Rise of Large Zamindaris on the Eve of Babur’s Invasion

India on the Eve of Babur’s Invasion

India on the eve of Babur’s invasion provided a peculiar scene on its political as well as social levels. It was a theatre of chaos. There was a scene of divisions, tensions and frustrated ambition. It appeared as if politically the country was in decline. Every one had plans for enlargement to some extent which was wrecked by the conspiratorial circumstances. The beginning of the 16th C in India was one of the transitional phases of its extended history. Let us first deal with the political conditions and in order to do so scrutinize the hypotheses propounded by Rushbrooke Williams.

Rise of Large Rajput Zamindaris:

Apart from the coming of the Portuguese in the Indian Waters and its consequences, which we would be dealing subsequently, an important development which took place just on the eve of Babur’s invasion was the rise of large Rajput zamindars within the areas controlled by the Delhi Sultanate as well as by other regional states. This was important from two angles:

For the first time we find a situation in which different clan holding zamindars in different places came to identify themselves as belonging to the same caste, viz. the Rajputs.

Secondly As compared to the earlier situation which existed in the 13th & 14th C., the zamindars that had existed in the heartland of the Delhi Sultanate and the heartland of other states like Malwa, Gujarat and other states in the Deccan were comparatively creating bigger units and zamindaris.

If one reads the sources of Delhi Sultanate, one comes to references to local chiefs and zamindars. But one notes a significant difference in the sources of Sultanate period and those of the 15th C. From 15th Century onwards, we find all the local chiefs and zamindars mentioned as Rajputs. But in the earlier period, they are referred to as individual kshatriya clans: eg. Katihar chiefs, Chauhans, Khos, Bundelas, etc.

In the sources of the 13th & 14th C. it is nowhere mentioned or indicated that they together formed a caste – the caste of Rajputs. In some modern works, the misconception is reflected that non-Muslim chiefs of the 13th C. were Rajputs. Inscriptions from Rajasthan, in Rajasthani and Persian, do not make any reference to these groups as being Rajput or there being a bigger unit called Rajput. It was only from the 15th & 16th C. that one finds so. This important development had very important consequences.

This point is established by Prof. Irfan Habib in his article “Social Distribution of Landed Property”, pub. In Enquiry in 1965 (pp.54-56 & 67-69) where one comes across data to establish the point that Rajputs as a zamindar caste emerged in the 15th & 16th C. and were not there in the 13th & 14th C. This emergence of the Rajput caste during this time was a result of different processes: Sometimes by gradual absorption of aboriginal groups having land into groups. As an example we know that the Gond rulers of Chauragarh (Chhattisgarh area) were not regarded by other chiefs as Rajput caste down to the 15th C. One ruler of this dynasty made a proposal of marriage to Durgavati, the daughter of the Mahoba ruler. This proposal was put down on the ground that the Chauragarh rulers were not Rajputs! Ultimately Durgavati was taken by force. From that time onwards, these Gonds came to be regarded as new clan of Rajputs: the Nagvanshi Rajputs. Thus we see the rise of a new clan.

Similarly we have the case of the Cooch ruler of Cooch Bihar in North Bengal. They belonged to the Cooch tribe, which was a sub-tribe of the Ahom race, who were not a part of the varna system till now. As a process of Sanskritization, they were also absorbed. They started claiming for themselves the status of Kshatriyas and also part of the larger Rajput caste. This legitimization was again brought out through a myth: i.e., the Purohit of one ruler of Cooch Bihar in the 16th C. had a dream. In the dream he met Goddess Bhawani who informed him that the ruler was a Kshatriya and a thakur. Thus they were taken to be Rajputs and were incorporated in this group as such. According to Abul Fazl, the territory of Cooch Bihar was 200 kuroh in length and 20 to 30 kurohs in breadth.

Then there was another way in which this came to happen. Displacement of earlier groups who refused to be incorporated as Rajputs by those incorporated as Rajputs. Defeat those who refused and establish themselves. An example can be given of Ujjainiya Zamindars, now represented in the Shahabad district of Bihar. The Cheros of this region were overthrown by the Ujjainiya Rajputs. They were the people migrated from Ujjain. What was their actual clan group is not certain: sometimes they are supposed to be the Panwars. They overthrew the aboriginal Cheros who refused to be absorbed in the Rajput caste.

The Afghan chiefs also helped in this replacement process. Sher Shah also contributed to this. When Abbas Khan Sarwani talks of abolition of zamandars by zamindars, he is speaking of the Cheros.

Similarly the Meenas were evicted from Amber region and replaced by the Kachhawahas.

As a result of this process, in the whole of the Gangetic plain and region constituting the heartland of Malwa and Gujarat were established large zamindaris controlled by groups claiming to be belonging to a large unit, the Rajput caste. The only exception was Bengal, where the zamindaris emerging were of the Kayastha class and not the kshatriyas.

The fact that these zamindaris, comparatively speaking, were larger units is important. In the sources of the Delhi Sultanate reference to zamindars tends to indicate two kind of local chiefs and zamindars.

Barani speaks of rais, ranas and rawatas. It is obvious that they were autonomous chiefs located on the periphery of the area controlled by the Turks. But then, side by side he also refers to Chaudhuries, khuts and muqaddams. It is obvious these were zamindars located within the concentrated territory controlled by the Turks all over. Chaudhuries it seems were bigger zamindars and intermediaries with 100 or more villages. Muqaddams were village level chiefs. These chiefs and zamindars were small and village level officials. Chaudhuries were bigger but were small units as compared to the rais. They were not in a position to resist or defy imperial authority on their own. So the rebellion in the Gangetic plain of these petty chiefs was possible only when famines or great pressure occurred; or they received help from one or the other section of the Turkish nobility like the revolt of Malik Chhajju. They could not rebel on their own strength.

But in the 16th C. this situation had been altered. With territories controlled, there emerged large zamindari units not located on periphery but in the heartland of the imperial territory. We have Bachgoti zamindars who held sway over a large tract in Awadh. By the beginning of the 16th C. they were so strong that they succeeded in overthrowing the Lodi administration over a large area. And this is borne out by an interesting reference in Lataif-i Quddusi, a collection of anecdotes and sayings of Shaikh Abdul Quddus Gangohi who was forced to migrate from Rudauli in Barabanki District to Shahabad sometime in 1491-92. The Bachgotis had overthrown Lodis in this region and established practices repugnant to Shariat. Thus the saint had migrated to Shahabad in Haryana.

Thus we can say that this period saw two important developments: (1) emergence of larger zamindar class: the Rajput class; (2) these zamindaris were now comparatively big units by the end of 15th C.

The second point can be further stressed by the example of the Bhadorias. According to Abul Fazl, the Bhadorias controlled areas in the vicinity of Agra itself. In the vicinity of Agra according to Abul Fazl, there is no one as powerful as the Bhadorias. Mainpuri and Etah districts were under the Bhadorias.

While dealing with the Rajput policy, Arif Qandhari writes in Tarikh-i Akbari, that there are 2 or 3 hundred zamindar chiefs. Their suppression is very difficult as they possess strong forts. If they are able to hold on to each one of these forts, say for six months, or one year, they can be contented about their safety for the next two hundred years.

Thus as the Rajput zamindars were very strong, Akbar had to enter into matrimonial alliance. If force was used, 2 or 3 hundred years would have been needed to subdue them.

Then there was another complication. As all belonged to the same caste, there was much more degree of solidarity with each other as compared to the earlier situation.

This is borne out by the example of Medni Rai of Chanderi who had entered service of the Khalji ruler of Malwa. He first tried to gain power in Malwa by mobilizing the Afghans and the Rajputs behind him. He sought the intervention of the Sisodias of Mewar in his favour. In 1419 as a result of a coup de tat the Khalji ruler had to flee and could be brought back by the Gujarat ruler.

Medni Rai wrote to the Rana Sanga, that being the chief of the Rajputs, he should help him. Thus this caste solidarity compelled them to work together. Then in 1529, Rana Sanga mobilized a large number of Rajputs under him. Shaikh Zain says 10 kafir chiefs had been employed by Rana Sanga to throw out the Islamic rule.

Mewatis, from south of Delhi down to Amber was under Hasan Khan Mewati, who was a Muslim and not a Rajput. The Mewatis were non-Muslims in the 13th C. and were converted in the 14th C. The Bhatti clans in Punjab and the Ghakkars were also Muslims who identified themselves with the Rajputs.

Babur had to tackle this Rajput-Zamindar factor. Akbar’s Rajput policy should not be taken as a result of his religious policy. Mughals were not in a position to control Hindustan without the Rajput help. It had nothing to do with religion. From Sikandar Lodi’s time, evidences suggest that a large number of Rajputs had been enrolled and given positions. (See IH Siddiqui, ‘Composition of nobility under Lodi Sultans’, Miscellany)

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi