views of legitimization, cooperation, incorporation, process and institution during this era in regards to establishment of sovereignty and dates in the Middle Age of India ( Islam 1204, into Bengal according to R. Eaton).

Today, sovereignty is usually attributed to a state’s independence and its concepts of freedoms. However, in India during its Middle Ages, sovereignty took on mechanisms Kings ( and very few Queens) used to bind the nobles, chiefs and other leaders. It was these concerns, and the king’s patronage policies, that were most important to India’s population. In fact, complex political institutions, adaptation, cooperation, patronage, symbols, gifts and non-preferential policies, all played a significant role in the method of sovereignty in Middle Age of India. In contrast to Burton Stein’s view, Richard Eaton describes how imperial systems emerged in Bengal many centuries before establishing the notion that India understood and practiced complex institutions and were not just sectarian affiliations with temples connected to tribal societies. 

Hinduism and Islam were not exactly similar in their functionary systems; however, some of the idiosyncrasies of Islam and Hinduism were their mutual loyalty to the ruler, patron-client relations, and virtues of service and honors. Similarly both cultures accepted Islamic sovereignty, partly due to the fact that the previous Delhi regime was highly exposed to pre-Islamic Persian concepts.” It was the Ghaznavids, too, who first carried Perso-Islamic civilization to India” Richard Eaton tells us in his book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier ( ch.2 Eaton).  When historian Shams-I Sirajj ‘Afif referred to Shams al-Din illyas Shah ( 1342-57) as the “ sultan of the Bengalis” and King of Bengal” we learn that Bengal had a highly institutional political infrastructure with minted coins and  building of new mosques, which “indicated a  strategy of political legitimization fundamentally different from their predecessors” (Eaton ch. 2. f39) .

Bengal according to Eaton had a highly structured institutional and political system. Burton Stein in his book A history of India describes a rather different picture of India. Stein generalizes the early Middle Age of India as “  […]  defined less by administration than by languages, sectarian affiliations and temples” (Stein 121). Eaton disagrees by stating “In the middle of the eighth century, large, regionally based imperial systems emerged in Bengal. The first and most durable of these was the powerful Pala Empire (ca. 750–1161)  […]   the early kings of this dynasty extended their sway far up the Gangetic Plain, even reaching Kanauj under their greatest dynast, Dharmapala (775–812)”  ( Eaton Ch.1.1 Foot 29). To establish a distant sway (control) from one’s center one must have advanced or relatively complex administrations for such a feat. In addition, Stein’s treatment of non-Islamic populations as constantly under submission from Islamic forces contrasts Eaton's view.

Stein represents Islam as coming to India only to spread the Islam faith in the form of jihad and suppression. According to Eaton this is not the case, as Eaton shows evidence as to how the Muslims worked along side the indigenous agrarian gentry to further farming technology and offer common support within communities, in general. In the judicial area as well, we see how the early Islamic court systems, did not suppress the religious practices of the indigenous peoples.  Islam includes the practicing of Islam separately, while the commoners continue to practice their own religions, Eaton states. As Stein wanted you to believe, Islam is all about a type of police state in India where Muslims did not allow non-Muslims to integrate.

Raja Ganesh ( ca. 1400-1421) thought to incorporate the Hindu landlords elites in a campaign of self-legitimization, but religious fundamentalist Sufis of the Chishti and Firdausi orders wanted to implement a more rigid form of Islam.  The Indo-Turkish ruling classes wanted to exclude Bengal nobility on this notion alone. This caused a dilemma, as continuous fighting over legitimacy could prove disastrous leading to  dire division and political backwardness, in which no one desired. The solution to the dilemma was not war - but incorporation of Hindus into the new existing system through Ganesh’s son. Thus, Jalal-ud-din (1418-1433), converted to Islam and showed his  patronage by using the Lalima for the first time on coins in Bengal.  The significance of Raja Ganesh and Jalal-ud-din were they brought Hindus into political integration with Islam.

Later in Bengal, In The Formation of a Regionally Oriented Ruling group in Bengal, 1700-1740, Philip B. Calkins wrote on imperial land revenue changes by Islamic officials in Bengal and then how a  decline of imperial power took place, concluding with the consolidation of large zamindaris that brought changes into the provincial system. Yet, this was done without chaos or decline in administrative efficiency (Calkins 806).

If cooperation of other religious and cultural groups were key developments of the Islamic and Hindu functionaries toward legitimization in India then one wanted to promote equal representation, in addition,  on the secular side.  André Wink, pointed out in his work Land and Sovereignty in India, Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-century that  constant sedition was  the form for success of gaining sovereignty. Wink generalizes that Indian office holders were in cohoots with the different rulers, which was his thesis about the Co-Sharers of the realm, and held a policy of managed sedition.  “It was always incorporation of disorder […] which made possible the establishment of sovereignty,  ”  and   “[…] extremes of this continuum the fundamental principle of sovereignty remained that of  management through conflict. Sovereignty was dependant on the measure that fitna could be institutionalized”  ( Wink 190-194). 

Jos Gommans’ book Mughul Warfare, Warfare and History. India Frontiers and High roads to Empire 1500-1700 makes a significant point that legitimacy (sovereignty) meant staying out of seditious situations altogether. The  skirmish policies of Akbar is one prime example. His non-management system of involvement in local tribal warfare  showed a non- preferential treatment policy.  This helped create unity on the whole between the different religious and secular groups of India by creating trust for  the people that their king was not choosing sides. This policy gave Akbar legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In addition, friendship and vasselhood are the two forthright characteristics of Mughul legitimacy. F. W. Buckler in his essay The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny showed how Mughul sovereignty incorporated symbols and gifts, and not seditious or submission policies.  Buckler goes on to describe how it was Wellesley that created a fiction that the Mughul Empire was a subject of the British Empire.  The charges against Bahadur Shah and the courts findings concluded the fictitious work of an arm of the Queens Empire, the East Indian Company.  Furthermore, Buckler points out in practical terms that the East Indian Company played two sides of the issue to trick The Mughals out of its sovereignty.

In cultural significance, Buckler described how for a long time in English and Indian classrooms students were taught a negative picture of Mughal policies. This was not the case. In reality, Islamic and Hindu life in the Middle Age of India was made up a highly institutionalized political-religious system based on traditional Islamic suzerainty.    There was no evidence that Stein claimed of no apparatus or no functioning bureaucracies or that the king had no judicial power outside his inner circle, in the Middle Ages. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be a case for Stein and  Wink’s conclusions, incorrectly, that sovereignty came about by regulating political and religious authority systems through sedition and suppression.  Eaton and Buckler disagreed, citing ample evidence that mistranslation, misrepresentation and Orientalism were all parts of an inaccurate historical process that established these views.

Oct. 1st, 2005

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