With so many recent actors to blame, it may seem far-fetched and unfair to dig up the buried deads of the Moghul kingdom from their splendid tombs to blame for the current royal mess in Pakistan. I certainly don’t mean to absolve the current actors of their crimes. Rather, my argument is that the current actors perform on a stage constructed by Moghuls.
The Moghuls, the first to unify India since pre-Christ Mauriya dynasty, ruled precisely when the development of science with the support of the state was unleashing modernization in Europe. While Europe took off, the Moghuls kept India chained to the ground. The Universities of Bologna and Oxford were established in 11th century. The only education available under Moghuls was religious education at seminaries. India was the second most industrialized country then after China. However, this was due to the efforts of artisans who learnt their trade from their fathers. The state provided little assistance in the development of new technology but taxed heavily. Fine palaces were built from the taxes but the hands of the builders were chopped off.
Even the neo-imperial World Trade Organization would struggle to better protect intellectual rights of the rich. Jagirs were granted to favorites, subsequently converted into fiefdoms by the British. This contributed to landlord dominated dynastic politics which holds sway even today in Pakistan. While the poor lived in squalor, the rich minority lived in splendor, as fine food, poetry and ‘designer’ clothing flourished. For descendants of marauding Central Asian nomads, this represented the pinnacle of accomplishment. However, for more economically complex India, Moghuls constituted dead weight around the neck. Given just three years, Suri built the GT Road to integrate Indian economy. Unfortunately, normal service resumed soon as the Moghuls managed to claw back to power. Thus, Moghul rule represented high culture, predatory politics and stagnant economy.
Even more damaging was the supine manner in which Moghuls succumbed to colonialism. To be fair, only around a dozen countries escaped European colonialism. Tribal societies and small kingdoms fell quickly, these comprising almost the entirety of the Americas, Australia and Africa and parts of Asia. Those that survived were mainly in Asia—either small, colonially valueless, logistically isolated countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan, or Gulf sandpits with little attraction in the pre-oil era though even they had protectorate relationships. Most powerful kingdoms escaped colonization–Japan, China, Ethiopia, Thailand, Iran and the Ottomons till World War 1 (and Turkey subsequently)–though not subservience. Three powerful kingdoms, beset with internal strife, did fall: the Inca, the Aztec and India. Of these, India was the most magnificent and was immediately declared the crown jewel of the British Empire in place of recently lost USA.
British colonialism cost India dearly as the British de-industralized it and divorced the best local minds and natural resources from local development. Large kingdoms, with their well developed state and human capacities, were the main candidates then to become industrialized countries, as a direct transition was a big leap for tribal societies. This potential was robbed for India by colonialism. Many consider colonialism a blessing as it introduced India to modern technology etc. However, these things could have reached India through trade too, as the British too needed our resources. Under a progressive Indian regime, this need could have become the basis for mutually beneficial trade to enable India to become a modern superpower—which it is gradually becoming 300 years later as it resumes its interrupted march in line with its inherent potential. European inventions would then have been adapted to foster genuine development rather than British exploitation. This is exactly what happened in Japan—the only country to rival the West today as it remained free to control its own development path and learn wisely from the West through trade. These Sheikh-Chillian dreams must of course be tempered by the reality check that the remaining free kingdoms failed to do so, given the lack of vision among their rulers. Given their predatory mindset, the Moghuls too would probably have failed. Thus, with the Moghuls, we were doomed either way. One can only wistfully dream of what our situation might have been today had Suri’s progeny or similarly progressive regime ruled India for 300 years instead of three. Unfortunately, India remained stuck with the Moghuls, till the British finally disposed off Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Zafar lies buried in Burma, the authoritarian, reclusive land of Suu Kyi’s detention. On the wall of his tomb hangs his faded photo—the only Moghul king to be photographed, presumably for the convict’s file after his trial, in line with British practice. On another wall is etched his famous poem—Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon—immortalized subsequently by Rafi. In the poem, Zafar complains bitterly that no one comes to offer fateha, spread four flowers or light a candle at his bekasi ka mazar. Writing near his end, he could presciently predict his posthumous future, for his forlorn tomb remained so for more than a hundred years until Rajiv accepted it as the Indian government’s responsibility to pay for its construction despite the contradictory nature of Moghul rule in India. The embassies of the two Muslim successor states have shown less interest in the remains of our common last emperor. Even so, his tomb–the size of a middle-sized mosque and in an alien land–cuts a sorry figure against the magnificence of his ancestral tombs back home. Standing by his grave, one is hit by a wave of powerful, conflicting emotions: awe, nostalgia, wistfulness, anger and finally pity for the old man. Weighed down by history and mindful of his complains with his progeny, I dutifully offered fateha, spread four flowers and lit a candle at the forlorn tomb of our last emperor from the magnificent, misruling Moghuls.
Dr. Niaz Murtaza, University of California, Berkeley,