The Pakistan Paradox


Pakistan focuses the concern of quite a few chancelleries and international organizations today. Not only is it a nation that possesses nuclear weapons without having a stable political system, the military having held the reins of power on a number of occasions since independence in 1947, but is also wracked by Islamist forces, many of which have links with the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and possibly the Islamic State. A serious compounding factor, the civil and especially the military authorities show considerable ambivalence with regard to certain Islamist groups that they view as allies against India in Kashmir, but also in Afghanistan, where NATO, now on its way out, has been mired in war since 2001 against the Taliban and groups based in Pakistan where Al Qaeda leaders are suspected of hiding.

Western fears about Pakistan have, however, been a poor advisor for sociological and political analysis, portrayals of the country too often being oversimplified. This is not to say that certain trends are not alarming, but in attempting to explain them, it is important to discard preconceived notions and avoid culturist conflations. The present book sets out to decipher this complexity. It is not a work of field research per se, but an essay based over fifteen years of familiarity with Pakistan.

The new nation was thus born with an image of India as a villain, a Satan, and a monster next door, out to devour the newborn state (Mohammad Waseem, Politics and the State in Pakistan, Islamabad, National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, 1994, p.99)

 Since the beginning, Pakistan has been confronted with the monumental task of formulating a national identity distinct from India. Born out of a schism of the old civilization of India, Pakistan has debated over the construction of a culture of its own, a culture which will not only be different from that of India but one that the rest of the world can understand. (M. Ali, “In Search of Identity”, Dawn Magazine, 7 May 2000).

As the two excerpts above indicate, Pakistan was born of a partition that overdetermined its subsequent trajectory not only because of the difficult relations it developed with India, but also because this parting of ways defined the terms of its collective quest for identity. Indeed, the 1947 Partition was the outcome of an intense struggle as well as a trauma. It grew out of a separatist ideology which crystallized at the end of the nineteenth century among the Urdu-speaking Muslim intelligentsia of North India, whose key figure was none other than Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder in 1877 of the Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College in Aligarh, a little town not far from Delhi. The Aligarh movement–as it was to be remembered in history–turned to politics in the early decades of the twentieth century when it became the crucible of the Muslim League. This party, founded in 1906, was then separatist in the sense that it obtained from the British Raj, a separate electorate for the Indian Muslims. The demand for a separate state emerged much later, in the 1940s, under the auspices of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, although in formulating it he did not outline contours of the future Pakistan until the last year of the Raj, nor did he fully grasp the traumatic implications Partition would have.


The 1947 Partition resulted in unprecedented violence. One million people died and about ten million others, crossed borders. The plural is in fact required here because Pakistan was then made up of two wings (and therefore had two borders with India), the two areas of the Raj where Muslims were in majority. East Pakistan (made up of East Bengal) and West Pakistan (made up of West Punjab, Sindh, the North West Frontier Province, the area that was to become Baluchistan, and a few princely states). Violence and migration were of such magnitude that this tragic episode can be regarded as the first example of ethnic cleansing in history (indeed, the word safai, cleaning was used at that time by the local actors). Not only millions of Muslims from East Punjab and Hindus from East Bengal crossed over and settled down in the western part of their now truncated former province, but Muslims and Hindus of both countries took refuge in the country where their community was a majority. The circumstances in which Pakistan was born are thus largely responsible not only for the way it has related to India, but also for its complicated trajectory.

Three Wars, Three Constitutions and Three Coups

The history of Pakistan over the last sixty-five years had been marked by chronic instability due to internal and external factors. In 1947, the British awarded Pakistan the status of a dominion. Under the aegis of M.A. Jinnah, the new Governor General, the 1935 Government of India Act became its interim constitution, minus its initial references to imperial control. It would take nine years for the country to give itself a constitution. In the course of this endeavour, political parties eventually lost the initiative as a result of their own internal divisions and the hunger for power of senior bureaucrats. In 1954, one of them, Ghulam Mohammad, the then Governor General who had taken over from Khwaja Nazimuddin, the successor of Jinnah (who had died in September 1948), dissolved the Constituent Assembly (with the consent of the Supreme Court) and had another one elected. The 1956 Constitution was not particularly democratic, but it could not be fully implemented anyway since another bureaucrat Iskander Mirza, and then the Commander-in-Chief of the army, Ayub Khan, seized power in 1958. Till 1969, the latter established a military regime that claimed to modernize Pakistan in the framework of Martial Law and then, after 1962, of a new constitution. This second constitution was authoritarian, but did not completely disregard political pluralism, especially after 1965 when Ayub Khan further liberalized his regime. But eventually, after months of unrest, he had to resign in favour of another general, the chief of the army, Yahya Khan in 1969.

By the end of 1970, Yahya Khan, having few other options, gave Pakistan its first opportunity to vote. The Bengalis of East Pakistan seized it to win the elections by massively supporting the Awami League, a party whose nationalism had been exacerbated by years of exploitation under the thumb of West Pakistan. Its leader, Mujibur Rahman asked for a confederal system that would give East Pakistan considerable autonomy. But almost all West Pakistanis–including the winner of elections in Punjab and Sindh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)- rejected this option and supported repression. Civil war ensued and resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971-after a military intervention of India, New Delhi arguing that violence and flow of refugees to West Bengal had to stop.

The arrival in power of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to whom Yahya Khan handed the reins in 1971, marked the beginning of the first democratic transition. Not only was the army subjected to a civilian government, but a third parliamentarian Constitution was promulgated in 1973. However, Bhutto displayed such authoritarian tendencies that the federal dimension of this text was stillborn and the social reforms (including land reform) that the PPP had promised were not truly implemented. Finally Bhutto rigged the 1977 election, a move that resulted in mass protests from the opposition. These events provided the army with an excuse to seize power once again led by General Ziaul Haq.

The second military coup gave birth to a dictatorial regime and even a police state: in contrast to the Ayub years, scores of politicians were sent to jail, opponents were tortured, and Bhutto was even executed in 1979. Zia also instrumentalised Islam in order to legitimize his rule. His Islamization policy affected all areas of life: education (with development of Quranic schools), law (with the setting of Sharia courts), and the fiscal system (with the transformation of zakat and ushr into compulsory state coordinated contributions). This policy gained momentum in the context of a new kind of war: the anti-Soviet jihad from 1979-88 in Afghanistan, its foot soldiers being mostly the Afghan Mujahideen who had found refuge in Pakistan. While Zia, like Ayub Khan resigned himself to seeking the support of Pakistani citizens through elections, he never gave up his uniform and it was not until his mysterious death in 1988 that Pakistan’s second democratic transition became possible.

This transition was not as substantial as the first one. While the generals returned to their barracks, they continued to be in charge of key policies regarding Afghanistan, Kashmir (India at large) and defense (including the nuclear program. They were also in a position to oust prime ministers one after another between 1988-99. Benazir Bhutto who had won the 1988 elections, benefitting from the PPP political machine and her family’s prestige-partly based on her father’s martyrdom--was the first prime minister to be dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in the 1990s. She was replaced by her archenemy, Nawaz Sharif, after army supervised elections in 1990. But Sharif alienated Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the army as well. He was dismissed in 1993 and replaced by Benazir again. She herself was eased out in 1996, this time by the President Farooq Leghari, enabling Nawaz Sharif to stage a comeback. The 1997 elections were different from the three previous ones because they gave Sharif’s party, the PML(N), the two-thirds majority that allows the prime minister to reform the Constitution: the thirteenth amendment re-established the parliamentary nature of the Constitution and deprived the president of the power to dismiss the prime minister and to dissolve both the national and provincial assemblies. But Sharif misused power. He did not respect either the independence of the judiciary or freedom of press. Furthermore, he alienated the army-including the chief of the army, Pervez Musharraf–by bowing to American pressures during the Kargil war.

In October 1999, Musharraf’s coup brought the army back into power. He then militarized the state and the economy more than his predecessors. Not only were (ex-) army officers appointed to positions normally reserved for civilians, but their business activities benefited from the patronage of the state more than ever before. While Zia had profited from the anti-Soviet US-sponsored war in Afghanistan, Musharraf exploited the fact that Pakistan had become a frontline state again during the war the US once again sponsored this time against the Taliban and Al Qaeda after the 11 September attacks in 2001. While Musharraf–like Ayub Khan-was ousted from power in 2007-08 in the wake of street demonstrations, those who protested so effectively this time were affiliated with a specific institution, the judiciary-hence the fear of ‘a government of judges” expressed by supporters of parliamentarianism after democracy was restored,

The 2008 elections brought back the same parties-and the same families, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, both freshly returned from exile-as in the 1980s-90s. Benazir was assassinated in December 2007, but her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected as President after the PPP won the 2008 elections. The new government, with the support of key opposition parties, restored the parliamentary nature of the 1973 Constitution that Musharraf, like Zia had presidentialised. Not only federalism but also the independence of the judiciary were at last in a position to prevail. However, the civilians failed to reassert their authority over the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence agency that since the 1980s has become a state within the state, and the army retained the upper hand on key policies such as relations with the Taliban, the Kashmir issue and the nuclear program. The army justified its role by arguing that the country was facing huge challenges ranging from the unleashing of ethno-nationalist violence in Baluchistan and Karachi to the rise of both sectarian and jihadi Islamist movements, some of which were affiliated with Al Qaeda and attacked the Pakistan state because of its association with the US in the global war on terror.

However, the escalation of violence did not prevent Parliament from completing its five year term in March 2013 and citizens from voting in large numbers two months later, mostly in favour of Nawaz Sharif, who in June became the prime minister for the third time.

The alternation of phases of democratization and military rule every ten years or so is not the only the source of instability in Pakistan. The recurrence of armed conflict is another cause. Some of these conflicts come under the category of civil war, such as the 1970-71 in Bengal or during the 1973-77 insurgency in Baluchistan-and the war that started in the mid 2000s in that area, Others have primarily opposed Pakistan and India, overtly or covertly. As early as 1947-48, both countries fought each other in Kashmir. In 1965, Pakistan attacked India, whereas in 1971, the conflict was a sequel to the the movement for Bangladesh. The most recent conflict, the 1999 Kargil war (named after a town in Jammu and Kashmir) was short and circumscribed.

Thus the number of military coups (three-four if one includes Yahya Khan’s martial law episode in 1969-70) is equal to the number of wars with India (three-four if one includes the Kargil war). This is not just by chance. In fact, Pakistan’s political instability is to some degree overdetermined by the regional context, and more especially by the sentiment of vulnerability of Pakistan vis a vis India.

Between India and Afghanistan: Caught in a Pincer Movement?

In the beginning, this sentiment (which would be exploited by the army subsequently) stemmed from the conditions in which Partition took place. Pakistan resented the slow and incomplete manner in which India gave the country its share of the military equipment and the treasury of the defunct British Raj. Pakistan also felt cheated by the way the Kashmir question was settled. On 15 August 1947, Jammu and Kashmir was one of the last princely states that was still undecided about its future. The Maharaja-a Hindu-and the main party-the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference-were not willing to join Pakistan in spite of the fact that the state was comprised of a majority of Muslim subjects. But they did not support accession to India either, fearing Pakistani retaliation.*

*Jammu and Kashmir was largely connected to the rest of India via roads which had now become a part of Pakistan.

On 22 October 1947, 5000 paramilitaries from the Pashtun tribal belt who were not in uniform but were supported by Pakistani officers infiltrated Jammu and Kashmir and established a parallel government ( the government of Azad Kashmir-free Kashmir) while they were approaching Srinagar, the state capital.*

The Pakistan army formally entered the war in April 1948.

The Maharajah turned to India and Nehru sent troops on 27 October. Three days later, the government of Pakistan deployed its own soldiers, but India’s military superiority enabled New Delhi not only to retain the Valley of Srinagar, but also to reconquer key positions such a Baramulla. Certainly, when the matter was brought before the UN Security Council, India was asked to organize a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir to let the local people decide whether they wanted to remain part of the Indian Union or not. But this referendum was supposed to take place after the withdrawal of Pakistan’s troops-which did not occur. In fact the Line of Ceasefire that was officially agreed in the truce signed on 1 January 1949 gave Pakistan control of a fraction of the erstwhile princely state that was divided in two. Azad Kashmir and the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, which were amalgamated to form the Northern Areas. These regions were directly administered by the central government. Most Pakistanis considered that without Kashmir as part of their country, Partition remained unachieved.

Furthermore, some of them feared that India had not resigned itself to the very fact of Partition and that New Delhi would try to reunite with the subcontinent one day or another. Not only did the Hindu nationalists dream of Akhand Bharat (undivided India), but statements made by a few Congress leaders lent themselves to a similar interpretation. Party President, Acharya Kripalani declared in 1947, Neither the Congress nor the nation has given up its claim of a united India. Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel concurred when he said, Sooner than later, we shall again be united in common allegiance to our country.*

*Cited in Muhammad Ayub Khan, Friends not Masters. A Political Autobiography, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1967 p.136. The very fact that Ayub cites them in his autobiography shows that one of Pakistan’s most important leaders believed these words to be true and/or used them to cultivate obsessive fears in his own country. Patel, according to another minister of the Indian government, Abdul Kalam Azad, was “convinced that the new State of Pakistan was not viable and could not last”-even though, “he was the greatest supporter of partition” among Congressmen, “out of irritation and injured vanity” (Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom, Hyderabad, Orient Longman 1988, p.225). Nehru himself at one point mentioned the possibility of creating a “confederation” between India and Pakistan, something the Pakistanis found utterly unacceptable (cited in Aparna Pande, Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, London and New York, Routledge, 2011, p.30).

The fear of India was reinforced by an encirclement complex due to the attitude demonstrated by Afghanistan. In the early 1940s, the Kabul Government had asked the British upon their departure to allow the Pashtun tribes of the Raj to choose between claiming independence and becoming part of Afghanistan. Pakistan was not an option. At the same time, the Muslim League was disturbed by Kabul’s unwillingness to recognize the Durand Line as an international border. In 1947, this attitude prevented the Pakistanis from having distinct borders, its territory not being clearly defined (or stabilized)on the eastern side either. These difficulties harked back to the pervasiveness of Pashtun nationalism on both sides of the Durand Line. Certainly, this nationalism remained fuzzy. It was not clear whether its supporters were in favour of a separate country made up of Pashtun tribes or whether they were willing to incorporate Pakistan’s Pashtuns into Afghanistan. Whatever their agenda, it was bound to undermine the project of Pakistan’s founders. The latter felt especially threatened because Pashtun nationalists developed excellent relations with India. The main architect of Pashtun nationalism under the Raj in the North West Frontier Province, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was a staunch supporter of the Congress and was known as “Frontier Gandhi” because of his close relationship to the Mahatma.

In June 1947, Afghan Prime Minister Muhammad Hashim Khan declared, if an independent Pukhtoonistan cannot be established, then the Frontier Province should join Afghanistan. Neither of these options came about and so in September 1947, Afghanistan was the only country that voted against Pakistan’s admission to the UN. The Afghan representative to the UN declared then declared that his country could not recognize the North West Frontier as part of Pakistan so long as the people of the North West Frontier have not been given the opportunity free from any kind of influence-I repeat, free from any kind of influence–to determine for themselves whether they wish to be independent or to become a part of Pakistan.*

*cited in the Aparna Pande, Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy.

One month later, Afghanistan softened its stance but made three demands in exchange: that the Pashtuns of Pakistan should be granted a proper province, that Pakistan should give Afghanistan access to the sea, and that both countries should sign a treaty according to which they agreed to remain neutral if one of them fought a war against a third country. None of these demands were met.

The leaders of Pakistan were convinced that Kabul and New Delhi tried to take their country in a pincer movement, as Ayub Khan confided in his autobiography. Indeed, in 1949, at a time when Afghanistan formally rejected the Durand Line, many Indian cities celebrated Pashtunistan Day, which Kabul had decided to celebrate every year on 31 August.

The Paradox

The fear of encirclement, and more especially of India, partly explains the role of the Pakistani army in the public sphere. Indeed, the military could project themselves as the saviours of a vulnerable country, and this argument was likely to appear even more convincing in the post-jinnah context when the political personnel looked weak, factionalized and corrupt. But there are other factors to the democratic deficit affecting Pakistan since the 1950s. To make sense of it, one needs to understand the way civilians related to power. Pakistani politicians not only occasionally collaborated with military rulers, compromising their reputation, but when they were in charge of the government they also tended to display authoritarian tendencies. Bhutto rigged the 1977 elections and many of his successors as prime ministers showed little respect for the independence of the judiciary and sometimes even for freedom of the press.

Pakistan’s democratic deficit can also be measured by the centralization of the state. Even when a federal constitution was (re-) introduced, the provinces were never given the autonomy they demanded, whereas almost all of them-East Bengal, West Punjab, Sindh and the NWFP—had experienced form of self-administration under the Raj and coincided by and large with an ethnic-linguistic group.

Centralization, once again may be explained by the need for a strong unified state to face India. However, on that front too, one should not focus mainly on this external factor. Certainly, the 1940 Lahore resolution through which the Muslim League officially spelled out its separatist agenda, recognized a prominent role for the provinces of the country envisioned, but their autonomy was drastically reduced as early as 1946 in the last pre-Partition blueprint of Pakistan as Jinnah imagined it. And in 1947, the citizens of the new country were required to identify not only with one religion-Islam-but also with one language-Urdu, an idiom that became the country’s official tongue even though it was spoken only by a small minority.

These developments reflected sociological dynamics. The idea of Pakistan was primarily conceived by an Urdu-speaking upper caste elite group fearing social decline. Made up of aristocratic literati, this group embodied the legacy (and the nostalgia) of the Mughal Empire. Their ancestors had prospered thanks to land and administrative status the emperors had given them between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. But in the nineteenth century, colonization called the privileges into question, not only because the British took over power from some of the Muslim rulers, but also because they did not trust the Muslims (who were seen as the former dominant group) as much as they did the Hindus.

Furthermore, the Hindus asserted themselves at the expense of Muslims because of their growing role in the economy (through trade and then industrial activities), because of their adhesion to the university system, which resulted in their increasingly important role in the administration, and because of their political influence that developed parallel to the democratization of the Raj almost in proportion to their numbers. The separatism of the Urdu-speaking elite crystallized in this context in the nineteenth century and was subsequently exacerbated (especially in the (1930s-1940s) in reaction to the fear of losing their traditional status-eventually prompting them to work towards obtaining a state to govern. The Muslim League leaders argued that they demanded Pakistan to protect Islam from Hinduism, but they also(and more importantly) did it to protect their interests from the growing influence of the Hindus,

The following pages will elaborate on this sociological interpretation of the Pakistan project, which is not new. Hamza’s Alavi developed a similar analysis In the 1970s-1980s at a time when Paul Brass argues in a similar vein that the League’s claim that Islam was in danger in the 1939s-40s was a political ploy used by elite groups to mobilize Muslim masses in support of their idea of Pakistan. But the present book’s approach is less Marxist than Alavi’s reading and less instrumentalist than Brass’s interpretation for the simple reason that it emphasizes the weight of the cultural and societal parameters that defined the mentality of the Muslim elite during the Raj.* More importantly, this book offers a reading of the Pakistan trajectory that focuses on the implications of these sociological factors for the country since its creation.

*Regarding Alavi’s approach, it may be sufficient to say that his definition of the “salariat”-the key actor behind the Pakistan project in Alavi’s view-is too restrictive. As will be shown, the idea of Pakistan was crafted by an intelligentsia that was not only motivated by vested interests, but by a specific upper caste Islamic culture. This is why an interpretation of Muslim separatism in terms of class needs to be supplemented by an analysis taking societal dimensions into account.

The history of Pakistan has been overdetermined by three sets of tensions all rooted in contradictions that were already apparent in the 1940s. The first one can be summarized by the equation Pakistan = Islam + Urdu. While all the ethnic groups of Pakistan could identify with one variant or another of Islam, they could not easily give up their linguistic identity, all the more because it often epitomized full-fledged national sentiments (or movements). Hence a first contradiction between the central (ising) government and centrifugal forces (which sometimes have given rise to separatist movements).

The second tension pertains to another form of concentration of power that the army officers and the politicians have developed over the course of time. Indeed, from the 1950s onwards, Pakistani society has been in the clutches of a civil-military establishment which has cultivated the legacy of the pre-Partition Muslim League in the sense that it was primarily interested in protecting its interests and dominant status. The elitist rationale of the Pakistan idea therefore resulted in social conservatism and the persistence of huge inequalities. Certainly, some politicians have fought for democracy, but they have never managed to dislodge from power a very well entrenched civil-military establishment and promote progressive reforms in a decisive manner-either because they were co-opted or because they eventually turned out to be autocrats themselves. In fact, some of the main opposition forces to the system that have emerged have been the judiciary (when the Supreme Court had the courage to rise to the occasion), civil society movements (including the media) and the islamists. In the absence of a credible political alternative within the institutional framework, the tensions that have developed have been especially radical. What has been at stake in most crisis that Pakistan has experienced has been the regime itself, not only in political terms, but also, sometimes in social terms.

The role of Islam in the public sphere is the root cause of the third contradiction. Jinnah looked at it as a culture and considered the Muslims of the Raj as a community that needed to be protected. They were supposed to be on a par with the members of the religious minorities in the Republic to be built. His rhetoric, therefore, had a multicultural overtone. On the contrary, clerics and fundamentalist groups wanted to create an Islamic state where the members of the minorities would be second-class citizens. Until the 1970s, the first approach tended to prevail. But in the 1970s the Islamist lobby (whose political parties never won more than one-tenth of the votes) exerted increasingly strong pressure. It could assert itself at that time partly because of circumstances. First, the trauma of the1971 war led the country to look for a return to its ethno-religious roots.second, the use of religion was part of Z.A. Bhutto’s populist ideology, which associated socialism with Islam. Third, Zia also used religion to legitimize his power and to find allies among the islamists.

The promotion of Islam by Bhutto and Zia was partly due to external factors as well. The former supported Afghan Islamists who were likely-so he thought-to destabilize the Pashtun nationalist government of Kabul. The latter backed the same Afghan leaders and other mujahideen (including Arab groups like Al Qaeda) against the Soviets in order to make the Pakistan army’s presence felt in Afghanistan and thereby gain strategic depth vis a vis India. Zia’s Islamization policy also (re) activated the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, an opposition that was exacerbated by another external factor: the proxy war that Iran and Saudi Arabia fought in Pakistan from the 1980s onwards.

The critical implications of the legacy of Zia’s Islamization—which also resulted in the massive infiltration of jihadis in Kashmir in the 1990s—became clear after 9/11 when the US forced the Pakistan state to fight not only Al Qaeda but also the Taliban and the Islamist groups that the ISI had used so far in Indian Kashmir and elsewhere. In response, these groups turned their guns towards the Pakistani army, its former patron, and intensified their fight against their traditional targets, the Shias and non-Muslim communities, creating an atmosphere of civil war.

The three contradictions just reviewed provide a three part structure to this book, which is therefore not organized chronologically. This thematic framework is intended to enhance our understanding of the Pakistan paradox. Indeed, so far, none of the consubstantial contradictions of Pakistan mentioned above has had the power to destroy the country. In spite of the chronic instability that they have created. Pakistan continues to show remarkable resilience. This can only be understood if one makes the effort to grasp the complexity of a country that is often caricatured. This is the reason why all sides of three tensions, around which this book is organized, must be considered together: the centrifugal forces at work in Pakistan and those resisting on behalf of Pakistan nationalism and provincial autonomy; the culture of authoritarianism and the resources of democracy; the Islamist agenda, and those who are fighting it on behalf of secularism or “Muslimhood” a la Jinnah. The final picture may result in a set, not of contradictions, but of paradoxes in which virtually antagonistic elements cohabit. But whether that is sufficient to contain instability remains to be seen.

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Nationalism without a Nation and even without a People?

After sixty-one years of its existence, Pakistan has gone from a ‘nation’ searching for a country to a country searching for a nation (Lal Khan, Pakistan’s Other Story, Lahore, The Struggle Publications, 2008 p.298).

Nationalism is a modern ideology that was yet unknown in mid-nineteenth century British India when the first signs of separatist trends that would give birth to a Pakistan crystallized. The Muslims were even less an exception to the rule as, despite their relatively small numbers—they made up one-fifth of the population of the Raj— they were wracked by both religious and social divisions.

Which Islam (s)?
Regarding religion, diversity among Muslims tended to be underestimated in British India as elsewhere due to a dominant analysis of Islam in purely scriptural terms. Differences are easily levelled when the fundamental theological and philosophical principles that can be said to constitute the core of Islamic faith are enshrined in a single scriptural source and are supposed to be universally adhered to by all those who call themselves Muslims. From such a standpoint, it is easy to define a Muslim based on the pillars of Islam:

1. Shahada (professing faith in Prophet Muhammad as enshrined in the Quran)
2. Daily prayers
3. Fasting for Ramadan
4. Zakat (almsgiving)
5. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

But this interpretation reflects a classic bias consisting of understanding a culture or civilization through what Robert Redfield called the great tradition.

In British India more than anywhere else perhaps, the little Muslim tradition, that of the people and not of the clerics, was highly complex and partly syncretic. More so it readily made room for seemingly heterodox elements such as the cult of saints or possession rites, in which certain trances had a curative purpose akin to exorcism.

This heterogeneity owed much to India’s distance from the Islamic crucible in the Middle East, both from a geographic and cultural standpoint. Not only was Islam transformed on arriving in India through contact with Turkish and Iranian influences, but Indic civilization was extremely foreign to it. Since it was unable to take over entirely, its followers and promoters were obliged to adapt—as elsewhere, like in Indonesia for instance. This adjustment resulted in various types of synthesis, the Sufi phenomenon being one of the more striking of them.

Sufism took on considerable importance in India due to its affinities with the Hindu ideal of asceticism. Its main figures attracted a number of followers, mostly from the lower strata of Indian society, and allowed a particular form of Islam to assert itself. This popular congregation-based Islam established the cult of saints and institutionalized dargahs—places of retreat of the holy men and later their tombs and shrines—which became places of pilgrimage. In the sixteenth century, under Akbar’s reign, the ulema declared that the pilgrimage to Mecca was no longer an obligation, while pilgrimage to shrines of Sufi saints was spreading.

Among the congregations, the Chishtis became one of the most popular. Established in India in the late twelfth century by Khwaja Muinud-din Chishti, a native of Sajistan (at the crosswords of contemporary Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), its epicentre soon became the Dargah of Ajmer (Rajasthan) where the founder of the Chishti order had moved and was buried. This Sufi order owed its influence—including among Hindus devotees—to the ascetic nature of the Chishti line that has come down through time. Other congregations on the contrary would become associated with the government, such as the Suhrawardis who would obtain benefits in kind (land in particular). Still others, such as the Naqshabandis, originating from Central Asia, would not only develop close relations with the authorities, but also show a sense of orthodoxy that resulted in hostile reactions to the Hindus—and the Shias.

Aside from the Sufi orders, other sects constantly developed within Indian Islam. The Muslims of the subcontinent first brought with them one of the structuring divisions of Middle Eastern Islam, the opposition between Sunnis and Shias. This schism for a long time remained latent, probably due to a strong demographic imbalance, the latter being only a small minority. But the political and social influence of this group should not be underestimated. Among them were many landowners as well as major dynasties such as the one that ruled over the Awadh kingdom in Lucknow until the mid-nineteenth century.

Among the Shias, the Ismailis mainly settled in western India, in Gujarat and the Bombay region. The Bohras formed the largest group among them. They recognize Ali as successor to the Prophet, but-like other–they diverged from the Twelvers after the death of the sixth Imam in AD 765, considering that his elder son, Ismail (and not his second son) should have taken over from him. Paying allegiance to the Cairo-based Fatimid Caliphate, they established their own church. Bohras experienced a schism in the sixteenth century that spawned two groups, the Dawoodi Bohras and the Sulaimani Bohras. While the latter would remain in the Middle East, the former migrated to India in 1539 and adopted a separate leader, the Syedna, to whom they paid full allegiance (and taxes). There, they attracted Hindus—including Brahmins—in relatively large numbers. Bohras have adopted a dress code that makes them easily identifiable. Other Ismailis coming from the Middle East, the Khojas, followed a partly similar trajectory. When they migrated to India in the twelfth century, their leader the Aga Khan-who claims to descend from Ali-remained in Persia till the nineteenth century, when they moved to India as well. Like the Bohras, the Khojas are mostly converts from Hinduism, but they have primarily attracted members of merchant castes such as the Bhatias (whose marriage customs they have retained). Muhammad Ali Jinnah-who married a Parsi-was born in a Khoja, business family.

The creation of new sects has continued into the modern era. In the late nineteenth century for instance, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1915) founded a movement known either by his namesake Ahmadi, or after his place of birth, Qadian, in Gurdaspur district in Punjab. This man claimed to be the new Messiah, contradicting the Muslim belief that Muhammad was the last Prophet. At his death, his disciples numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Although the Ahmadis were recruited among various castes, the Bohras and the Khojas, as mentioned above, came from Brahmin castes and merchant castes-and continued to pursue some of their caste-related activities after having left Hinduism. The coincidence of caste and sect is not rare in Indian Islam. This is the case of Memons. Originating with the conversion of one Hindu merchant caste, the Lohanas, in Gujarat by a Sufi saint in 1400, the Memons finally settled in Bombay in the early seventeenth century, where they prospered in trade and industry while maintaining a separate religious identity. At the other end of the social scale, the Moplas were Muslim peasants from Kerala who descended from the early Arab migrants settled on the Malabar Coast starting in the eight century. Exploited by the Hindu landowners, the Moplas were known for their frequent uprisings–the jacquerie of 1836 being the most famous of a long series of them. An ethnic community speaking its own language, Malayalam-which gave rise to a literature written in Arabic, Mappila Pattu-the Moplas also have their own priests, Musaliyars.

Castes and Tribes
Despite the egalitarian values that Islam professes to promote, at least since the Raj which reified social categories, the Muslims of South Asia form a hierarchical community, be they part of caste-based milieus or of the tribal world-or even a combination of the two. * The fact that the mechanisms of the caste and tribe overlap is not so surprising since caste implies endogamous practices that flow from relations of kinship also characteristic of tribes.

*In his seminal work on the Pashtuns, Barth shows that their predominantly tribal universe allows for caste practices in the Swat Valley. (Frederick Barth, Political Leadership among the Swat Pathans, London, The Athlone Press,1965).

The Pashtun tribal structures are based on a segmentary lineage system, each tribe comprising clans, sub clans and still smaller kin groups claiming that they descend from a common ancestor. Social hierarchies in this milieu have traditionally been fluid since they rely on the observance of (or disregard for) a code of honour, Pashtunwali, based on—among other things—righteousness and courage (for instance in seeking justice—a quest which has resulted in cycles of family-related vendettas). Tribal chiefs were men who best complied with life-style and displayed leadership qualities— hence the notion of individual captaincy emphasized by Frederick Barth. As a result, they received the title of Khan, whereas those who came under them were usually known as Maliks. Yet, Khans, were primus inter pares who could lose their status if their personal qualities eroded—and if rivals joined forces to dislodge them from power. The theoretically impermanent character of these hierarchies reflected the fundamentally egalitarian nature of Pashtun social order that was evident from the modus operandi of the jirgas, the plenary assemblies convened when an important issue had to be sorted out collectively. Certainly, only those who had inherited land were allowed to take part in jirgas, but land was regularly redistributed to prevent the best plots from remaining with the same families forever. This basically egalitarian system known as wesh was spoiled by the British when they recognized property rights of the big Khans. They did so to promote a group of landlords on whom they could rely to establish their authority via indirect rule. This policy, which took shape at the expense of small Khans precipitated the decline of the jirga culture. The big Khans henceforth exerted decisive influence in the assemblies thanks to the protection of the British, to whom they paid allegiance in return. Pashtun society had become (more) hierarchical.

Baloch society was also structured along somewhat similar tribal segmentary lineages during the Raj, but in a rather more inclusive perspective. Indeed, Baloch tribes were the by-products of migrations dating back to the sixteenth century. When the British Raj established authority over the Baloch area, at the confluence of today’s Pakistan and Iran, these tribes had already amalgamated groups coming from Iran as well as Pashtuns, Sindhis and Punjabis. Hence their resilient multilingual character and the fact that language has never been a distinctive cultural feature of the Baloch. Their unity came more from endogamous practices and their solidarity against others when they came under attack. Hierarchies were also more marked than on the Pashtun side right from the beginning because of the authority of Khans and Sardars who dominated the jirgas.

While tribes prevail west of the Indus, caste hierarchies play a dominant role in Punjab and Sindh, two regions more directly connected to Indian civilization. The caste system which originated in the Hindu world is based on three complementary criteria:

• The relation of purity and impurity, Brahmins of the top hierarchy embodying the first pole and Untouchables, at the extreme, representing the epitome of impurity in the social sphere.
• Professional specialization, each caste being traditionally associated with a socio-economic activity linked to its status.
• Caste endogamy, which perpetuates the social structure over time, each caste providing the frame of a closed marriage market.

Indian Islam softened the contours of this system without really questioning it. The most discriminating criterion of the Hindu caste hierarchy, the relation to purity and impurity, has generally not been as preponderant among the Indian Muslims as among the Hindus. As a result, upper caste and lower caste Muslims could generally attend the mosque together. But the Arzals (former Untouchable converts) usually remain excluded from it unless they remain on the steps outside. Similarly, they could read the Quran but not teach it.

Although observance of the relation to purity and impurity is less systematic in Muslim circles than in Hinduism, Indian Islam has established a social stratification based on geographic origin that is nearly as strict. The so-called noble (Ashraf) upper castes are made up of descendants of Muslims who (allegedly) migrated to India from abroad, whereas those who converted to Islam after it spread throughout Indian territory make up the two lower categories, the Ajlafs (lower castes) and the Arzals (formerly Untouchables) *.

*This rule is subject to many exceptions; some upper castes having gone from Hinduism to Islam without a drop-in status. Such is the case of Rajput castes in North India, for instance.

The first are subdivided into three categories in which are found:

1. those of Middle Eastern extraction (the Syeds who claim descent from the Prophet and the Shaikhs who say they have roots in Mecca and Medina),
2. those claiming a Central Asian, and particularly Afghan, lineage, the Pathans (or Pashtuns) and
3. last, the Mughals who claim Turkic or Tartar origins. *

*Few, the Mughals are concentrated in Rohilkhand, a region on the Ganges plain.

The Rajputs (a high Hindu warrior caste) are the only converts who are part of the social elite. The others are part of the Ajlafs when they are of Shudra origin, which is most usually the case. These were lower caste Hindus primarily cultivators and artisans who converted to Islam in the vain hope of escaping an oppressive social system. Most of them are weavers (Julaha or Momins). The Arzals are the descendants of Hindu Dalits who followed the same route with the same result. Among them are mainly sweepers (Bhangis in Sindh and Churas in Punjab) to whom are assigned the most thankless cleaning tasks.

Traditionally, these status groups often matched caste-specific jobs and were more reminiscent of the Hindu hierarchy as many indian Muslims came from this religion. The Syeds and Shaikhs, like the Brahmins, were scholars occupying positions of power in the traditional state apparatus; the Pathans—reminiscent of Hindu Kshatriyas-dominate the military (more so since the British saw them as a martial race and recruited them into the army in great numbers). As for the Memons, Bohras and Khojas, they usually ran business. The Ajlafs have remained cultivators and artisans—a particularly high number of weavers converted by entire caste. As for the Arzals, they formed a populace that can be exploited at will—and still do.

These social divisions go together with a legacy of strong geographic contrasts. A brief comparison between the Muslims of Bengal, those of the Gangetic Plain and those of Punjab suffices to illustrate the point. The first, primarily a result of mass conversion of castes of Hindu peasants, remained traditionally at the bottom of the social pyramid, even when the ruling dynasties were of Islamic faith. Not only were the Muslims of Bengal less numerous in urban centres—such as Calcutta— but in the countryside they were often under the command of Hindu landowners. At the other geographic extreme of India in Punjab—another predominantly Muslim province, like Bengal—the Muslims were also predominantly rural, Hindu merchants and intelligentsia dominating in the cities. But Punjab which warrants attention because of the key role it will play in Pakistan*—in contrast to Bengal, experiences some radical changes under the Raj. The British who were grateful to the Muslims of Punjab for their help during the 1857 Mutiny developed the economy of the region through the creation of a sophisticated irrigation system. The canal colonies would contribute to the formation of a new class of farmers in which Muslims would be over-represented since the Hindus were more over-represented in the cities, among traders and professionals. The British also protected the farmers from moneylenders by passing the Punjab Alienation of Land Act in 1900, which prevented non-agricultural tribes (mostly Hindu traders) from acquiring land.

*At the Quetta Command and Staff College, the soldiers trained to become the officers of the Pakistan Army learn that each country is organized around a vital province, its heartland, whose loss results in disintegration. In case of Pakistan, Punjab is naturally this key province.

Finally, the British recognized pirs (descendants of Sufi saints in charge of their dargah) as part of the cultivating group -making their land inalienable—and other groups (including. Muslim Jats and Rajputs) as a martial race, which gave then new opportunities in the army. The Muslims of Punjab did not for all that constitute an elite as they did in Gangetic India.

The Ganges Plain from Delhi to Bihar, the true crucible of Muslim civilization in India, was the area in which several Muslim political structures were experimented, from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal Empire—of which the capital was also Delhi for most of the time. After the gradual disintegration of the Mughal Empire, it was also in this region that many successor states ruled by Muslim dynasties, including the Kingdom of Awadh, took shape.The British who took over most of them in the first half of the nineteenth century, baptized the region the North-Western Provinces and Oudh in 1860, later renaming it the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in 1902 without changing its borders—which independent India would moreover keep for many years as the northern province of Uttar Pradesh was not subdivided until 2000.

Muslim society in this area was dominated by Ashraf of four categories, the Syeds, The Shaikhs, the Mughals and the Pathans. This elite—into which Muslim Rajputs readily include themselves without being accepted by the Ashraf as regards marital unions—is clearly distinct from the long list of Ajlafs* and even more so from the Arzals. The Syeds and the Shaikhs have a virtual monopoly on clerical occupations, which are often handed down from father to son. At the bottom of the social pyramid, the Bhangis suffer discrimination that excludes them not only from holy places but also restricts commensality. It is worth noting that in Northern India Muslim society there were practically no large merchants likely to go into industry.

*It includes Julahas (weavers), Darzis (tailors), Qasabs (butchers), Nais or Hajjams (barbers), Kabariyas (green grocers), Mirasis (musicians), Dhuniyas (cotton carders), Fakirs (beggars), Telis (oil pressers), Dhobis (launderers) and Gaddis (herdsmen and milk producers). See Ghaus Ansari, Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh.

From both a social and religious standpoint, Indian Islam across the territory delineated by the British Raj thus formed a mosaic that complicated the ascendancy of communal boundaries. It was a mosaic that not only fragmented the group but also made it more porous to outside, particularly Hindu, influences, as much due to forms of religious synthesis as to social ties. In fact, popular Hinduism and popular Islam have been the crucible of many syncretic practices which developed in particular around places of what thus became joint worship. Yet, even if Islam’s adaptation to Indian soil and its own internal tensions clearly show that this religion does not have the fine sociological unity that a scriptural approach would lead one to believe, the scale of the theological and doctrinal conflicts among Muslims of the Great Tradition should not be exaggerated. After all, Indian Islam has always seen, much more than many others, overwhelmingly dominated by Sunnism and a school of law, the Hanafi school.

This overview also suggests that the Muslims of the United Provinces were in a very peculiar situation, which explains their pioneering role in the movement that was to lead to Pakistan. The Muslims of the Ganges Plain formed a small minority in the province. In the first census, which took place in 1881, there were about 6 million of them, as opposed to 38 million Hindus. But although they were less than 14% of the total, they continued to be most influential, as evident from the fact that they accounted for two-fifth of the urban population. This overrepresentation in towns and cities—in stark contrast with the situation of their co-religionists of Bengal and Punjab—reflected their key position in the bureaucracy but should not conceal their importance as a landed group as well, since the Muslim aristocracy used not to live in villages. This is a legacy of their past domination and sign of their resilience.

Although they made up an eighth of the population, the Muslims owned one-fifth of the farmland, often as large landlords. The Taluqdars in Awadh, whose ancestors under the Mughal Empire were in charge of collecting taxes and meting out justice, continued to dominate the country, as the British recognized their property rights. Numbering fewer than hundred, these men exerted an influence that had as much to do with their prestige as their economic clout—including as moneylenders. The other pole of Muslim power came from the over representation of the Ashraf elite within the administration. Civil servants, whose prominence dated back to the Mughal Empire, retained power in the successor states—particularly the Kingdom of Awadh—that was handed from one generation to the next. In 1882–statistics not being available prior to that—the Muslims still made up 35% of the civil servants in the United Provinces—and even 45% of the Uncovenanted Civil Service.* Although they occupied two poles of power—one more rural and informal, the other more urban and administrative—these two groups, Muslim landlords and civil servants were part of the same world, that of an elite proud of its past and cultivating the refinement of the Ashraf culture. It was within this relatively small circle—there were 2.5. million Ashraf in 1881 in the United Provinces—that Indian Muslim separatism was born in the wake of the 1857 Rebellion when the status and the interests of this elite group were challenged.

*Francis Robinson points out that Muslims occupied 55% of Tahsildar posts, highly sought after as these local officers wielded great influence over their district.

By courtesy:

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Drawing Arbitrary Lines

The last British viceroy of India was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was known as Dickie to his friends. A member of the British royal family, cousin to King George VI, Mountbatten was dynamic and ambitious, and during World War II, he had risen to the post of Commander in Chief of Allied Forces, Southeast Asia. A naval man, his chief career goal was to become Lord Admiral of the British Navy, a post that had been denied his father during World War I because of the family’s German background. In addition to his other qualities, Mountbatten was charismatic and handsome, and his stock was raised further by his marriage to Edwina, an intelligent and driven woman in her own right. Still in his mid-40s at the end of World War II, Mountbatten was at the leading edge of a rising generation of British officials and politicians, and both he and Edwina developed a close relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Mountbatten was hesitant to accept the post of Viceroy of India when it was first offered to him by Prime Minister Clement Attlee in January 1947. He feared that the situation in India, then threatening to descend into widespread rioting if not outright civil war, could only turn out badly, and he did not want to damage his reputation by presiding over a desperate British departure. He was only convinced to take the post after a conversation with his cousin, the king, and after Attlee agreed to grant him almost unlimited powers to organize the transition to Indian independence. Attlee, for his part, was happy to agree. He wanted someone in India with Mountbatten’s drive and stature to replace the well-intended but pessimistic Lord Wavell.

Mountbatten was sworn in as viceroy on March 24, 1947. He tried to get the situation in hand quickly by arranging face-to-face meetings with top Indian officials, thinking that this personal approach might work better than arranging meetings with all present, which had a history of ending in stalemate. For the rest of March and into the first weeks of April, Mountbatten held several meetings with top Congress Party officials Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, as well as with Muslim League leaders Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. He also met with Mahatma Gandhi, the symbolic head of India’s independence movement, who at the time was concerned about both the growing violence in India and the apparent likelihood that the country would be divided. The meetings convinced Mountbatten that the partition of India was now the only realistic possibility left if Britain was to achieve its goals. Jinnah was simply too set in his conviction to see Pakistan become a reality, and Nehru and other leaders were unwilling to grant concessions to Jinnah or his Muslim League that might prevent or delay partition. Britain’s goals were a peaceful withdrawal and the assurance that India and Pakistan remained tied to their soon-to-be-former colonial overlord by accepting membership in the British Commonwealth of Nations. Mountbatten’s charisma was such, and his arguments forceful enough, that even the hesitant Patel agreed to accept the principle of partition. Only Gandhi continued to resist the idea, but he had no official post in the Congress Party or India’s interim government, so his objections had no binding force on the decisions of others.

The agreement that Mountbatten hammered out with India’s leaders was dubbed Plan Balkan by members of the viceroy’s staff who likened it to the divisions of southeastern Europe in the years before World War I. During those territorial divisions, the Turkish Ottoman Empire which had dominated the regions of southeastern Europe known as the Balkans for several centuries, retreated. It left behind a complex patchwork of ethnicities and religious groups that, in that sense was like India. Some of these groups, such as the Serbs, aggressively pursued nationalist interests whereas others sought simply to preserve a sense of territorial or cultural integrity. The conflicts that arose in the Balkans in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries were some of the prime causes of World WarI. Mountbatten’s staff feared that the Balkanization of India would prove violent, as well. One of the administrators, Chief of Staff Lord Ismay, later wrote, No one in India thought it was perfect. Yet nearly everyone agreed that it was the only solution which had any chance of being accepted by all political parties, and of ensuring an equitable deal for all minorities. It was not a gamble. There was no other way. Plan Balkan went through several drafts before Krishna Menon, a congressional civil servant, devised a solution that satisfied Mountbatten’s insistence that India remain within the British Commonwealth. Menon’s proposal was that both India and Pakistan become immediate. Commonwealth members and that India’s many princely states, rather than becoming independent, would join either India or Pakistan. It was, in effect, an acknowledgement that the partition of India was imminent.

Mountbatten approved of the plan and set out to convince Nehru and Patel of its merits.  Both had cone around to accepting the principle of partition but, perhaps impatient to actually govern after years of struggling for independence, they hesitated to remain closely tied to Britain. Jinnah had fewer such qualms, as he recognized that Commonwealth status would enable Pakistan to maintain strong military ties to Britain. Once Nehru was reassured that the plan would not permit individual provinces to break away from India beyond Pakistan, he pronounced himself satisfied. Patel, whose political arm twisting would secure the support of the entire Congress Party, agreed to it on condition that Britain leave India quickly, well before the June 1948 deadline announced by Attlee. Plan Balkan had now become Plan Partition.


On June 2, the viceroy convened a meeting of important Indian leaders, whose number included the Sikh representative, Baldev Singh but not Gandhi, although the Mahatma later turned up on his own. It was the first such gathering of importance since December 1946. There, Mountbatten secured Jinnah’s public rejection of the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan, which would have left India united. After all the principals left to consider the partition plan,  once again, Mountbatten met with Jinnah, where with some difficulty, he got the Muslim League leader to stop his endless negotiating and acquiesce to the partition plan as it then stood. The deed was done. Mountbatten had already secured the agreements of congressional leaders and the Sikhs. His final gesture at the meeting was to present Indian leaders with a prepared document entitled The Administrative. Consequences of Partition. It required them to face the practical consequences of their decision, to unravel the web left behind by three centuries of common habitation of the subcontinent-three centuries that is, of British presence, in which most of the unraveling would be practical and administrative: the division of government offices and property, the national debt and the armed forces. For many Hindus and Muslims, ties dating back ten centuries would have to be sundered, and many of these ties were abstract yet still vital, notably the connection of villagers to their surroundings and to neighbours who practiced a different faith. The partition plan, meanwhile, became public knowledge on June 3, but it did not specify precisely where the actual borders of India and Pakistan would be.

In a press conference, Mountbatten announced that the date of Britain’s departure would not be June 1948, nor sometime near the end of 1947, as he had originally thought. It would be August 15, 1947, two years after Japan’s surrender ending World War II. On July 4, the official Indian independence Bill was presented to the British Parliament; London having had to scramble to make Plan Partition and the August 15 deadline official. The British pronounced themselves quite pleased with events; one, Lord Samuel, said that “it may be said of the British Raj as Shakespeare said of the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.” Even Conservative leader Winston Churchill, who had announced in 1931 that to leave India would mean the end of the British Empire, gave his assent to the plan, and it passed into law on July 15. London’s leaders seemed to have little comprehension of the chaos their quick departure would cause. Meanwhile, in Delhi, Mountbatten printed up hundreds of large tear-off calendars to be placed in government offices, each new page noting that India was one day closer to independence.

The quickness of Britain’s departure left little time to accomplish the practical aspects of partition now that the ideal had been achieved. India’s governmental assets had to be separated, its civil service divided, its armed forces split, and, most importantly, borders had to be drawn. None of these tasks were accomplished without conflict or misgivings or, in the case of the borders, great violence. Adding even greater risk to the plan was the fact that India would simply take over a going concern with everything in place. Pakistan, on the other hand, would be starting from scratch, without an established administration, without armed forces, without records, without equipment or military stores.

Commissions and committees came up with formulas to divide government property, and the concerned officials were so conscientious that they worried about every railroad car, filing cabinet, desk lamp, and even instruments in police hands. After much discussion both sides agreed on a 1 to 4 ratio for government property. For cash assets and their counterpart, the national debt, the ratio was 82.5% for India and 17.5% for Pakistan. Government employees, meanwhile, generally remained in their places across the subcontinent or, if they worked for the central administration, made a choice between India and Pakistan. Establishing these arbitrary boundaries was reasonably straightforward, if not without conflict.

The division of India’s armed forces was more troubling for those directly involved and provided a clear example of the arbitrary borders being drawn. Although material assets, such as guns and ships, were divided in the same ratio of other government property, the same could hardly be done with the soldiers. Most troops were reassigned based on religion, a task fraught with difficulty, since, for example, many Muslims did not want to go to Pakistan, and other troops were neither Muslim, Hindu, nor Sikh. Many troops felt that their loyalty to the armed forces and to their comrades was more important than their communal ties, and they did not want India’s new borders forced upon them.

Meanwhile, officers were given the choice of either the Indian or Pakistani armies; mostly Hindu and Sikh officers chose India, but for Muslims the choice could be very difficult. Many Muslim officers had families and other ties to India and did not wish to uproot themselves. Others felt loyalty above all to Indian Muslims and the ideal of Pakistan, and they hoped to carry the traditions of the Indian army into the new country. These officers made their choices but, in some cases, brothers found themselves in separate armies, which, within months, were to oppose one another on the battlefield. Their fellow Hindu or Sikh officers, meanwhile were often just as distressed at the very idea of partitioning a force that had served India and the empire loyally for decades and had managed to remain aloof from politics.


Mountbatten’s plan had made no provision for any specific borders between India and Pakistan. No one had. All anyone knew was that Pakistan would have two wings, an eastern and western, separated by hundreds of miles of Indian territory. They also knew that, as part of the agreements tentatively reached already, the eastern province of Bengal would be divided, and so also would the western province of Punjab. Jinnah was forced to accept what he had earlier argued would be a moth-eaten Pakistan, shorn of some economic assets of the two provinces: part of the rich agricultural lands of the Punjab, as well as the Bengali city of Calcutta.

The division of Bengal and the Punjab were about as arbitrary as they possibly could be, the only guideline being to separate areas of dominant Hindu and Muslim populations. To draw the borders, Mountbatten organized two boundary commissions, one each for Bengal and the Punjab. At their head was a prominent London lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe. He knew almost nothing of India, which was one reason he was chosen for the task and flown to India on July 8.  Mountbatten and other officials thought his ignorance of India would allow him to act without prejudice towards either side.

Radcliffe’s commission met in a heavily guarded bungalow on the grounds of the viceroy’s mansion in Delhi. The Englishman worked with eight prominent India judges, four each chosen by Congress and the Muslim League. To his despair, Radcliffe quickly found that the principle of drawing borders based on population concentrations could hardly be done clearly and evenly; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs (who mostly hoped to live in India) were simply too dispersed. Some areas had a clear majority, but in thousands of villages, especially in the Punjab, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived side by side for centuries. Inevitably, large numbers of people were going to find themselves placed in countries where they did not wish to live or where they might not be welcome.

The potential borders might also give rise to devastating economic effects. The Punjab was watered by the Indus River system, which flowed down from the Himalayas in the north. Complex irrigation networks using these waters had turned the Punjab into the most agricultural part of India. Any new borders would not cross only cross the rivers, they would also split irrigation networks; a water pump that fed Indian fields, for instance, might be placed in Pakistan, making the entire system virtually useless. The economic vitality of eastern Pakistan was also in danger, although the drawing of the border there was generally more straightforward than in the Punjab. Eastern Bengal’s main product was jute, a natural fibre used to make bags and other packaging materials. Most of the jute was processed in factories in Calcutta. If the boundary commission decided to award Calcutta to India, millions of jute farmers would lose their livelihoods, turning eastern Pakistan into the rural slum that many feared. Meanwhile, pending any new arrangements, thousands of Calcutta factory workers might be made idle and therefore a potential threat to civil order.

The partition of the Punjab presented a particular danger to the Sikhs. They made up only 2% of India’s population, but the Punjab was their traditional homeland and was where most Sikhs lived. Drawn to the armed services, Sikhs had served in numbers disproportionate to their total population in the armies of British India, and a military leader named Baldev Singh had served as both the representative of the Sikhs and of the military during the independence negotiations of previous years. Their martial tradition derived, in part, from their perceived need to defend themselves from Muslim kings whose habit of oppressing Sikhs dated back to the seventeenth century. The Sikh population, one-sixth of the total, was scattered throughout the Punjab, and the area had been the home of an independent Sikh kingdom during the early 1800s.

Sikh concerns were not at the forefront of Radcliffe’s boundary commission, whose borders were mostly based on Hindu or Muslim interests. Sikhs in the western Punjab feared that the new borders would place them in a Muslim state where they would face renewed oppression in a repeat of earlier patterns of Muslim-Sikh hostility.  Militant Muslims, meanwhile, had little interest in seeing a large Sikh population maintained in western Pakistan. The situation was ripe for conflict and misunderstanding, especially as both Muslims and Sikhs began to, take up arms to defend themselves or to plunder the other. One of the Radcliffe’s few clear choices was to award the city of Amritsar, the site of the Sikhs’ Golden Temple and their holiest spot, to India.

Some Sikhs lived in India’s princely states, and the Sikh maharaja of Patiala was the head of the Council of Princes that had represented the states in India’s independence negotiations. The princes were very concerned to preserve at least some of their authority and privileges after independence. Many claimed that, since the British had entered into separate agreements with each of them, their states should return to full independence once the British left. Neither Nehru nor Jinnah had sympathy for these arguments, and Mountbatten was not about to let the question of the princely states slow down the rapid march towards independence.  Plan Partition required the princes to choose either India or Pakistan and be forced to sign articles of accession in each case, giving up any claim to political power. In exchange, the princes could keep their titles and a portion of their estates, which were sometimes vast and extremely wealthy. Groups of diplomats travelled to visit each of the princes, and by early August, almost all of them, recognizing the inevitable, had signed the accession documents. Three holdouts remained. One was the Nizam of Hyderabad, reputedly the richest man in the world. He controlled a state that was nearly as large as Britain and theoretically wealthy enough to survive on its own. He was a Muslim prince, however, in a state populated mostly by Hindus, and one that would be landlocked, surrounded by India once independence occurred. Another holdout was the ruler of Junagadh, a small state on the coast, north of Bombay. The third hesitant prince was the ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh. His indecision, and Kashmir’s strategic importance, led to the first armed conflict between India and Pakistan in the fall and winter of 1947.

Meanwhile, Radcliffe’s boundary commissions proceeded throughout July and early August with their unhappy task. They finally presented their boundary awards to Mountbatten on August 13, and Radcliffe, under heavy guard, returned to Britain, where he remained haunted by his decisions until his death. Mountbatten decided to tell nobody of his partition plan, not even Nehru or Jinnah, before independence had been accomplished. He feared not only escalating communal violence, but that news of the specific borders would dampen enthusiasm over the coming independence celebrations, when any troubles would be the responsibility of the Indian and Pakistani governments, not the British one. He kept the newly drawn borders locked in a safe in his office and diverted any complaints from Indian and Pakistani officials on the matter.

Territorial Loose Ends

India still contained territories controlled by others when it became independent in August 1947. Since Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian leaders wished to consolidate their new nation and prevent any fragmentation, they had to find ways to incorporate these territories and ensure both that India’s new territorial boundaries were secure, and that further fragmentation would not occur,

 Three princely states remained independent that August, their leaders refusing to accede to India, even though most of their counterparts had already done so. One of these was Kashmir, which only acceded to India under the threat of an invasion from Pakistan and whose status is still a source of conflict. The other two required drastic action by India’s government.  One, Junagadh, was a small state on India’s western coast, north of Bombay. Its prince, a Muslim wanted to cede his state to Pakistan, even though Pakistan lay some 150 miles away and most of Junagadh’s population was Hindu. Nehru’s government mounted a naval blockade of the coastal kingdom and, in October 1947, sent an army of 20,000 to take control of the state by force. The prince exiled himself to Pakistan, and Junagadh’s accession to India was legitimized by a vote among its people in 1948. It was integrated into the state of Gujarat.

 Hyderabad, a large and wealthy kingdom that possessed, among other features, its own currency and its own airline, proved more troublesome. Its leader, the Nizam-ul-Mulk, wanted to remain completely independent of both India and Pakistan. When the Nizam refused to give up his independence, Nehru and his deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, granted him a period of one year, until August 1948, to change his mind. After the year had passed and the Nizam still had not given in, the government authorized a large-scale invasion that resulted in four days of fighting and a victory for India, Hyderabad and nearby territories became the Indian state of Andrea Pradesh.

 Other parts of India still remained under the control of European colonial powers. In the south near Madras was Pondicherry, a possession of France since the seventeenth century. Realizing that there was little point to maintaining such a small outpost against the desires of India, the French relinquished it peacefully in 1954. France had already, in 1951, surrendered its other outpost: the settlement of Chandernagore in the suburbs of Calcutta.

 On India’s west coast was the large Portuguese enclave of Goa, the oldest European possession in India. Nehru began negotiating with Portugal’s military government soon after independence, but the Portuguese did not want to give up an enclave that they had held for more than 450 years and that was once the centre of their Asian empire. Fed up, Nehru sent in the army in 1961. The Portuguese were unable to mount any effective resistance over several days of fighting, so Goa became part of India, as did Portugal’s other small outposts, Damian and Diu, north of Bombay. Both Goa and Pondicherry were made Indian states and retained a distinctive part-European character.

Radcliffe had been unable to justify awarding Calcutta to East Pakistan, given the importance of the city to recent Indian history. Moreover, it contained large populations of Sikhs, Hindus and other religious groups. He placed the border of East Pakistan just to the east of the city itself, leaving the region without a major city. Calcutta’s governor H.S. Suhrawardy and other separatists thought, even in the spring and summer of 1947, that East Pakistan should become an independent country. In a clear example of creating new troubles by determining boundaries based on stated religious affiliation alone, Bengali Muslims had little in common with Muslims in the Punjab or other western provinces; indeed, aside from their religion, they were little different from Bengali Hindus, with whom they shared the Bengali language and numerous customs. Jinnah himself, meanwhile, had never even visited eastern Bengal, and it remained separated from Pakistan by hundreds of miles. Still, neither Jinnah nor Nehru was willing to accept partition into three rather than into two, and they completely rejected calls for Bengali independence.

The boundary awards in the Punjab gave the city of Lahore, one of India’s largest, to Pakistan, whereas Amritsar, only 40 miles away, remained in India. Elsewhere, the line was fairly arbitrary. Radcliffe and his advisers used the only available maps, which were old and outdated, and despite a few visits and flyovers, he gained very little accurate sense of the Punjab topography. Sometimes, not only villages but farms and even houses were separated by the blunt axe that severed Punjab. in a last-minute decision that was to have far reaching consequences, Radcliffe awarded the district of Gurdaspur to India. Gurdaspur provided the only reliable land route connecting India to Kashmir. Had the district instead been awarded to Pakistan, it is likely that Hari Singh, Kashmir’s maharaja, would have had no other choice but to cede Kashmir to Pakistan as well.

With the boundary set and the plans protected, Mountbatten prepared for the final withdrawal of Great Britain and the independence celebrations of India and Pakistan. One concession he had to make on the deadline was to shift it to August 14 rather than August 15. Hindu astrologers had pronounced August 15 to be an extremely inauspicious day and, in a nation where people consulted astrologers for important decisions on matters ranging from marriage to starting businesses to going to war, such opinions mattered. Astrologers determined that August 14, however, would be auspicious, and independence ceremonies were scheduled for midnight on that day.

On August 13, Mountbatten and his wife travelled to Karachi, the city proclaimed the capital of Pakistan. They were met there by Jinnah, who had been unanimously elected president, or head of state, by Pakistan’s constituent assembly on August 11, and the two travelled by open car to recognize the new nation’s independence. Jinnah’s lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan was to be the nation’s first prime minister and as such, the head of the government. Mountbatten later remembered being rather nervous because of rumoured assassination attempts, but Jinnah maintained his customary cool and aloof demeanor. Pakistan’s independence celebrations were as elaborate as could be expected, but Karachi had few facilities appropriate for large celebrations, or even for large-scale governmental administration. This left most of the celebrating to cheering crowds in the streets, which the two leaders’ car passed through. Karachi, a city of 350,000, was overwhelmed by the 250,000 visitors and migrants who had arrived to witness the independence celebrations and to shout again and again, Pakistan Zindabad! or long live Pakistan!

 Mountbatten gave Britain’s farewells to the assembled representatives of Pakistan’s diverse peoples in the crowded—and heavily guarded—assembly hall that had been chosen for the occasion. He was followed by Jinnah, who thanked Mountbatten and the British and expressed his certainty that the two nations would remain on good terms. Jinnah made a more dramatic speech on August 11, before the constituent assembly. There, he proclaimed that Pakistan would be a nation of complete religious freedom and tolerance, not the Islamic state that many feared. He assured his people that my guiding principle will be justice and complete impartiality, and I am sure that with your cooperation, I can look forward to Pakistan becoming one of the greatest nations of the world.

India’s formal independence celebrations began at sundown, when a procession of Hindu sannyasin or holy men, presented a collection of sacred symbols to Jawaharlal Nehru, designated India’s first prime minister, at his Delhi home. Also, that evening, Great Britain’s flag, the Union Jack, was struck from flagstaff at military and government posts around India for the last time. As in Karachi, hundreds of thousands of celebrants and migrants converged on Delhi to witness the celebrations firsthand, whereas millions of others readied festivities of their own in India’s cities and villages.

At midnight, after India’s constituent assembly had been sanctified by further Hindu rites and after a choir had sung the Congress anthem Vande Mataram, (I Bow to Thee, My Motherland), a Sanskrit poem whose adoption had angered Muslims earlier, Nehru rose to speak. His speech delivered extemporaneously, without notes, and delivered across India via the radio, announced:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

Soon after, India’s new flag, a tricolour of orange, white and green was raised at Delhi’s Red Fort, an edifice originally erected by the Mughals. The Gandhian spinning wheel that had graced the banner earlier was now replaced by a sign reflecting a much earlier symbol of India’s heritage: the Asoka Buddhist wheel of life. India had achieved independence. The planned processions of Nehru, Mountbatten, and other leaders through Delhi’s streets the next day proved impossible. The crowds were too thick and, to many people’s surprise, both exuberantly happy and peaceful.

At 5:00 P.M. on August 16, Mountbatten revealed Radcliffe’s boundary awards to India’s and Pakistani leaders—Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan had flown into Delhi for the occasion. None were pleased. The placements of Calcutta, Lahore and Amritsar were no surprise, but other issues inspired ill feeling. Balder Singh was dismayed that so many Sikh holy places had been awarded to Pakistan. Indian leaders were unhappy that the mostly Buddhist Chittagong hill tracts, in far eastern Bengal also went to Pakistan. Jinnah, for his part, was disappointed that Gurdaspur District, which again provided India’s only road link to Kashmir, went to the Indians, despite an earlier warning to Mountbatten’s staff that this would have a most serious impact on relations between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Radcliffe had apparently based his Gurdaspur decision on Nehru’s desire to leave Kashmir connected to India pending the decision of the hesitant maharaja, Hari Singh, to join one of the two nations.

The borders were revealed to the public on August 17, and those Punjabi villages whose residents had cautiously flown both Indian and Pakistani flags on August 15 now knew their status. The immediate effect was to vastly increase a torrent of migration towards India or Pakistan that had already begun. Within weeks, 11.5 million people were on the move. Ten million of these were in Punjab, as 5 million Hindus and Sikhs made their way towards India and a similar number of Muslims headed for Pakistan. These millions were people who had found new arbitrary borders drawn around them, often with little attention paid to tradition or other communal relationships, or to areas that had served the agricultural needs of its inhabitants for generations. The migrations were accompanied by communal violence that left hundreds of thousands dead.  V.P. Menon, a member of Congress who had played a large part in refining the partition plan and convincing many of India’s princes to accede to it, said simply as India became independent, now our nightmares really start. He seemed to understand that the drawing of new national boundaries did not automatically create viable new nation-states, especially in a land as diverse and complex as India, a land where people’s loyalties might be attached as much to a religious community, caste, cultural group, or village as they were to a traditionally defined nation-state.

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The Indian Partition Riots

Many Indians and Pakistanis, especially those from the Punjab, associate independence and partition with forced migrations, loss of property and death. This legacy is one of the reasons why the two nations have maintained a bitter distrust of one another in the years since 1947. Some 11.5. million people migrated between India and the two wings of Pakistan in 1946, 1947 and 1948, and of those, 10 million were from Punjab. The pattern was for Muslims to depart for Pakistan and for Hindus and Sikhs to leave the newly designated territories of Pakistan for India. The process was far from peaceful and estimates of those killed range from 200,000 to over a million. Sometimes the scenes of killing in these partition riots were so horrific that even hardened military men and war correspondents were stunned. New York Times reporter Robert Trumbull wrote: I have never been as shaken by anything, even by the piled-up bodies on the beachhead at Tarawa [a bloody World War II battle]. In India today blood flows oftener than the rain falls. Women and children were not spared and were sometimes killed by family members wanting to save their loved ones from defilement.


India’s religious diversity had periodically inspired violence in the subcontinent’s history, although incidents were usually small in scale and localized. Aside from overt periods of oppression, such as the late 1600s, when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a devout Muslim, directly targeted Hindu and Sikh practices and customs, the general pattern was for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to live side by side reasonably comfortably, especially in small villages. There, communities often had to share resources and abilities because survival depended on it.

The communal violence that attended partition can be traced to certain aspects of Indian history and village culture, as well as the circumstances of partition itself. First, Great Britain had used a policy of divide and rule in its Indian possessions. After the so-called mutiny of 1857, when Hindu and Muslim soldiers in Britain’s Indian armies revolted against their officers, and British rule in principle, the British purposefully encouraged separation among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Leaders believed that by dividing the communities, order could be maintained and, more important, another large-scale rebellion could be prevented.

Knowingly or not, Indian independence leaders picked up on the practice of divide and rule. Mahatma Gandhi’s actions and sentiments were based in Hinduism despite his belief in the truth and equality of all religions, and many Indian Muslims scoffed at his argument that they did not constitute a true nation but were mostly Hindus who had converted and were therefore fundamentally Indian. Ironically, Gandhi also displeased Hindu fundamentalists. They found him far too open minded with regard not only to Islam but also caste restrictions and the status of untouchables. After the government reforms of 1937, meanwhile, Hindu Congress members who found themselves in important positions often gave precedence to Hindus over Muslims. Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, for his part, stirred up Muslim communal feeling after 1937 with his claims that the British Raj would be replaced by a Hindu one.

The other trend was a shift in everyday relations among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from 1942 on. The imminence of partition and the encouraging of communal conflict by leaders brought to the surface tensions often ignored or tolerated in the past.  In villages, for instance, Muslims were often indebted to moneylenders for seed, fertilizer and other resources. Since Muslims were forbidden by their religion to engage in money lending, their creditors were invariably Hindus. After the borders were announced in August 1947, Muslim farmers suddenly found it possible to free themselves from debt by forcing the moneylenders to flee to India or by simply killing them. Sikhs, meanwhile, remembered that it was Muslims who had targeted many of their seventeenth-century founders and plotted revenge for these long-ago acts, even though in earlier years few had worried overtly about such distant matters. On an even more trivial level, aspects of life and religion that in other times were little more than objects of curiosity or discussion—dietary prohibitions, dress, festivals—now became reasons to think of others as dangerous and threatening.

Greed also played a part in the partition riots. On both sides of the border, people saw opportunities to seize the property of those leaving. To encourage quick departures, looters and thieves threatened or carried out violent acts. Meanwhile refugees themselves could be targeted by thieves in search of gold, jewelry, cash, and other portable valuables. Often, robbery turned into rape and murder. In some instances, attacks were carried out by organized bands, such as the Sikh jathas, often made up of former soldiers who had been recently demobilized. The Sikhs, especially were afraid that their very way of life was being threatened and were stirred up by radical leaders such as Tara Singh.

The cycle of violence spun out of control, and neither British, Indian, nor Pakistani authorities were able to do much about it until the riots had burned themselves out. Attacks inspired other attacks, as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs vowed revenge for atrocities committed by their enemies. Many found violence an outlet for their frustration and despair over having to leave homelands that, in many cases, their ancestors had lived in and cultivated for centuries.

There had already been small incidents, but the violence of partition truly began on August 16, 1946, the Muslim League’s Direct-Action Day. For that day Jinnah and the central working committee of the League had called for a “universal Muslim hartal” in response to what they saw as British duplicity and an egregious power grab by Congress in setting up an interim government the previous month. A hartal was a distinctly Indian form of protest, used often by the independence movement. It called for a complete stoppage of work, school and other everyday activities. Hartals were supposed to be non violent and, in most of India, this one too. The major exception was Calcutta, India’s most violent city and a place called the city of the dreadful night by Rudyard Kipling, the British imperialist author. There from August 16 to August 19, communal rioting left about 5,000 people dead and 15,000 more injured. Tens of thousands more were turned into exiles or refugees. Officials gradually restored order, but the poorer quarters of Calcutta remained in constant state of tension and insecurity.

The Great Calcutta Killings started a pattern that was to be repeated for many months. Calcutta Muslims had used the occasion of the hartal to target local Hindus and Sikhs. The latter groups then sought retaliation against Muslims. When on September 2, the Congress dominated interim government took office, a new wave of riots broke out in Bombay and other cities as Muslim activists turned the day into one of mourning. Attacks in Calcutta continued, and they indicate clearly the back-and-forth nature of the communal killings. During September, 162 Muslims and 158 Hindus were killed there.

The British viceroy, Lord Wavell, feared complete collapse in public order and grew increasingly pessimistic about India’s future. He seemed to take to heart Gandhi’s warning that if India wants her blood bath she shall have it.  Muslim League representatives were eventually brought into the interim government, which quelled the violence for a while, but Wavell was not reassured. He told the British Cabinet towards the end of the year that he did not believe that the colonial government or its armed forces could hold India for another 18 months as Prime Minister Attlee hoped. He had also been drawing up plans for the evacuation of British personnel in the event of a large-scale outbreak of violence. Wavell’s attitude left Indian leaders in a troublesome position; it seemed the British could do little about the spread of violence but, because the Indians did not control the country yet, they could do little, either.

The next large-scale outbreak of violence occurred in the Noakhali and Tippera districts of eastern Bengal. It was a region with a long history of communal tension because of the large gap in wealth between the Muslims peasant farmers and Hindu landlords and professionals. In a wave of attacks orchestrated, apparently, by a powerful Muslim League official who used both hired thugs and elements of the League’s paramilitary wing, the Muslim National Guard, Noakhali erupted in a series of thefts, rapes, forced conversions and murders. Thousands of Hindu refugees fled westwards to Calcutta and the province of Bihar, a bit farther west, bringing with them their stories of horror.

In a continuation of the increasingly familiar pattern, Hindus responded to Noakhali with attacks on Bihari Muslims, and the violence even spread to Uttar Pradesh, the province to the west. In the Bihari case, the radical Hindu paramilitary group, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Personal Service Society), sometimes took part. In the last weeks of 1946, Hindu groups killed about 7,000 Bihari Muslims, an estimated 75% of whom were women and children. A horrified Jawaharlal Nehru, the head of the interim government, nearly resigned in despair at the news of Noakhali and Bihar.

Mahatma Gandhi, unhappy with India’s partition and distressed by the turn to violence, adopted the restoration of peaceful Hindu-Muslim relations as a personal crusade. He travelled to Noakhali in the aftermath of the violence there, and walked from village to village, visiting hundreds of Hindu and Muslim families and often asking them something to eat and a place to sleep. Along the way, he begged these ordinary people to end any support for radical activists, and he tried to convince community leaders to sit down with one another and make their peace. He later visited Bihar, where he announced that the sins of Noakhali Muslims and of the Bihar Hindus are of the same magnitude and are equally condemnable. Although Gandhi was usually received peacefully by villagers, he suffered occasional abuse from Muslims and from Hindu radicals.

Vast outbreaks of rioting in the Punjab formed part of the context in which the Congress Party, the Muslim League, and British leaders devised their partition plan in the spring of 1947. By the time Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived to replace Wavell as viceroy and use his personal drive and charisma to move the process forward, the Punjab had erupted. The coalition government in the province, representing Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims not affiliated with the Muslim League was dissolved in March. This created an opening for radical Sikh separatists who, led by Tara Singh, hoped to carve out their own independent state out of the Punjab. With Tara Singh calling for blood, Sikh activists attacked Muslim League representatives in Lahore, Amritsar and other Punjab cities and towns. Muslims reacted in kind, and the riots, murders, robberies and rapes spread from the towns to the countryside. Hindus were inevitably caught up in the violence. An incident there illustrates how small problems became the inspiration for large-scale communal violence.

Soon after Mountbatten took office, he received a message from the British governor of the Punjab citing a small, domestic spat outside of the city of Rawalpindi: A Muslim’s water buffalo had wandered on the property of his Sikh neighbour. When its owner sought to reclaim it, a fight, then a riot, erupted. Two hours later, a hundred human beings lay in the surrounding fields, hacked to death with scythes and knives because of the vagrant humours of a water buffalo.

Mahatma Gandhi: A One-Man Boundary Force

As the Punjab exploded into violence in the months before and after partition, many feared that the city of Calcutta would erupt as well. India’s most violent city, Calcutta had been the centre of the first major outbreak of partition riots, the “Great Calcutta Killings” of August 1946, which had left about 5,000 people dead.

In 1947, however, Calcutta remained mostly peaceful. The main reason was the presence of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual leader of India’s independence movement and a man willing to risk his own life to preserve peace in India, In the decades following the World War I era (1914-1918), Gandhi had staged actions ranging from mass marches to hunger strikes to daily prayer meetings to move India towards independence. Also, an advocate of non-violence, he was horrified at the partition riots. In a manner keeping with his patterns of public action, he went to Calcutta in August 1947 to stage a hunger strike to keep the peace. On the tensest day, August 15, the day of independence, he was joined by Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Leander of Calcutta’s Muslims and the sort of corrupt politician whom Gandhi disliked. That day, peace held in Calcutta and the two gave up their hunger strike. Lord Mountbatten, Britain’s last leader of India, called Gandhi a one-man boundary force. It was a reference to the other, official boundary force, a unit of 55,000 troops that was, even then, failing to maintain order in the Punjab.

Over the following weeks, as the Punjab jab erupted even more violently, Gandhi stayed in Calcutta, which remained peaceful. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Calcuttans- Hindus, Muslims and Sikh-gathered in the city’s central open space, the Maidan, to try to catch a glimpse of the Mahatma as he went to his daily prayer meetings. By September, several incidents and misunderstandings had brought communal violence to Calcutta. To stop it, Gandhi now proclaimed a fast unto death. After more than three days of eating nothing, the Mahatma received a pledge from Calcutta’s Hindus, Muslims and Sikh leaders promising to stop any further communal violence. He ended his fast, and the communal leaders were true to their word Calcutta’s peace held.

At the end of July 1947, Mountbatten took steps to form a Punjab Boundary Force to try to restore order to the region. It was to be led by a British officer but be mostly composed of Indian troops, many of them Nepali Buddhist Gurkhas, rather than Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs.  Numbering 55,000 altogether, the force would be advised by both Indian and Pakistani authorities both before and after the independence. Although the force hastily took the field, it could do little. There were simply not enough troops to cover the territory, a problem that was compounded by the fact that most of the violence was taking place in the countryside rather than the cities. In addition, the force could count on little local cooperation. Even the police, who generally came from the regions they patrolled, often took part in or ignored the communal violence.

The Punjab was still in flames when independence arrived. One British official wrote: The Punjab is an absolute inferno and it is still going strong. Thousands have been murdered and tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming about. There has been a lot of arson. It will take generations of work to put things straight.

Mountbatten remembered looking down in despair from his airplane at the fires burning in towns and villages as he returned from the independence celebrations at Karachi to those in Delhi on August 15. On August 14, Nehru heard from associates that in Lahore, a city he loved, fires were burning, and women and children seeking water were cut down by Muslim mobs. He said, how am I going to talk tonight? How am I going to pretend there’s joy in my heart for India’s independence when I know Lahore, our beautiful Lahore, is burning?”

A British soldier at the scene spoke much more directly. He remembered that in parts of Lahore,

Corpses lay in the gutter. Nearby a posse of Muslim police chatted unconcerned. A British major. . . had also arrived. He and his driver were collecting the bodies. Some were dead. Some were dying. All were horribly mutilated. They were Sikhs. Their long hair and beards were matted with blood. An old man, not so bad as the rest, asked me where we were taking them. “To hospital,” I replied, adding to hearten him, “You’re not going to die.”

“I shall,” he said, “if there is a Muslim doctor.”

The violence in the Punjab was at its worst that August and September when, with the borders known, the great migrations began. Millions set out, carrying whatever they could. There were caravans of refugees miles long, with one containing an estimated 800,000 people leaving West Punjab for India. The numbers could provide protection against attackers, but not from shortages of food and water, nor from disease, and refugees suffered greatly.

Amongst the grimmest episodes of violence were those on the trains that traversed the region especially those that travelled the short distance between Lahore and Amritsar. For refugees, trains were far quicker than walking, especially given the heat and the shortages of fresh food and water, but each train was overcrowded. For attackers, however, it was easy to judge who was on the trains simply by the direction they were travelling. They learned to stop the trains, sometimes with as simple a measure as placing a cow on the tracks. Then they would rob, rape, and murder with impunity. It was common for trains full of corpses to reach the station in Lahore and Amritsar, as well those of smaller towns. During these deadly weeks, there were periods of four or five days at a stretch during which not a single train reached Lahore or Amritsar without its complement of dead and wounded.

An Indian army officer, K.P. Candeth recalled, I remember seeing a train come in from Pakistan and there wasn’t a single live person on it; there were just bodies, dead and butchered. Now, that train entered India and the people saw it. And the next Pakistan-bound train that came, they set upon it, and the slaughter was terrible. These ghost trains in the words of novelist Khushwant Singh in his story of the period, Train to Pakistan, have become part of the common memory of the era of partition.


As fall turned to winter, the violence wound down, even in the Punjab and in Delhi itself, now a city crowded with angry and hungry refugees. Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel convinced Mountbatten, now serving as India’s Governor-General, to head an emergency committee designed to restore order in the Punjab, while Indian leaders undertook the same effort in Delhi. Edwina Mountbatten took a leading role in refugee relief efforts and, as peace returned, some emphasized the blessing that, outside of the Punjab, both India and Pakistan had remained mostly peaceful.

The violence of partition had mostly burned itself out when, in early January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi settled in at Birla House in Delhi, the home of a wealthy industrialist who contributed much to the Mahatma’s causes. He started another hunger strike there on January 12, demanding not only the end of communal violence but complete peace between India and Pakistan. This fast brought him near death, but he ended it when a settlement was negotiated between India and Pakistan; its main feature was an agreement by the Indian government to pay Pakistan forty million pounds that the Pakistanis claimed was theirs by right from the partition settlement.

On January 30, on the grounds of Birla House, Gandhi was on his way to his daily prayer meeting when he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist named Nathuram Godse. Alerted Mountbatten quickly reached the scene. Like all other leaders, he was afraid that the event would spark a new and even more brutal wave of violence, especially if a Muslim had pulled the trigger. As he entered the grounds of Birla House, and in response to a voice claiming that a Muslim had shot Gandhi, Mountbatten shouted, without knowing whether it was true: You fool! Don’t you know it was a Hindu?

Gandhi’s death was a turning point. According to journalist Mark Tully and Zareer Masani, more than other event, Gandhi’s death purged the country of communal hatred. Nevertheless, memories of the violence were long lasting and bitter, and they further separated two nations already divided by artificial borders. In future years, the two nations were to carve out separate and often conflicting paths.




The Great Delusion

At the midnight hour of 15 August 1947 South Asia was bathed in darkness. If they were awake, most citizens in the newly independent dominions of India and Pakistan saw in the transfer of sovereignty by candle flame or paraffin lamp, without electricity able to power a wireless. From the parliament buildings in New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru announced India’s awakening ‘to life and freedom’. But Nehru’s speech was heard by a fraction of India’s population. More than 80% of the people in the two countries which had just achieved independence lived in the countryside, and all but 1,500 (0.2%) of India’s half a million villages had no power.

 The British left India a society of extremes. In pockets amid poverty South Asia was prosperous and modern. In the fifty years before 1947, cities had grown fast, British India going from one to six settlements with more than a million people. In India, 31.5 million (out of 370 million) people lived in settlements with a population of more than 100,000. These cities had electric streetlights and modern typewriters, railway stations and buses as well as slums and open drains. In the mid-1930s, 200,000 cars drove on the streets of India, every one imported from Europe or Japan. Bengal had one of the oldest Automobile Associations in the world. India had the highest rate of road accidents. University departments worked at the cutting edge of international science. By 1947, India was one of a small number of countries which conducted research in nuclear physics.

The Second World War was a good time for some. Businesses boomed as shortages in every sector of the economy needed to be filled at any price. Rampant inflation was good for people living in the countryside able to tap the profits of production. This was boom time for rich peasants in places like Mysore and Punjab, where there were few agricultural labourers whose income would rise slower than the cost of living. But people paid in fixed wages suffered. Field labourers, factory workers and middle-class government employees all faced massively higher prices but no increase to income. Despite big industrial profits, one economist estimated that industrial wages fell by 30% during the war. Agricultural labourers who did not own the land they worked on fared even worse. For many it was a struggle to survive. Roughly the same amount of food was grown as in 1940, but the population was a fifth larger. Famine and serious scarcity had recently returned to parts of the subcontinent. The average new-born could expect to live only thirty-two years. In 1947, life for the vast majority of citizens in South Asia was rural, hard and short.

 Despite the century- long effort to control the natural environment, millions were vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the seasons and the landscape. Two years after partition the 27-year-old Pakistani writer Syed Waliullah wrote a description of rural Bengal in these years of chaos, emphasizing the brutal effects of nature on people’s lives. From a family of minor government officials, Waliullah grew up during the depression in a village near Chittagong, before studying in the small town of Mymensingh and then Calcutta University. At partition he chose Pakistan and became a news editor on Pakistan Radio. He novel Lal Shalu (translated later as Tree Without Roots) described the collapse of social norms in rural Bengal during the years of famine and war, and was brutally unsentimental about life in the countryside. Waliullah was writing about a region which had once been one of India’s most productive places. His home district was where the East India Company had hoped to conquer in the 1680s to profit from local agriculture and trade. By 1947, it was home to a struggling population left exposed to storms, floods and drought. To survive, land needed to be ploughed and reploughed to the point of exhaustion with ‘no rest, no peace and what is worse, no nourishment, at least not from the ravenous ones who suck it dry.

 Waliullah described a rootless society in constant motion. Millions searched for something to eat or a place to make their home. People were ruled by ‘a great restlessness’, yet ‘go hungry and starve’. Everyone dreamed of ‘leaving their homes’. But the rivers, the trains, the paths were all crammed full of people on the same search. ‘They sweat, and they swear, they solemnly pray for the infliction of God’s curse on their neighbours and then they pray, equally solemnly for their own safety,’ Waliullah wrote. The political institutions which might have protected the vulnerable had long broken down. The forces which once ensured the poor were looked after had long collapsed. This was a description of a chaotic society in which everyone sought a refuge or an enclave just to survive.


India’s later British rulers and their post- imperial chroniclers liked to propagate the view that imperial rule in India was a systematic form of power driven by coherent ideas. ‘The Raj’ is a phrase which embodies a certain kind of authoritarian high-mindedness. On television or in fiction it is now associated with unbending, stiff-lipped men capable of imposing their visions of order and hierarchy and on an otherwise chaotic society. Historians of empire spend much of their time discussing those visions, tracing the British belief in the inferiority of the Indian society, their rhetoric about ‘civilization’ and ‘development ‘, their arguments about property and the rule of law. Too often the context of those visions is absent, and texts are read with no reference to the situation they were written in. In reality, the British proclaimed their strength and purpose when their authority seemed the most fragile. In fact, British power in India was exercised sporadically. It was driven by a succession of short-term visceral passions. It did not have a systematic vision of peace and stability, nor a way of working able to produce order. It created chaos.

 Rather than a coherent political vision, British rule in India was based on a peculiar form of power. Fearful and prickly from the start, the British saw themselves as virtuous but embattled conquerors whose capacity to act was continually under attack. From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, they found it difficult to trust anyone outside the areas they controlled. Their response to challenge was to retreat or attack rather than to negotiate. The result was an anxious, paranoid regime. The British state was desperate to control the spaces where Europeans lived. Elsewhere it insisted on formal submission to the image of British authority. But it did not create alliances with its subjects, nor build institutions that secured good living standards. The British were concerned to maintain the fiction of absolute sovereignty rather than to exercise any real power.

 The result was that the British left South Asia a fragmented society. In theory, they transferred authority to new governments which possessed the power to protect everyone in the territories they ruled. In reality they left an uneven mess of enclaves and ghettoes, in which people were divided from each other by a jumble of different authorities, institutions and economic forces. The political institutions which the British left protected some people; institutions nationalists had built supported a few more. But most people were left unprotected from whoever or whatever forces had the greatest clout in mid-twentieth century South Asia, whether the weather, rapacious landlords, or powerful local political bosses. The British empire’s greatest legacy was to create some of the most disjointed and chaotically ruled societies in the world.

 To start with, the British transferred supreme authority to more than two states. When they announced their rapid timetable for departure in June 1947, the British declared that their supreme authority over India’s 565 ‘native states’ would simply lapse. By the date of partition, only 114 of these half-independent regimes had been cajoled into joining the Union of India and none to join Pakistan. For a brief period after August 1947 the world’s list of independent sovereign regimes was swelled by hundreds of new absolute monarchies. Amir Khan’s old principality of Tonk, with 2,500 square miles and 300,000 people, was formally independent for seven months until its Nawab signed up for his state to be incorporated into the Indian state of Rajasthan.

 A few of these autonomous monarchies tried to resist the subcontinent’s new political geography. Kashmir in the far north stayed independent for two months, until its Hindu Maharaja decided to take his Muslim-majority province into the Union of India and sparked the first war between India and Pakistan. Travancore in the south-west briefly declared its intention to ‘recover’ independence.

Last of all was Hyderabad, the largest native state ‘situated in India’s belly’, as the minister in charge of state integration Vallabhbhai Patel put it. This Muslim monarchy was still a massive sovereign enclave a year after partition, intent on maintaining its independence from India and Pakistan. In the spring and summer of 1948, the Nizam’s regime was fighting against a massive communist insurgency and Congress activists. The conflict drove tens of thousands of refugees into makeshift camps set up in neighbouring territories.

 The new independent Indian government invaded in September 1948. Its aim was to dissolve the enclave of Hyderabad into the national Indian state, abolishing monarchical power by forcing it to accept the supposedly undivided sovereignty of the Indian people. But the Nizam’s resistance led to four days of war and a communal massacre, as more than 50,000 Muslim supporters of the Hyderabad regime were killed by the army and Hindu soldiers.

 Hyderabad began its life in free and democratic India under military rule, with 17,550 of its citizens imprisoned by the invading army. The ensuing peace was caused by the prospect of elections, by the fact that the subjects of Hyderabad had become voting citizens of a new nation. Without conciliation, ‘those who are down and out and full of fear’ might vote against the Congress at the polls. As a result, leaders in New Delhi decided that those ‘who sinned so grievously’ needed to be forgiven.’

 Between the two new sovereign states of India and Pakistan, powers were incompletely defined, and borders were not well demarcated. Passports took years to emerge; to begin with it was unclear who was entitled to which, and what should be written on their pages. The responsibilities of the two legal systems were not well understood. Well into the 1950s, judges in Calcutta were writing to Pakistani citizens explaining that they were not entitled to sue in an Indian court. Many did not realize the creation of two states meant claims for lost property across India and Pakistan’s new frontiers now needed to be handled by diplomats not lawyers.

 Some people were simply stranded by partition. Nineteen forty-seven left some of South Asia’s poorest people living in enclaves along the northern border between the Indian state of West Bengal and first Pakistan and then Bangladesh. One hundred and seventy-three small islands of land were entirely enclosed by the territory of a neighbouring state. The confused boundaries of the two states in northern Bengal date back to poorly defined peace treaties between the Mughal Empire and its far neighbours in the early 1700s; one story says that the enclaves were used as stakes in chess games between north-east India’s regional kings. Until a deal was finally struck in 2015, the enclaves’ 80,000 people were immobile and stateless, with no electricity and very few public amenities.

 These border territories are a rare case of enclaves making people worse off. Mostly, enclaves are used as they were under the British Raj to protect the powerful and wealthy from the rest of society. Post-imperial South Asia is still dotted with spaces where better living conditions are protected against poorer people living outside.

 The urban map of the independent subcontinent was speckled with military cantonments, for example. Here, large swathes of often green and spacious land are divided off and protected from the city beyond by soldiers, remaining centres of military power in the midst of ostensibly democratic societies. Cantonments were first carved out by the British to create places where European military and civil officers could live without fear of a potentially insurgent population. Since 1947 these have become cities within cities, offering a feeling of order for middle-class civilians as well as for the army and and government. Army-ruled enclaves make up large areas of the centre of many South Asian cities: Lahore, Dhaka, Kanpur, Bangalore, Hyderabad. Added together, the area of India’s cantonments would today make up a city bigger than India’s most populous city, Mumbai. They remain more or less under military rule. The cantonment of Secunderabad in Hyderabad, which Indian soldiers fought to control in 1948, is one of the biggest. The majority of its population of more than 200,000 are civilians. Even though recent reforms mean half of its board are now elected, the army’s commanding officer is still in overall charge. Residents complain that only roads in areas where soldiers live are maintained to a pristine standard.

 In less heavily militarized places, middle-class South Asians use this imperial model of separation and defence to partition themselves from the ‘chaos’ and ‘dysfunction’ believed to rule the rest of society. Middle-class refugees from Pakistan settled in well-organized ‘colonies’ in Delhi, where living standards have been protected by community associations and, increasingly, security guards. Many public and private institutions follow the British-era pattern of putting residences and workplaces in isolated compounds. Universities, research institutes and large corporations provide accommodation as well as supporting a social life for their employees. These institutions foster a sense of common purpose, but they also reproduce the imperial idea that home is somewhere distant from the place people reside. Within the heavily guarded spaces of South Asia’s bureaucracy, business and media, elites have cultivated their own exclusive communities, creating social norms which separate themselves from the rest of society.

 Recently, these enclaves have been privatized and take physical form in private gated communities, where the capacity to pay for the property is the sole criterion for entrance. These new forts (some even with mock crenelations) are scattered around the fringes of South Asia’s quickest growing cities: Bangalore, Pune, Lahore, Delhi. Money buys an idea of safety and defence by providing closed-circuit cameras and security guards.

 Gated communities are often marketed to lure expatriates back to the subcontinent with a safe, luxurious lifestyle. They have, for the most part, dropped any reference to the subcontinent’s history in the seventy years since independence, creating distance between the green, pristine, generic forms inside and the supposedly characteristic South Asian mess outside. ‘It’s not like Pakistan, it’s like a new country. You can get everything,’ said a manual worker interviewed in 2013 who commutes to Bahria Town on the edge of Islamabad. Anuraag Chowfla, an architect who has planned some of the largest communities in India, reports that he ‘sometimes jokes with the developer that now you should design your own flag and passport’.

 Popular Sovereignty

The enclaves of well-defended prosperity which pepper India, Pakistan and Bangladesh exist in defiance of the idea supposed to justify the exercise of political power throughout the subcontinent: popular sovereignty.

 Almost to a man, the British thought their sovereignty in the subcontinent originated with the violence of conquest. The difference between legitimate authority and violence was blurred; the fact of domination needed no other justification than its capacity to exercise brute force. But the imperial state’s story about conquest was contested by Indian commentators, who argued that power should and could only be exercised with the consent of the people being ruled.

 From Sayyid Mahmood to M.K. Gandhi to B.R. Ambedkar, critics argued that the Indian people not the European army were sovereign. The British only governed because Indians let them, and that meant Britain had obligations to the people it ruled.

 First used to try to persuade India’s foreign rulers to govern in partnership with the people they ruled, the idea of popular sovereignty became the Indian basis for Indian nationalism’s effort to evict the British from power. This principle marked the difference, for both India and Pakistan, between the sovereignty of the empire’s conquest state and the post-imperial regime. For Jinnah and Nehru alike, it was the people, not a party, an elite or a state, which had the authority to rule once the British disappeared. In contrast to British attitudes which they argued emphasized division and hierarchy, nationalists thought the people of their respective nations possessed a single voice or soul. There was a vision, no room for endless enclaves or imperial demarcations. Popular sovereignty means the state’s power needed to be exercised evenly, for the sake of all sections of society.

 From long before independence and partition, these ideas of popular sovereignty drove the practical process of institution building. The belief that power should be exercised by the people not a distant, violent state drove Indians to create schools, universities, banks, volunteer organizations, even businesses: when the City of London failed to invest in his steel business, Dorabji Tata appealed to the Indian people for capital. But before the end of the Second World War Indian institution-building was blocked by the coercive anxieties of the British regime. Independence allowed the energies of South Asia’s institution builders to be unblocked and dispersed. In the name of democracy and popular political power, newly independent India and Pakistan created education and community uplift programmes, invested in science and technical education, built heavy industrial plants, founded new colleges and universities and dug hundreds of thousands of tube wells. As far as their limited capacity allowed South Asia’s new states helped coordinate the expansion of production and the improvement of living standards. The path to economic development was fraught, fiercely contested and often patchy – but growth happened.

 Compared to the stagnant chaos of the last years of British rule, living standards improved. In the first decade and a half after independence, agriculture became more productive. Much more land was cultivated. Thousands of new factories were built. Industrial output expanded. Middle-class jobs in service industries and the public sector grew more rapidly.

 South Asia’s growth occurred while its societies avoided the catastrophic social upheaval which happened elsewhere. The organizations which ruled post-imperial India and Pakistan were committed to the reconstruction of their societies without violent revolution. Living through the turbulent years of partition, their leaders emphasized growth through stability rather than dramatic social upheaval, and more or less achieved it. In practice, this emphasis on consensus entrenched elite hierarchies. In India there was no major challenge to the dominance of upper castes until the 1970s. In Pakistan, the military and bureaucracy retained the upper hand.

 This consensual approach was widely condemned from the late 1960s for allowing unaccountable elites to dominate. But it allowed stability to follow the turmoil of war and partition and supported a period of relatively prosperity. South Asia did not take a dramatically different path from other non-communist post-war societies where the idea of popular sovereignty was combined with the effort by pre-war elites to retain power. The greatest contrast was between South Asia’s aristocratic democracies and the revolutionary upheaval in China. In the 1950s revolutionary China was living through the world’s most devastating famine, which caused the death of at least twenty million. In the subcontinent, living standards improved as India and Pakistan’s economies increased at a respectable 4%. Not as quick as recent decades, this was only very slightly lower than the contemporary ‘miracle’ of France. It was only exceeded in Asia by Cold War societies artificially stimulated by the United States such as South Korea and Taiwan.

 South Asia’s post-imperial choice of consensus and stability stopped civil war and prevented socially catastrophic upheaval. But it meant that, in the seventy years since independence, ideas of democracy, citizenship and popular sovereignty have not been strong enough to overcome the chaotic legacy of imperial geography. Democracy has forced governments to ensure that the poor survive; citizens have demanded the right to receive enough food to live from their governments. But democracy has not created a common public realm in which people from different social groups have a sense they can shape society as a whole. Instead, advantage is gained as different groups claim they have a right to access the prosperous enclaves which offer wealth and power. Different castes improve their position by claiming they are entitled to government jobs or seats in parliament. Used for dramatically different purposes, with much greater ambition, ideas about what the state is capable of doing have changed little since the days of the Raj. Governments rule by classification and division; poverty, for example, is a bureaucratic category which separates the poor from the rest of society. Governments claim to be able to act on their own, often without dialogue. They are poor at acting in concert with others.

 The result is that people mitigate their poverty the same way they did seventy or a hundred years ago; through their restlessness and migration, by bringing themselves near to the prosperous enclaves of South Asia’s highly uneven economic landscape. In many parts of the subcontinent now, it is impossible for a family of rural workers to make ends meet unless they have a child earning in the city. Despite two generations of popular sovereignty, South Asia’s societies retain one characteristic from the days of the Raj which has endured long after the end of imperial rule. Famine and the most extreme forms of poverty have largely gone. But most people are still very poorly paid for a day’s work.

 Labour Saving Devices

In 1947, the 28,000 Britons who returned home after the evaporation of British sovereignty in South Asia arrived to a society on the verge of an economic boom. Britain in 1947 had been badly bombed. It only managed to stave off bankruptcy with austerity and loans from the United States. But by contrast with India and Pakistan, people in Britain who earned their living through manual work had relatively good living conditions. The collapse of Britain’s empire in India happened at the same time as a quick increase in wages and living standards.

 ‘Old Indians’ who returned home experienced this difference in the difficulty of employing servants. Officials and their wives complained about fighting for a seat on the London Underground or bus, about the boredom of being relatively young with little to do, about the weather; but above all about the cost of labour. After living in households that teemed with staff, the families of ex-officials could rarely afford to employ more than a single maid, sometimes not even that. The manuals which guided returned officers about how to live back in England suggested the purchase of labour-saving devices. Women had no choice but to do housework.

 The disparity between living standards in British-conquered India and metropolitan Britain had many causes.  The most important, though, was the different way these two societies were ruled. Living standards were so much better in Britain in 1947 for a simple reason: labour had a stake in the direction of British society it did not have in South Asia under British rule.

 The disparity was clear during the Second World War, when social differences widened in India but narrowed in the UK. The war did not cause Britain’s class divisions to crumble nor did it invent the welfare state. For long after 1945, Britain was a highly militarized, class-ridden, fiercely hierarchical society. But union membership increased, social benefits expanded, women were enticed from their homes to armament factories with relatively good pay as well as the chance to contribute to the war effort.

 During the war, labour was a vital interest in the accommodation which had shaped the direction of Britain’s polity. It did not run Britain. But unlike India, organized labour had a seat at the table. Britain’s foremost trade union organizer, Ernest Bevin, was Minister for Labour in Winston Churchill’s cabinet. The involvement of labour helped the creation of the national military-industrial complex which transformed the British state into such an effective fighting force during the Second World War. But it also created the conditions for the sustained economic growth which lasted until the mid-1960s. The loss of India did not mark the beginning of Britain’s decline but the start of an economic boom.

 In the years when the men who governed British India were uncomfortably adjusting themselves to life after empire, Britain’s high-technology, highly industrialized factories spun out quickly increasing quantity of export goods. British exports grew from £16 billion in 1948 to £2.8 billion in 1954 and then £3.8 billion in 1960. (£61 billion in 2016 prices). In 1950 Britain had a 24.6 per cent share of the world’s manufactured goods (compared to the USA’s 26.6 per cent), with 52 per cent share of world motor vehicle exports.

 Demand for British goods came from across the world. To buy them, Britain relied most on the now long self-governing ‘white’ empire. In the 1950s Australia was the UK’s largest trading partner. But the Commonwealth took less than half of British exports in total, with a demand from the United States and Western Europe growing the quickest. By contrast empire in India left little economic legacy. Exports to India and Pakistan were comparatively tiny. In the middle of the twentieth century, Britain’s prosperity relied on the relative productivity of its well-paid workforce, not on global imperial power.

 The coincidence of Britain’s economic prosperity with imperial decline shows how disconnected British India had been from the main currents of British life. For much of its existence, Britain’s empire in India contributed little of value to Britain itself. English merchants had initially been interested in the subcontinent as a source of commercial gain; the East India Company’s first wars were fought to defend the factories and forts it thought it needed to make a profit. But imperial power quickly created its own logic, which had little to do with economics.

 The exception occurred during the twentieth century’s two world wars. But then India was only turned into a source of Britain’s global power by corroding the basis of imperial power in the subcontinent itself. The First World War was followed by the first phase of India-wide mass nationalist agitation. Britain’s financing of India’s role in the Second World War cracked the Raj for good, pushing British rule into a final phase of famine and violence.

 Outside these destructive, aberrant moments, British rule was sustained by an elite whose lives were focused on nothing more than the survival of Britain’s sovereignty in the subcontinent. For them, the logic of empire was circular; the purpose of imperial power was to do nothing more than maintain imperial power, and with it their pensions and sense of personal authority. That logic aroused passionate commitment from British India’s white ruling class. But it meant that once the Union flag had been hauled down from the last citadels of British sovereignty there was nothing to do but pack up and go home.

 From a financial or strategic point of view there were good reasons why the British might have stayed on. By 1947, there were few business interests in India. But Asia still mattered to Britain. Commercial interests existed in Malaya and Singapore, and Australia was still a vital trading partner. The public rhetoric of empire claimed that the job of officials was to maintain ‘good governance’, and that still needed to be sustained in order to prevent the subcontinent falling under communist rule. The subcontinent’s states had borders which needed protecting from malign powers. Both India and Pakistan were concerned to maintain a stable, centralized form of government in the midst of the crises of the late 1949s, so they offered those who chose to stay good terms.

 A few did stay. Fifty civil servants and senior police officers and a few more soldiers were hired on temporary contracts by the Pakistani Government. They made up one third of Pakistan’s civil service until the early 1950s. The country’s mint, railways, telegraph, army and civil service college remained under British control, the latter until the 1960s. A handful of civil servants remained in the Republic of India, together with dozens of soldiers and European businessmen. Kanpur’s textile factories were owned by a British capitalist until the early 1960s, for example.

 But given Britain’s long history of involvement in India, these numbers were tiny. Remarkably few stayed on. Out of 608 European ICS officers working in India in December 1946, only 429 were still in India on the day of independence; sixty-two were left by the end of 1947, no more than fifteen by 1952, only three of those in the Republic of India. Those few who stayed took jobs which the transfer of power altered the least. Officers in charge of border districts were less likely to quit. Men working in revenue collection were also most likely to stay. The last bureaucrat to leave India was J.W. Orr, who retired from his position of Inspector for Customs and Excise in Delhi at the age of forty-five in 1955, to become director of a gold mining firm. Compared to the last days of other empires, the British left the subcontinent quickly and completely.

 Coming Back Home

This quick departure helps us to see what British rule in India was about. British officers and soldiers were in India to maintain sovereignty. Once that had gone there was no point staying on. ‘No longer . . . serving under the ultimate control of the Parliament of their own country’, as one government officer put it, remaining in the subcontinent was seen as pointless, even possibly risky. The government’s ‘absolute priority’ was to ensure a quick and safe return for its European staff. Five thousand British civilians were shipped back at a rate of 1,000 a month. Twenty-two thousand eight hundred soldiers, mostly wartime conscripts, took only a few more months to return home.

 Officers returning home had two options. They could take up pensionable opportunities in ‘another civil service’ with a grant of £500 (equivalent to £17,470 in 2016 prices). Or they were given a ‘severance allowance’ equivalent to full pay to the usual retirement age of sixty with the prospect of a good pension afterwards.

 ‘Old Indians’ who did not take other jobs could maintain the same living standards as dentists or doctors without having to work, but the vast majority put their experience in the machinery of administration to work. Many were employed by other branches of Britain’s bureaucracy, the large number becoming diplomats or officials in Britain’s African Empire, quickly moving to other places where their job was to look after another outpost of British sovereignty overseas. Nineteen out of the sixty-one ICS men who took part in a study in the 1970s joined either the foreign or colonial service; ten becoming civil servants in the UK. One of two became farmers or businessmen. Whatever role they took up, most of these men, used to exercising governmental power, found a small realm of administrative life to dominate. If they did not become civil servants they became college bursars or school administrators, managed lobby groups or became town clerks or local councillors.

 For these men, British rule in India had been about the Viceroy and the Union flag. It involved absolute control over a network of citadels and enclaves large enough to give them a delusory sense that they had real authority. It was also about the theoretical capacity of the British state to act without needing to negotiate with other powers. Sharing power was anathema; working for another regime impossible. As the Punjab officer Edward Wakefield wrote when courted by both the Indian and Pakistani governments to stay, ‘I had spent my life in the service of the Crown and did not feel disposed to serve another master.’

 By 1947, British power was understood by talking about ‘duty’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘service’, words that conveyed the trappings of sovereignty rather than any real kind of authority. If these were impossible in India, if the slim possibility of power required too many messy compromises, there were plenty of other spheres where it could be exercised. The British state did not give up the idea of ruling Africa until the late 1950s. And there was Britain itself.

 In the United Kingdom, the collapse of British power in India was marked by remarkable little stress or anxiety. The point, again, is that empire in India was not about influence or interest, but about sovereignty. When the British left India there was little lament about the loss of markets or prospect of reduced profits. The fact that the Union flag no longer flew was embarrassing, but even those parts of Britain’s political hierarchy most attached to it quickly adjusted. The most important legacy of the empire was not the British desire to control other lands. It was the peculiar form of power which British rule embodied in India and that, after 1947, was transported home.

 The strongest British support for British rule in India existed in the Conservative Party, but even Conservative politicians adjusted to the end of the Raj quickly. Many were former ICS or army officers or had relatives who had served in the subcontinent. When they thought about India they tended to use a romantic conception of British sovereignty rather than a realistic assessment of Britain’s power in the world. While negotiations were going on in India, most of them doggedly resisted the unravelling of British sovereignty. But when it’s passing was obvious, they accepted the demise of British power quickly. There was no interest in influence, in ‘informal empire’ as some historians have called it, if there was to be no Union flag.

 By 1947 the upper ranks of the Conservative Party thought Britain had no interest in remaining in India. Winston Churchill noted that ‘modern air squadrons are worth more than overseas territories’. When he visited in January 1947, Harold Macmillan was told by the Indian representative of his family publishing firm that a rapid transfer of power to the Congress would be good for profits, particularly if the new government invested in schools and universities. But to begin with, both men fervently resisted the way in which the Labour Government ‘allowed British administration to run down’, particularly fighting the renunciation of sovereignty over the princely states. Macmillan’s worry was that retreat would leave ‘absolute chaos’. Early in 1947, he argued that national serviceman should be sent to reimpose British power.

 By May 1947, Churchill, Macmillan and the rest of the Conservative leadership were willing to support the Labour Government’s bill to transfer power to two independent dominions in the subcontinent. By then, the prospect of retaining sovereign power in India had gone. The only choice was rapid retreat. The Tory high command’s decision to acknowledge independence brought anger from local Conservative associations, many sending motions to the 1947 annual conference affirming that they were still ‘the great imperial party’. But even rank and file Conservatives recognized that retreat was inevitable. There were other bastions of British sovereignty which needed protecting.

 This quick volte- face on India had the greatest impact on the career perhaps the most important post-war Conservative politician not to become Prime Minister, Enoch Powell. Powell was a romantic conservative, a man who saw violence as potentially virtuous, and who believed in the importance of constructing myths about power in order to maintain order and civilized life. He spent three years as a fellow in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, eighteen months as Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney and then enlisted in the army in the first months of the Second World War. Desperate to fight, he was continually frustrated by being appointed to a succession of jobs planning and organizing the war effort. Between 1943 and 1946 he spent two and half years working in military intelligence in Delhi. He ended his army career writing the last report into the post-war shape of the Indian military, suggesting, unrealistically, the army increase its proportion of white officers,

 In February 1946 Powell was offered the chance to stay on as head of the Indian army’s college for training Indian officers. But at thirty-four he too decided to quit India. Anxious about the imminent prospect of a handover of power, he thought London, Parliament and the. Conservative Party would be the most effective place to campaign for the continuance of British rule.

 In the summer of 1946, while British institutions were collapsing throughout the subcontinent, Brigadier Powell wrote a report for the Conservative Party explaining how the British could reconquer the Indian subcontinent. Then, as through the rest of his career, his concern was to stave off chaos and anarchy. Powell saw uniform, united sovereign power as the only way to prevent it. ‘The forces of disorder are endemic,’ he wrote in May 1946. Indians would ‘look to British order as a welcome salvation from chaos and strife’, he imagined. ‘India’, Powell believed, ‘would need direct British control of one kind or another for at least 50 years more.’

 These fantasies meant Enoch Powell was one of the few Britons to be shaken by independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. Reportedly he walked all night through the streets of London in a state of disbelief when he heard that a transfer of sovereignty had been announced. But Powell quickly, famously, reconciled himself to the sudden collapse of imperial sovereignty. Once British power in India was gone, he recognized empire was over and castigated the idea of a Commonwealth of independent nations as a meaningless fraud.

 Powell could relatively easily reconcile himself to post-imperial Britain because he was not interested in spreading British culture or civilization overseas. Unlike America’s global power, Powell argued, the British had no ‘missionary enterprise’ of making everyone like them. What mattered was the British state retaining its sovereign power to command and not be commanded. The important fact was not the power Britain had over other places but that it ruled itself, and was a haven of civilization and order against the chaos which Powell thought raged elsewhere.

 Powell’s imperial conception of Britain’s unitary, absolute sovereign power influenced his lifelong opposition to both the European Economic Community and to the alliance with the United States. It also shaped his approach to race and immigration in the UK. Enoch Powell was the most famous opponent of Asian and Caribbean migration to Britain after the Second World War. His was a conception of England as a culturally and racially homogeneous society, an idea which belied the realities of post-imperial Britain. His idea of a single community with a unitary undivided will drew from his experience of the enclaves of British power in India. Like British officers within the nineteenth-and early twentieth century Government of India, Powell always thought unity was necessary to prevent anarchy. Like them, he believed order relied on the existence of a homogenous group which could act consistently, and which was bound together by common race, a common set of myths and a willingness to make sacrifices for the ‘generation interest.’ The united power of the English state had once extended throughout the world. Looking back later in life, Powell saw that the idea of British power over India was a fantasy. ‘The Raj’ itself, he said, ‘was a mirage’, a belief in British authority in India his ‘grand delusion’. Since 1947 Britain’s claim to sovereignty has shrunk back to encompass just Britain itself. ‘It was’, he said when looking back on these years of ‘colonial disentanglements’ twenty years later, ‘as if the nation and the monarchy had come back home again.’ Enoch Powell’s nationalism repatriated his logic of imperial sovereignty to the narrower confines of ‘home’.

 The idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion. From the start of Britain’s presence in the subcontinent, Britains were fractious and anxious, governed by chaotic passions as much as the rational effort to calculate their advantage. The British were driven by profit and the desire for a secure income; but their anxieties often led them to behave in ways which undermined their own interests. Pax Britannica only existed in the safe havens British India’s small number of European administrators created for themselves. Otherwise, the idea of British rule as a source of peace, order and secure property rights was a fantasy, projected by anxious administrators to persuade themselves and their British public they were in the right. In practice, British actions prolonged and fostered chaos far more than they cultivated security and prosperity.

 But the grand delusion is not just that British India was not what its propagandists claimed to be. It is that absolute sovereignty is ever an effective form of power. Power, as the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, is the experience of ‘action in concert’, the remarkable achievement of many different wills acting together. The British in India were capable of deploying violence, also of shaping the material world; they certainly had an impact. But they never created real power in this sense. The history of British rule in India shows how, in the long term, the desire to establish a unitary and absolute form of power is self-defeating. Obsessed with only their position and security, British officials were never the political leaders of the Indian subcontinent. British administrators could not shape South Asian society in their own interests let alone for its own good. Two hundred years of government in India could not even create a secure foundation for their rule. Constantly made vulnerable by the chaos they themselves helped to create, the British who conquered India were always one step away from defeat and humiliation.

 In Britain now, traces of empire are few and far between. Politicians and foreign office officials are embarrassed to mention the years of conquest and domination when they discuss the UK’s relationship with the subcontinent. Statues to imperial heroes can still be found in urban centres, with Curzon’s figure of Clive perhaps the nearest sculpture to the centre of British executive power at #10 Downing Street, and Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier just up the road in Trafalgar Square. But the British public are more likely to see these figures as the object of bewilderment than support or anger. When people suggest they might be removed, no one defends empire. Instead critics are challenged for ‘doing Britain down’, for wanting to undermine Britain’s sovereignty over itself in the name of foreign interests and ideas, it is as if Enoch Powell’s efforts to make the ‘ nation and the monarch . . .  come back home’ have been successful. Wherever it is invoked, the idea of Britain’s absolute sovereign control over anything, including just itself, conveys a sense of the country as embattled and isolated, surrounded by chaotic forces it cannot deal with, imbued with the idea it can only survive by building defensive walls to protect and defend itself. As in India, it is an idea based on delusion. In fact, Britain has never done anything alone. The history of Britain itself has been shaped by global trade, and by friendship and conflict beyond the places its empire dominated. Britain itself is made up of different interests, towns and counties and identities; it has been most successful when authority has been exercised far from Westminster, and then coordinated by an inclusive form of political leadership. In practice the absolute sovereignty of the monarch and Parliament is not the same thing as effective power. There are better ways Britain can engage with itself and with the world.

 Colonel’s Retreat

Powell shared with most recent historians the idea that Britain’s empire was a coherent force in the world. In the last few decades, for radical critics of global capitalism and defenders of global Western power alike, the history of Britain’s empire in India has become a metaphor and a political football.

In the process empire is seen to represent a straightforward set of ideas about global domination which have endured from the days of the Raj to the present day. This book has challenged myths of imperial purpose and power propagated on both the political left and the right. Looking at empire from the bottom-up, through the real lives of its functionaries and subjects, we see how imperial power was rarely exercised to put grand purposes into practice. Its operations were driven instead by narrow interests and visceral passions, most importantly the desire to maintain British sovereign institutions in India for its own sake. That desire created structures and institutions in the subcontinent as well as those thousands of cemeteries which mark the resting place of Britons who died and were buried in Indian soil. But it left no purpose, culture or ideology.

 But in the last decade India has seen the emergence of a new attitude towards the imperial past. Many statues have been uncovered and washed; the grass around them has been cut, and their sites have been added to India’s tourist maps. Old imperial monuments have been cleaned and renovated. Throughout India, British-era buildings have been opened up as resorts for the delight of India’s middle-class. The chaos and fragility of British rule are passed over. For Indian consumers British rule is associated with ‘colonial’ style of solid wood, high ceilings and leather armchairs, which evoke escape from India’s fraught present into ‘old world charm’, power and luxury.

 For some, then, British rule seems to represent a form of power that newly connects to the ambitions of a modern, outward-looking global India. For others it denotes a systematic form of oppression, a site of devastating cultural and economic oppression. In either case British memorials can be assimilated into stories about the exercise of political power in the past running up to the present. In the process, British rule has become an almost infinitely manipulable set of images and symbols, few of which connect back to the realities of British power.

Courtesy of: 



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.

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