In the first half of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire began to face a strong opposition from numerous castes like Jats, Satnamis, Sikhs and Marathas.
The imperialist and early nationalist scholars like Jadunath Sarkar interpreted these challenges to Mughal authority as Hindu reaction against the Muslim orthodoxy and oppression. Subsequent theories of ‘national awakening’, ‘jagirdari crisis’ and ‘lower class uprisings’ have also tried to explain the esoteric phenomenon.
However, systematic approach for explaining the phenomenon was firstly developed by Irfan Habib, who delineated the issue in his The Agrarian Causes for the fall of the Mughal Empire. According to him, these revolts never exhibited a Hindu reaction to Muslim authority, were seldom organized on the caste lines, but represented a combined attack of zamindars and peasants to the Mughal oppressive authority. His argument can be summarized in a following way: “The rising of the oppressed thus became inseparable from the conflict between two oppressing classes.”
Moreland was one of the earliest scholars to provide an economic theory for the Mughal decline. Although Habib draws his thesis from Moreland’s, the difference between the two is that while Moreland portrayed revolts through Oriental Despotism, Habib categorized them as class-based exploitation.
The magnificent structure of the Mughal state and the continued dominance of its ruling elite rested upon the state’s ability to appropriate a major part of the surplus generated by this agrarian society [Chetan Singh, in The Mughal State]. The land revenue or mal demanded on behalf of the state formed the largest portion of its income; while in Akbar’s reign the land revenue collected under zabt system was 1/3rd of the total produce of the peasant, under Aurangzeb it soared to become half of the total produce.
Arzdasht reports that by 1655, the total produce realized from the peasants under the batai system was 65% and under the zabt system was 52% of the gross produce. Indeed, as Irfan Habib remarks, Mughal India served not merely as the protective arm of the exploiting classes, but was itself the principal instrument of exploitation.
Satish Chandra’s tripolar relationship might serve as a better explanation here. Mughal Empire rested on three poles – peasantry or raiyat, zamindars and jagirdars (including mansabdars). The task of collecting revenue was assigned to the jagirdars, whose agents were often in conflict with zamindars, also revenue collectors but different from jagirdars. In return, jagirdars received a certain portion of the collected land-revenue and a jagir. Since the jagirdars were frequently transferred, generally every 3-4 years, they began to collect as much revenue as possible without caring for the plight of peasantry or agriculture [Bhimasen, Xavier, Hawkins, Manrique, Bernier]. The practice of transfers of jagirs aggravated during the Aurangzeb’s reign.
Since the Mughal land-revenue was already set at the highest level possible, leaving the peasantry with mere subsistence income, the added pressure from jagirdars was to have undesirable consequences not only for the peasantry but also for the Mughal Empire.
As Irfan Habib argues, the increasing jama figures do not indicate any development in the cultivation of the period since these are nullified by secular increase in price rise. Instead, the increasing in assessment and extortion while collection had made impossible any prospect for agrarian development.
Owing to the high land revenue demand and subsequent extortion by the collectors, Manrique reports that when the ‘arrayatos’ cannot pay the revenue, they are beaten mercilessly and maltreated.
As Manucci reports, frequently, the peasants were compelled to sell their women, children and cattle in order to meet the revenue demand. Consequently, the peasants are reported to have absconded their lands as is witnessed in the famous ‘Karori experiment’. Throughout the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’s reigns, the flight of peasants became a common phenomenon.
As Irfan Habib notes, although the classic act of defiance on the part of the peasants was the refusal to pay the land revenue, many warlike peasants were goaded into rebellion [Manucci]. Thus, villages which refused to pay taxes or went into rebellion came to be known as malwas or zor-talab, as opposed to the revenue-paying villages called raiyati.
Usually, the villages which were protected by ravines or forests or hills, were more likely to defy the authorities than those situated in open plains. Until the reign of Aurangzeb, these conflicts generally appeared as local and isolated incidents. Importantly, upper strata khudkashts were less affected by the system of oppression and the real victims were the lower strata pahis, gaveti-palti (belonged to Jats, Gurjars, Ahirs), gharuhalas and rezariaya and balahars.
Two factors played crucial role in uniting the peasants: caste and influence by monotheistic sects. Although caste factors were crucial in the Jat revolts as well as in lawless activities of Mewatis, Wattus and Dogars, the Satnami opposition was based much on the radical ideas of the monotheistic movements. Importantly, most leaders of the monotheistic movements like Kabir, Ravdas, Dadu, Haridas came from the low castes and shunned the barriers of caste. Although they never fostered warlike sentiments nor did they preach militancy, the sense of unity and the contempt for caste led the Sikhs and Satnamis to rebel against the Mughals.
However, as Irfan habib notes, the real transformation of peasant unrest was probably brought about by the intervention of elements from the zamindar class that had their own motives in opposing the Mughal ruling class. This came through two distinct processes:
1. The peasant rebellions, at some stage of their development, passed under the leadership of zamindars (or their own leaders assumed the status of zamindars).
2. From the very beginning, the desperation of the peasants provided recruits for the rebelling zamindars.
The term zamindar embraced the holders of a wide category of rights to the land – ranging from autonomous chiefs to persons merely claiming a perquisite from a village, or even a small portion of it. Large areas in Rajasthan, Central India, Kathiawar, the sub-Himalayan tracts were under the tributary chiefs, while the primary zamindars, as Nurul Hasan says, were a general phenomenon throughout the Empire.
Nevertheless, the zamindari right had everywhere certain features in common – its possession was hereditary, it owed its origin not to the bounty of the Emperor, but to independent acquisition: to clan-settlement, usurpation or purchase. Possession of armed force was almost an inevitable complement of a zamindari right of any consequence. Abul Fazl reports 44 lacs of armed retainers maintained by the zamindars of the Empire.
The main point of conflict between the imperial authorities and the zamindars was the size of the latter’s share in the land revenue or in the surplus produce. Primary zamindars were merely treated as tax-gatherers, on behalf of the state and the assignees. As Irfan Habib notes, their exactions from the peasants were restricted not only by formal regulations, but much more by the high pitch of the revenue demand which left little with the peasants to be taken by anyone else. Autonomous chiefs also were fed up from the threat of annexation. Revisionist scholars, unlike Aligarh Muslim historians, argue that the real cause behind the zamindari unrest was their greed to expand their own zamindaris.
The zamindari defiance had already begun since Akbar’s reign, when faujdars and jagirdars are reported to have quelled the defiance. However, the climax of zamindari unrest came under Aurangzeb’s reign, when peasants were also united in their struggles. Irfan Habib in his The Agrarian System of Mughal India notes that it was their position in this unequal contest and their contacts with peasantry that led many zamindars to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the peasants, whose support would have been indispensible to them for defence as well as in flight. The united front posed a serious challenge to the invincibility of Mughal cavalry. By Aurangzeb’s reign, the struggle took a shift from defensive to aggressive stance.
In the late-17th and early-18th century, Agra and the Yamuna regions came to be dominated by revolts of Jats, who had earlier been identified as ganwars and led by Rajput zamindars. Inhabiting in the villages between Delhi and Agra, the Jats were par excellence ‘a peasant caste’, although some of them entered into zamindari as well. The Jat rebellions throughout its active phase were led by Jat zamindars like Gokula Jat, Raja Ram Jat and Churaman Jat. Recruiting Chamars for the military support also depicted their overlordship over such a semi-servile community. Overtime, Jat revolt grew into a large plundering movement, owing to the narrow caste horizons of peasantry and the plundering instincts of their zamindar leaders. Although Jat rebels had no connexion with any particular religious movement, the Satnami and Sikh revolts were largely cemented through religious factors.
The Satnamis or Mundiyas were a sect of the Bairagis founded in 1657. In their teachings, an attitude of sympathy with the poor and hostility towards authority and wealth is apparent. Such a religion could best appeal to the lower classes. As Ishwardas says, Satnamis did not differentiate between the Muslims and the Hindus, which is reflected in their plebeian charater. The revolts of these peaceful turned seditious robbers were mainly confined to Narnaul and Bairat. However, after some initial successes, a large imperial army cowed down these primitive militants.
Although the peasant aspect is tough to find in Satnami revolts, one may define Sikh religion itself as ‘peasant religion’ [Habib]. The egalitarian nature of the religion is reflected from the usages of Jatts language in their teachings by Nanak as well as Arjan Dev, as is reflected in Dabistan i-Mazahib. In fact, Guru Arjun took the first steps in creating a well-knit and disciplined organization. However, the Sikhs could become military power only under Guru Hargobind, whose own army came into collusion with Mughal power. Sikh militancy fostered under Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Bahadur (?), under whom scavengers, tanners, banjaras, and even Muslims. While criticizing Muzaffar Alam’s earliest stance that Banda Bahadur drew principal strength from the support of zamindars, Irfan Habib notes that in Sikh revolts, any zamindar support was heavily diluted by a conscious appeal to the lower classes.
In the other disparate struggles, one may state that sometimes the peasants (Meos in Mewat) vented their anger through fighting against zamindars as well, as was witnessed in Mewat. R P Rana has already pointed out the extent of bhomia oppression as leading towards raiyati–zamindari conflicts. Amongst other revolts, mention may be of Koli rebellion in Gujarat and Bundela rebellion.
Of course until the 1975 symposium, Irfan Habib’s theory of peasant revolts leading to Mughal decline remained dominant. His theory reaches an apotheosis with the examination of the nature of Maratha rebellions. According to Irfan Habib, “The Marathas undoubtedly constituted the greatest single force responsible for the downfall of the Mughal Empire”.
The contemporary historian Bhimsen opines that the oppression of jagirdars and amildars caused the peasants to migrate; even mansabdars are said to migrated. The Marathas under Shivaji proved to be favourable. Moreover, the indigenous peasantry of Dakhin, much before the rise of Shivaji, began to migrate due to the invasion by large imperial armies. So formidable became the Shivaji’s army through the peasantry in 1658 that Aurangzeb is reported to have urged his officials to mete out capital punishment to the peasants, deshmukhs and patels of the parganas of imperial territories.
Importantly, Shivaji and Maratha chiefs may not be termed as leaders of the peasant uprising, since they themselves represented a class aspiring to be zamindars. Peasants were the mere tools used by these leaders to fulfil their greed for zamindari rights; ‘Naked Starved Rascals (peasants) rested on Shivaji’s slogan – ‘no plunder, no pay’. As Bhimsen’s account shows, the military operations of the Marathas did not offer any relief to the cultivating peasants. On the contrary, they suffered grievously from the ravages of both the Maratha armies and their opponents.
Nevertheless, Cambridge historians like M N Pearson and J F Richards assert the role of Aurangzeb’s ill-conceived decision to expand in Deccan and turn their lands into khalisa as the cause for the Mughal decline.
Aurangzeb was not unaware of the corrosion of the Mughal authority. In his last years, “there is no province or district where the infidels have not raised a tumult and since they are not chastised, they have established themselves everywhere.”
If peasant distress was at the root of these rebellions that shook the Mughal Empire to its foundations, the rebellions themselves represent a historical paradox in that the alleviation of such distress nowhere forms part of the rebels’ proclaimed objectives or deeds. This marks a singular difference between the agrarian revolts in India and those of China and Europe. According to Irfan Habib, such predicament resulted due to the weakness of the Indian peasants’ class consciousness; it was an elementary failure on their part to recognize a peasant brotherhood out of the welter of castes and religious sects.
If the revolts during the 18th century were peasant revolts for Habib, for Alam they were concentrated by zamindars. His case for Awadh is strong is the sense that the local zamindars, merchants and madadd i mash holders became crucial to the regional powers in the 18th century. In his yet another case study of Punjab, he argued that the revolts were unsuccessful because of internal social difference between the zamindars and organization of peasantry on caste and community lines. Adjoining these revisionist debates were the interpretations of Chetan Singh, who in his Conformity and conflict: tribes and the ‘agrarian system’ of Mughal India argues that while overemphasizing on the zamindars and peasants as recalcitrant classes, tribal people are overlooked. In his case study on Punjab, he argues that local tribes were as integral to Punab’s agrarian system as any other caste/ class would have been. Peasant revolts along with tribal conflicts against the Mughal Empire concede an entire picture of agrarian crisis.
While concluding, one may state that the Revisionist theories are not merely confined to the agrarian crisis but propose a developmental period simultaneous to this phenomenon. For historians like Muzaffar Alam, Chetan Singh, Stewart Gordon and C A Bayly, 18th century was not closed by the Mughal decline alone, as ‘agrarian crisis’ picture would suggest, but it was a century of regional centralization. Nawabi rules of Hyderabad, Bengal and Awadh as well as the military fiscal states of Maratha and Mysore are enough instances to serve their continuity thesis.