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Predators and prey

November 26, 2016


THERE is a recurring theme running through Muslim mythology in the subcontinent that places the Mughal era at the pinnacle of India’s rich and varied past.

Travellers to India in the 16th and 17th centuries returned with tales of dazzling riches. Indeed, compared to the display of wealth by the Mughal aristocracy, European monarchs and princes paled into insignificance.

But the reality was very different, unless you were one of the favoured few at the top of the Mughal hierarchy. To illustrate this, consider the fact that under Shah Jehan, 36.5 per cent of the assessed revenue of the country was assigned to 68 princes and ‘amirs’. The next 25pc went to another 587 officers.

The rulers’ attitude towards ordinary people hasn’t changed.

Thus, 61.5pc of some 220 million rupees were skimmed off by just 655 individuals. The extortionate system under the Mughals diverted 25pc of the entire GDP to less than 700 people out of a population of 120m.

These are some of the depressing facts Abraham Eraley cites in his magisterial work The Mughal World: Life in India’s Last Golden Age. And for the rulers, the age was literally golden: Akbar’s personal treasure trove, documented on his death, included 7m gold mohars, 100m silver rupees, 320m copper dams, and a vast horde of precious gemstones, ornaments and gold and silver bullion.

It was considered bad form to use inherited treasure by the next incumbent on the Mughal throne, so it lay buried against emergencies while the new ruler set about exploiting the populace to build up his own hoard. Meanwhile, the population was further impoverished.

The prevailing land ownership system ensured that nobody could accumulate capital. Thus, there was no investment in the land or in new technology. While cultivators did own the land they tilled, the mansabdars, jagirdars and other officials appointed over them were free to extract any percentage of their produce they could squeeze out of them.

As these local grandees were not paid salaries in cash, but assigned a certain area of farmland to collect revenue from, it was in their interest to maximise their incomes through harsh methods. They certainly had no motive to improve the land. Farmers concealed any extra cash they had to prevent it being snatched away by rapacious officials. The whole system was designed to produce a stagnant economy.

To increase their wealth, the Mughals were often at war with their neighbours. Officials who were supposed to maintain a certain number of men under arms for the privilege of collecting revenues usually cheated and had far fewer soldiers.

Generals in the field also made money by keeping less soldiers than they claimed salaries for. Thus, it was no surprise that under-strength armies conducted desultory, inconclusive campaigns that lasted years and drained the imperial treasury.

Corruption was another cross ordinary Indians had to bear. According to Eraley, a woman complained to Shah Jehan in his durbar that her land had been occupied by a local official. The emperor immediately directed that it be restored to her. Nothing happened, so the woman appealed again. Same orders; same result. After her seventh attempt, the Mughal emperor said to her that her eighth appeal should be to God as his officials wouldn’t listen to him.

So, contrary to our perception of powerful monarchs whose word was law, the reality was very different. The further away an official was from the seat of empire, the more independent he became. Nawabs on the periphery disdained royal directives completely.

People like Imran Khan in Pakistan and Kejriwal in India think that corruption is something new. In fact, it has been around forever, declining briefly after the British cro­wn took over from the East India Com­pany after 1857. And this relatively clean adm­inistration was limited to the well-paid officers of the Indian Civil Service. For the lower ranks, it was business as usual.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the attitude of the ruling class towards ordinary people. Their suffering and daily tribulations move the elites not a jot. Millions have no access to clean drinking water; public toilets are few and far between; and the doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest in the world.

And yet both countries have enough money to maintain their elites in style and support huge armies. They can also deploy modern weapons and possess nuclear arsenals. So clearly, our leaders continue to ape the Mughals and their ostentatious ways.

More depressing is the way our people put up with the same kind of treatment their ancestors received in the Mughal period. The Mughals made no attempt to improve the lives of those they ruled. They built mosques and palaces, but no schools and hospitals. Small wonder that our ranking on international welfare indices remains so low.

Just as the Mughals cared only for their immediate families, so too do our dynasts promote their own at the expense of the people. Those who look back through rose-tinted glasses should first examine the lives of commoners.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2016