A gentleman in a time of intrigue - III

Parvez Mahmood tells the story of the seasoned nobleman Nizam-ul-Mulk, who went on to found the enduring Hyderabad state

A gentleman in a time of intrigue - III
In the second part of this article in the previous issue of this publication, I narrated events surrounding the appointment of Nizam-ul-Mulk as subedar of the Deccan for a period of about two years, before the intrigues in the court of Emperor Farrukhsiyyar resulted in his recall and replacement by Hussain Ali Khan, the younger of the kingmaker Syed brothers. The story of the Nizam and the Hyderabad State is inseparable from inter-factional palace intrigues that were rampant in Delhi during this tragic phase of Mughal history. In fact, we are dealing with such intricate intrigues that their depiction requires Shakespearian techniques!

In his brief first tenure as subedar of the Deccan, Nizam-ul-Mulk had been able to check the encroachment of Marathas in the imperial domains, restoring peace and prosperity throughout the province. However, Hussain Ali Khan, as the new subedar of Deccan, felt more threatened by his own Emperor and his opponents at the Delhi court than he feared the Marathas. He, therefore, reversed all the gains made by the Nizam and in an attempt to placate King Shahu – the son of Shivaji – and his Peshwa (Prime Minister) Balaji, signed a treaty that was tilted heavily in the favour of the Marathas. The treaty allowed the Marathas to collect chauth and sardeshmukhi taxes directly, instead of doing it indirectly through the Mughal officials – as they were doing before the Nizam-ul-Mulk had stopped the practice altogether. With addition of other levies, the Marathas were now collecting nearly half the revenue of the Deccan.

The Syed brothers appointed and replaced rulers as they saw fit - until they met their end

When the treaty was put up to the Emperor for approval, he refused to ratify it. Farrukhsiyyar could clearly see that the aim of the treaty was to maintain a close rapport between the Marathas and the younger Syed so that the latter could employ the superior cavalry strength of the former against the Emperor. Farrukhsiyyar wanted to act against the brothers. He approached Nizam-ul-Mulk to enlist his support. Nizam-ul-Mulk was a shrewd man and didn’t take long to form his adverse judgment on the frivolous state of affairs in the capital. He was, however, extremely disgusted at the frivolity of the Emperor and refused to be drawn into court intrigues. He wisely refrained from committing himself to any faction.

The Emperor was proved right about the ill designs of the Syed Brothers when Hussain Ali Khan, on a signal from his elder brother, marched on to Delhi with 10,000 of his own troops and 16,000 Maratha cavalry. Farrukhsiyyar was overpowered, detained and blinded in a cruel manner. He was murdered two months later. Hussan Ali Khan was a man of amorous nature and, to the great disgust of the people of Delhi, took several fair women from the imperial harem for himself. This marked the first occasion of direct injury to the personal prestige of the Mughals. It wouldn’t be the last.

Coins from the era of Asaf Jah I, the founding Nizam of Hyderabad

Two Mughal brothers, sick cousins of the murdered Emperor, were installed as Emperors by the Syed brothers one after the other, but both died within months of assuming the throne. The Syed brothers then settled on another young prince and proclaimed him Emperor as Muhammad Shah, who is better known as ‘Rangila’.

Having settled on a puppet emperor, the Syed brothers became wary of the presence of the Nizam in the capital where his powerful Turani faction was still loyal to him. They offered him subedari of Malwa, on the northern border of the Deccan. The Nizam accepted and having reached his seat of power, set about preparing for the looming inevitable contest with the Syed brothers, who regarded him as the only threat to their control over the empire.

It was under these conditions that the Syed brothers sent an imperial order to the Nizam, recalling him to Delhi with the offer of subedari of some northern province. The Nizam was not fooled. He knew that it was a trick to remove him not only from power but also from this world. His sagacious mind had long before anticipated the coming struggle, for which he was making preparations. He crossed the Narmada River into the Deccan and consolidated his position there.
After his victories, the Nizam famously behaved in a charitable manner. He sent his surgeons to treat the injured enemy soldiers and also arranged for the burial or cremation of their dead

The Syed brothers sent two armies, one after the other, against the Nizam but both were defeated with heavy losses – including the loss of their commanders. After his victory, the Nizam behaved in a charitable manner. He sent his surgeons to treat the injured enemy soldiers and also arranged for the burial or cremation of their dead.

The second army sent by the Syed brothers against the Nizam was more numerous, with 30,000 imperial troops, supported by 8- to 12,000 Marathas. This army, under Alam Ali Khan, an adopted son of the younger Syed brother, was also defeated with a heavy loss of 8,000 thousand dead on the battlefield. Alam Ali Khan died valiantly on the field. Nizam-ul-Mulk treated his family with respect and escorted them safely to Delhi. This conduct of the Nizam was in line with his noble behaviour throughout his life. On a previous occasion also, he had afforded respectable treatment to a stepmother and stepbrother of the Syed brothers passing through his domains.

Maratha raiders constantly challenged the Mughal grip over the Deccan

The Syed brothers were finally finished as a force, after seeing their heyday as kingmakers. They had appointed four emperors and killed two

When the Syed brothers heard of these military disasters, they knew that the Nizam was now master of the Deccan. They decided to march out with the Emperor to the Deccan to break his power. Hussain Ali Khan marched out with the army whereas Hassan Ali Khan stayed behind in Delhi. When the army was in Jaipur, the nobles opposed to the Syed brothers hatched a conspiracy and assassinated Hussain Ali Khan.

The elder Syed brother, Hassan Ali Khan, knew that he was now vulnerable to his rivals. He raised an army to fight for his survival. However, he too was defeated in November 1720, taken prisoner and poisoned to death. The Syed brothers were finally finished as a force, after having seeing their heyday as kingmakers. They had appointed four emperors and killed two.

Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila recalled Nizam-ul-Mulk to Delhi in February 1722 and appointed him as the Chief Minister.

Under the thumb of the Syed brothers - Emperor Farrukhsiyar enjoys a hookah on a moonlit night with a female attendant

The Nizam was anxious to maintain the prestige of the throne. He did not like the Emperor whiling away his time in the company of immoral and corrupt people but the Emperor only looked forward to merriment, neglecting matters of state. Every scheme of reform initiated by Nizam-ul-Mulk was opposed partly from prejudice and partly from fear.

Nizam-ul-Mulk brought to bear his best endeavours for a fundamental change in the existing system of administration. First of all he attempted to reform the court abuses which were having an adverse influence on the entire system of government of the country. For instance, Koki Padishah, a woman of great charm and cunning, in collusion with Khwaja Khidmatgar Khan, a eunuch of the palace, invited bribes openly from the nobility desiring high offices in the State. This practice had undermined the moral prestige of the Emperor – who was supposed to be a party to all these fraudulent transactions. In spite of the great difficulties in his way, Nizam-ul-Mulk knew that time had come to act resolutely and to undertake reform of the administration. He spoke to the Emperor about the abuses at the Court, advising him to devote more time to the affairs of the State. The Emperor, being obstinate and frivolous, did not relish serious work. Nizam-ul-Mulk wanted to follow the model of Aurangzeb’s administration and desired to re-establish the same structure for the Empire which had stood the Mughals in good stead for so many centuries in India.

Asaf Jah I, Nizam of the Deccan

Emperor Muhammad Shah was so foolish as to be unable to choose his own course of action. He believed whatever his selfish associates told him about the motives of Nizam-ul-Mulk – whose every word and action was purposely misinterpreted to him. Even his old-fashioned manners and ideas were openly ridiculed by the young courtiers. Jesters and entertainers in the court had taken to greeting all great nobles of the realm with lewd gestures and offensive epithets.

Nizam-ul-Mulk first protested in a dignified manner and then avoided the company of the Emperor as far as possible. Thus, the conditions of the court made it difficult to establish cordial cooperation between the Emperor and his Chief Minister, whose proposals for revenue reform precipitated the crisis.

The system of land revenue had always been the pivot of civil government in India, and indeed good or bad management of the revenue had always been an indication of the conduct of government overall.

During Muhammad Shah’s decadent reign, it had become a practice to assign revenue-paying lands freely to favourites of the court. There were also lands that were under the control of some courtiers without any record and which were assigned on receipt of bribes. This mismanagement of the finances had completely exhausted the treasury and considerably diminished the income of the State. Nizam-uI-Mulk’s proposals of revenue reform cut at the very source of income of most of the influential courtiers, who started intrigues to oust him from the office.

It was in these circumstances that Nizam-ul-Mulk took leave to proceed to his jagirs, leaving his son as the acting Chief Minister. He went out a few miles before turning towards Agra and then to Deccan.

On the way, he received news that a new Chief Minister was appointed to replace his son and that Mubariz Khan, a court favourite, had been appointed the new subedar of the Deccan. The new subedar gathered an army and tried to stop the efforts of Nizam to consolidate his hold over the Deccan.

Finally a furious battle took place at Shakar Khera, 80 miles from Aurangabad. This is one of the decisive battles of Indian history, deciding as it did the future of the political domination of the Deccan and laying the foundation of the de facto sovereign State of Hyderabad.

After a hard fought battle, the Mubariz Khan was killed in the battlefield. The victory of Nizam-ul-Mulk was as complete as it could possibly be. Losses on his side were few. Mubariz Khan was buried in the plain outside the town of Shakar Khera. By the orders of Nizam-ul-Mulk, the wounded of Mubariz Khan’s army were carefully tended.

Mubariz Khan’s son Khwaja Ahmed Khan rose up in arms to avenge the death of his father but realised that his struggle was futile. He, therefore, came to terms with Nizam-ul-Mulk, who in his usual chivalrous manner treated him with the greatest possible regard – giving him a title, a military rank and a jagir in the subah of Hyderabad. His brother Khwaja Mahmud Khan was also honoured. Other members of Mubariz Khan’s family were treated with consideration and honours were accorded them in order to allay their discontent as far as was humanly possible – and politically expedient.

Having calmed the opposition to his domains, Nizam-ul-Mulk chose a new state capital at Hyderabad, in the heart of Deccan.

As the reader will recall, the Marathas had become a force to reckon with by the early 18th century. In the next and the final article of this series, we will see how the Marathas from the east, Hyder Ali from the south and the British from the east nibbled away at the Hyderabad State’s territories, reducing it from an unstable independent state of the size of France to a stable British protectorate the size of Belgium. It was still the largest state in India – one that continued in its sovereign status till its merger with independent India in 1948.

(to be continued)

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com