North West Frontier and Shahjahan

The Northwest and Shahjahan’ s Campaigns


Southern Central Asia in the 17th century was dominated by the Khanate of Bukhara, ruled by the Janid dynasty (also known as the Ashtrakhanids, as they originated from Ashtrakhan). From 1611 to 1642, the Khanate was ruled by Imam Quli Khan, whose reign was generally a stable one. His younger brother, Nazar Mohammed, ruled the provinces of Balkh and Badakhshan in what is now northern Afghanistan as a de facto independent ruler.

In 1622, Imam Quli Khan sent an offer of alliance to Mughal emperor Jahangir, proposing a joint offensive against the Safavids in Khurasan. However, the Mughal Empire at the time was embroiled in campaigns in the Deccan, and was not particularly interested in diverting forces away from that front. That same year, Shah Abbas of Persia launched an invasion of Mughal Afghanistan, and succeeded in capturing Qandahar. The failure of the Mughals to retake Qandahar from the Persians was interpreted by the Uzbeks as an indicator of Mughal weakness, and they soon forgot about their alliance proposal, choosing instead to attack the Mughals and profit as the Persians had. The Uzbeks attacked in 1625 and again in 1626, but were repulsed on both occasions. On 19 May 1628, Nazar Mohammed launched a large-scale invasion of Mughal territory with the intention of capturing Kabul. The Uzbek army advanced up to Lamghan, ravaging the countryside along the way, and laid siege to Kabul in early June. The Mughal response to the invasion was swift; an army led by Mahabat Khan, the governor of Peshawar, and Rao Surat Singh was dispatched with 20,000 men to relieve the besieged city. The Uzbeks were routed and withdrew in defeat, with the Mughals holding a triumphal parade in Kabul on 14 September. This, coincidentally, was the first recorded military victory of Shah Jahan’s reign, which began that same year.

The 1630s saw no further Uzbek invasions, and also saw the conclusion of the Mughal campaigns in the Deccan. Qandahar, which had been lost to the Persians the previous decade, came back under Mughal control in 1638. The Empire was at the peak of its power and prosperity, and the Mughal position in the northwest was as strong as it ever had been. Shah Jahan, at this point, became interested in pursuing his cherished dream and restoring Mughal rule to his ancestral homelands in Central Asia. The perfect opportunity to do so seemed to arise with the abdication of Imam Quli Khan in 1642, who had grown blind with age, and his succession by Nazar Mohammed. Unlike his older brother, who was content with letting the subordinate chiefs of Uzbekistan manage their own affairs with little interference, Nazar Mohammed was determined to strengthen his authority as Khan. He pursued a policy of transferring and redistributing the offices and titles of subordinate chiefs, leading to widespread discontent and rebellion among them The country fell into civil war, and Nazar Mohammed was ultimately overthrown by his son, Abdul Aziz, who was proclaimed Khan of Bukhara in April 1645. However, Nazar Mohammed managed to retain his territories in Balkh and Badakhshan, which were under his possession even before he became Khan.

Shah Jahan’s Central Asian Policy has a pecular interest of its own. In order to appreciate it we have to consider the conditions obtaining in Central Asia and in India and finally Shah Jahad’s responbility in his Central Asian Compaigns.

Central Asia was in those days an unsettled region, consisting of a number of small principalities engaged in a state of perpetual warfare. There was no peace. Such a region was a danger to any neighbouring Power as most surely it was to the Mughals in India. Any Central Asian war-lord would immensely increase his power by an Indian Invasion for he would get money in that case. And money was absolutely necessary for the success of any revolution in Central Asia. And it is also very true that Central Asia lacked money. This is perhaps the reason of Nazr Mohammad’s invasion of Kabul (a part of India, then); which provoked Shah Jahan’s compaigns. It is usually urged that Shah Jahan’s Central Asian Policy was aggressive. But a critical study of the situation will throw doubts on that theory.

Even if we make no other consideration the fact that a petty ruler of Central Asia could venture to invade a part of India should offer enough justification for Shah Jahan’s donduct.

In Central Asia situations were fast changing. Imam Quii the ruler Samar-
khand was friendly terms with Shah Jahan, inspite of his brother, Nazar Mohammad’s raid on Kabul. This was due to Sha Jahan’s diplomacy. Dr. B. P. Saxena writes:

“By insisting upon the long standing friendship between the Mughals and the rulers of Trans-ox-iana, and by writing politely to Imam Quii, Shah Jahan thought to make Nazar Mohammad appear reprehensible in the eyes of his own people, and thus deprive him of any sympathy or support at the Court of Bokhara.”

It seems that Shah Jahan’s object was to keep a balance of the Central Asian Powers, and not to permit any one Power to become too powerful. This was his policy and not blind aggression as is usually suggested. He followed this policy for the security ond defence of India. If the Central Asian situation had not changed, he would – we should suppose – not have felt the necessity of fighting a central Asian war. But unfortu- nately for India, this situation was altered. Imam Quli became blind and was driven out of Samarkand by his brother Nazr Mohammad in 1641 A. D. This altered the political balance in Central Asia to which no neighbouring Power could be indifferent. Nazr Mohammad was a highly ambititious man, and a great warrior, and if he was allowed to be absolute in Central Asia then India would be in great danger. Even when Imam Quii was on the throne of Samakhand, and Nazr Mohammad was himself just a petty chief and nothing more he had made himself bold enough to attack ‘ Kabul. So what was the guarantee that now that Nazr Mohammad had become absolute he would keep quiet and not prove a danger to India ? How could there be such a guarantee when mighty war-lords of Central Asia, whenever there was opportunity, invaded India through Kabul ?

Shah Jahah began his expedition in 1646 A. D. Nazr Mohammad fled and Balkh was occupied. It may be remembered that Shah Jahan invaded Central Asia when Nazr Mohammad and his son Abdul Aziz fell out and Nazr Mohammad asked
for Shah Jahan’s help. That Shah Jahan on the invitation of Nazar Mohammad to help him entered the war in which he actually took a violent part to curb Nazr Mohammad’s power shows clearly that Shah Jahan’s chief interest lay in restoring that political balance in Central Asia, which had been destroyed there at the fall of Imam Quii. Again the fact that Shah Jahan invaded Central Asia after and not before the fall of Imam Quii shows that so far as he could help a central Asian compaign he would not like to risk one. Had he been aggressive, as ho is universally thought to be, he would not write a polite letter to Imam Quii, when Nazr Mohammad in- vaded India, but he would invade atonce. These facts clearly prove that Shah Jahan was not aggressive ; but in pure self-defence he had to fight Nazr Mohammad. It
is usually suggested that Shah Jahan was aggressive and he exploited the occasion of the Kabul invasion to follow his aggressive policy. Nazr Mohammad invaded
Kabul in 1628 A. D. and it must be clear to any one of average common sense that to exploit this occasion he would not invade Central Asia in 1646 A. D. That Shah Jahan had ample reason to move to action is clear from the fact that Kabul was not an independent buffer State then as it is now. So the danger was more real than it may seem today. So he had real justification to move to action.
It may be asked that if Shah Jahan’s measure was defensive then why did he not take prompt action as soon as Imam Quii was driven out in 1641 A. D. ? Why did he wait upto 1646 A. D. ? What was he doing in that period ? Of course so far as Imam Quii was in power the theoretical ruler of Central Asia, any compaign in that region would theoretically be against him and offend him, which might easly drive him and Nazr Mohammad to unity. That would totally defeat Shah Jahan’s object. So he kept quiet upto October 81, 1641 A. D. when Imam Quii was deposed.

Just in 1641 A. D. Shah Jahan was not in a position to make a foreign invasion, for India had Internal troubles. Jagat Singh of Nurpur had rebelled and his rebellion lasred for the period 1687 to 42 A. D. The Bundella rebellion lasted for 1688 to 1642 A. D. and Khan Jahan’s rebellion lasted for 1628 to 1681 A. D. So upto 1642 A. D. he was busy suppressing rebellious, so “that even when he should have invaded Central Asia in 1641 A. D. just then he could not doit. Added to these there is further the reason that the country had not recovered from the effects of the severe famine of 1630 A. D. It was only in 1642 A. D. that Shah Jahan was free. We must realise that before undertaking a foreign invasion he would take some time to consolidate his position and if he took four years only 1642 to 1646 A. D. It was not
too much. More over by 1646 A. D. the Fort of Delhi had been practically completed and without it he would not feel safe.
Lastly, it may be asked that if Shah Jahan’s policy was defensive and not aggressive then why did he not accept the offer of Abdul Aziz for making Shiban Quli the ruler? That he did not accept this offer is no proof of his aggressive policy; but it proves his wisdom and keen diplomatic sense. In the first place, the candi- dature of Shiban Quli was proposed by Abdul Aziz. So merely by concurring with this proposal Shah Jahan could not make Shiban Quli his ally. For he was the candidate of Abdul Aziz and he would support his patron under all circumstances. Next if Shah Jahan acknowledged Shiban Quii to be the ruler, the fight between Nazr Mohammad and Abdul Aziz might stop. And it was in the interest of Shah Jahan and of India that this fight should continue. Against for Shah Jahan to accept one man as the sole ruler of Central Asia would be to create one dictator, which would leave the danger to India Intact. So that would not do either. So Shah Jahan very diplomatically acnowledged no one to be the ruler. And leaving the Central Asian tangle open he withdrew – apparently as a failure ; but really a unique success ; after gaining his object, which was to reduce NazrMohammad and then to keep him fighting for power in Central Asia.
So we find that Shah Jahan’s Central Asian Policy was defensive and not offen-, sive and in reality, he was a success, although superficially he seemed to be a failure He was a military failure in Central Asia although in the Central Asian politics he was a unique success.

The Campaign:

The Mughals, taking advantage of the political turmoil and divisions in Central Asia, now commenced their opening attacks. In August 1645, a Mughal army under Asalat Khan was sent north to occupy Badakshan. Two months later, on 15 October, a force under Raja Jagat Singh was dispatched from Kabul and captured Khost. A fort was built between Sarab and Andarab in modern Baghlan province, and a Rajput garrison was placed there. Raja Jagat Singh returned to Kabul on 4 November, via the Panjshir Valley.

The main Mughal offensive had to wait until the next year. In June 1646, Prince Murad Baksh, a son of Shah Jahan, advanced from Kabul to Balkh with an army of 50,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry, including musketeers, rocketmen, and gunners. Kahmard, Ghori, and Qunduz were all conquered by the Mughals, with the main army arriving in Balkh on 2 July. As far as we know, the army of Murad Baksh faced no major opposition during this military action. Nadr Mohammed, having lost his territories, fled to Persia, leaving his treasure to be plundered by the Mughals.

However, the young Murad Baksh soon came to tire of the unpleasant climate and foreign customs of Balkh, and desired to return to Hindustan. According to the Badshahnama, “many of the amirs and mansabdars , who were with the prince concurred with this unreasonable desire [to leave Balkh]. Natural love of home. A preference for the people and manners of Hindustan, and the rigours of the climate, all conduced to this desire”. With the Mughal commanders indifferent to the course of the campaign and desirous to leave as soon as possible, the soldiers became unruly and lost their discipline, and began plundering the local inhabitants. An angry Shah Jahan, upon receiving news of his son’s abandonment of his position, sent his vizier Sadullah Khan to take the place of Murad Baksh. He arrived in Balkh on 10 August, and began reorganizing the despondent Mughal army. Shah Jahan himself had also moved from Lahore to Kabul, to be closer to the front. Prince Murad Baksh was disgraced for his failure to carry out his duties, and was deprived of his mansab. As winter approached, the Mughals garrisoned key outposts in southern Central Asia, including Termez, Qunduz, Rostaq, Taleqan, and Maimana. However, bands of Uzbeks began infiltrating into the Mughal territory and surrounded these frontier outposts, leaving them in a state of siege throughout the winter of 1646-47. The Mughals were unable to inflict decisive defeats on the Uzbek bands, who avoided open conflict; at the same point, the harsh climate and logistic difficulties prevented further Mughal offensives..

As the next campaigning season dawned, Shah Jahan appointed Prince Aurangzeb, then serving as the governor of Gujarat, to lead operations in Central Asia. Aurangzeb arrived in Kabul on 3 April 1647. Four days later, on 7 April, he set out for Balkh to reinforce the Mughal forward positions and expand the campaign. The Mughal army under his command had a strength of 35,000 men, the majority of whom would have been heavy cavalry, supported by musket infantry, elephants, and artillery. The Uzbeks opposing them had amassed a total of 120,000 men, the majority of whom would have been light cavalry. Granted, the Uzbeks lacked the centralized leadership of the Mughals, and also lacked the heavy shock troops and gunpowder weaponry needed to inflict decisive defeats on an enemy, but they possessed the crucial advantages of numbers, mobility, and knowledge of terrain. The Uzbeks, led by a chieftain named Qutlugh Mohammed, attacked the Mughals as they were passing through the Dera-i-Gaz valley. The Uzbeks were repulsed by the Rajput vanguard of the Mughal army, but not decisively so. The Uzbeks regrouped and, on 21 May, launched another attack against the Mughals. However, the Uzbeks this time made a tactical error by attacking the front of the Mughal army, rather than its rear or flanks. The Mughal wings were able to envelop and destroy the Uzbek force, and Balkh was reached on 25 May without any further fighting. The defence and custody of the city was handed over to Madhu Singh Hada.

Abdul Aziz, the Uzbek khan, now sent a force under Beg Ughli across the Amu Darya to Aqcha. The Mughals too set out towards Aqcha, following a three days’ stop at Balkh. The center of the Mughal army was commanded by Aurangzeb, the vanguard by Bahadur Khan, and the rear by Ali Mardan Khan. The Uzbeks initially launched frontal attacks against the Mughals, but these were successfully repulsed on 2 June 1647 by Mughal musket-fire. The Uzbeks then opted to skirmish against the Mughal columns, wearing them down slowly through attrition. Then, on 5 June, news of a large army advancing south from Bukhara to Balkh reached the Mughal camp. The Mughal commanders were forced to turn around to defend the vital city, which was their center of operations in the theater. On 7 June, the Uzbeks led by Subhan Quli, brother of Abdul Aziz Khan, attacked the moving Mughal army in full force. However, they were once again repulsed by the superior firepower of the Mughal musketry and artillery. The Mughals safely returned to Balkh on 11 June.

By middle of 1647, both sides had suffered considerably from the back-and-forth fighting. Given the huge disparity in resources between the Indian empire of the Mughals and the Uzbeks, however, it is reasonable to assume that the latter were suffering much more than the former. The Uzbek armies, which had banded together largely because of the prospect of easy loot from the Mughals, began disintegrating when such financial rewards were not forthcoming. Some of the Uzbek cavalry were even said to have sold their horses to the Mughals (Central Asian horses were highly valued by Indians and fetched high prices), and then camped back across the Amu Darya! However, the Mughals for their part could not take advantage of this lack of discipline and organization among the Uzbeks and complete the conquest of Central Asia, for a couple pressing reasons. Firstly, there was a worry that, if the Mughals succeeded with the annexation of Central Asia, the Mughal troops and commanders would be permanently stationed there. Few of the Mughal commanders were interested in spending their careers in the region, as they all preferred the wealth, luxury, and familiarity of India. Indeed, some of the Mughal commanders, like Bahadur Khan, even secretly opposed Aurangzeb and the war effort, to avoid such a result. Secondly, and perhaps more pressingly, the Mughal army was faced with a serious shortage of food, caused by the ravaging effects of warfare on the countryside over the last couple years. There was great inflation in the prices of basic foodstuffs, with grain being sold at Rs.10 per maundat the Mughal camp. The Mughal difficulties were compounded by the fact that the country lacked proper winter accommodation for a large army, and that many of the Indian soldiers were not accustomed to the cold climate. In light of all these issues, the Mughals, as well as the Uzbeks, both sought to bring the war to a close.

Peace Settlement and Withdrawal:

In mid-June, shortly after Aurangzeb had returned to Balkh, negotiations were opened with Nadr Mohammed, the exiled ex-ruler of the territories occupied by the Mughals since 1645. The talks moved slowly, lasting over three months before a settlement was concluded by Nadr Mohammed’s grandsons on 23 September 1647. On 1 October, Balkh was formally handed over to the grandsons, and the Mughals began the withdrawal to Kabul two days later, on 3 October. The Mughal army during the withdrawal was commanded in the following manner: the right wing under Ali Mardan Khan, the left wing under Raja Jai Singh, and the rear under Bahadur Khan. The Mughal army continued to be harassed by roving bands of Uzbeks during the retreat, with the crossing at Ghazniyak pass being particularly slow and painful. On 14 October, the Mughals reached Ghori fort. From there until Kabul, Hazara tribesmen replaced the Uzbeks in harassing the Mughal columns. An early and unusually severe winter added greatly to the suffering of the Mughal army. The Mughals were burdened by a load of 10 lakh rupees and a lack of pack animals, thousands of whom died during the winter passage through the Hindu Kush. Aurangzeb crossed the range on 24 October, and reached Kabul on 27 October. However, large components of the Mughal army were still several days behind, and were slowed down by the heavy sleet and snow in the mountain passes. The Mughal column under Raja Jai Singh, in particular, crossed the Hindu Kush in the midst of a brutal snowstorm, and suffered immensely. The last Mughal troops finally returned to Kabul on 10 November 1647, marking the end of the campaign.

Conclusion and Analysis:

The Mughal campaign was, by all standards, a strategic failure. No territory was gained, no changes in ruling dynasty were made, and nothing of tangible benefit was acquired. The Mughals suffered 5,000 casualties during the campaign, the vast majority of whom died from the brutal weather, and also lost a similar number of animals (including horses, elephants, camels, etc.). The cost of the campaign was immense, amounting to some 4 crore rupees in total; to put this into perspective, the Mughals were able to collect only 22 lakh rupees in revenue from the conquered territories in Central Asia, during the brief imperial occupation. 

Despite the failure of the Mughals to achieve their strategic objectives, the tactical performance of the imperial army was not terrible. In fact, although the Mughals can be said to have lost the war, they did not lose a single battle. The Mughals invariably repulsed every direct Uzbek attack, but they were unable to inflict decisive defeats on the enemy and break their back. The Uzbeks practiced a far more mobile style of warfare (which, ironically, was quite similar to the original Mughal style of warfare, practiced in the days of Babur), while the Mughals, although possessing far more firepower than the Uzbeks, were also more cumbersome and less able to maneuver effectively. The Mughal army, replete with heavy cavalry, musketeers, elephants, artillery, and all the pomp and pageantry of great imperial militaries, was more than capable of inspiring awe among the natives of Central Asia, but less capable of actually delivering decisive military results. This became especially apparent when the Mughals were pitted against a decentralized, militarized society like the Uzbeks, where every man was a cavalryman and a fighter, and “conquest” proved far easier than sustained military occupation. 

Other reasons for the Mughal strategic failure have been alluded to earlier in the narrative. The distaste of both Mughal commanders and the average soldiers for Central Asia led to their lack of enthusiasm in completing the conquest and annexation of the country. As mentioned before, some Mughal commanders who were deputed to serve in the region, like Bahadur Khan, were secretly opposed to the war effort, and not particularly keen in seeing the task through. The difficulties posed to the Mughals by the harsh climate, as well as the logistic issues (especially in terms of food shortages), were also important factors in explaining the Mughal failure. 

The failure of Shah Jahan’s Central Asian campaign can be said to mark the beginning of the decline of Mughal power in the region. The Safavids of Persia, who had earlier pledged neutrality during the Mughal campaign (in early 1647, an Indian embassy had been sent to Isfahan, the Persian capital, for this purpose), took advantage of the Mughal defeat to pursue their own interests in the region. In the summer of 1648, Shah Abbas II of Persia set out to Afghanistan with an army of 40,000, and captured Kandahar from the Mughals on 22 February 1649. Despite repeated attempts in subsequent years, the Mughals failed each time to recapture Kandahar, indicating deep structural issues within the Mughal military. Kabul remained under Mughal control for the duration of Aurangzeb’s long reign, but it remained a neglected frontier. A few decades after Aurangzeb’s death, foreign armies once again crossed the Hindu Kush, but this time in the far more usual, opposite direction — from Persia/Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. Nader Shah Afsharid and Ahmad Shah Durrani were the two most famous conquerors of the 18th century who made a fortune plundering the once-proud heart of the Mughal Empire.

However, no one who was familiar with history should have been surprised by such events. As the great Abu’l Fazl, close friend and adviser to Emperor Akbar, once said, “intelligent men of the past have considered Kabul and Kandahar as the twin gates of Hindustan, one (Kandahar) for the passage to Iran, and the other (Kabul) for that to Turan. By guarding these two places, Hindustan obtains peace from the raider and global traffic by these two routes can prosper.” Indeed, the invasions of India in the 18th century, following the collapse of central Mughal authority, were merely a return to the long-standing historical norm of a highly unstable northwestern frontier and a jumble of weak, decentralized Indian states. To the historian, such cyclical trends are fascinating in themselves, but what are even more fascinating are the exceptions to the trends – the astonishing actions of powerful and ambitious men, which go against the currents of precedent and tradition. The Mughal campaign in Central Asia was precisely such an action, and it will be interesting if, or when, this particular history will repeat itself.


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