I really like Indian Leftist historians, some of them are my role models like Irfan Habib (not the bearded one, but the clean shaven one, although the bearded one is cool too), but sadly they have made a big mess while trying to explain Alauddin Khilji’s supposed “anti-Hindu” policies.
What could have been a simple explanation was turned into something very complicated and hence inaccessible to people not familiar with history, which resulted in Alauddin Khilji’s unnecessarily demonization and politicization. Below, I have tried to make it clear why we need to change the way we look at Alauddin Khilji.
Contextualizing Khilji’s Reign
Khilji’s kingdom was a state which was constantly at war. Although this could be said about different kingdoms and empires in India across history, but the threat to Indian civilization and culture during Khilji’s reign was unprecedented.
If you think I am overselling my point consider this, by the time Khilji had ascended the throne in Delhi the Mongols controlled the largest land empire ever in the history of mankind. Everything from China to Russia, from Turkey to Central Asia was under the control of Mongols, so they had India surrounded from the Northern, Western and Eastern sides.
Mongol Empire in 1280 AD[i]
Now if you are thinking- “what is the point? Just one more invader in Indian history and didn’t we have a successful Mongol invasion into India in the form of Timur?” This is where you are wrong.
Let’s start from the end of the question, with “Timur”- he was a strong Mongol ruler, but by his time the glue keeping the Mongol Empire together had come off which weakened it considerably.
Now let us consider the “just one more invader” point of the question. Yes, even before the Mongols, India had been invaded by everyone from A-list invaders like Alexander the Great to C-List invaders like Yeuh Chihs whom you probably know as the Kushanas.[ii]
But Mongols were nothing like them. Historians believe that one-third of the total Chinese population was killed during the successful attempts by the Mongols to capture China. If you look at population numbers before and after the Mongol conquest of China – it shows a 45% drop![iii]
A look at the Chinese economy shows that it took them at least 200 years to recover from the devastation caused by the Mongol conquest of China.
Alauddin Khilji’s Personality
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that if Alauddin Khilji saw the heading of this article he would have the same reaction as you- something akin to “No way in hell!”. He had no love for Hinduism, by all accounts he was a devout Muslim, but he was a realist too.
Many contemporary heavy weights condemned Alauddin Khilji for not implementing Sharia throughout his kingdom and for not basing his state laws on sharia which is why they called Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom- “jahandari” or based on laws of the world, in other words – not based on the laws that Allah wanted people to have in the world – or sharia[v].
There is also a minor side issue here – Delhi Sultans prior to Alauddin like Iltutmish, Raziya and Balban also had jahandari policies but Alauddin had also committed regicide when he assassinated the previous ruler- Jalaluddin Khilji. He was trying to establish amicable relationship between different groups of nobles and who also happened to be Alauddin Khilji’s uncle and father-in-law.[vi] This is why a lot of people tended to look down on him.
So, Alauddin Khilji knew that he was stuck in a situation where he was a Muslim king, who was supposed to carry out God’s work on earth, except that over-whelming number of people in his kingdom did not believe in his God and most of his courtiers looked down on him as he failed to meet the basic standards of an Islamic ruler set by other Muslim rulers.
So, Alauddin did what all Indians even to this day do when they are stuck in a tight spot – adjust.
His Economic Policies
Now that we have contextualized Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom and the situation he found himself in let us get into the different controversies. Nothing was more controversial than his economic policies of which the imposition of the jaziya tax is the most debated.
Khilji found himself in a situation where he had to ward off the Mongol threat by maintaining the fortifications in Northern and Western India which were built by Balban and by extending them further. He also realised that fortifications will not be enough and that he needed good fighting men. So, he decided not only to pay his army in cash but to increase their salary substantially.
Khilji paid his cavalry men 20 tankas per month which was almost the same amount that Akbar paid his cavalry men but since Akbar ruled India more than 250 years after Alauddin Khilji the difference due to inflation adjustment is quite substantial[vii].
This defence expenditure required massive sums of money and since most of the people in his kingdom depended on agriculture and were Hindus, Khilji saw a unique opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He decided to increase agricultural taxes to half the produce and decided to call a section of this tax “jaziya tax” or the tax that non-Muslims pay to their Muslim overlords for protection.[viii]
In fact it was only in the time of Firoz Shah Tughlaq, that the jaziya tax was separated from the agricultural tax.[ix] So, Khilji showed his detractors that he was implementing sharia and at the same time got the resources he needed to defend his kingdom.
But, there is a third thing that Alauddin managed to do with this step that people do not realise – which is to reduce the burden on peasants. Yes, increasing taxes and reducing burden might look paradoxical, but to see how he did it we have to dig a little deeper.
The period immediately preceding the Delhi Sultanate is recognised as the golden era for Indian Feudalism when we see classical feudalism at work across India.[x] This was a time when land was parcelled off to feudal lords called samantas and to Brahmans in the form of Brahmadeya[xi].
Under this arrangement the samantas and the Brahmadeya had the right to tax whatever they wanted and had the powers of jurisprudence over their territories. All these resulted in a plethora of “creatively” created taxes.
I am not going to comment on the caste and gender discriminations this system caused- you can do some imagining on your own if you can’t then you can read it here[xii]. But what I am going to comment on is vishti– the right of the feudal lords and the Brahmans of the brahmadeya to claim forced labour for their lands[xiii].
Under the system of vishti the peasant or kasak had to stop working for his field and instead work for the privately owned fields of his overloads for a particular time period and got no portion of the produce or profits from this labour. So, vishti was essentially a nice Sanskrit word for slavery.
So, although in the period before the Sultanate the agricultural tax amounted to only one-sixth of the produce but in practice it was much more than that[xiv].
Alauddin Khilji took the above mentioned revenue system and decided to rationalise it and limit it to only 3 kinds of taxes – Kharaj-i-jaziya (agricultural tax), cattle tax and house tax.[xv]
But not content with this, Khilji decided to go one step further to safeguard the peasants and enacted price control on markets. Prices of all commodities were fixed in the market so there was no inflation and people were able to decide which businesses to get into, what to cultivate and on what to invest in to maximise their profits.
Some argue that the price control in the markets was because the soldiers were being paid in cash and inflation would result in them demanding more while others like Ziauddin Barani has argued that it was done to hurt the Hindus by reducing their profits.
Both arguments have significant drawbacks – first, the soldiers comprised of less than 1% of the population in Khilji’s kingdom and were already getting very high salaries for their time as mentioned above.[xvi] So, taking such a massive economic step for so few people who were not facing economic problems is meaningless.
Secondly, Barani’s communal insinuation is also non-applicable at the ground level because a large section of the merchants and traders in Delhi and surrounding areas where this price control was in full force, were Muslims.[xvii]
So, the peasants who were impacted negatively by the increase in tax rates, did not have to worry about their purchasing power going down and could plan for investing more in the future as the market conditions were more or less stable.
Propaganda Then and Now
After reading the above you might be saying that you heard elsewhere about how Hindus suffered because of the jaziya tax. To you I have two things to say – firstly, what I have said above, is that jaziya tax was indistinguishable from agricultural tax during Khilji’s time.
Secondly, did the stories you heard about the suffering of the Hindus sound something like this – “the Hindus were so badly affected by Alauddin’s taxes that womenfolk of rich Hindu households had to find work in other’s lands and houses to pay their dues”.
Don’t worry, I have heard them too, but I beseech you to exercise caution while making assumptions based on this story. Remember the feudal lords called samatas and the land grants made to the Brahmins called brahmadeya, mentioned above? Well, after conquest of their lands by the Turkish Sultans their rights over the lands deteriorated. Under Turkish rule they changed their identity and became the biggest landlords in the villages or the village headman. They were called khuts and muqqadams by the officials of the Delhi Sultanate.[xviii]
But till Alauddin’s reign the khuts and muqqadams continued to use vishti or forcing other peasants in their area of influence to work their fields without pay. Since they lost the right to the tax breaks that they used to enjoy before the Delhi Sultanate came to power, they used this kind of forced labour to pay their taxes.
But Alauddin Khilji needed all the resources he could get and khuts and muqqaddams keeping peasants away from their own fields not only impoverished the peasants but also negatively impacted state revenue which is why Alauddin Khilji ordered the discontinuation of this system.
The khuts and muqqadams were forced to work their own fields, or could hire labourers for a price but since this would mean other peasants had to leave their own lands and work in someone else’s land and keeping in mind that the taxes appropriated were extremely high (half the produce), the village elite found it difficult to get enough labour to meet their needs. On top of it anyone found using vishti in their fields were severely punished. This is why you have all these stories about rich Hindu families becoming impoverished due to Alauddin Khilji’s new tax laws.
But if you study Alauddin Khilji’s reign without any pre-conceived ideas you will realise that there are far more stories about him punishing Muslims for their failure to obey his tax laws than there are about Hindus being dealt with in the same way.
How did Khilji Save Hinduism?
While facing the Mongol onslaught Alauddin Khilji found himself defending his kingdom of Hindustan where most of the people were Hindus. We have to remember that during the time of Khilji although there were substantial Hindu populations in the Malay Islands and in Indo-China, but they were eventually eclipsed by either Buddhism or Islam, so the Indian subcontinent was basically the last stronghold of the Hindus.
The Mongols led two massive attacks against India during Alauddin Khilji’s time. The first one was in 1297 AD when the invasion force was 200,000 men strong and the second one was in 1303 when it was 120,000 strong.[xix]
But both these invasions were not only stopped but also definitively repulsed by Khilji’s forces. From a military history point of view this victory was very significant because the main strength of the Indian forces were their cavalry and the Mongols had possibly the best cavalry force in the history of mankind. Defeating such large Mongol cavalry forces not once but twice is almost unheard of in history.
But what would have happened if Alauddin Khilji had failed to defend his kingdom?
To answer this question we have to look at the geographies of India and China.
Both demographically and geographically the Indo-Gangetic plains dominate India. Then as it is now, most of India’s population resided there. Since economically and demographically important cities of India like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore did not exist, the Great Indian Plains assumed much more importance during Khilji’s reign.
Compare this to China – there are different plain areas in China like the Central Plains or Zhongyuan, but they do not geographically dominate the Chinese landscape like the Great Indian Plains. Moreover, the geographical barriers for an advancing army while trying to reach the East and the South East which were the traditional power centres in China and their economic engines were numerous.
This meant that the even after the Mongols broke through the Northern and North Western defences of China they had a hard and long fight ahead of them.
But this has historically not been true in India. Once invading armies break through the Western and the North Western barriers they are free to exploit the most important political and economic centres of India located in the Gangetic plains.
So, I want you to imagine a scenario where Khilji fails to protect his Northern and Western boundaries and the Mongol armies break through and get access to the Indo-Gangetic plains – what do you think would have happened then? There are two ways this could have panned out- the Mongols would say something like “Indians are so nice and peaceful people and their food is so great, so we have decided not to harm them in any way”, or they would have pillaged, looted, raped and killed their way through the most densely populated Hindu area in the world and possibly the richest region in the world at the time.[xxi] Which scenario do you think is more credible? Moreover even when China provided protection to various populations with its geography even then 45% of its population perished in their unsuccessful fight against the Mongols. What do you think will happen to India where most of the population lived in wide open plains?
Oh, are you thinking they will escape South of the Vindhyas? Think again. The Mongols with much smaller forces than the ones which attacked India during Alauddin’s time successfully invaded Turkey which was protected by mountain ranges far more inaccessible than the flat Vindhyas. But really, how many people do you think would have escape given how fast Mongols seem to travel in flatlands like the Gangetic plains.
The reality is stark and staring at our faces and we only need to have the courage to look it in the eye. If Alauddin Khilji had failed to stop the Mongol Invasion of India- the Mongols would have engaged in a large scale slaughter of the Hindus. Of course the Mongols would have done the same to Muslims in India as well, but by that time Islam had spread from South of Spain to Indonesia so the effect on the religion of Islam demographically would not have changed a whole lot. But the Hindus by the late 13th and early 14thcentury remained largely confined to the Indian subcontinent, so a mass slaughter of Hindus in India would have been disastrous for the Hindu religion and might very well have led to its extinction.
(The artwork image at the top of the page is from Jami-al-Tawarikh by Rashid Al Din)
[ii] Thapar, R., Early India (Noida, 2002).
[v] Chandra, S., History of Medieval India (New Delhi, 2007), p. 134.
[vi] Chandra, S., Medieval India (New Delhi, 1997), p. 76.
[vii] Chandra, S., History of Medieval India (New Delhi, 2007), p.103
[viii] Habib, I., The Cambridge Economic History of India (Delhi, 1984), pp.48-76
[ix] Chandra, S., Medieval India (New Delhi, 1997), p. 124.
[x] Sharma, R.S., Indian Feudalism (Delhi, 1965).
[xii] Sharma, R.S., Economic History of Early India (New Delhi, 2011), pp-52-75.
[xiii] Sharma, R.S., Indian Feudalism (Delhi, 1965).
[xiv] Chandra, S., History of Medieval India (New Delhi, 2007), pp. 41-42.
[xv] Habib, I., The Cambridge Economic History of India (Delhi, 1984), p.55
[xvi] Compare the data you find here: http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm with Chandra, S., History of Medieval India (New Delhi, 2007), p. 120.
[xvii] Chandra, S., History of Medieval India (New Delhi, 2007), p. 104.
[xviii] Ibid, p-124.
[xix] Ibid, p 87.