With the release of the highly controversial film Padmaavat, featuring a screaming Bollywood fashion icon as the 13th century Sultan of Delhi Alauddin Khilji, it’s time for a reckoning not only in how we see Khilji, but historical figures in general.
Many historians and media outlets have leapt into opposition against director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s (and actor Ranveer Singh’s) depiction, accurately pointing out that the real Khilji was highly influenced by Persian culture, that he used cruelty as a strategy and that he kept the Mongols out of India.
These are excellent points and one wonders if the Padmaavat depiction will contribute to a negative stereotype about India’s Islamic rulers (even though the film focuses on the ruler’s obsession over a woman rather than on his administrative skills).
However, this debate has distracted us from a comprehensive assessment of Khilji’s policies and achievements by focusing on one set of conflicts in North India.
The most long-reaching effects of Khilji’s career were not merely military or territorial, though those were important. His policies also played an important and decisive role in India’s economic and political history, especially so in the south.
Cruelty and conquest
The shockingly rapid progress of Turkic and then Mongol hordes through the world from roughly the 10th century begs the question of why they were so successful in the first place. Their meritocratic, well-drilled and highly mobile cavalry armies crushed larger forces from China to Hungary and India. However, their true talent lay in psychological warfare.
Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2014) points out that the Mongol Khan always offered cities the option of surrender before ordering their complete destruction. Often, the brutal levelling of one city and the massacre of its ruling elite would lead to the rapid surrender of its neighbours to Mongol rule, thus saving on manpower. In the case of both the Turks and the Mongols, it took barely a generation to go from “barbaric” conquerors to rulers.
This is a marked departure from earlier tribal confederacies such as the Huns and Vandals, but closer to the Kushans and Parthians. They would adopt local cultural practices, spread technology, enable trade and not interfere too much in the religious practices of their new subjects.
The Turks differed in the last because they had already converted to Islam, but rulers like Alauddin Khilji were nevertheless more pragmatic than we generally think (Khilji, as attested to by Ziauddin Barani—a 13-14th century chronicler in the Delhi Sultanate—was one of the rare sultans who dared skip the Friday prayer). In one of history’s strange twists, by the 13th century, the once-nomadic Turks had to face the recently nomadic Mongols.
It is in this context that we should see Alauddin Khilji. He is a Machiavellian (dare we say Kautilyan?) figure. In fact, Khilji’s ruthless adherence to the principle that the state must benefit at all costs, while being agnostic to religion , is strikingly similar to the views of the Arthashastra.
As a young man, he led a lightning raid into the wealthy fort of Devagiri, supposedly capturing the raja while he was at dinner and holding him hostage until a ransom was paid and a marital alliance concluded. The funds thus accumulated were used to assassinate his uncle and place himself on the throne.
As sultan, Khilji needed to defend his frontiers from Mongol incursions while simultaneously fending off assertive vassals and independent Indian states. The Indian powers were terrorized into submission through a ruthless application of psychological warfare, as Khilji’s actions against the Rajputs proved. But to keep this up, he would need a large standing army, not a traditional feudal levy to be raised only when in danger.
In an almost Ciceronian bent of mind, he seems to have recognised that the sinews of war were infinite money, in addition to Mongol-style psychological attacks. Using the territory of his compulsory ally, Devagiri, he dispatched a series of raiding expeditions south under his general Malik Kafur, while terrorizing the Mongols, building their severed heads into the foundations of Siri Fort in Delhi .
Kafur, too, used shock-and-awe tactics. The infantry and elephant-focussed armies of the south were outmanoeuvred, supply lines severed, and smashed separately before they could converge. The rougher terrain of the Deccan gave them some edge against cavalry (which does best on flat terrain a la North India), but the Turkic officer core and army organisation, perfected in the fluid, mobile battlefields of Central Asia, were a class apart. As a result, kingdoms such as the Hoysalas and the Kakatiyas tried to buy time with ransoms but were ultimately defeated.
A new status quo
Khilji’s campaigns completely upset the South Indian status quo. The dynasties which he had uprooted adhered to an older form of kingship, a sort of segmentary sovereignty which compelled the ruler to recognize the hereditary rights of interest groups such as village councils, landed nobility, and merchant guilds.
But recent scholarship, especially work done by Burton Stein, points to a broader trend of migration of hardy warrior-peasants (especially from Andhra) into the rocky Deccan that was already in place, creating new urban centres which threatened the older landed order . By shattering this older order, he cleared the way for the creation of new states, the emergence of new interest groups, and therefore new social and political equilibria.
The turmoil which he caused opened up military and administrative careers to castes that would otherwise have been excluded. It might not have been intended, but it is no less real or significant.
The South Indian states of the 13th century onward were more integrated into the global economy and the latest technological and military advances. The Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijayanagara Empire learnt well from the campaigns of Alauddin. Trade was a major priority for Vijayanagara, and control of the ports of Tamilakam and the Konkan Coast was deemed important enough to call halts to civil wars .
Sovereigns took care to import the best cavalry from the Arabs and gunpowder weapons from the Portuguese, and recruit Turkic officers. Armies (in the initial period) were relatively meritocratic and many, including the family of the famous ruler Krishna Deva Raya, rose to prominence through military service.
Other groups of cultivators-turned-rulers, such as the Reddys, remain prominent to this day, and the migratory movements which could happen due to the anarchy of the 13th century left a significant imprint on the demographic profile of South India.
A wonder of the world?
Khilji, however, was not interested in setting up shop in the turbulent and distant south. His primary concern would remain the Mongol incursions and maintaining his grip on his North Indian territory.
Booty from raids was generously spread among his supporters, increasing the money supply and causing skyrocketing inflation. This could be one of the reasons for the implementation of his infamous system of price controls. Another could be the expense of maintaining a large standing army, which, like in most empires, necessitated a vicious cycle of more conquest to fuel an even larger army.
The sultan’s price control department wasn’t just an organization full of harmless bureaucrats with misplaced incentives (our modern equivalent perhaps is). The Diwan-e-Riyasat started by keeping essential commodity prices low for soldiers (so Khilji could pay them less) and soon expanded to every item in Delhi’s markets, from camels to cloth.
But these price controls inevitably led to black market trading as a new equilibrium was reached between buyers and sellers. In addition, famines inevitably led to hoarding and shortages.
To deal with this, an intricate spy network ensured that any violations to the system were reported and dealt with. In times of scarcity, the entire city of Delhi was put on rations and fed only from government granaries, which acquired grain at fixed prices.
Barani informs us that any merchant who was found cheating the standard rates was penalised by cutting off an equal weight of flesh from his limbs. Still standing in the heart of South Delhi, functioning as roundabout for traffic, is Khilji’s Chor Minar. This was used to display the heads of thieves or dacoits who tried to defraud the system.
These are further examples of the sultan’s willingness to use calculated, deterring cruelty to further what he saw as the interests of the state, and again an eerie echo of the Arthashastra. Both adhere to a cold-blooded form of political realism, explored at length by scholars such as R.P. Kangle, J. Patrick Olivelle and Thomas Trautmann, which is often visible in the subcontinent.
Within a few years of Alauddin’s accession, Delhi became unrecognizable. Practically a surveillance state where the Big Sultan knew all , its markets boasted possibly the most elaborate system of price controls ever conceived, at relatively cheap prices compared to global standards.
In times of famine, amazingly, every household in the city had something to eat, enabled by a sophisticated system of godowns and warehouses. Contemporary travellers’ accounts describe the fixed prices, come hell or high water, as a wonder of the world. The system allowed Alauddin to maintain, arguably, the largest, best equipped force ever fielded by the Delhi Sultanate, with observable results. But the policy had other ramifications.
The peasantry and landed nobility had little incentive to increase production, struggling under heavy tax burdens . The sultan refused to lower the taxes they paid, and his land surveys—the first in the history of the Sultanate—allowed him to keep a keen eye on defaulters, and tax cultivators directly. Merchants, too, could not pursue profits beyond what the sultan allowed (a departure from Kautilya, who has more farsighted views on fair prices and profiteering ).
Irfan Habib points out in Cambridge Economic History Of India Vol-1 that real wages for labourers remained low, and Khilji often had to subsidise merchants, though Abraham Eraly argues that the improved functioning of state institutions could have allowed for some degree of prosperity.
While prices were kept constant in Delhi and nearby markets, they kept increasing as per the free market in other parts of the world, creating excellent arbitrage opportunities for traders who were willing to take the risk of getting their heads chopped off.
Gujarati textile merchants made full use of this opportunity, buying cheap cloth from Delhi and selling it at places like Mecca for a delicious 700% profit. Coastal trade grew leaps and bounds, with wealth essentially being transferred from the once-dominant urban centre of Delhi to new ones on the coast. These new centres came at a point when the fledgling empires of the Deccan were rising, and would have played a vital role in integrating India into global maritime trade, which was rapidly expanding. This is an important effect, which most Delhi-centric views of Khilji’s rule neglect.
Ultimately, it is difficult to say whether Khilji was a savior or a villain. But that is the point of looking critically at our past—nobody can fit into a single category. Value judgements on those whose values were so different from ours do not help us move forward.
Indeed, the idea of a normative approach to something as inexorable as the march of time and history is absurd. Instead, we need to objectively understand what historical figures did and how it impacted our ancestors—not just in one part of the country, but throughout our subcontinent.
For better or worse, they have brought us to where we are, and remind us what we can do better.