Modern Indian History : Rise of Regional Powers

Rise of Regional Powers

By 1761, the Mughal Empire was Empire only in name, as its weaknesses had enabled the local powers to assert their independence. Yet the symbolic authority of the Mughal Emperor continued, as he was considered to be a source of political legitimacy. The new states did not directly challenge his authority and constantly sought his sanction to legitimise their rule. The emergence of these states in the eighteenth century, therefore, represented a transformation rather than collapse of the polity. It signified a decentralisation of power and not a power vacuum or political chaos.

Some of these states such as Bengal, Awadh and Hyderabad, may be characterised as ‘succession states’. They arose as a result of assertion of autonomy by governors of Mughal provinces with the decay of central power. Others, such as the Maratha, Afghan, Jat and Punjab states were the product of rebellions by local chieftains, zamindars and peasants against Mughal authority. Not only did the politics in the two types of states or zones differ to some extent from each other, but there were differences among all of them because of local conditions. Yet, in many areas of governance these states continued the Mughal institutions and the administrative systems. Apart from the successor states and the rebel states, there

were also a few principalities like the Rajput kingdoms, Mysore and Travancore, which already

enjoyed considerable amount of autonomy in the past and now in the eighteenth century became completely independent.

None of these states, however, succeeded in arresting the economic crisis which had set in during the 17th century. All of them remained basically rent-extracting states. The zamindars

and jagirdars, whose number and political strength constantly increased, continued to fight

over the income from the agriculture, while the condition of the peasantry continued to

deteriorate. While these states prevented any breakdown of internal trade and even tried to

promote foreign trade, they did nothing to modernise the basic industrial and commercial

structure of their states. This largely explains their failure to consolidate themselves or to ward

off external attack.


The province of Bengal gradually became independent of Mughal control after Murshid Quli

Khan became the governor or Nazim of Bengal. He was given the unprecedented privilege of

holding the two offices of nazim and diwan (collector of revenue) simultaneously. The division

of power, which was maintained throughout the Mughal period to keep both the imperial

officers under control through a system of checks and balances, was thus done away with. This

helped Murshid Quli, who was already known for his efficient revenue administration, to

consolidate his position further. The foundation of Bengal state was of course his very

successful revenue administration, which even in the days of political chaos elsewhere in the

Empire, made Bengal a constant revenue paying surplus area. This efficient collection system

was operated through powerful intermediary zamindars. But along with the rise of zamindars as

a new powerful elite in the province, there was also the growing importance of merchants and

bankers during this period.

Murshid Quli Khan died in 1727, and his son-in-law Shuja-ud-din ruled Bengal till 1739. In that

year, Alivardi Khan deposed and killed Shuja-ud-din’s son, Sarfaraz Khan, and made himself the

Nawab. These three Nawabs gave Bengal a long period of peace and orderly administration and

promoted its trade and industry. It was Alivardi’s reign, which marked a virtual break with the

Mughals. The major problem for Alivardi came from outside – he has to face Maratha

depredations. Ultimately in 1751, Alivardi came to terms with the Marathas by agreeing to pay

chauth (one-fourth of the revenue) and handing over Orissa. However one major fallout of

Maratha raids was the disruption of Bengal trade, particularly of the overland trade with north

and west India. But it was short-lived and recovery was aided by a massive increase in European


Alivardi died in 1756, nominating his grandson Siraj-ud-daula his successor. But his succession

as challenged by other contenders for the throne resulting in intense court factionalism, as the

overmighty zamindars and commercial people felt threatened by an extremely ambitious and

seertive young nawab. This destabilised the administration of Bengal and the advantage was

taken by the English East India Company, which acquired foothold in Bengal through what is

popularly known as the Plassey conspiracy of 1757 that ended the rule of Siraj-ud-daula. (This

will be dealt in details in later sections.)


The subah of Awadh was extended from Kanauj district in the west to the river Karmnasa in the


It became virtually independent in 1722 when Saadat Khan was appointed its Governor. He

succeeded in suppressing lawlessness and disciplining the big zamindars. He also carried out a

fresh revenue settlement and thus, increasing the financial resources of his government.

Saadat Khan’s successor was his nephew Safdar Jang, who was simultaneously appointed the

wazir of the Empire in 1748 and granted in addition the province of Allahabad. 1753 marked an

important turning point in the political history of north India, by signifying the visible succession

of Awadh and Allahabad from the remainder of the dwindling Empire. After Safdar Jung’s

death, his son Shuja-du-daula was appointed the governor of Awadh. When Afghan leader

Ahmad Shah Abdali arrived again in India to engage Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat

(1761), Shuja joined the Afghan invader to see his local opponents, the Marathas, humbled and

weakened. Within his own domain of Awadh and Allahabad his autonomy and power remained

unchallenged till his encounter with the English East India Company in 1764. His involvement in

the struggle between the British and the deposed Nawab of Bengal, Mir Qasim, led to his

defeat by the British in the battle of Buxar (1764). (This will be dealt in details in later sections.)

Hyderabad and the Carnatic

The autonomous kingdom of Hyderabad was founded in 1724 by a powerful noble at the

imperial court, Chin Qulich Khan, who eventually took the tile of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah. He

never openly declared his independence from the Central government but in practice he acted

like an independent ruler. He subdued the refractory zamindars and showed tolerance towards

the Hindus who had economic power in their hands and as result, Hyderabad witnessed the

emergence of a new regional elite who supported the nizam.

After the death of nizam, Asaf Jah, Hyderabad began to experience a series of crises. During the

subsequent years, the Marathas, Mysore and the Carnatic – all settled their territorial scores

against Hyderabad. The situation improved again after 1762 during the period of Nizam Ali

Khan, who seized control of teh administration and during his long reign lasting up to 1803, he

settled border disputes with his neighbours giving Hyderabad the much desired political


The Carnatic was one of the subahs of the Mughal Deccan and as such came under the Nizam

of Hyderabad’s authority. But just as in practice the Nizam had become independent of Delhi,

so also the Deputy Governor of the Carnatic, known as the Nawab of Carnatic, had freed

himself of the control of the Viceroy of the Deccan. Later, after 1740, the affairs of the Carnatic

deteriorated because of the repeated struggle for its Nawabship and this provided for an

opportunity to the European trading companies to directly interfere in Indian politics.

The Sikhs

Founded at the end of the 15th century by Guru Nanak, the Sikh religion spread among the Jat

peasantry and other lower castes of the Punjab. The transformation of the Sikhs into a militant,

fighting community was begun by Guru Hargobind. It was, however, under the leadership of

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Guru of Sikhs, that they became a political and military

force. Aurangzeb was initially not very hostile to the Sikhs; but as the community grew in size

and challenged the central authority of the Mughals, the emperor turned against them.

Religious intolerance launched under the Aurangzeb’s reign also provoked opposition from Sikh.

After Guru Gobind Singh’s death, Banda Bahadur rallied together the peasants and the lower

castes of the Punjab and carried on a vigorous though unequal struggle against the Mughal

army. However he failed because Mughal centre was still strong and the upper classes and

castes of Punjab joined forces against Banda Bahadur for his championship of the lower castes

and rural poor.

The invasion of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali and the consequent dislocation of Punjab

administration gave the Sikhs in opportunity to rise once again. With the withdrawal of Abdali

from the Punjab, they began to fill the political vacuum. Between 1765 and 1800 they brought

the Punjab and Jammu under their control. But at this stage, power in the Sikh polity became

more horizontally structured, as misls, or combinations based on kinship ties, now held

territories as units. The political authority in Punjab remained decentralized and more

horizontally dispersed during this whole period until Ranjit Singh, the chief of the Sukerchakia

misl, tried to raise a more centralized Sikh state at the end of the eighteenth century. By the

Treaty of Amritsar in 1809, the English recognized him as the sole sovereign ruler of Punjab. By

the time of his death, his authority was recognized in territories between the river Sutlej and

the mountain ranges of Ladakh, Karakoram, Hindukush and Sulaiman.

At the central level of durbar politics also Ranjit Singh maintained a careful balance between

the powerful Sikh chiefs on the one hand and on the other freshly recruited military

commanders from among the peasants of central Punjab and the non-Punjabi nobles, such as

Dogra Rajputs from Jammu. This delicate balancing game functioned well until Ranjit Singh’s

death in 1839. Within a decade of his death independent Sikh rule disappeared from Punjab, as

a struggle for power among the mighty Sikh chiefs and the royal family feuds helped the English

to take over without much difficulty.

 The Marathas

Like all other powers that emerged and moved against the Mughal Empire, Maratha also had a

history of suppression by the empire, especially in the war of 27 years, which started with an

invasion of the Maratha Empire by Mughals under Aurangzeb in 1681. The Mughal strategy

consisted of steady pressure on Maharashtra’s forts, beating Maratha forces in the field when

they could bring them to a battle and devastating Maharashtra’s countryside. It can be inferred

that the brutal attitude of the Mughal troops toward the Maratha partially functioned as a basis

for hostility between two groups. Furthermore, since the Marathi believed in Hinduism, the

religious intolerant positions adopted by the Muslim Mughal Empire provoked the resentment

of the Marathas.

When Aurangzeb died after forty years of futile warfare in the Deccan, the Marathas still

remained to be subjugated. The Maratha kingdom was, however, certainly weakened and the

process was further exacerbated due to the civil war between Shahu at Satara and his aunt Tara

Bai at Kolhapur who had carried out an anti-Mughal struggle since 1700 in the name of her son

Shivaji II. The contest with the Tarabai faction was settled later in the Treaty of Warna in 1731,

which gave the state of Kolapur to Shivaji II. In 1719, by helping the Sayyid brothers establish a

puppet emperor in Delhi, peshwa (prime minister) Balaji Viswanath secured for his master a

Mughal sanad (imperial order) recognizing Shahu’s right to chauth and sardeshmukhi (one-

fourth and one-tenth respectively of government revenue) in six Mughal provinces of Deccan,

chauth of Malwa and Gujarat and independent status in Maharashtra.

After Maratha civil war was brought to an end, the control of the state gradually passed on

from the line of Shivaji to that of the peshwas. After Balaji Vishwanath died in 1720, he was

succeeded as Peshwa by his 20-year-old son Baji Rao I. By 1740, when Baji Rao died, the

Marathas had won control over Malwa, Gujarat and parts of Bundelkhand. The Maratha

families of Gaekwad, Holkar, Sindhia and Bhonsle came into prominence during this period. In

the short period of 20 years he had changed the character of the Maratha state. From the

kingdom of Maharashtra it had been transformed into an Empire expanding in the North. He,

however, failed to lay firm foundations of an empire. New territories were conquered and

occupied but little attention was paid to their administration. The Marathas did not try to

overturn the local zamindars for the payment of yearly tributes. A civilian system of revenue

administration took time to emerge in this newly conquered region and this was a feature

typical of all Maratha conquests.

After the death of Baji Rao, his son Balaji Bajirao, better known as Nana Saheb (1740-61) was

appointed in his place. This was indeed the peak period of Maratha glory when all parts of India

had to face Maratha depredations. In face of an Afghan invasion overrunning Lahore and

Multan, a treaty in 1752 brought the Mughal emperor under the protection of Marathas. The

Maratha expedition to Punjab was, however, short-lived and soon a Sikh rebellion put any end

to Maratha authority in this region. In any case, the Marathas by then had gained mastery over

large parts of north Indian; but there was never any attempt to establish an empire. It was only

in Khandesh, Malwa and Gujarat that they tried to put in place some kind of administration;

their conquest elsewhere would seldom go beyond plunder and levying of chauth and

sardeshmukhi. As a result it was difficult to maintain this mastery and soon an Afghan invasion

under Ahmad Shah Abdali dealt a deadly blow to Maratha glory.

In the crucial Third Battle of Panipat, the Maratha forces under Sadasiv Rao Bhao were routed

by Abdali and this marked the beginning of the decline of Maratha power. The peshwa died

within weeks and as the young peshwa Madhav Rao tried to gain control of the polity,

factionalism among the Maratha sardars raised its ugly head. This faction fighting increased

further after Madhav Rao’s death in 1772. His uncle Rahunath Rao tried to seize power, but was

opposed by a number of important Maratha chiefs. Out of frustration, Rahunath Rao went over

to the British and tried to capture power with their help. This resulted in the First Anglo-

Maratha war. (This will be dealt in details in later sections.)

It was perhaps only the Maratha state that had the potential to develop into a new pan-India

empire replacing the Mughals; but that potential was never fully realized because of the nature

of the Maratha polity itself. Marathas produced a number of brilliant commanders and

statesmen needed for the task. But the Maratha sardars lacked unity and they lacked the

outlook and programme which were necessary for founding an all-India Empire. And so they

failed to replace Mughals. They did, however, succeed in waging continuous war against the

Mughal Empire. The Maratha state ultimately declined not so much because of factionalism,

but because of the increasing power of the English in the Deccan. It was difficult for the

Marathas to resist this efficient army. The only way the Marathas could have stood up to the

rising British power was to have transformed their state into a modern state. This they failed to


Causes for Maratha defeat in Third Battle of Panipat -

• Abdali’s forces outnumbered the Maratha forces.

• Near famine conditions prevailed in the Maratha camp as the road to Delhi was cut off.

• The Maratha policy of indiscriminate plunder has estranged both Muslim and Hindu powers

like Jats and Rajputs.

• Mutual jealousies of the Maratha commanders considerable weakened their side.

• Abdali’s forces were better organised and also better equipped. Use of swivel guns

mounted on camels caused havoc in the Maratha forces.

Political significance of Third Battle of Panipat -

• Though Maratha suffered heavy loss of human lives in the battle, Maratha power soon

began to prosper as before. It continued to do so for forty years until British supremacy was

established by the second Anglo-Maratha war (1803).

• By the death of great Maratha captains, path was opened for the guilty ambitions of

Raghunath Rao.

• It lowered Maratha prestige in the Indian political world.

• Maratha dream of an all India empire was irrevocably lost.

• It cleared the way for the rise of British Empire in India.

. The Jats

The agriculturists Jat settlers living around Delhi, Mathura and Agra had revolted against the

oppressive policies of Aurungzeb. However the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb suppressed the

revolt but the area remained disturbed. Though originally a peasant uprising, the Jat revolt, led

by zamindars, soon became predatory. The Jat state of Bharatpur was set up by Churaman and

Badan Singh. Jat power reached its highest glory under Suraj Mal (1756-1763), who compelled

the Mughal authorities to recognize him. He successfully withstood a siege by Abdali’s army and

supported the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat. He tried to lay the foundation of an

enduring state by adopting the Mughal revenue system. But after his death in 1763, the Jat

state declined and was split up among petty zamindars most of whom lived by plunder.

2.7. Rohelas and Bangash Pathans

Muhammad Khan Bangash, and Afghan adventurer established his control over the territory

around Farrukhabad, between what are now Aligarh and Kanpur. Similarly during the

breakdown of administration following Nadir Shah’s invasion, Ali Muhammad Khan carved out a

separate principality, known as Rohilkhand, at the foothills of the Himalayas between the Ganga

in the south and the Kumaon hills in the north. The Rohelas clashed constantly with Awadh,

Delhi and the Jats.


After Aurangzeb’s death, weakened central authority created new opportunities for

aggrandizement by provincial officers. During the first three decades of the eighteenth century,

nascent regional kingdoms in several Northern provinces began to appear. The strained

relationship of the Rajputs with the Mughals led them to the formation of an anti-Mughal

league. Ajit Singh, Jay Singh II and Durgadas Rathod led the league. During the tussle between

the Sayyid brothers, the Rajputs followed several policies in order to fulfill their self-interest. In

this way the Rajputs won the prestigious posts in the Mughal court during the Sayyid brothers.

Thus the Rajputs got the power of controlling vast Empire extending from Delhi to Surat on the

Western coast.

Apart from this in Rajasthan, the leading Rajput emirs energetically overturned the intricate

imperial administrative controls imposed on that province. Rajputs dedicated considerable

efforts into expanding their home territories, in order to build near-autonomous regional

kingdoms. Furthermore, as the Mughal Empire was gradually being burdened with difficulties,

rajas stopped paying tribute.

The desire for independence partially arose from the harsh treatments they were granted,

dating back to the reign under Aurangzeb. The ruthless campaigns of Aurangzeb in Rajasthan as

well as his religious intolerance, including revival of Jizyah, significantly aroused anger of many

Rajputs. The insults which had been offered to their chiefs and their religion and the

ruthlessness and unnecessary severity of Aurangzeb’s campaigns in their (Rajput’s) country left

a sore which never healed. A race which had been the right arm of the Mughal Empire at the

beginning of the reign was hopelessly alienated, and never again served the throne without



Next to Hyderabad the most important power that emerged in South India was Mysore under

Haider Ali. The kingdom of Mysore had preserved its precarious independence ever since the

end of the Viajaynagar Empire and had been only nominally a part of the Mughal Empire.

Haider modernised his army with French experts, who trained an efficient infantry and artillery

and infused European discipline into the Mysore army. Haider, and later his son Tipu Sultan,

introduced the system of imposing land taxes directly on the peasants and collecting them through salaried officials and in cash, thus enhancing enormously the resource base of the state.

The state of Mysore under Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan was involved in establishing a centralised military hegemony. Its territorial ambitions and trading interest got it engaged in a state of constant warfare. Haider Ali had invaded and annexed Malabar and Calicut in 1766, thus expanding the frontiers of Mysore significantly. They were in conflict with Marathas and other powers in the region like Hyderabad and then the English on whom Haider Ali inflicted a heavy defeat near Madra in 1769. After his death in 1782, his son Tipu Sultan followed his father’s policies. His rule came to an end with a defeat at the hands of the English in 1799 – he died defending his capital Srirangapatnam. (This will be dealt in details in later sections.)

Unlike other eighteenth century states which did not challenge the political legitimacy of the Mughal emperor, in a symbolic gesture to proclaim his independence, Tipu issued coins without any reference to the Mughal emperor; and instead of Emperor Shah Alam’s name he inserted his won name in the khutba (Friday sermons at the mosques); finally, he sought a sanad from the Ottoman Khalif to legitimise his rule. But he too did not completely severe links with the Mughal monarch. Being a “realist” as he was, Tipu recognised Mughal authority when it suited him and defied it when it did not.


Further south, the southernmost state of Travancore had always maintained its independence from Mughal rule. It gained in importance after 1729 when its king Martanda Varma started expanding his domninons with the help of a strong and modern army trained along Western lines. The Dutch were outsed from the region; the English were made to accept his term of trade and local feudal chief were suppressed. He undertook many irrigation works, built roads and canals, and gave active encouragement to foreign trade. Travencore withstood the shock of a Mysorean invasion in 1766 and under Martanda Verma’s successor Rama Verma its capital became a centre of scholarship and art. In his death towards the closing years of the eighteenth century the region lost its former glory and soon succumbled to British pressure, accepting a Resident in 1800.