Q. Evaluate the contribution of Sher Shah towards trade and commerce, administration and agricultural reforms. [UPSC, 2020]

Q. Evaluate the contribution of Sher Shah towards trade and commerce, administration and agricultural reforms. [UPSC, 2020] ©


Sher Shah ruled over a large part of northern India between 15-40-1545 CE. He came into power by successfully exploitng the opportunity and defeating Humayun at Chausa in 1539 and at Qannauj in 1540. Though he ruled only for 5 years, in this short period of time he brought many changes in existing system which was well above the standards of that time.

Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi (History of Sher Shah), written by Abbas Khan Sarwani, a waqia-navis under later Mughal Emperor, Akbar around 1580, provides a detailed documentation about Sher Shah’s reign.

Contribution of Sher Shah towards administration

General Administration:

  • He Seems to have been inspired by the history of Sultan Alauddin Khalji’s reign.
    • He adopted most of the rules and regulations introduced by the Khalji Sultan. However, unlike Khalji he was not harsh in their implementation.
  • Under Sher Shah Suri the experiment in the formation of a bureaucracy under a centralised despotism had taken place. Akbar gave it a definite shape. Thus. we can say that Sher Shah anticipated Akbar.
  • Village (head = muqaddam)< pargana <shiqq (= Mughal sarkar).
  • Village:
    • The lowest unit was the pargana which comprised a number of villages.
    • Muqaddam (village headman):
      • Each village had a headman (muqaddam).
      • Link between the government and the village.
      • Not the government servant
      • He was responsible for maintaining law and order in his village.
    • Patwari, a village record-keeper.
    • Neither of them were government servants, but were entitled to a share in the produce.
  • Sher Shah had four ministers after the model of the Sultanate period. They were
    • Diwan-i-Wazarat:
      • The department was related with financial matters such as collecting taxes and maintaining accounts of the state exchequer.
    • Diwan-i-Ariz:
      • Headed by ariz-i-mamalik, it was a military department.
    • Diwan-i-Risalat:
      • Headed by sadr, this department dealt with the religious and foreign affair matters.
      • Diwan­-i-Kaza, headed by qazi, worked under this department.
      • The qazi looked after judicial administration.
    • Diwan-i-Insha:
      • Working as a secretariat, it issued royal orders.
      • The head of this department was called dabir.
  • Besides them there were minor officers, two of whom (the chief qazi and the head of the news department) enjoyed fairly high rank and are placed by some writers in the category of minister.
  • Pargana:
    • The pargana was under the charge of
      • a shiqdar:
        • looked after law and order and general administration, and
        • responsible for the collection of land-revenue.
        • assisted by two karkuns (clerks) who kept the records both in Hindi and Persian.
      • a munsif or amil:
        • whose responsibility was to measure the land for land-revenue.
    • Both (shiqqdar and munsif) were directly appointed by the government.
    • There was also a khazanadar or poddar or fotadar who was entrusted with the treasury of the pargana.
    • qanungo:
      • maintained the records at pargana level. He was a hereditary semi-official.
    • Sher Shah considered the posts of amils to be profitable ones, and changed the amils every two years so that others close to him could also benefit.
    • This implies that the regulations he had made prohibiting collection of cesses and charges beyond those permitted were flouted in practice, and he had no means of stopping it.
  • Shiq (Sarkar):
    • Above the pargana was the shiq to which the word sarkar had begun to be used increasingly from the time of the Lodis.
    • Shiqqdar-i shiqqdaran:
      • Head of sarkar (shiqq).
      • was the supervisor and executive officer over the shiqqdars of all the parganas in a sarkar (shiqq).
      • responsible for the to maintain law and order.
      • There were 66 sarkars (shiqqs) in Sher Shah’s Empire.
    • Munsif-i munsifan:
      • He performed the duties of amin (created later by the Mughals) at sarkar (shiqq) level.
      • responsible for the assessment of land revenue, and settling the boundary disputes between parganas.
  • Provincial organisation:
    • Sultanat there was no provincial organization as such but sometimes a number of shiqs were grouped together, and called khitta or vilayat.
    • Provincial governments evolved only under the Mughals.
    • Sher Shah’s contribution was to stabilize and further consolidate the boundaries and structure of the shiqs or sarkars which remained the real unit of administration even under the Mughals.
  • Sher Shah did not like the Mughal system of government in which large powers were left in the hands of the ministers who were corrupt.
    • Hence, he looked into everything himself, and devoted himself to work unremittingly, and constantly toured the country.
    • This type of personal administration is supposed to be typified by his army organization.
  • He introduced the branding system (dagh) of the horses and descriptive-rolls (chehra) which had fallen into disuse.
    • He imposed it very harshly.
    • Descriptive rolls of even sweepers and female slaves in the palace were recorded.
    • He used to personally interview every soldier and fixed his pay before he was inducted into the army, and had the horses branded in his own presence.
  • Sher Shah himself fixed the monthly stipends of newly recruited soldiers.
    • It seems that both the nobles and the soldiers were paid by means of land-assignments or iqtas.
  • The chiefs were under strict instructions not to take anything out of the iqtas reserved for the soldiers. Thus, the question of Sher Shah wanting to do away with the iqta or jagir system does not arise.
  • However, howsoever hard an individual might work, it was impossible for him to personally supervise the administration of a vast country such as Hindustan.
    • It seems that there was a revenue department and a department of the ariz which looked after the army.
  • There also was a sadr who looked after the revenue-free grants made to religious people, scholars, etc., the sadr being asked to review all the grants made earlier.
  • Thus, the traditional departments must have continued, but those at their head were perhaps allowed little power or authority.
    • Such over-centralization proved harmful once a masterful man like Sher Shah had been removed from the scene.

Justice System:

  • Sher Shah gave great emphasis on justice.
  • Justice implied making no distinction between men of his own tribe and near relations and others in awarding punishment, and to prevent oppression by those in power.
  • It is difficult to say how effective he was in practice in this sphere, despite the presence of a large number of spies who reported on everything.
  • Civil cases of the Muslims were taken care of by the qazi.
  • Criminal cases were tried by the shiqqdar.
  • Panchayats and caste bodies must have continued to provide civil law to the Hindus, while zamindars and shiqdars were also involved in providing criminal justice.
  • The largest responsibility for detecting crimes rested upon muqaddams.
    • If the muqaddam of the village, where the crime was committed, failed to capture the culprit, he was liable to severe punishment.

Iqta under sher shah:

  • Sher shah learned lesson from the non-transferable nature of Iqta which was the main reason of decline of Lodis. So, he made iqta transferable.

  • Any iqta could be transferred from one to the other noble. For example, Shujaat Khan Sur, one of the senior nobles was transferred four times from Bihar to Malwa to Hardiya sarkar and then to Malwa again.

Contribution of Sher Shah towards trade and commerce

  • For ensuring safety on the roads and for extending comforts to the travellers including traders, he built sarais (kos minar) on the highway at a distance of two karohs (4 miles).
    • Sher Shah built 1700 such sarais. They were really fortified inns, and were built strongly because some of them have survived even to-day.
    • Sher Shah caused markets to be set up in every sarai.
    • Many of the sarais became mandis where the peasants came to sell their produce, and were the nucleus for the growth of towns (qasbas) where trade and handicrafts developed.
    • A custodian (shahna) was appointed in each sarai to safeguard the goods of the merchants, and rent-free lands were allotted in the neighbourhood for their expenses, and for the expenses of the imam and the muezzin for the mosque which was built in each sarai.
  • Sher Shah laid great emphasis on improving roads and the system of communications, both to help military movements and to foster trade and commerce.
  • Apart from above steps, Sher Shah adopted other measures, too, to promote trade and commerce.
  • Coinage:
    • He struck fine coins of silver and copper of uniform standard in place of the debased coins of mixed metals of earlier times.
    • His silver rupee remained a standard coin for a long time.
    • The system of tri-metalism which came to characterize Mughal coinage was introduced by Sher Shah.
      • While the term rupya had previously been used as a generic term for any silver coin, during his rule the term rupiya came to be used as the name for a silver coin of a standard weight of 178 grains, which was the precursor of the modern rupee.
  • He also made some effort to standardize weights and measures.
  • In Sher Shah’s empire, goods paid customs duty only two times—at the place of entry and at the time of sale.
  • For the safety and tranquility of the roads Sher Shah made it a rule to make the muqaddams (headmen of villages) and zamindars responsible for apprehending the culprits if the theft took place within their charge, or to make good the loss if they were unable to do so.
    • If murder had been carried out, and the murderer not traced, the muqaddams themselves were to be put to death.
    • It was a barbrous rule to club the innocent with the guilty, but it was based on the principle that theft and highway robbery were committed either at the instance of the muqaddams or that the muqaddams at least had full information about them.
  • Sher Shah also urged the local and other officials not to injure the travellers and the merchants, and not to lay their hands on the property of the merchants if any one of them should die by accident and without heirs.
    • Also, officials were to purchase goods from the merchants only at their market price.
    • Though these injunctions were not always followed in practice as shown by similar regulations being made later on by Jahangir, and Bernier’s complaint of the mistreatment of the merchants by high nobles under Shah Jahan.

Contribution of Sher Shah towards agricultural reforms

  • The most striking contribution of Sher Shah was his reform of the revenue system.
  • He appointed new revenue officials at the pargana and sarkar level and curtailed the powers and privileges of the land assignees (i.e. wajahdars and muqtas).
    • The unruly zamindars were forced into submission. They were also made accountable for every crime committed within the boundaries of their zamindari.
  • The extra taxes called jaribana and muhassilana (fee for measuring the land and revenue collection) were also abolished. The offenders among the officials were punished.
  • Sher Shah wanted that the assessment of land-revenue should not be based on crop sharing or estimation. Nor should the village head-men and zamindars be allowed to pass their burden on to the shoulders of the weaker sections.
  • The methods of crop-sharing and revenue farming were abolished. He insisted upon the system of measurement (zabt).
    • Although a system of measurement of the sown area was very old in India, and had been instituted or revived by Alauddin Khalji, the system of measurement introduced by Sher Shah was different from the traditional system.
  • In the traditional system, the crop-yield was estimated on the basis of sample cuttings in the sown area. Abul Fazl tells us that Sher Shah on the basis of fertility of soil divided the lands into three categories, the good, middling and bad.
    • An average produce of these three types of soil was taken as standard yield per bigha. One third of this standard yield was fixed as state share.
    • A rai (schedule of crop-rates) was prepared for the convenience and guidance of the revenue collectors. The state share now could be easily converted into cash rates, according to the market prices.
    • According to Abul Fazl, “The revenue demand levied by Sher Khan (Sher Shah), which at the present day is represented in all provinces as the lowest rate of measurement generally obtained, and for the convenience of the cultivators and the soldiery, the value taken in cash money.”
  • Thus, it is clear that the state’s share was fixed in kind per bigha but collected mostly in cash after it had been commuted according to the prevailing prices in the area.
  • A specific document known as kabuliyat (deeds of agreement) and the patta (title deed) were exchanged between the peasant and the revenue officer.
    • The peasant had the right to question the basis on which the measurement was carried out and the land thus classified.; but once agreed, had to meet the state’s revenue demand without question.
  • Sher Shah ordered the land under cultivation to be measured every year at the harvest time.
    • The state’s share in the produce was determined according to the royal regulation. The measurement of fields was to be carried out every year.
    • As a safeguard against famine which was a recurrent feature, a Cess at the rate of two and a half seers per bigha was also levied.
  • This system was prevalent throughout the Empire except for the combined provinces of Multan and Sind.
    • The territory of Multan had been ruined by the oppressive Biloch rule. Therefore, Sher Shah directed its governor to develop the region and realize from the cultivators only one-fourth of the produce in accordance with the crop-sharing method.
    • This system had prevailed under the early local rulers i.e. the predecessors of the Biloch chiefs. The state revenue demand in other provinces was one-third of the agricultural produce.

Attitude towards cultivators:

  • He was very solicious of the interests of the peasantry.
    • While looking after his father’s jagir, he is supposed to have said, “I know that the humble raiyat are the pivot of agriculture. If they are happy the cultivation will thrive. If the raiyat are in a bad condition, the agricultural output will diminish.
    • Thus, he was very careful that when his army marched the cultivated fields were not affected.
    • Horsemen were posted to prevent the soldiers entering into the cultivated portions of the farmers’ land, and he took stern action against those soldiers who were found violating this.
    • Abbas Khan says that if on account of the narrowness of the passage, the cultivation came to be trampled down by acts of necessity, trustworthy amins were appointed to measure the devastated portion of the cultivation and then to pay the compensation money to the raiyat.
  • However, Sher Shah solicitude applied only to peasants who were fully loyal, observed the imperial regulations, and paid their dues without demurr.
    • No mercy was to be shown to those zamindars and their followers who were remiss in making the payments, or did not attend the office of the amils.
    • In that case, their villages were to be captured, the men slain, women and children enslaved, their animals and property seized, and new peasants settled in the area. This, apparently, was a traditional practice.

Hence Sher Shah contributed immensely in areas of administration, trade and commerce and agricultural reforms most of which was later followed by Akbar for which reason, sher-shah was called fore-runner of Akbar. ©

Leave a Reply