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Unquiet City: Making and Unmaking Politics in Mughal Delhi, 1707-39

Kaicker, Abhishek

This dissertation is a study of the elaborations of the cultures of politics in the Mughal capital of Shahajahanabad - modern day Delhi - from the death of the emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 to the invasion of the Iranian warlord Nadir Shah in 1739. While this period has frequently been imagined as one of imperial decline and political failure, this dissertation argues that these years of tumult saw instead the transformation of elite politics and the development of a language of popular politics within the space of the Mughal capital. The transformation of politics as practiced by Mughal elites became dramatically evident in the second decade of the eighteenth century, in which two reigning emperors were violently removed from the throne. Through a close examination of the admonitory historical texts which describe these events, this dissertation suggests that such transgressive actions reflected a debate among the Mughal elite about the proper role of the emperor in an empire which had become unprecedentedly bureaucratic and routinized in its administration. Yet speculation about the place of the emperor did not remain the affair of the empire's elites who saw themselves as the traditional guardians of the realm. For now, an unlikely new party began to intervene ever more assertively in matters that had been considered the preserve of the empire's ruling nobility. This was the people itself, an entity that agitated vociferously in support or in criticism of elite acts of governance. In doing so, the people produced a new language of popular politics which directly addressed the powers-that-be. Such a popular politics was produced within, and enacted upon the stage of the Mughal capital, itself built as a representation of the virtues of Mughal imperium. The emergence of the people as an increasingly visible mass in the city is the subject of the first chapter. The second, third and fourth chapters then turn to an examination of the dramatic convulsions of elite politics which caused the bodies of slaughtered princes to be paraded in the thoroughfares of the Mughal city. Chapter four ends with a study of the popular response to one such incident, the deposition of the Emperor Farrukh Siyar in 1719, arguing that the event marks an instance of the city's masses making an explicit intervention in the politics of the imperial elite. Chapter five considers the means of communication by which such political solidarities were forged, arguing that poetry in particular was a powerful form of social communication which might activate political solidarities among the people of the city. Chapters six and seven offer a detailed account of other instances of popular political activity, focusing particularly on the Shoe-sellers' riot of 1729. Chapter eight turns to the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739, arguing that the resistance to his occupation of Delhi and subsequent events mark the limits of possibility of such politics. The conclusion examines the divergent trajectories of elite and popular politics through the end of the empire and the rise of the colonial state in the subcontinent.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dirks, Nicholas B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 11, 2014