The Sur Administration

Extent of the Sur Empire

The most conspicuous feature of the Sur administration was its highly centralized nature despite a large participation of numerous Afghan groups. It was a highly centralized political system. If we examine the working of this system, we can discern significant features which go to establish that this system had a high degree of centralization from the very beginning, and it went of increasing.

We find that Sher Shah and Islam Shah, in their policy of recruiting nobles, tried to undermine the position of the privileged groups of the Afghan chiefs, which naturally resulted in the coming into existence of a new kind of nobility which did not have the same kind of high claims. And as they were the creation of Sher Shah or Islam Shah, they were loyal to them.

Secondly we find that both Sher Shah and Islam Shah were very particular in enforcing a high degree of discipline amongst these nobles – thus we have the transfer of iqtas, introduction of dagh wa chehra regulation or the measure of putting the entire nobility on cash payment under Islam Shah.

Thirdly there was also a close supervision by the king of the working of the central government – a sharp contrast with the Mughal central government, where various officers were responsible for various departments; and the wakil us saltanat, the intermediary between the king and the nobles, ran the central government on behalf of the king. Sher Shah on the other hand, personally supervised the working of each and every department. He did not leave it in the hands of independent officers.

Fourthly, we have a peculiar kind of local administration which was sought to be created at the pargana and sarkar level. The degree of the supervision of the central government personally under the king is unique.

Fifthly, there was also the creation of a large standing army. In Sher Shah’s case, one finds that this standing army was in fact deployed all over the empire in such strength that it could be used against the defiant nobles whenever anyone of them should try to go against the central government.

Lastly, a new pattern of revenue administration was introduced in which was the introduction of the zabti system – a system providing the mode of assessment and realization of revenues was on the basis of area under cultivation.


So far as the composition of the Sur nobility was concerned, it is a false notion that the Lodi Empire was an Afghan concern in the sense that in this Empire all the Afghan people had an equal share. This negative assessment is important because some of the statements that are attributed by the Afghan historians to Bahlol Lodi do go to create the impression that at the time of its establishment, the Lodi empire was conceived by its founder as a state in which the power would rest – perhaps sovereignty as well – in the entire Afghan group. The author of Waqiat-i Mushtaqi says that Bahlol sent a message to nobles that we have established in India and Afghan rule, and share with me this empire. Thus an impression is created that it was a common concern of Afghan people.

But when we scrutinize the list of nobles of the Lodi empire, it emerges that only a few of the Afghan Khails were singled out for recruitment: the rest did not have any share in the nobility. At best they supplied personnel for recruitment as ordinary troopers.

Similarly under the Surs, the nobility comprised of a large number of minor Afghan clans, who did not get much share in power and privileges in the Lodi empire.

This situation was the result of a number of circumstances: One circumstance for the rise of only minor clans in the nobility was the rivalry and clash which developed between minor Afghan officers led by Sher Khan and some of the Lodi nobles who had come to Bihar after the defeat at the hands of the Mughals. In fact the rise of Sher Khan was a result of this struggle. He out-manouvred the Nauhanis, and such prominents groups as those led by Shaikh Bibban and Farmuli. Thus he would not be in a position to recruit in service nobles belonging to these clans.

Thus in his nobility there were basically two groups: (a) the majority belonging to minor clans, and (b) the khasa khails, i.e., those who were independent of clan ties and had a personal loyalty towards him. Thus the term ‘The Royal Clan’. Amongst them were the three sons of his personal slave Sukha: Khawas Khan senior, Sahib Khan and Khawas Khan Jnr. They were thus people of obscure origin who had been given highest positions. Then there were others: Shuja’at Khan Sur, Sarmast Khan Sarbini, Haibat Khan Niazi [about Niazis Waqiat-i Mushtaqi comments that they were not good enough even as ordinary troopers and were looked down upon as just menials!] Haibat Khan was even  given the title of Azam Humayun and the charge of whole Punjab. The Niazis also controlled Malwa.

In addition, after 1553 Sher Shah had also taken some Lodis in service after their complete defeat: Amongst them was Isa Khan Sarwani, the ancestor of Abbas Khan Sarwani, the author of Tuhfa-i Shershahi. They were given minor appointments with the exception of Isa Khan who was made incharge of sarkar Sambhal.

When Islam Shah came to power, he made further changes in the composition of the nobility: he attempted to do away with the Khasa Khails whom he suspected of treacherous designs against his person. This bitternes was due to the fact that some of them had taken part in the tussle for succession and had sided with Adil Shah. Thus after coming to the throne, Islam Shah promoted enblock 6000 persons from his own contingents to positions of nobility. This information comes to us from Risqullah Mushtaqi. He says that this disturbed the old arrangement and displeased the nobles of Shershah. The Niazis were totally eliminated and ordinary troopers of his own khasa khail were promoted. Result was that the strength of non-Afghan section was augmented. Certain non-Muslim personnel was also appointed. One such person was Hemu who had held the small post of shahna-i bazaar under Shershah.

Measures to Control Nobility

Under Shershah, strict discipline had been imposed on his nobility: he saw to it that they did not enjoy uninhibited powers which they exercised under the Lodis. Their freedom was limited by sending periodic written instructions to them which gave detailed advice how they should run their administration or meet problems arising from time to time. This practice seems to have been carried on by Islam Shah as well. This is actually borne out by Badauni as well:

“Also the amirs of 5000, 10,000, and 20,000 used every Friday to pitch a lofty tent supported by 8 poles and bring the shoes of Salim Shah together with a quiver (tarkash) which he had given to the sardars, in front of the throne; and first of all commanders of the troops and after him the munsif, that is to say amin followed by others in due precedence with bowed heads and every expression of respect, would take their seats in their appointed palces, then a secretary would come and read out aloud that order, chapter and verse, which occupied 80 sheets of paper more or less. Any question which presented them any difficulty was referred by them in the conclave to the various provisions and rulings of that document, by which it was finally decided and if it should wo happen that any amin acted in contravention of that order, the secretary used to write a report of that action and despatched it to the sourt and the disobedient amin would forthwith be visited with punishment together with his family and his relations.”

Badauni writes from personal experience: he saw it once in Rajasthan where he was staying at that time. This shows that regular orders were issued to the nobles by the Sur Sultans.

In addition to this we find Shershah also tried to impose very strict discipline on his nobles and did not pardon anyone who committed indiscretion.

For example, the case of Khizr Khan in Bengal. He had married the daughter of the deposed king of Bengal. It was reported against him that he was behaving in a very haughty manner. He was not only removed but care was also taken to abolish governorship of that place and replace it with a sarkar administration. The governor was removed and in his place an amin was appointed.

We have an interesting account of Dattu Sarwani, who wrote his recollections and dreams in 1535 which are now part of Latiaf-i Quddusi. He writes that when Sher Shah ordered some Afghan families to Gwalior, fort, eunuchs were appointed to record their names in registers and in case if they refused, to set their houses on fire and send them forcibly in disgrace.

Similarly Shershah re-enforced branding of horses. According to Abbas Khan Sarwani this was done due to ‘liars and double faced persons who showed a large number of troops at the time of assignment, but once the jagirs had been assigned they would deprive their soldiers oftheir dues’. He further writes that Sher Shah proclaimed “ I have introduced the system of branding with this object in view that there should be no discrimination between the rights of the nobles and the troopers, that the nobles may not be able to deprive the troopers of their dues and the chiefs must maintain the soldiers in consonance with their mansabs and be not able to vary their numbers.’

When a report was mad against Shujaat Khan Niazi that his troopers were not being given their due Sher shah reportedly wrote to him:

‘Before the wakil of your troopers reach here, restore to the troopers their payments and pacify them. If their wakil comes to me and submits their complaints, I will deprive you of your jagirs and give you an exemplary punishment.’

One measure already discussed is that Islam Shah would send detailed instructions to his nobles which had to be strictly adhered to.

Orders were given that they should not lead an easy life and drive out of their establishments dancing girls. They were also asked to abolish akharas. They were directed that nobles would not be permitted to use red or crimson tents, as they were reserved for imperial use. They were to surrender all their elephants to central authority: only a few weak elephants were allowed for their personal use. Finally Islam shah also introduced the measure of converting a major part of the land into khalisa – Badauni says he brought whole country into personal control [ khasa-i khud saakht] and in accordance with this regulation and the custom of dagh, the troopers were paid in cash.

Badauni’s account of Islam Shah is very detailed. He is actually referring, albeit indirectly towards khalisa. But then it is difficult to believe that he succeeded in this as no other tells us about this. This is to be taken as an attempt. This would have affected the position of the nobles seriously.

Now the third aspect: the personnel and the close supervision of the central government by Shershah. Evidence in this regard has to be gleaned carefully. There is a passage in Abbas Khan where he quotes Sher Shah’s criticism of the working of the Mughal state as witnessed by him in 1528 during the brief visit that he had paid to the Mughal camp. He had gone to the Mughal camp with Junaid Barlas:

‘Since I have been amongst the Mughals and know their conduct in action, I see that they have no order or discipline and that their king do not personally supervise the govt bu leave all the affairs of the state to their nobles and ministers in whose sayings and doings they put perfect confidence. These grandees act on corrupt motives in every case whether it be that of a soldier or a cultivators or a rebellious zamindars.”

This was a defect which Shershah tried to rectify on coming to the throne. According to Abbas Khan:

‘He (king) should not repose much confidence in the pillars of the state (arkan-i daulat), for he said, I have always remained acquainted with the affairs of the kingdom and that whenever I have tested on the touchstone of my experience the words and acts of these pillars of the state and their agents. I have not found them to be wholly true. The means of my gaining possession of the kingdom lay in bribe taking habits of these officers of the state (Mughal officials).

Abbas Khan further tells us:

‘ Shershah personally attended to all important campaigns and the affairs of the realm high or small, never allowed hours meant for prayers to go without offering them.’ ‘ The huliya (descriptive roles) of these soldiers and jorses were caused to be recorded before they were brought before him and with his own tongue he announced the fixation of their monthly salaries. After this he had the horses branded in his own presence.’

Thus evidence suggests that (a) Shershah’s experience indicated that if the king didn’t supervise personally then it was a loose administration and thus (b) the king should directly supervise the minutest details. This type of evidence made Qanungo to suggest that Shershah had no ministers but secretaries who manned his administration.

The Local Administration

As far as the local administration is concerned, it appears that it was a result of significant improvements in the communication system. The improvements achieved by constructing regular highways on all major routes of the empire. From Sonargaon to Rohtas was constructed the famous GT road. Then there was another between Agra and Burhanpur; another between Agra and Jodhpur; between Lahore and Multan etc.

Secondly, a number of sarais were established at regular intervals all along these important routes. These were multi-purpose structures. Abbas Khan informs that in each of these sarais, a space was reserved for official use, known as khana-i padshahi. In another part of the sarai was established the dakchauki, in which a few riders were always available for the relay horses. According to Abbas Khan in all 3400 horses were deployed in these sarais for the purpose of the dak chaukis.

This construction of roads, highways and sarais radically improved the communication system in the empire. Thus Abbas Khan testifies that for example, one messenger, Husain shiqdar travelled on one occasion 300 kurohs in one day (one kuroh = 2 ½ miles), i.e., more than 600m in one hour a record achievement! It was this which facilitated Islam Shah’s system of sending weekly instructions to all sarkar HQs

These sarais also acted as mini-fortresses and military establishments which further helped in consolidating the administration and places where the central standing army could be placed if needed. According to Abbas Khan the hashm-i qalb stood at 1 ½ lakhs. In addition were 25,000 matchlockmen, the infantrymen with guns. One should also remember that under the Mughals and the Surs, the central authority had a monopoly over firearms: it was not to be given to local nobles.

The General Administration:

The most important aspect of the Sur administration was the building up of an elaborate administrative machinery at the Sarkar level. If we believe Abbas Khan Sarwani, then there existed three levels of administration under Sur Empire: the Central administration, the Sarkar administration and the Pargana level administration. The Suba (provincial) level administration of the Mughals (between the central & Sarkar level) was missing. Under the Lodis and Syed, in place of Sarkars there used to be a number of designations: shiqs, khittas, wilayats, iqtas etc

Thus at Pargana level, the basic administrative unit, we find mention of shiqdar, amil, munsif, amin. Then at the Sarkar level, Abbas Khan in his concluding section says, the equivalent functionaries were shiqdar-i shiqdaran, munsif-i munsifan. The functions of the shiqdar at both Pargana and Sarkar level was basically military:

‘If the people from lawlessness or rebellious spirit creat disturbance regarding the collection of revenue, they were so to eradicate and destroy them with punishment that there wickedness and rebellion should not spread to others.’ The munsif / amin at the Pargana level was measurement of land and assessment of revenue demand. While the officer at the Sarkar level, though performing similar duties, was actually given the role of a supervisor over the Pargana munsif, as well as the arbiter between the munsifs of different parganas in their jurisdiction.

But then elsewhere in his account, especially in the narrative part of the history of Shershar’s reign, there is a different kind of information: there is no mention of such designations as shiqdar-i shiqdaran or munsif-i munsifan. Different terms are used to designate the heads of Sarkar level administration, viz., shiqdar, faujdar, munsif, muqta. Possibly terms like shiqdar-i shiqdaran was a figurative designation invented by Abbas Khan to give a standard term for the heads of Sarkar level administration indacting their supervisory role over a number of smaller shiqdars.

For example in Sarkar Delhi, Sher shah appointed three officers, the shiqdar, faujdar, and munsif. Now what was the need to have a faujdar and a shiqdar for Delhi? There should have been either a faujdar or shiqdar with the designation of shiqdar-i shiqdaran. Perhaps the person being appointed as shiqdar was only for adm & military control of the city, while the person appointed as faujdar was for the rest part of the sarkar apart from the city.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi