Between bread and empire

Parvati Sharma | Updated on May 08, 2020

Palace intrigue: Jahangir pictured in a court setting. His “chain of justice” was made of 120 kilos of gold and stretched for 25 metres

Throughout history, governance and justice have often taken divergent paths

Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor and Akbar’s overlooked son, is often painted in broad strokes. There is his love for the legendary courtesan Anarkali, for example, his indulgence in drink, his ‘chain of justice’. The last was not legendary, though it was certainly lavish — 120 kilos of gold strung with 60 golden bells, hanging 25 metres from a tower in the Agra fort to the banks of the Yamuna below. Anyone with a grievance might, in theory, pull the chain to attract the emperor’s attention.

It isn’t clear whether anyone ever dared ring for Jahangir in this way, although there are many anecdotes of the emperor dispensing justice. Much of this is punitive: For example, an official who charged a tax that Jahangir had abolished was paraded through the streets with his head shaved; a courtier who broke a favourite plate of the emperor’s was sent off to China to find a replacement. There is also a case of what one might call a law-and-order situation that Jahangir relates himself in his autobiography, the Jahangirnama.

It happened in Burhanpur, the Mughals’ Deccan headquarters, while the emperor was far to the north, on his way to Kashmir. The brother of one Sayyid Kabir Barha had given his sword to be polished; when he went to pick it up, he got into an argument with the polisher about his fee, at which the Sayyid’s men decided to resolve the matter with sticks. It so happened that the polisher’s shop was near the house of one Raja Gridhr, a Rajput and, like the Sayyid, a nobleman of the empire. The Raja’s men took the polisher’s side; soon enough, it was swords, not sticks, that had come into play, and three men were dead. At this point, Sayyid Kabir and Raja Gridhr entered the fray themselves, and the latter was killed, with 26 of his men.

The matter was spiralling out of control, Rajputs and Sayyids had gathered for a full-scale battle, when Mahabat Khan — Jahangir’s senior-most commander at the time — rushed to the scene. Khan separated the two groups of warriors, tried to soothe the Rajputs, went to Gridhr’s house and commiserated with his sons. He eventually arrested Barha and had him executed — “since the Rajputs would not be appeased by anything other than having him killed”.

It was a crisis narrowly averted. As is clear from the dizzying escalation of their dispute — a polisher’s fee that ended in a bloodbath — neither the Sayyids nor the Rajputs were of meditative temperament. The Sayyids of Barha, hailing from Muzaffarnagar, had been staunch allies of the Mughals since Akbar’s time (one highly placed nobleman described them as the “bulwark of the empire”), and they had been resolute in their support for Jahangir when court politics almost snatched his succession from him, days before Akbar’s demise. The Rajputs, meanwhile, were intimately intertwined with Jahangir’s dynasty — his own mother was the first Rajput princess that Akbar married. Any perception of injustice by either side could have caused deep fractures in the empire; Jahangir’s narration implies that Khan had forestalled “a major rebellion”.

I remembered this story while reading the historian Richard M Eaton’s new book India in the Persianate Age, which he begins with an analysis of how the idea of the ‘Sultan’ took shape across the Persianate world. In the 10th and 11th centuries, with “the steady decline of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad”, coupled with the “infiltration of waves of Turkish-speakers from eastern Asia into... Central Asia and northern Iran”, there occurred a split between religious and temporal power.

Religious authority still rested with the Caliph; but the various sultans who gave him their spiritual allegiance were ruling kingdoms where the imperatives of managing increasingly diverse populations held greater sway than religious authority. (Jahangir, in the 17th century, ruled not only Sayyids and Rajputs, but a whole plethora of creeds and races). Thus, Eaton continues, “long before Renaissance or Enlightenment thinkers in Europe”, scholars in Iran and Central Asia were propounding the separation of church and state.

A 12th-century Persian historian, Ibn Balkhi, for example, proposed this succinctly secular tenet for temporal kingship: “There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice.”

The idea caught on, not only in Persianate rule as it began to extend into the Indian subcontinent, but beyond it too. Eaton notes a striking similarity between Ibn Balkhi’s prescription and a bit of advice by a Telugu court poet, Baddena, writing in the 12th or 13th century: “To acquire wealth: Make the people prosper; To make people prosper: Justice is the means. O Kirti Narayana! They say that justice is the treasury of kings”.

Centuries later, another poet, Bertolt Brecht, would write, “As daily bread is necessary / So is daily justice” — but this poet of the people turned the idea of its dispensation on its head. Justice would no longer be doled out by kings. “The bread of justice must be baked / By the people,” wrote Brecht. “Plentiful, wholesome, daily.”

Parvati Sharma   -  BLink


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of A Great Mughal

Published on May 08, 2020

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