We often hear from Opposition parties that the government no longer commands the majority in the National Assembly. This claim alludes to the question of ‘legitimacy’. In my opinion, ‘legitimacy’ is the most important question for any form of government, be it a monarchy, dictatorship or democracy. Powers that vie for authority intrinsically seek legitimacy in the eye of the public and go to great lengths to acquire it.
Consider this: if someone is not satisfied with the government, has the right to govern and has the power to topple the government, then logically, they would not hesitate to do so. If the one governing also has the right and power to thwart hostile plans, then the logical outcome in all probability is for both to go to war. But what if one of them had the advantage of support from an ‘invisible hand’ to shore up their efforts? History is most enlightening in this regard.
The Corps of Forty
Iltutmish, the second Sultan of the Delhi Sultanate, sought to legitimize his rule as being the dominant force in North India was not enough. He sent envoys to the court of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad with lavish gifts to seek his approval to rule. Consequently, Iltutmish received the caliphal investiture in 1229 AD and the titles of Yamin Khilfatullah (Right hand of God’s deputy) and Nasir Amir-ul-Momineen (Auxiliary of the Commander of the Faithful). He remains the only Delhi Sultan to have received such approval from an Abbasid Caliph because shortly after his investiture, the Mongol invasion brought an end to the Abbasid Caliphate (1258 AD).
All of his children considered themselves worthy to be crowned and most of them had the opportune chance to rule. Likewise, all of them had a ‘legitimate’ claim over the crown and they had their supporters among the all-powerful Turkan-i-Chahalgani. The Turkan-i-Chahalgani (Corps of Forty) was the military junta established by Iltutmish to flex his muscle and it ultimately became a key player in the fray for the seat of Delhi.
Iron hand vs Invisible hand
Iltutmish’s son and successor Rukn Uddin Firuz Shah was deposed within months under mysterious circumstance. Another successor, his sister Razia Sultana, was also deposed when the nobles who brought her to power did not like her assertive nature. The invisible players Turkan-i-Chahalgani kept up with their game and almost ten years after Iltutmish’s demise, they found a king of their liking in the visage of Nasir Uddin Mahmud (1246–1266 AD).
Nasir’s rule was mostly symbolic, as he remained under the control of his wazir, son-in-law and a dominant member of Chahalgani named Balban. Nasir had no male heir, and female ascension was out of the question after Razia’s experience and so he was succeeded by Balban.
Ghiyas Uddin Balban is said to have ruled with an iron hand. And whenever an iron hand is raised, the invisible hand retreats. The Turkan-i-Chahalgani was disbanded and spy masters became so active that even esteemed people such as Nizam Uddin Auliya were questioned about their loyalties. The system established on brute force, however, was fragile and Balban’s successors eventually fell victim to the invisible hand.
Enter Jalal Uddin Khilji
A constitutional crisis of sorts had gripped the young Sultanate. With the fall of Baghdad, there was no one to legitimize the rule of the Delhi Sultans, or in simple terms, anyone could become the Sultan. The Delhi Sultans continued to mint coins in the name of the last Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim (d. 1258 AD). Jalal Uddin Khilji seized the opportunity and deposed Shamsuddin Kayumars to occupy the throne of Delhi. Jalal Uddin himself fell victim to an intricately laid plan of his nephew and lieutenant, Ala Uddin Khilji. The plan had multiple layers, meaning that there were multiple invisible actors who wanted Ala Uddin to become king.
Ala Uddin Khilji proved to be an able and efficient Sultan. He ruled with an iron fist that kept the invisible hand at bay. But the invisible hand became active immediately after his demise. Ala Uddin’s favorite slave, Malik Kafur Hazar Dinari, became the regent of his young son and successor, Shihab Uddin Omar. Malik Kafur’s eunuch slave, a non-Turkic slave of Ala Uddin, had the audacity to marry his widow and the mother of Shihab Uddin. He also got rid of Ala Uddin’s two elder sons and was in the process of dealing with another when he was brought down by Turkic officers of the Royal Household. Who persuaded the officers to take matters into their own hands is a matter of speculation.
Mubarak Shah, the son who was spared, became the regent of his young brother Shihab Uddin. The access to the throne had prompted Mubarak Shah to strengthen his claim on it.
After some time, he deposed his younger brother and ascended the throne. Mubarak Shah concluded that it was God’s will that made him king and he assumed the title ofKhalifatullah (God’s deputy). However, his bloodline and deductive claim of legitimacy were unable to protect him; he was murdered by his most trusted slave and minister, Khusrav Khan, who was a convert from a lower Hindu caste. After murdering his master, Khusrav crowned himself. And nobody had expected him to ever become Sultan either!
AfterKhusrav Khan’s two-month rule we have the ascension to the throne of Delhi by Ghiyas Uddin Tughluq, an “awara mard” in his own words. He is said to have shown reluctance before ascending and looked for a descendent of Ala Uddin Khilji instead. The most bizarre event during his brief rule was the manner of his own death. To me, Tughluq’s death is a classic example of intervention by the invisible hand because no one could be sure whether any hand was involved or not, but everyone suspected that certain hidden forces were at play. In order to receive his victorious father from a campaign in the East, Ulugh Khan had a wooden pavilion erected on the capital’s outskirts. Ironically, it collapsed, killing Ghiyas Uddin Tughluq (1325 AD)—when Ulugh Khan was conveniently not at his side.
Ulugh Khan ascended the throne as Muhammad bin Tughluq (1325 AD) and he was smart enough to legitimize his rule by securing caliphal investiture from the resurrected Abbasid Caliphate of Egypt.
Muhammad bin Tughluq died after he had a ‘hearty meal of fish’ (said to be caught from Keenjhar Lake) near Thatta on his expedition to quell the rebellious chiefs of Sindh (1351 AD). Mullah Badayuni, the court historian of Emperor Akbar, writing almost two centuries later, narrated, “And so the King was freed from his people and they from their King.”
Infighting and legitimacy
Next in line was Firuz Shah Tughluq, who was not only able to secure the approval of Abbasid Caliph of Egypt al-Mutadid. After ruling for 37 years—the longest reign by a Sultan of Delhi—Firuz Shah died in 1388 AD. What followed was chaos. Five successors followed in a brief period of ten years. By 1398 AD Taimur invaded India and the Delhi Sultanate was wiped out. After an interregnum of almost 16 years, the Sultanate was reestablished by one of Taiumur’s lieutenants, Sayyid Khizr Khan. As Taimur had declared himself Amir-ul-Momineen, Khizr Khan’s claim over the Sultanate was indisputable. Sayyid’s rule was largely uneventful and their last king, Alam Shah, abdicated in favor of a powerful Afghan noble Bahlul Khan Lodhi (1451 AD) and retired to the city of Badayun.
Almost after 70 years, one of Taimur’s descendant’s Baber set his sights on Delhi as his lost heritage. Powered by Turkic muskets and canons, Baber was able to re-establish Mughal rule over North India. Taimur’s name provided legitimacy.
Throughout their centuries of rule over India, Mughal princes fought among themselves to seek control of the empire. The rule of primogeniture was not customary among the Timurids; they believed in coparcenary inheritance. Baber himself divided his kingdom amongst his sons, but after year of troubles and struggles, it was Humayun who emerged victorious over his brothers to claim the throne.
I will not go into the details of the infighting. It is necessary, however, to mention the famous ‘Infallibility Decree’ (Mahzar) issued by the ulama of the Empire. For me, Mahzar remains the only legal document that can be called constitutional in nature. Through this decree, Akber secured “utmost powers that any man could claim to exercise within the limits of Islam” and was declared the Imam-i-Adil. The question of legitimacy was thus largely settled, but the infighting amongst princes continued.
Perhaps the most important and lasting play of the invisible hand during Mughal rule was the victory of Aurangzeb in the war of succession among the sons of Shah Jahan. Aurangzeb had an advantage over his elder brother, the heir presumptive, Dara Shikoh. Aurangzeb had been a military commander since a young age, whereas Dara found solace in artistic pursuits. The Mughal Empire was forged by and depended on its military. Despite all his efforts, Shah Jahan failed to secure the throne for his eldest son, as Aurangzeb emerged victorious in the war of succession over his father and brothers. For the remainder of his life, Shah Jahan languished in prison while two of his sons, Dara and Murad, were tried and murdered. Aurangzeb sought legitimate means to get rid of his brothers. The cases against Dara and Murad exemplify what is known to us as “judicial murder”.
In South Asia, the question of ‘legitimacy’ has been conclusively addressed through the adoption of democratic principles. But there are still those who ventured to establish themselves with the help of the invisible hand by facilitating them with court orders or botched referendums. The invisible hand’s power and reach becomes visible when a hard-contested controversial bill is passed by the assembly or a no-confidence motion fails in an Opposition-dominated Senate or when a popular leader is sent into exile. Its role in shaping a nation’s destiny should neither be ignored nor underestimated.