If Alauddin Khilji had failed to stop the Mongol Invasion of India, the Mongols would have engaged in a large scale slaughter of the Hindus
I really like Indian Leftist historians, some of them are my role models like Irfan Habib (not the bearded one, but the clean shaven one, although the bearded one is cool too), but sadly they have made a big mess while trying to explain Alauddin Khilji’s supposed “anti-Hindu” policies. What could have been a simple explanation was turned into something very complicated and hence inaccessible to people not trained in history, which resulted in Alauddin Khilji’s unnecessarily demonization and politicization. Below, I have tried to make it clear why we need to change the way we look at Alauddin Khilji.
Contextualizing Alauddin Khilji’s Reign
Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom was a state which was constantly at war. Although this could be said about different kingdoms and empires in India across history, but the threat to Indian civilization and culture during Alauddin Khilji’s reign was unprecedented. If you think I am overselling my point consider this- by the time Alauddin had ascended the throne in Delhi the Mongols controlled the largest land empire ever in the history of mankind. Everything from China to Russia, from Turkey to Central Asia was under the control of Mongols, so they had India surrounded from the Northern, Western and Eastern sides.
Mongol Empire in 1280 A[i]
Now if you are thinking- “what is the point? Just one more invader in Indian history and didn’t we have a successful Mongol invasion into India in the form of Timur?” This is where you are wrong.
Let’s start from the end of the question, with “Timur”- he was a strong Mongol ruler, but by his time the glue keeping the Mongol Empire together had come off which weakened it considerably.
Now let us consider the “just one more invader” point of the question. Yes, even before the Mongols India has been invaded by everyone from A-list invaders like Alexander the Great to C-List invaders like Yeuh Chihs whom you probably know as the Kushanas.[ii] But Mongols were nothing like them. Historians consider that one-third of the total Chinese population was killed during the successful attempt of the Mongols to capture China. This is based on the evidence that if you look at the population numbers before and after the Mongol conquest of China- it shows a 45% drop![iii] A look at the Chinese economy shows that it took them at least 200 years to recover from the devastation caused by the Mongol Conquest of China.
Alauddin Khilji’s Personality
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that if Alauddin Khilji saw the heading of this article he would have the same reaction as you- something akin to “No way in hell!”. Alauddin Khilji had no love for the Hindu religion, by all accounts he was a devout Muslim, but he was a realist too. Many contemporary heavy weights in Islamic thoughts condemned Alauddin Khilji for not implementing Sharia throughout his kingdom and for not basing his state laws on sharia which is why they called Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom- “jahandari” or based on laws of the world, in other words- not based on the laws that Allah wanted people to have in the world- or sharia[v].
There is also a minor side issue here- Delhi Sultans prior to Alauddin like Iltutmish, Raziya and Balban also had jahandari policies but Alauddin had also committed regicide when he assassinated the previous ruler- Jalaluddin Khilji, a ruler who was trying to establish amicable relationship between different groups of nobles and who also happened to be Alauddin Khilji’s uncle and father-in-law.[vi] This is why a lot of people tended to look down on him.
So, Alauddin Khilji knew that he was stuck in a situation where he was a Muslim king, who was supposed to carry out God’s work on earth, except that over-whelming number of people in his kingdom did not believe in his God and most of his courtiers looked down on him as he failed to meet the basic standards of an Islamic ruler set by other Muslim rulers while ruling states where majority of the people were Muslims. So, Alauddin did what all Indians even to this day do when they are stuck in a tight spot- adjust.
His Economic Policies
Now that we have contextualized Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom and the situation he found himself in let us get into the different controversies and nothing was more controversial than his economic policies of which the imposition of the jaziya tax is the most debated.
Alauddin Khilji found himself in a situation where he had to ward off the Mongol threat by maintaining the fortifications in Northern and Western India which were built by Balban and by extending them further. He also realised that fortifications will not be enough and that he needed good fighting men. So, he decided not only to pay his army in cash but to increase their salary substantially. Alauddin paid his cavalry men 20 tankasper month which was almost the same amount that Akbar paid his cavalry men but since Akbar ruled India more than 250 years after Alauddin Khilji the difference due to inflation adjustment is quite substantial[vii].
All of these expenditure in defence required massive sums of money and since most of the people in his kingdom depended on agriculture and were Hindus Alauddin Khilji saw a unique opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He decided to increase agricultural taxes to half the produce and decided to call a section of this tax “jaziya tax” or the tax that non-Muslims pay to their Muslim overlords for protection.[viii] In fact it was only in the time of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, that the jaziya tax was separated from the agricultural tax.[ix] So, Alauddin Khilji showed his detractors that he was implementing sharia and at the same time got the resources he needed to defend his kingdom.
But, there is a third thing that Alauddin managed to do with this step that people do not realise – which is to reduce the burden on peasants. Yes, increasing taxes and reducing burden might look paradoxical but to see how he did it we have to dig a little deeper.
The period immediately preceding the Delhi Sultanate is recognised as the golden era for Indian Feudalism when we see classical feudalism at work across India.[x] This was a time when land was parcelled off to feudal lords called samantas and to Brahmans in the form of Brahmadeya[xi]. Under this arrangement the samantas and the Brahmadeya had the right to tax whatever they wanted and had the powers of jurisprudence over their territories. All these resulted in a plethora of “creatively” created taxes. I am not going to comment on the caste and gender discriminations this system caused- you can do some imagining on your own if you can’t then you can read it here[xii]. But what I am going to comment on is visti– the right of the feudal lords and the Brahmans of the brahmadeya to claim forced labour for their lands[xiii]. Under the system of vishti the peasant or kasak had to stop working for his field and instead work for the privately owned fields of his overloads for a particular time period and got no portion of the produce or profits from this labour. So, vishti was essentially a nice Sanskrit word for slavery.