Akbar’s Initial Years: 1560-62 “Petticoat Government”?

Maham Anaga with Akbar in the court. Akbarnāma, Victoria & Albert Museum (detail)

One common feature which marked the administration after Bairam Khan’s dismissal was the tussle between Akbar and an influential section of his nobility. Down to 1564 it seems that the struggle was mainly confined within the central government.

Nature of Central Authority

Let us see what happened during this period. The question is: what was the nature of the central administration that came into existence immediately after Bairam Khan’s dismissal? Was this government after the coup of Bairam, under the full control of the king or did it represent consensus of factions of nobles fighting Bairam Khan in the preceding 4 years? An answer to this will depend on another question: How do we characterize the coup d’ etat that resulted in Bairam’s ouster? Do we characterize it as a victory of the king over a consensus of nobility? Or was it basically the victory of the nobles in general over the centralizing trend within the state, as represented by the regent, Bairam Khan?

So far as the evidence which we have regarding the character of the change-over of March 1560, it is true that sometime an impression is created that, perhaps, for the ouster of Bairam, and the developments which took place afterwards, initiative was taken by Akbar himself, giving an impression that all fighting against Bairam were in fact Akbar’s tools. Maham Anaga, Adham and others on Akbar’s initiative itself, followed the emperor to secretly leave Agra and then announce at Delhi the dismissal of Bairam Khan.

But then we have some other evidence also giving entirely different impression, indicating that the entire process and the moves were initiated by the group of nobles led by Maham Anaga and Mirza Sharafuddin and that these noble were actually using Akbar for building their own authority in the Central government. In fact Akbar being in this scenario only a tool in their hands!

If one reads Badauni, an impression is created –re-enforced by Abul Fazl to some extent – that throughout the period when the tussle was going on between Akbar and Bairam Khan, the real authority was being held in the hands of Maham Anaga.

Abul Fazl informs us that after reaching Delhi, it was Maham Anaga who contrived for her close relative, Shahabuddin Ahmad Khan to be the new wakil. Then after some time to widen the support amongst those nobles who had organized the coup, high positions were awarded to certain nobles at the instance of Maham Anaga. At her insistence wakalat was transferred to Bahadur Khan Uzbek, the younger brother of Ali Quli Khan. It was a subtle move of Maham Anaga as Ali Quli had sided with Bairam Khan. This was done to create a rift between Bairam Khan and those who were still considered close to him. It also remains a fact that the move was conceived and implemented not by Akbar but by Maham Anaga. Thus from Abul Fazl we come to know that power rested in Maham Anaga’s hands and Akbar was doing her bidding.

So this was the nature of the central authority in March 1560. Now let us turn to the new tussles which were arising within this structure.

The Tussle Between Different Groups

To begin with, the coup d’ etat was organized by Adham Khan, Mirza Sharafuddin, Shahabuddin Khan and others. But a few days later, they were also joined by a powerful noble having a considerable following – Shamsuddin Muhammad Atka. His arrival and joining the group at Delhi had a significance. He was very close to Akbar and could influence his mind. As soon as he arrived a rift started within the group, broadly between Maham Anaga and her followers on the one hand, and Shamsuddin Atka and his relations within the nobility, on the other. Then a third dimension was added as a result of the arrival of a number of nobles at Delhi who were actually erstwhile supporters of Bairam Khan, but had just pretended to have broken with him. Abul Fazl clearly states that these people were advised to go to Delhi and stay there by Bairam Khan himself. They included people like Bahadur Khan Uzbek, Qiya Khan Gung, Sultan Husain Jalair, and Muhammad Amin Diwana.

The arrival of this group at Delhi added one more faction into the large body of nobles who had rallied around Akbar of different interests.

So far as they were concerned, they were hostile both to Maham Anaga and Shamsuddin Atka. This group and that of Maham was competing for the control of central government; as to who should be the wakil us saltanat. Maham Anaga transferred wakalat from Shahabuddin Khan to Bahadur Khan indicating that she was coming to terms with this group by giving it the highest office in the state and thus using them against Shamsuddin Atka and thus creating a real rift between this group and Bairam Khan.

Rift between Maham and Atka was on the issue on who was to be appointed as the commander of the army that was being mobilized at Delhi for an expedition against Bairam Khan who was still at large and actively mobilizing nobles’ sympathies for his endeavour to ‘liberate’ the king from the clutches of people who had illegally taken him away to Delhi.

So on both the sides, the formal pretext was of fighting for the king. An expedition was being organized at Delhi for a military showdown with Bairam. Atka staked his claim for this position; Anaga stoutly opposed him. Thus a tussle arose on this issue.

Shamsuddin Muhammad Atka

The one serious setback which Maham received at this time was that the final decision taken was the appointment of Atka to this position. This was a decision taken not by Akbar but through a consensus of the nobles. Many nobles of different persuasions took an independent stand and the decision was taken to appoint Shamsuddin Atka as the commander of this army. This is borne out by a letter that was written by Atka sometime in 1561. Actually in this letter Shamsuddin Atka expresses much disappointment on the fact that after Bairam Khan’s defeat near Machchiwara in Punjab by him, the high office of the wakil us saltanat was denied to him. He not only registers his disapproval of this decision to exclude him from wakalat but he also alleges that he believes that this was done at the suggestion of Maham Anaga, who he points out was against him from the very beginning. And in this context makes the allegation that even at that time of the appointment as commander of the expedition, Maham Anaga had tried her best to frustrate his chances and many did not fully co-operate with him due to this. In spite of this handicap, he was able to defeat Bairam Khan single handedly. (AN, II)

We know that after his defeat at Machhiwara by Shamsuddin Atka, Bairam withdrew towards the Siwalik Hills and took shelter with a local chief and finally he was forced to surrender before Akbar who then sent him to Mecca for Hajj.

Subsequently Munim Khan, Khan-i Khanan, who till then was the governor of Kabul, was appointed as the wakil us saltanat. It is known that Munim Khan was very close personally to Maham Anaga as well as to Shihabuddin Ahmad Khan. Result was that after Munim Khan was appointed to wakalat, the new central administration that emerged, tended to pass almost completely under the influence of Maham Anaga.

Shamsuddin Atka left the court and went to Lahore with his entire clan. On the other hand, so far as the erstwhile followers of Bairam Khan were concerned, their position eclipsed after Bairam Khan was exiled, and thus only Maham Anaga’s faction remained as the only organized group. Though the new wakil was not a follower of Maham Anaga, but he was quite close to her.

Petticoat Government”?

This was the situation in post-1560 period which represented the domination of the group led by Maham Anaga at the Mughal court. It is also known that side by side with Maham Anaga, Hamida Bano Begum was also taking interest in the running of the administration. So to a certain extent, she was also party to this faction controlling the Central administration. That is why Vincent Smith is tempted to characterize the Central government during this period as the “Petticoat Government”.

There are a number of statements in the Akbarnama which go to substantiate this characterization to some extent. There is a clear statement in the Akbarnama that while Munim Khan was the ostensible wakil, the de facto wakalat rested with Maham Anaga.

A Hadīs

Or for that manner, Badauni corroborates this information in an indirect manner when he quotes the comment of one of the contemporary alim, Mir ‘Abdul Hai on the nature of the central administration of this time.

According to Badauni, commenting on the influence of Maham Anaga, Adham Khan and Itimad Khan, a Khwaja sara of Hamida Bano on the administration, Mir Abdul Hai is reported to have quoted on one occasion the following hadith – a weak one at that – which can be seen as a pointer towards the situation:

‘A time will come on men when none will become favourites, but the profligates (awaragard) and none will be thought witty, but the obscene. And none be considered weak, but the just; and when they shall count alms as a heavy imposition and the bond of relationship and reproach; and the service of God shall be a weariness unto them. Then the government shall be by the council of women, and the rule of boys and the management of the eunuchs.’

 What is important is that this hadith quoted by Abdul Hai to offer his comments. The last few lines describe the situation, indicating that the powers were being perceived to be with Maham Anaga nad her servants.

Then there is another passage where we find Abul Fazl asserting that Maham Anaga had all powers with her till December 1560 when she took leave from Akbar for arranging the marriage of her son.

Smith and Beveridge both cite those passages which try to characterize that the central government was dominated by Maham Anaga, Hamida Bano and other ladies of the haram while Akbar was a mere tool in their hands.

Tripathi on the other hand, tries to base on two sets of evidences, one, the evidence presented by Akbarnama where Abul Fazl tries to give the impression that Bairam’s dismissal was engineered by Akbar, and Hamida Bano and others were allowed to play the role stipulated for them by Akbar. Tripathi also stresses on the statement of Abul Fazl that in Dec 1560 Maham sought ‘leave’ [actually rukhsat should mean ‘permission] from Akbar for arranging the marriage of her son Baqi Khan. And thus suggests that from this date onwards, and after the appointment of Munim Khan, Maham Anaga was eased out of the position she was enjoying.

Episode of Diwānkhāna

But then we have considerable evidence, say from Bayazid Bayat, that down to April 1561 Maham Anaga continued to play a vital role. Bayazid says that in April 1561, on one occasion Maham was sitting in the Royal diwankhana when she got a chit from Akbar requesting money for personal expenditure. So this much becomes obvious that Maham did not go on ‘leave’ in 1560: she was transacting business in the diwankhana, and till much later, she continued to play an active role.

From Bayazid we come to know that Munim Khan on many issues adopted a policy course which was not approved by Maham anaga and her followers; she in fact stoutly opposed him. For example, the policy which Munim adopted towards erstwhile supporters of Bairam Khan, Ali Quli and Bahadur Khan. The impression which one gets from Bayazid Bayat’s account is that Munim wanted reconciliation between the establishment and the Uzbek nobles who were alienated after Bairam’s defeat. Maham, Shihabuddin Khan, Adham Khan etc tried to create a situation that efforts of Munim Khan would be made futile.

It also become clear that Munim did not play the role of a stooge of Maham anaga, he had his own views and policies which clashed with the interests and aspirations of the dominant Maham anaga’s group.

The view that there was a ‘petticoat government’ does not appear to be true. It is also not true that Maham Anaga was ‘ousted’ or that Munim Khan was only the ‘ostensible’ wakil.

If we take the total evidence then the reality appears to be somewhere between these two extreme views. From a letter written by Shamsuddin Muhammad Atka, it becomes clear that the administration at this time was functioning in a manner that the interests of the members of the faction in power were protected. The members of the dominant faction were able to corner most of the income from their jagirs. The Central Diwani, administered by Khwaja Jahan and Itimad Khan would not insist on payment of central revenues by the local commandants-cum-assignment holders.

So the benefit of this ‘lenient’ policy went to the nobles in general, and the main dominant group in particular.

This is clearly borne out by Bayazid Bayat’s description as well. We come to know that by April 1561, the Central treasury had almost become empty. When Akbar asked Maham Anaga to send him a small amount of  ` 18 / – , the Royal treasurer expressed his inability to meet the demand. And Akbar was constrained to remark: ‘From whose jagir shall I take this money?’

This was a direct result of the non-functioning of the central diwani during this period. The administration was dominated by nobles who wanted a loose policy which would undermine the centralization of the finances. Subsequently when the central administration was tightened and pressed the nobles for arrears, treasures started coming and the treasury again overflowed with gold and silver.

Reports of Discrimination

The other aspect of the working of the administration was that it was positively trying to discriminate against those nobles who were regarded by the dominant section as their rivals. This is borne out by Bayazid’s information regarding the transfer of Bahadur Khan’s jagir from Etawa. After his removal from there he was not assigned any other jagir. So there was harassment of those who were not in the good books.

Shamsuddin Atka too makes a similar complaint in his letter when he writes that after Bairam’s defeat, the authorities gave Yusuf Muhammad Khan (Atka’s son) an order for one crore, but it had no tan (or assignment). One crore were assigned to him out of which the authorities paid him only 40 lakhs at Firuzpur (a sarkar in Punjab).

So there are at least two complaints that the new administration did not assign jagirs for the payment that were due. The payment was there only on paper. Atka wrote this letter in April 1561 and it goes to support the view that the central administration was functioning in a biased manner.

One of the earliest move made in April 1561 was the issuance of the order transferring Munim Khan’s jagir from Hissar Firuza to a rather arid and less fertile territory of Alwar. This decision was conveyed to Munim Khan through Maham Anaga. Munim Khan was greatly perturbed and urged the order to be modified; it resulted in his jagir at Hissar Firuza being reduced considerably.

Move Against Adham Khan

Then soon after, we hear of a drastic move initiated by Akbar. This was against Maham Anaga. Akbar marched out of Agra with the aim of going for a hunt, leaving the city to be administered by Munim Khan. When he reached near Gwalior, he turned and advanced towards Malwa where Adham Khan was at the moment. Akbar had heard of Adham Khan’s attitude after his victory over Baz Bahadur and his ill-treatment of the late ruler’s haram. Without informing Maham Anaga, Akbar forced Adham Khan to give an account of the war booty which he had collected in the preceding one or two years. He also asked for the transfer of women of the haram of Baz Bahadur to the Royal officers.

After humiliating Adham Khan, and indirectly Maham Anaga, Akbar returned to Agra from where he then proceeded towards an easterly direction. Officers posted in this direction were greatly alarmed. Ali Quli Khan, who had been charged of withholding some amount from the treasury which he had accumulated as war booty, hurried to submit at Kara Manikpur a large ‘treasure’. Then accompanied with elephants and treasury, Akbar asked Shamsuddin Atka to come from Lahore and station himself at Agra. Thus through these moves, Akbar started asserting his position over the members of the clique running the central administration.

Shift of Power

Finally when Atka arrived, Akbar transferred many of the powers of the wakil to him, without formally announcing his appointment to the post. Officially it was Munim Khan who was formally holding that position, was reduced to a position of subordinate. This was bound to result in jealousies.

One move of Shamsuddin Atka, after becoming all in all, before formally becoming the wakil, was that he started scrutinizing the position of individual jagirs with the aim of assessing the questions of arrears of khalisa revenue pending against them. He did this with the assistance of Khwaja Phul Itimad Khan, who fully cooperated with him.

Secondly, Akbar removed Adham Khan from the position of the commander of the Mughal forces at Malwa without giving him any new position. This infuriated the nobility which was till then in power. Akbar also forced Munim Khan to now formally give charge to Atka.

Assassination of Adham Khan

In May 1562 that famous incident took place which resulted in Atka’s assassination and Adham Khan’s execution.

Throwing of Adham Khan from the ramparts by Akbar, Miskin, Akbarnāma, V&A Museum, London

On a minor issue scuffle started at the court between Adham Khan and Shamsuddin Atka. Adham had him killed in front of central ministers. When Atka after being attacked ran to Akbar’s apartment, Adham Khan followed and stabbed him to death and tried to enter the royal apartment. Akbar at this instance had a scuffle with him in which the emperor with his own hand struck Adham Khan with a sword and ordered him to be thrown to death twice from the terrace. This all is attested to by Abul Fazl, Bayazid Bayat and Badauni.

Thus in this manner the whole tussle was resolved. And from this time onwards an interesting situation developed. Akbar insisted the nobles to serve him as ministers, while people like Munim Khan were afraid that he suspected him of having a hand in Adham Khan’s ‘conspiracy’. At least Abul Fazl seems to be confirmed that these nobles tried to browbeat Akbar. Akbar on the other hand through this crisis tried to assert that he was the master of his own. He forced Munim Khan and others to stay and run the government under his direction. Munim Khan tried to flee, but was brought back and in semi-surveillance and was re-appointed as the wakil us Sultanat.

Further during this time Akbar tried to create a new team of officers, who were distinct from the Chaghtai officers. One such person was Khwaja Ali Turbati who was appointed to the department of Diwani. He had initially been appointed after Bairam’s death and by 1564 he emerged as the rival of Munim Khan. In 1564 he was appointed to the office of wazir-i kul with independent powers. Thus this was the situation from October 1560 to 1564 when Akbar gained a complete hold over the central government.

• Ali Nadeem Rezavi