T. Ansari: Mughal Administration and the Zamindars of Bihar

Mughal Administration and the Zamindars of Bihar.

Ansari, Tahir Hussain
Abingdon 2019: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
300 S.
£ 120.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jha Murari, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University

This book is an important study on the zamindars (zamindar from the Persian zamin land, dar holder) of Bihar. Set in a regional context, the book considers the complex interplay of the Mughal administration’s efforts to bring the zamindars into the imperial fold. In most cases, the result of such efforts at imperial incorporation remained uncertain. Tahir Hussain Ansari, the author of this empirically rich monograph, has constructed the narrative around the biographical accounts of some of the notable zamindars. Ansari has consulted a wide range of sources such as Persian Mughal official works, some contemporary chronicles of the chieftaincies, akhbarat (political newsletters), early colonial records of the English East India Company (EIC), and some European travelogues. The author must be commended for his painstaking efforts to cull the data on Bihar zamindars and their dynamic relationship with the Mughals over the course of more than two centuries. Along with telling the story around political and administrative developments, Ansari also reflects on the landscape of the region – roughly corresponding to modern provinces of Bihar and Jharkhand and the adjoining areas – where some big chiefdoms (zamindari) had flourished.

The book has ten chapters including introduction and conclusion, and each chapter considers one significant zamindari. From chapters 2 to 6, it discusses the zamindaris of Kharagpur, Bhojpur, and the Cheros of Palamau, Khokhra, and Gidhaur – all of them located to the south of the Ganga River. Out of these chieftaincies, Kharagpur, Bhojpur, and Gidhaur commanded the most fertile tracts of land along the southern riverbanks. These chieftaincies of southern Bihar deftly used the hilly outcrops of the Chhota Nagpur plateau and the jungle for shelter and refuge whenever the Mughal cavalry sought to assert a tighter imperial control and periodically pressed for the tribute. Overall, the author has given a rich account of the origins and foundation of these chieftaincies, genealogies of the zamindars, and their relationships with the Mughal and British administration from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and in some case well into the following centuries during colonial times.

Ansari also shows their important contributions to imperial concerns, as some of them, for instance Roz Afzun of Kharagpur, the son of the slain rebel zamindar Raja Sangram Singh, played a significant role in frontier stabilization in Kabul, Balkh, Bundelkhand, and in the Deccan (pp. 29–31). Similarly, the Ujjainia chieftains assisted in Mughal imperial expansion by participating in the military campaigns with their militia and retainers. The chapter on the Ujjainia chieftains is extensively researched but unfortunately, it does not engage with the findings of Dirk Kolff’s masterly ethnographic study on the Rajputs and tradition of “Bhojpuri soldiering”.[1] Yet, with the chosen examples Ansari demonstrates that the zamindars had become the co-sharers of the imperial realm by taking part in expanding the imperial territories. Imagining themselves at the same time to be the local sovereigns, most of them erected fortresses and frequently changed the seat of power to more strategic locations – mimicking the Mughals shifting capitals. The Mughal authorities hardly succeeded in restraining them from these manoeuvrings that were solely aimed at defying Mughal control. Although subordinate to the Mughals while dealing with the imperial court, some of these chieftains governed their little kingdoms with royal pomp, distinct flags, and other insignias of royal authority (pp. 239–240).

The second half of the book studies the zamindaris that were located to the north of the Ganga, some of them extending to the fringes bordering the Himalayan terrain and Nepal. The evolution of the Darbhanga Raj zamindari from an administrative assignment given by the emperor Akbar to an autonomous chieftaincy became possible as the zamindars could successfully generate resources from agriculture and trade. Trade remained significant in the eighteenth century as it augmented resources for the zamindars in northern Bihar. Ansari refers to an incidence involving the revolt of the Banjaras – grain traders – and confiscation of their cattle and 20,000 horses by the forces of the Bengal nawab (governor) Ali Vardi Khan (r.1741–1756) (p. 216). The Banjaras revolt, however, is mentioned in passing without integrating their functions as grain trader, providers of cash, and potentially some essential merchandise, with the local, zamindari, political economy. The populous and fertile areas irrigated by several rivers issuing from the Himalayas made the Darbhanga, Betia, and Hathwa Raj exceedingly rich, and the Mughals needed to cream off the surpluses in the form of tributes. After the Mughal emperor Akbar wrested Bihar and Bengal from the Afghans by 1576, the latter settled in different areas, largely cooperated with the Mughals and helped in collecting tributes but they retained a divided loyalty towards the regime. Northern Bihar had significant Afghan settlement, and the Afghans functioned as militiamen, imperial agents as faujdars (commandant of a district), and also dabbled in the region’s trade. Unfortunately, the book does not explore the Afghan’s agency in effecting or constraining Mughal imperial control in northern Bihar.

In contrast, the smaller chieftaincies in southern Bihar augmented their limited agricultural resources by tapping additional sources of income. Their choice of location along the overland route connecting the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Bengal coast was deliberate. From these strategic vantage points, they could collect tolls from the merchant caravans that passed through these territories. As the book is focused more on administrative and political history, the author does not go deeper into the material aspects that concerned the management of the economy by the zamindars and chieftains or warlords. For example, one can ask how these zamindars could construct fortresses, organize their military forces, mobilize arms and ammunitions, and brave the repeated sieges of the imperial military forces. Careful attention to the sources of incomes from agriculture, commodities production, trading in cash crops and minerals (saltpeter), and overall local framework that facilitated the activities of merchants and traders could have thrown a welcome light on the economic prowess and political resilience the chieftains displayed in withstanding the Mughal pressures. Contrary to the impression formed by the official Persian documents that were notorious for making merchants almost invisible, new research shows the zamindars’ openness to the world of trade and commerce.[2] Perhaps this may explain why many of them sided with the EIC during the imperial transition in the mid-eighteenth century and some forged even closer relationship with the new regime. Some zamindars, for example, Raja Iqbal Ali of Kharagpur lent a helping hand to the British during the Indo-Burmese wars in 1824 (pp. 46–47), similar to their ancestor’s earlier roles in the frontier expansion of the Mughal Empire. Yet, the book also shows that the zamindars remained divided in their loyalties in the following decades. While some took up the arms against the EIC during the Great Rebellion of 1857, others sided with the old imperial regime.

Overall, this is a well-researched monograph that decrypts the regional dynamics involving the Mughal administration’s rapprochement with the chieftains as local power holders. Set in the eastern region, the monograph connects the local history of zamindars with the wider political processes along the edges of empire. Ansari’s research makes it plain that imperial control depended on a negotiated understanding with the local and regional power holders in the frontier zones of eastern India. Barring some production-related issues such as typos and omission to include subtitles within the chapters, the narrative is rather lucidly presented. The inclusion of some maps and images would have been helpful for the general readers. Despite these minor points, the book will be useful for ungraduated students, and researchers interested in the Mughal history from a regional perspective.

[1] Dirk H.A. Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy. The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan, 1450–1850, Cambridge 2002, chapter 5.
[2] Murari Kumar Jha, The Political Economy of the Ganga River. Highway of State Formation in Mughal India, c.1600–1800, Leiden, PhD diss, 2013.

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