The Mughal empire was one of the greatest and one of the most influential empires that ever existed. The Mughal empire lasted for more than 300 years and covered much of the Indian subcontinent. Acquiring and maintaining such an empire for so long is often credited towards the administration prevalent during the Mughal period. In this essay, however, I will bring into focus the active military labor market that was present during the Mughal period and how that played an important role for not only the Mughals themselves but also their enemies in acquiring territories. The role of mercenaries in the military labor market and their ethnic composition will also be discussed in this paper. In this essay, we will see what kind of military labor market existed during the Delhi Sultanate, the changes that occurred in it with the oncoming of the Mughals, and its significance in determining the relationship between the nobles and the peasants. The Mughals being referred to in this essay are only the first six of the Mughal rulers from Babur to Aurangzeb. The main objective of this essay is to analyze the ethnic composition of the military labor market. There is no original data collected for this essay and I will be analyzing the texts of different historians.
Before the emergence of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, the Delhi Sultanate was the dominant empire in the Indian subcontinent. They had their own military labor market. We know this as Kaushik Roy informs us that, “Until the fourteenth century, the dominant mode of military recruitment in India was the Mamluk system.” ( page 1, from mamluks etc) The soldiers comprising the mamluk system were mainly slave soldiers that were brought from the Muslim countries in the Middle-east such as Turkestan, Persia, and Transoxiana. Due to the political fluctuations caused by Mongol invasions, the Delhi Sultanate had to resort to hiring free-flowing mercenaries from Hindustan itself. Also, “One way to maintain and expand the size of the army was to hire indigenous mercenaries as well as to utilize the forces of the defeated chiefs. The free-floating mercenaries had their own horses, armor, and equipment. They were paid in cash and they also had a right to the loot taken from the defeated enemies.”( page 89, Mamluks) Thus we can see how the military labor market shifted from accquiring slave soldiers from the Middle East to hiring mercenaries from the Indian subcontinent itself.
Due to the invasion from Timur during the 14th and the 15th century, the Delhi Sultanate weakened, which provided the perfect opportunity for other Central Asian rulers such as Babur to invade India. Babur is credited to be the founder of the Mughal Empire. We can see some similarities and some differences in the military labor that was adopted by Babur when compared to the Delhi Sultanate. Unlike the Delhi Sultanate, Babur preferred to have a household standing army, which comprised of soldiers that joined Babur’s army due to family and clan connections. Unlike the mercenaries, these soldiers did not break on the battlefield and were used by Babur to perform daredevil manoeuvrers of the battlefield. But just like the Delhi Sultanate, even Babur had decided to include mercenaries into his army. According to Kaushik Roy, many mercenaries that joined Babur were from Mongol descent, as he says “Babur mentions that the Mongol settlers in Central Asia were organized in various tribes. Many Mongol tribes who had no blood relation to Babur joined him. Each Mongol tribe at that time comprised 3,000-4,000 families.” ( page 90, Mamluks) It is important to know that Babur himself is from Mongol descent. Thus from this, we can see that the Mongol mercenaries joining Babur could be categorized as an ethnic mercenary sort of military employment in which mercenaries join a ruler because they have the same ethnic background.
Babur’s ancestors were Timur and Chengiz Khan, who were famous rulers of the Timurid and the Mongol dynasties, which occupied much of Central Asia. When Babur came to India, he decided to adopt the military tactics used in Central Asia and he used them to defeat the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. At the battle of Panipat, “ He protected his right by resting it on the city of Panipat, and on the left, dug a ditch with branches of felled trees so that the cavalry could not cross it. In front, he put together 700 carts, some from his baggage train, and some procured locally. These carts were joined together by ropes of rawhide, and between every two carts, short breastworks were put up behind which matchlockmen could stand and fire. Babur called this method of stringing carts the Ottoman ( Rumi) devise because along with cannons it had been used by the Ottoman Sultan in the famous battle with Shah Ismail of Iran at Chaldiran in 1514. But Babur added a new feature. At a bow shot apart, gaps were left, wide enough for fifty or hundred horses to charge abreast” ( page 29, Satish Chandra) Babur is also credited with introducing guns and gunpowder to India. Thus he had also incorporated two Ottoman mercenaries, Ustad Ali and Mustafa, who were master gunners. Babur also claimed that these two mercenaries were invaluable on the battlefield and also went as far as appointing Ustad Ali as the master of the ordinance. Thus we can see that Babur kept hiring mercenaries from mostly Central Asia as he was using the tactics that were being used in that area and thus the mercenaries would already be accustomed to such military tactics and thus would prove most effective.
The Mughals were not the only ones who were hiring mercenaries. The military labor market was open to all those who could afford mercenaries, which included the rivals of the Mughals. In fact, “Babur’s opponent at the First Battle of Panipat, Sultan Ibrahim Lodi (r. 1517-1526) depended on the indigenous mercenaries. Ibrahim Lodi, being an Afghan, preferred Afghan soldiers.” ( page 91, Mamluk) Many times the defeated chieftains were forced to join the rival army if they were defeated in battle. The previous claim is supported by the following quote which is- “After being victorious at First Panipat, many Afghan chieftains in India (who were either semi-autonomous or in Lodi service) joined Babur as tributaries with their retainers (some of the bands numbering up to 3,000- 4,000 men each).54 In many cases, they were forced to join Babur after being defeated in battle.” ( page 91 Mamluk)
Even after Humayun came into power, mercenaries were still being used to oppose the Mughal rule. For example, Bahadur Shah of Gujrat hired African mercenaries commonly known as Abbysinians and also hired tribal mercenaries. In fact, “ Bahadur Shah provided 20 crores of Gujarati coins to one of his nobles, Tatar Khan, who with this money hired 40,000 Afghan mercenary cavalries. Some Muslims of Gujarat also joined his artillery branch as mercenaries.” ( page 92). After Humayun defeated Bahadur Shah and some other Afghan chieftains, they were forced to join Humayun’s army with their retainers. However, similar to the mercenaries, they proved disloyal towards Humayun and deserted him and instead joined his enemy Sher Shah, who was an afghan. Another example of mercenary disloyalty and desertion is the case of Rumi Khan, who was initially under the employment of Bahadur Shah of Gujrat. Rumi, Khan, “, the commandant of the Gujarat Sultanate’s artillery department, deserted Sultan Bahadur Shah and joined Humayun in 1533. Rumi Khan was a military engineer and was considered an expert in siege warfare. In 1537, he advised Humayun in conducting the siege of Chunar Fort held by Sher Shah.” ( page 99, mollusks) From this, we can conclude that there were some stark similarities between mercenaries and the chieftains and their retainers who were defeated in battle. Even though the former was voluntary and the latter was involuntary, desertion was common and they also did not have any loyalty towards their employees or captives and thus abandoned them if any political fluctuations occurred in that demographic area.
Many mercenaries from Central Asia became attracted by the wealth that India had to offer and the prospect of looting it made them join Humayun’s cause on a mostly seasonal contract. Mercenaries hired on a seasonal contract were less likely to desert as compared to those who were hired for a longer contract. There were also cases where the children of mercenaries would follow in their parent's footsteps and serve the ruler of the same dynasty. such was the case with the son of Ustad Ali Quli Khan’s son, M.K Rumi, who fought beside Humayun and was in charge Mogul guns and carriages at the battle of Kanauj. Just like Babur, Sher Shah also utilized the military labor market and incorporated soldiers from his ethnic background. We know this as “ Sher recruited Afghans from Bihar, and many Rajput chieftains with their clansmen also joined his banner. While the Rajputs in his army were mercenaries, the Afghans were mobilized through tribal/clan networks. Sher called the Afghan qaum (community) to mobilize against the alien Moguls.” ( page 92-93) Thus we can say that it was an instance of ethnic conscription for the Afghans in Sher Shah’s army.
Things took a drastic turn when Akbar came into power. After his victory in the second battle of Panipat, he established a stronghold in Northern India. Thus the base for Mughal operations was no longer Afghanistan, as it was with Babur and Humayun, but instead, it was now northern India. This was a setback in terms of military recruitment. This is because now Akbar would not be able to tap up the Turkish and the other central Asian tribes and include them in his army as he was now established in India. Due to this, he had to come up with a new military recruitment system. The system which he introduced was the mansabdari system, which changed the military labor market for the Mughals for the coming decades. The mansabdari system comprised of nobles who held ranks called mansabs and they were called mansabdars and each of them held jagirs. The way in which it transformed the military labor market was that “The mansabdari system was also partly a case of the tributary form of military employment. After being defeated, the chieftains belonging to different principalities were encouraged and at times coerced to serve in the Mogul army and in return were rewarded with jagirs. When Akbar established himself at Agra, a large number of principalities were under the control of autonomous and semi-autonomous hereditary chieftains. The latter was known as rajas, ranas, rawats, or rais. They were also known as Rajputs, and the Mogul chroniclers called them zamindars.” ( page 96) They were different from traditional mercenaries as mansabars were usually given lifelong employment, unlike the mercenaries who were usually given a season-long contract. Also, the commitment of the mansabdars to the emperor was absolute and thus they were not given much freedom in leaving the service.
As previously mentioned, foreign mercenaries played a very important role in determining battles. One of the main reasons for this was their knowledge of guns and gunpowder. As the use of cannons and the muskets were widespread throughout the West, European mercenaries always had a special place in the military labor market and their services were used by both the Mughals and their rivals alike. In fact, European mercenaries were so in demand that “from the second half of the seventeenth century, the Mogul artillery was manned by Portuguese, British, Dutch, German, and French mercenaries. These foreigners were deserters from European ships and entered Mogul dominion through Goa for higher pay” ( page 100). Even mercenaries from Africa found employment in India. One of the most common of these were the Abbysinians. We are informed that “. In the Ahmadnagar Sultanate in western Deccan, Abyssinian military slaves and Abyssinian mercenaries played an important role. The Abyssinians (also known as Habshis in India) were African Muslims from Ethiopia who either came to India as free-born adventurers or were imported as slaves.” ( page 101).
As we have seen, the military labor market in Mughal India comprised of a vast number of soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. While they may have their advantages, there are a few historians who claim that the dependency of the rulers on the military labor market had led them to not maintain a proper standing army. We get to know that “since supply exceeded demand, there was no point in maintaining a big standing army year after year. Rather, during emergencies, infantry and cavalry were raised at short notice and sent to the trouble spots.” ( page 103) . Thus the Mughals lacked a disciplined and properly drilled standing army that could be used to win battles decisively. Instead “treachery, diplomacy, bribery, and a show of force resulted in the absorption and assimilation of enemies” ( page 84). This claim can be used to justify the disintegration of the Mughal empire, as, after Aurangzeb, the entire administration and the military structure had begun to fall apart. This was due to mainly both internal and external conflicts, which with the use of a proper standing army, could have been controlled.
As we have seen throughout this essay, the military labor market throughout the Mughal empire always comprised of soldiers-cum- mercenaries of different ethnic backgrounds. As the Mughals mostly depended on them for military recruitment, we can sense that there was some heterogeneity in the army in terms of religion, culture, and nationality. This is one of the ways in which we get to know about the liberal nature of the Mughals when concerned with the army. It is important to know that all of the emperors from Babur to Aurangzeb deemed it necessary to employ foreign mercenaries into their armies, especially European mercenaries. The reason behind this could be due to the advancement of cannons and muskets in Europe during the 16th and the 17th century and thus hiring mercenaries with the knowledge of these advancements would certainly be beneficial to the Mughals. Thus we say that their expansion in the Indian subcontinent was due to the ethnic diversities of the soldiers that comprised the Mughal armies and the different skills and the ability that they brought with them.
During the 18th century, the power of the Mughal empire lowly diminished, mainly due to the emergence of the East India company. The British established their rule in India after the battle of Plassey in 1757. This led to the extinction of the existent mansabdari system. Since then, the entire military labor market was operated by the British Raj. The main breeding grounds of military recruitment for the British were Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. The ethnic composition of the British army mainly comprised of Indian soldiers called as ‘sepoys’ and only a minority were white British soldiers. In his book The Garrison State: Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947, Tan Tai Yong analyzes the dynamics of the military labour market in Punjab from the revolt of 1857 to 1947 and talks about how after the revolt of 1857, Punjab became a militarized bureaucracy and became a supply ground of men and weapons for the British.
Thus we can see through this paper on how with the emergence of a new political power in India, it led to the extinction of a pre-existent military labor market. To put this into context, the Mamluk system during the time of the Delhi Sultanate became extinct with the emergence of the Mughals. Similarly, the mansabdari system vanished after the establishment of the imperial raj. Through all this, we can safely conclude that the military labor market in India was never rigid or constrained, but was instead not bound by anything and extremely free-flowing.
Roy. Kaushik. 2013. “From the mamluks to the mansabdars:A social history of military service in South Asia, c. 1500 to c. 1650”. Fighting for a Living Book Subtitle: A Comparative Study of Military Labour 1500-2000. 81-114
Chandra. Satish. 2005. Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals Part 2. New Delhi. Publications Pvt. Ltd.