Agrarian Revolts During The Reign of Aurangzeb

Copyright: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

The reign of Aurangzeb witnessed a number of revolts which occurred due to the agrarian crisis which was enveloping the Mughal empire during this period. There had been revolts and rebellions during the earlier reigns as well, but they had been all of nobles or princes. Aurangzeb’s reign was the first when revolts having origins in peasant or zamindar class and due to agrarian causes occurred. Let us deal with those led by the Jats, Satnamis and Sikh peasants.

The Jats

The Jats in Mathura region in the 17th Century constituted majority of the population and they were agriculturists par excellence. Gokla, the leader of the Jat community, was a zamindar of 11 villages in this region and this was the period when the pressure of the Jagirdars as Jagirdars was increasing on the zamindars as zamindars, which the zamindars resented.

The first shot was fired when Gokla revolted in 1669. He was the zamindar of Tilpat. As was the tradition amongst the Mughals, the zamindaris were created on caste basis. So when Gokla revolted, the entire Jat community, because of the cast ties, and that of the traditional feudal ties, followed him in his rebellion. Thus the lead was taken by Gokla, the peasants followed and that created a serious problem for the Mughal administration.

Hasan Ali Khan, the faujdar of Mathura, attacked the Jats who were about 20,000 in number and a fierce battle was fought in which Hasan Ali Khan succeeded in defeating the Jats after great difficulty. About 4000 Mughal soldiers and 5000 Jats died. 7000 Jats, along with Gokla and his family members were arrested and ultimately Gokla was executed.

Because of the effective use of the artillery by Hasan Ali Khan, his strong measures and the superiority of the Mughal soldiers, the Jats were defeated and the rebellion was suppressed.

What was the nature of this rebellion?

Some of the historians, especially Irfan Habib have argued that the Jat Rebellion was a peasant uprising because the peasants resented their exploitation by the Mughal administrative machinery. Jat rebellion was a peasant revolt. M. Athar Ali on the other hand analysed the nature of the rebellion and opined that the origin of the rebellion lay in exercising pressure by jagirdar as jagirdar on zamindar as zamindar. Gokla was a zamindar, and he revolted. The peasants followed due to caste ties and feudal ties. To him it was not a peasant revolt; Athar Ali’s logic was: a zamindar could defy, how could a peasant defy?

The Satnamis:

The Satnamis were a religious sect in the Punjab and they were concentrated in sarkar Narnaul. They were a religious community which believed in the brotherhood of Mankind; they used to shave their hairs, so were also called ‘Mundiyas’. They had a strong sense of brotherhood and there were no untouchables in their sect. It was a compact community prepared to help each other. They were basically agriculturists, petty merchants and traders who were very honest in their dealings. But if any one attempted to pressurize them, they reacted violently. They were opposed to oppression and exploitation. It was the community which had immense self confidence.

In 1672 these Satnamis revolted. It was essentially a peasant uprising and the uprising of the landless labourers. Saqi Musta’id Khan in Ma’asir-i Alamgiri had given a vivid description of their rebellion. In a very beautiful passage he says that shop-keepers, iron smiths, peasants etc assembled at one place and fought the Imperial army. According to him the Satnamis were ordinary menials, labourers, peasants, etc who started the rebellion. The Satnami rebellion was a peasant rebellion and an uprising of the landless labourers.

The dispute started when a piyada (foot soldier) who was guarding the field attacked a Satnami with a stick and injured him. A number of Satnamis came and killed the piyada. The faujdar of Narnaul sent a force to suppress the Satnamis who were beaten back, but soon they collected in large numbers and the faujdar was killed. This emboldened the Satnamis; their number increased and as their prestige was enhanced due to their victory over the forces of the faujdar, now they advanced towards Delhi. Rumours spread that the Satnamis had supernatural powers and if one satnami soldier was killed, 10 were born in place of him. The Mughal nobles were also superstitious and were not ready to fight such an army in which 10 were born if one was killed! So the nobles were hesitant and the Satnamis kept on advancing towards Delhi. Thus just to boost the morale of the Mughal commanders, Aurangzeb issued a tawiz (talisman) and asked the military commanders to tie it to their banner and then fight. It was only then that Murtuza Khan Baraha and others readied to fight the Satnamis. It was after greatest difficulty that the Imperial forces succeeded in defeating the Satnamis. Saqi Musta’id Khan says that though ill armed, they created the scenes of Mahabharat, i.e., they fought very bravely. The Satnami rebellion could be suppressed after great hardship.

The Sikhs:

In the first half of the sixteenth century, a new sect in the Punjab came into existence that was known as the Sikhs. Like the Satnamis, they also believed in brother hood of their community. There was no concept of untouchability in this sect as well. There was the concept of equality, helping and loving each other. Sikhism is basically and actually a religion of peasants because in the Guru Granth Sahib, the terminology which has been used was the terminology of the peasants and that of the revenue officials. It is different from Hinduism as well as Islam, but some of the sayings of Shaikh Farid Ganj-i Shakar have been incorporated in the religious scriptures of the Sikhs.

For the first time the Sikh community came into conflict with the Mughals during the reign of Jahangir. But during that time, there was no enmity between the Mughals on the one hand and the Sikhs on the other. The treatment meted out to Guru Arjun was an isolated incident.

During the reign of Aurangzeb, Guru Tegh Bahadur encouraged the people against Aurangzeb as he was totally opposed to the attempt which was being made by certain officials of Aurangzeb in Kashmir: forcing non-Muslims to accept Islam. Guru Tegh Bahadur acted against those who were involved in these forcible acts and came out openly in rebellion against Aurangzeb. In retaliation, Tegh Bahadur was arrested and ultimately executed in 1675. the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur without doubt had religious overtones to the extent that the guru was against the policy of forcible conversion.