The Ottoman and Manchu Empires’ success in still retaining, in their decline, a monopoly of the prerogative of serving as a fount of legitimacy was not […] so remarkable as the Mughal Empire’s performance of the same diplomatico-psychological tour de force; for the Timurid Mughal Dynasty continued to assert this prerogative in its dealings with alien Powers who held the shadow of a ci-devant Mughal Empire at their mercy after it had sunk to a degree of impotence to which neither the Ottoman nor the Manchu Empire ever sank until its dying day.
Within half a century of the Emperor Awrangzīb’s death in A.D. 1707, an empire which had once exercised an effective sovereignty over by far the greater part of the Indian sub-continent had been whittled down to a torso that was no more than some 250 miles long by some 100 miles broad, [footnote: See Spear, T. G. P.: Twilight of the Mughuls (Cambridge 1951, University Press), p. 5.] and within a hundred years of A.D. 1707 this truncated dominion had been reduced to the circuit of the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi; yet, 150 years after A.D. 1707 – the date which had marked the palpable beginning of a decline that had been germinating long before that – a descendant of Akbar and Awrangzīb was still squatting on their throne in their imperial palace, and he might have been left undisturbed there for an indefinite time to come, even by British rulers of India who had retorted to “the Great Mogul’s” claim still to be their suzerain by insisting that he had now become their pensioner, if, in A.D. 1857, his apparently fantastic pretension to be still seised de jure of his mighty ancestors’ imperial authority had not been unexpectedly vindicated by a flagrant act which the Mughal Emperor could not avert and which his British masters could not overlook.
In 1857, to the Emperor’s own dismay and to his British masters’ indignation, the British East India Company’s mutinous sepoy army insisted upon exploiting a puppet Emperor’s not yet exhausted prestige by inaugurating in his name the government of a revolutionary counter-rāj which they were seeking to substitute by force of arms for the unconsecrated dominion of their British employers.
“There is much evidence … of the King’s distrust of and distaste for the Army. … But there is also no doubt that he clothed their acts with the mantle of his authority”; [footnote cites Spear]
and, in insisting upon acting in a now impotent “Great Mogul’s” name, the Mutineers in A.D. 1857 were taking practical account of a persisting state of Indian public opinion with which their predecessors had likewise found it necessary to reckon. This was the consideration that had moved the British East India Company, in acquiescing in the terms of the imperial farmans [decrees] of A.D. 1764 and 1765, to acknowledge the Emperor’s suzerainty as the quid pro quo for his formal conferment upon them of the right to conduct the administration and collect the revenue in the imperial provinces of Bihar and Bengal; and the same consideration had moved successive [Hindu] Marāthā war-lords of the House of Sindia, from A.D. 1755 to A.D. 1803, to exercise their offensively asserted de facto domination over the remnant of the Mughal Empire in the doubly modest official role of deputies for an absentee regent (in the person of the Marāthā Peshwa at Poona) over a puppet Mughal Emperor’s shrunken dominions.
The most striking demonstration that this imponderable remnant of Mughal imperial power did in fact possess a genuine specific gravity that could not be ignored with impunity was afforded by British experience. Though, as early as A.D. 1773, the British had revoked the recognition, accorded by them in A.D. 1765, of the Mughal Emperor’s continuing suzerainty over Bihar and Bengal, they were confronted as late as A.D. 1811 with a reassertion of the Emperor’s title to a formal sovereignty in these long-since ceded provinces which they did not find it altogether easy to quash; and in the Emperor’s last stronghold at Delhi within the walls of the Red Fort the controversy over the question whether he was the suzerain or a pensionary of the British East India Company remained unsettled throughout the fifty-five-years’ interval between the British military occupation of Delhi in A.D. 1803 and the suppression of the Mutiny in A.D. 1858. The British East India Company’s explicit public declaration in A.D. 1811 that it was “unnecessary to derive from the King of Delhi any additional title to the allegiance of our Indian subjects” was a form of words that, to Indian minds, was less significant than the British Resident’s continued performance of a subject’s customary visible acts of homage when he attended the Emperor’s durbar; [footnote: […] When Francis Hawkins, who had succeeded to the Residency in A.D. 1831, sought to break this practice by the flagrant act of riding right into the innermost court of the Mughal imperial palace, he was so far from carrying his principals with him that he “found himself relieved first of his charge of the palace and then of the Residency altogether” […].] and the British thesis was overtly challenged in A.D. 1829, when a new incumbent of the office of Nizām of Hyderabad applied to the Mughal Emperor for investiture, as his predecessor had applied in A.D. 1803.
“Those who took the imperial claims at their face value and those who regarded the Imperial Court as a mere puppet show, alike erred. … The British were prone to the latter mistake. But that it was a mistake was shown by the eagerness with which so realistic a man as [the Maratha] Madho Rao Sindia sought the cloak of imperial authority for his acts, or a prince like the Nizām solemnly sought confirmation of his accession from Delhi as late as 1803 [and as 1829]. [Brackets in original.] The truth was as nearly expressed as possible by Major Browne when he wrote: ‘I take the Shah’s name to be of as much importance as an Act of Parliament in England if supported by as strong a force.’” [Footnote cites Spear.]
The justice of this comparison was to be demonstrated, half a century later, when the British East India Company’s own mutinous Indian soldiery followed Sindia’s example by cloaking their force under the name of the last occupant of Akbar’s imperial throne.
A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954