Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Great Anarchy

Ever since the Islamic invasions of the 13th century, the military type of government had prevailed and had spread to all parts of India. The Muslim states were all military-dominant governments because of their faith, and the Hindu states became so by virtue of building a resistance to those Muslim invaders. The military-dominant states thrive when they are ruled by a strong man, and as long as their military formations are effective on the battlefield. When these two conditions are not met, anarchy ensues in that state.

Jadunath Sarkar on military developments in India describes how, by the 18th century, cavalry formations found it increasingly difficult to overwhelm artillery and trained musketeers. This applied to all kinds of cavalry; whether it were the Mughals or Rajputs, who delivered regular frontal charges on the enemy, or the Marathas and Sikhs, who made hit-and-run attacks. All four found European-led artillery and infantry formations impossible to defeat.

The Mughals

The Mughals by this time were already experiencing anarchic conditions; the emperors had no power and the nobles were carving out their own independent states. Among the latter the most successful was the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose infantry and artillery were transformed by the French under Marquis de Bussy, and afforded him protection against the Marathas. The Mughal soldiers (Central Asian Turks) though were primarily horsemen, who could not make the transformation to fighting on foot, and both their population and importance in Indian Islam rapidly declined.

The Mughal system of war failed against the Marathas, principally because their artillerists were not well-trained to fire accurately and their infantry not disciplined enough to make a stand against charging cavalry. The Mughal cavalry was still strong enough, which was the reason why they occupied a large part of southern India, even when the course of the war against the Marathas went against them. The Mughal horsemen could chase after the Maratha cavalry, and even defeat it, but they could not secure the villages and cities from being looted by other Maratha chieftains. Their artillery and infanty was unable even to protect their camps from surprise Maratha attacks. And all the to and fro fighting of these two groups of cavalry caused immense economic damage, which the Mughals as the state power could ill-afford.

This economic damage was not limited to the south alone; Aurangzeb's policy of temple-destruction and the imposition of jaziya had already created wars and rebellions in the north. The hefty economic loss weakened the central government, leaving Aurangzeb's successors dependent on their nobles who still had a measure of power in their provinces, and the later Mughal emperors were mere puppets installed and deposed by these nobles. And as these nobles formed groups that fought each other on grounds of race (Turk, Persian, Afghan) or religion (Shia, Sunni), the Great Anarchy spread across India.

The Marathas

Before they were welded together into a state by Shivaji, the Marathas had been mercenaries for the various kingdoms in southern India. After the destruction of Shivaji's succesors by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, and the occupation of their capital, the Maratha chieftains returned to their former state fighting the Mughals as described above, but also fighting each other for land and position.

Around the same time as the Mughals dwindled into anarchy and economic loss, the Marathas were pulled out of a similar fate by the Peshwas. The power of the Maratha state expanded to other parts of India, the homeland of western Maharashtra was stabilized, but the internal cohesion of the state was never restored to the days of Shivaji. Even at the height of their power the Peshwas had to fight off semi-independent Maratha nobles, who would join hands with the Nizam of Hyderabad, against the Peshwas. The Panipat campaign marks the begining of the end of the centralized government of the Peshwas, and henceforth anarchy reigned among the Marathas as the power passed on to quarreling nobles.

The Marathas, particularly the Sindhias of Gwalior, were among the earliest to adopt European-trained infantry and artillery, but these were never manned by their own men, and their mostly French military officers enjoyed considerable autonomy. The traditional Maratha system of war; light cavalry fanning out and devastating large tracts of land, whether of the Mughals or the indigenous powers, spread the great anarchy into new areas.

The Rajputs

The military type of government among the Rajputs, which refers to Rajasthan (Rajputs in other parts of India are given provincial names like Bundelas, Dogras, Gharwalis, Purbias, or Gujaratis), had helped them repel the early Islamic invasions. Down to the 17th and 18th centuries they fought against Aurangzeb and his son Bahadur Shah respectively, forcing both to come to terms with them. The decline of Mughal power paradoxically meant that those Rajput chieftains who had gained power by employment under the earlier Mughal emperors, now had no outlet for their ambitions except by fighting each other.

These state contests brought in the Marathas, first as providers of military aid, and later as masters. After the mid-18th century the Marathas were fielding European-trained infantry and artillery, against which the Rajput cavalry was powerless. When the ruler was unable to protect his people from foreign armies, the nobles threw off his authority, and anarchy began in almost every Rajput state. The stationing of Maratha armies, which lived off the country, in the Rajput states ruined their economies, further embroiling them in anarchy.

As Jadunath Sarkar says, "Under the sense of their own military inferiority, the Rajput Rajas made pathetic attempts to hire something matching Sindhia's European-trained brigades." But these mercenary units were of poor quality, and required too much money for training and munitions, which the insolvent Rajasthan states could not afford. This is why in the early 19th century these states were tormented by bands of mercenaries, Pindharis and Pathans, whom neither the bankrupt central government nor the nobles in the countryside could subdue.

The Sikhs

"If Ranjit Singh had not risen, there would have been no large and united state under Sikh dominion, but a number of petty principalities in the Punjab with a ruling aristocracy of Sikh soldiers, sending their organised marauders every year to raid and lay waste the country up to Delhi, Saharanpur and even Hardwar, or engaged in their selfish internecine wars. These would have been silently absorbed in the expanding British empire," writes Jadunath Sarkar.

The origins of these Sikh principalities lay in village headmen gradually rising to power as the central Mughal empire declined, and as foreign invasions of Persians and Afghans devastated provincial Mughal authority in Punjab. The Sikh cavalry bands had similarities to the Marathas in their general fighting and raiding; but also certain differences. Their horses, of the local Multani and Lakhi (also called Jangla) breed, were stronger than the Maratha ponies and the Sikhs carried more weaponry and munitions with them on horseback. But these horses lacked stamina, which reduced the raiding areas of the Sikhs up to western UP and Agra. The Sikh fighting style; of riding withing range, firing their matchlocks and retreating (repeatedly), until the final charge with drawn swords and spears, was similar to the Afghans.

This fighting style was not successful against European-trained infantry and accurate artillery, which the Sikhs encountered first against George Thomas "the Irish Raja" and then against the French officers controlling Delhi for the Marathas. Anarchic conditions prevailed in Punjab due to the infighting among the Sikh misls, despite some of the Sikh leaders being recognized as Rajas by the later Mughal emperors or by the Durranis of Kabul. By the time Ranjit Singh forcibly united the northern misls under his rule, the British had brought Delhi under their control, and he could not challenge their power over the Sikh principalities south of the Sutlej.

But Ranjit Singh's rule, which turned the energies of the Sikhs towards foreign conquest, also stabilized a large part of the Punjab. The Kingdom of Punjab was the result of a strong man's rule, and his ability to impose his will on the ambitious chieftains and generals who had so long been independent. The death of this ruler re-ignited the anarchy in Punjab as the nobles fought each other, and the army rioted for lack of pay, as the state did not have an economic basis and there were no more territories to conquer (the last possible outlet for Sikh military energy, Sindh, was annexed by the British). The military was split in two parts, the traditional Sikh cavalry (Khalsa), and the modern and more reliable European-trained infantry (Fauj-i-khas) composed of Purbias, Gurkhas, Ruhelas.

As Jadunath Sarkar writes, "Thus, in war, which is the supreme test of a nation's efficiency, our people willingly accepted the leadership of foreigners." Decline in the effectiveness of the traditional military formations, hastened a decline in the character of the rulers and aristocrats, and led to the demise of the military-type of state across India causing The Great Anarchy.