This book explores the changing socio–cultural world in early modern South Asia, and locates the agency of the Mughal st
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Paper, Performance, and the State This book explores the changing socio-cultural world in early modern South Asia, and seeks to locate the agency of the Mughal state in shaping and reproducing these changes. The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries saw a marked expansion in the use of paper, pen, and ink, and the introduction of typically innovative terms of engagement between literacy and performative and oral traditions. These developments, it is argued here, prompted the opening up of new spaces of social communication, and led to the development of an early modern public sphere in South Asia, one that was actually both somatic and performative. In Paper, Performance, and the State, the author looks at the markets, tea-stalls, and coffeehouses as important sites of sociability, and examines the shifting and contested understandings of the state that emerged from the diffused performative public sphere. At the same time, he draws attention to the inter-subjective communication in the legal spaces, and their significance in shaping the emergent public sphere. As a space where literacy interacted with performance, the legal order was indeed plural, but the legal pluralism in Mughal India was both enhanced and protected by the state. Without falling into the trap of state determinism, the work makes a persuasive case for bringing the state back in; but for such a perspective to emerge, it adopts the state-in-society approach, and repositions the state within its social field. Focusing on the socially embedded attributes of the state, this book makes an effort to see how the state’s relations with the local power relations impinged on, and reproduced, community identities, identity conflicts, legal pluralism, property relations, and forms of social communication. Farhat Hasan is Professor of Medieval and Early Modern South Asian History in the Department of History, University of Delhi. The primary field of his inquiry is Mughal India, with particular interests in court culture, identities, and gender relations in the period. His other research interests include Islam in India during the medieval and colonial period, focusing on religious thought and practices. He has also authored the monograph State and Locality in Mughal India: Power Relations in Western India, c. 1572–1730 published in 2004 (Cambridge University Press).
Paper, Performance, and the State Social Change and Political Culture in Mughal India
University Printing House, Cambridge CB2 8BS, United Kingdom One Liberty Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10006, USA 477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, vic 3207, Australia 314 to 321, 3rd Floor, Plot No.3, Splendor Forum, Jasola District Centre, New Delhi 110025, India 103 Penang Road, #05–06/07, Visioncrest Commercial, Singapore 238467 Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. www.cambridge.org Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9781316516812 © Farhat Hasan 2021 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2021 Printed in India A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library ISBN 978-1-316-51681-2 Hardback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.
For my spouse, Fauzia, and our daughters, Sana and Mariam The three women in my life, who inspire, enrich, and complete me!
List of Abbreviations
A Note on Transliteration
2. Property and Social Relations: Litigations and Disputes at the Qāzi’s Court
3. Law as Contested Communication: Literacy, Performativity, and the Legal Order
4. Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere: Shifting Popular Perceptions of the State
5. State Formation from Below: Authority and Culture in Micro-Spaces
6. Towards a Conclusion: The Project of the Nation-State and the Mughal Historian
So many people have contributed to the present book with constructive inputs, suggestions for improvement, and points of substantive criticism that it is with some embarrassment that I claim to be its author. In the given space not all of them can be mentioned by name, but they would be present whenever the book, or portions thereof, meets the expectations of the reader. Among those who helped shape my ideas and encouraged me to refine my arguments are my teachers, colleagues, family, friends, and students. It is a matter of no small satisfaction that one of my gurus, Gordon Johnson, read some chapters and found them worth the effort. His suggestions were, as always, constructive, and encouraged me to step beyond the comfort of my intellectual boundaries. Irfan Habib has been my guru since I was a graduate student at the Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), and though he sees me as an errant pupil, he has always tolerated the differences in our perspectives on Indian history. He was generous with his time and knowledge, always suggesting new sources, and ever so enthusiastically drawing attention to inconsistencies in my work. Over the years, I have found inspiration in the work of Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. They generously welcomed my academic interventions, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them both. I have met up with Muzaffar Sahib several times at seminars and conferences, and discussions with him have always been most refreshing and thought-provoking. I would also like to thank Eugene Irschik for taking the time and effort to discuss my work in detail over emails, and his suggestions have helped me reposition my work within a wider inter-disciplinary framework. Among my colleagues at Delhi University, Shahid Amin has been a guiding light not just for me, but for many of my colleagues here. He has an infectious child-like curiosity; there is scarcely any theme in history which does not excite him, and on which he does not have an interesting observation, a stunning aside, or a far-reaching suggestion. I have had many conversations with him, and these have certainly motivated me to make my story here more complex and interesting. I recall with particular fondness the support and encouragement that Upinder Singh gave me when she was our Head of Department, but, more importantly, she organized several workshops and conferences at Delhi University where I tested my formulations, and received suggestions and feedback in the light of which I revised my work. I would like to thank
Seema Alavi, Anshu Malhotra, Aparna Balachandran, and Upinder for our coffeehouse meetings where we shared our unfinished work and our academic perplexities, while ruefully reminding ourselves of how the world around us was rapidly changing for the worse. They are not only accomplished scholars but also fine human beings! The discussion on property relations and disputes in this book is a revised version of ideas that were first written for a conference on ‘Changing Concepts of Landed Property in South Asia: Perspectives from History’, organized by the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 2014. I am grateful to Faisal Chaudhry for inviting me to the conference, and though I could not attend it, I was able to send the paper. He read it with rigor, and his detailed comments certainly helped improve the discussion here. Faisal has an unusually rich understanding of the concepts of property in South Asian history, and discussing with him the issues concerning property relations in Mughal India has been an enriching experience. Some of the issues I raise here concerning law and legal order were first discussed at a conference on law and diversity in Vienna. I am grateful to Thomas Ertl and Gijs Kruitzer for the invitation, and to the participants who commented on my presentation; in particular, I would like to thank Sumit Guha, Ali Anooshahr, Blain Auer, Indrani Chatterjee, Aparna Balachandran, and Najaf Haider for their helpful suggestions. The Mughal legal order on which I devote a chapter in the book was also discussed at a conference to which I had been invited by the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (University of Melbourne) in 2019. I had several engaging discussions on my presentation with Adil Hasan Khan, Sandhya Pahuja, Seema Alavi, Shaun McVeigh, and Moin Nizami. I am grateful to all of them for helping me develop a better grasp of the complex issues in legal pluralism in pre-colonial political formations. I count myself blessed to be part of ‘The Indo-European Advanced Research Network’ which holds annual workshops where scholars share notes, and discuss their work with other members. I am grateful to Lakshmi Subramanian for having me on board, and for giving me this rare privilege of sharing my work with accomplished scholars in the field. Given our shared interests, her interventions have always been very significant, and with her wide range of scholarship, she helps me place my work within larger inter-regional perspectives. I have benefitted immensely from the discussions at these annual workshops, and I would particularly like to thank the following for their comments and suggestions: Yannick Le Marchand, Sebouh Aslanian, Pierrs Gervais, Samuel Jube, and Santanu Sengupta. Discussions with young scholars who share my interests and approach to the history of the early modern period have always been enlightening and bring fresh perspectives to my understanding of the history of the period. I would like to thank Shivangini Tandon, Abhishek Kaicker, and Prathayay Nath for providing me with inputs, both orally and in print, that have helped me steer my research into exciting new directions. Shivangini was also particularly helpful in improving my reading of
some of the Braj sources that I consulted for this work. My teachers, colleagues, and friends at Aligarh have always been generous with their support and encouragement. I would particularly like to thank Shireen Moosvi, Ishrat Alam, Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, S. Jabir Raza, and Mohd. Sajjad. I also thank the following young scholars for helping me locate sources, and for drawing attention to sources that had eluded me: Priyanka Khanna, Huma Hasan, Heena Goswami, and Lubna Irfan. I would like to place on record my gratitude to the staff of the following libraries and archives for allowing me access to their holdings: National Archives of India (New Delhi), Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), Maulana Azad Library (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), University of Delhi Library (New Delhi), British Museum and India Office Library (London), and Raza Library (Rampur). I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Syed Farid Ahmad, Deputy Director, National Archives of India, in ensuring prompt delivery of documents, and even those that were not easy to recover from the pile of documents that few in the Archives could read or understand. The world had changed by the time this book reached its final stages. The Covid-19 pandemic had taken many lives, and people in large numbers lost their livelihoods. In my country at least, an indifferent state and shoddy preparedness made the situation so much worse for the ordinary citizens. These developments raise questions about the relevance of academic activities, and pose fresh challenges about how to make teaching and research meaningful in this fast-changing world. In India, for sure, these questions have taken on an added significance in view of the resurgence of violence against students, demonization of academics and activists, and suppression of dissent by the regime in power. Dubbed and demonized as ‘anti-nationals’ (deshdrohi), ‘urban naxals’, and ‘gang of nation-breakers’ (tukde tukde gang), students, women, and activists are at the forefront of the movement to reclaim democratic and inclusive spaces in India. To them, vilified by the state and subjected to its coercive powers, I owe a special debt of gratitude, for they give me hope, dreams, and the resolve to work in times that are indeed quite bleak. Their struggles are mine too; if they fail, I fail too – as a teacher and an academic. I would like to thank Qudsia Ahmed of Cambridge University Press for competently handling the publication of this book, and for taking personal interest in its timely and efficient publication. She meticulously looked into all the details that go into the publication of a book, and has ensured that this book meets the high standards of the Press. Sohini Ghosh has supported her well, and has worked diligently to ensure timely publication. I am grateful to her as well. Finally, I acknowledge the support and encouragement of my family, and, at the risk of sounding formal, let me conclude with a big thank you to Fauzia, Sana, Hamza, and Mariam. But for their support and encouragement, this work could never have been completed.
Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh)
British Museum (London)
Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris)
Comparative Studies in Society and History
Indian Economic and Social History Review
India Office Records and Library (London)
Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland
Modern Asian Studies
National Archives of India (New Delhi)
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress
Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner (Rajasthan)
A Note on Transliteration
I have kept diacritical marks to the minimum when transliterating Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic words. Even so, in the case of Persian and Urdu words, I have indicated long vowels with a stroke above the letters to help the reader grasp the words in their original language. For instance, the Persian word for ‘water’ is written here as: āb. The presence of ‘ain in a Persian or an Urdu word is indicated by: ‘. The Islamic festival of Eid is written here as: ‘Īd. The presence of hamzah in a word is indicated by: ’; for example, the word for ‘invisible’ in Persian and Urdu is written as: ghā’ib. I have avoided using diacritical marks for names of persons and places.
This work is concerned with exploring the state in activity, and not (as is so often the case) as a set of institutions and structural attributes. Dispensing with the topdown perspectives that focus on the kings, high nobles and the bureaucracy, the harem and the imperial court, the effort here is to view state formation from below. A preliminary effort in this direction was made earlier in my work on western India during the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries where I had argued that the state– society relations were integral to Mughal state-formation, and the political process was marked by an interpenetration of social forces with the state.1 I was of course not the only one to have done so, and before and since my work, there have been several interesting studies that have examined the state from the bottom-up, and have provided fresh insights on political processes in the early modern period.2 Most of these studies, mine included, have looked at the malleability in the rule structure, and have, from their respective contexts, highlighted the extent to which the local power-holders, corporate groups, and common people participated, 1
Farhat Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India: Power Relations in Western India, c. 1572–1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
See, in particular, Munis Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504–1719 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Penumbral Visions: Making Polities in Early Modern South India (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); Nandita Prasad Sahai, Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society, and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006); Pratyay Nath, Climate of Conquest: War, Environment, and Empire in Mughal North India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019); Chetan Singh, Region and Empire: Panjab in the Seventeenth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Abhishek Kaicker, The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). For the discussion on the historiography of the Mughal state, see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds.), Writing the Mughal World: Studies in Culture and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); and Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds.), The Mughal State, 1526–1750 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2 Paper, Performance, and the State
and modified, even restructured, the rule structure. In this work, I focus not so much on questions of how the society impinged on the state, but on how the state’s relations with local power relations shaped the sociocultural processes in early modern South Asia. I examine the social constituents of the state, and see how state–society relations impinged on, and reproduced the legal order, local corporate bodies, forms of social communication and property transactions. In other words, the work explores the socially embedded attributes of the state, and the extent to which they shaped legal pluralism, literacy and oral traditions, identity politics, publicness and the public sphere, and property relations. In line with the state-in-society approach suggested by a growing number of political theorists and anthropologists,3 the primary aim here is to see how social life and cultural practices were constituted and reshaped by the state’s participation in social spaces and, more importantly, its entangled relations with the elites and common people in micro-spaces. I have elsewhere described the rule structure as constituting the ‘state–society compact of authority’,4 and part of my aim is to see how the networks of these relations served to reproduce the sociocultural spaces in the Mughal period. This is clearly a study of social and cultural transformations, but one that does not quite ignore the agency of the state either. Though it challenges and disrupts the entrenched state determinism in the dominant historiography, yet it is not entirely convinced about the apparent necessity of excluding the state altogether in understanding processes of historical change in our period of study. Looking at the political process in early modern South Asia as shaped by state formation from below, I find the concept of ‘empowering interactions’, often invoked by political theorists and historians of the state, particularly apt and useful.5 Andre Holenstein explains ‘empowering interactions’ as referring to ‘a specific communicative situation emerging from diverse, but nevertheless reciprocal interests and demands from both the state’s representatives and members of local societies’. He further adds, ‘“Empowering Interactions” suggests that both the representatives of particular interests and the state benefited from 3
Joel S. Migdal, State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (eds.), The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Wim Blockmans, Daniel Schlappi and Andre Holenstein (eds.), Empowering Interactions: Political Cultures and the Emergence of the State in Europe, 1300–1900 (London: Routledge, 2009).
such interactions. In a specific sense, both parties became more powerful: the bearers of particular interests received authoritative support, while the state broadened its social acceptance and legitimacy.’6 In pitching for the model of ‘mutually empowering interactions’ as the basis of state–society relations, the study highlights not simply the dependence of the state on local circuits of power and resource dispensation, but also its socially embedded character. These relations – formal and intimate, and familial and impersonal – embroiled the state in ever-deepening local arenas, and served to create spaces for state participation in social and cultural spaces, and equally for social participation in state spaces. Acknowledging the presence of the state in these spaces should hopefully help us draw linkages and convergences across social, cultural, and political developments in the early modern period. As I look at the state in spaces of social communication, I cannot help but notice the impressive expansion in the use of paper, ink, and pen in state activity. It is indeed true that the Mughal empire was a vast paper regime, and the strength and competence of the state were amply demonstrated by the extensive use of written documents in almost all state activities, from the ones undertaken at the imperial court to the ones carried out by petty officials in the smallest unit of administrative organization, the pargana. The elaborate and more purposeful utilization of the media technologies of literacy – paper, ink, and pen – was certainly among the important advances of the period, but it would be erroneous to see them as unilateral instruments of the state, perfecting its reach and control. Even as there was considerable expansion in practical literacy in state activities, economic transactions, and cultural practices, the Mughal empire was perhaps not a ‘calligraphic state’.7 The relationship of writing to authority is a complex issue,8 but even as documents were important and were becoming ever-more 6
Ibid., pp. 25–26.
This is how Brinkley Messick describes the state in Yemen during the nineteenth– twentieth centuries (The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society, Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993]). Also see Brinkley Messick, Shari‘a Scripts: A Historical Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
For a discussion on the issue, see Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Jack Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, repr.); Jack Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
4 Paper, Performance, and the State
widespread, it would still seem that the culture of ‘textual domination’ that Brinkley Messick noticed in the Muslim world was largely absent in our period.9 My study seeks to draw attention to the fact that the textual practices were actually intricately braided with performative traditions and cultures of orality. How a document was read and interpreted was always a negotiated process in which ritual display, public performances, and oral recitations and ceremonies were an integral part of the deal. A document was indeed a shifting signifier, and an elusive presence, and bore imprints of contested meanings and potential accommodations. Exploring the state in micro-spaces – qasbas, towns, and cities – I argue here that words on paper were not autonomous bearer of meanings, but were read in contexts driven by the local relations of power. The written text – an imperial order, property document, sale deed, and court judgement – opened up a contested space in which social actors registered their identities, defended their interests, and clashed over meanings. It is certainly true that paper exercised, for an ordinary subject, a self-referential mystique when he saw that the lines drawn over it, in ink, determined his revenue obligations. He could barely read any of these papers, but they demonstrated to him both his own helplessness and the might of the state. His feeling of powerlessness could have been reinforced by the realization that if he needed to converse with the state – protest against the quantum of his fiscal obligation, or petition against the excesses of the state officials – he could do so only through the written instruments, pushing him into a state of helpless dependence on the clerical communities, and their skills with pen. It was no different for women, for they too had to capitulate to the authority of pen and paper in registering their marriages, rent agreements, and inheritable rights. Even so, just as literacy threatened to overwhelm the subordinate subjects, it also provided spaces for their resistance. A document issued by the state office, or one that was ratified by the officials, might bear the imprint of state intentionality, but it was still amenable to multiple readings, and several interested interpretations. These texts were, to borrow a term from Roland Barthes, ‘readerly texts’, that is, they were suffused with a plurality of meanings, and could be multilaterally read by the audience in ways that related to their experiences and world-views, as also their interests and aspirations. The written text was a bearer of shifting meanings, and how it would be read, and what it would mean depended on the surrounding oral traditions and the performance that accompanied its reception and circulation. The written– visual and the oral–aural were co-constitutive, and it was within a multiple media 9
Messick, The Calligraphic State.
of communication that the semiotic field was located, and the state conversed with its subjects. These issues serve as the backdrop to my reading of the property documents. In engaging with them, I seek to recover to the extent possible traces of performativity, oral traditions, and multiple modes and means of meaning apprehension within and inscribed over the surface of these documents. I have examined not just the content, but also the form of these documents. By closely examining inchoate signs, undecipherable symbols, illegible signatures, and bodily presences (huliya), my work disrupts the text–object dichotomy. I see these documents as both texts and objects, but even as objects they are situated within complex signifying practices, and convey meanings that complicate our understanding of property relations in our period. One of the things that this study sets itself against is the commodity-centred frames of reference, and argues instead that property was not simply an index of wealth, but a medium through which social relations were affirmed, reproduced, and contested. Owing to the identification of property with the honour of families and caste groups, transactions in property were socially regulated activities that bore the imprint of local power relations. Furthermore, property documents were imbued with a plethora of meanings, and this was because the scribal-literate tradition in Mughal India co-existed with an oralperformative culture. Writing was used by social actors in a wide variety of ways, and for different sets of objectives, sometimes to reinforce the social order, on other occasions to disrupt it. This raises pertinent questions concerning Mughal chancery practices, and one thing that we should bear in mind is that unlike the western archive, the creation and preservation of records were not simple power-laden activities, nor were they state-centred efforts to discipline people and impose domination. The text-object was mobile and malleable and imbibed traces of social conflicts and accommodations, and the state’s relations with the social forces. The circulation of the text – and in the case of property documents at least, even their production – did not occur exclusively within state spaces, but involved an active engagement with the local elites, corporate groups, and ordinary people. Furthermore, the textual practices occurred within a framework in which the written documents and performative activities dynamically interacted with each other in shaping meaning and interpretation. Historians working on the Islamic record–keeping practices have found that the insights from the ‘archival turn’ have a limited purchase in understanding Islamic chancery practices, and some among them have even suggested that the concept of the ‘archive’ does not quite apply to their record-keeping activities, preferring instead to call them the ‘Islamic cultures of
6 Paper, Performance, and the State
documentation’.10 My work largely supports this argument, but also seeks to complicate our understanding of Mughal chancery practices by raising issues concerning the ambiguity in meanings, shifting significations, forms of documents, and the signs, symbols, and bodies inscribed on their surfaces. In the ‘Islamicate world’, historians working on the textual practices have found that the documents were not tied to stable signifying systems, and the apprehension of meanings, in what Derrida describes as ‘word play’, was always a contingent and tentative occurrence. In a fascinating legal history of economic life in the western Indian Ocean, Fahad Ahmad Bashara has shown how the legal documents dealing with economic activities – in particular the deeds of debt (or waraqās) – moved across communities, interest groups, and sovereignties, and in the process of their circulation developed new contexts and frameworks of meaning.11 In the Mughal empire, I noticed in my study of Mughal documents on the English East India Company that Mughal imperial orders (or farmāns) dealing with revenue obligations of the English Company merchants were read and reproduced by both the Company servants and the local officials in ways that provided the English merchants tax benefits that were certainly not intended by the imperial court. For all the authority that the farmāns carried in Mughal India, they were nonetheless susceptible to multi-layered meanings.12 The documents that I examine here – property documents, court orders, petitions, public notices, sale and mortgage deeds, and news reports – have an air of finality about them, and a pretense of concreteness, but in reality, once we 10
See the essays in the special issue on ‘Islamic Cultures of Documentation’, ed. James Pickett and Paolo Sartori, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (JESHO) 62, nos. 5–6 (November 2019, in particular: James Pickett and Paolo Sartori, ‘From the Archetypical Archive to Cultures of Documentation’, pp. 773–98; Zahir Bhalloo and Omid Rezat, ‘Inscribing Authority: Scribal and Archival Practices of a Safavid Decree’, pp. 842–55; and Bhavani Raman, ‘Islamic Cultures of Documentation: An Afterword’, pp. 1079–91.
Fahad Ahmad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Also see Johan Mathew, Margins of the Market: Traﬃcking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).
Farhat Hasan, ‘Conflict and Cooperation in Anglo-Mughal Trade Relations during the Reign of Aurangzeb’, JESHO 24, no. 4 (October 1991), pp. 351–60. The paper was based on a collection of Persian documents concerning the English East India Company found in the British Library (B. M. Addl. 24039). A similar collection of Persian documents concerning the Dutch East India Company is also available in the British Library (B. M. Addl. 23095).
get attentive to the details, and the contestations that are inscribed on surfaces, we can discern the semantic shifts that inform them, and the world of multiple meanings that inhere in these texts-objects. Situating these documents within the politics of circulation, recollection, and recall reveals the extent to which the social actors constantly shifted meanings – or engaged in ‘word-play’ – to articulate their identities, and defend their symbolic and material interests. The important point is that beyond the details of a transaction, a property document, or any other document for that matter, provides interesting details of social contestations, community identities, and inter-community conflicts as well. Property transactions should, I argue in the next chapter, be seen as sociocultural activities that reaffirmed and undermined social identifications and hierarchies. The study of property documents is followed here with that of the legal order. This is a field that needs much more work, and if we compare the Mughal historiography on law with that of other contemporaneous Islamic empires, we can see the extent of our deficiency in the field.13 One of the insights that the interventions in the legal system in the early modern Islamic empires offer is that Islamic law was quite flexible, and easily adjusted to changing social and political contexts. I had made a similar argument for the shari‘a under the Mughals,14 but what I seek to add here is an understanding of the dialogues and contestations that occurred within the legal spaces, and in doing so, I make a plea for the consideration of these spaces as shaping the public sphere and the culture of the period. Indeed, our knowledge of law and the legal process in the colonial period is quite dense and rich, and serves to remind us of how little we know about the legal order in the pre-colonial period. One recent work that certainly goes a long way in addressing this inadequacy is Nandini Chatterjee’s Negotiating Mughal Law. Tracing the fortunes of a petty landholding family in Malwa over successive generations, Chatterjee has commendably brought to the fore the role of law and legal instruments in the preservation and expansion of the assets of this family. 13
See, for example, Leslie Pierce, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Judith Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Ronald Jennings, Studies in Ottoman Social History in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Women, Zimmis and Shari‘a Courts in Kayseri, Cyprus and Trabzon (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1999); Ronald Jennings, Christians and Muslims in Ottoman Cyprus and the Mediterranean World, 1570–1640 (New York: New York University Press, 1993); Haim Gerber, State, Society and Law in Islam: Ottoman Law in Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York, 1994).
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
8 Paper, Performance, and the State
Focusing on the ‘little people’ instead of larger sociopolitical structures, she is able to draw attention towards the negotiations on the ground, and how locally powerful men negotiated with the legal system to further their social and economic interests.15 In line with her effort, but with a narrower time period restricted to the Mughal empire, I have here sought to examine the legal order as informed by state formation from below. My focus is still on state–society relations, and viewing the legal order as a sociocultural space, I look at the complex engagements of social actors with the state–society complex of authority in the spaces constituted and reproduced by the legal order. The point that I seek to put across is that the legal order was crucially shaped by initiatives from below, and we get a flawed, if not erroneous, picture if we keep the spotlight on the imperial court, legal–sacral texts, and their normative underpinnings. Unfortunately, this is how most historians have understood the legal system in Mughal India, and one consequence of this has been the identification of the legal order with the state. In more sophisticated analyses, the law is seen as an instrument of the state, enforcing its will, and legitimating its structures of domination.16 This seems to be a specimen of state-centred historiography, and clearly inadequate because the space of the legal order was far in excess of the space of the state. In view of the overwhelming presence of multiple centres of dispute resolution, and evidence of forum shopping, I am persuaded to see the legal order as an instance of legal pluralism. Of course, the inspiration for this comes from the path-breaking work of Lauren Benton, who has studied the transformation of a global plural legal order with a state-centred one under European colonialism, and has seen this change as amounting to a shift from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ pluralism.17 15
Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords Across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
See, for example, M. L. Bhatia, The Ulema, Islamic Ethics and Courts under the Mughals: Aurangzeb Revisited (New Delhi: Manak, 2006); M. L. Bhatia, Administrative History of Medieval India: A Study of Muslim Jurisprudence under Aurangzeb (New Delhi: Radha Publications, 1992); S. A. Nadeem Rezavi, ‘Civil Law and Justice in Mughal Court’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress (PIHC), 54th session, Mysore, 1993, pp. 188–99.
Lauren Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400– 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Also see Lauren Benton and Richard J. Ross (eds.), Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500–1850 (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
Even as her work offers interesting insights, I believe that the term ‘legal pluralism’ should not end up becoming a broad brush that serves to obliterate spatial and temporal distinctions. Among the issues that, perhaps, need to be considered are the distinctions in the pre-colonial legal culture that were related to the agency of the state, and the nature of state–society relations. It is these issues that provide the backdrop to my study of the legal system in this work. While my work eschews state centrism and makes a persuasive argument in favour of legal pluralism, I still find merit in exploring the agency of the pre-colonial state in shaping the nature of legal pluralism in early modern South Asian history. Furthermore, I argue that within the plural legal order, the multiple centres of dispute resolution were not distinct entities; indeed we should take note of the overlaps among them and, more importantly, the communications between them. These communications, it seems, served to push the state, through initiatives from below, into a position of some significance, for the state was not just seen as the mediator between competing norms and laws, but was also considered as the protector of the shared normative system. In order to study the legal order, we cannot afford to ignore the state, but the state should itself be seen as a social formation, constituted and reproduced in the local legal spaces by the social forces. The framework that is suggested here should hopefully be of some relevance for the study of the legal order in not just the Mughal empire, but other early modern Persianate empires as well. The point that this work drives home is that there is a need to bring the state back in, without necessarily reviving the myth of its intentionality, uniformity, and absolute authority. It is suggested that increasingly in the eighteenth century the state was beginning to claim a space of pre-eminence in the legal field, but the state’s cutting edge was not based on imperial initiatives, but was a function of pressures from below. The local relations of power were pushing the state into assuming a leading role in the plural legal order. The court of the qāzi was marked by the active participation of not only the petty state officials, but also the local elites, community leaders, heads of caste bodies and corporate bodies, muhalla chiefs, and so on. The judicial process was a participatory one, and involved them as active agents and co-participants. Furthermore, the qāzi was just one state official in the localities; there were several other officials who could, sometimes in collusion with, other times in collision with the qāzi, arbitrate and settle disputes. There was obviously a locally informed political context that informed their judgments, but this should not encourage us to side-step the emergence of an evolving, shared, and agreed, if still contested, normative system. Since I see the legal order as constituting the public sphere, it seemed appropriate to conclude this study with an assessment of the nature and forms
10 Paper, Performance, and the State
of social communication. As it is, when it comes to issues of communication and knowledge, Mughal historians have barely scratched the surface, and this is rather unfortunate because without addressing these issues, our understanding of the culture of their period clearly remains woefully inadequate. Furthermore, our deficient knowledge here has also prompted a skewed understanding of colonial knowledge as well. In a work of wide-ranging ramifications, C. A. Bayly has argued that the British knowledge about India was not simply a unilateral construction of categories of difference in pursuit of global domination, but was a far messier product, shaped not just by British imperial interests, but also the inputs, aspirations, and perspectives of the indigenous communities and their embodied knowledges. ‘The Indian ecumene’, as he terms it, was not a simple mimetic formation passively imbibing modern western thought and epistemic concepts, but was dynamically constituted by multiple networks of the information order, most of which were in place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the British inserted themselves into these indigenous conduits of information and knowledge, and this provided the necessary backdrop to colonial expansion in India.18 The significance of the ‘dialogic process’, one that involved a wide range of constituencies in ‘constructing’ colonial knowledge has similarly been highlighted by Eugene Irschik in his work on south India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.19 The important point here is that ‘orientalism’, in particular the British imperial discourse about India, tapped into indigenous information networks and systems of social communication that had come into existence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the varied worlds of knowledge that moved around these inter-subjective communicative spaces, Bayly draws attention to two that were particularly significant: ‘patrimonial knowledge’ and ‘affective knowledge’. The ‘patrimonial knowledge’ imbibed the domain of high culture and was, in the words of Bayly, ‘deep and detailed knowledge’ that was mostly literate and was linked with the court culture. The ‘affective knowledge’, on the other hand, was ‘the knowledge gained from participation in communities of belief and marriage’.20 While these distinctions are useful, I argue here that we need to be attentive to the communications between the varied forms of knowledges, and the negotiated 18
C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Eugene F. Irschik, Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795–1895 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
Bayly, Empire and Information.
processes through which they were constructed and reproduced in the period. At the same time, our study of the public sphere, in drawing attention to its embodied and expressive character, reinforces the need to recognize the element of excess and banter in ‘affective knowledge’, as also in certain expressions of ‘patrimonial knowledge’. In a piece written earlier, I had suggested that the early modern period saw the development of the public sphere in South Asia.21 Of course, our understanding of the concept owes a lot to the writings of Jurgen Habermas, who saw it as constituting a dialogic space insulated from distinctions of class, status, and power; within this space in modern Europe, the state was critiqued, its policies evaluated, and norms and values were contested and reaffirmed on the basis of ‘communicative rationality’.22 Habermas has been critiqued for ignoring the exclusions and silences, and feminist scholars have taken him to task for failing to see the absence of women from the ‘bourgeois public sphere’.23 He has also been criticized for developing a declensionist narrative, when he suggests that the coffeehouse public sphere emerged in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and declined towards the end of the eighteenth century. In an important study, Brian Cowan has shown that the coffeehouse sociability in Great Britain changed its form and character, but continued to be, all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a significant place for debate and discussion, and the formation of public opinion.24 Even so, the more important point here is whether there is a case for arguing that the political culture in India during the early modern 21
Farhat Hasan, ‘Forms of Civility and Publicness in Pre-British India’, in Rajeev Bhargava and Helmut Reifeld (eds.), Civil Society, Public Sphere and Citizenship in India: Dialogues and Perceptions (New Delhi: Sage, 2005), 84–105.
Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. T. Burger and F. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).
Johanna Meehan (ed.), Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse (London: Routledge, 1995,repr. 2012); also see Paula MacDowell, The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics and Gender in London Literary Marketplace, 1678–1730 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005); Brian Cowan, ‘Publicity and Privacy in the History of the British Coffeehouse’, History Compass, 5, no. 4 (2007), pp. 1180– 213; Brian Cowan, ‘The Rise of the Coffeehouse Reconsidered’, Historical Journal 47, no. 1 (2004), pp. 21–46. Also see for a contrary view M. Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2004).
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period had seen the emergence of spaces of inter-subjective communication that could justifiably be termed as constituting the public sphere? My answer has been in the affirmative, and I reiterate my position here as well. Recent studies on the political culture in the eighteenth century provide quite interesting support in the matter. Abhishek Kaicker’s fascinating research on popular politics in eighteenth-century Delhi reveals the growing influence of public opinion in state policies, and provides a great deal of interesting evidence on popular participation in political activities.25 He has studied the popular revolts against the political classes, including their representation in the literature of the period. My work focuses on the discussions about the state in the public sphere, and seeks to explore the form of political critiques that emerged, with particular inventiveness, therefrom. As a cultural formation, the state did not as much control as co-participate in the public sphere, and this was perhaps its distinctive quality; the early modern public sphere in South Asia was marked by state–society interactions in the reproduction of what I have, borrowing from the work of political anthropologists, termed as ‘the moral economy of the state’. For this study, I have consulted a wide range of sources, and tapped into multiple genres and linguistic registers. I have, of course, consulted the documents in the Mughal archive, but I have also fruitfully utilized the satires and couplets that the poets recited in the bazārs. While this forces us to consider the problem of the relationship of the choice of genre to meaning formation, our reading is furthermore confounded by the multilingual archive. I have consulted IndoPersian, Rekhta, and Braj sources, and even as this is indicative of the fluidity in linguistic boundaries, it still required attentiveness to language and form of representation. Equally pressing is the issue of the temporal range of the ‘Mughal archive’, and, clearly, as one of the reviewers of this work pointed out, we need to have a perspective of time when we engage with an archive that encompasses at least three centuries. If the forms did not change much, and the conventions of expression continued unabated, it of course does not mean that these texts did not register change. Of course, when examining the socio-economic processes, changes are hard to discern and it is easy to fail to notice them if we refuse to go beyond the formulaic expressions and repetitive terminologies. This study, hopefully, engages with the archive of the period with a view to both mark continuities and look for changes that helped shape early South Asian modernity.
Kaicker, The King and the People.
2 Property and Social Relations Litigations and Disputes at the Qāzi’s Court*
This chapter is concerned with assessing the effects of state–society interactions in reshaping property relations, and in doing so it also seeks to see how a critical understanding of social conflicts and communications around properties helps us gain improved insights concerning the dynamic processes of state formation from below. Of course, historians are divided on what they actually mean by property, and one of the issues that divides them is whether to see property as a material relation or an ideational category. In a stimulating overview of the scholarship on proprietary rights, Faisal Chaudhry rightly points out that historians have constructed a duality between ‘property-as-ideational contingency’ and ‘property-as-irreducible material relation’.1 I tend to believe that this duality is largely fictive, for the ideational and the material are interrelated, and mutually constitutive, and it is certainly erroneous to see the materiality in property as ‘irreducible’ and ‘pre-determined’, or to see its ‘ideational’ dimensions as bereft of institutional correlates. Even so, in Mughal historiography the dominant tendency is to focus on the material–institutional side of the divide, and set aside the social and cultural dimensions of land control and proprietary rights; it is for this reason that historians of the Mughal period look at property as a commodity, carrying an objective, formally determined value. Evidence of property transactions are, therefore, treated as a part of the story of the expansion of market, monetization of economy, *
This chapter heavily borrows from the contents of the following article that I wrote for a special issue on ‘Repossessing Property in South Asia: Land, Rights and Law across the Early Modern/Modern Divide’: ‘Property and Social Relations in Mughal India: Litigations and Disputes at the Qazi’s Court in Urban Localities, 17th–18th Centuries’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61, nos. 5–6 (August 2018), pp. 849–75.
Faisal Chaudhry, ‘Repossessing Property in South Asia: Land, Rights and Law across the Early Modern/Modern Divide- Introduction’, JESHO 61, nos. 5–6 (August 2018), pp. 759–802.
14 Paper, Performance, and the State
and/or intensification of rational forms of exchange. Questioning the dominant Mughal historiography, I argue that modern perceptions of property, based in the commodity ethos and the notion of objective and exchangeable values, are not the appropriate framework to study property relations in the Mughal period. It is, of course, not the case that the property transactions in the period were entirely bereft of calculated interest and some sense of the ‘economic value’ of the property concerned, but these transactions could rarely, if ever, be seen as ‘market transactions’ occurring within formal and impersonal spaces, with ‘outsiders’, through exchanges that were based on some objective, commensurable standards of value. Exchange of property was more often seen as a transaction in prestige, one that compromised for the vendor the honour of his person and family, and, if the person purchasing it came from outside his social group, the honour of his community and kin as well. It is only when we view these exchanges as occurring within a contingent sociocultural space that we can appreciate the social attributes of the state, or, more specifically, the state–society rule system.
Moving beyond the object-centred frames: property as a social entity In the dominant Mughal historiography, indeed, property relations are viewed within an economic framework, and property is characterized as a commodity carrying a formal, exchangeable value. Within this framework, transactions in property are perceived as informed by rational, profit-maximizing objectives, and the increased velocity in the circulation of property is often presented as evidence of the existence of a monetized, commodity market.2 The backdrop to this perspective lies in the perception of land and other immovable assets as imbued 2
One could cite any number of works here, but, as representative specimens, see the relevant essays in Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of India, I: c.1200–c.1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Also see Irfan Habib, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556–1707 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005, repr.); Shireen Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire, c. 1595: A Statistical Study (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987). There is a large and growing literature on the towns and cities in Mughal India, but for a recent overview, see Yogesh Sharma and Pius Malekandathil (eds.), Cities in Medieval India (New Delhi: Primus Publications, 2015); also see the relevant papers in J. S. Grewal and Indu Banga (eds.), Studies in Urban History (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University Publications, 2009).
Property and Social Relations 15
with an irreducible materiality, carrying an objective (and standard) value. This is in part inspired by a similar approach in the dominant European historiography where, again, property relations are viewed within an objective and rational frame of reference.3 Against these dominant trends, historians in Europe have increasingly begun to question the object-centred view of property, and have suggested instead that property in the early modern period should be studied as an entangled part of the existing social formation. Instead of viewing property in terms that are exclusively economic (based on a profit-centred approach) or legal-juridical (based on a rights-based approach), they seek to represent property as a social force, participating in, and restructuring, social relations.4 Elaborating on the social nature of property relations in early modern England, Carol Rose highlights the significance of community norms in bridging the gap between property-as-thing and property-as-relationship.5 In an important shift from the dominant work, she argues that property in England was not equated with wealth, but ‘propriety’; it was crucially linked, in her period of study, to an individual’s familial and community responsibilities, his social position and patronage networks.6 I think that this shift in European historiography, in which property is studied not within an economic logic, but as a social force, tied to identities, social hierarchies, and a person’s position and obligations, is one that may be fruitfully be applied for exploring property relations in early modern South Asia as well. A close examination of the documents pertaining to property transactions and disputes in the Mughal period bears out the social dimensions
John Brewar and Susan Staves (eds.), Early Modern Conceptions of Property (London: Routledge, 1995).
One of the important works that highlights the social nature of property is Carol Rose, Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory, and Rhetoric of Ownership (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994). See also the essays in C. M. Hann (eds.), Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975, 2nd revised edition, 2003); J. G. A. Pocock, ‘The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology’, in Virtue, Commerce, History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chieﬂy in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 103–24.
Rose, Property and Persuasion, pp. 1–8.
Ibid., pp. 49–70.
16 Paper, Performance, and the State
of property, and, as we shall see, prompts us to see property not as a thing, but as a relationship.7 It also encourages us to see property not as an index of wealth, but as a medium through which relations were maintained, affects and emotions affirmed, and community and familial honour preserved. In seeking to bring into consideration the experience of early modern Europe, in particular England, I depend upon the rich historiography that sees Europe and Asia in the early modern Europe as constituting what Frank Perlin terms as an ‘unbroken landscape’.8 Within this shared landscape, one could with profit bring in the Marathas as well; like the Mughals, the Marathas were also extensive paper regimes, and possessed remarkably similar administrative and institutional
The colonial period in South Asia is better served in this respect, and in several notable studies historians have emphasized the social attributes of property relations while exploring the economic effects of the colonial state on the society. However, for us to be certain about the agency of the colonial state, we need to first look at the relations between the forces of social regulation and relations of property in the seventeenth– eighteenth centuries. See, in particular, Walter C. Neale, Economic Change in Rural India: Land Tenure and Reform in United Provinces, 1800–1955 (New Haven and London, 1962); R. E. Frykenberg (ed.), Land Control and Social Structure in Indian History (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1969); Dharma Kumar, Land and Caste in South India: Agricultural Labour in the Madras Presidency during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, repr. 2013).
Frank Perlin, Unbroken Landscape: Commodity, Category, Sign and Identity: Their Production, Strengths and Knowledge from 1500 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994); also see Frank Perlin, The Invisible City: Monetary, Administrative and Power Infrastructures in Asia and Europe, 1500–1900 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1993). Highlighting the interconnections between Asia and Europe in the early modern period, Sanjay Subrahmanyam has brought out interesting convergences in what he terms as ‘connected histories’. See Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History: From the Tagus to the Ganges (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004, repr. 2011); and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005, repr. 2011). Also interesting in this context is the work of Victor Lieberman in two volumes: Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, vol. 1, Integration on the Mainland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol.2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Property and Social Relations 17
arrangements.9 I wish to suggest that there were important convergences that Mughal historians need to consider, especially when they discuss perceptions and arrangements of property. Referring to the land arrangements in Maratha villages, Sumit Guha has argued that possession of land was a matter of both rights and obligations; property relations were a bundle of entitlements and privileges, and responsibilities and duties towards community and caste groups.10 Owing to this, he argues, the idea of absolute ownership is absent from the property regime of pre-colonial Maharashtra, and the benefits one could acquire from property were dependent on the ‘recognition and support within the community’.11His insights are relevant, even as there are obvious differences between the cities and towns in Mughal India and rurban Maharashtra. In Mughal urban centres, the notion of exclusive property was arguably better developed, and individual rights in property were prevalent as well. However, property transactions were still, as in the Maratha state, communal activities, tightly regulated and controlled by community heads, muhalla elites, and caste leaders. This leads us to an important attribute of property relations in Mughal India: forms of urban property were indeed exclusive and delimited, and yet property relations were a bundle of privileges and obligations, personal entitlements, and communal responsibilities! Given the deep entanglement of property relations with caste and community identities, we find that most transactions in property in the Mughal empire occurred within the community or caste groups. In instances where this was not the case and the property had to be sold to ‘outsiders’, as would occasionally happen, one suspects these were instances of distress sale caused by dramatic loss in family fortunes, a death in the family, an unpaid debt, forced migrations, and so on. Owing to the identification of property with the honour of the families and 9
See, in particular, Stewart Gordon, Marathas, Marauders, and State Formation in Eighteenth-Century India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Andre Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the EighteenthCentury Maratha Svarajya (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986); Stewart Gordon, The Marathas, 1600–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Sumit Guha, ‘Property Rights, Social Structure and Rural Society in Comparative Perspective,’ International Journal of South Asian Studies 5 (2013), pp. 13–22; Also see Sumit Guha, ‘Wrongs and Rights in the Maratha Country: Antiquity, Custom and Power in Eighteenth-Century India’, in Michael R. Anderson and Sumit Guha (eds.), Changing Conceptions of Rights and Justice in South Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 14–29.
Guha, ‘Property Rights’, p. 17.
18 Paper, Performance, and the State
caste groups, transactions in property were usually socially regulated activities, and bore an imprint of local power relations. Property did indeed change hands, but in almost all instances of purchase and sale of property there was a domineering – even determining – influence of local elites, caste leaders and the heads of the residential units, or the muhallas. Given the deep association of power relations, we need to bear in mind that property relations in Mughal India were unstable and conflict-ridden. We get some sense of these conflicts from disputes that were brought before the qāzi’s court, and, as we shall soon see, a perusal of these court papers helps us see the instability and unrest that marked property relations in Mughal India. Restricting myself to the urban centres in Mughal India, I look here at the documents of the courts of local qāzis concerning property transactions and disputes, with a view to exploring the perceptions of property, shifts in property and power relations, and the conflicts and struggles that surrounded them. A substantial number of these documents have been acquired by the National Archives of India, New Delhi, largely from private collections. While the bulk of these documents are varied and disjointed, we do come across, as in the case of the ‘Cambay documents’, papers that constitute a part of a connected series. I studied the ‘Cambay documents’ for my work on western India, and I shall be using them here too.12 Full of rich details concerning social life in Mughal towns, the documents include purchase of property, mortgage deeds, alienation in gift, court depositions, civil disputes, and so on. Acquired from a private collection, the Cambay documents have survived the ravages of time, and a good number among them are in fairly readable condition. Written on a material derived from linen pulp, they remind us, through their very materiality, of the time of their production.13 A considerable number of property documents from north India have found their way into the Uttar Pradesh State Archives in Allahabad, and their details have been published in several volumes by scholars associated with the archive.14 These documents were part of the acquisitions of the Regional Records Survey Committee established in August 1951 by the 12
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
The Cambay documents are preserved at the National Archives of India, New Delhi (hereinafter NAI) under two series of acquired documents, numbering 2695 and 2702. The collection has over fifty documents, with the earliest, 2695/1, belonging to 1657 and the last, 2695/34, to 1761.
U.P. State Records Series, Selections from Oriental Records; these records were published under the title: A Calendar of Oriental Records, vol. I (edited by B. P. Saxena) (Allahabad, 1955), vol. II (edited by Sheikh Abdur Rashid) (Allahabad, 1956), vol. III (edited by Sheikh Abdur Rashid) (Allahabad, 1959).
Property and Social Relations 19
Government of Uttar Pradesh for the collection and preservation of documents in private custody. The published calendars of these documents are fairly detailed, but the absence of Persian texts is a serious handicap, and I have perforce relied on the readings of the editors/translators in interpreting them. For Gujarat, we have a collection of local documents that was compiled in the mid-seventeenth century by an anonymous Mughal official in Surat. Preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, the ‘Surat collection’ includes several documents concerning litigations at the court of the local qāzi.15 In this chapter, I seek to draw some comparisons between western India and Punjab. For Punjab, an extremely rich source is the ‘Bhandari collection’, preserved at the Punjab State Archives in Patiala. There are over one hundred and fifty documents in the collection that originally came from the court of the qāzi at Batala, in Punjab. J. S. Grewal has painstakingly edited and annotated thirty-six of these documents16 The documents in the Bhandari collection are marked by considerable variety, and include sale deeds (ba‘i-nāma), gift deeds (hibanāma), mortgage deeds (girvināma), and so on. While the documents in the collection largely deal with the eighteenth century, they also include papers from the early British period.17 Also known as the ‘Batala documents’, they were acquired by the Punjab State Archives from a Bhandari family in Batala in Punjab. The other important set of documents that I examine here is the insha’ collection that was compiled in Akbar’s reign by one of his officials, Abul Qasim Namkin. Entitled Munsha’āt-i-Namkīn, the work is a compilation of documents written for the training and instruction of the scribes serving the Mughal state.18 The work consists of wills (wasiyat), gift deeds (hiba’), mortgages (rahn), transactions of slaves, and so on.19 While some of these documents have come to us in the original, certain others are copies (naql) that are largely faithful to the original, and spare no detail 15
Ms. Blochet, Supplementary Pers., 482, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
These documents have been annotated and translated by J. S. Grewal under the title In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents from a Punjab Town (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975).
There are just three extant manuscripts of the work, and these are preserved at the India Office, London, Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh, and Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad. The text has been laboriously edited by Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli under the title The Mughal State and Culture, 1556–1598: Selected Letters and Documents from Munshaat-i-Namakin (New Delhi: Manohar, 2007).
20 Paper, Performance, and the State
of significance; and these are, moreover, duly attested by competent Mughal authorities The relation of the copied document with its original is a complex issue, one that hinges on the chancery practices, but it seems that the seals and signatures of the state authorities and the attestations of the local power-holders presumably served to reinscribe its status as representing the power of the original.20 Indeed, several texts that I have used here were also found in compiled works brought together by petty bureaucrats. This poses interesting questions concerning Mughal record-keeping activities, but the important thing here is how these documents were read and understood in their varied spatial locations. Responding to my work on property disputes,21 Nandini Chatterjee reprimands me for treating them as ‘equivalent sources’ and for taking these documents to be ‘the same as their content’.22 Her critique is pertinent, and I have been, I admit, less attentive to differences in the archival location of documents. My excuse for the lapse is that my concern has been with reading these documents in terms of shifting meanings, and against the backdrop of social contestations and identity politics. In locating them within their social fields, the differences in spatial distribution appeared less pressing than their commonalities: fluid meanings, inscription of social identities, and location in spaces of conflicts and accommodation. Clearly, documents were mobile entities, and as they moved from one location to another, from the state record office (daftar) to the compilations of the scribes (munshis), for instance, they underwent semantic dislocations; their mobility was not just spatial but also semiological. As texts placed in the insha’ collections, they were no more instruments of state intentionality, but were more likely writing specimens that tied together literate practices with ethical self-cultivation. This is precisely the reason why I think it is important to use them here, for they reveal significant convergences between practical literacy and sociocultural developments, and the interconnections between the shifts in property relations and perceptions of community and selfhood. It is also important, as I argue here, that just as we examine the contents, we need to look at the forms of these documents, noting in particular the embodied presences and social contestations inscribed on the surface. 20
For an interesting comparison with Qajar Iran, see Assef Ashraf, ‘Copied and Collected: Farmans, Petitions and the Political History of Qajar Iran’, JESHO 62, nos. 5–6 (November 2019), pp. 963–97. For an interesting discussion on the issue, see Raman, ‘Islamic Cultures of Documentation’.
Hasan, ‘Property and Social Relations’.
N. Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law, pp. 229–30.
Property and Social Relations 21
Property as communication: text, performance, and affect In defining property as a social entity, historians of the colonial period seek to underline the significance of the constellation of relations that shaped property relations in South Asia,23 but it would be instructive to compare this with early modern England where, as pointed out by Carol Rose, property had also become more communicative in its social functions, and if it reflected relations, it also communicated exclusion – a claim over resources to the exclusion of others.24 One could argue that this represented a shift, if still tentative and vague, towards limited ‘commodification’. In early modern South Asia, as we shall see, property as a communicative medium was embedded in a wide range of social relations, and so even as it communicated exclusion, it did so along with a large number of other shifting and contestatory social relations and practices. Working within a rather poststructuralist perspective, Carol Rose represents property as ‘persuasion’, highlighting the communicative role in claims over property. She rightly points out that the separation of private property from the vast reserve of shared, common resources is a communicative process, in which a large number of practices around an asset serve to symbolically articulate exclusive claims over property. In Mughal India, while these practices were important (for example, fencing land, constructing a boundary wall around a garden, or undertaking repairs of a house), a proprietary claim was most persuasively affirmed through the text: the deed of possession (wasiqa-i-milkiyat). The Mughal empire, like the other contemporaneous Islamic empires in west and central Asia, was marked by an expanded expanded use of paper, and a greater dependence on literacy and the specialist scribal classes for managing the affairs of the state.25 23
Neale, Economic Change in Rural India; Frykenberg, Land Control and Social Structure in Indian History; D. Kumar, Land and Caste in South India.
Rose, Property and Persuasion.
See Francis Robinson, ‘Ottomans–Safavids–Mughals: Shared Knowledge and Connective Systems’, Journal of Islamic Studies 8, no. 2 (1997), pp. 151–84; Francis Robinson, ‘Knowledge, Its Transmission and the Making of Muslim Societies’, in Francis Robinson (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 208–49. For the impact of literacy on social consciousness in the Deccan, see Richard M. Eaton, ‘The Rise of Written Vernaculars: The Deccan, 1450–1650’, in Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh (eds.), After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth Century North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 111–29; for the entangled relations between orality and literacy in South Asian literary history, see Francesca Orsini and Katherine
22 Paper, Performance, and the State
The penetration of written documents in the wider society not only allowed the state to better perform its administrative and fiscal functions, but also served to mark its presence, domineering and despotic, in the localities. Scholars have described practical literacy of this kind, emerging from the rule structure and the routine activities of the state, as ‘pragmatic literacy’.26 Instrumental in nature, pragmatic literacy refers to the documents that related to transactions in property, law, business, and administration. Indeed, the large number of extant property documents that we see today testifies to the impressive expansion of pragmatic literacy in the Mughal period. How did it influence property relations in our period? It is certainly true that ‘the revolution of pen, ink, and paper’ introduced significant changes in early modern South Asia, but it would still be erroneous to assume that the widespread use of paper represented an irrevocable shift from an aural–performative to a literate tradition.27 Indeed, historians have tended to look at the expansion in the use of written documents as introducing abstract, formal, and objectively distanced (that is, commoditized) perception of all forms of wealth, including property. A critical reading of extant documents, however, suggests that the oral and the scribal traditions actually reinforced each other; it is historically erroneous to see them in contrastive terms, as binary opposites. In several respects, these documents could be read as ‘hybrid texts’ combining the Butler Schofield (eds.), Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015); and Sheldon Pollock (ed.), Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003). On the Mughal secretaries, see the path-breaking work by Rajeev Kinra, Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary (Oakland, CA University of California Press, 2015). 26
See, for instance, Richard Britnell (ed.), Pragmatic Literacy: East and West, 1200–1330 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1997). In an interesting study, Michael Clanchy has shown that the growth of literacy in England in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries was a result of the extensive use of writing by the state in its dayto-day activities (Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066– 1307 [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013]).
One of the hugely influential works that deals with the effects of literacy on human thought and consciousness is Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 2002). Also see Goody, Literacy in Traditional Societies. An important work that deals with literacy in the Islamic Middle East is Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).
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cultural registers of orality and literacy. To the extent that they retained oral modes of thinking and composition, one could refer to them as imbued with a kind of ‘scribal orality’ that served to reproduce not just the spoken words, but also the non-verbal communication and the performances that constituted the oral culture. These documents were conjured into existence by a wide range of rituals and social activity; as texts that imbibed traces of performativity, they operated within a signifying system that was informed by both words and performance. A close reading of these documents reveals that they were, like the oral culture they simulated, close to the ‘human life-world’, participatory and empathetic. Their simulated orality discloses the lurking presence of bodies, communities, conflicts, negotiations and performance. The text – that is, the property document – was not just a social document; it was itself a social activity. The mutually constitutive relations between the oral culture and ‘literate mentality’ are brought into sharp relief in a property document, a covenant (wasiqa) dated 29 April 1662 (1 Shauwāl 1073 A.H.). The agreement concerns the gift of a ‘guest house’ and a plot of land in Sandila in north India by one Mian Muhammad Sharif to Mamrez Khan in acknowledgement of the simulated brotherly relations between them, a relationship ritually validated by the exchange of turbans. The written text records the event, and in doing so carries over a ritually rich performance to the realm of the literate–scribal culture; indeed, the document serves to imbibe the significations emerging from performativity. In accepting Mamrez as his younger brother, Mian Sharif placed his turban on his head, and the former, in a gesture of humble acceptance, ‘placed his turban at the feet’ of the latter. The document also interestingly highlights the social nature of property transactions; this particular transaction had led to the institution of familial, and yet strictly hierarchical, relations between their respective families. The wasiqa concludes with Mamrez exhorting his sons to treat the sons of Sharif with due deference, as their ‘patrons’; they should at all times and on all occasions ‘obey and serve them’. In case they failed to do so, they would cease to be his sons, and shall be held accountable on ‘the Day of Judgment’.28 The document reveals the social attributes of property, and its role in articulating familial relations. Interestingly, it also provides clues concerning the deep and complex entanglement of property with the distribution of affect in the household. Property relations went hand-in-hand with familial relations, and shifts in the distribution of property could dramatically restructure intra- and 28
Sheikh Abdur Rashid (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records (U.P. State Records Series), vol. II, doc. 7 (Allahabad, 1956), p. 5.
24 Paper, Performance, and the State
inter-household relations. ‘Gift’ or hiba’ was one such instrument through which property relations within the household could be changed along lines of affect and intimacy. A gift of property in favour of a woman, in particular from a father to his daughter, did certainly have implications for the organization of gender and other relations in the household. A gift from the father to his daughter served to reaffirm her natal ties, but also restructured her position in her marital household. We have a large number of such documents, and their social significance lies in the fact that they constrain one gift by another – the gift of woman (in marriage) with the gift of property (to the bride).The gift of property served to inhibit the gift of the woman from becoming an absolute transaction; the natal links were reformulated and reinforced at the same time. Along rather different lines, yet reflecting the correlations between property transactions and affective relations in the household, we find instances where influential men and women decided to gift away property in favour of their attendants and servants as ‘remunerations of service’ (khidmatāna).29 Impressed by the services of the chaudhuri, Sheikh Mian Muhammad Sharif, an elite woman, respectfully addressed in the document as ‘Begum’ (‘The Lady’), gifted the land in Rampur that she had acquired as gift from her father and spouse in his favour in acknowledgement of and to recompense him for his services (khidmatāna).30 These are instances where transactions in property were informed by deep and enduring relations subsisting in the household. As we shall see, even in instances where the exchange of property did not occur through gift, but involved a monetary transaction, the interrelations between property and household remained intact, and were hardly ever compromised. Historians working on the modern period have been inclined to believe that colonial modernity served to inscribe the household as a private, familial space, marked by emotions and affect, separated from the world of matter, the public domains of power and wealth. The colonial period is therefore seen as progressively leading to the formalization of property forms, and ‘rational’ and disenchanted perceptions of property. In an interesting study, Rachel Sturman has argued that the efforts of the colonial state to formalize property relations and to disengage them from familial affect were only partially successful, and the notion of the autonomous legal subject was
In one document, to take an instance, dated 10 June 1657 (15 Ramadan 1068 A.H.), Mir Sohrab gifts 50 bighas of land in village Rampur Dhauna to Mian Muhammad Sharif Chaudhari by way of khidmatāna (Rashid, Calendar, II, doc. 55, p. 32).
Rashid, Calendar, II, doc. 56, p. 32.
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based on ‘the myth of disenchanted property forms’.31 ‘The state,’ says Sturman, ‘both acknowledged the ongoing transmutability of various forms of attachment and attempted to circumscribe their intimate operation, nudging and winking at the ongoing enchantment of objects.’32 Similarly, in his study of the Muslim endowments (awkaf) in the colonial period, Gregory Kozlowski has drawn our attention to the enduring linkages between familial affect and the organization of property in South Asia.33 In the Mughal period, the relations of property with familial affect were articulated within a hybrid tradition that blended orality with literacy, and vice versa. Even so, the written document was increasingly becoming indispensable in establishing claims over property. It is owing to this reason that we come across instances where propertied men accused their rivals, in the court of law, of stealing or confiscating their papers. In 1669 (A.H. 1080), Shaikh Yusuf filed a suit (through his agent, Shaikh Mah Mahmud) against Shaikh Sibghatullah accusing him of illegally holding the imperial order (farmān) issued to his father, Shaikh Zakariya, concerning the grant of land in Lucknow by the state, and asking the court to secure its return to the plaintiff. After examining witnesses, the qāzi found that the allegation was valid, and ordered the defendant to return the farmān to the plaintiff.34 The growing significance of ‘pragmatic literacy’, marked by the expansion in the circulation of documents and the clerical groups, should not delude us into believing that this was unilaterally prompting a shift in social relations and regimes of property – to render them ‘rational’, objective,
Rachel Sturman, ‘Property and Attachments: Defining Autonomy and the Claims of Family in Nineteenth-Century Western India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History (CSSH), 47, no. 3 (July 2005), pp. 611–37. For a contrary view, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Subject of Law and the Subject of Narratives’, in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), ch. 7. Also see Rachel Sturman, The Government of Social Life in Colonial India: Liberalism, Religious Law and Women’s Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Sturman, ‘Property and Attachments’, p. 637.
Gregory C. Kozlowski, Muslim Endowments and Society in British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). For a contrary position, see Ritu Birla, Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009). Also see Lionel Smith (ed.), The Worlds of the Trust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Rashid, Calendar, II, doc. 72, pp. 39–40.
26 Paper, Performance, and the State
and formal. We would be unwitting victims of technological determinism if we were to assume that ‘technologizing the word’, as Ong puts it, was uniformly leading to the development of the ‘literate mentality’.35 Such a view, of course, ignores human agency, and the complex ways through which social actors appropriated paper, ink, and pen to suit their purpose. Of course, Carol Rose is right in suggesting that property is communicative, but the important point here is that it not only communicates exclusion, but also social relations, identities, and conflicts; indeed, for property to be communicative at all, it had to communicate, and represent, other aspects of the lifeworld as well. Writing did not have an insular social logic, but was used by individuals and social groups in a wide variety of ways to defend their material and symbolic interests. Let us take an instance here. On 2 April 1723 (7 Rajab 1135 A.H.), Saiyad Muhammad Rafi filed a suit against his brother charging him with fraudulent possession of a house in Mallawan. In his defense, his brother, Saiyad Muhammad Faruq, produced the gift deed from its original owner, who had gifted the house to him. The plaintiff asked the court to let him examine it, and when it was handed over to him, he immediately consigned it to fire, and, in an instant, ‘the document was reduced to ashes’. The plaintiff perhaps could clearly see that the written document was the final arbiter, but from his extreme reaction, we also get a sense of his helplessness in the face of the written text. In what serves as an interesting example of the creative use of writing by social actors, the defendant thereupon brought into existence another written document, one that recorded the event, and the destruction of the gift deed. Signed by sixteen witnesses, it served as a legal instrument, providing him with legitimate claims over the disputed house.36
The qāzi’s court, the local elites, and transactions in property It is of course true that ‘pragmatic literacy’ was becoming more important with time, and this was, among other reasons, also because it was facilitated and encouraged by the agencies of the state. The Mughals were an empire of paper, and assisted by the clerical castes and the lower bureaucracy, they created a culture
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).
B. P. Saxena (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records (U.P. State Records Series), vol. I, doc. 5 (Allahabad, 1955), pp. 4–5.
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of record-keeping, which extended from the state chancellery to the households of the ordinary subjects. The written document enjoyed a legal and an epistemic privilege, more so if it had the symbolic presence of the state. Even a cursory look at the extant documents would reveal that most transactions of property required state ratification; the seal and signature of the local qāzi, and in several instances the mufti, provided not only state endorsement to the transaction, but also accorded it social approval. Indeed, we see a few extant documents in which the seal of the qāzi was conspicuously absent, and in one rare instance found in the Bhandari collection, we see a transaction in property that was validated not by the local qāzi, but a local corporate body, the panch, or, as the text states, by ‘the juridical authority (munsiﬁ) of the panchan’.37 However, instances such as these were not quite as frequent in the early modern period. In the Vrindavan collection of documents, Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee came across several cases where the panch is seen as selling property to interested persons, but even these transactions required the validation of the local qāzi.38 The conspicuous role of the state in property transactions clearly reflects the flux and instability that marked property relations, for it was the potential for discord and strife that created spaces for state intervention in the localities. Even as state ratification was becoming increasingly important in property transactions, we should still be careful in how we read its significance. A careful scrutiny of the extant documents actually reveals that even though the documents required the seal and signature of the qāzi, the involvement of the state did not weaken the social associations of property. This was owing to the fact that the state worked in alliance with the local power relations. The qāzi’s approval to property transfers occurred only after he had been assured of the consent of the power-holders, and the compact of rule between the state and the local power relations was institutionalized in the procedures of property transactions. For one, all transactions in property required the consent of at least two members, presumably influential, of the local community and/or the residential units, called the muhalla. I had noticed that to be the case in western India from a scrutiny of the Cambay documents and the papers found in the Surat collection.39 It 37
Doc. 39, Bhandari collection, cited in Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, p. 91.
Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee, ‘Land Rights in the Reign of Akbar: The Evidence of the Sale-deeds of Vrindavan and Aritha’, PIHC, 50th session, Gorakhpur, 1989, pp. 236–55; also see Irfan Habib, ‘Braj Bhum in Mughal Times’, PIHC, 70th session, Delhi, 2009, pp. 266–84.
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 91–109.
28 Paper, Performance, and the State
appears from the documents in the Bhandari collection that the procedure was no different in Punjab.40 Described in the documents as ‘sureties’ (zāmin or kafīl), they validated the legal authenticity of the transaction, and undertook to make good the claims of the injured party, in case the transaction was found to be illegal or invalid. Since they consented to make good the losses that would incur to the purchaser in case ‘the claims of the deponent were found to be false (bātil) and inadmissible (na-masmu’)’,41 they had to be propertied men themselves, presumably with substantial assets of their own. Clearly, every transaction of property served to reiterate the authority of the power-holders in the locality. Since all transactions of property required their consent, by way of a standard practice, they also served to regulate property relations. In a way, what this suggests is that property retained its pre-existing communicative attributes, and its entangled relations with the life world, even as it was ostensibly taking ‘modern’, rational forms, based in the culture of written records, induced and encouraged by the paper empire of the Mughals. The authority of the local elites in regulating property relations is further suggested from the large number of persons from the locality who signed as witnesses (shāhid/ gawāh) on the property sale deed. Of course, in Mughal juridical practice, only those with power and resources counted as witnesses, and when they signed on property papers they actually gave their assent to the resultant change in property relations. These witnesses – addressed as sāhis in western India, and shāhid or gawāh in Punjab – largely came from the community/kin group of the deponent and/or his muhalla. The numbers of witnesses signing the property deeds were usually quite large, and in the Cambay documents, we have several documents where the number of witnesses ran into two-digit figures.42 In one instance, there were as many as forty-seven witnesses (sāhis) signing a sale deed.43 By providing, or withholding, their signatures to property deeds influential persons within the caste–occupational groups and the corporate muhalla regulated property relations in the localities. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, property transactions required the seal and signature of the local qāzi, and in several instances the mufti as well. The formal assent of the local agents of the state – the qāzi and the mufti – was 40
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History.
See, for example, Cambay Documents, NAI, 2702/5 & 2702/8. The translated text of one such document is found in Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 106–08.
Cambay Documents, 2702/4, NAI.
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necessary for the ratification of a property transaction, but the qāzi provided his seal of approval only after the transaction had been accepted by the local powerholders, in particular the caste heads and the leaders in the corporate muhalla. Property relations were tightly controlled and regulated by what I described in my earlier work as ‘the community-muhalla network of power relations’.44 The practice was well established in Mughal India, and property alienations required the assent of local power-holders. Documents of property purchases in the Bhandari collection are signed by a large number of witnesses. Influential and powerful in their localities, their consent – registered through their signatures – was a prerequisite for the ratification of the transaction by the state.45 It is reflective of the extent to which the state in localities was intertwined with the local power relations that, in a couple of documents in the Bhandari collection, we notice the petty officials signing with the local power-holders among the witnesses to the transaction.46 Interestingly, there are documents in the collection where we see a woman standing – but not signing – as a witness to a deed of property alienation. When the three sons of one Ananta, Pala, Kirpala, and Chinta, sold their mansion (havelī) in Batala to Saha Chand, the sale deed was signed by sixteen witnesses, and one of the persons signing on the list was Muhammad Arif, who was signing on behalf of a woman, respectfully mentioned in the document as ‘Bibi’, a title that reflects her respectable position in society.47 Women regularly purchased and sold property, lodged plaints, and defended suits at the qāzi’s courts.48 We should not lose sight of the complex levels of negotiations and the deep, intense participation that went into the creation of documents of transactions in property. Writing was used by social actors in a wide variety of ways, and for different sets of objectives – sometimes to reinforce the social order, on other occasions to disrupt it. Once we take a close look at property documents, we find striking ways through which a written document served to inscribe social identities, revealed local power relations, deepened affect and emotions in the household, and created spaces for struggles and contestations. A property document was not just a product 44
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 91–109.
For the text of these sale deeds, see Grewal, In the Bye-Lanes of History.
See, for example, Grewal, In the Bye-Lanes of History, doc. I, pp. 101–09.
Ibid., doc. I, pp. 101–09.
For women’s control over property in the Mughal period, see Hasan, State and Locality, pp. 71–90. Also see Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee, Braj Bhum in Mughal Times: The State, Peasants and Gosa’ins (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2020), pp. 109–25.
30 Paper, Performance, and the State
of a social process, but was in itself a social activity. It served to communicate the social life world, and not just claims to resources or even bureaucratized orderliness. Indeed, despite the growing use of written documents, property in early modern South Asia continued to imbibe social relationships; it communicated not just exclusion (as suggested by Rose for early modern England), but also the other social-affective and communitarian aspects of the life world of society. Let us take some examples. In 1689–90, three brothers of the Julka khatri caste sold their mansion (havelī) in Batala (in Punjab) for forty-eight and half rupees to another person of their own caste. The havelī was located in the Muhalla-iJulkian, a locality inhabited by the Julka khatris; the transaction was among the members of the same caste group, and did not weaken the exclusive character of the locality in question.49 In line with several other documents of the period, the sale deed reveals how the social boundaries of the community and the physical boundaries of the locality (muhalla) were often entwined with each other. The exchange of property either by sale (bai‘) or through other means rarely disrupted ‘the community-muhalla compact of power relations’. The details of the sale deed should not concern us here, but, like most other documents of this type, it is marked by the lurking presence of bodies: the bodies of the vendors, vendees, and the sureties; under the heading ‘physical description’ (huliya), there is a thick description of their bodily features. One of the vendors is described thus: ‘The vendor Chinta, with wheatish complexion, broad forehead and wide-set eyebrows, dark-grey eyes, high nose, grey whiskers, and holes pierced through both ear-lobes, adult, aged approximately sixty five years.’ The sale deed is ratified by about thirty-eight witnesses. If we add to this the number of sureties, vendors, vendees, and so on, we can be sure that the document was circulated among at least fifty persons before it was sealed and signed by the qāzi; clearly, as the document was passed on from one person to another, it must have come across as a social activity, one that reaffirmed – and destabilized – identities, interests, and power relations. Interestingly, among those who ratified the sale deed, sixteen affixed their signatures in Persian, and the remaining – about a dozen – preferred to do so in the local Landa script. The choice of script was perhaps deliberate; it was linked with the social identity of the witnesses. They defined their identity by letting the script – that is writing – become the medium for the articulation of difference. Among those signing in Persian were the powerful men in the localities – the local officials (for example, qānungo), community heads, muhalla leaders, and 49
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, doc. I, pp. 97–109, for the facsimile of the document, refer to p. 385.
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so on – however, there were others too who registered their presence but found that their agency had been quickly appropriated by the forces of literacy: in and through the act of writing. As mentioned earlier, ‘Bibi’ stood as a witness to the transaction, but she was represented by Muhammad Arif, who signed on her behalf. Similarly, among those standing witness to the transaction, we come across a gardener (bāghbān) whose presence is registered in the text by Anup Rai Julka, signing on his behalf.50 Clearly, even as the document is an inclusive one, marked by the traces of the presence of a woman and socially inferior men, literacy serves to reproduce gender, caste, and class hierarchies. The access to writing allowed the elites to annex the agency of subordinate social groups, and reaffirm their right to control and represent them. However, if literacy affirms relations of power, there are visible traces in the property documents of resistance as well. Lacking writing skills, merchants and artisans asserted their agency – and left behind the traces of their presence in the text – by taking recourse to the language of floral and geometrical signs. In the Batala collection, there is a sale deed concluded in the early nineteenth century in which two brothers, goldsmiths by vocation, sold their ancestral shop in a market called Bāzār-i-kalān in Batala (Punjab). The attestations on the margins by the witnesses – all of them goldsmiths (zargar) – are marked by a floral design, representing their caste–occupational identity.51 In the same collection, we come across similar property documents where cobblers, dyers, masons, carpenters, goldsmiths, and printers attested property documents, and provided their consent not by verbal signs, but through floral or geometric marks representing their caste-occupational identity.52 Cognitively distinct from linguistic signs, these marks were still part of a signifying practice, where a mark was tied to other marks in the constitution of meanings; more importantly, these decorative marks together defined themselves as ‘the other’ of the written word. Their invocation in the documents reflected the agency of the subordinate social groups, and their contestatory relations with the dominant, literate elites. It is interesting that the practice of recording the physical description (huliya) of litigants/legal agents (wakils)/witnesses in legal transactions did not exclude women, and I came across several such documents in western India where the margin or the back of the document (zimn) contained brief but rich description of women involved in transactions of property. Interestingly, documents found 50
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, doc. IV, pp. 131–37, for the facsimile, see p. 388.
For marks by cobblers, masons, and tent-makers on property documents, see, for instance, ibid., doc. XXIII, pp. 247–48.
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in the Vrindavan temple collections also bear quite similar descriptions of women appearing before the qāzi without an agent (wakil) to accompany them. In one such transaction of 1669, noticed by Irfan Habib, this is how Ms Isarwi is described: Physical Appearance: Ms. Isarwi, deponent. Wheatish complexion. Broad forehead. Wide eyebrows. Eyes, dark grey. High nose. One black mole on left cheek. Age about fifty years.53
A property document was a social text and had a relevance that went beyond the details of the transaction. As a text, it provided a space for the articulation, reiteration, and rejection of social hierarchies, community boundaries, and power relations. In certain extant documents, the social – and performative – elements are highlighted by floral and geometric designs and markings, in a display of visuality that was cognitively separate and removed from the word written on paper. Clearly, paper in Mughal India retained its associations with the social life world from which it originated, and of which it remained an integral component. In certain other documents, as we saw, it is the choice of script that serves to reinforce – and constitute – identities and communities. In a large number of these documents, the sureties and the witnesses inscribe their attestations in multilingual registers.54 There are several extant documents that reveal other interesting practices through which the local power-holders retained their regulating powers over property. When the claims of a property-holder was disputed, he would make a formal announcement concerning his property claims, and circulate it among the influential persons in the localities asking them to confirm the veracity of his claims. Described in the sources as mahzar-nāma or istishhād-nāma, these declarative texts served to reinforce the powers of the local power-holders over property relations by inviting them to verify the real facts (surat-i-hāl/surat-i-ahwāl) and sign on the document in confirmation (tasdīq).55 The mahzar/mahzarnāma was an important documentary form in Islamic juridical practice, but, as has been shown by Nandini Chatterjee, its use as ‘a legal document of testimony’ that was ‘endorsed in writing by members of the local community and/or the professional/ social contacts of person(s) writing the document, and notarized by the seal of a qāzi’ was a distinctive feature of the Indo-Islamic legal order.56 53
Habib and Mukherjee, Braj Bhum in Mughal Times, pp. 118–19.
See, for example, docs. I (pp. 97–99), III (pp. 123–24), V (pp. 139–40), and VI (p. 147) in Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History.
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, p. 39.
Nandini Chatterjee, ‘Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires; The Uses of an Indo-Islamic Legal Form’, CSSH, 58, no. 2 (April 2016), pp. 379–406.
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Indeed, these texts once again draw our attention to the inter-penetration between performativity and pragmatic literacy. As the document travelled from one potential endorser to another, with some signing and others refusing to do so, it served to combine performance with literacy, and the written with the nonverbal communication in the constitution of meaning. Even among those who endorsed the claim, the choice of scripts, the application of marks and designs, and so on, marked out the document as a social event, forging, contesting, and modifying relations, identities, and local power relations. In a mahzar found in the Batala collection we find about one hundred attestations, with some signing in Persian and others in Devanagri, Landi, and Gurmukhi scripts.57 The multilingual nature of the document reveals how language had come to be appropriated by social agents to articulate community identities; at the same time, it also serves to indicate to us the surplus of meanings inhering in property documents. The mahzar was brought into existence when one Dayal Das decided to reclaim the havelī in Batala that he had mortgaged in favour of Jai Kishan and Kishan Dayal, and dispatched one Gobind Jas Jio to discuss the matter. The mortgagees refused to vacate the house, but this was not the issue of concern in the mahzar; it was the insult and humiliation that Gobind Jio faced at the hands of the mortgagees that the interested persons were asked to testify: ‘During the discussion, they [the mortgagees] insulted Gobind Jas Jio. Nobody had ever humiliated him this way, and their behaviour has undermined his sense of honour and reputation.’58 Clearly, property transactions were suffused with sensory excess, and the written word was invoked not only to address issues of matter (‘property’), but also emotional injuries and insults to honour. The document ends by exhorting the concerned persons to verify and validate the claim of the deponent: ‘whoever is aware of this event, should not withhold his testimony; he should affix the proof of his evidence on this piece of paper.’59 Given the persistent evidence of social regulations in property transactions, we should bear in mind that these transactions were deeply socialized activities and rarely, if ever, occurred within a purely commodity frame of reference, that is, within an impersonal, ‘object-centred’ and calculative frame of reference. Indeed, property was not a commodity, and transfers in property were marked by the constraints of sociality. From evidence of widespread purchase and sale of urban property in Mughal India, we have rather hastily presumed that 57
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, doc. XXXIII, pp. 303–07.
Ibid. My translation differs slightly from the one by Grewal.
34 Paper, Performance, and the State
property had become a commodity in Mughal India carrying an exchange value that could be measured in objective and impersonal terms. My examination of property documents in western India revealed that the transfers of property through purchase, sale, and other means occurred within the community/kin and muhalla networks. The community-muhalla compact of power relations, as it were, regulated property transactions and, in the seventeenth–eighteenth centuries, if not later, most instances of property transfers were intra-community/ caste affairs.60 In the sale deeds preserved in the Bhandari collection, the vendors and the vendees usually come from the same caste-occupational groups, but there are several documents in the collection belonging to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that apparently violate the socially acceptable practice. There is, for example, a sale deed belonging to 1808–09 that refers to Muslim shaikhzadas selling their shop in the market (called Bazār-i-kalān) in Batala to a Hindu khatri goldsmith.61 There are several mortgage deeds in the collection where we see socially inferior Muslims – the widow and the son of an oil-presser (kunjadgar),62 cobbler (kafsh-doz),63and dyer64 – mortgaging their properties to the prosperous and upwardly mobile khatri merchants, with whom they had patron–client relations.65 As dominant moneylenders in the locality, these merchants had patronage relations with these groups, providing them credit and sustenance in times of need. These documents point towards the unsettling effects of vertical linkages on property relations. It seems that property did not usually move out of community or caste groups easily, and when it did, one of the forces that prompted the change was the shift in the vertical patron–client bonds. Indeed, property was a site where the sources of horizontal solidarities were in constant stress from the vertical linkages that emerged out of patronage relations.
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, doc. III, pp. 123–24.
The document belongs to 1782–83; Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History, doc. XIII, pp. 187–88.
Ibid., doc. XXI, pp. 237–38.
Ibid., doc. XXIII, pp. 247–48.
Ibid., p. 44.
Property and Social Relations 35
‘Pragmatic literacy’ and the legal–sacral system: fluid spaces and the surplus of meanings The steady growth in ‘pragmatic literacy’, and the accompanying diffusion of written documents for administrative, economic, and fiscal reasons, did not succeed in investing the juridical system with any concreteness and predictability. Elsewhere in my work on state–society relations in western India, I had argued that shari‘at was a normative system that was widely shared in the local society, among Hindus and Muslims alike. This was because it was both flexible and ambivalent, and was closely integrated with the local customary usages. Its plasticity allowed the social actors to buckle it in locally relevant contexts, and to deploy it as a symbolic weapon in their symbolic and material struggles.66 Carrying the argument forward, I now seek to suggest that the fluidity in shari‘at was crucially enabled by its location in the hybrid space brought into existence by the mutually constitutive relations between orality and literacy. Property disputes occurred within the framework of shared norms and values, but this shared space was constituted and reproduced in practice by the imbrication of literacy with oral cultures and local performative traditions. Property was a site of sociability, a space for the articulation of social solidarities. It was a crucial marker of social identity, and within the caste-occupational groups, a symbol of the place of the person and her or his household within the community. Controlled and regulated by local power-holders, property relations imbibed the conflicts between the elites and the subordinate social groups. Once we see property as a conflictual site, we realize the considerable ambiguities that marked property relations in Mughal India. Indeed, one source of ambiguity resulted from the distinction between ‘ownership’ (milkiyat) and ‘possession’ (tasarruf or qabz). In the sale deeds, the distinction is often affirmed when the vendor alienates in favour of the vendee both his ‘proprietary rights’ and ‘possession’ (qabz-o-tasarruf), thereby indicating that the two were not one and the same thing. In the mortgage deeds, in contrast, the mortgagee (murtahan) is usually assured of ‘possession’, but without any proprietary rights. Such was also the case in instances where the object mortgaged was not a house or a plot of land, but a slave. Men of substance gave away in pledge (rahn) not just their immovable assets but also their slaves (ghūlam) and concubines (kanizak).67 These were instances of temporary alienation where 66
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
The case of the temporary alienation of a slave by his master comes to us from one of the documents in Abul Qasim Namkin, Munsha’at-i-Namkin, ed. Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli, doc. 229, pp. 353–54.
36 Paper, Performance, and the State
the beneficiary enjoyed the services of the slave without actually claiming to own her or him; ownership is evidently separated from usufruct here. Just like any other form of property, a slave was not a commodity, and an instance such as this, where a slave is pledged and not sold off, probably indicates some reluctance in the household to part with the slave. There was certainly considerable ambiguity in property relations concerning the distinction between ‘ownership’ (milkiyat) and the ‘rights’ (haqq) that one could claim from it. The ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ were often a function of the form of property over which one exercised proprietary rights. To take an example found in the Surat documents, a Hindu woman whose spouse had purchased four shops attached to a mosque in Surat was not allowed to exercise the ‘right’ to appropriate the rents from them, even as, under the provisions of the shari‘at, as she argued before the local qāzi, the sale deed (bai‘) provided the purchaser an unqualified control over the purchased property.68 This is just one instance among many that serve to highlight the deep entanglement of property relations in strife and conflict. Examining these conflicts in western India, I have argued in one of my earlier works that the shari‘at provided a shared space for the incessant negotiations and tenuous resolution of these conflicts. In the above case, for example, we see that the Muslim believers, in disputing the claims of the ‘Hindu woman’ over the rents from the shops, were arguing that the shops were an extension of the mosque, and since the mosque was God’s property, entrusted, under shari‘a, to the custody of the community (umma), the purchaser should part with their rent in favour of the mosque.69 Her defence was also placed within the space of the shari‘at, for she argued that the shops had been bought by her deceased spouse, and, under shari‘a, a transaction of sale (bai‘) provided the purchaser an absolute and unconditional access to the property. Both sides to the conflict invoked shari‘a, and in seeking to protect their claims over the disputed property, both the litigants appropriated the shari‘a by manipulating its ambiguities and contradictions.
Ms Blochet, Supplementary Pers., 482, BN, ff. 47(b)–48(b); for details, see Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 66–67.
The shops had been bought by the spouse of the defendant during the famine of 1630– 32, when, presumably, the mosque had fallen into disuse, and there were no revenues coming from the shops either. After the decease of her spouse, the rents from the shops began to resume once again, now that the famine was over; she now refused to part with any share of the income from rents in favour of the mutawalli or the person-incharge of the mosque (ibid.).
Property and Social Relations 37
The case highlights the extent to which shari‘at was implicated in power relations. The shari‘at was inherently malleable and ambiguous, and this allowed it to assimilate local customary practices, and emerge in time as a shared normative system. Even so, it could ensure neither consent nor harmony. Property conflicts were rampant in urban centres, but these conflicts occurred within the space of the shari‘at, with social actors manipulating its ambiguities, silences, and contradictions to defend their rights in property. Recast in locally relevant terms, the shari‘at provided a shared, if still contested, space for the incessant negotiations and tenuous resolution of property conflicts in the early modern period.70
Conclusion A property document was marked by a superfluity of meanings. It carried on its surface traces of familial affects and obligations, caste-occupational identities, social contestations and conflicts, and relations of power. Once we are attentive to these multifarious signs, we can recognize the social nature of property and its role in signifying relationships. Clearly, it is erroneous to see property in the Mughal period within an object-centred frame of reference, particularly in view of the overwhelming evidence of its socialization. The growing dependence of social actors on the written documents does not indicate the development of an unvarying ‘literate mentality’; the documents combined ‘practical literacy’ with performativity in the creation of meanings. Writing was used by social actors in a wide variety of ways – sometimes to contest the social order; more often, to reinforce it.71 Urban assets – shops, houses, havelis, gardens, and so on – in early modern South Asia constituted a social space that served to reproduce familial bonds, community ties, and caste identities. Furthermore, the possession of property hierarchically embedded the subject into the patrimonial state, and there were, therefore, intricate connections between property relations and the practices of the state. Deeply entangled with power and identity, property was a lived
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, chs 4 and 5.
For a comparison with south India, see Timothy Lubin, ‘The Theory and Practice of Property in Premodern South Asia: Disparities and Convergences,’ JESHO 61, nos. 5–6 (August 2018), pp. 801–48. Also see the excellent piece by Faisal Chaudhry, ‘Property and Its Rule (in Late Indo-Islamicate and Early Colonial) South Asia: What’s in a Name?’ JESHO 61, nos. 5–6 (August 2018), pp. 918–73.
38 Paper, Performance, and the State
space – or in the language of Henri Lefebvre, ‘differential space’72 – where social actors made conflicting claims and counterclaims, rendering the space ambiguous and multivalent in its symbolic and imaginary excess. Explaining ‘differential space’, Lefebvre says: The more carefully one examines space, considering it not only with the eyes, not only with the intellect, but also with all the senses, with the total body, the more clearly one becomes aware of the conflicts at work within it, conflicts which foster the explosion of abstract space and the production of a space that is other.73
As a ‘differential space’, property had a presence that went beyond its material form, and was symbolically and ideologically apprehended in and through the realms of the household, community/caste associations, and the state. Indeed, while these institutions constrained agency, property in its materiality and excess was imbued with shifting and ever-changing meanings resulting from contested spatial practices and histories of representations. Emerging from the dialectics of desire, the symbolic–ideological meanings of a property could not be fully captured in and through ‘signs’, for these meanings were suffused with sensory excess. Even so, there are traces of ‘senses’ in the ‘signs’ as well. Looking at the property documents within their entangled relations with the oral–performative culture, we get a glimpse – if, still, partial and suspect – of the symbolic, ideological, and sensory means of apprehension of property in the Mughal period. Critiquing the commodity frames of reference, I have looked at property not within an economic logic, but as a set of practices that served to structure and reconfigure social relations. Looking at the extant property documents as open-ended texts, suffused with sensory and affect laden presences, I argue here that property was not simply an index of wealth, but a medium through which social relations and identities were affirmed, contested, and reproduced. Owing to the identification of property with the honour of families and caste groups, transactions in property were usually socially regulated activities, and bore the imprint of power relations. Property documents were imbued with a surplus of meanings, and this was because the literate–scribal tradition in Mughal India co-existed with an oral–performative culture. Paper and pen served to create a space in which social actors both reproduced and challenged the prevailing relations of power. 72
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2007).
Ibid., p. 391.
3 Law as Contested Communication Literacy, Performativity, and the Legal Order*
In line with the arguments delineated in the preceding chapter, the aim here is to explore legal activities in sociocultural spaces, and to look at law within its social settings. I argue that law was a form of contested communication, and we should read legal activity against the backdrop of emergent spaces of intersubjective communication where social actors engaged with each other’s norms and values, experiences and aspirations. It is for this reason that I am inclined to see the legal order as constituting a public sphere, and a space where laws were redefined, traditions were ‘invented’, and notions of justice were elaborated by the elites and socially inferior groups. In order to perceive these developments, we need to remind ourselves that the legal order was crucially shaped by initiatives from below, and we get an inadequate picture if we keep the spotlight on the imperial court, legal–sacral texts, and the literate practices of the state. In trying to make sense of social communication in legal spaces, it is important to bear in mind that even as the Mughal empire was an enormous paper regime, and their rule saw a rapid expansion in ‘pragmatic literacy’, literacy interpenetrated with oral traditions in shaping the legal order in localities. One effort here is to look for their traces in the extant documents and see the extent to which orality and performativity accompanied and encircled the state’s literate juridical practices. While I eschew state determinism, I still believe that the communications between the state, the local power-holders, and juridical bodies were crucial to the reproduction of the legal order. These communications, I argue, served to push the state, through initiatives from below, into a position of juridical primacy, for the state was not just seen as the mediator between competing norms and
This chapter is revised version of the following paper: ‘Law as Contested Communication: Literacy, Performativity and the Legal Order in the Mughal Empire’, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 8, no. 2 (June 2019), pp. 396–413.
40 Paper, Performance, and the State
laws, but also considered as the protector of the shared normative system. In the towns and villages, the state agents in localities – the qāzi’s court (‘adālat), the kotwāl’s platform (chabutra), the mutasaddi’s establishment (darbār), and so on – provided the space for the institution, reproduction, and contestation of shared norms and values. To study the legal order, we cannot afford to ignore the state, but the state should itself be seen as a social formation, constituted and reproduced in the legal spaces by incessant, if contested, communications with the social forces. Unfortunately, the legal system in the Mughal period has largely been studied within an imperial, institutional frame of reference, and in most well-known works, the legal order is represented as part of the grand narrative of the unifying, centralizing thrust of the Mughal empire.1 The dominant tendency is to identify the legal order with the state, and for most historians, it could not have been otherwise, given the centralized and bureaucratic structure of Mughal imperial rule in South Asia.2 The inadequacies of these formulations are evident to scholars oriented towards regions and localities, and their work reveals a vastly plural legal order, in
Given the extraordinary fecundity of this interpretation, not all the works can be cited here, but see in particular: Ibn Hasan, The Central Structure of the Mughal Empire (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1980, 2nd ed.); P. Saran, The Provincial Government of the Mughals (London: Asia Publishing House, 1973); John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) ; I. H. Qureshi, The Administration of the Mughal Empire (New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 2004, repr.); Rafat M. Bilgrami, Religious and Quasi-Religious Departments of the Mughals (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984); Waheed Husain, Administration of Justice during the Muslim Rule In India (Delhi: Idarah-I Adabiyat-I Delhi, 1977, repr.); B. S. Jain, Administration of Justice in Seventeenth Century India (Delhi: Metropolitan Book Company, 1970); Muhammad Basheer Ahmad, The Administration of Justice in Medieval India (Aligarh: Historical Research Institute, Aligarh Muslim University, 1941); Satya Prakash Sangar, Crime and Punishment in Mughal India (Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd., 1967). Also see Rezavi, ‘Civil Law and Justice in Mughal Gujarat’; Zameeruddin Siddiqui, ‘The Institution of the Qazi under the Mughals’, Medieval India: A Miscellany, vol. I (Aligarh, 1969), pp. 240–59; and Bhatia, The Ulema, Islamic Ethics and Courts under the Mughals.
For the debates on the nature of the Mughal state, see Alam and Subrahmanyam, The Mughal State; Alam and Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World; Hermann Kulke (ed.), The State in India, 1000–1700 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Law as Contested Communication 41
which the state was at best one among several judicial institutions.3 Inspired by the concept of ‘legal pluralism’, these historians describe the Mughal legal order as enjoying a plural space and multiple jurisdictions. Their studies coalesce with the arguments of scholars of legal pluralism, who are interested in exploring the forces of heterogeneity in juridical spaces across the world. One could here take the case of Lauren Benton, who has, in her influential work on the global legal order, argued that the development of colonialism the world over has seen a shift from a plural legal order to a state-centred legal order.4 With a much finer focus on laws in South Asia, Werner Menski has suggested that the legal order was historically shaped by communications among three plural sources of law: local customs and traditions, state laws, and religious/cultural norms.5 To these, he has in his later work included international laws, developing what he terms as ‘the kite model of law’ with its four corners constituting the legal order.6 The advocates of legal pluralism are right when they critique the state-centrist models for ignoring socially embedded forces. Legal diversity is the starting point of my study, but I examine court papers for this diversity within its historical, changing context. Indeed, not all forms of legal pluralism are alike, and plural systems also have a history; they change even as they remain plural. In seeking to situate legal pluralism within a context informed by historical change, I focus on the juridical spaces of the state, in particular the engagements between state-appointed officials and the community and caste heads, and local legal bodies existing within those spaces. Examining these engagements, I suggest that in the reproduction of the plural legal order the inclusive, if contentious, spaces of the state played a crucial role. At the 3
See, for example, Nandita Prasad Sahai, ‘Collaboration and Conflict: Artisanal Jati Panchayats and the Eighteenth Century Jodhpur State’, The Medieval History Journal 5, no. 1 (2002), pp. 77–101; Nandita Prasad Sahai, ‘Artisans, the State and the Politics of Wajabi in Eighteenth Century Rajasthan’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review (IESHR) 42, no. 1 (2005), pp. 41–68; N. Chatterjee, ‘Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires’; Nandini Chatterjee, ‘Reflections on Religious Difference and Permissive Inclusion in Mughal Law’, Journal of Law and Religion 28, no. 3 (2014), pp. 393–415; Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History; Benton and Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires.
Werner Menski, Comparative Law in a Global Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 2nd ed.); Werner Menski, Hindu Law: Beyond Tradition and Modernity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Werner Menski, ‘Flying Kites in a Global Sky: New Models of Jurisprudence’, SocioLegal Review 7 (2011), pp. 1–22.
42 Paper, Performance, and the State
same time, I also draw attention to the development of literacy, and the congruent changes in oral and performative traditions in shaping the nature of legal pluralism. Focusing on a set of case studies from the Mughal period, my work seeks to situate legal pluralism within its shifting, historical dynamic. However, before I do so, let me first briefly discuss the historiography on the subject, and also my points of critique.
The legal order in Mughal historiography: from state centrism to legal pluralism There are deep problems with the state-centrist formulations, some obvious, others less so. For one, the legal domain in the Mughal period was in excess of the state; and even as the state could have been an important component of the legal field, it did not exhaust the field. The state order of rule did not encompass the entirety of the legal order, and there were a range of social actors that cluttered the legal space. In South Asian historiography, state legal centrism emanates from the anxiety to represent the Mughal state as a ‘quasi-modern’ formation,7 a worthy predecessor of the modern nation state. In seeking to represent the Mughal state as a modern political structure – ‘rational’ and ‘bureaucratic’ – historians have also argued that the legal order was based on an evolved and mature literate tradition, which was supported and strengthened by the state. Indeed, they largely reject, and rightly so, the appropriateness of applying Weber’s model of ‘kadi justice’8 to the Mughal state, and argue that the legal order in the period was not ad hoc and arbitrary, but was shaped and moulded by understandings and procedures that had been systematically etched out on paper in and through written texts. Even so, Mughal historians, as also historians working on other early modern Islamic empires,9 still see the state as the primary actor in the legal domain, but argue that its agency was not ad hoc, but bound by the strength of an evolved literate–legal tradition. 7
One of the influential historians of the ‘Aligarh school’, M. Athar Ali, has, in his wellknown piece on the Mughal state, termed the Mughal empire as a ‘quasi-modern state’. M. Athar Ali, ‘Towards and Interpretation of the Mughal Empire’, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (JRAS) no. 1 (1978), pp. 38–49.
Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 976–78; also see Sharyn L. Roach Anleu, Law and Social Change (California: Sage Publications, 2009).
I have in mind the extremely rich and expanding literature on the social history of law in the Ottoman empire; see, for example, Peirce, Morality Tale; Tucker, In the House of the Law; Jennings, Christians and Muslims in Ottoman Cyprus; Gerber, State, Society and Law in Islam.
Law as Contested Communication 43
For the advocates of legal centrism then, the legal order was not capricious and arbitrary, but worked within the constraints of the legal–literate tradition. State determinism goes hand in glove with textual centrism, and there is a propensity among Mughal historians to look at the legal system from the prism of textual tradition – the legal–sacral texts, religious commentaries, imperial orders, and so on.10 It is certainly true that the Mughal period saw a remarkable expansion in legal–sacral knowledge in South Asia, and legal commentaries and works on legal–sacral texts proliferated in the period.11 There was also an attempt to ‘codify’ the sunni Hanafi law in the reign of Aurangzeb, leading to the composition of an important legal text, a legal compendium, the Fatāwa-i ‘Ālamgirī .12 While these are significant developments, we need to bear in mind the difference between legal practice and the textual legal tradition. I do not wish to suggest that the two domains – texts and practice – were unrelated to each other, but argue instead that the relations between them were contingent and evershifting. This was perhaps because the textual tradition was fluid and malleable, and could be invoked to support a wide variety of contested and shared meanings and interpretations. The literate tradition was not only invoked but also advanced in the course of court activity in localities. Examining the local qāzi’s archive, we can apparently see that the judicial system involved a substantial use of pen and paper, but the important point is that juridical literacy co-existed with, and was 10
For the literate tradition in Islamic law, see Wael Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Wael Hallaq, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Peri Bearman and Rudolph Peters (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Islamic Law (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2014); Peri Bearman, Rudolph Peters and Frank E. Vogel (eds.), The Islamic School of Law (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Law School, 2005).
K. A. Nizami, Hayat-I Shaikh Muhaddith Dehlavi (Lahore: Urdu Bazaar, 1953, repr. 2016); S. A. A. Rizvi, Religious and Intellectual History of Muslims in Akbar’s Reign: With Special Reference to Abu’l Fazl, 1556–1605 (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975); Muhammad Ishaq, India’s Contribution to the Study of Hadith Literature (Dacca: University of Dacca Publications, 1955); Muhammad Aqeel, ‘Shaikh Abdul Haque’s Contribution to the Science of Hadith’, PhD dissertation (unpublished), Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, 2008; also see N. Chatterjee, ‘Reflections on Religious Difference’.
Alan M. Guenther, ‘Hanaﬁ Fiqh in Mughal India: The Fatāwa-i ‘Ālamgiri’, in Richard M. Eaton (ed.), India’s Islamic Traditions, 711–1750 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003); Mouez Khalfaui, ‘Together but Separate: How Muslim Scholars Conceived of Religious Plurality in South Asia in the Seventeenth Century’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 74, no. 1 (2011), pp. 87–96.
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presumably undercut by an encompassing oral and performative culture. Not only were there multiple legal orders, but in the Mughal qasbas and cities even the state legal order was vastly plural, engaged in communication with other legal orders, and their norms and values. What we have in Mughal India then is a deeply rooted legal pluralism that was driven and shaped by the plurality in each of the components of the plural legal order. This is an important distinction. In studying legal pluralism in the Mughal period, I argue here, we need to be attentive to the activity of the state, particularly the way it absorbed diverse norms and values, and interacted with the local power relations. As a space that was certainly plural, the state legal order was in communication with the other legal orders, working in time as a fulcrum around which pluralism was reproduced and negotiated among social actors. As against the state-determinist model, my work reiterates the case for legal pluralism,13 but modifies it by introducing two specific features that appeared to characterize the legal process in Mughal India. The first, as just mentioned, was that the legal process was crucially influenced by state activity, an activity that was marked by an active engagement with the social forces, and it is in this respect that I see state–society relations as crucial in historically shaping the patterns of legal 13
‘Legal Pluralism’ is a captivating field these days and scholars from a wide range of disciplines continue to contribute to the ever-expanding literature on the subject. For a study of legal pluralism within a global framework, see Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures; Benton and Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires; Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in Modern European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and M. B. Hooker, Legal Pluralism: An Introduction to Colonial and Neo-Colonial Laws (New York: Clarendon Press, 1975). For a theoretical discussion on the concept of legal pluralism, from anthropological and sociological perspectives, see John Griffiths, ‘What Is Legal Pluralism?’Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unoﬃcial Law 24, no. 1 (1986), pp. 1–55; Brian Z. Tamanaha, ‘A NonEssentialist Version of Legal Pluralism’, Journal of Law and Society 20, no. 2 (1993), pp. 192–217; and Gordon R. Woodman, ‘Legal Pluralism and the Search for Justice’, Journal of African Law 40, no. 2 (1996), pp. 152–67. For an interesting discussion on the histories of legal pluralism in the Islamic world, see the special issue on ‘Legal Pluralism in Muslim Majority Colonies: Mapping the Terrain’, Paolo Sartori and Ido Shahar (eds.), JESHO 55, nos. 4–5 (2012); and Baudouin Depret, Maurits Berger and Laila al-Zwaini (eds.), Legal Pluralism in the Arab World (The Hague, London and Boston: Kluwer Law International, 1999); and Ido Shahar, ‘Legal Pluralism and the Study of Shari‘a Courts’, Islamic Law and Society 15, no. 1 (2008), 112–41. Also see Ido Shahar, Legal Pluralism in the Holy City: Competing Courts, Forum Shopping and Institutional Dynamics (Farnham, Surrey [UK]: Ashgate, 2015).
Law as Contested Communication 45
pluralism in our period of study. The second feature was the entangled and complex relations between literacy and orality–performativity in the juridical spaces; the legal discourse was, of course, almost always inscribed on paper, but the written documents were produced, copied, and read out in an overwhelmingly oral and performative culture, rendering the word – written and inscribed on paper – susceptible to a pluralism of meanings driven by various networks of social communication. Interestingly, historians of the early colonial period, while exploring continuities and/or ruptures in the legal system, find that the early modern legal field was both multi-vocal and multiagential; the state was one among several agents that inhabited the juridical field. As mentioned earlier, Lauren Benton has argued that modern European imperial expansion everywhere was marked by the replacement of a plural legal order with a state-centred legal order. In South Asia, she points out, the establishment of British colonialism led to the replacement of a multiplicity of legal orders with a regulated and closely controlled order, under the control of the state. It is certainly not the case that legal pluralism disappeared with European colonialism in India or elsewhere, but came to be carefully ordered and regimented by the state. Benton sees this change as representing, borrowing John Griffith’s terms, a shift from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ pluralism.14 Working within a framework of global legal history, Benton makes a persuasive case for legal pluralism. However, since her work has European colonialism as its vantage point, the legal orders in the precolonial period come across as tangential to the more dramatic shifts occurring under European global domination; there is a tendency, perhaps more explicit in the case of South Asia than the other case studies she examines, to paint the precolonial period with a rather broad brush, as a homogenous and unvarying socio-legal formation. For Mughal historians, it is a challenge to not only study the legal order within a pluralist framework, but also attend to its changing, shifting context, and this is where most works on Mughal legal history are found wanting. An important exception in this context is the recent work by Nandini Chatterjee who viewed the legal system through the prism of a family of petty landlords (zamindārs) in the region of Malwa in central India, by following its fortunes for over a period of about four centuries, when the Mughals were replaced by the Marathas, and the latter by the British. By focusing on Mohan Das and his successors, she implicitly privileges agency over structure, and shows not how the system worked, but instead how the social actors used it to protect and promote 14
Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures; Griffiths, ‘What Is Legal Pluralism?’ pp. 1–55.
46 Paper, Performance, and the State
their interests and aspirations. One of the things that her work highlights is that this zamindāri family used both the legal structures and the means of coercion to enforce their control; given the association with or threats of violence, law was a ‘code of power’, and a ‘site for the legitimation of power’. This is an interesting point and forces us to ponder on the social base of the legal edifice in Mughal India. Even so, I also tend to think, and argue later in this chapter, that increasingly in our period, one notices a growing disassociation of the legal realms from force and violence. This was crucial to the transformation of legal spaces into forms of public sphere.15 The other interesting insight that her ‘micro-study of law’ offers is that there were spaces of negotiations in the legal order, and it was their skill in the art of negotiation in these spaces that explained the success of the family in protecting their landed interests in Malwa in central India. The jurisdictional jockeying that is evident from her work was a manifestation of the presence of multiple legal orders, and the freedom with which social actors flitted from one jurisdiction to another. At the same time, her work rightly points out that there were interconnections between legal practices and ‘academic jurisprudence’, but the important point here is that these connections were tenuous and ever-changing, and were not infrequently mediated through the agency of the state. The precise relations between local legal frameworks and the inter-imperial dispensations of Islamic law is an important problem, and we shall take it up in a later chapter. For our present purposes, the point to reiterate is that the legal order was based on multiple jurisdictions, and this allowed social actors to appropriate it to defend their interests and aspirations.16 Indeed, the legal order in the Mughal period was plural, but it was never bereft of flux and change, and it would be wrong to reduce Mughal pluralism to a uniform, unchanging system. Owing to the lack of detailed studies on legal activity in localities, as against the legal system, we are rather clueless when it comes to identifying the nature, the social implications, and the cultural attributes of legal pluralism in Mughal India. More importantly, how was ‘legal pluralism’ related to the political process under the Mughals? How did the plural legal orders coexist with state activity in the petty qasba, a town, or a city in the Mughal empire? How did the system of rule enable, constrain, or modify the ‘plural’ spaces in the legal field? These are the some of the important problems that are discussed in this chapter. 15
N. Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law.
Law as Contested Communication 47
Literacy, performativity, and the legal order: textual practices, embodied sensoria, and the judicial system In pursuing these questions, one must begin by posing a basic question: what was the meaning of law in our period of study? Scholars working on the Mughal period, as I mentioned earlier, often equate it with the voice of the state, and see it as an instrument for the implementation of state intentionality. One of the reasons for the wide acceptance of this view lies in the fact that historians, following Weber, equate law with enforceability, which requires the presence of a coercive force that can, in the words of Weber, ‘bring about compliance or avenge violation’.17 The element of enforcement is indeed important, but it is certainly erroneous to assume that the state was, in our period of study, the only coercive agency that could ensure compliance or punish infringements. In the Mughal period, the legal order was marked by diversity, and, however we define it, ‘law’ operated in contexts that were not exhausted by the state. Certainly, the state-centered approaches ignore the fuzzy boundaries of law; law cannot be isolated from social norms, ethics and morality, and local customs.18 I argue here that the legal order in Mughal India was based on what Eugen Ehrlich describes as ‘living law’.19 Drawing a distinction between ‘formal law’ and ‘living law’, he describes the latter as based on ‘the inner order of association’. Living law is, as he puts it, ‘the law which dominates life itself even though it has not been posited in legal propositions’.20 Entangled with social life, the laws were not rooted in abstract codes and doctrines, but were instead a form of communication among social actors engaged in negotiations and conflicts. Nonetheless, it would be erroneous to side-step the state, for increasingly during the seventeenth–eighteenth centuries, these contested communications occurred in the plural and multi-vocal spaces of the state.
Weber, Economy and Society, 34. According to Weber, law has to be ‘externally guaranteed by the probability that physical or psychological coercion will be applied by a staff or people in order to bring about compliance or avenge violation’ (ibid.).
Menski, Comparative Law in a Global Context; Menski, Hindu Law; Melissaris, Ubiquitous Law: Legal Theory and the Space for Legal Pluralism (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2009).
Eugen Ehrlich, Fundamental Principles of the Sociology of Law (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001, repr.); also see Marc Hertogh (ed.), Living Law: Reconsidering Eugen Ehrlich (Portland, OR: Hart Publishing, 2009).
Ehrlich, Fundamental Principles.
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In other words, it was not the will of the state, unilateral and autonomous, but the interactions between the state and the social actors in the localities that served to reproduce the legal order in the Mughal period. The expansion in literacy was not without significance, but just as we need to eschew state centrism, we also need to steer clear of textual determinism. Mughal historians usually see law as formally distinct and structurally delimited from other frameworks for the regulation of social lives. Entrapped in legal positivism, they consider the process of delimitation to reside in textual practice – the legal texts and commentaries, state orders and regulations, and so on. Often, even those among them who emphasize the diversity in the legal order, represent the legal order as based on a plurality of texts that served as the referential point in shaping each community’s juridical norms and practices. Indeed, the early modern period saw a rapid expansion in literacy, and there was a far more extensive use of pen and paper in the reproduction of the legal order than ever before in South Asian history.21 Certainly, in the Mughal period legal documents not only exponentially proliferated in terms of size and variety, but there had also come into existence rules, procedures, and norms for drafting them, and, of course, specialist clerical communities trained for the task.22 However, in a culture that was still largely aural, the written word – the text – did not enjoy semantic autonomy, but co-existed with orality and performativity in the reproduction of meaning. Textual, visual, and aural means of meaning apprehension worked together, and functioned within a shared epistemic space.
Orsini and Sheikh, After Timur Left; Thomas de Bruijn and Allison Busch (eds.), Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India (Leiden: Brill, 2014); For the effects of literacy in the Persianate cultures, see Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway (eds.), Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); and Nile Green (ed.), The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019). The nature and significance of literacy in early colonial south India have been studied by Bhavani Raman, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Kinra, Writing Self, Writing Empire; Alam and Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World; Kumkum Chatterjee, ‘Scribal Elites in Sultanate and Mughal Bengal’, IESHR 47, no. 4 (2010), pp. 445–72; Rajeev Kinra, ‘Master and Munshi: A Brahman Secretary’s Guide to Governance’, IESHR 47, no. 4 (2010), pp. 527–61; Rosalind O’Hanlon, ‘The Social World of Scribes: Brahmans, Kayasthas, and the Social Order in Early Modern India’, IESHR 47, no. 4 (2010), pp. 563–95.
Law as Contested Communication 49
Law was an ongoing, contested communication, one in which inter-textuality and inter-sensoriality together constituted, deepened, and reproduced the legal field. The Mughals in India introduced new orientation to paper and pen, and they were helped in the diffusion of literacy by the expansion in economy, and the growing integration of South Asia into global networks of trade and commerce. Even so, it would be anachronistic to see the Mughal empire as introducing a ‘government of writing’, or to see literacy as subverting oral traditions; these developments occurred much later, perhaps under the aegis of the English East India Company in the nineteenth century. In a significant study, Bhavani Raman has argued that in the nineteenth century in south India, the English Company instituted a ‘Document Raj’ in which the legal order was determined by ‘the micropractices of writing’. In the nineteenth century it was the written document that was seen as the exclusive bearer of juridical truths, a development Raman calls ‘paperreality’.23 In about the same period, literacy was becoming increasingly significant in the Islamic world, as well. In an interesting piece on Islamic law in Morocco in the nineteenth century, Jessica Marglin has shown that the shari‘a courts were increasingly dependent on written documents for settling disputes, and, not infrequently, notarized documents outweighed oral testimonies in the juridical procedure in these courts.24 Similarly, Brinkley Messick’s study of nineteenth-century Yemen reveals the role of writing in structuring authority, in what the author terms as ‘the calligraphic state’.25 In exploring the legal system as a form of contested communication, let us look at a court document, dated July 1787; the document is a mahzar, ‘a legal document of testimony’,26 in which ‘the men of knowledge and piety’ 23
Raman, Document Raj; also see Aparna Balachandran, Rashmi Pant and Bhavani Raman (eds.), Iterations of Law: Legal Histories from India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Jessica M. Marglin, ‘Written and Oral in Islamic Law: Documentary Evidence and Non-Muslims in Moroccan Courts’, CSSH 59, no. 4 (2017), pp. 884–911; also see Jessica M. Marglin, Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).
Messick, The Calligraphic State.
Nandini Chatterjee describes this document as representing ‘an Indo-Islamic legal form’. She defines the mahzar-nama as ‘a legal document, narrated in the first person, in a form standardized by pre-dominantly non-Muslim scribes, endorsed in writing by members of the local community and/or the professional or social contacts of person(s) writing the document, and notarized by the seal of a qazi’ (N. Chatterjee, ‘Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires’).
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provided attestation (shahādat) to the details of the case. The case involves a baniya merchant household, who were expert money-changers (sarrāf). Siya Ram, the son of a sarrāf, was given to a life of crime, and would often indulge in ‘evil acts and outrageous activities’ (ma’mūr-i sa’iyi’ wa af‘āl-i qabih); his activities were, says the document, against the principles of the ‘pious laws’ (shari‘at sharīf). Perhaps, he overstretched himself when he jumped into the house of one Khwaja Abdus Samad and fled with a chest (sandūq) containing cash and ornaments of gold and silver. Immediately thereafter, ‘led by the diwān, Khwaja Abdus Samad, groups of holy men, privileged members of the muhalla, and its ordinary residents’, (jamā’a-i humsālikān wa muhalladār wa ahl-i muhalla) descended on the house of the merchant, and extracted from Siya Ram’s father a promise to return the stolen goods to the rightful owners; also present to testify his assurance was a merchant (saudāgar), Muhammad Khan, whose social pre-eminence is suggested from the fact that he is described in the mahzar as ‘the chief merchant’ (zubdat-ut-tujjār). The mahzar was drawn up when the culprit’s family appeared to be going back on the promise, and the stolen money and goods were not returned to their rightful owners even after a couple of days. The document solicited supporting attestations from all those who were familiar with the case and knew the details. Among those who came forward as witnesses were the state officials, residents of the muhalla (muhalladār), and local elites, but, more unusually, the social riff-raffs, as well: the dyers (rangrezān), the barbers (hajjām), and so on. Unfamiliar with the world of words, and untrained in literacy, they registered their presence on the paper by placing what the document terms as ‘traces’ (nishāne), in the form of floral patterns and geometrical designs.27 To a casual and inattentive eye, these symbols and traces appear no more than meaningless patterns, perhaps inserted in the text to break the monotony of the word. However, a careful eye would see them to be ingrained in a semiotic world, structurally different from the lettered world, deriving their denotata, or meaning, by virtue of their mutual relations, set against the larger contrast with literacy and the written word. Meaning, as the post-structuralists remind us, emerges from the play of difference, but in this particular case, we see that even as the ‘signs’, floral and geometrical, derive their meanings by virtue of their contrasts with the other signs, the semantic field is crucially shaped by its distance from and co-existence with literacy. We should not however forget that even as these symbols in legal documents 27
Mahzar, dated 26 Ramadan, A.H. 1201 (12 July 1787), doc. 2720/23 (Acquired Documents Series), NAI.
Law as Contested Communication 51
represent a structurally different semiotic world, they co-exist with and coinhabit the space of the written word – the surface of the paper. The semantics of a legal document is, therefore, a function of the interweaving of symbols with words, and of performativity with literacy. Literacy, and more specifically scribal literacy, did not exclusively shape, and exhaust, the semantic field, but was crucially linked to and was inspired by the cultures of orality and performance. The extensive use of pen and paper in the legal order did not lend it an element of fixity, order, and predictability; instead, it rendered the system even more conflict-ridden, tenuous, and unstable. Far from the certainty of laws set out in the legal compendiums and commentaries, the legal order remained uncertain, conflictuous, and ever-changing; it was still based on shared norms and values, and enjoyed a measure of social acceptance as well. At the same time, these marks and patterns invoked community and castebased identities, and their meanings were apprehended with forms of social identification, difference, and conflicts. The signifying practices were driven by social contexts and operated within a framework of a tenuous social order routinely ruptured by conflicts. Some of these conflicts were indeed played out in the legal space, but within this space, communication was not only contested, but, as we just saw, inclusive and dispersed as well. After all, the mahzar was not just authenticated by the local elites and state officials, but also by the socially inferior sections of society. The fact that by inscribing their presence on the legal document, the barbers and dyers could count themselves as legal subjects reflects the extent of social inclusiveness that marked the legal order during the period. At the same time, while the document unravels the diffused and enmeshed nature of the judicial system, it also highlights the agency of the state in the legal order. After all, the mahzar had to be authenticated by the qāzi and became a legal instrument only after it was signed and sealed by him.
‘Bringing the state back in’: locating the state in a ‘plural’ legal order There is no doubt about the fact that the legal order was diverse and multi-agential. We know from extant sources that there were in the localities corporate merchant bodies (mahājans), caste-based groups (panches), urban corporate institutions (nagarsheths), community heads, and muhalla elites and locality chiefs (mīri-muhalla), mediating and resolving conflicts, with powers of adjudication and
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punitive sanctions.28 In her study of artisan–state relations in western Rajasthan in the early modern period, Nandita Sahai brought to light ‘the multi-centered nature of power’, and one of the important insights we gain from her work is that the local bodies, in particular, the ‘caste councils’ (jati panch), and heads of community groups (nyati/birādarī), played a significant role in maintaining local norms and values; transgressions were punished, and owing to the affectladen notion of ‘brotherhood’ (bhāibandh), the aggrieved approached the panch or the birādarī before they went to the state.29 In suggesting that her model of legal pluralism encompassed the Mughals as well, Lauren Benton refers to a case that came up in Bengal in 1640 where a Muslim travelling in the region killed a peacock in a village and made a meal of it, and the Hindu villagers, for whom the peacock was a sacred bird, lodged a complaint with the local Mughal authorities. The Mughal official decided to punish the culprit, on the ground that the local laws had to be respected, and ‘Muslims in a Hindu district had to follow the laws and practices of Hindus’.30 While these are significant instances of legal pluralism, in drawing conclusions about the nature of pluralism here, we need to take into account at least three sets of related developments that actually complicate the issue. First, once we look at court disputes reaching the qāzi’s court, we realize that increasingly in the Mughal period, local community-centred mechanisms for dispute resolution were turning out to be inadequate, and even intra-familial conflicts, as also disputes among community or kin members and residents of a muhalla, were 28
Ashin Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlage, 1979); Dwijendra Tripathi (ed.), Business Communities of India; A Historical Perspective (New Delhi: Manohar, 1984); Dwijendra Tripathi (ed.), State and Business in India: A Historical Perspective (New Delhi: Manohar, 1987); Makrand Mehta, Indian Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Historical Perspective (New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 1991); M. N. Pearson, Merchants and Rulers in Gujarat (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1976); Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India; and Lakshmi Subramanian, Indigenous Capital and Imperial Expansion: Bombay, Surat and the West Coast (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996). For a study of urban corporate institutions in Safavid Iran, see Mehdi Keyvani, Artisans and Guild Life in the Later Safavid Period: Contributions to the Social and Economic History of Persia (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlage, 1982).
Sahai, ‘Artisans, the state, and the Politics of Wajabi in Eighteenth Century Jodhpur’, pp. 41–68; Sahai, ‘Crafts in Eighteenth Century Jodhpur’, pp. 524–51; also see Sahai, Politics of Patronage and Protest.
Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures, p. 80.
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taken to the court of the qāzi for adjudication. In my work on western India, I came across a wide range of court documents where this was indeed the case: a mother suing her son, a sister dragging her brother to court, a disinherited daughter filing a plaint against her mother, a neighbour challenging another for obstructing his right to passage, inheritance disputes among siblings, and so on.31 Interestingly, even matters of ritual precedence and temple access, not infrequently, required the intervention of the state. When Raja Jai Singh sought to replace one Kanshi Ram with his agent, Radha Kishandas, as the in-charge of his temple (devala) in Vrindavan, he had to seek the intervention of the state.32 In 1644, when it came to his notice that certain dancers had been encamping in the precincts of the temple complex, his agent (wakīl) had to approach the Mughal officials once again to get them evicted from the place, and to bar these dancers from entering the temple for ritual worship.33 These could well be instances of ‘forum shopping’, but for the fact that the juridical space of the state was itself overwhelmingly inclusive, and ended up reinforcing local norms and customary procedures. There were certainly instances where an aggrieved party flipped from one legal order to another, but there was also ample scope for forum shopping within the jurisdictional space of the state. This was because, and that is my second point, the space of the state was crucial to the reproduction of the multiplicity in legal orders; the state’s agency in the locality served to reinforce rather than displace the diversity in legal order. In Gujarat, to take an instance, in 1658, one Nanan approached the qāzi of Cambay claiming that his mother, Rahi, had inheritable rights to a share in the house in possession of Kanjiva. Interestingly, even before the qāzi could give his ruling, the leading members of their community and muhalla intervened in the matter and resolved it by instructing Kanjiva to pay an amount of twenty-five rupees to Nanan, and, in return, the plaintiff relinquished all his claims over the house.34 Besides drawing attention to the significance of the space of the state in the legal order, this particular evidence is instructive in revealing the jurisdictional overlaps within the state’s legal order. What strikes us here as particularly interesting is the 31
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Doc. 2671/08 (Acquired Documents Series), dated 1 Jumādī al-Auwal 1053 A.H. (18 July 1643), NAI.
Doc. 2671/09 (Acquired Document Series), dated 15 Zu’l Qa‘da 1053 A.H. (25 January 1644), NAI.
Cambay Documents, 2695/2, NAI. For details, see Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, p. 96.
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ease with which the adjudicating powers of the qāzi, representing the state, are taken over by the ‘community-muhalla complex of authority’, and their rulings are formally endorsed by the state when the qāzi placed his seal and signature on the document. In another instance of a similar kind, in 1726, Belbai filed a complaint against her mother, Nathi, at the court of the qāzi in Cambay when she disinherited her from her natal property owing to her conversion to Islam following her marriage to a Muslim, Mirza Muhammad Taqi. Here, the qāzi, after due consultations with the leading legal–sacral specialists (‘ulema), ruled that her mother was legally right in disinheriting her, but the local power-holders intervened once again, and in contravention of the state order, ruled that the mother should give her daughter an amount of rupees ten, in view of the fact that she was leading an impoverished life. The daughter should in return relinquish all her claims over the ancestral property.35 This is clearly another instance of the multiple jurisdictions subsisting within the state legal order. The quick and smooth replacement of the qāzi’s ruling by the leading men in the community and the muhalla again reveals the easy co-existence of local norms and customs with the laws of the state. Once we appreciate the hybrid and intertwined nature of the legal order, and the primacy of the juridical space of the state, we realize that the sense of discreteness we often attribute to divergent legal orders could well be misplaced. To reinforce the argument, let me take yet another instance from the Gosain temple documents that have been studied by Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee.36 In a bilingual document of Shahjahan’s reign, dated 29 April 1654, it is stated that a devotee of Shri Chaitanya had brought a complaint before the faujdār of Mathura, Shaikh Abdun Nabi, alleging that Damodar Das of the Radha Ballabhi sect had taken possession of the two trees that had considerable ritual value for them because their guru used to rest and possibly preach under them.37 This was certainly an instance of intra-community conflict brought before the state, and reinforces the point that the legal space of the state served to resolve conflicts within the ritual community as well. And yet, it was not the state officials, but the local elites, in particular, Sabal Ram Shukaliya and chaudhuri Pitambar, 35
Cambay Documents, 2695/29, NAI. For details, refer to Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, p. 97
Habib and Mukherjee, Braj Bhum in Mughal Times.
Ibid., pp. 120–21.
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who resolved the matter by giving a tree each to the two parties. The legal space of the state was crucial to the resolution of an intra-community conflict, and yet it was still a plural space, marked by the active participation of the local leaders, community heads, and corporate groups. The point I make here is that even as the legal order was indeed multivalent and diverse, there is still some merit in bringing back the state. This is owing to the fact that the state legal order not only reproduced legal diversity, but also provided an inclusive space for local norms and customary procedures to participate, intermesh, and integrate with the laws of the state. The state legal order was a hybrid formation, and this was a result of the deep entanglement of the state with social forces. Indeed, the state represented itself in the localities in and through pen and paper, but the state’s paperwork, extensive and organized, still did not succeed in carving out a state-centred legal domain, distinct from local customs and norms. This was because literacy co-existed with aurality and performativity in shaping the legal field. Scribal literacy reinforced the aural– performative traditions, and the latter in turn reshaped the textual semantic field. Let us examine a document here described as an istishhād, dated 21 October 1776, found in the acquired document series at the National Archives of India, New Delhi.38 Istishhād is a legal document in which the litigant sets out the particulars of a suit, and solicits testimony from the witnesses, seeking their authenticating attestation (gawāhi tasdīq), in this case from ‘the pious Saiyads (sadāt-i ‘uzzām), interpreters of shari‘at (quzāt-i Islām), chaudhuris (village headmen), and qanūngos of the surrounding regions, as well as the inhabitants and residents (aqāmi-wa sakinat) of pargana Rasuli [in sūba Awadh]’. The dispute was over documents (tamassukāt) that had allegedly been signed by one Shah Badar acknowledging a loan (qarz) and a piece of land (apparently on rent) that he had taken from one Sadullah. In what should be counted as an instance of resistance to literacy, Badar refused to honour these papers, and held them to be forgeries; the claims they made on him were, or so he claimed, all false (bātil). While he could have approached the local qāzi, he took the matter to the local headmen in the township (qasba) instead, described in the text as the panches. The legal space was indeed diverse and multivalent, and while the alleged lender apparently wanted to take the matter to the local court, the alleged debtor decided to approach the local panch instead. What we see here is not just an instance of forum-shopping, but the case also serves to demonstrate how the state shared the juridical space with 38
Istishhād, dated 8 Ramadan 1190 A.H. (21 October 1776), doc. 2514/03 (Acquired Documents Series), NAI.
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several other institutions of conflict-mediation. But then let us not forget that the document did bear the seal of the qāzis, Muhammad Taqi and Waliullah, and the muftī, Muhammad Ali; the sanction of the state was indeed of some significance in the legal domain. Even so, though the role of the state was significant, it was not pre-eminent, for along with the state officials, the document was signed by as many as sixty witnesses. The witnesses were an assorted lot, but included the community heads, local power-holders, and the muhalla chiefs, among others. The point I wish to highlight here is that the suit was filed in the juridical space of the state, but the space was in itself a plural one marked by the co-existence of local state officials with the community leaders, caste heads, and the heads of the localities. Now, to take the story forward, once the matter was brought before the local panch, it was resolved, suggestive of the resilience of orality, that the matter could not be settled by the receipt. There were clearly limits to what the written word – pen and paper – could achieve in the legal field. Rejecting the immutability of the written word, the matter was eventually resolved by recourse to the prevailing customary practices. In line with the prevailing practice, a part of the repertoire of oral traditions, Sadullah, the plaintiff, agreed to renounce his claims if Shah Badar, the alleged debtor, brought over his sons, and in their presence, swearing on their lives, declared that his claims were false, and that the papers concerned were forgeries. The rejection of the claims inhering in the receipts was to be demonstrated by Badar publicly destroying them (pārah kashad). When the defendant performed these activities – a ritual, as it were – it seems he did so in an open, ‘public’ space, for those who signed Badar’s istishhād as witnesses (gawāh) were about sixty in number. It is the element of the spectacle here that played a crucial role in allowing it to overwhelm the text, and mould ink and paper to serve ritual and performance, rather than the other way round. The text certainly comes back. The spectacle needed to be recorded, and therefore this particular document came into being. In securing the attestations of witnesses, it must have circulated from one person to another, from one space to another. If anything, in recording the spectacle, as providing legal protection to Badar against further claims from Sadullah (and his family), what we see is the deep imbrication of literacy with performativity, and vice versa. Indeed, the document was drafted to bring the matter to a close, for once the alleged debtor had performed the elaborate ritual in ‘public’ presence, the alleged lender had lost his legal claims. The text here served to reinforce the aural and the performative. Lacking autonomy, the word, in its textual form, was still dependant, for its meaning and power, on ritual and performance.
Law as Contested Communication 57
The entrenched position of aural traditions in the developing literate culture is also evident from the ease with which written claims were frequently disputed and shown to be forgeries. In such situations, the authorities had perforce to depend on the testimonies of the people in the localities for authentication. An interesting example of this comes from one of the extant judgments of a qāzi concerning the region of Mathura found in the National Archives in Delhi. Dated 27 February 1675, this is an order issued by the qāzi of Mathura, Muhammad Arif, in response to a dispute between Seo Ram Gosain (represented at the court by Hir Ram) and Arjun over a haveli in Mathura.39 The former alleged that he had, under a written agreement, duly endorsed by witnesses, rented out his haveli to Arjun for a monthly rent of half a rupee. The tenant was now refusing to pay the rent, and was claiming the house as his own property. Arjun refused to recognize the authenticity of the rent agreement, and claimed it to be a forgery, charging the plaintiff with trying to usurp the property over which he had no legal claim. To resolve the matter, the qāzi had to visit the disputed site, accompanied with the darogha-i ‘adalat, the village headmen (chaudhuris), and other local notables to collect evidence. It was when the people residing in the vicinity of the house testified in favour of the claims of Ram Gosain that the matter was adjudicated, and Arjun was asked to vacate the house and cease to harass its legitimate owner any further.40 Clearly then, what we see here is the tenuousness of legal claims that resulted from or were validated by documentary evidence, unless they were similarly reinforced by oral evidence coming from the local residents and community members. It should not be forgotten that the text became a legal document only after it had been attested by the qāzi; his seal imbued the document with the sanctity of the state. The role of the state was crucial to the legal order, but this was because, as we saw earlier, it functioned in close cooperation with the local power-holders. The juridical space of the state was heterogeneous, inclusive, and multivalent, and one that created dynamic possibilities for forum shopping for the litigants in the localities. Under pressures from below, the state legal order was largely localized, and worked in tandem with local norms and customs. We get ample evidence of this from the extant news reports (siyāha waqā’i) that were routinely sent by the petty reporters, spies, and informants posted in the localities to the imperial and regional courts and to high officials. One such collection of waqā’i reports comes 39
Qazi Muhammad Arif’s order, 27 February 1675, 2671/13, NAI.
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from the sūba of Akbarabad (Agra) from the agents of the governor (subedār), Maharaja Jaswant Singh, during the reign of the Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah (1719–48). These documents, in excess of two hundred, are preserved at the Bikaner State Archives, Bikaner, Rajasthan, and provide a mine of information on social life in Agra during the early eighteenth century.41 The collection has several interesting petitions from ordinary subjects against the state officials, and these waqā’i reports refer to many cases where one local official went against another, suggesting the element of multiplicity within the state legal order. In one report, dated July 1727, the village headman (muqaddam) is mentioned petitioning a state official, a revenue collector (‘āmil), against the thānedār, Dost Muhammad, in village Azizpur for levying an illegal cess for thatching the roofs of huts (chhapparbandī); the tax was ‘illegal’ because it was an innovation, a ‘violation of customary practice’ (khilāf-i ma‘mūl).42 A woman complained to the kotwāl against the officers in the establishment of the qāzi when they demanded additional charges from her for registering her sale deed; she had sold her house to a Brahman for fifty rupees. The officers were accordingly instructed to desist from doing so; she had already paid the due charges to the qāzi and the other officers (mutasaddis), including the charge for the authenticating stamp over the document (muhrāna) and was, furthermore, destitute (bekas).43 An interesting instance of the localization of the state legal order comes from a news report (waqā’i) dated 4 June 1728 referring to a dispute over jurisdiction between the kotwāl and the qāzi in the city of Agra.44 The kotwāl, Sidi Husain
These reports are preserved under the Miscellaneous Papers and are entitled Siyāha Waqa’i Mustaqarrul Khilāfa Akbarābād in the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner (hereinafter RSA). They were introduced by M. Afzal Khan in the following two papers: ‘Glimpses of the Administration of Agra under Muhammad Shah: Based on News Reports from the City’, PIHC, 54th session, Mysore, 1993, pp. 200–07, and ‘Local Administration in Agra: Archival Evidence from Muhammad Shah’, 55th session, Aligarh, 1994, 255–61. I am grateful to Professor M. Afzal Khan for drawing my attention to the collection, and for sharing his copy of the collection with me.
Waqa’i, 12–13 Zu’l Qa‘da 8 Regnal Year (R.Y.) (A.H. 1139), 3–4 July 1727, RSA; also see M. A. Khan, ‘Local Administration in Agra’.
Waqa’i, 16–17 Sha‘bān, 15 R. Y. (A.H. 1174), January 1735, RSA, M. A. Khan, ‘Local Administration in Agra’.
Waqa’i, 25 Shauwāl, 8 R. Y. (A.H. 1140), 4 June 1728, RSA; M. A. Khan, ‘Local Administration in Agra’.
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Khan, arrested Ajab Singh Baksala on charges of murdering his spouse. The parents of his murdered spouse, however, decided to exonerate their son-inlaw, and approached the qāzi with the plea that they had settled the matter, and pardoned him. Accordingly, the qāzi directed the kotwāl to release Ajab Singh, for, as per shari‘at, he now stood acquitted. The qāzi was referring to the Islamic law of retaliation (qisās) whereby the kith and kin of the victim could pardon the murderer by accepting an agreed-upon compensation (diyat).45 Interestingly, the kotwāl refused to oblige, and it required the intervention of other local officials and an attack on his station (chabutra kotwāli) by a contingent of Baksariya clansmen to ultimately persuade the kotwāl to release him, after keeping him in custody for five days.46 Besides drawing our attention to jurisdictional overlaps among local officials – in particular, the kotwāl, qāzi, and faujdār – the report highlights the extent to which the state juridical system in a locality was embroiled in the network of local politics. It also alerts us to the need to see legal diversity and state activity in terms of their mutual relationship, rather than as antithetical to each other. Indeed, the tendency for a wide range of jurisdictions to be drawn towards the state spaces marked an important shift in the legal order during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As stated earlier, this, of course, does not mean that the state order was beginning to obliterate local customs and practices, nor does it mean that there was now the instantiation of a uniform legal order. On the contrary, pushed by pressures from below, state agencies in localities were becoming centres for the maintenance and reproduction of multiple jurisdictions, and the legal spaces of the state were characterized by a fluid and dynamic amalgamation of the state with the local jurisdictions. How does one explain these developments?
Economic expansion, ‘civilizing processes’, and the shifts in the legal order The growing significance of the state and state–society interactions in the legal order was, perhaps, related to the expansion in economy and social life during
For details, refer to Silvia Tellenbach, ‘Islamic Criminal Law’, in Markus D. Dubber and Tatjana Hornle (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, repr.).
Waqa’i, 25 Shauwal, 8 R. Y. (A.H. 1140), 4 June 1728, RSA.
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the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.47 The emergence of new social classes resulting from economic expansion unconstrained by particularistic norms and values must have facilitated an expanded role for the state in representing interests that transcended narrow, community-based norms. The period saw a considerable growth in trade and commerce, which, as historians argue, was leading to a surge in merchant capital and service economy.48 As more and more upwardly mobile people – merchants, artisans, service gentry, wage labourers, enterprising peasants, and zamindārs – needed to interact with each other across their community and caste divides, the search for common legal institutions, it seems, prompted the instantiation of the state in trans-local, supra-communal 47
The literature on Indian economy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is vast and expanding, but for an overview, see Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of India: vol. 1: c. 1200–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Seema Alavi (ed.), The Eighteenth Century in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002); for studies on Indian economy that are located within global perspectives, see, in particular, Prasannan Parthasarthi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Divergence, 1600–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Tirthankar Roy, India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Kaveh Yazdani, India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th Centuries) (Leiden: Brill, 2017). Also see J. F. Richards, ‘Early Modern India and World History’, Journal of World History 8, no. 2 (1997), pp. 197–209; J. F. Richards, ‘The Seventeenth Century Crisis in South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies 24, no. 4 (1990), pp. 625–38; C. A. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Muzaffar Alam, Crisis of Empire in Mughal India: Awadh and Punjab, 1707–48 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013, 2nd ed.).
Besides the works cited in the preceding footnote, also see K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Stephen Frederic Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat; Ashin Das Gupta, The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant, 1500–1800 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001); Ashin Das Gupta, India and the Indian Ocean World: Trade and Politics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004); Om Prakash, Bullion for Goods: European and Indian Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004); M. N. Pearson, The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800: Studies in Economic, Social and Cultural History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); and Ghulam A. Nadri, Eighteenth Century Gujarat: The Dynamics of Its Political Economy (Leiden: Brill, 2009).
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spaces, and led to the shaping of a legal order in which the state, the local elites, and corporate groups came to be aligned together in resolving disputes and preserving ‘justice’. Given the entangled relations between the state and the social forces, the Mughal legal order was just as much social as it was political, as much local as imperial. The relationship of law to the organization of socio-economic life is an important problem in South Asian history, but our knowledge about this issue is woefully inadequate. There has been some work among historians studying the legal structures of Indian Ocean networks of exchange and relationships which probes these issues, and it would be instructive for us to take note of such work. In a captivating study of the western Indian Ocean, Fahad Bishara has examined the interactions between Islamic law and economic activities by focusing on the waraqās, or the deeds of debt. Bishara rightly believes that the waraqās were the lifeline of economic activities in the region, and as legal instruments they served to ensure smooth movement of capital and goods. The more significant point for our purposes here is that these legal instruments operated across a vast space that encompassed multiple sovereignties, and regulated exchanges and relationships for a wide range of merchant groups – Arabs, Indians, Africans, and Europeans. The waraqās were clearly representative examples of plurality in the Islamic legal order, and reveal how legal instruments exceeded the spaces of the state, and had the determinacy to evade its control.49 In the case of the Mughal empire, we saw in the preceding chapter instances of legal documents that originated in spaces outside the state, but we also saw that texts that did emanate from the qāzi’s court were quite often not instruments of state intentionality, but products of an inclusive legal system that involved both the state officials and the local relations of power. Our point is that the state was itself a social formation, and a crucial resource for the reproduction of legal pluralism. This obviously means that even as the state shared the legal order with a multiplicity of local actors, it also provided the space within which a wide variety of social norms, legal practices, and local institutions could come together in the instantiation of a shared normative system and a trans-local, inter-community legal system. The development of shared norms and values, supported and reinforced by the entangled relations between the state and local power relations, could be related to what Norbert Elias termed as ‘the civilizing process’ to refer to alterations in norms of civility and social attitudes towards violence and
Bishara, A Sea of Debt. Also see Mathew, Margins of the Market.
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aggression in early modern Europe.50 Elias’s theory has been criticized for its bland teleological assumptions. He assumes, or so the critics say, a continuous decline in violence as a critical feature of modernity when there is actually no evidence to suggest that this was indeed the case.51 This is of course an unfair criticism, for Elias does not see the relative decline in violence as a uniform and irreversible trend in modernity. On the contrary, he sees the constraints on violence as integrally related to specific social figurations and believed that the shifts in figurations could easily reverse the trend, leading to what he terms ‘spaces of de-civilization’, marked by resurgence in aggression, disorder, and violence. He sees the relative decline in violence in modern Europe as part of a developing culture of social constraints, bodily discipline and self-reflexivity. The historical situation in South Asia was obviously vastly different, but it is difficult to ignore processes of ‘social pacification’ in the Mughal period. While state monopolization of violence did not happen in South Asia, we still notice a growing repugnance towards the urge to settle disputes by combat and aggression. In his discussion of the imperial norms of deportment, John F. Richards has pointed out that the Mughal period in South Asia saw a growing intolerance towards interpersonal violence, and a re-centring of notions of honour towards 50
Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (originally in two volumes: Vol. I: The History of Manners, and Vol. II: State Formation and Civilization), trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Norbert Elias has been extensively studied by scholars from a wide range of perspectives, but for a critical engagement with his theory of civilizing process, see, in particular, Anne Bryson, From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) and Robert Van Krieken, Norbert Elias (London: Routledge, 1998). Also see D. Smith, Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory (London: Sage, 2001); Tatiana S. Landini and Francois Depelteau (eds.), Norbert Elias and Social Theory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Tatiana S. Landini and Francois Depelteau (eds.), Norbert Elias and Violence (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
For historical studies on violence that engage with Norbert Elias’s position, see Jonathan Fletcher, Violence and Civilization (Cambridge: Polity, 1994); Richard W. Kaeuper (ed.), Violence in Medieval Society (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2000); Guy Halsell (ed.), Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2000); Stuart Carroll, Blood and Violence in Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). For a much earlier work on the subject, one that has inspired a wide range of historians, see Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries, trans. F. Hopman (London: Edward Arnold, 1924).
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imperial service, as against valorized and combative ideas of community honour.52 In her work on the history of manliness in early modern South Asia, Rosalind O’ Hanlon has shown that increasingly in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, norms of manliness were shifting away from martial aggression and combat preparedness (described in the sources of the period as jawānmardi or ‘aggressive manhood’) to social restraints, bodily discipline, cultivation of skills, attentiveness to social etiquette, and self-cultivation.53 The evidence of some kind of revulsion against interpersonal violence and bloody spectacles in public spaces did not mean that violence had become an uncivil and barbaric activity.54 On the contrary, political violence was widespread, and increasingly in the eighteenth century, as has been pointed out by Abhishek Kaicker, deposition and murders of kings led to violent public outcries and considerable bloodshed.55 We have evidence of violent conflicts over ritual and precedence taking place in public spaces during the eighteenth century; the shoesellers’ riot was obviously the most remarkable instance of such an event.56 These kinds of violent activities in the political domain indicated the presence of an emotional realm marked by intensity and excess. It would actually be naïve to assume that the urge towards self-restraint and discipline was also accompanied by, or linked to, repugnance for intense and deep emotions. In the case of early 52
J. F. Richards, ‘The Formulation of Imperial Authority under Akbar and Jahangir’, in J. F. Richards (ed.), Kingship and Authority in South Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 285–325; John F. Richards, ‘Norms of Comportment Among Imperial Mughal Officials’, in Barbara Daly Metcalf (ed.), Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 255–89.
Rosalind O’Hanlon, ‘Manliness and Imperial Service in Mughal North India’, JESHO 42, no. 1 (1999), pp. 47–923; Rosalind O’Hanlon, ‘Kingdom, Household and Body: History, Gender and Imperial Service Under Akbar’, Modern Asian Studies 41, no. 5 (September 2007), pp. 889–923.
For an interesting study of violence in Ancient India, see Upinder Singh, Political Violence in Ancient India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
Kaicker, The King and the People.
Ibid. Also see Najaf Haider, ‘A Holi Riot of 1714: Versions from Ahmadabad and Delhi’, in Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy (eds.), Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 127–44; Najaf Haider, ‘Violence and Defiance of Authority in Mughal India: A Study of the Shoe Sellers’ Riot of Shahjahanabad’, Studies in History 36, no. 2 (August 2020), pp. 163–77.
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modern South Asian history at least, as has been pointed out in an important study by Margrit Pernau, there was a rather reverse shift, in her words, ‘from balance to fervor’.57 Intense emotions or josh had replaced balanced emotions or ‘itidāl in the institution of modernity in South Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, as Pernau has shown, the urge for discipline was accompanied by the validation for intense feelings and genuine emotions in early modern South Asia. In a way, what I am suggesting is that the socio-economic developments in the early modern period served to create and strengthen processes of inter-subjective dialogues and communication, and these processes undermined the segmental social order. The spaces for communication cut across community and caste divides, and led to the social instantiation of shared norms and values, and even as these norms were contested, fluid, and ever-changing, they had a crucial bearing on the legal order. Indeed, forum shopping continued, but, given the element of ambiguity and fluidity in the shared system, and its entangled relations with local customary usages, its location now drifted to the juridical space of the state. The state in the locality had become the institutional representative of inter-subjective norms and values emerging in and through inter-community forms of communication. Could one describe these spaces of inter-subjective norm-making as constituting a ‘public sphere’? In contrast to the oft-held perception of the ‘public sphere’, this was a space where literacy enmeshed with oral and performative practices in the reproduction of norms and values. Of course, literacy was spreading, and the Mughal state, among other factors, was an important enabling source. However, as argued earlier, literacy had not successfully displaced the culture of orality, but co-existed with it, sometimes buttressing it, at other times enriching it, but rarely, if ever, subverting it. Even so, to the extent we see the ‘public sphere’ as a space for the institution of shared norms and values through processes of inter-subjective communication and dialogue, we could argue that the early modern period did see the emergence of a public sphere in South Asia. It is within these trans-local spaces that the state was pushed by pressures from below to assume the role and responsibility of maintaining the legal order, by, among other things, instituting mechanisms for the resolution of inter-community conflicts, and containing disputes that remained unresolved by community- and caste-based bodies. This obviously placed the state juridical agencies ritually over 57
Margrit Pernau, Emotions and Modernity in Colonial India: From Balance to Fervor (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019). Also see Margrit Pernau and Helge Jordheim (eds.), Civilizing Emotions: Concepts in Nineteenth Century Asia and Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
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and above the local legal bodies, but also invested it with the authority to manage legal diversity. Since these initiatives were driven by pressures from below and also because the state was itself entangled with the locally driven social forces, and subsisted in and through these forces, the state did not discipline and regulate the multifarious legal order; instead, the state facilitated and deepened its multivalent and fluid components. Indeed, the ‘plural legal order’ was crucially sustained and reproduced by the state. It would be instructive to compare the situation in Mughal India with the forms of legal pluralism in other regions of the early modern Islamic world. In this context, James Baldwin’s work on Ottoman Cairo is particularly interesting, and he points out that Islamic law was in a state of tension between jurisprudence as a branch of knowledge, and the needs of the empire in terms of issues of governance and justice. Islamic jurisprudence was characterized by plurality, and was divided into schools (madhhabs) of several persuasions. Critiquing the centrality of shari‘at courts in Ottoman historiography, Baldwin points out that the other institutions of adjudication, in particular the Diwān-i Humayun, were just as significant, and contributed to pluralism in Ottoman legal order.58 There are remarkable convergences between the Ottoman and Mughal empires, and one of the shared attributes lies in the role of the state in reproducing the plurality in legal practice. At the same time, in my effort to explore the legal order from below, I have argued in this chapter that the depth and intensity of legal diversity went much lower into the deep recesses of localities, and included not just the local elites, but also household heads, the chief (mīr) of the ward (muhalla), artisans and petty shopkeepers, big merchants, and the gentry.
Conclusion The legal order was neither constituted nor exhausted by the state; and law was never a unilateral instrument for the imposition of the will of the state. There was a wide variety of legal orders which were selectively appropriated by litigants to better serve their interests and aspirations, and we come across repeated instances of forum shopping in our period of study. However, the multiple juridical bodies were not hermetically sealed from each other, and the tendency to view them as distinct and discrete entities does not quite capture the tensions and complexities that defined the legal order in the Mughal period. This was particularly the case 58
James E. Baldwin, Islamic Law and Empire in Ottoman Cairo (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
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with the state legal order, and its juridical relevance was crucially linked to its ability to converse and engage with local norms, values, and relations of power. There is, therefore, a need to bring the state back in, without necessarily bringing back the myth of its intentionality, uniformity, and absolute authority. I have suggested that the state’s cutting edge was not based on imperial initiatives, but was a function of its entangled relations with the local elites, community leaders, heads of caste and corporate bodies, muhalla chiefs, and so on. The role of literacy was crucial, but we need to be careful in overplaying its significance. The Mughal empire (as also the other Islamic empires in the early modern period) was a vast paper regime, and most, if not all, legal transactions were recorded in ink and paper. Recent scholarship on the subject has suggested that the shift to literacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the emergence of a ‘bureau rule’, and documents and files – the written word – served to reconstitute the legal order. This, I argue, was not the case here, for literacy had not yet claimed an autonomous and sovereign space; it was still dependent on, and coalesced with, the oral and performative traditions in rendering its signifying system meaningful. The semantic field was still apprehended inter-sensorially, with the textual, aural, and visual together constituting the signifying system. However, literacy was still important in weakening local community norms and values, and in facilitating the constitution of dialogic spaces that helped reproduce trans-local, supra-regional norms and values. This chapter has drawn attention to the conversation and the lines of communication between the state and the non-state legal units in reproducing the legal order. These conversations led to the instantiation of trans-local, intercommunity norms and values in the social world. We still had the panchayats, local corporate bodies, caste associations, muhalla elites, and community and household heads adjudicating conflicts and resolving disputes, but increasingly within a shared normative world order. In other words, legal pluralism co-existed with normative cosmopolitanism. At the same time, under pressures from below, the state legal order found itself accommodating within its wide umbrella the local juridical bodies, making them part and parcel of its judicial system. Looking at the legal order in activity, I suggest that legal pluralism was crucially sustained by the state juridical order, but this was because the state was itself a part of the social order, working in localities through complex and enduring relations with the local networks of power. This, perhaps, provides the context for the emergence of the state legal order in the colonial period. It was not the colonial state, but these developments occurring during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that provide the backdrop to the transformation from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ pluralism during the colonial rule in South Asia.
4 Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere Shifting Popular Perceptions of the State
As against the self-representation of the state found in the Mughal archive,1 how was the state perceived by ordinary subjects residing in Mughal cities and qasbas? Of course, there is no easy answer to the question, not least because the subjects were socially divided along lines of class, caste, and region. However, the question I ask here is slightly more nuanced and complex: how was the state discussed and debated in spaces of dialogic communication where social actors could, despite their social differences, institute and reproduce shared norms of rule and understandings of sovereignty? While consensus has expectedly been elusive, historians of early modern South Asia, me included, have been inclined to see these spaces as constituting a ‘public sphere’.2 I seek here to explore the personality and distinctiveness of the early modern public sphere in South Asia, but in doing so I focus on the representation of the state, in particular the critique of rulers, ruling classes, and petty local officials, in poetic assemblies, recitations in market-places, and the literary culture.
For an analysis of how the state represented imperial sovereignty, see Irfan Habib, ‘A Political Theory for the Mughal Empire: A Study of the Ideas of Abu’l Fazl’, PIHC, 59th session (Patiala), pp. 97–108; M. Athar Ali, ‘The Perception of India in Akbar and Abu’l Fazl’, in Irfan Habib (ed.), Akbar and His India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 215–24; M. Athar Ali, Mughal India: Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society and Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008); K. A. Nizami, Akbar and Religion (New Delhi: Idarah-i-Adabiyat-i-Delhi, 1984); Richards, ‘The Formulation of Imperial Authority’.
See, for example, Veena Naregal, Language Politics, Elites and the Public Sphere (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001); Francesco Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920–1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000); J. Barton Scott, Brannon Ingram, and Sher Ali Tareen (eds.), Imagining the Public in Modern South Asia (London: Routledge, 2016); and Hasan, ‘Forms of Civility’.
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Political critiques and the development of the early modern public sphere: somatic articulations in the literary culture I wish to look at the nature and peculiarities of the South Asian early modern public sphere, and draw attention to the extent to which discourses relied on embodiment and sensoriality to represent and critique the state. In an important study, Christian Lee Novetzke has argued that a kind of nascent public sphere had emerged in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with the vernacular movement in western India, and one of its achievements was that it attacked and undermined caste and Brahmanical ritual. Given its imbrications with shifting perceptions of the body, he views it as constituting a ‘quotidian revolution’.3 Of course, I am referring here to quite a different social formation, but the early modern public sphere did have a distinct sense of embodiment about it, and debates and positions were often defended through invocation of both intense emotions and embodied experiences, and logic and rationality. I argue from my study of the language of literary protest and the semiotics of emotions that the public sphere in the eighteenth century was also quotidian, and could, perhaps, be seen as constituting ‘the second quotidian revolution’. My study draws attention to the shared expectations of rule that these literary assaults on the ruling elites and petty officials represented, and served to reproduce within a shared but conflictual arena. Language was crucial, and while there were, perhaps, a richer vocabulary and a more elaborate system of metaphors, allusions, and symbols in the vernacular literature with which to attack state officials, the public sphere was indeed a multilingual space, and was not quite segregated along language boundaries. As it is, ideas and symbols easily moved from one language to another within a linguistic culture marked by incessant boundary-crossing.4 In the last several decades, historians have recovered a wide range of vernacular sources in which the locally rooted literati composed poems in praise of their rulers and patrons. In some cases, these patrons happened to be local chieftains, but in several others, a Mughal king, a prince, or a high official.5 As against the common 3
Christian Lee Novetzke, The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
See Walter N. Hakala, Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Deﬁnition of Modern South Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); and Rita Kothari (ed.), A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Allison Busch was among the earliest historians to have recognized the historical significance of riti literature, and her work is indeed a classic in the field: Poetry of
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assumption of the decline of Sanskrit in the Mughal period, historians have found a flowering of Sanskrit literature under the active support of the imperial court and local chieftains; imaginations of ideal kingship were an important theme of poems composed in the language.6 Known as qasida in Persian and Urdu (or Rekhta) and prashasti in Sanskrit and Braj, a praise poem has limited value in helping us recover popular perceptions. Written at the behest of the patron, it was a genre that apparently exhibited literary brilliance and linguistic skills more than the qualities of the ruler. Indeed, we have praise poems where a Mughal king is mentioned as one of the incarnations (avatars) of Lord Vishnu, and several others where he is portrayed as a devotee of an Indic god.7 Similarly, in the riti texts, Mughal rulers have Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, repr. 2012); also see the following articles by her: (a) ‘Literary Responses to the Mughal Imperium: The Historical Poems of Kesavdas’, South Asia Research 25, no. 1 (2005), pp. 31–54, and (b) ‘Hidden in Plain View: Brajbhasha Poets at the Mughal Court’, Modern Asian Studies (MAS) 44, no. 2 (2010), pp. 267–309. For the mangal kavya literature of Bengal, see Kumkum Chatterjee, The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal Culture in Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009); Kumkum Chatterjee, ‘Goddess Encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal’, MAS 47, no. 5 (2013), pp. 1435–87. Also see C. M. Naim, ‘Mughal and English Patronage of Urdu Poetry’, in Urdu Texts and Contexts: The Selected Essays of C. M. Naim (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2004), pp. 151–77; and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001). For the genre of praise poetry, or qasida, in the Islamic World, see Stefan Sperl and Christopher Shackle, Qasida Poetry in Islamic Africa and Asia (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). 6
For the Sanskrit literature in Mughal India, see Audrey Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (New Delhi: Allen Lane, 2016); Shalin Jain, Identity, Community and State: The Jains under the Mughals (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2017). Also see Sheldon Pollock, The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Literature and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). For the development of vernacular and Sanskrit literature at the Rajput and Indo-Muslim courts before the Mughals, see Aparna Kapadia, In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); and the relevant essays in Orsini and Sheikh, After Timur Left.
See, for example, Heidi Pauwels and Emilia Bachrach, ‘Aurangzeb as Iconoclast? Vaishnava Accounts of the Krishna Images’ Exodus from Braj’, JRAS 28, no. 3 (July 2018), pp. 485–508; Veroniques Bouillier, ‘Aurangzeb and the Nath Yogis’, JRAS 28, no. 3 (July 2018), pp. 525–36; Pushpa Prasad, ‘Akbar and the Jains’, in Irfan Habib (ed.), Akbar and His India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, repr.), pp. 97–108. Also see Truschke, Culture of Encounters.
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been described with adulatory phrases and expressions of gratitude. While praising Shahjahan, to take an instance, Kavindracharya Sarasvati describes him by ‘a range of complimentary epithets, including mahajan (greatly knowledgeable), sura-jnan (connoisseur of music), maharasi (emotionally sensitive), and mahadani (generous patron)’.8 Of course, as historians who have studied these poems point out, the articulation of qualities in the patron reflects popular expectations from the rulers and the ruling classes, and served to reproduce discursive spaces for the negotiations between the state and the subjects over appropriate and acceptable system of rule. My concern here is quite different. I am interested in the political critiques that were becoming increasingly poignant and virulent during the eighteenth century in the genre of satire (hajw) in Indo-Persian and Rekhta literature in South Asia. Their significance has been recently highlighted by Abhishek Kaicker in his study of the transformation of elite politics in Shahjahanabad (Delhi) during the first half of the eighteenth century. He draws attention to the participation of people in political matters and sees this as marking an important departure in the political culture. His work also serves to highlight the role of the literary culture in moulding popular politics.9 I see the political satires as situated within a dynamic public sphere where social actors actively negotiated with issues of state incompetence and excess, legitimate authority, corruption in bureaucracy, notions of justice, rightful claims over the ruler and the ruling classes, and the state claims over the subjects. These issues were a part of ‘the moral economy of the state’,10 and served to reproduce the framework for the interactions between the state and society. The emergence of the modern public sphere was, it seems, linked to the transformation of political culture in terms of a more intense and aggressive participation of the people in political matters. With a focus on the language of popular politics, I seek to explore the intersubjective communicative spaces, and situate them in the context of an emergent public sphere. In ‘provincializing’ a western concept – the public sphere – I draw away from cultural relativism, but I still look at its distinctiveness and specificities in the context of the South Asian historical experience. In assessing the political discourses, as it were, I notice the somatic apprehension of the state as marking an important distinctive feature of the South Asian public sphere. The state’s relations with ordinary subjects is articulated in and through an excess of sensoriality, and issues of state overreach and violence, and its ineptitude and incompetence are 8
Busch, Poetry of Kings, p. 151.
Kaicker, The King and the People.
For the elaboration and application of the concept to the African political systems, see William A. Munro, ‘Power, Peasants and Political Development: Reconsidering State Construction in Africa’, CSSH 38, no. 1 (January 1996), pp. 112–48.
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 71
represented as embodied, somatic experiences. It is for this reason that the satires against the rulers and ruling classes were so very often infused with erotic conceits and forms of sexual violence. The brazenness of these literary assaults was reinforced by their overly sexual and in several instances even perverted and sadomasochistic content, and while this is a common refrain in several satires written in the period, it is particularly the case with the ones written by the well-known litterateur Jafar Zatalli.11 From the Mughal kings and princes to the petty kotwāl, he spared no one. He wrote damning satires against the ruler Farrukhsiyar, and had to lose his life as a consequence; he was mercilessly killed for showing the mirror to the king, calling him a ruthless tyrant.12 Before that, he wrote an unflattering satire against Bahadur Shah, titled ‘A Note on Butt-Sex’ (Gānd marawwa nāma), which exhorted the subjects to freely engage in buggery for the king was doing the same.13 He wrote a highly pejorative satire against his own employer, Prince Kam Baksh,14 and lost his employment, and with it all the comforts that came with serving the Prince.15 The local officials were not spared either; outraged by the widespread lawlessness and chaos in the town, he wrote a stinging satire against the kotwāl of Delhi, Mirza Zulfiqar Beg.16
Jafar Zatalli’s work has been competently edited by Rasheed Hasan Khan, and he has carefully compared and collated the various extant manuscripts of his work, critically locating the noticeable alterations and inconsistencies in several compositions (Jafar Zatalli, Zatal Nāma, ed. Rasheed Hasan Khan [New Delhi: Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu, 2003]).
For details about this life and work, see Raziuddin Aquil, In the Name of Allah: Understanding Islam and Indian History (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009), pp. 133–56.
Zatalli, Zatal Nāma, pp. 149–51.
Ibid., pp. 144–46.
This was something that he was to regret later in life, and he wrote a poem in lament of the loss of resources and comfort that came with working for the Prince. As he says: You are all alone (tanhā) in this voyage (of life), how do you feel about it, Ja‘far? You are in the midst of a stormy river, how do you feel about it, Ja’far? Your condition is pitiable (be-kas), and you are immersed in pain and suffering (dard-o-gham); Deep in poverty, you go begging from one place to another, how do you feel about it, Ja‘far? [Tanhā shudī andar safar; ki Ja‘far ab kaisī banī – Uftadī andar bahro-bar, ki Ja’far ab kaisi banī. Dar be-kasi’ha buda-i , ba dard-o gham āludahe; Muﬂis shudīdar-ba-dar, ki Ja‘far ab kaisi banī.] (Zatalli, Zatal Nāma, pp. 147–48)
Ibid., pp. 168–69.
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Let us look at some of these satires here. This is how Zatalli begins his satire on the Prince Muhammad Kam Baksh:17 Praise the majestic Prince of royal descent, Kam Baksh; for he has ruptured and outstretched the vaginal orifice (buz) of the goat Lifting the tail of the goat with one hand; he rammed in his member (dhappu) with passion and rage (phanna-i ke). [Zahe shāh wālā guhr Kām Baksh; Ki ghachhi-e buz kard picchi wa pakhsh Dum-e buzz ba yak dast phailāye ke; Diyā pel dhappu ko phanna-e ke]18
Besides accusing the Prince of bestiality, the poem is actually a powerful attack on the state, expressed in an allegorical and figurative language. The violated goat represents the hapless subjects, and the bestial act the violence of the state. In depicting the common folk as goat, the poet seeks to emphasize their abject haplessness in the face of state violence. The more important thing here is the representation of state coercion as a sexual act of immense violence. In this thick metaphorical description of state activity, the satire serves to highlight the state’s corporeal condition, and the popular reception of its excess as sexual violence – somatic, severe, and intense. The point is further underscored when he goes on to describe the goat’s pain and suffering: Bearing the forceful penetration (ghusedā ghusedī) of Shah [Kam Baksh]; Manohar [the goat] was silently moaning [in pain]. [Ghusedā ghusedī ke mikard shāh; Manohar badī khuﬁya mikard āh]19
Manohar the goat’s affliction was actually denotative of the anguish and misery of the common subjects. In representing state violence over subjects in sexualized terms, Zatalli was perhaps drawing attention to the corporeality of the state, and its somatic character. The identification of state–society relations, or lack thereof, with forms of friction-laden forceful penetrative acts is suggested further in the poem when he describes the Prince’s bestial acts as ghacha ghach and ghapa ghap; and in the verse cited above, the words he uses are ghusedā ghusedī.20 These are onomatopoeic words, and their meanings are apprehended by their sonic quality. In his choice of language, the poet is reaching out to the 17
Ibid., pp. 144–46.
Ibid., pp. 144–45.
Ibid., p. 146.
Ibid., pp. 144–46.
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 73
common people, but, more importantly, he invokes the oral tradition to critique the state. Literacy was clearly interfaced with orality and performativity in the literary culture of the period. If the violence of the state was represented as akin to an act of bestiality, its incompetence and ineptness was metaphorically depicted as an act of buggery. The correlation that Zatalli discursively draws between state activity and forms of ‘deviant’ and erotic activities is suggested by his satire of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah. Entitled ‘A Note on Butt-Sex’, the poem depicts the culture of sexual licentiousness, in particular sodomy, as allegorically referring to the incompetence of the state and the ruling class.21 Let’s take a couple of lines from the poem here: With the betel-leaf (pān) in the mouth, play the game of buggery (gānd marawwa kheliye); go to the garden to play the game of buggery. Since sovereignty (bādshāhī) now rests with Bahadur Shah; dress up for the occasion, and play the game of buggery. [Pān khā kar gānd marawwa kheliye; Bāgh ja kar gand marawwa kheliye Bādshāhī hai Bahādur Shāh ki; Ban banā kar gānd marawwa kheliye]22
Drawing an interesting convergence between the reign of Bahadur Shah and lasciviousness, he further says: Jettison your coyness and in the midst of elites and riff-raffs (khāso‘ām); beat the drum and play the game of buggery (gānd marawwa kheliye). Listen young men! These are uncertain times (daur-i be-khabar); raise your hands and play the game of buggery. Now that your beard and mustache have turned white; shave them both and play the game of buggery. In between Jauhari bazār and the chowk; chew the pān and play the game of buggery. [Be-takalluf darmiyān-e khās-o‘ām; Dhol bajā kar gānd marawwa kheliye
Ibid., pp. 149–51.
Ibid., p. 149.
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Ae jawānān! Hast daur-e be-khabar; Hath uthā kar gānd marawwa kheliye Dārhi aur moonche jo hain munh par safed; Sab mundā kar gānd marawwa kheliye Darmiyān-e Jauharībazār-o chawk; Pān chaba ke gānd marawwa kheliye]23
It would perhaps be erroneous to assume that the poet is condemning pederastic love, and it is certainly not its prevalence in urban life that irks him here. When he equates the state’s ineptitude with widespread prevalence of same-sex activities, it is the lack of discipline, and the absence of any sort of constraints, self-imposed or externally enforced, that he holds as evidence of the clumsiness and ineptness of the rule structure. As has been pointed out by C. M. Naim, in the Persianate world ‘homosexual acts’ were treated with neither disdain nor approval; they were placed in ‘an in-between state of indifference’.24 Even so, the act was essentially pederastic, in that it was imbued with a strong sense of hierarchy and control, and one in which sexual roles reflected a relation of power. The ‘passive role’ (‘bottom’) brought disgrace and put manliness to shame, whereas the ‘active position’ (‘top’) served to establish a man’s authority and protected his manliness. In the words of C. M. Naim: It [The Indo-Muslim world] did not frown upon homosexuality as such, but it did stigmatize ‘passivity’ in males. One can say that the adoring lover poets of Urdu were basically ‘macho’ males. That is why even their homosexual love was essentially pederastic, and. not the kind that exists between two males of equal age and experience. Even now, in Urdu/Hindi India, launde-bāz (pederast; lit., boy-player) is not as exclusively an emphatic term of abuse as is gāndu (catamite; lit., anus-defined). 25
The verses cited above, and those that we cite below, actually make clear that the derision with which the poet describes the reign of Bahadur Shah invokes the language of power and desire. He finds the unrestrained hedonism as reflective of the state’s ineptitude, but, more importantly, he attacks the state for emasculating its people, for they are the ‘object-victim’ in their erotic, if still violent, relations with 23
Ibid., p. 150
C. M. Naim, ‘Homosexual (Pederastic) Love in Pre-Modern Poetry’, in Urdu Texts and Contexts: The Selected Essays of C. M. Naim (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), pp. 19–41.
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 75
the state. In this situation of excess and unrestrained merrymaking, furthermore, the state officials are no more than mute spectators, and these include the muhtasib (the censor of morals) and the qāzi. As he says: Since the orders of the qāzi and the muhtasib have turned meaningless; stretch your heart and play the game of buggery. From your pīr,26 your father, and your teacher; hide yourself and play the game of buggery. Such are the times that in every congested gathering; you could find your way in and play the game of buggery. [Hukm-e qāzi, muhtasib za’il shuda; Dil badhā kar gānd marawwa kheliye Pīr se aur bāp se, ustād se; Chup chupa kar gānd marawwa kheliye Waqt ān āmad ki dar har bheed-o bhād; Ghus ghusākar gand marawwa kheliye]27
In this satire, Zatalli creates a picture of an inept state, one in which the king and his officials are reckless and indifferent and there is a total breakdown of law and order. The state’s relations with the people are represented in pederastic terms; one in which they are the victims, and suffer emasculation and loss of manliness. The lawlessness all around the empire is depicted as marked by sexual license and absence of sexual restraints. The equation of hedonism with lawlessness and the collapse of the rule structure is suggested further by the following lines: In these uncertain times, from the morning to the evening; you should forget your sorrows and play the game of buggery. Rub perfume (‘itr) in between your butt-cheeks; rejoice in each other’s company (mil milā kar) and play the game of buggery. The world after all is mortal, and in the end we shall all die; meanwhile, just have fun and play the game of buggery This mortal abode [the world] is full of pain and sufferings; forget your sorrows (dukh bhulā kar) and play the game of buggery. [Daur ān āmad ki waqt-e subah-o shām; Dukh bhulākar gānd marawwa kheliye
Pir: spiritual guide/master.
Ibid., p. 150.
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‘Itr mal kar chutron ke beech men; Mil milā kar gānd marawwa kheliye Chun jahān fānī ast, ākhir murdan ast; Has hasākar gānd marawwa kheliye Hast in dār-e fanā pur dard-o gham; Dukh bhulā kar gānd marawwa kheliye]28
The vernacular turn and the somatic public sphere: language and embodied articulations of the state Language is an important issue here. Persian is intricately interwoven with colloquial Hindustani in these political satires, and one is tempted to ask if the unabashed nature of assault, and, more importantly, the somatic articulation of state authority, and the representation of its violence in sadomasochistic terms, are related to the expansion of the vernacular literature in this period. In the multilingual world of early modern South Asia, one does notice a strain in the vernacular literature that represents the state in corporeal terms and uses an excess of sensory metaphors with which to capture its proximate, entangled, and intimate connections with the subjects. One could take, for instance, the representation of state and sovereignty in a seventeenth century riti text, Biharilal’s Satsai. The author enjoyed the patronage of Raja Jai Singh, a chieftain of Amber in Rajasthan, but before that he had served for a couple of years at the court of the Mughal Prince Khurram (later Shahjahan) when he was stationed at Agra.29 Owing to the association of riti poets with courtly cultures, scholars tend to dismiss their work as hyperbolic adulation and flattery; among the Hindi literati they are often dubbed as darbari kavis (‘poets of the courts’).30 While it is true that riti scholars enjoyed the patronage of rulers, chieftains, and high nobles, they conveyed through their compositions a wider sociopolitical order. Often shifting from one patron to 28
Ibid., p. 151.
Biharilal, Bihari Ratnakar, ed. Jagannath Ratnakar (Varansi: Nagri Pracharini, 1959); Busch, Poetry of Kings. Also see Rekha Kumari, ‘Courtly Culture and Literary Eclecticism in Riti Literature in Mughal Empire: State, Eros and Domesticity in the Work of Biharilal’ (M. Phil Dissertation, University of Delhi, 2015); Sonia Wigh, ‘Politics, Patronage, Polyvalence – Mirza Raja Jai Singh in Biharilal’s Satsai’, Social Scientist 43, nos. 4–5 (May–June 2015), 47–64; and Sonia Wigh, ‘Sex and the Sakhi: Femininity in Bihari’s Satsai’, PIHC, 75th session, New Delhi, 2014, 282–88.
For an engaging discussion on these issues, see Busch, Poetry of Kings.
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 77
another, they skillfully deployed their literary skills not just to compose panegyrics or celebrate their patrons military exploits, but also articulate quotidian practices, popular perceptions, and social norms and values. Among the many issues that they discussed, riti poets also described popular perceptions about the state – its corporeal expressions, norms of rule, coercive abilities, and extent of legitimation. Emerging from spaces of intersubjective communication, their compositions deepened ‘the state’s moral economy’, and served to set limits on the coercive and extractive capabilities of the ruling classes and the local elites. Indeed, Bihari’s Satsai is suffused with erotic compositions, and like any riti text, it explores intimacies in the realm of courtly life and the household. Even so, it provides clues to social perceptions of the state, and amidst exhortations of appropriate conduct for the ruling classes, his couplets reveal interesting details about popular perceptions of and expectations from the state. In an unusual articulation of sovereignty along corporeal, erotized lines, Bihari says: Aware of the constituents (ang) [of his kingdom], the youthful (joban) and astute king has enhanced (izāfa) [the attractiveness of his empire’s] breasts (stan), heart (man) and eyes (nayan).31
It is striking that the author imagines the state, or more specifically its social and physical landscape, as a seductive woman whose attractiveness is enhanced by her shapely breasts, attractive eyes, and purity of heart. For her beauty to bloom, however, she requires the care and attention of the ruler who is insightful, and has the zest and energy that comes with youthfulness (joban). Here we notice a highly eroticized representation of state–subject relations, wherein the state ensures the contentment of the subjects, and the subjects find in the protection of the state a sense of fulfillment. Like a lover/groom, the state provides protection, and the subjects, akin to a good wife/beloved, in return, loyalty and obedience. In invoking intimate relations to describe the state’s relations with the subjects, he coevals eroticism with violence and at another place, draws attention to its coercive abilities. As he says: The scriptures and the wise men (siyāne log) tell us that there are three things that oppress (dabāwat) the common people: an evil person (patak), a king (rāja) and a disease (rog).32
Biharilal, Bihari Satsai, ed. Sudhakar Pandey (Varanasi: Nagar Pracharani Sabha, 1999), v. 20, p. 40.
Biharilal, Bihari Ratnagar, v. 429, p. 170.
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It is this paradox of eroticism and violence inhabiting a shared space that Bihari invokes in drawing attention to the corporeality of the state, and its embodied presence in the social landscape. It is to this that he is referring when he describes the state dominions as the female body. It is the lure of wealth, akin to the seductive charms of a female body, that draws the king to ever-new battles, conquests, and acquisitions. At one place, for instance, Bihari refers to a conquest by the Mughal forces as the acquisition of ‘a youthful woman’ (joban), adding that she was ravished, and suffered much oppression (jor) at the hands of the Mughal noble (amīr), who raised taxes (raqam) at his whims and fancy.33 Clearly here the expansion of the state over new regions and subjects is depicted as an experience that is both erotic and violent. The passivity of the subjects who need to submit to the whimsical pleasures of the state is pitted against the active, desiring state that inflicts eroticized violence against its subjects. Indeed, the state is not only imagined in corporeal terms, it is also experienced in much the same way, as impinging on the body and senses. Clearly, in certain vernacular literary articulations, the state was presented as marked by sensory excess, and it is owing to this that the ideal ruler in the early modern erotic texts, rooted in the kama tradition, was seen as the master of eros, a skilled connoisseur in the arts of pleasure (kama). In the work of someone like Bihari, interestingly, if eros is about intimacies and pleasure, it is also about violence and embodied pain. The points he seeks to drive home are two. First, the state was an organic entity, rooted in the social order, and participating in the society’s interactive and communicative spaces. Second, the state was still a coercive body, imbued with the potential of exercising considerable violence over the subjects. Just as the domain of intimacies in the household was marked by violence over the female bodies, in the spaces of the state, ruler-ruled intimacies were similarly invested with the violence of the state over its subjects. I do not think that the public sphere was demarcated by language, and most poets and scholars in the period were multilingual. Nevertheless, it does seem that the vernacular literature enriched the public sphere, and, more importantly, allowed it to reclaim a more inclusive space. It would be presumably naïve to imagine any public sphere as bereft of exclusions and boundaries, but the development of Rekhta in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries certainly occurred within an inclusive communicative space. The Urdu literary culture was clearly a part of an inclusive public space, and included scholars coming from socially inferior backgrounds. Based on the tazkiras of poets written in the eighteenth and 33
Ibid., v. 220, p. 99.
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 79
nineteenth centuries, Mahmud Sherani has provided a long list of Urdu poets belonging to less respectable professions and class/caste background. Included in his list is a mason (Muhammad Amin Nisar), a piece-cloth dealer (pārcha farosh) by the name of Husain Bakhsh, a petty shopkeeper (baqqāl) called Badruddin Maftun, a money changer (Shambhu Nath Aziz), a tailor (Muhammad Hashim Shaiq); an elephant-keeper (ﬁlbān) (Mir Sadiq Ali Khan), a barber (Inayatullah Kallu), a bonesetter (jarrāh) (Ghulam Nisar), and a water carrier (Maqsud).34 Conscious of their subordinate identities, they took their social position with pride, as no less than a badge of honour. Claiming their space in the literary public sphere, they asserted their distinctively rebellious identity in the choice of their nom de plume (takhallus). Inayatullah donned his occupation with pride, and had hujjām (‘barber’) as his takhallus.35 Muhammad Yaar Khan had no qualms about his lowly origins, and chose to have khāksār (‘the humble one’) as his self-given poetic name; he was an attendant at a shrine in Delhi, and would sweep the place and keep it tidy.36 There were also poets coming from less respectable backgrounds who challenged, through the names that they gave themselves, aristocratic norms and values: aubāsh (‘a rogue’), ‘aiyāsh (‘a debauch’), kāﬁr (‘an infidel’) and shehwat (‘lechery’/‘lust’).37 Expressing his rage at their presence in the literary public sphere, Mir Taqi Mir says: These low-born wretches (ajlāf) don’t have the disposition to appreciate the subtleties of language; [After all] What have the cloth-merchants (bazzāz) and cottondressers (naddāf) to do with poetry?38
It was within an inclusive literary sphere that the social actors, cutting across divisions of class (and caste), came together to experiment with new forms of expression and literary aesthetics. This is not the right place for a discussion on the shifts in literary culture, but we need to mention at least a couple of distinctive 34
Mahmud Sherani, Punjab Men Urdu (Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, 1960).
Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi, Tazkira-i Hindi (c. 1794–95), ed. Maulavi Abdul Haque (Delhi: Barqi Press, 1934), p. 77–78; Mir Hasan Dehlavi, Tazkira-i Shua‘ra-i Urdu (c. 1774–78), ed. Muhammad Habibur Rahman Khan (New Delhi: Anjuman Taraqqi-I Urdu, 1940), p. 50.
Dehlavi, Tazkira-i Shua‘ra-i Urdu, p. 61.
Sherani, Punjab Men Urdu.
Mir Taqi Mir, Kulliyāt-i Mīr, ed. Abdul Bari Asi (Lucknow: Nawal Kishore, 1941), p. 825.
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developments here.39 First, in what was clearly a reflection of the maturation of the language, we notice that a large number of works in other languages – in particular Persian, Arabic, and Braj – were translated for the benefit of the Urdu reading public. In the 1730s or thereabouts, Fazal Ali Fazli translated the Persian text Deh Majlis (‘Ten Assemblies’), and called it Karbal Katha.40 The text commemorated the martyrdom of Husain, and was read by the shias at their mourning assemblies. Mir Sher Ali Afsos wrote in 1802 the Urdu translation of Shaikh Sadi’s Gulistān, and called it Bāgh-i Urdu.41 And, a couple of years thereafter, Insha Ali Khan Insha wrote a book on Urdu grammar, the first of its kind.42 The second development that is quite relevant for our purposes here is that the satire (hajw) was becoming an important form of literary expression, and while it was clearly not an innovation, its appropriation to lampoon the state functionaries was certainly a distinctive development of the eighteenth century.43 As a literary form, political satires attacked individuals, institutions, and practices that were popularly deemed unjust, harsh, and cruel. They depended on humour, wit, and irony to make their point, but, as we saw earlier, just as much fell on exaggerated motifs and hyperbole to push for change. These satires, interestingly, not only ridicule the rulers and the princes, but also the petty officials in the urban centres, for instance, the ‘city magistrate’ (kotwāl) and the local judge (qāzi). It needs to be emphasized here that even when these poems mention the name of their subject, 39
On the literary culture in eighteenth–nineteenth-century India, see C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Carla Petievich, Assembly of Rivals: Delhi, Lucknow and the Urdu Ghazal (New Delhi: Manohar, 2019); Jennifer Dubrow, Cosmopolitan Dreams: The Making of Modern Urdu Literary Culture in Colonial South Asia (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2019); Tabir Kalam, Religious Tradition and Culture in Eighteenth Century North India (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013); Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995); Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Three Mughal Poets: Mir, Sauda and Mir Hasan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004, repr.); and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Fazal Ali Fazli, Karbal Katha (1732), ed. Malik Ram and Mukhtaruddin Ahmad (Patna: Idarah-i Tahqiqat-i Urdu, 1965).
Mir Sher Ali Afsos, Bāgh-i Urdu (Lahore: Majlis-i Taraqqi Adab, 1963).
Insha Ali Khan Insha, Dariya-i Latāfat (1807) (New Delhi: Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), 2012, repr.).
On humour and satire in South Asian literary culture, see Wazir Agha, Urdu Adab Men Tanz-o-Mazah (Aligarh: Educational Book House, 1990).
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their attack is not against a person, but a type – an oppressive sovereign, a corrupt qāzi, or an inefficient kotwāl. In attacking the local officials, the litterateurs often charged them with failing to provide ‘justice’, and how could they do so when they took hefty bribes and levied illegal cesses. They were also accused of lethargy and indolence, for which the residents in their towns were paying a heavy price; their lives and properties were insecure, and there was lawlessness and disorder all around. To take one such satire, Mir Taqi Mir, an eighteenth-century Rekhta poet, in a poetic composition Masnavi-e Kizb (masnavi on deceit),44 describes the breakdown of law and order owing to the incompetence of the officials. There was, he says, widespread corruption among the servants of the state, and an inclination to indulge in deception and falsehood for petty gains.45 In a similar tone, Qaim Chandpuri wrote ‘a satire on the dishonest person’ (hajw-i kāzib); this was, like Mir’s hajw, not about a person, but a type found everywhere in socio-economic life, and among all sections of society. 46 People were spreading falsehoods, and promoting lies because they did not have inspiring models to emulate; and the officials and power-holders were doing the same. This was, therefore, an indirect indictment of the state and its bureaucrats and officials. In another instance, Qaim wrote a satire on the qāzi (Dar Hajw-i Qāzi), Abdul Fath Sambhali, accusing him of indulging in corrupt and immoral practices. He charges him with taking bribes (rishwat), and for altering judgments for money. As he says: You have always had the disposition (tabi‘at) to collect bribes (rishwat), The greed (tama‘) for worldly gains has left you bereft of shame (hiya) and dignity (hamiyat). For as little as two paisas you could turn the shari‘at of the Prophet upside down, This is what the people say about you when they notice your intentions (niyat): ‘Accursed (la‘nat) be the time when you became the qāzi.’47
A masnavi is poem written in rhyming couplets, in which each couplet is self-sufficient, and stands on its own.
Mir, Kulliyāt-i Mīr, pp. 835–36.
Qaim Chandpuri, Kulliyāt-i Qāim, ed. Iqtida Husain (Lahore: Majlis-i Taraqqi-i Adab, 1965), vol. II, pp. 153–58.
Chandpuri, Kulliyāt-i Qāim, vol. II, pp. 65–68.
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Similarly, in a scathing attack on the incompetence of the state, Jurat wrote a satire on the escalation of burglaries (Dar Hajw-i Duzdī) in the city of Lucknow during the reign of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.48 In order to get a better sense of these satires directed at state officials, let us take here for a detailed discussion the masnawi that Sauda wrote to lampoon the kotwāl of Delhi, Faulad Khan (Masnawi Dar Hajw-i Faulad Khan, Kotwāl-i Dihli).49 He begins his satire (hajw) by lamenting the past when things were in order, and there was strict enforcement of law and order: Where have friends, order and administrative efficiency disappeared; and [where have gone] the days when a thief of even a piece of lemon risked losing his arm. [In those days, gone by] the turban-donning burglars were put in confinement; and the thief of [something as trivial as] a cucumber found himself dead. There was peace and tranquility in the town; and the people led a contented existence. The kotwāl abstained from bribes; and in the city, the petty thief found himself without work. [Kyā huā yāron wo nasq-o hai’at; Laimun ke chor ka kate thā hāth Bāndhā jāwe thā chōr pagdi kā; Mārā jawe thā duzd kakdi kā Shahr men kyā rahe thā aman-o-amān; Kaisī kartī thī khalq khush guzrān Thā na rishwat se kotwāl ko kām; Shahr men thāna chotte kā kām]50
The poet then goes on to describe how this tranquil world had vanished, and there was chaos and lawlessness everywhere, thanks to the kotwāl Faulad Khan. As he says: Now, wherever you go, there is a crowd of robbers, thieves and ruffians. [Ab jāhān dekho wān jhamakka hai; Chor hai thug hai aur uchakka hai]
Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, Kulliyāt-i Jur’at, ed. Nurul Hasan Naqvi (Aligarh, 1971), vol. II, pp. 142–43.
Mirza Rafi Sauda, Kulliyāt-i Sauda (Lucknow: Nawal Kishore, 1932), vol. II, pp. 378–81.
Ibid., p. 378.
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In the following couplets, he holds the kotwāl Faulad Khan responsible for the lawlessness all around. Interestingly, corruption had become a big issue, and our author accuses the kotwāl of taking bribes from petty criminals. His corrupt activities had made the thieves bold and fearless, and some among them his good friends. There was, therefore, little to distinguish the robber from the kotwāl, or the enforcer of order from the perpetuator of disorder. In the words of Sauda: If one goes [to the market] for a penny’s transaction; he would return back losing his turban, and beating his head. Why wouldn’t the affairs of the city be this way; after all, the deceitful Faulad Khan is the kotwāl. Why would the thief be scared of him; for he knows him as his close confidant [lit. ‘black hair’]. He [the thief] would recognize his strength only if he were the kotwāl; he is himself a petty thief [lit. ‘he steals the draping of the mosquito’]. He [the kotwāl] has taken bribe from him (the thief]; in his heart resides the thief. [Damri ke saude ko jo wān jawe; Pagdi kho sar ko pīt ta āwe Kis tarah shahr kā na ho ye hāl; Shaidi Faulād ab jo hai kōtwāl Chor kab uska zōr māne hain; Kālābāl usko jāne hain Ho ye kotwāl to woh māne zor; Ye to machar ki jhol kā hai chor Unse rishwat liye ye baithā hai; Uske dil men ye chor baithā hai]51
The poem highlights the issue of corruption among state officials and its deleterious effects on the lives of ordinary subjects. It relies on ridicule as an instrument of reform, and even as it mentions the kotwāl by name, the target is not Faulad Khan per se, but any corrupt and inefficient kotwāl serving in any city and town, for that matter. Using hyperbole for effect, it also seeks to invoke anger and resentment among the people. Invoking literary excess, the poet doesn’t stop at accusing the kotwāl of corruption, but goes on to describe him as no different from the burglar himself: When he [the kotwāl] goes on his round of the city; the only announcement he makes is this: ‘Listen O’ thieves to this brief call; don’t forget to send the cut by morning.’ 51
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Even though he appears as a competent (chatura) official; take a closer look, and you will see that he is actually a pick pocket. All the servants (naukar) who serve him; they are all experts in the art of stealing (fan-i-duzdī). [Gasht jab uska phirtā āta hai; Yehi narsangiya bajātā hai Sun lo chor ye mukhtasar qissa; Subh ko bhej dijiyo hissa Jo nazar bāz uska chatura hai; Khūb dekho to jeb katra hai Jitney naukar hain uske khidmatgār; Fan-i duzdi ke sab hain bānigar]52
In his inimitable style, Sauda then goes on to describe the resultant insecurities in the lives of ordinary people. As he says: The dogs bark when they hear their [the thieves’] noises; [And] the corpses get startled from eternal slumber. Nobody can afford to sleep; for the fear of the burglars keeps them restless. Slumber has disappeared from the skies as well; the moon is wide awake [all through the night]. Even when guns are fired in abundance at night; and shots rattle from the houses of merchants. These evil-intentioned burglars are ever so determined; they pinch away everything from the houses down to the articles found in bathroom. [Kutte āhat se unkī bhaunke hain; Murde khwāb-i ādam se chaunke hain Ānkh to kis bashr ki lage hai; Choron ke dar se ﬁtna jage hain Āsman par bhi mun‘adam hai khwāb; Khula rahta hai dīda-i mahtāb Lākh banduq rāt ko chooten; Kothi par sāhukār ki phūte Hain ye sargaram duzd bad-anjām; Loote hai ta khazān-i hamām]53
Towards the end of the satire, the poet refers to the city dwellers petitioning before the kotwāl, but while he gives an ear to their woes, he expresses his inability to do anything about the situation. The kotwāl said that he was ‘helpless’ (nachār), for ‘the market for petty thieves is thriving’ (garm hai chotton kā bazār). The evil, 52
Ibid., p. 379.
Ibid., pp. 379–80.
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explains the kotwāl, is so widespread that ‘who should I punish, or point a finger at, for there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t steal’ (kisko mārūn mai kisko dun gālī, chorī karne se kaun hai khāli).54
Performative publicity and the public sphere: political anger and its literary articulation As mentioned earlier, in critiquing the state, litterateurs increasingly combined satire with forms of linguistic expression that the literary purists termed as obscene and vulgar; and this was because they depicted instances of state excesses and incompetence in erotic, sexualized frames of reference. Literature of this kind was variously termed as fahhashī (‘ribaldry’) and hazl-goī (‘frivolous talk’)55 but it was anything but frivolous. These were somatic representations of the state, and in their condemnation of the state, these satires – erotic and intense – negotiated issues concerning the sphere of state’s entitlements, but also its obligations. Social communication in the public sphere was crucial in setting limits on the state’s authority, and constraining its authority to shared notions of justice. Mushafi, in his biographical dictionary of Urdu poets, Tazkira-i Hindi, mentions one Maqsud Saqqa who attracted quite a crowd when he recited his ‘obscene compositions’ at fairs and festivals.56 Another poet, Pir Khan Kamtarin, made a living from his sensual compositions. He would write his erotic poems on sheets of paper and sell those at a good price to young boys at the Ghuzri bazār in Delhi.57 Often the proclivity to compose ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ poetry turned on the state, targeting, as we saw, not just the rulers and the nobles, but also the petty officials. The kotwāl and the qāzi, it seems, bore the brunt of the attack, and we have several poets reminding them of their responsibilities, berating them either for corruption or ineptitude, and, worse still, holding them to account for the sufferings of the residents in their cities. The bold, blunt and offensive language makes for interesting reading, but it is important to see if this was owing to a specific intent and design. In Sauda’s satire mentioned earlier, the kotwāl is described as a petty thief himself, shamelessly collecting cuts from burglars. In another satire on the kotwāl, Zatalli has the choicest epithets to describe him, calling him worse than 54
Ibid., p. 380.
Agha, Urdu Adab Men Tanz-o-Mazah.
Mushafi, Tazkira-i Hindi, p. 229.
Mir Qudratullah Qasim, Majmua‘-i Naghz (1806–07), ed. Mahmud Sherani (Lahore, 1933), vol. II, pp. 143–44.
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a stray dog, a clown, and an unscrupulous person given to extortion and bribery. To give a sense of the flavour of this scathing satire on Zulfiqar Beg, the kotwāl of Delhi, let us take up a few of his couplets here. Zatalli begins thus: Evil disposition (badi khaslat), money-grubbing and ignoble temperament; these are Mirza Zulfiqar’s robes of distinction. A worthless stray dog (sag-i lendī) is better than him; for its bowwow barking noise at least keeps the thieves away. [Badi khaslat wa mumsik wa nābkār; Shuda khil‘at-e Mirza Zulﬁqār Sag-e lendi az wai nekutar būd; Ke az ‘af ‘afash duzd ra dar bud] 58
Of course, such a person is unworthy of any respect: Don’t call his name with respect; for in his wine-glass there is pus and blood. [Az in pas ba‘izzat makhuān nām; Ke reem ast wa khūn ast dar jām-i-u] 59
Describing the chaos and lawlessness that his corruption and slothfulness has brought to the city, Zatalli further says: Everywhere in the city there is clatter and din; in every market and street there are dacoits and thieves. [Ba har simt dar shahr sharr ast wa shor; Ba har ganj-o ko, dāku wa chor chor] 60
And then again: God forbid! No place in the world should have a chief (hākim) like him; disloyal to his profession, he is a blood-sucker and is loathsome [lit. dog-faced]. [Mubāda chunin hākim andar jahān; Jafā pesha, khūn khwār aur sag-e dahān] 61
Ibid., pp. 168–69 (for these verses, see p. 168).
Ibid., p. 168.
Ibid., p. 169.
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And, as in other instances, his critique subsequently takes a sadomasochistic turn: On looking at his condition, you feel like spitting sputum; [and] when you see his back while he is walking, you feel like bursting his arse. Lost in his pleasures, he is oblivious of the condition of his arse; or maybe not! The truth is that he comes from the stock of buffoons. [Thuka thukk thukk ast bar hāle-u; Phata phitt phitt ast bar chāle-u Ze masti nadārad khabar gānd kī; Na ji, balke ye nasl hai bhānd ki]62
The brazenness and brashness of the language were not without a sense of purpose, and were not simply inserted for sensationalism, or, worse still, for raw titillation. For one, these satires intended to shame the officials of the state, and prompt them to engage with the interests and expectations of the common subjects. At the same time, these poetic compositions also addressed the people, and in doing so, they were not only seeking to enhance their political consciousness, but also, and perhaps more importantly, evoke anger, with a view to goading them into political action. Historians of emotions have, in the last several decades, examined ‘anger’ as an emotion from a wide range of perspectives, but there is still a dearth of studies on anger in political spaces.63 In order to appreciate the significance of anger in the political culture, we should not see anger as an irrational sentiment or believe that it has no political connotations, because politics, after all, is a ‘rational’ activity. We should also dispense with the tendency, following Elias, to view anger, and its forceful expression, as antithetical to the reproduction of modernity. Following the insights from cultural anthropology, I see anger as playing a crucial role in political negotiations and, as in this instance, in shaping the contours of popular political bargaining with the state. Political anger was a crucial resource, and when scholars evoked it, they intended it to help constitute and reproduce a political community that actively engaged with the state in negotiations concerning its obligations towards the subjects and the reproduction of a mutually acceptable rule system.
Barbara H. Rosenwein, Anger: The Conﬂicted History of an Emotion (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020); Barbara H. Rosenwein (ed.), Anger’s Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998); Karl A. E. Enenkel and Anita Traninger (eds.), Discourses of Anger in the Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
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What do these melodramatic critiques of the state, marked by banter and ribaldry, convey about the public sphere in early modern South Asia? Surely, one of the things that they reveal is the significance of public opinion and popular participation in political spaces. As forms of bargaining with the state, they served to create dynamic spaces of inter-subjective communication where social actors contested state excesses, instituted political norms, and reshaped state–society relations. The articulation of state–society relations in intense somatic and sensorial terms in the literary–political discourse reveals the apprehension of the state not only as an extension of the body, but also as an appreciation of its intimate and embodied presence in the lives and imagination of the empire’s subjects. These satires were read out in the marketplaces (bazārs), gardens, and even the streets and corners (chowks) of the city, often amid an excited and assorted public. Written in a language that derived its vocabulary from the banter in the bazārs and an excess of onomatopoeic words, there was always an element of theatricality to these compositions. Meaning was always contingent on negotiations among social actors, but the easy flow of similes and metaphors borrowed from everyday life actually emphasizes the orality and performativity that served to structure and reproduce discourse. The early modern public sphere in South Asia was clearly structured by and found sustenance in ‘performative publicity’. In view of our analysis of extant evidence, it is fairly reasonable to suggest that what we had in South Asia in our period of study was actually a ‘performative public sphere’. It needs to be emphasized here that the South Asian performative public sphere was not insulated from the high textual tradition, and just as much as it received insights from the Indo-Islamic scholars and the high-caste Brahmans and Kayasthas, it enriched their cognitive and experiential domains as well. The insistent evaluation of the state in the public sphere, and the bold attacks on its arbitrariness, injustice, violence, and incompetence among the rooted, and, to borrow Gramsci, ‘organic intellectuals’, did modify – and alter – the perception of the state among courtly scholars and theologians. An important instance of this comes from a late eighteenth century work, Tafzih-ul-Ghāﬁlīn. Written by Abu Talib Landani in 1796–97, it provides a scathing attack on the economic policies of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, accusing him of ruining manufactures and trade. There is admittedly an element of hyperbole in his account, but it is nonetheless important in drawing our attention to how issues of economic stability, moderate taxation, and constraints on state authority had become matters of immense concern for the scholars of the period. Talib accuses the Nawab of destroying trade and commerce by enhancing taxes on the sale and purchase of goods. He also points to the state monopolies as ruining craft production and the livelihoods of merchants and artisans. He then refers to a case where an artisan manufacturing fine quality
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 89
chintz was instructed to sell his product to none other than the state. When he was found selling it to other buyers, on terms more lucrative than the one offered by the state, he and his co-workers were paraded on the streets mounted on mules, as punishment for disobeying the orders of the Nawab.64 Abu Talib is not exceptional, and increasingly during the eighteenth century, intellectuals concerned with the Mughal state were arguing for a more receptive state system, one which was attentive to the concerns and interests of the common people. One could here take the case of the well-known scholar-theologian Shah Waliullah. Given his theological orientation, he has often been criticized for his narrow political outlook, and perhaps rightly so, but the interesting thing for us is that he holds the Mughal state’s indifferent – and in fiscal matters, coercive – policies towards the subjects as responsible for the disintegration of the Mughal empire. In a chapter ‘The Conduct of Kings’ in his magnum opus, Hujjatullah Al-Baligha, one of the things that he emphasizes is that the ruler should endeavour to inculcate among his people a strong ‘bond of love’, and with that in mind, he should extend favours to them, and treat them with generosity. As he says: ‘Favors [that the ruler extends to his subjects] result in the love of the recipients and bonds of love are stronger than fetters of iron.’65 Interestingly, while he does not find any sanction for popular revolt in Islamic sacral law (except, of course, when the sovereign goes against the shari‘at or adopts policies antithetical to Islam), he does accede that peasants and artisans would rise in revolt if they were burdened with high taxation and illegal and arbitrary claims. It is interesting that popular revolts lie within the horizon of
Abu Talib Landani, Tafzihul Ghaﬁlin (1794–95), ed. Adid Raza Bedar (Rampur, 1965), p. 63. The text has been translated into English by William Hoey under the title A History of Asaf-ud-Daula Nawab Wazir of Awadh (Allahabad, 1885). I have consulted the Persian text ably edited by Abid Raza Bedar.
Shah Waliullah, Hujjatullah Al-Baligha, translated by Marcia K. Hermansen under the title The Conclusive Argument from God: Shah Wali Allah of Delhi’s Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 132–33. Shah Waliullah was a prolific writer, and was the author of a large number of books and treatises. In a study of his life and thought, Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi places the number of the known titles of his books and pamphlets to about seventy (Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Shah Wali-Allah and His Times: A Study of Eighteenth Century Islam, Politics and Society in India [Canberra: Ma’arifat Publishing House, 1980]). Hujjat remains his magnum opus, but for his political views, one could also see Al-Budur al-Bazigha. This was a companion volume to the Hujjat and provides interesting details about Shah’s views on politics, ethics, and civilization (Shah Waliullah, Al-Budur al-Bazigha, trans. Ghulam N. Jalbani [New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2005]).
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his political vision, and while he finds them lacking legal sanction, he still believes that under conditions of arbitrary and coercive rule, they were almost inevitable, and perhaps even necessary.66 Furthermore, to prevent these revolts, the state should encourage the producing classes and the artisans to peacefully engage in activities that ensure economic expansion. This means that they should not be burdened with high taxes, and he repeatedly reiterates that moderate taxation is necessary for stable government. At the same time, the peasants should be given loans and advances, and, in times of droughts and famines, fiscal remissions as well. For the traders and merchants, the state should ensure security on the highways, build and maintain inns and station-houses on trading routes, and, above all, a fair and transparent system of taxation.67 One of the issues that greatly concern him is the decline of empires, and faced with the impending disintegration of the Mughal empire before his own eyes, he looks at the Byzantine and the Sassanian empires to draw lessons. He provides a long list of explanations, but one of the main reasons for the collapse of these empires was the relentless enhancement in the burden of taxation; the high taxes on the peasants, merchants, and artisans not only destroyed economic activities but also prompted popular revolts that brought the empires down. Referring to the extravagant lifestyles of the Persians and the Byzantines, he says: [The luxuries and opulence] had penetrated the foundations of their way of life, and could not be removed from their hearts even if they were cut to pieces. Due to this an incurable disease was engendered in all of the parts of the city, and a great calamity. Not one remained of their markets or villages, nor their rich or their poor who had not been overwhelmed, dominated, and weakened by it, and in whom it had provoked sorrows and anxieties without limits. This is because these things are not obtained without significant expenditure of wealth, and such wealth is only acquired through multiplying the taxes on the peasants, merchants, and their like, and oppressing them so that if they refuse, they fight them and torture them, and if they obey they become like donkeys and cattle which are used in irrigating, threshing and harvesting, and which are only procured in order to fulfill their masters’ needs.68 66
Waliullah, Hujjatullah Al-Baligha, p. 131.
Vasileios Syros, ‘An Early Modern South Asian Thinker on the Rise and Decline of Empires: Shah Wali Allah, the Mughals and the Byzantines’, Journal of World History 23, no. 4 (December 2012), pp. 793–840; Rizvi, Shah Wali-Allah and His Times; and K. A. Nizami, Shah Waliullah ke Siyasi Maktubat (Aligarh: Aligarh University Press, 1950).
Waliullah, Hujjatullah Al-Baligha, pp. 306–07.
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Conclusion The concerns of this chapter were two-fold. The first was to examine popular perceptions of the state in the Mughal period, and the other was to explore the relations between the state and social communication. Combining the two objectives, it focused on the representation of the state in popular literature, and also looked at the discussions about the ruling classes, bureaucrats, and petty officials among social actors in public arenas. Going through these discussions, and methods and forms of representation of the state in popular discourse, I have argued – rather reiterated – that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had witnessed the development of an early modern public sphere in India. There are always risks in appropriating western concepts to explain South Asian experience, but I think the notion of a public sphere could still be fruitfully applied here. If I have insisted on using the concept here, it is to retain focus on the process of dialogic communication, and the institution and reproduction of shared perceptions of the state. While conflicts and contestations were germane, I seek to move away from a segmental frame of reference and look at cultural formations within a trans-local and inter-community frame of reference; the idea of the public sphere was found to be useful in identifying these complexities in state–society relations. At the same time, looking at state–society relations within the model of a South Asian public sphere contributes to the effort to ‘provincialize’ Europe, and helps undermine the universalist pretentions of global political modernity.69 While studying the nature of criticism against the state and its officials, I noticed that one of the tendencies was to represent state excess and indifference in somatic, sexualized terms. In several political satires that we studied here, state violence was depicted as a form of sexual violence. There was also an unusual instance where the hapless subjects were, as if to highlight their abject position and absolute lack of agency, metaphorically described as goat, and state violence against them a disdainful and outrageous act of bestiality. In slightly less blunt representations, the people were depicted as passive partners – objects of derision and mockery – in a pederastic relationship with the state. In the mentalité of the people, it seems, the state–society relations were apprehended
For details, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?’ Representations 37, no. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 1–26.
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in somatic and sensorial terms. The derision of the state and its officials was similarly articulated in a language that foregrounded bodies, senses, emotions, and sensibilities. This is an important point for it helps us situate the nature and distinctive elements of the early modern public sphere in South Asia. Unlike the Habermasean public sphere, which centred on forms of ‘communicative rationality’,70 the South Asian public sphere revolved around performative publicity. In making a case for a ‘performative public sphere’, I am not arguing for its separation from the high intellectual tradition. In fact, I have tried to show that the courtly intellectuals and scholars picked up the belligerent noises and boisterous attacks on the state and its officials, and reflected on them in their scholarly work. Dispersed around several sites of sociability, blunt assaults on the rulers, elites, and officials created a political community that transcended caste, class, and community identities. We know from the accounts of travellers visiting Delhi that the marketplace, the open platforms at the corners of streets, gardens, and coffeehouses were some of the well-known sites of sociability where people shaped and engaged with the public opinion. The presence of coffeehouses is attested by the extant sources. Known as qahwahkhāne, they were important cites of sociability, and we have evidence of their existence in the Mughal period in Shahjahanabad, Faizabad, and other urban centres.71 The interesting thing is that for the regulars there, this was not about coffee, for there were several among them who frequented the place with their own home-made coffee, only to participate in debates (munāzirah) and discussions, and, as one contemporary author says, ‘to be in the company of friends’.72 It is reasonable to assume that the qahwakhāne served a variety of beverages, even though they were identified with coffee. It seems that increasingly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tea was becoming a favoured drink for the urban residents in South Asia. This is, for example, suggested by a lengthy 70
Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Fredrick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989); also see Craig J. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere: Studies in German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
Hasan, ‘Forms of Civility and Publicness in Pre-British India’, pp. 84–104.
Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mir’at-ul Istilah (I have consulted the microfilm of the manuscript available at the Centre for Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), ff. 176(b)–177(a). See also Hasan, ‘Forms of Civility and Publicness’, pp. 103–04.
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poem in Persian written in praise of tea in 1894–95 CE. The author of the text is not known, but the copyist (kātib) identifies himself as Ghulam Ahmad.73 In this poem, the poet uses a wide range of metaphors, allusions, and hyperboles to emphasize the physical, social, and cultural qualities of tea. As he says: God (ilāhi)! this [the tea] is a mysterious drink that so appeals to the heart, That the exhilaration (masti) it provides, keeps the whole world (‘ālam) tipsy (sar khush). [Ilāhi che āb-e ‘ajab dilkash ast, ki az mastinash ‘ālami sakhush ast]74
He goes on to add other hyperbolic descriptions to share his fondness for tea, saying at one place: ‘From its heat (tāb) the heart of Moses gained fervor’ and at another place: ‘From its heat the sun gets its brilliance and splendor.’ The more important point here is that the poet also seems to recognize its welcome presence in spaces of intersubjective communication when he says: ‘[With tea in hand] the ground of conversation (zamīn-i-sukhan) becomes both green and colorful (sabz-o-rangīn).’75 Providing evidence of its consumption in literary gatherings, he says: Gatherings become colorful, and full of comfort and playfulness, The moment the porcelain tea-pot arrives [and tea is served]. When it arrives [in the assembly] the listeners greet each other, Grief is gone, and there is peace (salām) all around. [Dar ān bazm-i-rangīn pur ‘aish-o-nāz 73
Anonymous, Chaināmā, A.H. 1313/1894–95, Manuscript Section, Centre for Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University (Aligarh), Mss. No. 10. I am grateful to Lubna Irfan for drawing my attention to the manuscript. For the history of tea consumption in colonial India, see Shobhna Mijhwan, ‘Nationalizing the Consumption of Tea for the Hindi Reader: The Indian Tea Market Expansion Board’s Advertisement Campaign’, MAS 51, no. 5 (September 2017), pp. 1229–52; and Philip Lutgendorf, ‘Making Tea in India: Chai, Capitalism, Culture’, Thesis Eleven 113, no. 1 (2012), pp. 11–31. Also see Douglas Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy and Haruka Yanagisawa (eds.), Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).
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Dar āyad chun faghfur chini nawāz Kunad chun dar āyad salām ‘alaik Gham az dar bar āyad salām ‘alaik]76
There were then multiple centres for dialogic communication, with some serving coffee and others tea, and yet some others that served both. There were, of course, spaces in the marketplace (bazār) where the common people participated in the literary public sphere reshaping the norms of aesthetics and the ‘moral economy of the state’. It was within these spaces, as we have seen, that Pir Khan Kamtarin scribbled poems on a piece of paper and sold them in the Ghuzri bazār in Delhi. It was again within these spaces that the offensive poems of Maqsud Saqa were recited on such festivals as Holi by his disciples and admirers. Within these multiple sites of sociability, it was but obvious that the public sphere would be marked by performance as much as dialogic communication, speeches, and debates (munāzirah) as much as spectacle and jocular banter. We are at the moment not concerned with the menu and drink preferences, but the important point surely is that, like the Ottoman empire and modern Europe, coffeehouse sociability was an important component of sociocultural life in the period.77 While this might well be a useful resemblance, we know from the work on coffeehouse publicity in England that the congruence goes deeper; in its early phase at least the element of theatricality and banter and repartee were common to both forms of publicity. British historians have suggested that the coffeehouse public sphere, until at least the second half of the eighteenth century, was based on performative publicity. In an important critique of Habermas, Brian Cowan pointedly argues, referring to the British historical experience that the thesis of the decline of the public sphere after about the mid-eighteenth century suggested by Habermas and his followers was actually incorrect, for what had actually happened was not a decline, but rather a shift from a ‘performative’ to a ‘romantic’ public 76
Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005); Brian Cowan, ‘The Rise of the Coffeehouse Reconsidered’, Historical Journal 47, no. 1 (March 2004), pp. 21– 46; Brian Cowan, ‘Publicity and Privacy in the History of the British Coffeehouse’, History Compass 5, no. 4 (June 2007), pp. 1180–213. For the Ottoman coffeehouses, see Eminegul Karababa and Guliz Ger, ‘Early Modern Ottoman Culture and the Formation of the Consumer Subject’, Journal of Consumer Research 37, no. 5 (February 2011), pp. 737–60; and Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).
Embodiment, Sensoriality, and the Public Sphere 95
sphere. In line with changing notions of publicness, and new style of public life, ‘the performative public sphere’ gave way to ‘a new romantic style’ and the coffeehouses, from being boisterous and flamboyant spaces, now became ‘a place for quiet contemplation and unguarded relaxation by individuals’.78 We are not concerned with these issues here, but the point that I wish to emphasize is the impressive congruity in terms of the significance of performative publicity in spaces of intersubjective communication in both India and England during the early eighteenth century.
Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee; Cowan, ‘The Rise of the Coffeehouse’.
State Formation from Below Authority and Culture in Micro-Spaces
Having pursued the state in sociocultural spaces – household assets, property transactions, intra-familial disputes and inter-community conflicts, dispute resolution, and social communication – we get a sense of the depth of state– society relations, and the extent to which it was a ‘cultural formation’. In exploring the state’s participation in cultural spaces, we have not focused on events that were spectacular, or the ones that were transregional in their reach and scope; instead, we have looked at the state in its routine, day-to-day forms, and have hopefully, gained fresh perspectives and insights concerning Mughal state formation from below. This study has found merit in approaching the state within a state-in-society perspective, and one obvious realization that dawns on us from such an exercise is that the Mughal empire was not a monolithic entity, and did not exercise undivided and exclusive authority; it functioned, for much of its long, chequered existence by co-sharing sovereignty with other regional and local claimants to power. The rule ‘structure’ – if it was at all a ‘structure’ – was marked by complex and contestable relations between its varied and extremely heterogeneous components; the state was only one among several institutions and networks of rule in the localities. The view of the state, dominant among historians, as the sole and exclusive source of authority, disengaged from social forces, is one that has been obtained by focusing on the state as a top-down organizational entity, defined by the imperial court and its instruments of rule. This view obviously ignores dynamic processes of ‘state-making from below’, in particular, the vibrant interactions between the state and social forces. For us to appreciate the historical significance of these interactions, we need to look at the state not as an organization, but as a set of practices. The state, after all, was not constituted by its structural elements alone, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by its participation in what Joel S. Migdal terms as ‘the society’s multiple arenas of domination and opposition’.1 In moving 1
Joel S. Migdal, ‘The State in Society: An Approach to Struggles for Domination’, in Joel S. Migdal, Atul Kohli and Vivienne Shue (eds.), Social Power and State Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 7–34 (for the use of the above expression, see p. 9).
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to these arenas for studying the state, we obviously need to make a spatial shift away from the imperial centre – its organizational set-up, formal institutional arrangements, and so on – to state–society encounters in the localities.
The state as a sociocultural formation: engaging with Mughal historiography For a long time, historians have looked at the state in reified terms, as enjoying absolute agency over the societies it governed. They have invested the state with a unity of purpose and a unified structure, positing an aggregative state against a disaggregated society; state–society relations are then articulated through the prism of unidirectionality – an active, purposeful state impinging on a passive, fragmented social order, and transforming it in the process. In line with some of the well-known works on state formation in Europe in the medieval and early modern periods,2 Mughal historians have generally identified the state with the imperial court, and have limited its operations to its fiscal and military attributes. Focusing on the military and fiscal functions of the state, several historians have described the Mughal empire as a ‘centralized-bureaucratic empire’, governing South Asia through an ‘apparatus of rule’,3or, ‘a quasi-modern state’, possessing a disciplined army, centralized bureaucracy, uniform currency, and an organized fiscal system.4 2
See, for example, Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso Books, 1974, repr. 2013); Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
This is the title of a comprehensive dictionary of Mughal nobles by M. Athar Ali: The Apparatus of Empire: Awards of Ranks, Oﬃces and Titles to the Mughal Nobility, 1574–1658 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985).
See the following essays by M. Athar Ali: ‘Towards an Interpretation of the Mughal Empire’; and ‘The Pre-Colonial Social Structure and the Polity of the Mughal Empire’. Both the essays are found in the collection of his works entitled Mughal India: Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society and Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008). For more recent reiteration of the model, see Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘State in the Mughal India; Re-examining the Myths of a Counter-Vision’, Social Scientist 29, nos. 1–2 (January–February 2001), pp. 16–45; and Iqtidar Alam Khan, India’s Polity in the Age of Akbar (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2016).
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These views have not gone unchallenged, and among those who have done so, Stephen P. Blake is certainly the most influential. He could see that the Mughal empire did not have a formal structure, and while it did have a fiscal and an administrative system in place, it lacked elements that justified its characterization as a ‘centralized-bureaucratic state’. Instead, he argued, the concentration of authority in the hands of the royal household and the absence of a self-regulating power-base in the ‘bureaucracy’,suggested that the Mughal empire was, borrowing from Max Weber, a ‘patrimonial-bureaucratic state’.5 Blake’s formulations nudged historians to move beyond the fiscal and military attributes of the Mughal state and see it as a ‘cultural formation’ instead. Furthermore, since the defining attribute of the patrimonial state was the ‘patriarchal household’, his work pushed historians to look for relationships between gender, household, and state formation.6 Even as Blake’s formulations were markedly at odds with the more accepted centralized-bureaucratic model of the state, he shared with its advocates a firm faith in the primacy of the state in shaping social change. Looking at the state within a structural frame of reference has its obvious advantages, but it has drawbacks too. For one, we must realize that the Mughal state was not limited to its structural attributes, and it was, perhaps more importantly, shaped and modified by its engagements, material and symbolic, with the relations of power in the localities. More than a structure, immobile and steelframed, the state was reproduced by its activities in the localities, and its tenuous and intangible interactions with social forces. The tendency in the dominant Mughal historiography to view the state in terms of its structural and institutional attributes thus obfuscates state–society relations, and their significance in shaping the Mughal state. Mughal state formation was marked by dynamic interactions between the state and social forces. To appreciate the significance of these
Stephen P. Blake, ‘The Patrimonial-Bureaucratic Empire of the Mughals’, JRAS 39, no. 1 (1979), pp. 77–99; also see Stephen P. Blake, Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India, 1639–1739 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
See, for example, Rosalind O’ Hanlon, ‘Kingdom, Household and Body: History, Gender and Imperial Service under Akbar’, MAS 41, no. 5 (2007), pp. 889–923; Rosalind O’ Hanlon, ‘Manliness and Imperial Service in Mughal North India’, JESHO 42, no. 1 (1999), pp. 47–93; Ruby Lal, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in early Modern South and Central Asia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012).
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interactions, we must look at Mughal authority as it appeared and was experienced in the localities. We need to develop a perspective that allows us to view the process of state formation from below.7 What does the Mughal state look like when we examine it from below? From a top-down perspective, historians have offered several meaningful models to comprehend the nature of the Mughal state. Obviously, these models do not fit well within our frame of reference informed by state formation from below, but we need to see how best we could represent the state once our perspective shifts to the messy localities and state–society interactions in routine forms of state activities. This is something that I had attempted in my work on western India, and one of the formulations that I had then made was that the state was an organic entity, and was, in terms of its practices and technologies, only partially differentiated from the social forces.8 Of course, I was not the only one dissatisfied with the bland and one-dimensional representation of the state in early modern historiography, and several important studies have explored complexities in state– society relations in the reproduction of the structure of rule. In an important study of the socio-economic life of artisans in Rajasthan in the eighteenth century, Nandita Prasad Sahai has shown that the state had complex layers of relations with artisanal bodies, and that their caste and community based organizations were active participants in the rule system.9 In yet another important study that we shall discuss in some detail later, Munis Faruqui has highlighted the significance of princely households in the reproduction of imperial sovereignty. The suggestion here is that it was not the imperial court, but locally rooted redistributive centres of the princes that were critical to the smooth functioning of the state.10 We could indeed cite more instances, but it should suffice to end the discussion on this point by mentioning Abhishek Kaicker’s recent book
For a critical engagement with the dominant trends in the historiography of the Mughal state, see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Introduction of their edited work, The Mughal State, 1526–1750 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 1–71; and Alam and Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World. For the debates on state formation in ancient and early medieval India, see Kulke, The State in India; and Upinder Singh (ed.), Rethinking Early Medieval India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Sahai, Politics of Patronage and Protest.
Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire.
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on the political participation of the ‘public’ in eighteenth-century Delhi.11 The work demonstrates all too well the fluid inter-connections between the state and social forces, reaffirming our point that the state was a sociocultural formation, and probably had no existence outside its network of relations with the elites and the people in micro-spaces in the imperial domain. In a way, my work detects convergences with the findings of Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer who have argued from their study of the forms of the English state from the eleventh–nineteenth centuries that the process of state formation was accompanied by and co-terminus with a ‘cultural revolution’. Setting a fresh paradigm for writing about the state, they argued for the need to ‘grasp state forms culturally and cultural forms as state-regulated’.12 This was because one of the objectives of the state has always been to create technologies of ‘moral regulation’ that legitimize the state and perpetuate the social order. In the words of the authors: ‘Moral regulation is co-extensive with state formation and state forms are always animated and legitimated by a particular moral ethos.’13 Of course, the authors are conscious of the coercive capacities of the state, and it is, therefore, important to be clear as to what they mean by ‘moral regulation’: it is ‘a project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word “obvious”, what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order’.14 Even as these are promising insights for any historian interested in exploring the intersections between politics and culture, and between state formation and cultural forms, they took a very different shape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I think, from a South Asian perspective at least, we should be careful not to ignore the immense diversity in state’s relations with social forces, and it would certainly take a huge act of historical regression to see them as motivated by a uniform socio-economic system. Even so, across the heterogeneity in state–society relations, we did find in the preceding two chapters several crucial unifying developments: practical literacy, public sphere, an inclusive legal order, new media technologies of communication (for example, paper, pen, and ink), and new forms of property relations. If these developments are any indices to go by, we could argue that state participation in cultural forms 11
Kaicker, The King and the People.
Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985).
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 4.
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contributed to the emergence of early modernity in South Asia. The word participation is of some significance here, and helps us draw another important contrast with the English historical experience as interpreted by the authors of The Great Arch. Studying state formation as cultural revolution, Corrigan and Sayer have argued that state formation in England was marked by ‘state regulation of cultural forms’ (emphasis added).15 The Mughal state clearly did not have the technologies and the competence to ‘regulate’ the realm of culture; instead, it participated, along with the elites and the people, in instituting and reproducing cultural forms that perhaps facilitated the transition to modernity in South Asian history.
The visual–textual presence of the state: documents, rituals, and ‘state-building from below’ In looking at political processes from below, we need to begin by acknowledging the impressive presence of the Mughal state in the localities. The empire generated a huge mass of documents, and the visual–textual presence of the state was indeed not limited to the imperial court, but encompassed the localities as well. Imperial documents routinely addressed the localities, and local officials made extensive use of pen, ink, and paper in their routine day-to-day activities. While the details vary, we know from the extant evidence that there were detailed rituals that accompanied the reception of an imperial document in the localities. The local officials had to ride several miles, accompanied by their paraphernalia, on horses specially decked up for the occasion, to receive the document; a part of the distance, we are informed by a couple of sources, had to be covered on foot as well. Represented as the substitute of the emperor, imperial orders (farmāns) became, in the course of the rituals of their reception, his extended self. A canopy was specially constructed to lodge the imperial order, and the farmān was often placed on a pedestal constructed for the purpose. The recipient or the addressee was expected to reverentially bow before the farmān, salute it, and before reading it, touch it to his forehead, take it to his eyes, and kiss it. The interesting thing here is that the imperial order not only served to embody the emperor in a visual–textual form on the surface of the paper, but also invoked his symbolic presence in an auditory–oral form. Once received, the orders were read out in a somber and heavy tone, sometimes to the accompaniment of drums,
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before the assembled crowd.16 The textual, oral, and performative dimensions of authority were indeed fused together in the articulation of imperial sovereignty in the locality. Of course, the meanings inhering in the imperial farmāns were not just a matter of textual interpretation; they were just as crucially shaped by the rituals that surrounded them and the performances that accompanied them. It was in the spaces among these different media – the textual–visual, oral–aural and the sensorial – that the state and the local power relations interacted with each other to shape the rule structure, and articulate imperial sovereignty in a context driven by local understandings and world-views. It would indeed be simplistic to assume that orders and instructions emerging from the imperial court were unilaterally shaping the rule in the localities, imposing their meanings on a passive local society. The implications of these orders were conflictual and context-driven; their meanings were recovered in a complex engagement of the written words with rituals and performances that involved the participation of the individuals and communities in the locality. Even as text, the import of an imperial order was contingent upon the interpretation that was shared – or was arrived at – between the local officials and the local power-holders. The fate of an imperial order depended crucially upon its local acceptance and, more importantly, on what it would come to mean, and how it would be interpreted in the locality.17 If we are persuaded by the evidence of the effective implementation of imperial orders to characterize the empire as a strong, centralized state, there is equal evidence that presents a contrary picture. If the state seemed effectual at times, it also appeared, on other occasions, as no more than a paper tiger, hapless and weak before entrenched local power networks. The success or failure of imperial orders in the localities depended on the interests they served, or undermined, and the meanings that were invested in and attributed
For the rituals accompanying the arrival and reception of imperial orders in the localities, see the news-reports (akhbārāt) of Prince Azam’s headquarters in Gujarat, 1702–1704, Royal Asiatic Library (London), Morley, p. 133. A microfilm copy of the akhbārāt is available at the Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University), Aligarh, MF- 34; see, in particular, f. 38 (a). Also see J. F. Richards, ‘The Formulation of Imperial Authority under Akbar and Jahangir’; and Balkrishna Shivram, ‘Mughal Court Rituals: The Symbolism of Imperial Authority during Akbar’s Reign’, PIHC, 67th session, Calicut, 2006, pp. 331–49.
For instances of pragmatic and interested interpretations of imperial orders by local officials, see Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 110–25; also see Hasan, ‘Conflict and Cooperation in Anglo-Mughal Trade Relations’.
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to them, in and through complex negotiations between the state officials in the locality and the local power-holders. Following the hugely influential work of Walter J. Ong, historians have generally looked at orality and literacy in contrastive terms, and within a teleological framework, postulated the latter as pushing out the former.18As we noticed in chapters 2 and 3 earlier, the Mughal empire was a huge paper state, and produced a massive bulk of documents; indeed, the written word was the primary instrument of rule throughout the empire. Appointments, transfers, and dismissals, fiscal claims and realizations, and titular claims and counter-claims, and so on, were noted in written records, generating an enormous archive for the state. The expansion of ‘pragmatic literacy’ that is reflected in the administrative documentation of such range and intensity could be viewed as indicative of the extent of centralization and bureaucratization achieved by the state. Even so, the ‘pragmatic literacy’ that we see in the Mughal empire did not actually displace oral culture, but co-existed with it, and often served to extend its depth and intensity. Far from inducing the formation of a bureaucratic state, the chirographic practices of the Mughal state, entangled as they were with oral and performative actions, served to articulate the intentions of the state within a multiplicity of registers, and rendered the decipherment and implementation of state orders and instructions a joint endeavour of a range of social actors in the locality. We are, it seems, some distance from the ‘bureau rule’ in which writing has its own distinctive logic, and there is a pretense of documents and files running the routine affairs of administration, in a formal and objective manner, without much scope for the intervention of extraneous considerations. Explaining the emergence of modern bureaucracy under colonial rule in Madras, Bhavani Raman argues that the development of a modern, rational form of government was a function of ‘paperreality’, that is, the apprehension of administrative truths and bureaucratic principles within the logic of the written word – documents, files, papers, and pen.19 I tend to think that while the use of paper in Mughal India was 18
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 2002). There is a considerable, growing literature engaging with issues raised by Ong’s work. For a relatively recent inter-disciplinary effort to engage with the issues raised by Ong, see Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen (eds.), Orality and Literacy: Reﬂections across Disciplines (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). Also see Goody, Literacy in Traditional Societies; and Jack Goody and Ian Watt, ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, CSSH 5, no. 3 (1963), pp. 304–45.
Raman, Document Raj.
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quite extensive and diffused, it was still, unlike the colonial rule, not an empire based on ‘paperreality’ or ‘bureau rule’. The documents were socially contested fields, linked to oral traditions for communicating meanings. Unfortunately, our knowledge of Mughal record-making and record-keeping activities is still quite scanty, but the evidence that we examined in the preceding chapters strongly suggests that to be the case. When we look at the documents written in the period, we should bear in mind that the textual culture was interwoven with oral traditions and performative practices. Local documents were part of the social lifeworld; and integrated with the practices of groups and communities and their relations with the state, they reflected and imbibed a contextual meaning that emerged from multiple means and media of communication – auditory, tactile, and ocular. As we noticed in chapters 2 and 3, the documents emerging from the qāzi’s court were not simple textual entities, but imbibed the presence of and contestations between caste groups and communities. Looking at the local documents of property transactions and civil disputes, it is apparent that these documents not only transformed a communication into a statement, but in the process of doing so, brought bodily presences, performances, interactions, and contestations into the visual space of the paper. Signed by a large number of persons, with some among them signing as heads of their caste and sub-caste groups, others signing as influential members of the ward of residence (muhalla), these documents revealed the extent to which scribal literacy was underpinned by local participation, and the performative culture in the localities. The traces of orality and performance can also be discerned in the way that local elites often chose different languages and scripts when signing these documents, with some preferring to mark their presence with floral and geometric designs and patterns. The choice of script and designs were meant to serve as markers of community identities; their presence in the local documents revealed the nature and extent of the interactions of the local power-holders with the state in the localities. At the same time, by registering bodily presences, caste and community identities, and social interactions, these documents were both textual and performative in nature, and combined orality with literacy.20 Political anthropologists have alerted us to the significance of rituals and ceremonies in state formation, and historians have increasingly found that they need to pay more attention to the practices rather than the theories of state formation. The latter take us to its structural attributes, while the former draw our 20
Hasan, ‘Property and Social Relations in Mughal India’; Hasan, ‘Law as Contested Communication’.
State Formation from Below 105
attention to state activities in the localities. In an engaging study, Azfar Moin has emphasized the significance of millenarianism, astrology, and somatic practices for state formation in Mughal India and Safavid Iran. Drawing a distinction between text and practice, he argues that the state reproduced itself through shared beliefs and practices that extended from the Mughal and Safavid empires to the larger Islamic world and beyond to Europe.21 While these are indeed important insights, insofar as the Mughal state is concerned, we see that the distinction between text and practice is rather inappropriate. For, at least in the Mughal case, scribal literacy was embroiled in a largely auditory culture, and texts were imbibed, and read and understood, in and through shared (and occasionally contentious) readings, performances, and rituals. If the Mughal documents brought the state – represented through the qāzi’s seal or the muftī’s signature, for instance – into visual space, they also similarly brought into visual presence the local balance of power relations, and caste and community interactions as well. If they reinforced the state, they also buttressed the local relations of power.
The textual space as a contestatory site: handbills, petitions, complaints, and the making of the normative order Entwined with the social lifeworld, as I argued earlier, scribal literacy was appropriated by social actors in the locality to defend their interests and aspirations. It was both an instrument of the state to impose authority and a tool for caste groups, community heads, and the ordinary subjects to modify, constrain, and redefine the rule structure. The ‘visual space’ had become a contentious site, and both the state and the locally dominant groups participated in the space, through techniques of appropriation and negotiation, to protect their interests and represent the state within contexts that were driven by local meanings and relevance. Given the conflicts that surrounded these texts – words in visual space – they were occasionally seen as threats, and we have instances of affected persons setting them on fire, or stealing them and returning the documents only when ordered by the court!22 Yet it needs to be understood that the texts were still not autonomous, and did not exist as isolates; their relevance and meanings were derived from their social contexts, local participation, and performative practices. Claims and counter21
Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
Hasan, ‘Property and Social Relations’.
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claims were, as we know from the records of the qāzi’s courts, validated by the written document – a farmān, a parwāna, a dastak, an agreement or contract (‘ahd), and so on – but they still required attestation from the local elites and influential residents in the neighborhood. And, where an aggrieved complainant did not have a written document to back his claim, he could, largely through an oral–performative exercise, create one, with the willing cooperation of the local society. Known as mahzar or istishhādnāmā, this was something like a handbill asking willing local elites to affirm and attest the validity of the claims of the claimant. Once they placed their signatures on the document, and verified the authenticity of the claims, the document ipso facto became a ‘legal instrument’. Indeed, they verified the claims of the complainant on the basis of not a written record, but local communication and memories, as well as orally shared beliefs and understanding. Handbills were one of the important tools through which local power-holders and subordinate social groups appropriated the ‘written surface’, conflict-ridden and multi-vocal, and participated in the political process and defended their interests and aspirations in the rule structure. They depended on this device in a wide range of situations: to secure protection from arbitrary exactions, to affirm their titular claims, to draw attention to a violent act by a state official, and to highlight the customary obligations of the state and the local elites towards the indigent, the deserving, and the places of worship. Seeking to affirm the rules of governance and ‘justice’, this was an important instrument through which the people in the localities negotiated with the political system, and set limits on what was acceptable and unacceptable in the exercise of authority. Several such handbills from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century western India highlight instances of infringements by state officials, and these were often defined as ‘innovations’ and violations of customary usages. Some among them were intended to affirm the moral obligations and responsibilities of the ruling classes and the local elites in the locality; indeed, these obligations and their repeated invocation served to foster the myth of a political system that was consensual and considerate to the common subjects.23 In one such bill, the keeper of a local mosque in Surat describes the dilapidated condition of his mosque and the lack of funds for its upkeep, reminding the local officials and the elites of their responsibilities towards its maintenance. The bill ends by asking all those who were aware of the facts of the matter to lend their support by attesting the details.24 Such handbills actually 23
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Ms. Blochet, 482, BN., f. 215 (b)–216 (a).
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come from all over the Mughal empire; as instances of scribal literacy from below, they reveal the extent to which social forces interacted with the state in shaping the rule structure. One of their important functions was to check abuse of power. In a mahzar of 1676 CE, to take an instance, the petitioners, Ahmad, Muhammad Arif, and Ghiyasuddin, allege that a qāzi’s family, in collusion with the revenue collector (karōrī), Nur Muhammad, had illegally occupied their land in the township (qasba) of Kantura and adjoining villages, which had been in their hereditary possession as a revenue-free grant (madad-i-mu’āsh). When the court sent troopers (sawārs) to settle the matter, the father of the qāzi, Muhammad Sharif, supported by one of his relatives, Taj Mahmud, and the aforesaid karōrī, raised a militia and attacked and harassed the imperial troops. Asking for witnesses to come forward, the bill indicates the extent to which the state in the locality was embroiled in the local networks of power relations. While the court was unsuccessful in checking the abuse of power by its officials such as this qāzi, local power-holders were not without resources of their own – their means of mobilization, protest, and opinion-making – to combat them, and to constrain the state within a shared, if still conflictual, framework of norms of rule. The document ends by asking people who were aware of the incident to lend their signatures, and attest to the veracity of the allegations made by the petitioners.25 Of course, we need to bear in mind that petty officials were often recruited from within the locality, and this gave them an undue advantage over their rivals in their village and townships (qasba). This was a source of considerable misgivings and we find several mahzars emerging from such resentment. There is a mahzar belonging to the early eighteenth century where the thānedār of a village called Aliganj, in Awadh, is accused of raiding and confiscating the cattle of the villagers in Madhaupur and Shaikhupur (in Awadh); he is also charged with murdering one Lakhan during one such raid. In an instance of the disjuncture between the various segments of the state, the mahzar informs us that the thānedār continues to hold the cattle, despite repeated instructions from the imperial court, the governor (nāzim) of the sūba, and the qāzi to return them to their rightful owners.26 The document reveals the extent to which state activity was embroiled 25
Mahzar, 19 May 1676, U.P. State Records Series (Oriental Records), S. A. Rashid (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records (Allahabad: Government Central Records Office, 1959), vol. III, pp. 2–3.
Mahzar, 1716, U.P. State Records Series, S. A. Rashid (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records, vol. III, p. 9.
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in local networks of power relations, and persistently risked being identified with one or the other factions in the locality. In such situations, the affected parties could approach the other segments of the state, and invoke the socially acceptable norms of rule. These shared norms could well be seen as constituting ‘the moral economy of the state’, a term that has been used by political anthropologists to refer to a framework of local customs, rights, entitlements, and obligations that eventually served to distinguish the acceptable from the unacceptable in the system of rule.27 The state’s moral economy provided the essential backdrop to the negotiations of the subjects with the state over issues of ‘justice’ and rightful claims and entitlements. In another mahzar from Bahraich (in the sūba of Awadh) in the early eighteenth century, we get a sense of the nature of conflicts between different landowning groups, but, more importantly, the document also reflects a growing repugnance towards vengeful violence in the locality. By narrating the violence in these conflicts, the bills perhaps intended to weaken the legitimacy of the state, crucially based as it was on its ability to bring peace and order. More importantly, it also sought to pressure the state to intervene in the interest of ‘justice’ and responsibilities of rule. In this particular document, several landowners in Bahraich, who describe themselves as ‘victims of cruelty and oppression’, ask witnesses to come forward and attest the details of the attack by Rajput chieftains on their villages in which members of their families were killed and their women burnt alive. With gory details, the mahzar further informs the audience that during the raid, family members were paraded naked, their havelis were plundered, and their belongings taken away by the raiders. In what was clearly the most unacceptable affront, their ancestral graveyard was razed to the ground, and converted into a cultivable field. The document concludes by asking witnesses to lend their support to these victims of violence and untold misery by putting their signatures to the document under circulation.28 The scribal–literate space was thus quite clearly a contentious space, and was available for both the state and the social actors in the localities to defend their goals and interests. The handbill was one of the important means through which the local power-holders and ordinary subjects participated in the political process, reshaped and modified the rule structure, and defended their interests within it.
Munro, ‘Power, Peasants and Political Development’.
Mahzar, 1716, U.P. State Records Series, S. A. Rashid (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records, vol. III, pp. 8–9.
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At the same time, when local societies or their segments appropriated ‘the writing surface’, they also affirmed and reshaped the state’s moral economy, setting limits on what was permissible and impermissible in the system of rule. In the armoury of the local elites and subjects, there were, besides handbills, other weapons too that served the same objective, and among them, perhaps the most significant were the petitions (‘arzdāsht) that they wrote to the petty officials, the nobles, and the imperial court. Unfortunately, scholars of the Mughal period have not studied the petitions in any significant detail, but these were indeed important political activities, and provide us with instances of state-building from below. Of course, our interest in petitions owe a great deal to the pioneering work of Natalie Zemon Davis who has recovered social perceptions of state, gender, time, and family from her study of the letters of remission that those convicted of serious offences, particularly homicide, wrote to the imperial court in France. Seeking forgiveness for their crimes, these petitions are accompanied with ‘pardon tales’, a fictional narrative of the extenuating circumstances – incidental, morally legitimate, or inevitable – under which the offence was committed. Davis focuses on the element of storytelling in these petitions, for the request for remission had to be accompanied with a ‘story’ that represented the crime as morally and legally acceptable.29 We do not have any such letters of remission for the Mughal period, and if they ever existed, they have not survived. Even so, the petitions in the Mughal period were not without their element of story-telling, and the stories they tell are often suffused with instances of violations of justice, rejection of timehonoured traditions and usages, unacceptable violence, and so on. Emerging from the conflict-ridden locality, they allowed social actors to interact with the state, participate in the political process, and reaffirm the moral economy of the state. They were still stories, and instead of looking at these petitions as instances of social distress, we should view them as instances of political participation where individuals, communities, and caste groups invoked shared norms of rule to weaken their local rivals, remove an inconvenient local official, buttress their local influence, and ultimately embroil the state in local power relations, tenuous, divisive, and fragmented.
Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). Also see J. E. Shaw, ‘Writing to the Prince: Supplications, Equity, and Absolutism in SixteenthCentury Tuscany’, Past and Present 215, no. 1 (2012), pp. 51–83.
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In the early history of Islam, it was a well-established practice for subjects to send petitions to rulers or high provincial officials, seeking justice against the wrongdoing of a petty local official or to seek their intercession in situations of distress and grief. Couched in a formulaic language of abject submission and deference, these exchanges of the subjects with the court legitimized imperial sovereignty, deepened the hierarchical relations between the rulers and the subjects, and served as important instruments for the interaction of social forces with the state. There were special institutions – the mazālim courts, for instance – that were entrusted with the responsibility of looking into the complaints and supplications of the subjects before the rulers and their representatives.30 Later in the Ottoman empire, a special office of the Dīvān-i-Humayun (the Imperial Council) was set up to examine the petitions of the subjects addressed to the ruler. In the Ottoman provinces, the governor would convene special meetings, called meclis-i ser, to look into complaints filed by the subjects.31 The case of the Ottoman empire is instructive here, for it was contemporaneous with the Mughal empire, and shared with the latter Timurid-Mongol antecedents. Even so, in terms of the volume of the extant archival and literary sources, the Ottomans are better served than the Mughals, and it is perhaps owing to this crucial difference that the Ottoman historians have paid much closer attention to instances of local appropriation of the textual space – the petitions (arzuhals) and complaints (sikayet) – than has been the case with the historians of Mughal India. In her study of the petitions that were presented before the imperial court, and the sultanic rescripts that followed them in the Ottoman empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Suraiya Faroqhi has argued persuasively that petitioning was not an inchoate expression of despair, or even discontent, but was 30
Mathieu Tillier, ‘Qadis and the Political Use of the Mazalim Jurisdiction under the Abbasids’, in Christian Lange and Maribel Fierro (eds.), Public Violence in Islamic Societies: Power, Discipline, and the Construction of the Public Sphere, 7th–19th centuries CE (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 42–66; David E. Long, ‘The Board of Grievances in Saudi Arabia’, Middle East Journal 27, no. 1 (1973), pp. 71–75; J. S. Nielsen, Secular Justice in an Islamic State: Mazalim under the Bahri Mamluks, 662/1294–789/1387 (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 2009).
See Yuval Ben-Bassat, Petitioning the Sultan: Protests and Justice in Late Ottoman Palestine (London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013), pp. 30–33; also see Halil Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300–1600 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), pp. 91–93; and Michael Ursinus, Grievance Administration (Sikayet) in an Ottoman Province: The Kaymakam of Rumelia’s ‘Record Book of Complaints’ of 1781– 1783 (London and New York: Routledge-Curzon, 2005).
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actually an important political activity for the Ottoman taxpayers (reaya), one that was intricately tied to ‘the problem of Sultanic legitimation’.32 Examining the issues that the petitioners brought before the court and the language that they used in drafting their petitions, her work brings to light the significance of these textual practices in shaping and reinforcing imperial sovereignty in the Ottoman empire.33 The Mughal archive contains important petitions (‘arzi/‘arzdāsht) that have scarcely been studied by historians. A much larger corpus of information about these petitions, however, comes from the rescripts that resulted from the petitions, for while instructing the local officers concerned they summarize the contents of the petitions that prompted the order. Of course, in such instances, it is to be expected that the text of the petitions would have gone through a pruning and disciplining process, in order to ensure that the petition conformed to the literary practices and expectations of courtly culture. Interestingly, there is a good number of petitions that concern intra-community conflicts, and these suggest that the state was crucially constituted and reproduced in the localities within spaces generated by the failure of mediation mechanisms among the caste and community groups. Thus, when there was a dispute in the 1640s between Radha Kishan Das, an appointee of Raja Jai Singh, and Kanshi Ram over ritual precedence and the charge of the maintenance of Govind Dev temple at Vrindavan, the former petitioned the court and secured the support of the state in the matter. The local officials were instructed to assist Radha Kishan in the discharge of his duties, and to prevent
Suraiya Faroqhi, ‘Political Activity among Ottoman Taxpayers and the Problem of Sultanic Legitimation (1570–1650)’, in Suraiya Faroqhi, Coping with the State: Political Conﬂict and Crime in the Ottoman Empire, 1550–1720 (Istanbul: ISIS Press, 1995), pp. 13–41; Suraiya Faroqhi, ‘Political Initiatives “From the Bottom Up” in the Sixteenth and the Seventeenth Century Ottoman Empire’, in Suraiya Faroqhi, Coping with the State: Political Conﬂict and Crime in the Ottoman Empire, 1550–1720 (Istanbul: ISIS Press, 1995), pp. 1–11; Suraiya Faroqhi, ‘Guildsmen Complain to the Sultan: Artisans’ Disputes and the Ottoman Administration in the 18th Century’, in Hakan T. Karateke and Maurus Reinkowski (eds.), Legitimating the Order: The Ottoman Rhetoric of State Power (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), pp. 177–93; Also see Ben-Bassat, Petitioning the Sultan; Baldwin, ‘Petitioning the Sultan in Ottoman Egypt’.
Faroqhi, ‘Political Activity’.
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Kanshi Ram from obstructing him in his work at the temple.34 Later, in 1644, when the faction opposed to Raja Jai Singh invited some dancers to the temple, the local officials were again instructed to evict the dancers from the temple complex.35 It was not just the temples that saw such intra-community conflicts; we see similar conflicts occurring at Muslim shrines, mausoleums, and places of worship as well. It was within such conflictual spaces that the state was legitimized and reproduced in the localities. A document of 1681 mentions that Shaikh Inayatullah, the trustee of the shrine of the suﬁ pir Shah Madar in Makanpur (in present day Uttar Pradesh) had sent a petition to the emperor expressing his inability to control the miscreants who, encouraged by his foes and opponents, were defiling the sacred space by drinking wine, refusing to offer prayers, and stealing the offerings (nazr). The court dispatched soldiers – horsemen (sawārs) and foot soldiers (piyādas) – for the assistance of Shaikh Inayatullah.36 In the Mughal archival sources, there is a significant number of petitions that concern the abuse of authority by petty officials in the localities. A document issued in 1672 states that the pious and saintly families enjoying revenue-free grants (madad-i-mu‘āsh) in sarkār Bahraich (in sūba Awadh) had complained against the qāzi Wali Muhammad alleging that he had usurped their land, and was even collecting revenues from the peasants cultivating in the land that belonged 34
Parwana of Azam Khan, 18 July 1643, Acquired Documents, 2671/8, NAI. The Vrindavan Documents are scattered at several places, and Tarapada Mukherjee and Irfan Habib made an effort to bring them together, and jointly introduced them in several articles: ‘Akbar and the Temples of Mathura and its Environs’, PIHC, 48th session, Goa, 1987, pp. 234–50; ‘The Mughal Administration and the Temples of Vrindavan during the Reigns of Jahangir and Shahjahan’, PIHC, 49th session, Dharwad, 1988, pp. 287–300; ‘Land Rights in the Reign of Akbar: The Evidence of the Sale Deeds of Vrindavan and Antha’, PIHC, 50th session, Gorakhpur, 1989–90, pp. 236–55. Also see Irfan Habib, ‘From Arith to Radhakund: The History of a Braj Village in Mughal Times’, Indian Historical Review 38, no. 2 (December 2011), pp. 211–24; and Irfan Habib, ‘A Documentary History of the Gosain Sect at Vrindavan’, in Margaret H. Chase (ed.), Govindadeva: A Dialogue in Stone (New Delhi, 1996), pp. 131–59. The National Archives has acquired some of these documents, including the ones that I mention here. In a recent publication, Irfan Habib has brought these documents together and has scrutinized them with competence in Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee, Braj Bhum in Mughal Times: The State, Peasants and Gosa’ins (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2020).
Parwana of Azam Khan, 25 January 1644, Acquired Documents, 2671/9, NAI.
Parwana of Asad Khan, 27 June 1681, Acquired Documents, 2668/11, NAI.
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to them. The complainants further allege that the qāzi had occupied land in the region far in excess of the area that was granted to him.37 In another document, the petitioners allege that their ‘hereditary property’ and the land they held in residential areas in Selak and Hasampur, in Awadh, had all been occupied by one Saiyad Jafar, in collusion with the same qāzi, Wali Muhammad, who was his close relative.38 While some of these petitions might well be addressing real instances of maltreatment and violence, we should not lose sight of the political context within which these were signed and forwarded to the court. A petition by a group or an individual was a political act, an instance of participation in the system of rule that often led to strategic negotiations and not infrequently shifts in the balance of local relations of power. If the petitioners played their cards well, there were good enough chances for them to remove the ‘corrupt’ officer, and replace him with someone more congenial to their interests. In several instances from our period in western India, a local official was removed as a result of the petitions from the local power-holders, and where they failed to do so, there was still a substantial modification to the rule structure in the locality.39 In a document issued in 1669, we come across an instance of the village headmen and chiefs in sarkār Mandu, in Malwa, coming together to collectively petition against the ‘oppression’ of the faujdār (officer in charge of peace and order), amin (revenue assessor), and karōri (revenue collector), accusing them of tyrannizing the peasants and ruining cultivation. In what seems to be an instance of one faction successfully prevailing over the other, all three officials were removed and replaced with persons acceptable to the village intermediaries.40 Petitions, complaints, hand-bills, and so on, were forms of interaction with the state; invoking the authority of the state in patrimonial terms – in a language that was marked by deference and humility and affirmed the court as a place of justice and compassion – they reinforced imperial sovereignty and reproduced it as a legitimate and valid institution. They were tactical chirographic and performative practices through which the local elites and the common subjects participated in the rule structure, and helped shape the state’s moral economy and the nature of its activity in the locality. Seeking to draw a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable practices in state activity, they allowed subjects to protect their 37
U.P. State Records Series, S. A. Rashid (ed.), A Calendar of Oriental Records, vol. III (Allahabad: Government Central Records Office, 1959), p. 16
Ibid., p. 16.
Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India.
Hukm (court order), 1669, Acquired Documents, 2703/21, NAI.
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interests and negotiate with the state in setting the framework of rule – setting limits on what could be deemed legitimate practices in the exercise of authority. Of course, along with these chirographic devices, the subjects in the localities had several other weapons in their armoury. While instances of outright revolts are not absent, the more acceptable forms of protest centred on what James Scott terms as ‘routine’ or ‘everyday forms of resistance’;41 these included temporary migration, sit-ins and dharna, refusal to pay taxes, and so on. As forms of political bargaining with the state, these activities should not be seen as inchoate expressions of distress and anarchy, but as important mechanisms through which the local power-holders and common subjects articulated their political agency and participated in the rule structure.42 The important thing to emphasize here is that state–society interactions occurred within a shared normative space, and even as conflicts and contestations were frequent, even routine, the social actors and caste and community groups defended their interests and resisted state excesses not by undermining the shared norms and values, but by manipulating them, and by exploiting their silences and ambiguities. The normative order was both shared and contested; described in the Mughal sources vaguely as shari‘a, it was the ambiguity and the malleability in the order that permitted both the dominant and the dominated social groups to selectively appropriate it to protect and enhance their material and symbolic interests. Tied to customary practices, the shari‘a was locally understood as a shared order, a space within which the social actors – the elite and the common people alike – negotiated with each other to defend their interests and aspirations. We come across a large number of instances from western India that show how socially inferior groups, in particular women, petty merchants, and the lesser gentry, were manipulating the normative system to protect their interests and aspirations.43 In western Rajasthan, it seems the shared norms were called wajabi, or ‘legitimate practices’; like the shari‘a in the Mughal domains, wajabi, as we come to know from Nandita Sahai’s work, was invoked by the caste councils and the common artisans to set limits on what was permitted and unacceptable in the
James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); also see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
Sahai, ‘Crafts in Eighteenth Century Jodhpur; also see Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India, pp. 52–70.
Ibid., pp. 71–90.
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system of rule.44 In his work on precolonial Kota in Rajasthan, Norbert Peabody similarly draws attention to the incessant negotiations and resistance that occurred within this shared moral universe when he defines the rule structure as ‘a form of institutionalized dissidence’.45 Clearly then, the state both shared and participated in the cultural spaces in the localities, and there is a point in describing it as a ‘cultural formation’. Indeed, as mentioned earlier in the chapter, when the authors of The Great Arch made an effort to explore early modern state formation in England in cultural terms, they provided a refreshingly new perspective that looked at the junctures between the political processes and cultural formations.46 Even as our study concurs in emphasizing the significance of these junctures in shaping the system of rule, the historical situation in early modern South Asia was, in at least two respects, far more complex. For one, the cultural spaces were multi-agentive, and the state was just one actor among many others that shaped the normative system. While we are not sure if the centrality that Corrigan and Sayers assign to the state is valid even for early modern England, it does seem quite inappropriate for Mughal India. Second, following from the first, within these cultural spaces, the relations between the state and social forces were not unilineal, but were, more appropriately, recursive and mutually transforming. The nature of local participation in shaping the rules of dominance is evident from the instance of a petition (‘arzdāsht) found in an early eighteenth-century collection of documents concerning the Mughal rule in Sind, called Jamm-i Badi‘.47 In the petition, the petitioners have a whole list of grievances against the local administration in Siwistan and Bhakkar in Sind.48 The local officials, supported by ‘the pious scholars’ (‘ulema-i huzūr purnūr), have established their own markets (mandis) and force the merchants to purchase and sell their goods at 44
Sahai, ‘Artisans, the State, and the Politics of Wajabi in Eighteenth-Century Rajasthan’; also see Sahai, Politics of Patronage and Protest.
Norbert Peabody, Hindu Kingship and Polity in Pre-colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Corrigan and Sayer, The Great Arch.
A copy of the manuscript is found at the Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh). My attention was drawn to this manuscript by the following two articles by M. Afzal Khan: ‘Mughal Administration in Sind: Some Early Eighteenth Century Documents’, PIHC, 51st session (Calcutta, 1990), pp. 254–58; and ‘Local Administration in Sind: A Study of Some Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century Documents’, PIHC, 52nd session (New Delhi, 1991), pp. 284–91.
Anonymous, Jamm-i Badi‘, ff. 37(a)–41(a).
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these assigned markets, so that they can tax them at will. Raising an important issue concerning the state’s moral economy, the petition argues that merchants cannot be taxed arbitrarily, and in fixing their tax obligations, they should be consulted, and their consent needs to be obtained. Instead, the revenue-collectors (‘amils) forcibly seize the goods of merchants and realize their dues with the support of ‘the demon-like tax-gatherers’ (muhassilān-i dev sūrat) and ‘foot-soldiers carrying vile dispositions (piyādgān-i mahqarat sīrat)’. The officers (mutasaddis) hire boats from the boatmen (mallāh), and then rent them out on higher rates to desperate merchants; and here again, they are supported by the qāzi, the jurists (fuqaha), the darogha, and others. The revenue-grantees have been subjected to untold suffering by the unjust exactions of the state officials, and some among them have been reduced to abject poverty (gadāi). The village headmen and the peasants are overtaxed by the revenue collectors, and in times of agrarian distress, the state failed to provide them with any relief and assistance.49 While these complaints are indeed instances of local participation in the rule structure, they also seek to constrain authority and affirm the distinction between what is acceptable and unacceptable in state activity in the localities. As a form of conversation with the state, what is even more significant about this petition is that it is prefaced with a normative prelude highlighting the moral economy of the state. Even as they use a language that is deferential and submissive – describing the imperial court as ‘the threshold of magnificence, grandeur and glory (āstān-i ‘azmat-o ajlāl wa aiwān abhāt-o iqbāl) – the petitioners take care, in their prefatory remarks, to remind the court that the affluence of the empire depends on three things: (a) in all matters, the state should conduct itself with justice, and nobody should suffer oppression; the state should “endeavor to secure peace and comfort” (aman-o asāish)’ for the subjects; (b) state actions should reflect ‘the consent (razāmandī) and support (khushnūdī)’ of the people; the hapless and distressed among them, should be provided sustenance, in much ‘the same way that one supports his sons’; and (c) the revenue collectors (‘āmils) should be prohibited from realizing anything in excess of the state demand; in all matters, they should go by the shari‘at.50 Concluding their exhortations, the petitioners further add: ‘Let not your orders and acts [lit. ‘pen and foot’ qalam wa qadam] smack of oppression and injustice (zulm-o sitam), retrace your steps and confine them within the limits of moderation (‘itidāl).’51 49
Ibid., ff. 38(a)–40(b).
Ibid., ff. 37(a)–38(a).
Ibid., f. 38(a).
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State–locality interactions and the process of rule It is evident from the evidence that the political process in the locality was marked by a persistent dialogue between the state and its subjects. The interchanges between them occurred within a shared normative space and mutually established rules of dominance. Conflicts and resistance were incessant, but they did not serve to breach the framework of norms and rules; since the resistance in the locality operated through techniques of appropriation and manipulation, it actually reinforced the ideological order and the authority of the state. At the same time, when a caste or community head or an individual resisted or challenged the state, he did not see it as an external, reified entity. In the localities, the state was experienced as a part of the social order, and protests against state officials were informed by local politics, particularly, the shifting relations of power in the localities. In an important study of Mughal princely households, Munis Faruqui has argued that these households were crucial conduits for the maintenance of state– society relations, and princely competition, far from weakening the empire, actually strengthened it. The competition forced the princely households to reach out to warrior elites, local power-holders, and caste groups, and establish enduring alliances with them, which ultimately only buttressed the Mughal empire.52 If the princely households were one such institution that negotiated with local society on behalf of the state, scholars working on the biographical dictionaries (tazkiras) of the nobles and the ruling classes have argued that the aristocratic households were pretty much doing the same in the scattered regions of the empire.53 These elite households, commanding considerable resources of their own, maintained extensive networks of patronage and influence in the localities, and their networks, like those commanded by the princes, strengthened the empire and deepened its
Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire.
Afzal Husain, ‘The Establishments, Households, and the Private Life of Mughal Nobles’, PIHC, 68th session, Delhi, 2007, pp. 282–91; Shivangini Tandon, ‘Remembering Lives in Mughal India: Political Culture and Social Life in Indo-Persian Tazkiras, 16th–18th centuries’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delhi, Delhi, 2016); Shivangini Tandon, ‘Mooring the Mughal Tazkiras: Explorations in the Politics of Representation’, NMML Occasional Paper, History and Society (new series), no. 40, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Publications, New Delhi, 2013; Corinne Lefevre, ‘The Court of Abd-ur-Rahim Khan-i-Khanan as a Bridge between Iranian and Indian Cultural Traditions’, in Thomas de Bruijn and Allison Busch (eds.), Culture and Circulation: Literature in Early Modern India (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2014), pp. 75–106.
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penetration in the locality. Furthermore, the princely and the elite households were largely managed and serviced by the scribes, accountants, agents, brokers, and soldiers recruited from the local society; the dependence of the households on their skills and services was such that they could scarcely afford to be insulated from their inputs, influence, and control. At a more structured level, the local office-holders commanded elaborate establishments that were controlled and managed by the rooted power-holders and skilled specialists recruited from local society. Given the patrimonial nature of imperial sovereignty, the establishments of the local office-holders were quite akin to and in most instances almost indistinguishable from the elite households. Within these establishments, authority was pre-eminently articulated in patriarchal terms, and was based on informal, affective relations with constituents of the local society. Indeed, the local office-holders were significant brokers of authority, communicating the state to the local society and vice versa, but the extent of their success crucially depended on their ability to traverse the two worlds – the imperial and the local – and render them meaningful and intelligible to each other. Their job was a tough one – balancing imperial aspirations with local realities, and translating imperial orders in a language that could relate with the local experiences and world-views. In a significant study of British state formation in the seventeenth century from the perspective of the localities, Michael Braddick has argued that the success of state formation in early modern England was largely owing to the local brokers of authority, who were able to mediate between imperial objectives and local interests and norms largely because of the discretion that the process of rule allowed them.54 As he puts it: ‘The great strength of the government by officeholders was this discretion – fitting central policy to local needs.’55 In this, of course, the Mughal state was scarcely different, and the local officials had the discretionary powers to mould, reinterpret, and, occasionally, even ignore imperial instructions and formal policy affirmations; in certain localities such as the port-towns, the local office-holders enjoyed near-autonomy in the rule process, and this gave them the required freedom to establish and maintain political networks in the localities, and
Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, c. 1550–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); also see Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, c. 1550–1640 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000).
Ibid., p. 142.
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reshape and modify the rule structure in terms of local interests and life-worlds.56 The state was shaped as much (if not more) by its interactions in the localities as by its institutional arrangements, imperial orders and instructions, and military and fiscal constraints. To cite Braddick once again, if only to highlight the convergences between England and South Asia in the early modern period: We often read that the state did things and even sometimes that it wanted things, and yet the state is nothing that can be touched or seen, let alone questioned about its motives. It is argued here that the state does not want or do things; people want the state to do things, and they have varying degrees of success in achieving their ends…. The state … was useful to all sorts of people in early modern England and far from having to penetrate the localities [the state] was frequently invited in – state power pervaded the localities, embodied in the actions of innumerable individuals invoking its authority.57
From the vantage point of the locality, indeed, one cannot but be struck by the complicated layering and plurality of power relations. Locating the state within these relations, it does seem evident that the system of rule was instituted and reproduced by what Andre Holenstein describes as ‘empowering interactions’ between the state and the local societies.58 How did the nature of these interactions change in the early modern period, and how did these changes reflect in the shifts in the rule structure? Given the changes in the media of communication, and the greater 56
Farhat Hasan, ‘The Mughal Port Cities of Surat and Hugli’, in Lakshmi Subramanian (ed.), Ports, Towns, Cities: A Historical Tour of the Indian Littoral (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2008), pp. 78–93.
Braddick, State Formation, pp. 90–93.
See Andre Holenstein’s introduction in Blockmans, Schlappi, and Holenstein, Empowering Interactions, pp. 1–31. Elaborating the concept, he says: The concept of ‘empowering interaction’ describes a specific communicative situation emerging from diverse, but nevertheless reciprocal interests and demands from both the state’s representative and members of local societies…. ‘Empowering Interactions’ suggests that both the representatives of particular interests and the state benefited from such interactions. In a specific sense, both parties became more powerful: the bearers of particular interests received authoritative support, while the state broadened its social acceptance and legitimacy. (pp. 25–26)
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reliance of the state on paper, ink, and pen as instruments of rule-making and the exercise of authority, the Mughal period saw a greater intensity of communication between the state and society. The thrust towards centralized bureaucratization that this might have induced was, however, promptly compromised by the considerable orality that continued to be attached to the scribal tradition. Moreover, literacy not only served to convey imperial intentions and policies, but was creatively appropriated by local actors and caste and community groups to participate in the process of rule and promote their interests within the political system. Even so, the intensified communication did lead to some accumulation of legitimate political authority in the hands of the state, but this was by no means a result of a hierarchical top-down policy of the imperial centre, but, more crucially, a function of local initiatives and ‘pressures from below’. The increased state activity, and the expansion in the infrastructural reach of the state, therefore, did not still allow it to develop disenchanted, impersonal, and formalized forms. Rooted in the social order, and continually moulded and reshaped by local actors, it remained an integral part of the life-world in the locality.
6 Towards a Conclusion The Project of the Nation-State and the Mughal Historian One of the intriguing problems for historians interested in understanding the dynamic of state–society relations is the near-absence of the theme in the dominant Mughal historiography. It is almost an axiom in Mughal history that the period has to be studied within a state-centred frame of reference, one in which the social and cultural world was seen as merely responding to the initiatives of the state. At the risk of oversimplification, it could still be suggested that in modern historiography, relatively recent exceptions apart, the overwhelming picture is one of an active, intrusive state pressing against an inert, passive social world. Given one’s ideological predilections, historians disagreed over the nature, extent, and consequences of state intrusion, but the existence of an intrusive state was a self-evident truth. The state was represented in reified terms, insular and domineering – for some historians more so than others – but the narrative plot always moved around the axis of an organized, rational, and bureaucratic state overpowering the ‘docile’ and ‘irrational’ subjects within its dominion. Missing in this thicket of details are the state–society interactions, and how they served to reshape both the political system and the rule structure, as also the social and cultural formations of the period. History is just as much about forgetting as about remembering; what part of the social memory is brought back within history, and what part is excised from record and erased from memory, are political choices that crucially impinge on the project of the nation-state. In seeking to recover the social attributes of the Mughal state and the political agency of people, my work therefore contests a form of politics that seeks to disenfranchise the common people and deny them their history. Even as these oddities in historiography are typically postcolonial, they have antecedents in the colonial period, and much earlier in the accounts left behind by European travelers in India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most-cited account in this context is that by the French traveller Francois Bernier, who had argued that in Mughal India, the ruling aristocracy was the exclusive expropriator of wealth, and its intense exploitative structure prevented distribution of resources, leading to a social system marked by an excess of riches and poverty. The vast mass of the population lived on the verge of subsistence,
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and a miniscule ruling elite enjoyed a life of opulence and excess; there was, asserts Bernier, no ‘middle state’ in India.1 It was Bernier’s account that informed Karl Marx’s understanding of South Asia, and following him, Marx argued that since the entire surplus was appropriated by the ruling classes, the pre-colonial period was bereft of classes, class conflicts, and social change. In what he described as the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, there was stasis all around, and while the crown changed hands, the period before colonialism was marked by the absence of history; history came to India with colonialism. British colonialism, therefore, had, thought Marx, both a ‘destructive’ and a ‘regenerative’ role to play in history.2 It is of course true that state-determinism in much of modern historiography was inspired by Marx’s model of the Asiatic mode of production, but unlike Marx, Mughal historians could see that the village community was not ‘egalitarian’ and ‘democratic’, and that enough surplus remained with the people to be divided into classes.3 In a sympathetic critique of Marx, for example, Irfan Habib pointed out that the village community in the Mughal period was highly differentiated, and argued that the social system was one which had classes sans class conflicts. The caste system, among other factors, might have contributed to the absence of class conflicts, but the more important point for us here is that he still saw the primary contradiction to inhere not between classes, but between the state and the subjects.4 This was because the state was still the primary expropriator of agrarian surplus, and the chief agent of historical change. It was, therefore, not typical when the ‘imperial’/‘orientalist’ historians wrote the history of the Mughal period around state initiatives and policies, and
Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mughal Empire, A. D. 1656–1668 (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992, repr.).
Irfan Habib, ‘Marx’s Perception of India’, in Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London: Anthem Press, 2002), pp. 14–58.
Irfan Habib, ‘The Social Distribution of Landed Property in Pre-British India: A Historical Survey’, in Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London: Anthem Press, 2002), pp. 59–108; Irfan Habib, ‘The Peasant in Indian History’, in Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London: Anthem Press, 2002), pp. 109–60; and Habib, Agrarian System of Mughal India. Irfan Habib, ‘Caste in Indian History’, in Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London: Anthem Press, 2002), pp. 161–79; and Irfan Habib, ‘Forms of Class Struggle in Mughal India,’ in Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London: Anthem Press, 2002), pp. 233–58.
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represented their arbitrary and ad hoc implementation as reasons for the absence of socio-economic development in India. What is interesting here are not the assumptions of these historians, but to see how easily the ‘nationalist’ historians took over from colonial historiography the state-centred perspective of history, and drew in their narratives a picture of an active state impinging on a passive society. The relationship of postcolonial historiography with the imperial–orientalist discourse is a complex issue, but there is clearly a mix of mimicry and excess in the work on Mughal India, and one could plausibly argue that the ‘nationalist’ work on Mughal India inhabits, borrowing from Homi K. Bhabha, the ‘third space’.5 There are for sure differences in narratives, but the postulation of the state as the instrument of historical change remains a shared one. In looking at these narratives as literary–ideological exercises, one could, invoking Bhabha once again, term them as inhabiting a ‘hybrid space’.6 The interesting thing for us is that there is in all likelihood a deliberate erasure here. We can, if we make the effort, feel a faint resonance of an important silence, for absent from the story are the details of the state–society interactions that were just as much cultural as political. In our detailed studies in the preceding chapters on social communication, sites of sociability, publicity and publicness, property relations, and legal order, we had occasion to notice that the distinction between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’ is facile and historically irrelevant, and that we need to study them together in terms of their mutual entanglements. At the same time, we were hopefully able to bring into prominence the communications between the state and the social forces, and how they shaped both the cultural and political processes in the period. The context for these erasures and silences actually comes from the anxieties of the postcolonial state. There has always been a close relationship between history and the nation-state, and in South Asia these anxieties emerged from the compulsion to emulate the reviled colonial state to constitute the disciplined, modernized and bureaucratic state in the post-independence period. If the colonial state could not serve as a model, the Mughal state should! The history of the Mughal empire had to be ‘fabricated’ in a manner that it provided legitimacy and continuity to the modern nation-state by becoming one; no wonder, an influential Mughal historian quite characteristically describes the Mughal state as 5
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994, repr. 2017).
Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); Bhabha, Location of Culture.
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‘a quasi-modern state’.7 At the same time, the modern nation-state was marked by a careful, if still unrelenting, suppression of the political agency of the common people; it also derived considerable legitimacy from the myth of its invincibility and techniques of governmentality. The antecedents for such a nation also had to be found in our past: the Mughal empire. History is indeed as much about empowering people as disempowering them; written at the behest of the modern nation and in service of the project of nation-making, Mughal history certainly aspired to empower the postcolonial modern state at the expense of the common people. Equally, if history is about remembrance, it is also about amnesia, selective and discriminatory. In seeking to provide a sense of rootedness, and a history to the disciplinary modern state, the Mughal state was represented as an analogous formation, one which stood over and above the people it governed, and enjoyed with them a unilateral and forceful relationship. Efforts among historians to move away from state-centred historiography and to prevent history from serving the postcolonial nation-state have of course been ad hoc and intermittent, but one productive alternative line of enquiry has focused on trans-regional and inter-cultural connections in shaping the early modern political and literary culture in South Asia. There is indeed a very rich, and ever-growing, literature on ‘connected histories’ between the early modern Persianate empires, but the studies on inter-connections between the Mughal, the Safavid, and the Ottoman empires have been particularly enriching. Equally pathbreaking has been the work of historians seeking to explore the texture of linkages between Europe and Asia.8 What we have attempted in this work is of course a different venture. We have explored the less impressive and clearly messy microspaces to recover state–society interactions revealing, hopefully persuasively, how these interactions were mutually empowering, and tended to transcend the political domain to include the organization of social life and cultural practices in the towns and qasbas in Mughal India. While I have argued that it would be erroneous to ignore the state in studying social change, I suggest nonetheless 7
Ali, Mughal India.
Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks; Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History: From the Tagus to the Ganges; Moin, The Millennial Sovereign; Mana Kia, Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020); Green, The Persianate World. Also see Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia’, Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (July 1997), pp. 735–62.
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that the state had no existence outside the network of its relations with the social forces. Instead of dismissing the state, we need to, as an antidote to state-centrism, see it as a social formation. Exploring the social life and cultural practices as shaped by networks of state– society relations, this study has focused on social communication, normative and legal orders, social perceptions of property, and the literary culture of the period. In examining these realms of sociocultural life, one comes across an unresolved tension between the local representation of historical experience and transimperial perceptions. It is certainly not clear how, for example, the performative public sphere, loud and robust, interacted with or was perceived in the transregional Persianate norms of civility and deportment. Likewise, there is a chasm between the legal order as practised in localities and the high textual law and legal epistemologies shared across the ‘Islamicate world’. As we saw in chapter 2, in local societies property was viewed as a social activity, reshaping identities, relationships, and the distribution of power. On the other hand, in the trans-regional world-view, informed by expanding trade and commerce, it was viewed within a commoditycentred frame of reference, driven by the forces of the market. How does one reconcile the apparent inconsistencies between universalist frameworks and local practices and belief systems? We need to see if the fissures between local politics and idioms of understanding and cosmopolitan worldviews stood as unresolved sores, or tapered accommodations in the organization of sociocultural life in the early modern period.9 In other words, we need to find ways of bringing the two histories together: one rooted in cosmopolitan universalism, and the other in local norms and socio-political life. One should be wary of such terms as universalism, cosmopolitanism, and cosmopolitan universalism. For one, for all its claims to the contrary, universalism imbibes systematic exclusions and boundaries of closure. Cosmopolitanism is a more rigorous term for historians, but then there is always a risk of measuring it along the standards set by the modern western world. In this context, a recent piece by Sanjay Subrahmanyam on the cosmopolitan culture in western India is particularly important in dispelling the easy equation of cosmopolitanism with the modern western world. Focusing on 9
Of course, historians interested in exploring the interconnections between microhistory and global socio-economic systems cannot afford to skip Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980). Also see Thomas Cohen, ‘The Macrohistory of Microhistory’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 47, no. 1 (January 2017), pp. 53–73.
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the intellectual culture in the vibrant town of Surat, he draws the contours of an essentially early modern Islamicate cosmopolitan space. True to our concerns here, he also reveals, within this cosmopolitan world, the deep interdependence of the intellectual culture with the political structure and economic exchanges.10 Within his framework then the local and the cosmopolitan come together in a dynamic and mutually enriching relationship. It is important to see the ‘cosmopolitan’ and the ‘local’ as mutually constitutive, and bringing them together could potentially yield refreshing results. At the risk of committing an act of epistemic violence, I suggest that we could consider borrowing Dipesh Chakrabarty’s model, and, for heuristic purposes, call the former ‘History-1’ and the latter ‘History-2’.11 The state should not be ignored by these two ‘Histories’, and the significance of the imperial court culture in shaping historical narratives – trans-regional and local – needs to be duly acknowledged. However, we should strenuously eschew state-determinism at both levels of history writing. In the case of ‘History-1’ (modern Persianate and trans-regional narratives of historical experience), issues of state patronage are just as important as the existence of networks of educational training and intellectual exchange. Similarly, as this work argues, ‘History-2’ (histories of local contestations, politics, norms and values, and cultural exchanges and communication) has to be studied in terms of the dynamic of state–society interactions. One of the efforts of this study has been to bring these histories together, and in doing so, it was evident that the interactions between them were mutually transformative. In chapter 3, for example, we saw that there were deep linkages between the ‘performative public sphere’ and the trans-imperial literary culture, and these connections helped one shape the other. Given their mutual associations, one could argue that the ‘performative public sphere’, by which I mean not only a space marked by theatricality and excess, but also one that was closely identified with public politics, and the ‘normative public sphere’, which for me stands for the high literary culture, need to be studied in terms of their mutual entanglements, and not as spaces that were structurally or cognitively removed from each other. In 10
Sanjay Subrahmanyam. ‘The Hidden Face of Surat: Reflections on a Cosmopolitan Indian Ocean Centre, 1540–1750’, JESHO 61, nos. 1–2 (March 2018), pp. 207–57. Also see Mana Kia, ‘Space, Sociality, and Sources of Pleasure: A Response to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’, JESHO 61, nos. 1–2 (March 2018), pp. 256–76; and Evrim Binbas, ‘Unsavoury Cosmopolitanism: Reflections on Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s ‘The Hidden Face of Surat’, JESHO 61, nos. 1–2 (March 2018), pp. 277–87.
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe.
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much the same way, our study of the legal order (chapter 3) revealed deep-rooted tensions between trans-imperial legal-sacral tradition and the legal order in the localities. Even so, the relations between them were reciprocal, and through devices such as forum-shopping, social actors operating in micro-spaces learnt to engage with the high textual legal texts. This study underscores the significance of global– local interactions, and makes a case for situating cultural developments within the framework of ‘local cosmopolitanism’.12 The state and the society were constituted and reproduced in and through language, and this has led us to examine the ‘culture of documentation’ in the period. In an unusual contrast with the modern archive, the practice of creating and preserving records did not reflect the motivation of the state to control, classify, and discipline the subjects. Instead, the documents of the state archive that we had occasion to study here revealed contested negotiations, and tenuous accommodations between the state and social forces. Traces of these contestations and adjustments were not infrequently found on the surface of the documents as well. It was, therefore, important to look at both the form and the content of the documents and, just as importantly, the process of their creation. We noticed that the manner in which some of these documents – property transaction, petitions, notices, and agreements – were brought into existence was reminiscent of the Bakhtinian canivalesque where social identities were affirmed, community solidarities were reinforced, and social hierarchies re-arranged amid boisterous activities, rituals, banter, and name-calling. The text was never a bearer of autonomous signs, situated outside the social field; rather, its meaning was always a negotiated process, in which literacy intermeshed with performativity and oral traditions. In examining the documentary practices in the early modern period, we have gone through a wide range of sources, written in several genres of writing. Clearly, the relationship of genre to meaning formation is an important problem here, but the contingency of meaning and its susceptibility to multiple readings were found to be a common thread running across these genres. In this respect, there is scarcely any difference between a Mughal document and a piece of literary composition, or, for that matter, between a petition before the qāzi and a poem recited in the bazār.
Kristof Van Assche and Petruta Teampau, Local Cosmopolitanism: Imagining and (Re-) Making Privileged Places (New York: Springer, 2015).
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The elusiveness of meaning, the complexities of which are captured well in Derrida’s concept of difference,13 poses a challenge for anyone interested in opening up the Mughal archive. It is important for a concerned historian, first of all, to not read these texts as representing an external objective historical reality; that reality has to be seen as emerging from the texts themselves, but its meaning could still be apprehended only in terms of the social activities that surrounded them. Second, for all the pretense of closure and finality about them, the state documents were open-ended texts, ambiguous and bearers of multiple meanings; they were, to borrow from Bakhtin, ‘polyphonous’.14 It is for this reason that any document could potentially prompt new conflicts and accommodations, leading not infrequently to the creation of several other documents bearing new sets of contingent meanings. Monologism is similarly absent in the literary texts of the period, and we should be wary of reading them as imbibing a singular perspective or even a single consciousness; carrying a range of contested meanings, they were enriched by ‘dialogism’, that is, a multiplicity of perspectives or voices.15 To take an instance, satire, as we saw, had become a popular literary form for political critiques, but as a genre it was also susceptible to the aesthetic incorporation of the language of jest, insult, repartee, and ripostes in poetic compositions. Indeed, all kinds of satires were written in the period, and while some were Horatian – gentle, mild, and civil – the ones that made for the performative public sphere were either Juvenalian or Menippean satires. Juvenalian satires are, unlike the Horatian satires, bitter, harsh, and aggressive. The level of condemnation is much harsher, and the subject is treated with utter disdain. Preoccupied with sexual perversions and erotic excess, the poems of Zatalli were, as we saw, instances of Menippean satires. Formless and anarchic, such satires take liberties with literary niceties, and have been described by Bakhtin as inherently dialogistic.16 The important point is that the satires that represented, or more likely constituted, the quotidian public sphere in the early 13
Derrida uses the French word difference to mean both the linguistic processes of the construction of difference and the perpetual deferral of meaning.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Carlyn Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, repr.); also see Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).
For Bakhtin’s concept of ‘dialogism’, see Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
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modern period were marked by heteroglossia, and imbibed multiple voices that sought to reform the state and address its inadequacies and incompetence. One of the concerns of this study was to look at shifts in the modes and media of communication and see how these shifts impinged on and reflected the political culture in early modern South Asia. We noticed an impressive expansion in literacy, and this was evident, among other things, in the dependence of the state on the media technology of pen, paper, and ink, and the diffusion of the ‘manuscript culture’ among the scholarly circles and court life. Even so, a deeper analysis of the extant documents (and manuscripts) revealed to us the limitations of ‘pragmatic literacy’ in the face of the strength of oral traditions and performative practices. State documentary practices succeeded only when they were accompanied with performance, and their reach and meanings were significantly a function of the conversations they evoked and the negotiations they prompted with the surrounding cultures of orality. A significant problem here was to see how language – written and oral – worked to reproduce the political culture and, in particular, public emotions and sensibilities. While examining the popular literature in various languages – Persian, Braj, and Rekhta – I could see the significance of political anger as an emotion that evoked popular protests and helped reproduce a culture of political negotiations with the state. In this context, while we look at the relations between language and emotions, William Reddy’s concept of ‘emotives’ is particularly useful.17 Emotives are ‘emotion speech-acts’ that work on the bodily senses to produce specific emotions. Emotions are, therefore, not simply bodily responses to external stimuli, but are shaped by language in terms of their expression, meaning, and articulation. In drawing attention to the role of language in shaping emotions, Reddy’s work makes a significant intervention in emotion history. Nonetheless, in retaining a body–language binary, he not only ignores the non-verbal means of communication, and the intra- and inter-sensorial apprehension of emotions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the social construction of the body. After all, the body is not a listless object, but is socially constructed, in and through language, as also other modes and media of communication. In an important critique of Reddy, Margrit Pernau and Imre Rajmani rightly point out that language is just one mode of communication; people also create and reproduce their emotional 17
William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). For a pertinent critique of Reddy, see Barbara Rosenwein, ‘Worrying about Emotions in History’, American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (June 2002), pp. 821–45.
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world through non-verbal means of communication.18 We, therefore, need to explore the world of emotions through mechanisms of inter- and intra- modes and media of communication. For a historian this is indeed a formidable challenge because of our dependence on written sources, but within these documents, in our period, we saw traces of the interaction of texts with aural, visual, and tactile forms of meaning apprehension. Until recent decades, anger as an emotion was seen to lie in the realm of medieval passions, an impulsive and irrational feeling more suited to the medieval period than the ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ modern world. Inspired by Norbert Elias, historians believed that anger was antithetical to modernity, and that ‘the civilizing process’ marked by discipline and control over emotions had pushed it out of socio-political spaces.19 Historians of emotions are now increasingly challenging these formulations, and their work reveals its significance in ordering social life in the modern period.20 It is indeed naïve to assume that as an emotion, it was marked by excess and irrational passions, for in actual practice it operated as a form of negotiation among social actors seeking to restore, reaffirm, but also contest and modify social and political norms.21 I have argued here that anger, particularly one with a political persuasion, was not necessarily a medieval emotion and the force 18
Margrit Pernau and Imke Rajamani, ‘Emotional Translations: Conceptual History Beyond Language,’ History and Theory 55, no. 1 (February 2016), pp. 46–65; Margrit Pernau, Emotions and Modernity in Colonial India: From Balance to Fervor (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 11–13.
Norbert Elias, The Court Society, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969); Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, (Vol. I: The History of Manners), (Vol. II: State Formation and Civilization), trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). In his understanding of the medieval period, Elias was influenced, among others, by the work of Huizzinga. Johan Huizzinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries, trans. F. Hopman (London: Edward Arnold, 1924).
See Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2006); Barbara H. Rosenwein, Generation of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Jack Ford, Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).
For the revisionist take on anger, see Rosenwein, Anger’s Past; Rosenwein, Anger: The Conﬂicted History of an Emotion; and Enenkel and Traninger, Discourses of Anger. Also see Gwynne Kennedy, Just Anger: Representing Women’s Anger in Early Modern England (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000).
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and vigour with which it was articulated in the spaces of social communication actually suggest that it was deeply entangled with the early modern public sphere. It is true, as I argue in this work, that with the expansion of the legal order and the spaces for dialogic communication there was probably a lower threshold of tolerance for inter-personal and intra- and inter-community violence in urban life. However, this did not mean that the emotion of anger had been anathematized; on the contrary, political anger had actually emerged as a modern and, in contemporary language, ‘fresh’ (tāzah) sentiment in the literary culture of the period. We should indeed be cautious about treating the disciplining thrust of early modernity as obliterating emotions, and their intense and explicit expressions. Working with the Urdu literature of the nineteenth century, Margrit Pernau has noticed a shift from balance/moderation (‘adl/‘itidāl) to excess and fervour (josh) in colonial India, and her work reveals complex layers of entanglement of emotions with modernity in colonial India.22 My work pushes her argument back by a century or so, but in the process of doing so, also reveals that early modernity in India saw new emotions, such as, and in particular, political anger. If the disciplining thrust stifled certain emotions, it also created spaces for the articulation of new emotions. Discipline was both repressive and productive, dismantling the existing emotional regime only to replace it with another!
The bibliography has two broad sections: (a) primary sources and (b) secondary works. The primary sources are subdivided into unpublished documents and compilations, and published sources. The sources are arranged in alphabetical order and, in the case of authors, by their first name. Wherever possible, I have mentioned the date of the source or the probable period during which a particular author was alive. Given the unevenness in the sources, and the wide gaps therein, these dates are not quite exact, and are provided only to give the reader a vague sense of the time period of the composition of these sources. The secondary works are arranged in alphabetical order by the surname of the authors.
Primary sources Unpublished documents and compilations Anonymous, Chaināmā. 1894–95. Manuscript Section, Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), Ms. No. 10. Anonymous. Jamm-i Badi’. Manuscript Section, Centre for Advanced Study in History (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh). [A collection of documents concerning the Mughal administration in Sind compiled during the early eighteenth century; a copy of the manuscript is found in Aligarh.] The Cambay Documents. 1657–1761. Acquired Documents (Oriental Section), National Archive of India (NAI). [The documents are arranged under series 2695 and 2702, with the earliest numbered 2695/1 (1657) and the last 2695/34 (1761).] Document No. 2671/08. 1 Jumādi al-Auwal 1053 A.H. (18 July 1643). Acquired Documents, NAI. Document No. 2671/09. 15 Zu’l Qa‘da 1053 A.H. (25 January 1644). Acquired Documents, NAI. Hukm (court order). 1669. Acquired Documents, 2703/21, NAI. Istishhād. 8 Ramadān 1190 A.H. (21 October 1776). Document No. 2514/03. Acquired Documents, NAI.
Mahzar. 26 Ramadān 1201 A.H. (12 July 1787). Document No. 2720/23. Acquired Documents, NAI. Ms. Blochet, Supplementary Pers. 482. 17th century. BN. [A collection of contemporary documents compiled by an anonymous, petty Mughal official during the mid-seventeenth century.] News-reports (Akhbārāt) from Prince Muhammad Azam’s Court. 1702–04. Royal Asiatic Society Library (RAS), Morley Collections, 133. The microfilm copy (MF- 34) available at the Centre for Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, has been consulted. [These are news-reports dispatched to/ from the court of Prince Azam Khan in Gujarat when he was governing the sūbā.] Parwāna of Asad Khan. 27 June 1681. Acquired Documents, 2688/11, NAI. Parwāna of Azam Khan. 18 July 1643. Acquired Documents, 2671/8, NAI. Parwāna of Azam Khan. 25 January 1644. Acquired Documents, 2671/9, NAI. Qazi Muhammad Arif’s order. 27 February 1675. Document No. 2671/13, Acquired Documents, NAI. Waqā’i (news report). 12–13 Zu’l Qa‘da, 8 Regnal Year (R.Y.) (A.H. 1139), 3–4 July 1727. Siyāha Waqā’i Mustaqarrul Khilafa Akbarabād, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner (RSA). Waqā’i. 16–17 Sha‘bān, 15 R.Y. (A.H. 1174), January 1735. Siyāha Waqā’i Mustaqarrul Khilafa Akbarabād, RSA. Waqā’i. 25 Shauwāl’, 8 R.Y. (A.H. 1140), 4 June 1728. Siyāha Waqā’i Mustaqarrul Khilafa Akbarabād, RSA.
Published sources Abul Fazl. 1595. A’in-i Akbarī. Edited by H. Blochmann. 2 vols. Calcutta. 1867–77. ———. 1601. Akbarnāmā. Edited by Agha Ahmad Ali and Abdur Rahman. 3 vols. Calcutta, 1873–87. Abu Talib Landani. 1794–95. Tafzihul Ghaﬁlin. Edited by Adid Raza Bedar. Rampur, 1965. Translated into English by William Hoey as A History of Asafud-Daula Nawab Wazir of Awadh. Allahabad: North-Western Provinces and Oudh Government Press, 1885. Abul Qasim Namkin. c. 1556–1598. Munshaat-i-Namakin. Edited by Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli under the title The Mughal State and Culture, 1556–1598. New Delhi: Manohar, 2007. Batala Documents. 17th–19th centuries. Punjab State Archives (Patiala). Edited and translated by J. S. Grewal under the title In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents from a Punjab Town. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975.
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Abdul Fath Sambhali, the qāzi, 81 Abul Qasim Namkin, petty Mughal official, 19 Abu Talib Landani, author of Tafzih-ulGhaﬁlin (1796–97), 88 amin (revenue assessor), 113 anger, 83, 87, 129–31 ‘archival turn’, 5 Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor, 71 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 128 Baldwin, James, 65 Bashara, Fahad Ahmad, 6. Barthes, Roland ‘readerly texts’, 4 Bayly, C. A., 10 Benton, Lauren: 8, 41, 45, 52 Bernier, Francois, French traveler, 121–22 Bhabha, Homi K., 123 Biharilal, riti poet, 76 Blake, Stephen P., 98 Braddick, Michael J., 118–19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 126 chancery practices, 5–6, 12, 20–21 Chatterjee, Nandini, 7–8, 20 chaudhuris (‘village headmen’), 55, 57 Chaudhry, Faisal, 13 coffeehouses (qahwakhane), 92, 95 concubine (kanīzak), 35 Corrigan, Philip and Derek Sayer, 100–01, 115
Cowan, Brian, 11–12, 94–95 Davis, Natalie Zemon, 109 Derrida, Jacques, 128 Dost Muhammad, thānedar, 58 endowments (awkāf), 25 Ehrlich, Eugen ‘living law’, 47 Elias, Norbert, 61–62, 87, 130 English East India Company and the Mughal state, 6, 49 farmāns (imperial orders), 6, 25, 101–02, 106 Faroqhi, Suraiya, 110 Farrukhsiyar, the Mughal emperor, 71 Faruqui, Munis, 99, 117 Fatāwa-i ‘Ālamgiri, 43 faujdār (‘police officer’), 53, 59, 113 Faulad Khan, kotwāl of Delhi, 82–83 forgeries, 55–57 ‘forum shopping’, 53, 55, 57, 64–65, 127 gift deeds (hiba‘ nāma), 19, 26 Guha, Sumit, 17 Habermas, Jurgen, 11, 92, 94 Habib, Irfan, 27, 32, 54, 112n34, 122 hazl-goi (‘frivolous talk’), 85 Holenstein, Andre model of ‘mutually empowering interactions’, 2–3, 119
Irschik, Eugene, 10 istishhād-nāma (‘handbills’), 32, 55–56, 106 ‘itidāl (‘balanced emotions’), 64, 116, 131 Jaswant Singh, subedār, 58 jawānmardi (martial manhood), 63 josh (intense emotions), 64 Kaicker, Abhishek, 12, 63, 70, 99–100 karōrī (revenue collector), 107 kotwāl (‘city magistrate’), 40, 58–59, 71, 80–86 Kozlowski, Gregory, 25 Lefebvre, Henri, 38 ‘legal pluralism’, 2, 8–9, 41–46, 52, 61, 65–66 literacy, 2–4, 20–22, 22n26–27, 23, 25–26, 31, 33, 35–37, 55–56, 64, 66, 73, 100, 103–05, 107, 120, 127, 129 and the legal order, 47–51 mahājans (merchant corporate bodies), 51, 70 Marglin, Jessica, 49 Maqsud Saqqa, Urdu poet, 85, 94 Marx, Karl ‘Asiatic mode of production’, 122 mazālim courts, 110 mazharnama (a declarative legal document), 32, 49n26 Menski, Werner, 41 Messick, Brinkley ‘calligraphic state’, 4, 49 Migdal, Joel S., 96 Mir Sher Ali Afsos, Urdu scholar, 80 Mir Taqi Mir, Urdu poet, 79 satire on local officials, 81 Mirza Rafi Sauda, rekhta poet satire on the kotwāl of Delhi, 82–85
Mirza Zulfiqar Beg, kotwāl of Delhi, 71, 86 mortgage deeds (girvi-nama), 6, 18–19, 34–35 mufti (‘the legal expert’), 27–28, 56, 105 muhalla (residential locality), 9, 17–18, 27–30, 34, 50–54, 65, 104 head of the: 56, 66 Muhammad Ali, the mufti, 56 Muhammad Arif, the qāzi of Mathura, 57 Muhammad Taqi, the qāzi, 54, 56 munshis (or scribes), 20 muqaddams (‘village chiefs’), 58 Naim, C. M., 74 News reports (waqa’i), 57–58 Novetzke, Christian Lee, 68 Ong, Walter J., 26, 103 orality and performativity, 39, 45, 48, 51, 88, 120, 129 relations with literacy, 22–23, 25, 35, 64, 73, 103–04 in legal spaces, 50–51, 55 panch (‘caste bodies’), 27, 52, 55–56 paper and pen, 38, 49 ‘performative public sphere’, 88, 92, 95, 125–26, 128 Perlin, Frank, 16 Pernau, Margrit, 64, 129, 131 petitions (‘arzdāsht), 4, 111–13, 115– 16, 127 Pir Khan Kamtarin, rekhta poet, 85, 94 ‘political anger’, 85–90, 129, 131 Prince Kam Baksh, 71 Prince Khurram (Shahjahan), 76 ‘pragmatic literacy’, 22, 25–26, 33, 35–37, 39, 103 prashasti (praise poem), 69 property as commodity, 13–14 a social entity, 14–20
under the Marathas, 16 in early modern England, 21 and household, 23–24 public sphere, 2, 7, 9, 11–12, 39, 46, 64, 67–68, 70, 78–79, 85, 88, 91–92, 94–95, 100, 125–26, 128, 131 Qaim Chandpuri, rekhti poet, 81 Qalandar Baksh Jurat, rekhta poet, 82 qanūngo (‘record keeper’), 30, 55 qasida (or praise poem), 69 qāzi (‘the local judge’), 9, 18–19, 25, 27, 28, 30, 32, 36, 43, 51, 55–59, 75, 80–81, 85, 105, 107, 112– 13, 116, 127 court of, 40, 52–54, 61, 104, 106 ‘quotidian revolution’, 68 Raman, Bhavani, 49, 103–04 Reddy, William ‘emotives’, 129 rekhta literature, 70, 78 Richards, J. F., 62–63 riti literature, 68n5, 69–70, 76–77 Rose, Carol, 15, 21, 26, 30 Sahai, Nandita, 52, 99 sale deeds (ba‘i-nāma), 19, 34–35 Saraswati,Kavindracharya, riti poet, 70 satire (hajw), 70–73, 75, 80–82, 84–86, 128 Scott, James, 114 ‘scribal orality’, 23
Shah Waliullah, 56, 89, 89n65 shāhid or gawāh (witness), 28, 55–56 Shaikh Abdun Nabi, faujdar of Mathura, 54 shari‘at (‘Islamic law’), 7, 35–37, 46, 49–50, 55, 59, 61, 65, 81, 89, 116 shari‘at courts, 65 Sherani, Mahmud, 79 shoe-sellers’ riot (1729), 63 Sidi Husain Khan, kotwāl of Agra, 58–59 slave (ghulām), 19, 35–36 Sturman, Rachel, 24–25 Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, 125–26 tea and socialization, 92–94 Vrindavan temple documents, 27, 32, 53, 111–12 wajabi (‘legitimate practices’), 114 wasiqa (‘covenant’), 23 Weber, Max, 42, 47, 98 women in legal spaces, 4, 24, 29, 31–32 Zatalli, Jafar, rekhti poet, 71 satire on Prince Kam Baksh, 71–72 satire on emperor Bahadur Shah, 73–76 satire on the kotwāl of Delhi, 85–87 Zulfiqar Beg, kotwāl of Delhi, 71, 86