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Since 1st March, 1999
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Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and High Roads to Empire, 1500-1700 By Jos Gommans, Routledge, £ 6.99

The Mughals were the only power before the British to establish a pan Indian empire. Theirs could be categorized as an “empire on the saddle” because the chief strength of the Mughals was their cavalry. About 80 per cent of the court’s expenditure went into maintaining the mounted force. Yet the Mughal army remains a much-neglected area in medieval Indian historiography. While Jadunath Sarkar studied politics and the personalities of the empire, the Aligarh school focused on the revenue policies. In the Nineties, Stewart Gordon and Muzaffar Alam shifted the limelight to the cultural aspects of state formation. But weapons and warfare still did not interest.

Only two Dutch historians have proved to be exceptions. Dirk Kolff in Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy attempted to integrate demography with medieval war history. Jos Gommans in the monograph under review tries to accommodate ecology to explain Mughal warfare between 16th and 18th centuries. Unlike Kolff, Gommans bases his story on the Persian manuscripts. The first book on the Mughal army was however written long back by William Irvine, who linked the racial decline of the Orientals with the disintegration of the Mughal war machine. Gommans argues that the very success of the Mughals resulted in their ultimate failure.

Babur won Hindustan with his army of mounted nomads. However, writes Gommans, an army suited for garrison duty was bound to be different from an invasion force. As the Mughals organized their newly conquered domains, they found that a separate structure was required to establish their rule permanently. Akbar’s mansabdari organization was the imperial response. Gommans asserts that India was full of armed retainers organized in bands under charismatic chieftains. Akbar coopted these chiefs by granting them mansabs. Even Afghan and Rajput chiefs who fought the Mughals were granted mansabs. This enabled the successive padshahs to exercise some control over the unruly warriors of India.

By 1700, the Mughal army had conquered the whole subcontinent. Gommans alleges that the big mansabdars deliberately dragged the war against the Marathas. They were afraid that if the Marathas were destroyed there would be no other power inside India to threaten the Mughals. Aurangzeb would then send them to central Asia to fight the Uzbeks. To avert such a dangerous possibility, the mansabdars entered into private compromises with the Maratha sirdars to keep the war going. Since the empire did not expand and the mansabdars’ avenues for extra income through pillage and plunder vanished, the chieftains, writes Gommans, thought it more lucrative to transform themselves into big landed proprietors. The “zamindarification” of the mansabdars, concludes Gommans, marked the end of the Mughal army and subsequently the Mughal empire.

Gommans’ interesting and insightful account however raises more problems than providing solutions. For instance, he claims that the aim of Mughal warfare was cooption instead of destruction of the enemy. But why did the Mughals attempt to do so' Gommans provides no clear answer. It seems that Gommans is hovering around the Parker-Hanson interpretation which claims that complete destruction of the enemy is exclusively a characteristic of Western warfare. But both the Mughals and the Ottomans traced their military tradition to central Asian nomadic warfare. And the Ottomans were geared towards annihilation of the enemy. Gommans’ monograph rekindles interest in Mughal warfare. It is probably the task of future scholars to solve the remaining puzzles.

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