Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad

Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad (3 November 1618 – 3 March 1707), commonly known as Aurangzeb (Ornament of the Throne) or by his regnal title Alamgir (Conqueror of the World),was the sixth, and widely considered the last effective Mughal emperor. His reign lasted for 49 years from 1658 until his death in 1707


A painting from Padshahnama depicts Prince Aurangzeb facing a maddened war elephant named Sudhakar 


Born 3 November 1618 (N.S.), Dahod, Mughal Empire
Died 3 March 1707 (N.S.) (aged 88), Ahmednagar, Mughal Empire
Burial Tomb Khuldabad
Full name Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad
Father Shah Jahan
Mother Mumtaz Mahal
Regnal name Alamgir
House Timurid
Predecessor Shah Jahan
Successor Muhammad Azam Shah(titular) Bahadur Shah I
Religion Islam (Sunni)
Reign 31 July 1658 – 3 March 1707
Coronation 13 June 1659 at Shalimar Bagh, Delhi
Consort Dilras Banu Begum
Wives Nawab Bai; Aurangabadi Mahal
Issue Zeb-un-Nissa

Muhammad Sultan


Bahadur Shah I



Muhammad Azam Shah

Sultan Muhammad Akbar


Muhammad Kam Bakhsh

Aurangzeb was a notable expansionist and during his reign, the Mughal Empire reached its greatest extent, ruling over nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. During his lifetime, victories in the south expanded the Mughal Empire to 4 million square kilometres, and he ruled over a population estimated to be over 158 million subjects, with an annual yearly revenue of $450 million (more than ten times that of his contemporary Louis XIV of France), or £38,624,680 (2,879,469,894 rupees) in 1690. Under his reign, India surpassed China once again to become the world’s largest economy, worth over $90 billion, nearly a quarter of world GDP in 1700.

 Aurangzeb has been subject to controversy and criticism for his policies that abandoned his predecessors’ legacy of pluralism and religious tolerance, citing his introduction of the Jizya tax, destruction of Hindu temples, and execution of the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur,  while other historians question this, arguing that his destruction of temples has been exaggerated, and noting that he also built temples, also destroyed Islamic mosques, paid for the maintenance of temples, employed significantly more Hindus in his imperial bureaucracy than his predecessors did, and opposed bigotry against Hindus and Shia Muslims.

It was at the end of his reign that the downfall of the Mughal Empire began. Rebellions and wars eventually led to the exhaustion of the imperial Mughal treasury and army. He was a strong-handed authoritarian ruler and following his death the expansionary period of the Mughal Empire came to an end. Nevertheless, the contiguous territory of the Mughal Empire still remained intact more or less until the reign of Muhammad Shah.

Early life

A painting from circa 1637 shows the brothers (left to right) Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh in their younger years 

Aurangzeb was born on 3 November 1618, in Dahod, Gujarat. He was the third son and sixth child of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. In June 1626, after an unsuccessful rebellion by his father, Aurangzeb and his brother Dara Shukoh were kept as hostages under their grandparents’ (Nur Jahan and Jahangir) Lahore court. On 26 February 1628, Shah Jahan was officially declared the Mughal Emperor, and Aurangzeb returned to live with his parents at Agra Fort, where Aurangzeb received his formal education in Arabic and Persian. His daily allowance was fixed at Rs. 500, which he spent on religious education and the study of history.

On 28 May 1633, Aurangzeb escaped death when a powerful war elephant stampeded through the Mughal Imperial encampment. He rode against the elephant and struck its trunk with a lance  and successfully defended himself from being crushed. Aurangzeb’s valour was appreciated by his father who conferred him the title of Bahadur (Brave) and had him weighed in gold and presented gifts worth Rs. 200,000. This event was celebrated in Persian and Urdu verses, and Aurangzeb said:

If the (elephant) fight had ended fatally for me, it would not have been a matter of shame. Death drops the curtain even on Emperors; it is no dishonor. The shame lay in what my brothers did!

Early military campaigns and administration

Bundela War


The Mughal Army under the command of Aurangzeb recaptures Orchha in October 1635 

Aurangzeb was nominally in charge of the force sent to Bundelkhand with the intent of subduing the rebellious ruler of Orchha, Jhujhar Singh, who had attacked another territory in defiance of Shah Jahan’s policy and was refusing to atone for his actions. By arrangement, Aurangzeb stayed in the rear, away from the fighting, and took the advice of his generals as the Mughal Army gathered and commenced the Siege of Orchha in 1635.The campaign was successful, and Singh was removed from power.

Viceroy of the Deccan

Aurangzeb was appointed viceroy of the Deccan in 1636. After Shah Jahan’s vassals had been devastated by the alarming expansion of Ahmednagar during the reign of the Nizam Shahi boy-prince Murtaza Shah III, the emperor dispatched Aurangzeb, who in 1636 brought the Nizam Shahi dynasty to an end. In 1637.

  • Aurangzeb married the Safavid princess Dilras Banu Begum, posthumously known as Rabia-ud-Daurani. She was his first wife and chief consort as well as his favourite.
  • He also had an infatuation with a slave girl, Hira Bai, whose death at a young age greatly affected him.
  • In his old age, he was under the charms of his concubine, Udaipuri Bai. The latter had formerly been a companion to Dara Shukoh.

In the same year, 1637, Aurangzeb was placed in charge of annexing the small Rajput kingdom of Baglana, which he did with ease.

In 1644, Aurangzeb’s sister, Jahanara, was burned when the chemicals in her perfume were ignited by a nearby lamp while in Agra. This event precipitated a family crisis with political consequences. Aurangzeb suffered his father’s displeasure by not returning to Agra immediately but rather three weeks later. Shah Jahan had been nursing Jahanara back to health in that time and thousands of vassals had arrived in Agra to pay their respects. Shah Jahan was outraged to see Aurangzeb enter the interior palace compound in military attire and immediately dismissed him from his position of viceroy of the Deccan; Aurangzeb was also no longer allowed to use red tents or to associate himself with the official military standard of the Mughal emperor. Other sources tell us that Aurangzeb was dismissed from his position because Aurangzeb left the life of luxury and became a Faqir.

In 1645, he was barred from the court for seven months and mentioned his grief to fellow Mughal commanders. Thereafter, Shah Jahan appointed him governor of Gujarat where he served well and was rewarded for bringing stability.

 In 1647, Shah Jahan moved Aurangzeb from Gujarat to be governor of Balkh, replacing a younger son, Murad Baksh, who had proved ineffective there. The area was under attack from Uzbek and Turkmen tribes. Whilst the Mughal artillery and muskets were a formidable force, so too were the skirmishing skills of their opponents. The two sides were in stalemate and Aurangzeb discovered that his army could not live off the land, which was devastated by war. With the onset of winter, he and his father had to make a largely unsatisfactory deal with the Uzbeks, giving away territory in exchange for nominal recognition of Mughal sovereignty. The Mughal force suffered still further with attacks by Uzbeks and other tribesmen as it retreated through snow to Kabul. By the end of this two-year campaign, into which Aurangzeb had been plunged at a late stage, a vast sum of money had been expended for little gain.

Further inauspicious military involvements followed, as Aurangzeb was appointed governor of Multan and Sindh. His efforts in 1649 and 1652 to dislodge the Safavids at Kandahar, which they had recently retaken after a decade of Mughal control, both ended in failure as winter approached. The logistical problems of supplying an army at the extremity of the empire, combined with the poor quality of armaments and the intransigence of the opposition have been cited by John Richards as the reasons for failure, and a third attempt in 1653, led by Dara Shikoh, met with the same outcome.

Aurangzeb became viceroy of the Deccan again after he was replaced by Dara Shikoh in the attempt to recapture Kandahar. Aurangzeb regretted this and harboured feelings that Shikoh had manipulated the situation to serve his own ends. Aurangbad’s two jagirs (land grants) were moved there as a consequence of his return and, because the Deccan was a relatively impoverished area, this caused him to lose out financially. So poor was the area that grants were required from Malwa and Gujarat in order to maintain the administration and the situation caused ill-feeling between father and son. Shah Jahan insisted that things could be improved if Aurangzeb made efforts to develop cultivation. Aurangzeb appointed Murshid Quli Khan to extend to the Deccan the zabt revenue system used in northern India. Murshid Quli Khan organised a survey of agricultural land and a tax assessment on what it produced. To increase revenue, Murshid Quli Khan granted loans for seed, livestock, and irrigation infrastructure. The Deccan returned to prosperity, but too slowly to satisfy the emperor.

Aurangzeb proposed to resolve the situation by attacking the dynastic occupants of Golconda (the Qutb Shahis) and Bijapur (the Adil Shahis). As an adjunct to resolving the financial difficulties, the proposal would also extend Mughal influence by accruing more lands. Again, he was to feel that Dara had exerted influence on his father: believing that he was on the verge of victory in both instances, Aurangzeb was frustrated that Shah Jahan chose then to settle for negotiations with the opposing forces rather than pushing for complete victory.

War of Succession

Sepoys loyal to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb maintain their positions around the palace, at Aurangabad, in 1658 

The four sons of Shah Jahan all held governorships during their father’s reign. The emperor favoured the eldest, Dara Shikoh. This had caused resentment among the younger three, who sought at various times to strengthen alliances between themselves and against Dara. There was no Mughal tradition of primogeniture, the systematic passing of rule, upon an emperor’s death, to his eldest son. Instead it was customary for sons to overthrow their father and for brothers to war to the death among themselves. Historian Satish Chandra says that “In the ultimate resort, connections among the powerful military leaders, and military strength and capacity [were] the real arbiters”. The contest for power was primarily between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb because, although all four sons had demonstrated competence in their official roles, it was around these two that the supporting cast of officials and other influential people mostly circulated. There were ideological differences — Dara was an intellectual and a religious liberal in the mould of Akbar, while Aurangzeb was much more conservative — but, as historians Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf say, “To focus on divergent philosophies neglects the fact that Dara was a poor general and leader. It also ignores the fact that factional lines in the succession dispute were not, by and large, shaped by ideology.” Marc Gaborieau, professor of Indian studies at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, explains that “The loyalties of [officials and their armed contingents] seem to have been motivated more by their own interests, the closeness of the family relation and above all the charisma of the pretenders than by ideological divides.” Muslims and Hindus did not divide along religious lines in their support for one pretender or the other nor, according to Chandra, is there much evidence to support the belief that Jahanara and other members of the royal family were split in their support. Jahanara, certainly, interceded at various times on behalf of all of the princes and was well-regarded by Aurangzeb even though she shared the religious outlook of Dara.

In 1656, a general under Qutb Shahi dynasty named Musa Khan led an army of 12,000 Musketeers to attack Aurangzeb, and later on the same campaign Aurangzeb in turn rode against an army consisting 8,000 horsemen and 20,000 Karnataka Musketeers

Having made clear that he wanted Dara to succeed him, Shah Jahan became ill with stranguary in 1657 and was closeted under the care of his favourite son in the newly built city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). Rumours of the death of Shah Jahan abounded and the younger sons were concerned that Dara might be hiding it for Machiavellian reasons. Thus, they took action: Shah Shuja prepared to contest the throne from Bengal, where he had been governor since 1637, while Murad did the same in his governorship of Gujarat and Aurangzeb did so in the Deccan. It is not known whether these preparations were made in the mistaken belief that the rumours of death were true or whether the challengers were just taking advantage of the situation.

Aurangzeb becomes emperor

After regaining some of his health, Shah Jahan moved to Agra and Dara urged him to send forces to challenge Shah Shuja and Murad, who had declared themselves rulers in their respective territories. While Shah Shuja was defeated at Banares in February 1658, the army sent to deal with Murad discovered to their surprise that he and Aurangzeb had combined their forces, the two brothers having agreed to partition the empire once they had gained control of it. The two armies clashed at Dharmat in April 1658, with Aurangzeb being the victor. Shuja was being chased through Bihar and the victory of Aurangzeb proved this to be a poor decision by Dara Shikoh, who now had a defeated force on one front and a successful force unnecessarily pre-occupied on another. Realising that his recalled Bihar forces would not arrive at Agra in time to resist the emboldened Aurangzeb’s advance, Dara scrambled to form alliances in order but found that Aurangzeb had already courted key potential candidates. When Dara’s disparate, hastily concocted army clashed with Aurangzeb’s well-disciplined, battle-hardened force at the Battle of Samugarh in late May, neither Dara’s men nor his generalship was any match for Aurangzeb. Dara had also become over-confident in his own abilities and, by ignoring advice not to lead in battle while his father was alive, he cemented the idea that he had usurped the throne. “After the defeat of Dara, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort of Agra where he spent eight long years under the care of his favourite daughter Jahanara.”

 Aurangzeb then broke his arrangement with Murad Baksh, which probably had been his intention all along. Instead of looking to partition the empire between himself and Murad, he had his brother arrested and imprisoned at Gwalior Fort. Murad was executed on 4 December 1661, ostensibly for the murder of the diwan of Gujarat some time earlier. The allegation was encouraged by Aurangzeb, who caused the diwan’s son to seek retribution for the death under the principles of Sharia law. Meanwhile, Dara gathered his forces, and moved to the Punjab. The army sent against Shuja was trapped in the east, its generals Jai Singh and Dilir Khan submitted to Aurangzeb, but Dara’s son, Suleiman Shikoh, escaped.

Aurangzeb offered Shah Shuja the governorship of Bengal. This move had the effect of isolating Dara Shikoh and causing more troops to defect to Aurangzeb. Shah Shuja, who had declared himself emperor in Bengal began to annex more territory and this prompted Aurangzeb to march from Punjab with a new and large army that fought during the Battle of Khajwa, where Shah Shuja and his chain-mail armoured war elephants were routed by the forces loyal to Aurangzeb. Shah Shuja then fled to Arakan (in present-day Burma), where he was executed by the local rulers.

With Shuja and Murad disposed of, and with his father immured in Agra, Aurangzeb pursued Dara Shikoh, chasing him across the north-western bounds of the empire. Aurangzeb claimed that Dara was no longer a Muslim and accused him of poisoning the Mughal Grand Vizier Saadullah Khan. After a series of battles, defeats and retreats, Dara was betrayed by one of his generals, who arrested and bound him. In 1658, Aurangzeb arranged his formal coronation in Delhi.

On 10 August 1659, Dara was executed on grounds of apostasy and his head was sent to Shahjahan. Having secured his position, Aurangzeb confined his frail father at the Agra Fort but did not mistreat him. Shah Jahan was cared for by Jahanara and died in 1666.




Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb shown in red borders 

Aurangzeb’s imperial bureaucracy employed significantly more Hindus than that of his predecessors. Between 1679 and 1707, the number of Hindu officials in the Mughal administration rose by half, many of them Marathas and Rajputs. His increasing employment of Hindus and Shia Muslims was deemed controversial at the time, with several of his fellow Sunni Muslim officials petitioning against it, which he rejected, and responded, “What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry? ‘For you is your religion and for me is mine.'” He insisted on employment based on ability rather than religion.

 Under Aurangzeb’s reign, Hindus rose to represent 31.6% of Mughal nobility, the highest in the Mughal era. This was largely due to a substantial influx of Marathas, who played a key role in his successful Deccan campaign. During his time, the number of Hindu Mansabdars increased from 22% to over 31% in the Mughal administration, as he needed them to continue his fight in the Deccan. However, one of his Rajput nobles, Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur, Hindu ruler of Jodhpur, “destroyed mosques and built idol-temples in their stead” around 1658-1659, according to Aurangzeb. Despite this, relationships did not turn sour between the two, as they worked together for the next two decades up until Singh’s death in the late 1670s.

Establishment of Islamic law


Aurangzeb compiled Hanafi law by introducing the Fatawa-e-Alamgiri 

Historian Katherine Brown has noted that “The very name of Aurangzeb seems to act in the popular imagination as a signifier of politico-religious bigotry and repression, regardless of historical accuracy.” The subject has also resonated in modern times with popularly accepted claims that he intended to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas. As a political and religious conservative, Aurangzeb chose not to follow the secular religious viewpoints of his predecessors after his ascension. Shah Jahan had already moved away from the liberalism of Akbar, although in a token manner rather than with the intent of suppressing Hinduism, and Aurangzeb took the change still further. Though the approach to faith of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan was more syncretic than Babur, the founder of the empire, Aurangzeb’s position is not so obvious. His emphasis on sharia competed, or was directly in conflict, with his insistence that zawabit or secular decrees could supersede sharia. Despite claims of sweeping edicts and policies, contradictory accounts exist. He sought to codify Hanafi law by the work of several hundred jurists, called Fatawa-e-Alamgiri. It is possible the War of Succession and continued incursions combined with Shah Jahan’s spending made cultural expenditure impossible.

As emperor, Aurangzeb banned the drinking of alcohol, gambling, castration, servitude, eunuchs, music, nautch and narcotics in the Mughal Empire. He learnt that at Sindh, Multan, Thatta and particularly at Varanasi, the Hindu Brahmins attracted large numbers of indigenous local Muslims to their discourses. He ordered the Subahdars of these provinces to demolish the schools and the temples of non-Muslims. Aurangzeb also ordered Subahdars to punish Muslims who dressed like non-Muslims. The executions of the antinomian Sufi mystic Sarmad Kashani and the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur bear testimony to Aurangzeb’s religious policy; the former was beheaded on multiple accounts of heresy, the latter, according to Sikhs, because he objected to Aurangzeb’s forced conversions.

Taxation policy

He imposed Jizya, a military tax on non-Muslims who were not fighting for Mughal Empire in his second decade on ruling in the year 1679. Further, Aurangzeb levied discriminatory taxes on Hindu merchants at the rate of 5% as against 2.5% on Muslim merchants. He ordered to dismiss Hindu quanungos and patwaris from revenue administration. However, he also employed many Hindus as Jizya tax collectors.

The introduction of Jizya in 1679 was a response to several events shortly before its introduction: the great Rajput rebellion of 1678, the Maratha alliance with the Shia Golconda, and the Mughal expansion into the Deccan. However, the contemporary historian Khafi Khan (died 1733), whose family had served Aurangzeb, noted that Jizya could not be levied and remained largely a tax on paper only.

Policy on temples and mosques

During his reign, Aurangzeb generally maintained a similar policy on both Hindu temples and Islamic mosques. Like his predecessors, he issued land grants for the maintenance of Hindu temples. However, he also ordered the destruction of temples and mosques. For example, he ordered the destruction of Vishvanath Temple at Varanasi for being a centre of conspiracy against the state, and he ordered the destruction of the Jama Masjid at Golconda after finding out that its ruler had built the mosque in order to hide revenues from the state. Aurangzeb also ordered a rescue raid on a temple, in order to rescue a Rajasthan minister’s female family members who went there on a pilgrimage.

Aurangzeb’s policy on temples was mixed: he destroyed many, but also built many. During his reign, an estimated of dozens to thousands of Hindu temples were destroyed, and he thought of changing the name of Hindu’s one of the holiest city Benaras to Muhammadabad. Among the Hindu temples he demolished were three of the most sacred, the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Kesava Deo temple, and Somnath temple, and built large mosques in their place. In 1679, he ordered destruction of several prominent temples that had become associated with his enemies: these included the temples of Khandela, Udaipur, Chittor and Jodhpur. The historian Richard Eaton argues that the overall understanding of temples to be flawed. As early as the sixth century, temples became vital political landmarks as well as religious ones. He writes that, not only was temple desecration widely practised and accepted, it was a necessary part of political struggle.

Other scholars point out that Aurangzeb also built many temples, Ian Copland says that he built more temples than he destroyed. However, scholars like Ram Puniyani states that Aurangzeb was not always fanatically anti-Hindu, and kept changing his policies depending on the needs of the situation. He banned the construction of new temples but permitted the repair and maintenance of existing temples. He also made generous donations of jagirs to several temples to win the sympathies of his Hindu subjects. There are several firmans (orders) in his name, supporting temples and gurudwaras, including Mahakaleshwar templeof Ujjain, Balaji temple of Chitrakoot, Umananda Temple of Guwahati and the Shatrunjaya Jain temples.

Execution of opponents

The first prominent execution during the long reign of Aurangzeb started with that of his brother Prince Dara Shikoh, who was accused of being influenced by Hinduism although some sources argue it was done for political reasons. Aurangzeb had his allied brother Prince Murad Baksh held for murder, judged and then executed. Aurangzeb is accused of poisoning his imprisoned nephew Sulaiman Shikoh.

Later, Sambhaji was executed during his reign. In a trial, he was found guilty of murder and violence, atrocities against the Muslims of Burhanpur and Bahadurpur in Berar by Marathas under his command. The atrocities that Sambhaji perpetrated included plunder, killing, rape, and torture, when he raided Burhanpur with 20,000 troops. The ulema of the Mughal Empire sentenced him to death for his atrocities against Muslims.

The Sikh leader Guru Tegh Bahadur was arrested on orders by Aurangzeb, found guilty of blasphemy by a Qadi’s court and executed.

The 32nd Da’i al-Mutlaq (Absolute Missionary) of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Musta‘lī Islam Syedna Qutubkhan Qutubuddin was executed by Aurangzeb, then governor of Gujarat, for heresy; on 27 Jumadil Akhir 1056 AH/ 1648 AD), Ahmedabad, India.

  • In the year 1688, according to Mughal accounts, Sambhaji was put on trial, found guilty of atrocities and executed.
  • Guru Tegh Bahadur was publicly executed in 1675 on the orders of Aurangzeb in Delhi
  • Sarmad Kashani, a Jewish convert to Islam and Sufi mystic was accused of heresy and executed.

Expansion of the Mughal Empire

Aurangzeb seated on a golden throne holding a Hawk in the Durbar. Standing before him is his son, Azam Shah 

 Soon after seizing the throne, Aurangzeb began advancements against the unruly Sultan of Bijapur and during 1657, the Mughals are known to have used rockets during the Siege of Bidar, against Sidi Marjan. Aurangzeb’s forces discharged rockets and grenades while scaling the walls, and Sidi Marjan himself was mortally wounded after a rocket struck his large gunpowder depot. After twenty-seven days of hard fighting, Bidar was captured by the Mughals.

In 1663, during his visit to Ladakh, Aurangzeb established direct control over that part of the empire and loyal subjects such as Deldan Namgyal agreed to pledge tribute and loyalty. Deldan Namgyal is also known to have constructed a Grand Mosque in Leh, which he dedicated to Mughal rule.

In 1664, Aurangzeb appointed Shaista Khansubedar (governor) of Bengal. Shaista Khan eliminated Portuguese and Arakanese pirates from the region, and in 1666 recaptured the port of Chittagong from the Arakanese king, Sanda Thudhamma. Chittagong remained a key port throughout Mughal rule.

In 1685, Aurangzeb dispatched his son, Muhammad Azam Shah, with a force of nearly 50,000 men to capture Bijapur Fort and defeat Sikandar Adil Shah (the ruler of Bijapur) who refused to be a vassal. The Mughals could not make any advancements upon Bijapur Fort mainly because of the superior usage of cannon batteries on both sides. Outraged by the stalemate Aurangzeb himself arrived on 4 September 1686 and commanded the Siege of Bijapur; after eight days of fighting, the Mughals were victorious.

Only one remaining ruler, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah (the Qutbshahi ruler of Golconda), refused to surrender. He and his servicemen fortified themselves at Golconda and fiercely protected the Kollur Mine, which was then probably the world’s most productive diamond mine, and an important economic asset. In 1687, Aurangzeb led his grand Mughal army against the Deccan Qutbshahi fortress during the Siege of Golconda. The Qutbshahis had constructed massive fortifications throughout successive generations on a granite hill over 400 ft high with an enormous eight-mile long wall enclosing the city. The main gates of Golconda had the ability to repulse any war elephant attack. Although the Qutbshahis maintained the impregnability of their walls, at night Aurangzeb and his infantry erected complex scaffolding that allowed them to scale the high walls. During the eight-month siege the Mughals faced many hardships including the death of their experienced commander Kilich Khan Bahadur. Eventually, Aurangzeb and his forces managed to penetrate the walls by capturing a gate, and their entry into the fort led Abul Hasan Qutb Shah to surrender peacefully.

Military equipment

  • Daulatabad cannon
  • Kalak Bangadi cannon.
  • One of the Daulatabad cannons
  • Kilkila cannon
  • Aurangabad cannon

Mughal cannon making skills advanced during the 17th century. One of the most impressive Mughal cannons is known as the Zafarbaksh, which is a very rare composite cannon, that required skills in both wrought-iron forge welding and bronze-casting technologies and the in-depth knowledge of the qualities of both metals.

Aurangzeb military entourage consisted of 16 cannons including the Azdaha Paikar (which, was capable of firing a 33.5 kg ordnance) and Fateh Rahber (20 feet long with Persian and Arabic inscriptions).

The Ibrahim Rauza was also a famed cannon, which was well known for its multi-barrels. François Bernier, the personal physician to Aurangzeb, observed versatile Mughal gun-carriages each drawn by two horses.

Despite these innovations, most soldiers used bows and arrows, the quality of sword manufacture was so poor that they preferred to use ones imported from England, and the operation of the cannons was entrusted not to Mughals but to European gunners. Other weapons used during the period included rockets, cauldrons of boiling oil, muskets and manjaniqs (stone-throwing catapults).

Infantry who were later called Sepoy and who specialised in siege and artillery emerged during the reign of Aurangzeb

War elephants

In 1703, the Mughal commander at Coromandel, Daud Khan Panni spent 10,500 coins to purchase 30 to 50 war elephants from Ceylon.

Art and Culture

Aurangzeb was known to be of a more austere nature than his predecessors. Being religious he encouraged Islamic calligraphy. His reign also saw the building of the Lahore Badshahi Mosque, and Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad for his wife Rabia-ud-Daurani.


The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is known to have patronised works of Islamic Calligraphy during his reign particularly Syed Ali Tabrizi.


Unlike his father, Aurangzeb was not much interested in architecture. Aurangzeb constructed a small marble mosque known as the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) in the Red Fort complex in Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. He also constructed a mosque on Benares. The mosque he constructed in Srinagar is still the largest in Kashmir. The structure of Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, which now is a historical monument was constructed by the sons of Aurangzeb in remembrance of their mother. The inspiration came from Taj mahal as is quite visible from its architecture.

17th century Badshahi Masjid built by Aurangzeb in Lahore 


The textile industry in the Mughal Empire emerged very firmly during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and was particularly well noted by Francois Bernier, a French physician of the Mughal Emperor. Francois Bernier writes how Karkanahs, or workshops for the artisans, particularly in textiles flourished by “employing hundreds of embroiderers, who were superintended by a master”. He further writes how “Artisans manufacture of silk, fine brocade, and other fine muslins, of which are made turbans, robes of gold flowers, and tunics worn by females, so delicately fine as to wear out in one night, and cost even more if they were well embroidered with fine needlework”.

He also explains the different techniques employed to produce such complicated textiles such as Himru (whose name is Persian for “brocade”), Paithani (whose pattern is identical on both sides), Mushru (satin weave) and how Kalamkari, in which fabrics are painted or block-printed, was a technique that originally came from Persia. Francois Bernier provided some of the first, impressive descriptions of the designs and the soft, delicate texture of Pashmina Shawls also known as Kani, which were very valued for their warmth and comfort among the Mughals, and how these textiles and shawls eventually began to find their way to France and England.

Foreign relations

As soon as he became emperor, Aurangzeb sent some of the finest ornate gifts such as carpets, lamps, tiles and others to the Islamic shrines at Mecca and Medina. He also ordered the construction of very large ships in Surat that would transport these gifts and even pilgrims to the Hijaz. These annual expeditions organised by Aurangzeb were led by Mir Aziz Badakhshi who died in Mecca of natural causes but managed to deliver more than 45,000 silver coins and several thousand Kaftans of honour.

 Relations with the Uzbek

Subhan Quli, Balkh‘s Uzbek ruler was the first to recognise him in 1658 and requested for a general alliance, he worked alongside the new Mughal Emperor since 1647, when Aurangzeb was the Subedar of Balkh.

 Relations with the Safavid dynasty

Aurangzeb received the embassy of Abbas II of Persia in 1660 and returned them with gifts. However relations between the Mughal Empire and the Safavid dynasty were tense because the Persians attacked the Mughal army positioned near Kandahar. Aurangzeb prepared his armies in the Indus River Basin for a counteroffensive, but Abbas II’s death in 1666 caused Aurangzeb to end all hostilities. Aurangzeb’s rebellious son, Sultan Muhammad Akbar, sought refuge with Suleiman I of Persia, who had rescued him from the Imam of Musqat and later refused to assist him in any military adventures against Aurangzeb.

 Relations with the French

In 1667, the French East India Company ambassadors Le Gouz and Bebert presented Louis XIV of France‘s letter which urged the protection of French merchants from various rebels in the Deccan. In response to the letter Aurangzeb issued a Firman allowing the French to open a factory in Surat.

Relations with the Sultanate of Maldives

In the 1660s, the Sultan of the Maldives, Ibrahim Iskandar I, requested help from Aurangzeb’s representative, the Faujdar of Balasore. The sultan was concerned about the impact of Dutch and English trading ships but the powers of Aurangzeb did not extend to the seas, the Maldives were not under his governance and nothing came of the request.

 Relations with the Ottoman Empire

In 1688, the desperate Ottoman Sultan Suleiman II urgently requested for assistance against the rapidly advancing Austrians, during the Ottoman–Habsburg War. However, Aurangzeb and his forces were heavily engaged in the Deccan Wars against the Marathas to commit any formal assistance to their Ottoman allies.

 Relations with the English

In 1686, the English East India Company, which had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a firman, an imperial directive that would grant England regular trading privileges throughout the Mughal empire, initiated the so-called Child’s War. This hostility against the empire ended in disaster for the English, particularly when Aurangzeb dispatched a strong fleet from Janjira commanded by the Sidi Yaqub and manned by Mappila loyal to Ali Raja Ali II and Abyssinian sailors firmly blockaded Bombay in 1689. In 1690, the company sent envoys to Aurangzeb’s camp to plead for a pardon. The company’s envoys had to prostrate themselves before the emperor, pay a large indemnity, and promise better behaviour in the future.

In September 1695, English pirate Henry Every perpetrated one of the most profitable pirate raids in history with his capture of a Grand Mughal convoy near Surat. The Indian ships had been returning home from their annual pilgrimage to Mecca when the pirates struck, capturing the Ganj-i-Sawai, reportedly the greatest ship in the Muslim fleet, and its escorts in the process. When news of the piracy reached the mainland, a livid Aurangzeb nearly ordered an armed attack against the English-governed city of Bombay, though he finally agreed to compromise after the East India Company promised to pay financial reparations, estimated at £600,000 by the Mughal authorities. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb shut down four of the East India Company’s factories, imprisoned the workers and captains (who were nearly lynched by a rioting mob), and threatened to put an end to all English trading in India until Every was captured. The Privy Council and East India Company offered a massive bounty for Every’s apprehension, leading to the first worldwide manhunt in recorded history. However, Every successfully eluded capture.

In 1702, Aurangzeb sent Daud Khan Panni, the Mughal Empire’s Subhedar of the Carnatic region, to besiege and blockade Fort St. George for more than three months. The governor of the fort Thomas Pitt was instructed by the English East India Company to sue for peace.

Administrative reforms


Aurangzeb’s exchequer raised a record £100 million in annual revenue through various sources like taxes, customs and land revenue, et al. from 24 provinces. He had an annual yearly revenue of $450 million, more than ten times that of his contemporary Louis XIV of France.



Aurangzeb spent his reign crushing major and minor rebellions throughout the Mughal Empire 

By 1700, the Marathas attacked the Mughal provinces from the Deccan and secessionist agendas from the Rajputs, Hindu Jats, Pashtuns and Sikhs rebelled against the Mughal Empire’s administrative and economic systems.

  • In 1669, the Hindu Jat peasants of Bharatpur around Mathura rebelled and created Bharatpur state but were defeated.
  • In 1659, Shivaji, launched a surprise attack on the Mughal Viceroy Shaista Khan and, while waging war against Aurangzeb. Shivaji and his forces attacked the Deccan, Janjira and Surat and tried to gain control of vast territories. In 1689 Aurangzeb’s armies captured Shivaji’s son Sambhaji and executed him after he had sacked Burhanpur. But, the Marathas continued the fight and it actually started the terminal decline of his empire.
  • In 1679, the Rathore clan under the command of Durgadas Rathore rebelled when Aurangzeb didn’t give permission to make the young Rathore prince the king and took direct command of Jodhpur. This incident caused great unrest among the Hindu Rajputrulers under Aurangzeb and led to many rebellions in Rajputana.
  • In 1672, the Satnami, a sect concentrated in an area near Delhi, under the leadership of Bhirbhan, took over the administration of Narnaul, but they were eventually crushed upon Aurangzeb’s personal intervention with very few escaping alive.
  • In 1671, the Battle of Saraighat was fought in the easternmost regions of the Mughal Empire against the Ahom Kingdom. The Mughals led by Mir Jumla II and Shaista Khan attacked and were defeated by the Ahoms.
  • Maharaja Chhatrasal was a medieval Indian warrior from Bundela Rajput clan, who fought against the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, and established his own kingdom in Bundelkhand, becoming a Maharaja of Panna.

Jat rebellion

The tomb of Akbar the Great was pillaged by Jat rebels during the reign of Aurangzeb

In 1669, Hindu Jats began to organise a rebellion that is believed to have been caused by Aurangzeb’s imposition of Jizya(a form of organised religious taxation). The Jats were led by Gokula, a rebel landholder from Tilpat. By the year 1670 20,000 Jat rebels were quelled and the Mughal Army took control of Tilpat, Gokula’s personal fortune amounted to 93,000 gold coins and hundreds of thousands of silver coins.

Gokula was caught and executed. But the Jats continued to terrorise the Mughals. Raja Ram Jat, in order to avenge his father Gokula’s death, plundered Akbar’s tomb of its gold, silver and fine carpets, opened Akbar’s grave and dragged Akbar’s bones and burned them in retaliation. Jats also shot off the tops of the minarets on the gateway to Akbar’s Tomb and melted down two silver doors from the Taj Mahal. However, Jats later established their independent state of Bharatpur.

 Mughal–Maratha Wars

In 1657, while Aurangzeb attacked Golconda and Bijapur in the Deccan, the Hindu Maratha warrior aristocrat, Shivaji, used guerrilla tactics to take control of three Adil Shahi forts formerly under his father’s command.


Aurangzeb leads the Mughal Army during the Battle of Satara 

With these victories, Shivaji assumed de facto leadership of many independent Maratha clans. The Marathas harried the flanks of the warring Adil Shahis and Mughals, gaining weapons, forts, and territory. Shivaji’s small and ill-equipped army survived an all out Adil Shahi attack, and Shivaji personally killed the Adil Shahi general, Afzal Khan. With this event, the Marathas transformed into a powerful military force, capturing more and more Adil Shahi and Mughal territories. Shivaji went on to neutralise Mughal power in the region.In 1659, Aurangzeb sent his trusted general and maternal uncle Shaista Khan, the Wali in Golconda to recover forts lost to the Maratha rebels. Shaista Khan drove into Maratha territory and took up residence in Pune. But in a daring raid on the governor’s palace in Pune during a midnight wedding celebration, the Marathas killed Shaista Khan’s son and maimed Shaista Khan by cutting off the fingers of his hand. Shaista Khan, however, survived and was re-appointed the administrator of Bengal going on to become a key commander in the war against the Ahoms.


A depiction of Shivaji in Aurangzeb’s court in Agra in 1666

Shivaji captured forts belonging to both Mughals and Bijapur. At last Aurangzeb ordered the armament of the Daulatabad Fort with two bombards (the Daulatabad Fort was later used as a Mughal bastion during the Deccan Wars). Aurangzeb also sent his general Raja Jai Singh of Amber, a Hindu Rajput, to attack the Marathas. Jai Singh won the fort of Purandar after fierce battle in which the Maratha commander Murarbaji fell. Foreseeing defeat, Shivaji agreed for a truce and a meeting with Aurangzeb at Delhi. Jai Singh also promised Shivaji his safety, placing him under the care of his own son, the future Raja Ram Singh I. However, circumstances at the Mughal court were beyond the control of the Raja, and when Shivaji and his son Sambhaji went to Agra to meet Aurangzeb, they were placed under house arrest, from which they managed to effect a daring escape.

Shivaji returned to the Deccan and crowned himself Chhatrapati or the ruler of the Maratha Kingdom in 1674. While Aurangzeb continued to send troops against him, Shivaji expanded Maratha control throughout the Deccan until his death in 1680. Shivaji was succeeded by his son, Sambhaji. Militarily and politically, Mughal efforts to control the Deccan continued to fail.

On the other hand, Aurangzeb’s third son Akbar left the Mughal court along with a few Muslim Mansabdar supporters and joined Muslim rebels in the Deccan. Aurangzeb in response moved his court to Aurangabad and took over command of the Deccan campaign. The rebels were defeated, and Akbar fled south to seek refuge with Sambhaji, Shivaji’s successor. More battles ensued, and Akbar fled to Persia and never returned.

In 1689, Aurangzeb’s forces captured and executed Sambhaji. His successor Rajaram, later Rajaram’s widow Tarabai and their Maratha forces fought individual battles against the forces of the Mughal Empire. Territory changed hands repeatedly during the years (1689–1707) of interminable warfare. As there was no central authority among the Marathas, Aurangzeb was forced to contest every inch of territory, at great cost in lives and money. Even as Aurangzeb drove west, deep into Maratha territory – notably conquering Satara — the Marathas expanded their attacks further into Mughal lands – Malwa, Hyderabad and Jinjiin Tamil Nadu. Aurangzeb waged continuous war in the Deccan for more than two decades with no resolution. He thus lost about a fifth of his army fighting rebellions led by the Marathas in Deccan India. He travelled a long distance to the Deccan to conquer the Marathas and eventually died at the age of 90, still fighting the Marathas.

Aurangzeb’s shift from conventional warfare to anti-insurgency in the Deccan region shifted the paradigm of Mughal military thought. There were conflicts between Marathas and Mughals in Pune, Jinji, Malwa and Vadodara. The Mughal Empire’s port city of Surat was sacked twice by the Marathas during the reign of Aurangzeb and the valuable port was in ruins. Matthew White estimates that about 2.5 million of Aurangzeb’s army were killed during the Mughal–Maratha Wars (100,000 annually during a quarter-century), while 2 million civilians in war-torn lands died due to drought, plague and famine.

L-R: A Mughal trooper in the Deccan; Aurangzeb leads his final expedition (1705);  leading an army of 500,000 troops; Mughal-era aristocrat armed with a matchlock musket.

 Ahom campaign

Aurangzeb reading the Quran 

While Aurangzeb and his brother Shah Shuja had been fighting against each other, the Hindu rulers of Kuch Behar and Assam took advantage of the disturbed conditions in the Mughal Empire, had invaded imperial dominions. For three years they were not attacked, but in 1660 Mir Jumla II, the viceroy of Bengal, was ordered to recover the lost territories.

The Mughals set out in November 1661, and within weeks occupied the capital of Kuch Behar after a few fierce skirmishes. The Kuch Behar was annexed, and the Mughal Army reorganised and began to retake their territories in Assam. Mir Jumla II’s forces captured Pandu, Guwahati, and Kajali practically unopposed. In February 1662, Mir Jumla II initiated the Siege of Simalugarh and after the Mughal cannon breached the fortifications, the Ahoms abandoned the fort and escaped. Mir Jumla II then proceeded towards Garhgaon the capital of the Ahom kingdom, which was reached on 17 March 1662, although the ruler Raja Sutamla fled and the victorious Mughals captured 100 elephants, about 300,000 coins of silver, 8000 shields, 1000 ships, and 173 massive stores of rice.

Later that year in December 1663, the aged Mir Jumla II died on his way back to Dacca of natural causes, but skirmishes continued between the Mughals and Ahoms after the rise of Chakradhwaj Singha, who refused to pay further indemnity to the Mughals and during the wars that continued the Mughals suffered great hardships. Munnawar Khan emerged as a leading figure and is known to have supplied food to vulnerable Mughal forces in the region near Mathurapur. Although the Mughals under the command of Syed Firoz Khan the Faujdarat Guwahati were overrun by two Ahom armies in the year 1667, but they continued to hold and maintain presence along the eastern territories even after the Battle of Saraighat in the year 1671.

The Battle of Saraighat was fought in 1671 between the Mughal empire (led by the Kachwaha king, Raja Ramsingh I), and the Ahom Kingdom (led by Lachit Borphukan) on the Brahmaputra river at Saraighat, now in Guwahati. Although much weaker, the Ahom Army defeated the Mughal Army by brilliant uses of the terrain, clever diplomatic negotiations to buy time, guerrilla tactics, psychological warfare, military intelligence and by exploiting the sole weakness of the Mughal forces—its navy.

The Battle of Saraighat was the last battle in the last major attempt by the Mughals to extend their empire into Assam. Though the Mughals managed to regain Guwahati briefly after a later Borphukan deserted it, the Ahoms wrested control in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 and maintained it till the end of their rule.

Satnami opposition

Aurangzeb dispatched his personal imperial guard during the campaign against the Satnami rebels

The Satnamis believed they were invulnerable to Mughal bullets and believed they could multiply in any region they entered. The Satnamis initiated their march upon Delhi and overran small-scale Mughal infantry units.

Aurangzeb responded by organizing a Mughal army of 10,000 troops and artillery, and dispatched detachments of his own personal Mughal imperial guards to carry out several tasks. To boost Mughal morale, Aurangzeb wrote Islamic prayers, made amulets, and drew designs that would become emblems in the Mughal Army. This rebellion would have a serious aftermath effect on the Punjab.

Sikh opposition

Zafarnama is the name given to the letter sent by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh in 1705 to Aurangzeb. The letter is written in Persian script 

Early in Aurangzeb’s reign, various insurgent groups of Sikhs engaged Mughal troops in increasingly bloody battles. The ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, like his predecessors was opposed to conversion of the local population as he considered it wrong. According to Sikh sources, approached by Kashmiri Pandits to help them retain their faith and avoid forced religious conversions, Guru Tegh Bahadur took on Aurangzeb. The emperor perceived the rising popularity of the Guru as a threat to his sovereignty and in 1670 had him executed, which infuriated the Sikhs. In response, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s son and successor, Guru Gobind Singh, further militarised his followers, starting with the establishment of Khalsa in 1699, eight years before Aurangzeb’s death. In 1705, Guru Gobind Singh sent a letter entitled Zafarnamah to Aurangzeb. This drew attention to Auranzeb’s cruelty and how he had betrayed Islam. The letter caused him much distress and remorse. Guru Gobind Singh’s formation of Khalsa in 1699 led to the establishment of the Sikh Confederacy and later Sikh Empire.

Pashtun opposition

The Pashtun revolt in 1672 under the leadership of the warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak of Kabul, was triggered when soldiers under the orders of the Mughal Governor Amir Khan allegedly molested women of the Pashtun tribes in modern-day Kunar Province of Afghanistan. The Safi tribes retaliated against the soldiers. This attack provoked a reprisal, which triggered a general revolt of most of tribes. Attempting to reassert his authority, Amir Khan led a large Mughal Army to the Khyber Pass, where the army was surrounded by tribesmen and routed, with only four men, including the Governor, managing to escape.

After that the revolt spread, with the Mughals suffering a near total collapse of their authority in the Pashtun belt. The closure of the important Attock-Kabul trade route along the Grand Trunk road was particularly disastrous. By 1674, the situation had deteriorated to a point where Aurangzeb camped at Attock to personally take charge. Switching to diplomacy and bribery along with force of arms, the Mughals eventually split the rebels and partially suppressed the revolt, although they never managed to wield effective authority outside the main trade route.

Death and legacy

Bibi Ka Maqbara, the mausoleum of Aurangzeb’s wife Dilras Banu Begum, was commissioned by him 
Aurangzeb’s tomb in Khuldabad

By 1689, almost all of Southern India was a part of the Mughal Empire and after the conquest of Golconda, Mughal victories in the south expanded the Mughal Empire to 4 million square kilometres, with a population estimated to be over 158 million. But this supremacy was short-lived. Jos Gommans, Professor of Colonial and Global History at the University of Leiden, says that “… the highpoint of imperial centralisation under emperor Aurangzeb coincided with the start of the imperial downfall.”

Unlike his predecessors, Aurangzeb considered the royal treasury to be held in trust for the citizens of his empire. He made caps and copied the Quran to earn money for his use, Aurangzeb constructed a small marble mosque known as the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) in the Red Fort complex in Delhi. However, his constant warfare, especially with the Marathas, drove his empire to the brink of bankruptcy just as much as the wasteful personal spending and opulence of his predecessors.

The Indologist Stanley Wolpert, emeritus professor at UCLA,] says that:

the conquest of the Deccan, to which Aurangzeb devoted the last 26 years of his life, was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, costing an estimated hundred thousand lives a year during its last decade of futile chess game warfare. The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital – a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a 1⁄2million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth … Not only famine but bubonic plague arose … Even Aurangzeb, had ceased to understand the purpose of it all by the time he was nearing 90 … “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing,” the dying old man confessed to his son, Azam, in February 1707.

Even when ill and dying, Aurangzeb made sure that the populace knew he was still alive, for if they had thought otherwise then the turmoil of another war of succession was likely. He died in Ahmednagar on 20 February 1707 at the age of 88, having outlived many of his children. His modest open-air grave in Khuldabad expresses his deep devotion to his Islamic beliefs. It is sited in the courtyard of the shrine of the Sufi saint Shaikh Burhan-u’d-din Gharib, who was a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi.

Brown writes that after his death, “a string of weak emperors, wars of succession, and coups by noblemen heralded the irrevocable weakening of Mughal power”. She notes that the populist but “fairly old-fashioned” explanation for the decline is that there was a reaction to Aurangzeb’s oppression. Aurangzeb’s son, Bahadur Shah I, succeeded him and the empire, both because of Aurangzeb’s over-extension and because of Bahadur Shah’s weak military and leadership qualities, entered a period of terminal decline. Immediately after Bahadur Shah occupied the throne, the Maratha Empire – which Aurangzeb had held at bay, inflicting high human and monetary costs even on his own empire – consolidated and launched effective invasions of Mughal territory, seizing power from the weak emperor. Within decades of Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal Emperor had little power beyond the walls of Delhi.


His critics argue that his ruthless and vindictive religious bigotry made him unsuitable to rule the mixed population of his empire and policies of persecution of Shias, Sufis and non-Muslims to impose practices of orthodox Islamic state, such as imposition of sharia and jizya religious tax on non-Muslims, doubling of custom duties on Hindus while abolishing it for Muslims, executions of Muslims and non-Muslims, destruction of temples, forbidding construction and repairs of some temples, which they argue led to numerous rebellions.  G. N. Moin Shakir and Sarma Festschrift argue that he often used political opposition as pretext for religious persecution, and that, as a result, Jats, Marathas, Sikhs, Satnamis and Pashtuns all rose against him. He also fought and eventually lost wars with the Ahom kingdom.

Full title

Aurangzeb’s full imperial title was: Al-Sultan al-Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram Hazrat Abul Muzaffar Muhy-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb Bahadur Alamgir I, Badshah Ghazi, Shahanshah-e-Sultanat-ul-Hindiya Wal Mughaliya.

By courtesy of




The Mountbatten Mission

Lord Mountbatten first became well known during the war years. He had spent some time in India and then transferred his headquarters to Ceylon. When Lord Wavell resigned, he was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General. Fully briefed by the Labour Government before he left, he came with instructions from Mr. Attlee that power must be transferred before 30th June 1948.

He reached Delhi on 22nd march and was sworn in as Viceroy and Governor-General of India on the 24th. Immediately after the swearing-in ceremony, he made a short speech, in which he stressed the need for reaching a solution within the next few months.

Soon after this, I had my first interview with Lord Mountbatten. At the very first meeting, he told me that the British Government was fully determined to transfer power. Before this could happen, a settlement of the communal problem was necessary, and he desired that a final and decisive attempt be made to solve the problem.

He agreed with me that the differences between the Congress and the League had now been greatly narrowed down.

  • The Cabinet Mission had grouped Assam and Bengal together.
  • The Congress held that no province should be compelled to enter a group and each province might vote whether to join the group or not.
  • The League said that it had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan on the basis that the group would vote as a whole and a province could opt out only after the group had framed the constitution. The League further argued that any change in the proposals of the Plan would nullify the agreement and on this basis the League had rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan.

Nobody can understand why the League placed so much emphasis on the question of Assam, when Assam was not a Muslim majority province. If the League’s own criterion was applied, there was no valid reason to force Assam to join Bengal. Whatever be the reason, the League was formally right though morally and politically its case was weak. I discussed the question with Lord Mountbatten on several occasions. I felt that the difference between the Congress and the League had reached a stage where agreement could be attained only through the mediation of a third party. My opinion was that we might leave the matter to Lord Mountbatten. Let the Congress and the League agree to refer the question to him and accept his arbitration. Neither Jawaharlal nor Sardar Patel would however agree to this suggestion. They did not like the idea of arbitration on a national issue and I did not press the point further.

In the meantime, the situation was deteriorating every day. The Calcutta riots had been followed by riots in Noakhali and Bihar. Thereafter there was trouble in Bombay. The Punjab which had been quiet till now also showed signs of strain and conflict. Malik Khizr Hayat had resigned as Premier of Punjab on 2nd March. Anti-Pakistan demonstrations were held in Lahore on 4th March, which led to the death of 13 persons and injury to many. Communal disturbances spread to other parts of the province and there were major disturbances in Amritsar, Taxila and Rawalpindi.

On the one hand communal passions were mounting. On the other, the administration was becoming lax. European in the services no longer had their heart in the work. They were now convinced that within a short time, power would be transferred to Indian hands. As such, they were no longer interested in their work and only marked time. They told people openly that they were no longer responsible for the administration. This led to more unrest and uncertainty among the people and created loss of confidence.

The situation was made worse by the deadlock between the Congress and the Muslim League within the Executive Council. The Central Government was paralyzed as the Members of the Council pulled against one another. The League oversaw Finance and held the key to the administration. It will be remembered that this was due entirely to Sardar Patel who in his anxiety to retain the Home portfolio, offered Finance to the Muslim League. There were some very able and senior Muslim officers in the Finance Department who gave every possible help to Liaqat Ali. With their advice, Liaqat Ali was able to reject or delay every proposal put up by the Congress members of the Executive Council. Sardar Patel discovered that though he was Home Member, he could not create the post of a chaprasi (peon) without Liaqat Ali’s concurrence. The Congress members of the Council were at a loss and did not know what to do.

A truly pathetic situation had developed because of our own foolish action in giving Finance to the Muslim League. Lord Mountbatten took full advantage of the situation. Because of the dissensions among the members, he slowly and gradually assumed full powers. He kept up the form of a constitutional Governor-General, but in fact he started to mediate between the Congress and the League to get his own way. He also began to give a new turn to the political problem and tried to impress on both the Congress and the Muslim League the inevitability of Pakistan. He pleaded in favour of Pakistan and sowed the seeds of the idea in the minds of the Congress members of the Executive Council.

It must be placed on record that the man in India who first fell for Lord Mountbatten’s idea was Sardar Patel. Till perhaps the very end, Pakistan was for Jinnah a bargaining counter, but in fighting for Pakistan, he had overreached himself. His action had so annoyed and irritated Sardar Patel that the Sardar was now a believer in partition. The Sardar’s was the responsibility for giving Finance to the Muslim League. He therefore resented his helplessness before Liaqat Ali more than anybody else. When Lord Mountbatten suggested that partition might offer a solution to the present difficulty, he found ready acceptance to the idea in Sardar Patel’s mind. In fact, Sardar Patel was fifty percent in favour of partition even before Lord Mountbatten appeared on the scene. He was convinced that he could not work with the Muslim League. He openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League. It would not perhaps be unfair to say that Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of Indian partition.

Lord Mountbatten was extremely intelligent and could read into the minds of all his Indian colleagues. The moment he found Patel amenable to his idea, he put out all the charm and power of his personality to win over the Sardar. In his private talk, he always referred to Patel as a walnut—a very hard crust outside but soft pulp once the crust was cracked. Sometimes in a jocular mood he used to tell me that he had spoken to Walnut, and Walnut had agreed with him on every question.

When Sardar Patel was convinced, Lord Mountbatten turned his attention to Jawaharlal. Jawaharlal was not at first ready for the idea and reacted violently against the idea of partition. Lord Mountbatten persisted till Jawaharlal’s opposition was worn down step by step. Within a month of Lord Mountbatten’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal, the firm opponent of partition had become, if not a supporter, at least acquiescent to the idea.

I have often wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten. He is a man of principle, but he is also impulsive and very amenable to personal influences. I think one factor responsible for the change was the personality of Lady Mountbatten. She is not only extremely intelligent but has a most attractive and friendly temperament. She admired her husband very greatly and in many cases tried to interpret his thoughts to those who would not at first agree with him.

There was one other person responsible for the change in Jawaharlal. An Indian named Krishna Menon who had lived in London since the early twenties. Jawaharlal had met him first in the late twenties and had found in him one who professed great admiration for Jawaharlal’s views. We all like our admirers but perhaps Jawaharlal likes them a little more than others. Sometime later, in the early thirties, the Labour Party sent a delegation to India led by Miss Ellen Wilkinson. Krishna Menon was attached to the delegation and visited India. He had also been taking an interest in the activities of the India League in London. During this period, his contacts were mainly with people who were regarded as communists or fellow-travellers. When Jawaharlal went again to London, Krishna Menon renewed his contact and reiterated his loyalty for Jawaharlal.

When war broke out, Krishna Menon suggested that he should be provided with funds so that he could carry on propaganda in London on behalf of India. When Hitler attacked Russia, he came in touch with the Soviet Embassy in London. He sent us many messages that he was meeting the Soviet Ambassador as Jawaharlal’s personal representative. He sent all kinds of proposals for securing the help of interests friendly to India. He also prepared schemes asking for funds from the Congress. Jawaharlal was impressed by him and requested me to grant some money. I did so and placed the matter before the Working Committee. Gandhiji and Sardar Patel told me frankly that they did not like my action, but they would say nothing since I had paid the money in good faith. They however, asked me not to make any further payment. They pointed out that Indians in London were sharply divided in their judgement about Krishna Menon. He had some supporters but there was a strong body of opponents who brought all kinds of charges against him. The general impression I got was that his conduct was not above reproach. I could not therefore trust him fully. Later events proved that Gandhiji and Sardar were right in their suspicion of Krishna Menon. He was, to take the charitable view, unreliable and had little concern for the way public funds were spent. Most people took an even worse view and regarded him as downright dishonest.

When the interim government was formed, Jawaharlal wanted to appoint Krishna Menon as the High Commissioner in London. Lord Wavell did not agree. The British Government also advised that his appointment would not be appropriate as he was regarded a fellow traveller. Soon after Lord Wavell left, Krishna Menon came to India and stayed with Jawaharlal. Lord Mountbatten immediately perceived that Jawaharlal had a weakness for Krishna Menon and could be influenced by him. Lord Wavell had opposed Krishna Menon’s appointment, but Lord Mountbatten decided to become his patron and invited him to the Viceroy’s House on several occasions. Krishna Menon had communist tendencies but when he saw that Lord Mountbatten was friendly to him and might help him get a position, he became pro-British overnight. He impressed Lord Mountbatten with his friendly feelings for the British. Lord Mountbatten felt that Krishna Menon would be useful in persuading Jawaharlal to accept his scheme of partition of India. It is my belief that Krishna Menon did influence Jawaharlal’s mind on this question. I was not surprised when sometime later I learnt that Lord Mountbatten offered to support Jawaharlal if he wanted to appoint Krishna Menon as the High Commissioner in London.

When I became aware that Lord Mountbatten was thinking in terms of dividing India, and had persuaded Jawaharlal and Patel, I was deeply distressed. I realized that the country was moving towards a great danger. Partition of India would be harmful not only to Muslims but to the whole country. I was and am still convinced that the Cabinet Mission Plan was the best solution from every point of view. It preserved the unity of India and gave every community the opportunity to function with freedom and honour. Even from the communal point of view, Muslims could expect nothing better. They would have complete internal autonomy in provinces in which they were in a majority. Even in the Centre they would have more than adequate representation. So long as there were communal jealousies and doubts, their position would be adequately safeguarded. I was also convinced that if the Constitution for free India was framed on this basis and worked honestly for some time, communal doubts and misgivings would soon disappear. The real problems of the country were economic, not communal. The differences related to classes, not to groups. Once the country became free, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would all realize the real nature of the problems that faced them, and communal differences would be resolved.

I did my best to persuade my two colleagues not to take the final step. I found that Patel was so much in favour of partition that he was hardly prepared even to listen to any other point of view. For over two hours I argued with him. I pointed out that if we accepted partition, we would create a permanent problem for India. Partition would not solve the communal problem but would make it a permanent feature of the country. Jinnah had raised the slogan of two nations. To accept partition was to accept the slogan. How could Congress ever agree to divide the country based on Hindus and Muslims? Instead of removing communal fears, partition would perpetuate them by creating two States based on communal hatred. Once States based on hatred came into existence, nobody knew where the situation would lead.

I was surprised and pained when Patel in reply said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India. He was now convinced that Muslims and Hindus could not be united into one nation. There was no alternative except to accept the fact. In this alone could we end the quarrel between Hindus and Muslims. He further said that if two brothers cannot stay together, they divide. After separation with their respective shares, they become friends. If on the other they are forced to stay together, they tend to fight every day. It was better to have one clean fight and then separate than have bickering every day. I was surprised that Patel was now an even greater supporter of the two-nation theory than Jinnah. Jinnah may have raised the flag of partition but now the real flag bearer was Patel.

I now turned to Jawaharlal. He did not speak in favour of partition in the way that Patel did. In fact, he admitted that partition by nature was wrong. He had however lost all hopes of joint action after his experience of the conduct of the League members of the Executive Council. They could not see eye to eye on any question. Every day they quarrelled. Jawaharlal asked me in despair what other alternative there was to accepting partition.

Jawaharlal spoke to me in sorrow but left no doubt in my mind as to how his mind was working. It was clear that in spite of his repugnance to the idea of partition, he was day by day coming to the conclusion that there was no alternative. He recognized that partition was certainly not the best solution, in fact it was not a good solution at all. But he held that circumstances were inevitably leading in that direction.

After a few days, Jawaharlal came to see me again. He began with a long preamble in which he emphasized that we should not indulge in wishful thinking but face reality. Ultimately, he came to the point and asked me to give up my opposition to partition. He said that it was inevitable, and it would be wisdom not to oppose what was bound to happen. He also said that it would not be wise for me to oppose Lord Mountbatten on this issue.

I told Jawaharlal that I could not possibly accept his views. I saw quite clearly that we were taking one wrong decision after another. Instead of retracing our steps, we were now going deeper in the morass. The Muslim League had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan and a satisfactory solution of the Indian problem seemed in sight. It was at his stage that Jawaharlal had made his unfortunate declaration at a press conference in Bombay. When as Congress President he declared that the Congress had not accepted anything but to participate in the Constituent Assembly, he had given Mr. Jinnah a chance of withdrawing from the League’s earlier acceptance of the plan.

I argued that our second mistake arose when Lord Wavell suggested that the Home portfolio be given to the Muslim League. This would not have caused any insuperable difficulty but because Patel insisted on retaining Home, we had ourselves offered Finance to the Muslim League. This was the cause of our present difficulties. Now a situation had arisen where we were becoming greater supporters of partition than Jinnah. I warned Jawaharlal that history would never forgive us if we agreed to partition. The verdict would be that India was divided not by the Muslim League but by the Congress.

Now that Sardar Patel and even Jawaharlal had become supporters of partition, Gandhiji remained my only hope. During this period Gandhiji was staying in Patna. He had earlier spent some months in Noakhali where he made a great impression on local Muslims and created a new atmosphere of Hindu Muslim unity. We expected that he would come to Delhi to meet Mountbatten and he arrived on 31st March. I went to see him at once and his very first remark was, ‘Partition has now become a threat. It seems Vallabhbhai and even Jawaharlal have surrendered. What will you do now? Will you stand by me or have you also changed?

I replied, ‘I have been and am against partition. Never had my opposition to partition been so strong as today. I am however distressed to find that even Jawaharlal and Patel have accepted defeat and in your words, surrendered their arms. My only hope now is you. If you stand against partition, we may yet save the situation. If you however acquiesce, I am afraid India is lost.’

Gandhiji said, ‘What a question to ask! If the Congress wishes to accept partition, it will be over my dead body. So long as I am alive, I will never agree to the partition of India. Nor will I, if I can help it, allow Congress to accept it.’

Later that day Gandhiji met Lord Mountbatten. He saw him again the next day and still again on 2 April. Sardar Patel came to him soon after he returned from his first meeting with Lord Mountbatten and was closeted with for over two hours. What happened during this meeting I do not know. But when I met Gandhiji again, I received the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of partition, but he longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the arguments which Sardar Patel had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but I could make no impression on him.

In despondency I at last said, ‘If even you have now adopted these views I see no hope of saving India from catastrophe.’

Gandhiji did not reply to my comment but said that he had already suggested we should ask Jinnah to form the government and choose the members of the cabinet. He said he had mentioned this to Lord Mountbatten and Lord Mountbatten was greatly impressed by the idea.

I knew this was so. When I met Lord Mountbatten the day after Gandhiji talked to him, he told me that if the Congress accepted Gandhiji’s suggestion, partition could still be saved. Lord Mountbatten agreed that such an offer on the part of the Congress would convince the Muslim League and perhaps win the confidence of Jinnah. Unfortunately, this move could make no progress as both Jawaharlal and Sardar Patel opposed it vehemently. In fact, they forced Gandhiji to withdraw the suggestion.

Gandhiji reminded me of this and said the situation now was such that partition appeared inevitable. The only question to decide was what the form of partition should be. This was the question which was now being debated day and night in Gandhiji’s camp.

I thought deeply over the whole matter. How was it that Gandhiji could change his opinion so quickly? My reading is that this was due to the influence of Sardar Patel. Patel openly said that there was no way out except partition. Experience had shown that it was impossible to work with the Muslim League. Another consideration probably weighted with Sardar Patel. Lord Mountbatten had argued that Congress had agreed to a weak Centre only to meet the objections of the League. Provinces were therefore given full provisional autonomy, but in a country so divided by language, community and culture, a weak Centre was bound to encourage fissiparous tendencies. If the Muslim League were not there, we could plan for a strong Central Government and frame a constitution desirable from the point of view of Indian unity. Lord Mountbatten advised that it would be better to give up a few small pieces in the north-west and the north-east and then build up a strong and consolidated India. Sardar Patel was impressed by the argument that cooperation with the Muslim League would jeopardize Indian unity and strength. It seemed to me that these arguments influenced not only Sardar Patel but also Jawaharlal. The same argument repeated by Sardar Patel and Lord Mountbatten had also weakened Gandhiji’s opposition to partition.

My effort throughout had been to persuade Lord Mountbatten to take a firm stand on the Cabinet Mission Plan. So long as Gandhiji was of the same view, I had not lost hope. Now with Gandhiji’s defection, I knew that Lord Mountbatten would not agree to my suggestion. It is also possible that Lord Mountbatten did not feel so strongly about the Cabinet Mission Plan as this was not the child of his brain. He wanted to be remembered in history as the man who had solved the Indian problem. If the solution was in terms of a plan formulated by him, this would bring still greater credit to him. It is therefore not surprising that as soon as he opposition with the Cabinet Mission Plan, he was willing to substitute it by a plan of partition formulated according to his own ideas.

Now that partition seemed generally accepted, the question of Bengal and Punjab assumed a new importance. Lord Mountbatten said that since the partition was based on Muslim majority areas and since both in Bengal and Punjab there were areas where the muslims were in a clear minority, these provinces should also be partitioned. He, however, advised the Congress leaders not to raise the question at this stage and assured them that he would himself raise it at the appropriate time.

Before Gandhiji left for Patna, I made a last appeal to him. I pleaded with him that the present state of affairs be allowed to continue for two years. De facto power was already in Indian hands and if the de jure transfer was delayed for two years, this might enable Congress and the League to come to a settlement. Gandhiji himself had suggested this a few months ago and I reminded him that two years is not a long period in a nation’s history. If we waited for two years, the Muslim League would be forced to come to terms. I realised that if a decision was taken now, partition was inevitable, but a better solution might emerge after a year or two. Gandhiji did not reject my suggestion but neither did he indicate any enthusiasm for it.

By this time Lord Mountbatten had framed his own proposals for the partition of India. He now decided to go to London for discussions with the British Government and to secure its approval to his proposals. He also felt that he would be able to win the Conservative’s support for his plan. The Conservatives had opposed the Cabinet Mission proposal mainly claiming it did not satisfy the Muslim League demand for partition of India. Now that the Mountbatten proposal was based on partition of the country, it would be natural to expect Mr. Churchill’s support.

After the Congress Working Committee concluded its session on 4 May, I went to Simla. After a few days Lord Mountbatten also came up. He wanted to have a brief respite before his departure for London. His plan was to return to Delhi on 15 May and leave for London on the 18th. I thought I would make a last attempt to save he Cabinet Mission P and accordingly, on the night of 14 May, I met him at the Viceregal lodge.

We had discussions lasting for over an hour. I appealed to him not to bury the Cabinet Mission proposal. I told him that we should exercise patience for there was still hope that the plan would succeed. If we acted in haste and accepted partition, we would be doing permanent injury to India. Once the country was divided, no one could foresee the repercussions and there would be no retracing of the step.

I also told Lord Mountbatten that Mr. Attlee and his colleagues were not likely to easily give up a plan which they had themselves formulated after so much labour. If Lord Mountbatten also agreed and emphasized the need for caution, the Cabinet was not likely to raise any objection. Till now it was the Congress which had been insisting that India should be freed immediately. Now it was the Congress which asked that the solution of the political problem may be deferred for a year or two. Surely no one could blame the British if they conceded the Congress request. I also drew Lord Mountbatten’s attention to another aspect of the question. If the British acted hastily now, independent and impartial observers would naturally conclude that the British wanted to give freedom to India in conditions where Indians could not take full advantage of this development. To press on and bring partition against Indian desire would evoke a suspicion that British motives were not pure.

Lord Mountbatten assured me that he would place a full and true picture before the British Cabinet. He would report faithfully all that he had heard and seen during the last two months. He would also tell the British Cabinet that there was an important section of the Congress which wanted postponement of the settlement by a year or two. He assured me that he would tell Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps what my views in the matter were. The British Government would have all these materials before them when they came to a final decision.

I also asked Lord Mountbatten to take into consideration the likely consequences of the partition of the country. Even without partition, there were riots in Calcutta, Noakhali, Bihar, Bombay and the Punjab. Hindus had attacked Muslims and Muslims had attacked Hindus. If the country was divided in such an atmosphere there would be rivers of blood flowing in different parts of the country and the British would be responsible for such carnage.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Lord Mountbatten replied, ‘At least on this one question, I shall give you complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier, not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle, I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt measures to nip the trouble in the bud. I shall not use even the armed police. I shall order the army and the air force to act and use tanks and aeroplanes to suppress anybody who wants to create trouble.’

Lord Mountbatten gave me the impression that he was not going to London with a clear-cut picture of partition nor had he given up the Cabinet Mission Plan completely. Later events made me change my estimate of the situation. The way he acted afterwards convinced me that he had already made up his mind and was going to London to persuade the British Cabinet to accept his plan of partition. His words were only meant to allay my doubts. He did not himself believe what he was telling me.

The whole world knows what the sequel to Lord Mountbatten’s brave declaration was. When partition took place, rivers of blood flowed in large parts of the country. Innocent men, women and children were massacred. The Indian Army was divided, and nothing could be done to stop the murder of innocent Hindus and Muslims.

Maulana Azad

Courtesy: India Wins Freedom by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Orient Longman Private Ltd., published 1988, the complete version. Translated by Humayun Kabir (1906-1969).

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was named Firoz Bakht at birth but was known in his youth as Muhiyuddin Ahmad and later adopted the pseudonym of ‘Abul Kalam Azad’. He was descended from a family which came from Herat to India in Babur’s time and among his ancestors were well-known scholars and administrators. Two years after his birth in 1888 in Mecca where his father Maulana Khairuddin had migrated after the 1857 Revolt, the family moved and settled in Calcutta. Azad was educated at home by his father and private tutors. His political awakening was stimulated by the partition (later annulled) of Bengal in 1905. He travelled extensively in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and France and had planned to visit London, but his father’s illness obliged him to return home in 1908.

Maulana Azad started the Urdu weekly Al Hilal at Calcutta in July 1912. He opposed the Aligarh line of remaining aloof from the freedom movement. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the journal was banned under the Press Act. He then started another Urdu weekly Al Balagh, also from Calcutta in November 1915 and this continued to be published until March 1916 when Azad was externed under the Defence of India Regulations. The governments of Bombay, Punjab, Delhi and the United Provinces banned his entry, and he went to Bihar. He was interned in Ranchi until 1 January 1920.

After his release Azad was elected President of the All India Khilafat Committee (at the Calcutta session, 1920), and of the Unity Conference at Delhi in 1924. He presided over the Nationalist Muslims Conference in 1928. He was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1923, and again in 1940, and continued to hold this office until 1946. He led the negotiations on behalf of the Congress Party with the British Cabinet Mission in 1946. Later he joined free India’s first government as Minister for Education, a post he held until his death on 22nd February 1958.

Among his other published works are Al-Bayan (1915) and Tarjuman-ul-Quran (1931-1936) which are commentaries, Tazkirah (1916) an autobiographical work and Ghubar-I-Khatir (1943), a collection of letters, all in Urdu.


The Battle for Afghanistan: No Easy Place to Rule

The Battle for Afghanistan

In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G.R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors. It was, he wrote,

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, ended after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”


The last survivors of the 44th Foot were exposed and surrounded at dawn as they stood at the top of hill of Gandamak.

William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot – a group of ragged but doggedly determined soldiers on the hilltop of Gandamak standing encircled behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in – became one of the era’s most famous images, along with Remnants of an Army, Lady Butler’s oil of the alleged survivor, Dr. Brydon, arriving before the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag.

Lady Butler’s famous oil, The Remnants of an Army, which depicts Dr. Bryden’s exhausted arrival at the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag. 

It was just as the latest western invasion of Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour in the winter of 2006, that I had an idea of writing a new history of Britain’s first failed attempt at controlling Afghanistan. After an easy conquest and the successful installation of a pro-western puppet ruler, the regime was facing increasingly widespread resistance. History was beginning to repeat itself.

The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distant echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged based on doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare-in this case about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador wrote from Tehran in 1838:

“we should declare that he who is not with us is against us . . .We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus, was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The parallels between the two invasions I came to realize were not just anecdotal., they were substantive. The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.

In both cases the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict. Just as the British inability to cope with the rising of 1841 was a product not just of leadership failure within the British camp, but also of the breakdown of the strategic relationship between Macnaghten and Shah Shuja, so the uneasy relationship of the ISAF leadership with President Karzai has been a crucial factor in the failure of the latest imbroglio. Here the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to some extent played the role of Macnaghten.

When I visited Kabul in 2010, the then British Special Representative, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, described Holbrooke as “a bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went”- a description that would have served perfectly to sum up Macnaghten’s style 174 years previously. Sherard’s analysis of the failure of the current occupation in his memoirs, Cables from Kabul, read astonishingly like an analysis of that of Auckland and Macnaghten:

Getting in without having any real idea of how to get out

almost willful misdiagnosis of the nature of challenges

continually changing objectives, and no coherent or consistent plan

mission creep on a heroic scale

disunity of political and military command, also on a heroic scale

diversion of attention and resources [to Iraq in the current case, to the Opium Wars then] at a critical stage of the adventure

poor choice of local allies

weak political leadership.”

Then as now, the poverty of Afghanistan has meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation. Instead, the cost of policing such inaccessible territory has exhausted the occupier’s resources. Today the US is spending more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan: it costs more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the US is providing to the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance. In both cases the decision to withdraw troops has turned on factors with little relevance to Afghanistan, namely the state of the economy and the vagaries of politics back home.

We in the west may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not. Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: In 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Muhammad?”

As he rose to power, Mullah Omer deliberately modeled himself on Dost Muhammad, and like him removed the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad from its shrine in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it, declaring himself like his model, Amir al-Muminin, the Leader of the Faithful, a deliberate and direct re-enactment of the events of First Afghan War, whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghans.

History never repeats itself exactly, and it is true that there are some important differences between what is taking place in Afghanistan today and what took place during the 1840s. There is no unifying figure at the centre of resistance, recognized by all Afghans as a symbol of legitimacy and justice: Mullah Omar is no Dost Muhammad or Wazir Akbar Khan, and the tribes have not united behind him as they did in 1842. There are big and important distinctions to be made between the conservative and defensive tribal uprising that brought the Anglo-Sadozai rule to a close in the colonial period and armed Ikhwanist revolutionaries of the Taliban who wish to reimpose an imported ultra-Wahhabi ideology on the diverse religious cultures of Afghanistan. Most importantly, Karzai has tried to establish a broad based, democratically elected government which for all its flaws and prodigious corruption is still much more representative and popular than the Sadozai regime of Shah Shuja ever was.

Nevertheless due to the continuities of the region’s topography, economy, religious aspirations and social fabric, the failures of 170 years ago do still hold important warnings for us today. It s still not too late to learn some lessons from the mistakes of the British in 1842. Otherwise, the west’s fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them to terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.

As George Lawrence wrote to the London Times just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War thirty years later, ‘a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent an unhappy country . . . although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however,  successful in a military point o view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless . . . The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839-42.’

 Despite the central strategic significance of this region, good writing on Afghan history is surprisingly thin on the ground, and what there is invariably uses printed accounts in English or the much mined India Office Archives in London. Yet astonishingly, while most of the sources are well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan historians, and were used by them in the nationalists Dari-language histories they wrote between the 1950s and 1970s, not one of these accounts ever seems to have been used in any English language history of the war, and none is available in English translation, although an abridged translation of a few chapters of the Waqi’ at-i-Shah Shuja appeared in a Calcutta magazine in the 1840s and a full translation of the Siraj ul Twarikh is currently under preparation by Robert McChesney at Columbia University, to which I was generously given access. These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of. The British sources for example, are well informed when talking of the different factions in their army, but seem largely unaware of the tensions dividing the different groups of insurgents who made up the Afghan side.

The Afghan sources also present us with a mirror which allows us, in the words of Alexander Burne’s cousin Robbie Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us“. To Afghan eyes the western armies were remarkable for their heartlessness, for their lack of any of the basic values of chivalry and especially for their indifference to civilian casualties. ‘From their rancour and spite there will be burning houses and blazing walls,‘ Dost Muhammad warns Akbar Khan in the Akbarnama.

For such is how they show their strength
Terrorizing those who dare to resist them

As is their custom, they will subjugate the people
So that no one makes a claim to equality

It is moreover, a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went, and riding ‘the steed of their lust unbridled day and night’. The British in other words, are depicted in Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect the Afghans to look at us.

If the First Afghan War helped to consolidate the Afghan state, the question now is whether the current western intervention will contribute to its demise. at the time of writing, western troops are again poised to leave Afghanistan in the hands of a weak Popalzai run government. It is impossible to predict the fate of either that regime or the fractured and divided state of Afghanistan. But what Mirza ‘Ata wrote after 1842 remains equally true today:

‘it is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan.’

No Easy Place To Rule 
Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan — or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last millennia- had had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. For more often it had been ‘the places in between’ – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.

Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.

Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting the Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between the Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime – the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires – and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale.

The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of River Nieman. Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Nieman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of he Baltic.

The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Treaty of Tilsit.

 Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain’s wealth. This, of course, was his enemy’s richest possession, of India.

The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon’s, as of several previous French strategists. Almost nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. “Through Egypt we shall invade India,” he wrote. “We shall re-establish the old route through the Suez.” From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter’s pleas for help against the English.

At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon’s initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.

So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 59,000 French troops of the Grande Armee across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20, 000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile General Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s ambassador to St. Petersburg was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians.

But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express containing the outlines of the plan to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them were instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood and to negotiate alliances to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India.

Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not “beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France,” he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the very “active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.”

In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon’s armies. One was sent to Tehran to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah, Qajar of Persia, the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amir’s of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company’s service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.

Elphinstone sat scribbling in his diary, trying to make sense of the Afghan character in all its rich contradictions.

Their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy; on the other hand, they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious, and prudent.”

He was astute enough to note that success in battle in Afghanistan was rarely decided by straightforward military victory so much as by successfully negotiating a path through the shifting patterns of tribal allegiances. “The victory is usually decided by some chief going over to the enemy,” wrote Elphinstone, “on which the greater part of the army either follows his example or else takes flight.”

The same was often true in India. Clive’s ‘victories’ at Plassey and Buxar were more like successful negotiations between the British bankers and Indian power brokers than the triumphs of arms and valor that imperial propaganda later made them out to be.

The British were beginning to understand that Afghanistan was no easy place to rule. In the last two millennia there had been only very brief moments of strong central control when the different tribes had acknowledged the authority of a single ruler, and still briefer moments of anything approaching a unified political system. It was in many ways less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through Malik’s or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted. The tribes’ traditions were egalitarian and independent, and they had only ever submitted to authority on their own terms. Financial rewards might bring about cooperation, but rarely ensured loyalty: the individual Afghan soldier owed his allegiance first to the local chieftain who raised and paid him, not to the Durrani shahs in faraway Kabul or Peshawar.

Yet even tribal leaders had frequently been unable to guarantee obedience, for tribal authority was itself so elusive and diffuse. As the saying went: Behind every hillock there sits an emperor – pusht – e har teppe, yek padishah nehast (or alternatively: Every man is a khan – har saray khan dey).

In such a world, the state never had a monopoly on power, but was just one among a number of competing claimants on allegiance.

Many of the tribes had lived for centuries by  offering empires their services in return for the political equivalent of protection money: even at the height of the Mughal Empire, for example, the emperors in far away Delhi and Agra had realized that it was hopeless even to think of attempting to tax the Afghan tribes. Instead the only way to keep open communication with the Mughals’ Central Asian lands was for them to pay the tribes massive annual subsidies: during Aurangzeb’s rule 600,000 rupees a year was paid by the Mughal exchequer to Afghan tribal leaders to secure their loyalty, Rs. 125,000 going to the Afridi alone. Yet even so, Mughal control of Afghanistan was intermittent at best, and even the victorious Nadir Shah fresh from looting Delhi in 1739, paid the chiefs huge sums for providing him with safe passage through the Khyber, in both directions.

The British later learned the Mughal model. According to a piece of imperial doggerel it became British policy to “Thrash the Sindhis, make friends with the Baluch, but pay the Pathans.”

There were other options: The Afghans could be lured into accepting the authority of a leader if he tempted them with four-fifths share of the plunder and spoils of conquest as Ahmad Shah Abdali and Timur Shah had both done. But without a ruler with a full treasure chest, or the lure of plunder to cement the country’s different interest groups, Afghanistan almost always tended to fragment: its few moments of coherence were built on the success of its armies, never of its administration.


Featured image: Skinner’s Horse riding out to war

Courtesy of: William Dalrymple, Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury Publishing London