References: Satish Chandra(Medieval India) .Also minor facts from other books and figure and facts from verified Internet sources.
25.(MEDIEVAL INDIA)FOREIGN PLICY OF THE MUGHALS
25.(MEDIEVAL INDIA)FOREIGN PLICY OF THE MUGHALS
The existence during the 16th century of three powerful empires in Central and West Asia—the Uzbek,
the Safavid and the Ottoman, led to the growth of a definite pattern of diplomatic and political relations
between these powers and the Mughals. The normal diplomatic mode was the exchange of missions or
embassies. The status of the mission depended largely on the status of the ambassadors, called elchi or
safir, specially his proximity to the ruler. The ambassadors have been divided into two classes, the
extraordinary and the ordinary. An extraordinary ambassador could be a leading cleric or a high noble,
or even somebody related to the royal family. The ambassador invariably carried a letter by his master
to the ruler of the host country. The letter often recounted recent victories attained by his master, or
important developments, with expressions of friendship or promises of support, or requests for help, or
warning etc. The titles used for the host ruler, whether he was to be addressed as an equal, or superior,
or inferior, or elder or younger in age were important considerations, and a lot of ingenuity was used in
drafting the letters.
The missions led by important persons were grand affairs, consisting sometimes of hundreds of
retainers, slaves etc., as well as presents which included products and rarities of the country. Once
entering the country to which the mission had been despatched, its expenses and safety became the
responsibility of the host country. Giving leave to an ambassador designate, and his meeting with the
sovereign of the host country were special occasions, and were duly reported. The presents brought by
the ambassador were also carefully examined. Sometimes the leader of the mission had to wait a long
time before he was received by the host ruler. Nor was there any fixed time for the mission to
return home. Sometimes, the missions were detained for years before given leave to return. In the
meanwhile, the leader of the mission kept in constant touch with his own ruler.
Thus, the missions were important means of obtaining information about the conditions prevailing in
the country to which the mission had been sent. Reports of the leader of the mission were often
supplemented by princes, nobles, even members of the royal family who corresponded with their
counter parts. But this would be done only in the case of special circumstances, and with countries
The return embassy would sometimes include a mission from the recipient country. Thus, while there
were no permanent ambassadors, the exchange of embassies led to a flow of information on the basis
of which policy could be formulated.
Although the Uzbeks and the Timurids, who began to be called Mughals in India, belonged to the same
racial stock and spoke the same language, they came from different tribal groups which had contended
for the control of Transoxiana and its neighbouring areas. Better internal cohesion enabled the Uzbeks
to push Babur out of Samarqand and Farghana, and to gradually over-run all the Timurid principalities
upto Balkh and Badakhshan. The Mughals often declared the intention of reoccupying their homelands,
but found few opportunities of translating this into practice. Hence, it is difficult to agree with the
contention of a modern historian, Abdul Rahim, that “Babur brought to India the unfulfilled ambition of
conquering ancestral lands; and this ambition fired the imagination of all his descendents and loomed
large in the course of their foreign policy.” As we shall see, the foreign policy of the Mughals was
essentially Indo-Centric, and was concerned above all with India’s safety and security.
The Uzbeks clashed with the Safavids for the possession of Khurasan (eastern Iran). The Safavids not
only claimed Khurasan, but cast covetous eyes on Transoxiana which had been an Iranian province
before the rise of the Turks. The Khurasan plateau and Transoxiana controlled the network of roads
leading south to India, east to China, north to Russia, and west to the Ottoman world and the
Mediterranean. For this reason it had always been a prize desired by powerful rulers of the area.
It was natural for the Safavids and the Mughals to ally against the Uzbek danger especially as there were
no frontier disputes between them, with the exception of Qandahar. The Uzbeks tried
to exploit the sectarian differences with the Safavid rulers of Iran who had ruthlessly persecuted the
Sunnis. Both the Uzbek and the Mughal rulers were Sunnis. But the Mughals were too broad-minded to
be swayed by sectarian differences. Annoyed at the alliance of the Mughals with a Shia power, Iran, the
Uzbeks occasionally stirred up the fanatic Afghan and Baluchi tribesmen living in the north-west frontier
tracts between Peshawar and Kabul.
The most powerful empire in West Asia at the time was that of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman or the
Usmanli Turks, so called after the name of their first ruler, Usman (d. 1326), had overrun Asia Minor and
eastern Europe. A new phase of Ottoman expansion had begun under Mehmet II who captured
Constantinople (1455), and made the eastern Mediterranean a Turkish lake. The Ottomans reached
their apogee under Selim the Grim, and Sulaiman the Magnificent. Selim captured Syria and Egypt which
led the Sharif of Mecca to cede the overlordship of Mecca and Madina to the Ottoman Sultan. The
shadowy Caliph at Cairo granted them the title of “Sultan of Rum”, and later they assumed the title of
Padshah-i-Islam, and of Khalifa. But the title of Khalifa or Caliph had ceased to be of much meaning by
this time, being assumed by any Muslim ruler after a striking success.
Apart from their European ambitions, the Ottomans wanted first, to control the Portuguese who were
trying to divert spice and other trade from Egypt and the Levant, and second, to deal with the Safavids
who were threatening eastern Anatolia by sending hundreds of preachers there to convert the Turks to
Shi-ism. The Ottomans and the Safavids also clashed for control over Baghdad and Basra, and the areas
of north Iran, around Erivan and the silk-producing areas.
After a series of clashes, in 1514 Selim defeated the Safavid ruler, Shah Ismail, at Chaldiran, and for
some time even occupied the capital, Tabriz. Although the Ottomans were not able to destroy the
power of the Safavids, they occupied Baghdad and Basra, and even the Yemen coast in Arabia. They
built navies both at Yemen and Basra in order to defeat the Portuguese who were trying to dominate
both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in order to control all oriental trade to Europe.
The Ottoman threat from the west made the Persians (Iranis) keen to befriend the Mughals, particularly
when they had to face an aggressive Uzbek power in the east. The Mughals refused to
be drawn into a tripartite Ottoman-Mughal-Uzbek alliance against the Persians as it would have upset
the Asian balance of power, and left them alone to face the might of the Uzbeks. Alliance with Iran was
also helpful for promoting trade with Central Asia. If the Mughals had built a strong navy, they might,
perhaps, have sought a closer alliance with Turkey which was also a naval power and was engaged in a
struggle against the navies of the European powers in the Mediterranean. As it was, the Mughals were
chary of a closer relationship with Turkey because they were keen to shore up Iran against Turkey. Also,
they resented the claim to superiority made by the Turkish Sultan as successor to the Caliph of Baghdad.
The were some of the factors which shaped the foreign policy of the Mughals. The development of trade
was another important factor which is sometimes ignored.
Akbar and the Uzbeks
In 1511, following the defeat of the Uzbek chief, Shaibani Khan, by the Safavids, Babur had briefly
regained Samarqand. Although Babur had to leave the city after the Uzbeks had inflicted a sharp defeat
on the Persian monarch, the help extended to him by the Persian monarch established a tradition of
friendship between the Mughals and the Safavids. Later, Humayun, too, received help from the Safavid
monarch, Shah Tahmasp, when he had sought refuge at his court after being ousted from India by Sher
The territorial power of the Uzbeks grew rapidly in the seventies under Abdullah Khan Uzbek. In 1572-73, Abdullah Khan Uzbek seized Balkh which, along with Badakhshan, had served as a kind of buffer
between the Mughals and the Uzbeks. Soon after the conquest of Balkh, Abdullah Khan sent an envoy to
Akbar. The nature of the proposals sent through the envoy are not revealed, but from later evidence it
seems that they were directed against Iran. Akbar received the envoy coldly, and in order to discourage
further diplomatic exchanges, merely sent a reply through the envoy. According to Abul Fazl, this was
because Akbar was then meditating the conquest of Turan. However, since Afghanistan was then under
Mirza Hakim, such as enterprise appears unlikely.
In 1577, Abdullah Khan sent a second embassy to Akbar, proposing to partition Iran. After the death of
Shah Tahmasp (1576), Iran was passing through a phase of anarchy and disorder.
Abdullah Uzbek urged that “Akbar should lead an expedition from India to Iran in order that they may
with united efforts release Iraq, Khurasan and Fars from the innovators (Shias)”. Akbar was not moved
by this appeal to sectarian narrowness. A strong Iran was essential to keep the restless Uzbeks in their
place. At the same time, Akbar had no desire to get embroiled with the Uzbeks, unless they directly
threatened Kabul or the Indian possessions. This was the key to Akbar’s foreign policy. Abdullah Uzbek
also approached the Ottoman sultan and proposed a tripartite alliance of Sunni powers against Iran. As
if in reply to this, Akbar sent a return embassy to Abdullah Uzbek in which it was pointed out that
differences in law and religion could not be regarded as sufficient ground for conquest. Regarding
difficulties faced by pilgrims to Mecca while traversing Iran, he pointed out that with the conquest of
Gujarat, a new route had been opened.
Abdullah Uzbek had suggested to Akbar the recovery of Qandahar which had once been a Timurid
possession. Akbar replied that the Persian rulers (i.e. the Mirzas who were ruling Qandahar) had been
sending submissive embassies and had been mindful of maintaining security of roads for the merchants
—a matter to which Akbar gave prime importance. Akbar grandly declared that if the Mirzas departed
from this norm, Mughal armies could take possession of Qandahar without any difficulty. Akbar parried
Abdullah’s plea for a holy war against the “heretical” Safavids by referring to his wars against infidels in
India, and his intended crusade against the firangis (i.e. Portuguese). He also emphasised the old
friendship with Iran, and admonished Abdullah Khan Uzbek for making insulting references to the
Safavids and said they were Saiyids and sovereigns.
Akbar’s growing interest in Central Asian affairs was reflected in his giving refuge at his court to the
Timurid prince, Mirza Sulaiman, who had been ousted from Badakhshan by his grandson. Abul Fazl
grandiloquently says that the Khyber pass was made fit for wheeled traffic, and that due to fear of the
Mughals, the gates of Balkh were usually kept closed! In order to forestall a Mughal invasion of
Badakhshan, Abdullah Uzbek fomented trouble among the tribesmen of the north-west frontier through
his agent, Jalala, who was a religious fanatic. The situation became so serious that Akbar had to move to
Attock. It was during these operations that Akbar lost one of his best friends, Raja Birbal.
In 1583, Abdullah Khan captured Balkh from the Timurid, Shahrukh Mirza, and followed it up by the
conquest of Badakhshan in 1585. Both Mirza Sulaiman and his grandson sought refuge at Akbar’s court
and were given suitable mansabs. Meanwhile, with the death of his half-brother, Mirza Hakim (1585),
Akbar annexed Kabul to his dominions. Thus, the Mughal and the Uzbek frontiers ran side by side.
In 1586, Abdullah Khan Uzbek sent another embassy which Akbar received while he was at Attack on the
river Indus. Akbar’s continued presence so near the frontier had made Abdullah Uzbek uneasy. But the
real motive of Abdullah Uzbek’s embassy, it appears, was to obtain Akbar’s neutrality in his projected
campaign in Khurasan against the Safavids. He, therefore, revived the earlier proposal for a joint
campaign against the Safavid power, and for opening the way for pilgrims to Mecca.
Following the death of Shah Tahmasp (1576), and the political chaos in Persia, the Ottoman Sultan had
invaded northern Iran, while the Uzbeks were threatening Herat in Khurasan. Akbar sent a long letter in
reply to Abdullah Uzbek’s proposal. He disapproved the Turkish action, and proposed to despatch an
army to Iran under one of the royal princes to help. This was a thinly veiled treat of intervention to
Abdullah Uzbek, although he was asked to cooperate in the work and hope was expressed of their
meeting in Iran. According to some modern scholars, “Akbar’s proposal disguised a plan to
accommodate rival interests in Persia, even though the suggestion is cast in the form of a proposed to
help that country.” However, Akbar made no serious preparations to back up his threat of a campaign in
Iran. Also, Abdullah Uzbek had invaded Khurasan even before Akbar’s letter reached him , and captured
most of the areas he claimed. In this situation, it appeared best to Akbar to come to terms with the
Uzbek chief. Hence, one of his agents, Hakim Human, was sent to Abdullah Khan Uzbek with a letter and
a verbal message. It seems that an arrangement was made defining the Hindukush as the boundary
between the two. It implied the Mughals giving up their interest in Badakhshan and Balkh which had
been ruled by Timuridprinces till 1585. But it also implied the Uzbeks not claiming Kabul and Qandahar.
Though neither party gave up its claims completely, the agreement gave the Mughals a defensible
frontier on the Hindukush. Akbar completed his objective of establishing a scientific defensible frontier
by acquiring Qandahar in 1595.
Meanwhile, since 1586, Akbar had stayed at Lahore in order to watch the situation. He left for Agra only
after the death of Abdullah Khan Uzbek in 1598. After the death of Abdullah, the Uzbeks broke up into
warring principalities, and ceased to be a threat to the Mughals till a new situation arose towards the
end of Jahangir’s reign.
The Question of Qandahar and Relations with Iran
The dread of Uzbek power was the most potent factor which brought the Safavids and the Mughals
together, despite the Uzbek attempt to raise anti-Shia sentiments against Iran, and the Mughal dislike of
the intolerant policies adopted by the Safavid rulers. The only trouble spot between the two was
Qandahar the possession of which was claimed by both on strategic and economic grounds, as well as
on considerations of sentiment and prestige. Qandahar had been a part of the Timurid empire and had
been ruled over by Babur’s cousins, the rulers of Herat, till they were ousted by the Uzbeks in 1507.
Babur held Qandahar briefly in 1507. But when the Safavids defeated the Uzbek chief, Shaibani Khan, in
1511, and captured Herat and the rest of Khurasan, they laid claim to Qandahar also. For the next
decade and a half, however, Qandahar remained in the hands of semi-independent governors who
tendered their allegiance to the Mughals or to the Safavids as it suited their convenience.
Strategically, Qandahar was vital for the defence of Kabul. The fort of Qandahar was considered tobe
one of the strongest forts in the region, and was well provided with water. Situated at the junction of
roads leading to Kabul and Herat, Qandahar dominated the whole southern Afghanistan, and occupied a
position of immense strategic importance. A modern writer has observed, “The Kabul-Ghazni-Qandahar
line represented a strategic and logical frontier; beyond Kabul and Khaibar, there was no natural line of
defence. Moreover, the possession of Qandahar made it easier to control the Afghan and Baluch tribes.”
After the conquest of Sindh and Baluchistan by Akbar, the strategic and economic importance of
Qandahar for the Mughals increased. Qandahar was a rich and fertile province and was the hub of the
movement of men and goods between India and Central Asia. The trade from Central Asia to Multan via
Qandahar, and then down the river Indus to the sea steadily gained in importance, because the roads
across Iran were frequently
disturbed due to wars and internal commotions. Akbar wanted to promote trade on this route, and
pointed out to Abdullah Uzbek that it was an alternative route for pilgrims and the goods traffic to
Mecca. Taking all these factors into account, it would appear that Qandahar was not as important to the
Persians as to the Mughals. For Iran, Qandahar was “more of an outpost, an important one no doubt,
rather than a vital bastion in a defence system”.
In the early phase, however, the dispute over Qandahar was not allowed to affect good relations
between the two countries. Qandahar came under Babur’s control in 1522 when the Uzbeks were
threatening Khurasan once again. No serious objection to the Mughal conquest of Qandahar was raised
by the Persians in view of this situation. However, when Humayun sought shelter at the court of Shah
Tahmasp, the Iranian monarch agreed to help him provided he transferred Qandahar to Iran after its
conquest from his half-brother, Kamran. Humayun had little choice but to agree. But after its conquest,
Humayun found excuses to keep it under his control. In fact, Qandahar was his base of operations
against Kamran at Kabul.
Shah Tahmasp captured Qandahar taking advantage of the confusion following Humayun’s death. Akbar
made no effort to regain it till the Uzbeks under Abdullah Uzbek posed a renewed threat to Iran and to
the Mughals. The Mughal conquest of Qandahar (1595) was not a part of an agreement between Akbar
and the Uzbeks to partition the Persian empire as we have argued. It was more to establish a viable
defensive line in the north-west against a possible Uzbek invasion, since Khursan had passed under
Uzbek control by that time, and Qandahar was cut off from Persia. In fact, the Uzbeks had been trying to
get hold of Qandahar. They had already occupied Zamindawar near Qandahar, and attempted to seduce
the Mirzas who were in possession of Qandahar. Akbar had deputed Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan for the
conquest of Qandahar as early as 1591, but had also told him to use the golden key rather than the
sword. After the Mirzas surrendered Qandahar to the Mughals, the Mughals also ousted the Uzbeks
from Zamindawar and Garmsir.
Relations between Iran and the Mughals continued to be cordial despite the Mughal conquest of
Qandahar by Akbar. For the Persians, the Mughal control of Qandahar was a lesser evil since its passing
into the hands of the Uzbeks would have made
their position in Khurasan more firm. Thus, Shah Abbas raised no objection to Akbar’s facile explanation
that he had acted at Qandahar “as the Mirzas there showed slackness in assisting the sublime dynasty
(Safavids)…. (and)) did not at all show marks of concor d and unanimity.”
The 1598, following the death of Abdullah Uzbek, Shah Abbas recovered Khurasan. In a letter to Akbar
announcing his great victory, the Shah observed that all the lost parts of his empire had been recovered,
except Qandahar, and he hoped that Akbar would not mind returning the fort to him.
In the confusion following prince Salim’s revolt, and Shah Abbas’s stronger position in Iran, the Persians
made two abortive attempts at Qandahar. This was followed by a year’s siege of Qandahar following
Akbar’s death, but the siege was lifted following the arrival of Mughal reinforcements. As a modern
historian, Riazul Islam, observes, these attempts “should be regarded as manifestations of a steadfast
policy of recovering Qandahar.” However, Shah Abbas realized that time was not yet ripe for such an
attempt. He was also keen to maintain good relations with Jahangir. He repudiated the attack on
Qandahar, and sent a series of lavish embassies to Jahangir. In 1611, he sent on embassy to condole the
death of Akbar, and congratulate his “brother” Jahangir, accompanied with presents of Gilan horses,
carpets, silks and other commodities of Persia. The Shah also sent a letter which Jahangir says,
“expressed the greatest friendship and omitted no point of regard and concord.” Jahangir sent a return
embassy under Khan Alam, a Chaghtai Mughal whose family had served under the Timurids since the
time of Timur. He was accompanied by about 1200 people, including a bodyguard and 200 followers and
a large number of Indian animals and their keepers. When he reached Qazvin, all the big nobles went
outside the city to receive him. The Shah showed special favours to him, embraced him and called him
While both the monarchs tried to impress each other by lavish displays, the embassies also promoted
trade between the two countries, so much so that Jahangir appointed a person close to him,
Muhammed Hussain Chalabi, as a royal trade commissioner. Due to the good relations between the two
countries, and security of life and property, a large number of traders, who were called Multanis and
many of whom were Hindus and Jains, settled in the major cities of Iran such as Yezd, Shiraz, Isfahan,
etc. While their exact numbers cannot be determined, estimates of the Indian traders living in the
capital city, Isfahan, vary between one thousand and twelve thousand. According to an English traveller,
Fryer, the Hindus had a temple and a priest where they worshipped their idols and celebrated their
festivals. The Iranian ruler had granted them religious toleration so that they could publicly conduct
their religious rituals and ceremonies.
Shah Abbas also consolidated the old friendship between the Safavids and the Deccani rulers, so much
so that some of the Decanri rulers included the name of the Safavid monarch in the khutba. The
Mughals did not like it and look steps against it. However, Safavid interests in the Deccan remained
limited, and did not become a basis of misunderstanding with the Mughals.
Was the goodwill displayed by the Safavid monarch only a pretence, designed to lull Jahangir into a false
sense of security? It would be uncharitable to think so. Perhaps neither fully understood the depth of
sentiment on the other side regarding Qandahar. In 1620, the Persian envoy, Zambil Beg, raised the
question of Qandahar with Jahangir, but Jahangir gave no attention to it. Subsequent envoys also raised
the question, but without success. Jahangir did not anticipate that on account of his close friendship
with him. Shah Abbas would actually attack Qandahar. Jahangir forgot that between nations, friendship
in not a substitute for the defence of what may be considered the vital interests of a nation. According
to Iqbalnama-i-Jahangiri, when the Persians attacked in 1622, there were only 3000 Mughal troops in
the fort.1 The force was small, but could have held out for a considerable period under an able and
Although Shah Abbas tried to erase the bitterness over the loss of Qandahar by sending a lavish
embassy to Jahangir, and offered facile explanations which were accepted by Jahangir formally, the
cordiality which had marked the Mughal relations with Iran came to an end, and an era of diplomatic
preparations aimed at Iran now began.
Far-reaching changes had taken place in Central Asian politics after the death of Abdullah Khan Uzbek in
1598. The Uzbek empire had disintegrated due to internecine tribal feuds, and
1In his Memoirs, Jahangir says 300 or 400 servants. These must have been the personal following of the
Mughal commandant of the fort, Khwaja Abdul Aziz.
Persia had taken advantage of the situation to recover Khurasan. But it suffered a defeat near Balkh
when it tried to advance further. The Uzbek power was still considerable, and not to be trifled with.
After some time, Imam Quli emerged as the independent ruler of Bukhara and Balkh. Although the
Uzbeks were no longer in a position to challenge Shah Abbas for the control of Khurasan, they were not
averse to making marauding raids into Afghanistan and on Kabul. The Persian capture of Qandahar
(1622) made the Uzbeks uneasy. Shortly after the capture of Qandahar, Shah Abbas turned towards the
west and recaptured Baghdad from the Turks. Hence, the earlier idea of an alliance of the three Sunni
powers—the Uzbeks, the Mughals and the Ottomans against Iran was revived and a series of embassies
were exchanged between Jahangir and the Uzbeks for finalising an accord. These efforts continued
under Shah Jahan after the death of Jahangir. In 1627, the Uzbek leader, Imam Quli, grandiloquently
thanked Jahangir for the help given by Akbar to Abdullah Khan Uzbek in Khurasan. But for fear of Shah
Abbas, he had also kept the Persian ruler informed of the Mughal intrigues against Persia. There were
also a series of Uzbek attacks on Kabul, both before and after the accession of Shah Jahan.
In the diplomatic exchanges between Shah Jahan and Imam Quli, much emphasis was laid on Sunni
solidarity against Shi-ite Persia. As a result of these diplomatic exchanges, some understanding of a
common front against Persia was arrived at between Shah Jahan and the two Khans, Imam Quli and his
brother, Nazr Muhammad. In 1636, Shah Jahan even wrote to the Ottoman Sultan, Murad IV, of his
resolve to recover Qandahar, and proposed a three sided attack on Persia from India, Turan and Turkey.
However, the Uzbeks could not be counted upon for any help against Persia. The Ottomans were too far
away to be effective. Moreover, they took a superior attitude which was not acceptable to the Mughals.
Hence, Shah Jahan took recourse to diplomacy. After being free of Deccan affairs, Shah Jahan induced
Ali Mardan Khan, the Persian governor of Qandahar, to defect to the side of the Mughals (1638). Ali
Mardan’s defection was due to the blood-thirsty nature of the new Persian ruler, Shah Shafi, who had
succeeded Shah Abbas in 1629. However, it may be noted that as in the case of Shah Abbas during the
reign of Jahangir, Shah Jahan continued to send cordial embassies to the Persian Shah, expressi ng the
hope that recent events would not
cloud mutual relations. He even offered to pay to the Iranian Shah every year a sum equal to the
revenues of Qandahar! But the question was not of money, and Shah Shafi was determined to recover
the fort. In 1639, he made a pact with the Ottomans, with Baghdad as the price, and soon ordered
elaborate preparations for an expedition to Qandahar. To counter this threat, Shah Jahan moved to
Kabul, and entrusted Dara with a large park of artillery to defend Qandahar. But to Dara’s good fortune,
although after two years preparation Shah Shafi had moved out in 1642 for the conquest of Qandahar,
he fell ill on the way and died. Persia was plunged into chaos again, and for the time being, the threat
from the side of Persia ended, leaving Shah Jahan to pursue other ambitions.
Shah Jahan’s Balkh Campaign
The Balkh campaign of Shah Jahan (1646) is often considered to be the high water mark of Mughal
foreign policy. But its failure is also portrayed sometimes as the beginning of Mughal military decline.
The expedition should however, be seen in the context of Mughal relations with Turan after the death of
Abdullah Khan Uzbek (1598), and their over-all foreign policy.
As we have seen, after some confusion following the death of Abdullah Uzbek (1598), Imam Quli who
belonged to a different branch than the Shaibanids, was proclaimed the ruler of Balkh and Bukhara
(1611). However, in a fit of generosity which he regretted later, Imam Quli assigned Balkh and
Badakhshan to his younger brother, Nazr Muhammad, and kept Bukhara under his own control. In
course of time, Nazr Muhammad became virtually an independent ruler of these two territories. This
division of the Uzbek Khanate suited the Mughals, although for a long time, after Nazr Muhammad’s
accession, there was hardly any diplomatic contract between the Uzbeks and the Mughals. Mughal
relations with Iran were very cordial during this time. But we see no attempt on the part of Jahangir to
try to fulfil the oft declared objective of recovering his homelands.
As the Safavid power grew, the Uzbeks became apprehensive of Persian intentions. In 1621, Imam Quli’s
mother sent an embassy to Nur Jahan with a letter of good-will and some rare products of Central Asia
as a gift. Nur Jahan sent a return embassy with some presents. This led to the formal exchange of
embassies between Imam Quli and Jahangir.
After the Persian conquest of Qandahar (1622), and confusion in the Mughal empire following the
rebellion of Shah Jahan and the failing health of Jahangir, the Uzbeks changed their attitude towards the
Mughals. Imam Quli sent an embassy to the Persian Shah to befriend him. Simultaneously, Nazr
Muhammad resumed attempts to capture Kabul. Yalingtosh, a leading commander of Nazr Muhammad,
raided Kabul, but suffered a sharp defeat at the hands of the Mughals who had a strong artillery at their
command. Thereafter, Yalingtosh tried to create disaffection among the Hazaras and the Afghans in the
north-west of Afghanistan. He himself marched on Ghazni. Both the attempts failed. Convinced that
Kabul was too well defended, the Uzbeks changed their stand again. They sent professions of friendship
which were intended as an apology for Yalingtosh’s conduct. In fact, Imam Quli proposed a joint
expedition against Persia in Khurasan so that it could be divided between the two parties. Apparently, it
was not a serious proposal, but more to emphasise good relations between the two. Anyhow, Jahangir
did not take the proposal seriously. Shortly afterwards, he died.
In 1628, following the death of Jahangir, Nazr Muhammad led a third attack on Kabul. He occupied the
city and invested the fort. However, the Mughals rushed reinforcements, and when the Mughal forces
reached near, Nazr Muhammad beat a hasty retreat. As a retaliation, the Mughals occupied Bamiyan.
Simultaneously, Shah Jahan sent an envoy to Imam Quli to reaffirm friendship, thus isolating Nazr
While good relations with Imam Quli continued, Nazr Muhammad sent an embassy only in 1633,
belatedly congratulating Shah Jahan for his accession. During the next six years, there was a frequent
exchange of envoys between the two courts and, as we have noted, the idea of a tripartite, UzbekMughal-Ottoman pact against the Shi-ite Safavids was sought to be revived. But Shah Jahan had little
confidence in Uzbek promises. Nor was he prepared to depart from a friendly pro-Iran policy. Acting
alone, in 1638, he recovered Qandahar by winning over Murshid Quli Khan, thus gaining the services of a
competent general and engineer.
In 1639, Imam Quli became blind. Nazr Muhammad considered it a good opportunity to bring the entire
Uzbek state under his control. After some fighting, Imam Quli was forced to flee and to take refuge in
Iran. From Iran he proceeded to Mecca. Thus, the
Uzbek Khanate was united under Nazr Muhammad. Nazr Muhammad proved to be an ambitious and
despotic ruler. He tried to tone up the administration by strict means, and resumed the rent-free lands
of many religious divines. He also embarked on an expansionist policy, and tried to conquer Khwarizm.
While he was busy in the Khwarizm campaign, a rebellion broke out at Tashkent. His son, Abdul Aziz,
was sent to deal with the rebels, but he joined them, and was proclaimed ruler at Bukhara. Nazr
Muhammad retreated to Balkh, his last stronghold. But he was threatened there also by his son. Nazr
Muhammad now appealed to Shah Jahan for help. This was in 1645. Shah Jahan accepted the appeal
with alacrity. He moved from Lahore to Kabul, and deputed a large army under prince Murad to help
Nazr Muhammad. The army which consisted of 50,000 horse and 10,000 footmen including musketeers,
rocketeers and gunners, and a contingent of Rajputs, left Kabul in the middle of 1646. Shah Jahan had
carefully instructed prince Murad to treat Nazr Muhammad with great consideration and to restore
Balkh to him if he behaved with modesty and submission. Further, if Nazr Muhammad expressed a
desire to regain Samarqand and Bukhara, the prince was to do everything to help him. Obviously, Shah
Jahan wanted a friendly ruler at Balkh and Bukhara who would look to the Mughals for help and
support. But Murad’s impetuosity ruined the plan. He marched on Balkh without waiting for instructions
from Nazr Muhammad, ordered his men to enter the fort of Balkh in which Nazr Muhammad was
residing, and curtly asked him to wait on him personally. Uncertain of the prince’s intentions, Nazr
Muhammad fled. The Mughals were forced to occupy Balkh, and hold it in the face of a sullen and
hostile population. Nor was an alternative to Nazr Muhammad easily available. Abdul Aziz, son of Nazr
Muhammad, raised the Uzbek tribes against the Mughals in Trans-Oxiana, and mustered an army of
120,000 men across the river Oxus. Meanwhile, prince Murad, who had been pining for home, asked
permission to return. According to the contemporary historian, Lahori, “many of the amirs and
mansabdars who were with the prince concurred in this unreasonable desire. Natural love of home, a
preference for the ways and customs of Hindustan, a dislike of the people and manners of Balkh, and
the rigours of the climate, all conduced to this desire”. Shah Jahan was exceedingly angry and punished
Murad by depriving him for some time of his mansab and his jagir
of Multan. The wazir, Sadullah Khan, was sent to Balkh to deal with administrative affairs. But even he
could not change the attitude of the Mughal and Rajput nobles. To deal with the military situation, Shah
Jahan deputed Aurangzeb along with Amir-ul-Umara Ali Mardan Khan.
Aurangzeb made no effort to cross the Oxus, or even to defend it against the forces of Abdul Aziz
massed on the other side of the river. The river Oxus was not a defensible line since it was easily
fordable around Balkh. Hence, Aurangzeb placed strong pickets at strategic points, and kept the main
forces, including the artillery, under him so that it could march quickly to any threatened point. Thus,
the Mughals were well positioned. Abdul Aziz crossed the Oxus, and moved towards Balkh, but found
himself face to face with a strong army under Aurangzeb. In a running battle, unable to face the Mughals
artillery, the Uzbeks were routed outside the gates of Balkh (1647). The Uzbek forces just melted away,
leaving Abdul Aziz with hardly any army.
The victory at Balkh and the dispersal of the Uzbek forces was a wonderful opportunity for Shah Jahan
to invade Samarqand and Bukhara, if he had so desired. Earlier, in a letter to Shah Abbas II, Shah Jahan
had said that the victory at Balkh was a prelude to the conquest of Samarqand and Bukhara, and the
Shah had also been requested to allow Nazr Muhammad to proceed to Mecca so that he no longer
remained a thorn in the side of the Mughals at Balkh. In an effort to persuade prince Murad to stay on at
Balkh, Shah Jahan had also promised to appoint him viceroy of Samarqand and Bukhara. But it seems
that in the face of the hostile attitude of the local population, the difficulty of dealing with roving Uzbek
bands, and the reluctance of the Mughal and Rajput noble to stay on at Balkh, Shah Jahan reverted to
his earlier policy of seeking a friendly ruler at Balkh. Both Abdul Aziz from Bukhara, and Nazr
Muhammad who had stayed on in Persia, now made overtures to Shah Jahan for the restoration of the
kingdom. After careful consideration, Shah Jahan decided in favour of Nazr Muhammed. But Nazr
Muhammad was first asked to make an apology and humble submission to prince Aurangzeb. This was a
mistake since the proud Uzbek ruler was unlikely to demeen himself in this way, particularly when he
knew that it was impossible for the Mughals to hold on to Balkh for any length of time. After waiting
vainly for Nazr Muhammad to appear personally, the Mughals left Balkh in October 1647 since winter
was fast approaching and there were no supplies in Balkh. The retreat nearly turned into a rout with
hostile bands of Uzbeks hovering around. Though the Mughals suffered grievous losses, the firmness of
Aurangzeb prevented a disaster.
The Balkh campaign of Shah Jahan has led to considerable controversy among modern historians. From
the foregoing account, it should be clear that Shah Jahan was not attempting to fix the Mughal frontier
on the so-called “scientific line”, the Amu Darya (the Oxus). The Amu Darya, as we have seen, was hardly
a defensible line. Although Shah Jahan toyed with the idea of invading Samarqand and Bukhara, and
recovering the Mughal “homelands”, it was never made a serious enterprise. Nor was the Balkh
campaign motivated by a desire for additional territory. Although the area around Balkh Was
productive, Badakhshan was mountainous with narrow defiles which were difficult to protect. Nor did
the two have sufficient revenue – yielding resources to attract the Mughals. According to Lahori, the
resources of Badakhshan were not sufficient for the salary of even one Mughal grandee!
Contemporary Mughal historians have sought to justify Shah Jahan’s Balkh campaign on the ground of
the danger posed to Kabul and Ghazni by the Uzbeks earlier, and to punish Nazr Muhammad for his
“audacity” in attacking Imperial territories i.e. Kabul. It was also argued that Shah Jahan was motivated
by the desire of protecting the people of Balkh and Badakhshan from the nomadic tribe of Almans who
had plundered the territory on behalf of Abdul Aziz. Elsewhere the Uzbeks are called tyrants and sinners
who had desecrated the places of worship.
However, none of these arguments appear convincing. A modern historian, Riazul Islam, accuses Shah
Jahan of following an “adventurist” policy since it was “inspired by a morbid obsession with the
restoration of Timurid power in Central Asia almost a century and a half after its extinction”. From a
careful study, it would appear that basically Shah Jahan was actuated by a policy of defending the KabulQandahar line which could be threatened by a united and powerful Uzbeks Khanate. The Civil War
among the Uzbeks was a wonderful opportunity for the Mughals to keep the Uzbeks divided by
propping up Nzar Muhammad against his son. In addition, the Mughals hoped to gain, as a by product,
Badakhshan, “not very important in itself, but not to be scorned either”. Thus, Shah Jahan’s policy was
on real politik. The easy success of Mughal arms made him toy with the idea of annexing Balkh also, but
harsh reality soon made him revert to the original plan.
The Balkh campaign was a success in the military sense: the Mughals conquered Balkh, and defeated
Uzbek attempts to oust them. This was the first significant victory of Indian arms in the region, and Shah
Jahan had reason to celebrate it. However, it was beyond the strength of the Mughals to maintain their
influence at Balkh for any length of time. Politically also, it was difficult to do so in the face of sullen
Persian hostility and an unfriendly local population.
Despite this, the Balkh campaign cannot be written off as a failure. The division among the Uzbeks
ensured the safety of Kabul, and India remained safe from foreign invasion for almost a hundred years
till the rise of Nadir Shah.
Mughal-Persian Relations—the Last Phase
The setback in Balkh led to a revival of Uzbek hostility in the Kabul region and Afghan tribal unrest in the
Khyber-Ghazni area. It also emboldened the Persians to attack and conquer Qandahar (1649). This was a
big blow to Shah Jahan’s pride and he launched three major campaigns, one by one, under princes of
blood to try and recover Qandahar. The first attack was launched by Aurangzeb, the hero of Balkh, with
an army of 50,000. Though the Mughals defeated the Persians outside the fort, they could not conquer
it in the face of determined Persian opposition.
A second attempt led by Aurangzeb three years later also failed. The most grandiloquent effort was
made the following year (1653) under Dara, the favourite son of Shah Jahan. Dara had made many
boastful claims, but he was unable to starve the fort into surrender with the help of his large army, and
an attempt at capturing it with the help of two of the biggest guns in the empire which had been towed
to Qandahar was also of no avail.
The failure of the Mughals at Qandahar did not as much reflect the weakness of Mughal artillery, as has
been asserted by some historians. It rather showed the inherent strength of Qandahar for held by a
determined commander, and the ineffectiveness of medieval artillery against strong forts. (This was also
the Mughal experience in the Deccan). Also the Mughals found it difficult to maintain themselves at
Qandahar because the Shah
had followed a scorched – earth policy, and the Mughals had to draw their supplies from Lahore. In any
case, the Mughals could not continue the siege during winter. It may be argued that Shah Jahan’s
attachment to Qandahar or what Shah Abbas II said, “a mass of rocks”, was more sentimental than
realistic. With the growing enfeeblement of both the Uzbeks and the Safavids, Qandahar no longer had
the same strategic importance as it had earlier. It was not so much the loss of Qandahar as the failure of
the repeated Mughal efforts which affected Mughal prestige. But even this should not be unduly
exaggerated, for the Mughal empire remained outwardly at the height of its power and prestige during
Aurangzeb’s reign. Even the proud Ottoman Sultan sent an embassy to Aurangzeb in 1680 to seek his
After his accession, Aurangzeb decided not to continue the futile contest over Qandahar, and quietly
resumed diplomatic relations with Iran. However, in 1664, Shah Abbas II, the ruler of Iran, insulted the
Mughal envoy, made disparaging remarks against Aurangzeb, and even threatened an invasion. The
causes of this are not clear. It seems that Shah Abbas II was of an unstable character. There was a flurry
of Mughal activity in the Punjab and Kabul. But before any action could take place, Shah Abbas II died.
His successors were non-entities, and all Persian danger to the Indian frontier disappeared till a new
ruler, Nadir Shah, came to power more than fifty years later.
It will thus be seen that on the whole; the Mughals succeeded in maintaining a scientific front ier in the
north-west, based on the Hindukush on the one side, and the Kabul-Ghazni line on the other, with
Qandahar as its outer bastion. Thus, their basic foreign policy was based on the defence of India. The
defence of this frontier-line was further buttressed by diplomatic means. Friendship with Persia was its
keynote, despite temporary setback over the question of Qandahar. The oft-proclaimed desire of
recovering the Mughal homelands was really used as a diplomatic ploy, for it was never seriously
pursued. The military and diplomatic means adopted by the Mughals were remarkably successful in
giving India security from foreign invasions till the disintegration of the Mughal empire.
Secondly, the Mughals insisted on relations of equality with leading Asian nations of the time, both with
the Safavids, who claimed a special position by virtue of their relationship with the Prophet, and with
the Ottoman sultans who had assumed the title
of Padshah-i-Islam and claimed to be the successors of the Caliph of Baghdad.
Thirdly, the Mughals used their foreign policy to promote India’s commercial interests. Kabul and
Qandahar were the twin gateways of India’s trade with Central Asia. Large numbers of Indian traders
settled down in different cities in Iran to cater to the growing trade. Using Iran as a base, Indian traders
expanded their activities to Russia, settling down at Baku, Astrakhan on the river Volga, and at Kiev.
They also made incursions into the Central Asian markets, settling down at Samarqand and Bukhara
which traded both with Iran and Russia.
It has been argued that “as often as not, foreign relations were determined by the whims, passions and
prejudices of the reigning monarch”. (Riazul Islam). While personal factors have always played an
important role in policy formulations, more so in an authoritarian state, the review of Mughal foreign
policy carried out above, suggests that what can be called “national interests” actuated the policies of
many of the sovereigns, and that these policies often lasted long after the original impulse.