The Indian independence movement against the British can be divided into two phases. The first phase between 1757-1857 can be interpreted as an effort driven by individual kingdoms with medieval-style manoeuvring where the concept of nation-state was secondary and interests of the rulers were primary. Those who were enemies of the British became allies and vice versa. The second phase started with the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the subsequent partition of Bengal in 1905. The independence struggle against the British post-1905 began taking the shape of a mass movement with support cutting across socio-economic lines.

It is worth taking a look into how revolts against the Mughal rule in the 16th-18th century inspired the independence movement against the British. The medieval-era resistance to the Mughal rule across the nation along with a contemporary struggle against imperialism in the 20th century inspired the freedom fighters and shaped the idea of the Indian nation-state.

The medieval background

Before the British, Indians had managed 120-year-old self-rule by overthrowing the previous foreign occupational force, the Mughals. Ever since the decision of Babur not to go back after making a fortune looting Delhi, the Rajputs were at the forefront of the revolt against the Mughals. It is interesting to note at this point Afghans were considered at par with native Indians and both allied more often than not to fight the Mughals. Rana Pratap’s fierce resistance, giving Akbar nightmares till the day he died, had been immortalised in Indian oral history, making him a legendary figure. His tales of valour and supreme sacrifice were eulogised by the freedom fighters to inspire people to rise against the British.

While history has done a grave injustice to Rajput history beyond Rana Pratap, in this article, we will visit the political situation prevailing all over India during the last leg of Mughal rule and how it shaped the course of nationalism and emergence of a nation-state.

Aurangzeb’s rule & nationwide struggle for self-determination in medieval era

Although the idea of a unified nation-state was far from conceptualised during the medieval epoch, the rulers always shared a civilisational connect with India’s past. Mughals were unlike the Greek and Kushan invaders; they had not integrated very well. Continuous import of foreign nobility had decreased during the time of Akbar who incentivised Indian nobles and merchants. Slowly, Indians had warmed up to the Mughal rule briefly before Shah Jahan’s poor governance set the tone for later revolts.

Much like the British economic drain of wealth, Shah Jahan had drained the Indian economy quite badly by undertaking expensive projects such as the Taj Mahal and Peacock throne while his subjects suffered from harsh famines.

Shah Jahan’s misrule ended with Aurangzeb emerging victorious in a power struggle with his brothers. Aurangzeb’s accession had been opposed by the Rajputs. Hence, from the word go, he had been wary of the power of Rajputs. Following his great grandfather Akbar’s policies, he increased the employment of Rajputs. This was a way for him to keep his enemies close. It was hardly borne out of a particular affection towards them.

The Rajputs in medieval times

Raja Jaswant Singh of Marwar was a powerful man in the Mughal court during Aurangzeb’s rule. Knowing the influence of Jaswant Singh, the latter sent him away to Attock, thus removing any threat from him. Unfortunately, Jaswant Singh died leaving behind a child Ajit Singh. Taking advantage of the power vacuum in Marwar, Aurangzeb invaded and occupied Jodhpur.

Medieval India
Raja Jaswant Singh of Marwar

Marwar’s famed courtier of Jaswant Singh and one of the key figures of Rajput revolt against the Mughals, Durgadas Rathore took Ajit Singh to the safety of Mewar. Mewar was then ruled by Rana Raj Singh. Durgadas is remembered in Indian history as a selfless loyalist who devoted his entire life towards the cause of Marwar’s independence. He was described in the Cambridge History of India thus: “Mughul gold couldn’t seduce, Mughul arms could not daunt, that constant heart. Almost alone among Rathores, he displayed the rare combination of the dash and reckless valour of a Rajput with tact, diplomacy and organising power of a Mughul minister of state” [I] The Cambridge History of India p 247.

Aurangzeb had started imposing jiziya all over India from 1678 onwards, leading to nationwide revolts. Rana Raj Singh was one of the first to oppose the imposition of jiziya and unified Rajputana under a common Hindu cause that they would not be held hostage as second-class citizens. Here, we observe a common cause theme and unification of a movement against a tyrannical rule. This movement was immortalised in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel Rajsingha dedicated to Rana Raj Singh and the Rajput revolt.

The Marwar-Mewar alliance needed to be broken. Aurangzeb sent his capable son Akbar (not to be confused with the third Mughal ruler Akbar) to do so. What followed was a very smart political manoeuvring where, instead of fighting the Mughals, Durgadas Rathore convinced Akbar that he was the true ruler of Hindustan and his father was getting senile. Prince Akbar was promised the full support of Rajputs to succeed Aurangzeb and he, in return, promised to restore the Rajput dignity and abolish jiziya. While the Rajputs did not immediately succeed in overthrowing Aurangzeb, they didn’t pay jiziya either. As soon as Aurangzeb died, Marwar was freed from Mughal occupation by Ajit Singh and Durgadas.

The Sikhs

The Sikhs had been growing as a political power since the days of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the faith. Their following had increased all over Punjab. Guru Arjan Dev played an important role in consolidating the influence of Sikhs by compiling the Adi Granth Sahib and expanding the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Suspicious of his influence, Jahangir had him tortured and executed. His son Guru Hargobind had mobilised the Sikhs into an army and revolted against Shah Jahan, refusing to pay the fines levied on his father. However, the tipping point came during Aurangzeb’s rule when he had Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru, publicly beheaded.

How medieval conflicts inspired the Indian Independence Movement
Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Delhi: The long window under the marble platform is the location where Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed

The Sikhs saw the Mughals as oppressors and Guru Tegh Bahadur’s son, Guru Gobind Singh, led an organised revolt against Aurangzeb, which was immortalised in tales of Punjab and the nation, inspiring revolutionaries against the British centuries later. The Sikhs and Mughals would be involved in vicious conflicts, leading to huge losses on both sides. Post-Aurangzeb, due also to the subsequent decline of Mughals, the Sikhs would continue to grow politically, bringing them directly in conflict with the Afghan invaders led by Ahmad Shah Abdali.

The Sikh Confederacy was united under one umbrella by Maharaja Ranjit Singh who would extend the borders of his Empire to Afghanistan in the early 19th century. Hence, it came as no surprise when the mass movement for independence against the British caught like wildfire in Punjab.

The Jats and Bundelas

Not enough credit is given in history to the revolt of Jats and Bundelas. The Jat revolt has been interpreted both along religious lines by historians such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar and as an agrarian revolt by Professor Irfan Habib. However, both these interpretations, while having their merits, overlooked the bigger picture that the revolt of the Jats was essentially a move for self-determination against Mughal authoritarianism.

The revolt started in Mathura when a Jat leader Gokla was killed and his family forcefully converted to Islam in 1669[II]RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhari and Kalinkar Datta’s An Advanced History of India. Churaman of Bharatpur organised the Jats into a strong military power that would gain statehood following Aurangzeb’s death. Jats would wield a strong influence in northern India in the following decades. Their power reached the pinnacle under Raja Suraj Mal who played an important role in the politics of northern India during the Third Battle of Panipat.

The Bundelas had risen against Aurangzeb under Raja Champat Rai, father of Chattrasal[III]RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhari and Kalinkar Datta’s An Advanced History of India. However, his unsuccessful revolt didn’t deter his valiant son. Chattrasal had wished to join hands with Shivaji when he was leading a campaign against Mughals in the Deccan. However, inspired by Shivaji’s words, he organised the Bundelas and led a series of revolts to carve out an independent Bundela state in Bundelkhand and Malwa with its capital at Panna during the rule of Aurangzeb.

Eastern India: Bengal, Odisha and Assam

The politics of eastern India in late medieval times was a bit more complicated. The revolt against Mughals would be led by independent landlords, local rulers and Pathans often in an alliance with each other. The conflict between the Mughals and Pathans in Odisha and Bengal during Akbar’s rule has been portrayed in the novel Durgesh Nandini by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. One can observe the consistent nationalist themes in his work would shape the modern Indian thought. Akbar’s campaign in eastern India was an era of instability as the Baro Bhuyans (12 landlords) of Bengal, led by Isa Khan and Pratapaditya, managed to beat back the Mughal forces. Mughals never saw a moment’s peace in Bengal where they kept losing territories as soon as they would leave. Man Singh, the governor of Bengal, would be embroiled in a bitter conflict with the Baro Bhuyans, even losing his son in the process [IV]Nitish Sengupta Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib.

How medieval conflicts inspired the Indian Independence Movement
Isa Khan’s zamindar bari in Sonargaon

Following the rule of Akbar and Jahangir, there was an uneasy peace and relative stability in eastern India. However, trouble brewed once again during Aurangzeb’s reign as Kamrup, ruled by Ahom kings, provided a major setback to Mughal imperial ambitions in the Northeast at the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. Ahoms would eventually wrest complete control of most parts of Assam from Mughals by 1682.

The revolts of eastern India lacked a distinct character like that of the Marathas who were driven by Marathi nationalism, or Rajput pride fuelling the Rajput right to self-rule and Sikh religious tenets powering the Sikh rebellion in Punjab. The civilisational connect with India’s cultural heritage and willingness to defend the land from invading forces was very much the core principle behind the refusal of the landlords in eastern India to accept the Mughal rule.

The Marathas

The Marathas were the natural successors to the Mughal Empire exercising influence from Tamil Nadu to Punjab, thus breaking the cycle of foreign rule nationwide. Bal Gangadhar Tilak invoked Chhatrapati Shivaji as an icon to instil the spirit of nationalism among the youth. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem titled “Protinidhi” (representative leader) in praise of Shivaji. This reflects that Shivaji’s war against Aurangzeb had inspired thinkers across the nation in the 19th-20th century, and it was no longer limited to the Marathi-speaking populace.

A depiction by AD Macromick of Shivaji in Aurangzeb’s court in Agra in 1666

Aurangzeb’s campaign in the Deccan proved to be his undoing. A long-drawn, expensive war that drained the Mughal coffers would prove a decisive factor in realising Shivaji’s dream of a “Hindavi Swaraj”. Shivaji was undoubtedly the hero of the Maratha war of independence, but it should be noted that his success boiled down to his ability to use the terrain to his advantage, working with limited resources by resorting to guerrilla warfare.

A parallel to this can be drawn in the 20th century when an armed revolution followed the first partition of Bengal. The resources were limited due to a British ban on weapons but guile and tactic would prove decisive.

Another decisive factor, which is often ignored while discussing the history of Marathas, was the rise of Marathi language and a unified Marathi sentiment. As noted by Sir JN Sarkar, “A remarkable community of language, creed, and life was attained in Maratha even before political unity was conferred under Shivaji.” [V]Sir JN Sarkar Shivaji and His Times

One can see a parallel in the Indian independence movement where an Indian identity, with Indian education, literature, promotion of Indian languages, festivals such as Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi served as a unifying factor for the masses.

Religious reform among the Marathas led by Eknath, Tukaram, Ramdas and Vaman Pandit preaching devotion to God above caste and creed helped Shivaji rally his troops under one banner according to historian RC Majumdar [VI]RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhari and Kalinkar Datta’s An Advanced History of India. Such a renaissance was witnessed also in the 19th century in Bengal, which would lead to an age of enlightenment thus sowing seeds of nationalism. Tilak revived Maratha nationalism, which had been the backbone of the rise and expansion of the Marathas. Despite their imperfect revenue system, questionable administration and heavy dependency on foreign mercenaries; Marathas managed to forge an Empire and claim rightful succession to the Mughals — something other states that had revolted against Mughals failed to do.

Summary of revolts

It should be noted that, while individual kingdoms revolted against the Mughals, medieval struggles should not be seen as a mass movement. Writers, poets, revolutionary leaders, and thinkers drew inspiration from them. That does not, however, change the fact that medieval era politics was different and kings would often cooperate with the very enemy they fought against if a greater threat was perceived. Medieval political history has its level of complexity.

An attempt has been made to analyse medieval rulers from the 20th-century nationalist point of view. We should use caution studying medieval characters and their actions should be interpreted in the correct context of medieval settings; as today we are not under a foreign occupational power.

References   [ + ]

I. The Cambridge History of India p 247
II, III, VI. RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhari and Kalinkar Datta’s An Advanced History of India
IV. Nitish Sengupta Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib
V. Sir JN Sarkar Shivaji and His Times