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Masculinity and the Bangash Nawabs of Farrukhabad
Understandings of gender were as fundamental to the culture of early modern Islamic empires as they were to the maritime empires constructed by European powers. Mughal authority in India rested on the creation of alliances with rival warrior kingdoms, and codes of masculine sociability were prominent in courtly culture. During the eighteenth century, these imperial traditions were increasingly challenged by a range of insurgent groups (Sikhs, Marathas, and Pathans) that fostered distinctive military traditions and visions of manhood. Through its examination of the Pathan soldier and courtier Muhammad Khan Bangash's manipulation of these competing codes of masculinity, this essay underscores that the performance of gender identities was a crucial cross-cultural means of establishing hierarchies and affirming common identities within the cosmopolitan world of Mughal imperial politics.
This paper focuses on rulership, warfare, and masculinity in eighteenth-century north India, and for three reasons. First, it is very difficult to specify how the coming of colonial society changed gender roles and identities without knowing very much about theeighteenth century, although this has not deterred many historians from trying. Second, and following on from this, one of the wider questions for any historian of gender in South Asia arises out of suggestions by Ashis Nandy and others that precolonial Indian societies worked with rather fluid and permeable gender identities, in which ideas about bisexuality and androgyny featured strongly and in which "softer" forms of creativity and intuition were not strongly identified with femininity, nor values of violence and power with masculinity. It was on these malleable and multiplex identities, Nandy argues, that Victorian colonial culture imposed its much more rigid and dichotomous ideologies of gender, setting masculine against and above feminine and establishing a homology between political and sexual dominance that juxtaposed the manliness, rationality, courage, and control of British rulers-essentially British middle-class sexual stereotypes-against degenerated, effete, and superstitious colonial subjects. In this way, Nandy argues, the rather small sectors of Indian society in which the martial values of the Kshatriya order predominated came during the colonial period to threaten and partially to displace those more fluid and diffuse identities of Indian tradition. This reconstitution of Indian gender values and identities under colonialism is an important one, and a starting point for me is the late precolonial period.
Third, the recent work of Mrinalini Sinha on "colonial masculinity" in late-nineteenth-century Bengal has raised some extremely important questions about the significance of masculine identities as a cross-cultural means of establishing hierarchies and affirming common identities. Sinha examines the ideological constructs of the "manly Englishman" and "effeminate Bengali" in a range of different political contexts. She shows how colonial rulers and Indian elites alike employed them in complex ideological maneuvers, sometimes to institute a hierarchy, sometimes to suggest commonalities. This is a very interesting approach, in that it extends into the field of masculine identities questions about the links between gender, race, and imperialism which are already the subject of intense scrutiny and debate from the perspective of women's histories. These latter have illustrated how colonial officials, missionaries, Indian reformers, and nationalists came to agree that the domains of women and family, "custom" and community lay properly outside the normal realm of politics and the state. This emerging consensus about the domains of the public and private, politics and the "domestic" helped establish a significant framework for cooperation between Indian politicians and the colonial state. Sinha adds greatly to this discussion by showing how conceptions of masculine identity could also in some contexts help cement this consensus. However, these insights again raise the question of colonial change, and of how far there may be elements of an older north Indian practice in these interplays between masculine identity and political power.
HOW, THEN, MIGHT these concerns contribute to our understanding of political culture in eighteenth-century north India? This was, of course, an extraordinarily fluid world, as the political reach of Mughal power shrank and was superseded in many parts of the subcontinent by a wide array of large and small regional power holders. Some of these, such as Bengal, Awadh, and Hyderabad, had once been Mughal provincial governorships; some, such as the Jats of the Punjab and the Marathas of western India, represented elements of popular peasant insurgency against Mughal power; and some were "Rajput" kingdoms, representing the martial values and kingly aspirations of the dominant Hindu landholding communities of Rajasthan. Some again were established by successful warrior mercenaries, such as the Afghan Rohilla kingdoms around Delhi, or by skilled revenue farmers who, with the support of Hindu bankers and local clansmen, were able to assume the powers and appurtenances of Hindu kings. In this wider north Indian context, the archetypal Hindu warrior order of the Rajputs provided the most obvious example of high-profile martial values, and their elaborate codes of honor have consistently attracted the attention of colonial chroniclers and modern historians alike. However, this essay examines masculinity in some rather different contexts, because my aim is to suggest some general arguments rather than to explore in detail the history of a particular group. I wish to examine the gendered culture surrounding those alliances-between kings and their lesser political clients, between rulers and their military servants, between mercenary leaders and their warbands-that was the stuff of eighteenth-century politics and warfare. Here, I want to argue that codes about martial bravery and correct manly behavior formed part of a wider common language and set of assumptions that have remained largely unexamined in the historiography of precolonial north India.
John Richards has extensively studied the codes of martial honor in the Mughal empire at its height from the later sixteenth through to the early eighteenth centuries. The Mughal state needed to bring about key changes in the martial cultures of its most important military servants. In particular, the "free" warrior aristocrats of local north Indian society and the self-sacrificing individual ghazis or warriors of the Indo-Muslim tradition had to be persuaded that the primacy of individual or group honor in battle should be second to the needs and disciplines of imperial service. Richards and others have mapped the novel ideological, institutional, and ceremonial devices through which the Mughal state worked to achieve these aims, often with extraordinary success. Stuart Gordon has also broadened our understanding of the way martial codes worked in pre-colonial India. He has drawn our attention to what he sees as three distinct "zones of military entrepreneurship," marked primarily by cultural rather than military differences. The Rajput/Mughal zones emphasized heavy cavalry mounted on costly imported horses; an ethic of personal devotion and self-sacrifice; service based on the mansabdari system of graded ranks, which was difficult to enter, costly to maintain, and operated over very large distances; and the special patronage of a small number of prominent Rajput families who were able to consolidate their "kingly" powers through Mughal service. The Maratha zone of western India, based on pioneer peasant settler communities who returned home from campaigning to their fields in the monsoon season, included light cavalry mounted on local horse, tactics of guerrilla warfare specifically designed to frustrate heavy cavalry, plain, low-capital, and informally run military service, and the patronage of locally dominant landholding communities deeply attached to their land rights in western Maharashtra. The nayaka warrior ethos of south India emphasized infantry-based armies, the devolution of many state functions in service grants that helped establish local power holders, and the close involvement of nayaka warriors with Hindu temples and sects. Gordon argues that the persistence of these very different military cultures provides fresh insights into Mughal failures in central and southern India. The Mughals possessed only one model for the integration of local military talent, which was a successful blending of Mughal and Rajput. Holding blindly to this single norm for a correct cavalryman, warrior tactics, and terms of service, the Mughals failed to assimilate and deploy the cultural symbols and assumptions that might have enabled them to find solid bodies of imperial servants among the Maratha communities of the Deccan. Although these accounts have been illuminating, they overlook the important ways in which these were masculine as well as simply martial identities. Gender actually stood at the heart of Mughal attempts to recruit an elite of committed supporters. The Mughals, under the emperor Akbar in particular, sought to make imperial service not just one path to successful manhood in the field of worldly action, but the only path. Only in the emperor's service, which blended together Persian courtly skills with the warrior traditions of the central Asian steppe, could a man realize his highest inner qualities: of purposeful action and heroic striving for the highest ideals, of resolute personal courage tempered by discretion and self-control, of personal honor expressed and safeguarded through dignified personal submission to the legitimate authority of the emperor, who was himself presented as the "perfect man." These codes were explicitly contrasted with the qualities of women on the one hand, and on the other, with the crude, uncultivated, and inferior forms of masculinity that lay outside Mughal service: intemperate warriors, petty rulers little better than robbers and thieves, unwashed rusticity. While at first remarkably effective in creating a distinctive ethos for an "elite" imperial service, this effort to project a single ideal of cultivated manliness faltered as its monopoly gradually weakened over the course of the seventeenth century as divergent norms and models emerged. This was in part a result of the increased brilliance and luxury of the Mughal court under the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan and the elaboration of much more complex codes for courtly and cultivated forms of masculinity, increasingly divorced from the ethos of warriorship: man as refined gentleman connoisseur, patron of fine arts, judge of the exquisite in fabrics and gems, a gourmet of fine foods, elegant in person and fastidious in dress.
Challenges to Mughal models also emerged in the encounter with other forms of normative military masculinity that were current among the Marathas, Sikhs, and Afghans who were drawn into the north Indian military labor market and sometimes into service with Mughal armies. Often peasant brotherhoods in arms, these emphasized a soldierly plainness and informality, as Gordon had described, but also carried important codes for martial masculinity. Set against the simplicity and straight comradeship of the warband were not only the feminine worlds of women and home, but also the dandified luxury of the court, where men were adorned with jewels instead of arms, and gold was the coin of devotion to the empire rather than the lives of loyal soldiers. From this perspective, the "feminized" worlds of the court and the harem were drawn into a kind of homology, to suggest a model of simple and soldierly masculinity ultimately superior to Mughal norms.
Thus, the "zones of military entrepreneurship" that Gordon discusses do not actually contain within them a single homogeneous military culture, but rather rival attempts to establish hierarchies of masculinity in the manner described above. These distinct, competing, and publicly displayed norms powerfully shaped what it meant to be a man in eighteenth-century north India at the level of individual identity and experience. Rival masculinities also offered a means of defining and assigning value to different realms of activity. They were powerful foci in the struggles to create and sustain new group loyalties that were so central to state formation from the late seventeenth century. They could make the difference between success and failure in military and diplomatic negotiations of many different kinds, in which a military commander's personal reputation and frequent public display of the right qualities of martial masculinity could play a crucial role. As we shall see, however, there also continued to exist shared basic norms of martial masculinity, about what constituted bravery and correct manly behavior in warfare, set against the values of women and the domestic. If men were different from one another in the manner of their military service, these differences receded before the larger divide between men and women.
I look at these processes through the early-eighteenth-century example of the Mughal military servant and founder of the city of Farrukhabad, Muhammad Khan Bangash (ca. 1665-1743). As a Pathan, a soldier with enormous personal battle experience and a Mughal military servant, Muhammad Khan was adept at manipulating these competing codes of masculinity and gaining advantage at strategic public moments through his assertion of his own plain soldierly Pathan style. Yet he was able to selectively draw on other codes, to show his competence in the knowledge and skills of the court and also command its material luxuries.
THE BANGASH NAWABS of Farrukhabad were Pathan mercenaries and service people who came to Hindustan in the late seventeenth century and settled in Mau-Rashidabad in the Doab region of north India. After two decades of service among the warring rajas of Bundelkhand, Muhammad Khan himself entered the imperial service in 1712 in support of Farrukhsiyar, one of the princely contenders for the Mughal throne who led the coup that displaced the emperor Jahandar Shah. With Farrukhsiyar's victory, Muhammad Khan was raised to the rank of a commander of four thousand, given assignments on revenue in Bundelkhand to support his troops, and styled Nawab. Like other emergent state builders, he proceeded rapidly to found his new city, Farrukhabad, as the center for his household and those of his twenty-two sons. Here also he settled his chelas (followers), the "sons of the state" whom he recruited in great numbers from almost every social source: fellow Pathans, local rajas and Rajputs, Brahmans, Bamtela Thakurs, some four thousand by the end of his life. These favored young men whose loyalty seemed more predictable than that of troublesome and ambitious brother Pathans, were entrusted with great responsibilities: in the military as soldiers, bodyguards, and paymasters; in the household; and even as revenue collectors and deputy governors of provinces.
Excerpted from Bodies in Contact Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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