Shah Alam II: The Hour of the Rohila

The Blinded Emperor

This is the final part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II.

It was self-preservation that made Emperor Shah Alam II choose the Maratha general as the regent. Shah Alam’s best and loyal officers were long gone, and he knew first-hand Mahadji Shinde’s capabilities. Moreover, as his plans to rebuild the empire had now stalled, the best Shah Alam could do was to get Maratha protection. Shinde knew that his imperial titles were meaningless – unless he whipped the back empire into a decent state. If he managed this, he could utilize the name of the Mughal Emperor to gather support from every corner of the Indian subcontinent. A few things had to be taken care of. There were some stubborn enemy states nearby, Mughal governors of doubtful loyalty, and rebel generals and roving warlords. Secondly, long pending dues (tributes and fines) from various local powers had to be claimed. To tackle these, Mahadji Shinde campaigned extensively between 1785 and early 1788, in the name of the Emperor and the Peshwa. His son-in-law represented him in Delhi and Maratha detachments were stationed in key cities. Shinde was able to achieve some success, but not without cost. However, an unforeseen threat was fast rising elsewhere.

The Rohila sardar Zabita Khan had died in 1785. He was succeeded by his son Ghulam Qadir, who had been castrated by the Emperor years ago. The talented Ghulam Qadir rapidly rose in power. From his domains in the Upper Doab, he made his move in July 1787, determined to fish in troubled waters. Joining hands with the Sikhs and some Mughal rebels, he captured Delhi. Ghulam Qadir had been apparently damaged irrevocably by his ordeal: he had bouts of extreme rage bordering insanity. He felt he was Rohila retribution personified and called himself Qahar-i-Khuda (Scourge of God). The frightened Emperor “graced” Ghulam Qadir with an audience and bestowed high titles, as the latter glared at him with barely contained rage. A sudden counterattack by the Maratha garrison and allied mercenaries forced Ghulam Qadir to retreat. However, in a few months he returned.

Shinde was in the Chambal Valley when these events unfolded, but he had to wait for reinforcements, which arrived in March 1788. In the next three months he picked off rebel armies and advanced to Delhi. However, by July Ghulam Qadir had retaken the city. The subsequent 10-week interregnum saw unprecedented cruelty and bloodbath. Shah Alam was deposed and Bidar Bakht, son of a formerly deposed emperor, was crowned. Ghulam Qadir used every waking moment to exact his revenge. The royal family was starved and tortured, and every inch of the palaces combed to reveal the riches squirreled away over the years.  They were also robbed of their finery and jewelry. Women faced terrible depredations. The Rohila personally attended to Shah Alam – the emperor was tortured and blinded with needles. Ghulam Qadir later upped this by gouging out the Emperor’s eyeballs while an artist was forced to paint the scene. Twenty one members of the royal family died in the interregnum – some bodies remained unburied.

By October, the Maratha noose tightened, and Ghulam Qadir fled Delhi. The royal family was rescued and Shah Alam reinstated, despite being blind. The Marathas chased Ghulam Qadir and finally captured him in December. He was brought to Mathura and treated well for two months to convince him to produce the Mughal loot. The Emperor now wrote to Shinde, admonishing him for letting Ghulam Qadir live. He swore that if the Rohila was not punished immediately, he would abdicate and leave for Mecca. Shinde could have disobeyed the Emperor and co-opted Ghulam Qadir for his goals, but he was an honorable man and also technically the emperor’s servant. Ghulam Qadir’s eyes, nose and ears were cut off and sent to Delhi. Only after he felt this grisly gift in his hands did the emperor express closure. Ghulam Qadir was tortured to death and hanged in a spot reserved for robbers.

The prestige and power of the Mughals was lost irretrievably. Reduced to near penury, the emperors survived by borrowing and relying on pensions and charity. Mahadji Shinde would continue his impressive career till his death in 1794. Shah Alam held his meaningless title till his death in 1806, his pettiness and appetite for opium and debauchery undented. Following British triumph over the Marathas (1803), he immediately groveled to the new masters. A British officer described the scene: “The descendant of the great Akbar and Aurangzeb was found blind and aged, stripped of authority and reduced to poverty, seated under a small tattered canopy, the fragment of regal state and the mockery of human pride”. The sorry charade of Mughal authority ended in fire and sword in September 1857, and its withered husk in the form of the corpse of Bahadur Shah Zafar II was given a quiet burial in Rangoon five years later.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 26, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Shah Alam II: The Mughal Empire in Flux

Shah Alam II and Clive

This is the second part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II.

It was 1760 and Prince Ali Gauhar was now Emperor Shah Alam II, but he was not entirely out of danger. His Rohila Afghan feudatories of the Upper Doab and Rohilkhand had a fierce and unruly streak. They had also become too powerful and close to the Afghan Emperor Abdali recently. Awadh, where he remained exiled, was ruled by his feudatory Nawab Shuja. However, this Nawab was a Shia. He was also powerful, practical, and was close to many Hindu powers. The East India Company (EIC) now dominated the East after the Battle of Plassey; early attempts of reconquest had failed. Above all, his father’s killer, Imad-ul-Mulk, and the Marathas held Delhi. Also, an enormous Maratha host had coalesced in the North, bent on conquest. Nevertheless, he had plans to reclaim Mughal glory.

The Islamist clergy was worried by the rapid rise of the Marathas. One of the leading clerics, Shah Waliulllah, invited Abdali to ally with Muslim states and “save India from the Kufr”. Abdali duly launched an invasion, sweeping away the Marathas from the North West Frontier and Punjab. The Rohilas and Mughals saw their chance and recaptured Delhi. Chasing away Imad-ul-Mulk and deposing his Puppet-Emperor, they joined Abdali. In the ensuing Third Battle of Panipat (January 1761) the Marathas were crushed – they would not return north for another decade. However, being wary of the ascendant Rohilas, Shah Alam did not return to Delhi. Moreover, he wished to focus on the eastern provinces of Bengal and Bihar, now under British control. The Rohila chief Najib ad-Dawlah held Delhi, while Shah Alam attempted to recapture the East from his base in Awadh. However, he was no match for the British and lost the decisive Battle of Buxar (1764). He was forced to grant unbridled rights to the EIC. This marked the true beginning of British paramountcy in India. The dejected Emperor spent the next five years as the EIC’s “guest” in Allahabad.

Najib ad-Dawlah died in 1770 after shepherding the empire through great regional convulsions and holding the Marathas at bay. The Rohila chief’s death led to the ascent of his son, the scheming and unpopular Zabita Khan. He made secret overtures to the Sikhs to compensate for his lack of support within the empire. About this time, the resurgent Marathas returned to the north. Despite crippling factional politics, the Marathas under the great general Mahadji Shinde ousted the Rohilas from Delhi in 1772. The Emperor now reached out to Shinde – he would bestow imperial favor if he would escort him safely to Delhi. Jagirs and rich tributes would also be awarded to the Maratha leaders. Thus, after 13 years of exile Shah Alam II returned to Delhi, albeit under Maratha aegis. He was not yet the master of his fate, but at least he was back.

Shah Alam immediately turned against Zabita Khan. A Maratha-Mughal expedition into Zabita Khan’s lands in the Upper Doab was launched. Zabita Khan was defeated and lost much territory. Other Rohila chiefs were suppressed with British aid in the First Rohila War (1773-1774). A seething Zabita Khan soon allied with the Sikh Sardars, but a subsequent Mughal expedition destroyed Zabita Khan’s rump kingdom in 1777. Zabita Khan fled with his Sikh allies, but his heir, the very young Ghulam Qadir was captured. The Rohila chief’s womenfolk were dishonored and male relatives massacred. Ghulam Qadir was spared by a high-ranking eunuch official and was made Shah Alam’s page.

Various accounts attest that the Emperor’s character began deteriorating around this time. A lifetime of fear, hardship and losses had taken its toll – his increasing opium addiction and debauchery was also to blame. Shah Alam began to mistreat noble captives and his kin the Salatin Quarters – where he himself suffered during his youth! One day he claimed that the handsome Ghulam Qadir was seducing the noblewomen and plotting his assassination; the teen was castrated and made a harem eunuch. Zabita Khan now beseeched the new regent Najaf Khan to free his family in return for ransom and his total submission. The regent granted this plea and Zabita Khan submitted for good. Ghulam Qadir’s ordeal would however come back to haunt the emperor in 1788, and those catastrophic events would finally end Mughal power and prestige.

For now, the Mughals had recouped some lost strength. Even with the emperor’s deterioration and endless court intrigues it briefly seemed that under Najaf Khan the Mughals would rise again. However, the Sikhs had grown very powerful and checked Mughal expansion. In a sudden invasion following Najaf Khan’s death in 1782, the Sikhs even sacked Delhi. Unable to find good men to serve and protect the empire, the emperor requested his old ally Mahadji Shinde to become the empire’s regent in 1784.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 19, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Shah Alam II: The Prince from the Slum

The Red Fort

This is the first part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam-II

When Aurangzeb died a weary and broken man in Ahmednagar in 1707, the Mughal Empire had reached its greatest territorial extent. However, the financial ruin due to Aurangzeb’s wars, the grim foes raised by his inflexibility and zealotry, and the poisoned legacy he bequeathed were enough to shatter the once powerful empire. In the next 150 years, thirteen emperors reigned. These were lesser men, tossed around by powerful nobles and factions – and even by enemies old and new. After all, the name of the Mughal Badshah still had some utility and commanded respect across the subcontinent. This trilogy of articles is about Shah Alam II, ultimately the most wretched emperor of them all. If he sounds familiar it’s because he is the subject of that famous saying – “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam”. While the weak emperors before him had definitely caused the empire’s decline, it was during the long reign of Shah Alam II that Mughal power and prestige was irretrievably lost, after a brief glimmer of hope. While other emperors had been deposed, blinded or assassinated, Shah Alam suffered much greater horrors. He also suffered the ignominy of serially supplicating to Indian factions and the British. The imperial cities of Delhi and Agra were raided and looted multiple times. In the first part of the trilogy we look at this emperor’s rise from captivity and hardship. Next, we look at his efforts and machinations to rebuild the empire. The final part covers a horrific interregnum in 1788 and the ensuing total collapse of the Mughals.

Hidden away from the resplendent courts and palaces, the Red Fort housed a grimy slum called the “Salatin Quarters”. Here, hundreds of Mughal princes and princesses languished in pitiful conditions. These quarters had developed in the post-Aurangzeb era, a symbol of all what was wrong with political succession in the Mughal Empire. Any male of royal descent (and there were many of these!) could be propped up by powerful factions, leading to Civil War. To avoid this, all descendants of former Emperors were confined to the Salatin quarters and kept under close watch. As the prosperity of Mughal Empire declined, so did the budget for the already spartan quarters. It soon devolved into a squalid and overpopulated slum with no arrangements for education, nourishment and sanitation. Many princes and princesses went degenerate or mad in this dungeon. Shah Alam II, born Prince Ali Gauhar, son of Prince Azizuddin and grandson of Emperor Jahandar Shah, was born and raised in this bleak place.

Prince Azizuddin was imprisoned in the Salatin Quarters after his father was deposed and killed in 1714. The next forty years saw five emperors on the throne, four of these were deposed by powerful kingmakers. Unlike other princes in the Salatin quarters, Azizuddin did not lose his wits nor become degenerate; he focused on the scriptures. His son, Ali Gauhar, born in 1728, also turned out well. In 1754, Imad-ul-Mulk, the Empire’s Regent and virtual ruler, deposed and blinded the reigning emperor. He foisted the devout and ageing Azizuddin on the throne and crowned him as Alamgir II. Ali Gauhar went from a prince of the gutters to the Crown Prince overnight.

Alamgir II reigned till 1759, without much power, despite his efforts. His efforts to neutralize the powerful regent Imad-ul-Mulk caused a chain of events leading to the terrible interregnum that would finally ruin the Mughals years later. When the Afghan Emperor Ahmed Shah Durrani (Abdali) invaded India in 1757, Alamgir fled to the Punjab to ally with the invader to defeat Imad-ul-Mulk. The Rohila Afghans of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and Rohilkhand had served Alamgir so far. They however found a better leader in Emperor Abdali, a fellow Afghan, and gravitated towards him. Now, Imad-ul-Mulk invited the Marathas to “save the Emperor from the vile Afghans”. The Maratha forces surged forth and swept away all opposition, even reaching Peshawar. Imad-ul-Mulk established a good relationship with Raghunathrao and Sadashivrao “Bhau”, the Maratha commanders. The Rohilas retreated from Delhi and the Emperor fled to the Jat kingdom of Bharatpur; the Jats then sacked an undefended Delhi as payment. The Maratha army later occupied Delhi and sacked it again.

Alamgir II was forced to return to Delhi, under the baleful eyes of the regent: the emperor’s days were clearly numbered. Fearing for his life, Crown Prince Ali Gauhar made a daring escape to Awadh. The Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daulah, gave him shelter. This angered Imad-ul-Mulk, who murdered Emperor Alamgir II and most of his family in November 1759. Imad-ul-Mulk and Bhau picked another wretched prince from the Salatin Quarters and crowned him as emperor Shah Jahan III. However, a few weeks later in Awadh, Prince Ali Gauhar was anointed Emperor Shah Alam II by his supporters.  

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 12, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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