Why did no one ever dethrone the Mughals despite the fact that Delhi was conquered so many times by the Maratha, Durrani, British, etc.?

By Sunil Kumar

Interesting question. I will attempt to analyze the three disparate forces mentioned here and possible reasons for why nobody ever tried to dethrone the Mughals.

After the invasions in the early 11th century, the Sultanates starting from Khilji and Aibak ruled for around 300 years, before Timur’s descendant Babur decided to abandon Kabul and his Central Asian base and establish the Mughals in 1526.

The end of this modest beginning came nearly 300 years later in 1857; when the British entered Delhi and murdered all the last remaining remnants of Tamerlane(English sources). Assisted by Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs and the Gurkhas, the East India Company checkmated Zafar and the Mughals, the Sepoys(largely from present-day U.P) and the last remaining Marathas(Nanasaheb, Tope etc).

In 2018 India, English is an aspirational language and a global link. Compared to centuries of Persian and before that Sanskrit, English has reached pole position faster despite the fact that the British have been gone for more than 70 years.

Now, how does this connect to the question, you may ask? Specifically, when we consider the Marathas who emerged from a very different milieu with their concept of ‘Hind Swaraj’ and were the most powerful force in India circa the 1750s.

Despite their ascendancy, Indian civilization had been enthralled by the Mughals and their achievements in art, painting and architecture. Persian – the official language of the Mughals was the default lingua franca of most kingdoms in India, Hindu and Muslim.

So, despite their brutal beginnings with the Mughals, especially Sambhaji(Shivaji’s son)’s death; the Marathas kept them on Delhi’s throne, albeit widely reduced in power. Their Peshwas also attempted to mix elements of Mughal grandeur in their own courts, and sometimes even mimic them especially in dance and debauchery.

Delhi was far away from Pune, focal point of the Marathas who operated more as a confederacy(local chiefs like the Scindias and the Holkars allying) rather than a centralized war machine. Maratha champions were only Shivaji and Peshwa Baji Rao I who inspired them with a vision of Hindu Pad Shahi.

Idealism in the real world is confined to a select few. Given the cut-throat and chameleon-like nature of shifting alliances and turncoat kings of the period, an interesting anecdote is the Maratha foray into the Punjab and their alliance with the Sikhs(Dal Khalsa under Ahluwalia) and Adina Beg, a mercurial and shrewd operator.

The Mughal emperor by this time was a very weak ruler with real power in the hands of his nobles like Imad Ul-Mulk who had earlier invited the Marathas to Delhi to root out Ahmed Shah Abdali’s Rohilla chief Najib ud-Daulah. After doing just that, the Marathas entered into an alliance as mentioned before and removed the Sirhind governor – another Abdali man, Abdus Samad Khan.

After this spate of successes, the Marathas became complacent and did not chase the Afghans across the Khyber Pass despite their obvious power and strategic advantage. Instead, they also pissed off the local Sikhs by appointing Adina Beg as governor of the Punjab, instead of a Sikh chieftain. Also, they were content in extracting chauth(tax) from the Punjab, instead of attempting to win the hearts and minds of the locals. Despite the Marathas assisting the Sikhs many times before and after, this was taken as a betrayal and an affront by the misls who never forgot this including Ranjit Singh- the most powerful Sikh ruler of the Punjab in the 19th century.

A weak Mughal emperor Alamgir II raised by Imad Ul-Mulk his vizier hated Mulk and the Hindu Marathas- his allies with a vengeance. After a marriage alliance with the Afghan Durranis, he invited Ahmed Shah Durrani to invade India again. Meanwhile the British had recently achieved their first success in India by removing the Nawab of Bengal in 1757.

To cut a long story short, the politics of the time period was a forever shifting vortex of jealousies and petty rivalries, dictated in part by religion, but even more so by the pursuit of power, land and wealth.

Despite their defeat by the Durranis in 1761(Panipat) with the complicity of Shah Alam II(son of Alamgir II); the Marathas were back in Delhi(1771) under Mahadji Shinde and restored Alam II to the Mughal throne and Delhi, from where he had been banished by the East India Company under a treaty.

Compared to previous rulers, his power was extremely trifling which prompted a popular Persian saying at the time Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli Ta Palam(The kingdom of Shah Alam is only from Delhi to Palam). One of Alam’s viziers Ghulam Qadir who was a Sikh ally managed to blind him after he could not find Mughal treasure and forced his daughters to strip and dance for his amusement. Again, Alam requested Mahadji Shinde who killed Qadir and restored a nearly blind Alam II to the Delhi Mughal throne- now a pale shadow of its former glory.

Under Maratha protection, he remained ruler of a notional empire, until the Marathas were decisively defeated by the East India Company in the Second Anglo-Maratha war(1803). The city was then effectively under the control of British residents effective till the final coup-de-grace of 1857.

Now- for the final point. Why didn’t the British attempt to remove the Mughals earlier. The East India Company had entered India when Jahangir was the emperor and vast swathes of the subcontinent were under his control. Compared to the backwater and poverty of England, India was a rich country- economically, culturally as well as militarily.

The British were awe-struck by Mughal grandeur themselves, and even attempted to replicate their pomp in the Delhi Durbars and calling the King in official communication and currency as the ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’.Their own history is full of blood and gore- a ‘Game of Thrones’ like fixation- and this Central Asian lot in Delhi provided this in ample measure- deception, war, fratricide, sexual intrigue, beheadings and blindings were par for the course.

So, like the Marathas, they tolerated the Mughals till they became a mortal threat to their survival. The British panicked only when they felt that India was slipping away in 1857, or later on in the 20th century when age-old differences between Hindus, Muslims and other groups were encouraged and exploited to perpetuate their rule until it became unfeasible.

Note- All of these are possible explanations and speculation- but I believe that they are the most plausible.

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