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Opinion

April 15, 2018

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Signs of decline

When a society – after it successfully fulfils its political, social and economic objectives – gradually begins to witness a period of decline, the signs of its decay become all the more palpable.

These signs may not be apparent to those who are living through a social crisis and firmly believe in the stability of a society that is now in decline. However, when historians examine the rise and fall of any society, they can trace the signs of its weaknesses and often provide a detailed assessment of the stages in which a society disintegrates and loses its strength and power. This is evident in historical accounts of the Mughal Empire.

The point of departure from stability to chaos during the Mughal era was marked by the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. Soon after his demise, the entire structure of the empire collapsed. However, the signs of decline had already become evident during his reign. Aurangzeb managed to tackle the political and economic crises that plagued his empire and retain the glory of the Mughal legacy. But there were cracks in the system that could not be easily repaired by Aurangzeb. His death accelerated the empire’s downfall and the process of decline affected every aspect of Mughal society.

The first institution that suffered at the hands of growing political instability was the kingship. Mughal emperors, who were once a symbol of power and grandeur, gradually began to lose the pomp and glory that was associated with their position. They were reduced to mere puppets by the emerging powers of the Marathas and, subsequently, the East India Company.

During this political crisis, a large number of ambitious nobles made attempts to assume power in the name of the emperor. Successive rulers ascended the throne under the influence of a noble and were immediately dethroned by a rival noble who selected his own puppet king. The situation escalated to such a degree that the women of the royal family were compelled to lock the gates of their palace to prevent their sons from being victimised by the nobility. The loss of royal power created insecurity and lawlessness in society.

The wave of degeneration and decline that spread through the Mughal Empire during this period has been captured in Urdu poetry. In one of his verses, Mushafi, a respected poet of his time, once said that he would prefer to inhabit a lonely corner than sit on King Solomon’s throne. This depicts how retirement from active politics was a source of comfort for many as it kept people away from the royalty, which had lost its credibility. It also shows that Mughal society had fallen victim to pessimism and sadness.

Another trend that prevailed during this period involved the intense political victimisation of the nobility that eventually resulted in the loss of social status, resources and a privileged standard of living. The nobility that had once lived in palatial houses were impoverished. Many of them did not have enough money to repair their dilapidated home – a clear sign of decline. This was a clear message to society that wealth, glory and a high social status were ephemeral. Therefore, any form of pride over wealth and power is ineffectual. Mir Taqi Mir captures these feelings in one of its couplets that described an incident where he accidentally kicked a skull that belonged to a proud man. There is a lesson that ought to be learnt from this.

Although philosophers and historians provide a detailed account of the decaying environment of a society, people seldom learn any valuable lessons from the past and repeatedly resort to selfish pursuits, corrupt practices and crimes. At the same time, poets were composing pessimistic poetry and historians were writing history with a sense of hopelessness by drawing attention to political instability; the insecurity of trade routes; corruption and bribery of bureaucracy; the absence of justice; and plundering by warlords, thugs and dacoits. Mughal society had failed to pay attention to their warnings and made no attempt to change their way of life.

In a society that is in a state of decline that cannot be reversed, people either take refuge in the stories of past glory or enjoy reading literature that transports them to a make-believe world – like ‘Dastaan-e-Ameer Hamza’ and ‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba’. It temporarily provides a sense of relief. However, no solutions can be sought by living in the past. For example, the poetry of Hali and Iqbal create false hope about reviving the past. But this would prove to be a temporary solution if society is not revitalised. There is a pressing need to understand the causes of the decline of a society and challenge customs that hinder the path of progress. We must not keep these traditions intact if they are not of any use.

History serves as a useful means to understand the science of decline. It also provides a strategy on how to counter the signs of decay. Pakistani society is facing the same challenges that Mughal society had encountered as the empire approached its downfall. It is necessary to change the entire structure of society and rebuild it on a new foundation that is, in fact, the need of the hour. The solution does not lie in the past. It can be found in the emerging ideas and thoughts of the modern era that can pave the way for progress.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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