The Mongol Conquest of India

Episode 33: Babur and Mughul India

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns Babur, great grandson of Tamerlane who founded the Mughul Empire in India (1526-1530). Descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, Babur (unlike Tamerlane) had the hereditary credentials to rule as khan in his own right. Born on the steppes in Andijan (in modern day Uzbekistan), he was governor of Fergana until he lost his throne in a civil uprising. As a cultivated man, he spoke Turkish and Persian.

After conquering Kabul (in modern day Afghanistan),* Babur became a vassal of the Shah of Iran and converted to Shi’a Islam. He then used his base in Kabul to recruit the nomadic cavalry that would conquer India. In 1526, he led his warriors into India (with the blessing of the Shah) to claim Tamerlane’s heritage in Lahore (see Prince of Destruction: How Tamerlane Changed the Landscape of the Middle East and Central Asia).

Employing knowledge gained from the Persian Army about field artillery and matchlocks (early hand held firearms), he quickly regained control of all northern India. After defeating the Rajputs in the Indus Valley, he ultimately came to control Delhi, Lahore and the entire upper Ganges.

When Babur died in 1530, his empire included Mughul India and the central steppes region that is now Afghanistan. His son Humayan lost the empire following an invasion by Aghans who had settled in Bengal. However with Persian support, he would regain the throne 15 years later.

Humayan’s son Akbar (1556-1605) transformed the Mughul empire from a nomadic military occupation to a sophisticated modern bureaucracy. Appointing 150,000 high level administrative officers (of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh* and Jak ethnicity), he won support from the majority Hindu population via a major program of public works. In addition to converting large sections of the Ganges into irrigated fields, he also introduced paper*** and block printing, as well as a new system of land measurement (and land tax) and a more regulated system of weights and measures. His tax revenues were very much dependent on the Hindus he relied on as tax collectors and scribes and the Hindus and Jains who were India’s money lenders and bankers.

Harl estimates that an administrative bureaucracy of 1.5 million Muslims were running an empire of 120 million non-Muslims. This contrasts with the Ottoman Empire, where all the initial administrators were slaves.

Over time a characteristic Indo-Muslim architecture developed best characterized by the Taj Mahal built by Akbar’s grandson.

The Mughul Empire (1658-1707) reached its maximum size under the sixth emperor Aurangzeb, covering nearly all of southeast Asia. Harl blames its downfall on Aurangzeb’s conversion to Sunni Islam and his campaign of terror against his Hindu subjects.

Following their occupation of India, the British Raj would inherit the administrative bureaucracy established by the Mughuls.

*Kabul sits at the entry to the Khyber Pass linking Central Asia to India.

**According to Harl, the Sikh religion is a monotheistic form of Hinduism which emerged after India was exposed to monotheistic Islam.

***Previously India had used extremely fragile palm leaf paper, which was totally unsuitable for maintaining good tax records.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

India’s BJP and the Right Wing Nationalist Government of Narenda Modi

In Search of India’s Soul: From Mughals to Modi Episode 1

Directed by Bruno Rosso (Al Jazeera) 2020

Film Review

In this documentary series, writer and journalist Aatish Taseer returns to his country of birth, to investigate increasing vigilante violence by Hindus against Indian Muslims.

India’s current 1.25 billion population breaks down into 1 billion Hindus, 200 million Muslims and 50 million members of other faiths (mainly Sikh, Buddhist and Christian). When India obtained independence from Britain in 1947, it was divided into Pakistan, which adopted Islam as its official religion, and India, remained a secular state. Many Muslims born in British-occupied India emigrated to Pakistan. However many remained.The last three decades has seen the rise of Hindu nationalism, which helped bring right wing Hindu nationalist party BJP and Narenda Modi to power in 2014. Many analysts believe Modi is deliberately stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, just as Trump stoked anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment to win votes in the US.

In Part 1, Taseer mainly investigates the vigilante attacks by Hindu nationalists against Muslim cow herdsmen and traders (at present cattle is a big export for India, even though cows are sacred in the Hindu religion). Although numerous Muslims have been killed in the attacks, no perpetrators have been convicted as yet.  When the Congress party recently replaced the BJP in the state of Rajasthan, the new government passed an anti-lynching law and launched an appeal against the acquittal of six Hindu nationalists in a high-profile murder case.

At least half of the film is devoted to Taseer’s efforts to understand the intensity of the anger Hindus feel towards Muslims they have lived alongside for 500 years. Most of the Hindus he interviews blame historical atrocities by Emperor Barbur, founder of the Mughal Empire. He and the sixth Mughul emperor Aurangzeb destroyed many Hindu temples to force Hindus to convert to Islam.

An Indian psychiatrist Taseer interviews a psychiatrist who points out that India was under continuous occupation (first by Mughal and then by the British) between 1526 and 1947.  He blames the ongoing racial hatred on intergenerational trauma stemming from colonization.