Murder Thy Dad for Power: The Ugly Mughal Truth at the Heart of Shah Jahan’s Letter to Jahangir

An obscure letter written by Khurram to his father Jahangir, threatens him with sword action if he were not granted dynastic succession.
Murder Thy Dad for Power: The Ugly Mughal Truth at the Heart of Shah Jahan’s Letter to Jahangir

THE INEFFABLE TRUTH of the Muslim history of medieval India—in fact, the history of Islamic empires throughout the world—is also one of the primary keys to comprehend it: royal succession. Specifically, the manner of royal succession on which an independent volume can be written. It was a sumptuous feast involving treachery, betrayal, booty, blood, and a mix of some or all of the above because the ultimate prize was unfettered tyranny which brooked no competition. There is almost no instance in the eight-hundred-year-long history of Muslim rule in India where we notice bloodless succession. In fact, patricides and fratricides were the rule than the exception. Sanctity of familial and blood relationships were both decided and sustained by the edge of the sword.

The highly vaunted “peaceful” and “glorious” Mughal rule also offers us the highly vaunted evidence of this ugly truth.

Case in point: prince Khurram, acclaimed as Shah Jahan, the unvarnished bigot, global alcoholic, and epic debauch.

From an early age, Khurram had marvelled at and enviously yearned for the infinite power and joys that accompany the prized seat of an absolute despot. He watched his opium-addicted and pleasure-drowned father, Jahangir savour these goodies on a daily basis. More importantly, he had imbibed and wanted to emulate that shortcut to power that Jahangir had adopted when he was still a prince: conspiracy and attempt to murder his father, Akbar “the great.” The shortcut was botched but failure is a stepping stone to success. Prince Khurram also had a more recent example: how his brother Khusrau Mirza had trodden the same stepping stone and failed. Perhaps he could succeed where Khusrau had failed. And he did succeed. Partially. When Jahangir ruthlessly crushed Khusrau’s rebellion, and put him in prison, Khurram instinctively knew that a massive obstacle had been cleared. Wasting no time, he blinded Khusrau and eventually murdered him.

And then Khurram sounded his rebellion in a low, baritone bugle.

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Our story begins at this juncture. Narrated by the father and son in their own words.

When Jahangir learns that prince Khurram is on the threshold of declaring rebellion, he issues a Farman to the errant prince holding him guilty of sedition. Feigning innocence, Khurram responds that these are unfair allegations and ends with a threat: punish me if you dare and face the consequences. A charming exchange, really. Far removed from the Sanatana sensibility of Pitru-devo-bhava.

Here it is, verbatim, in English. For your reading pleasure.

Jahangir’s Farman

To Prince Sultan Khurram,

The noble son, the pearl of the crown of fortune and victory, the valuable central gem in the necklace of happiness and truth, and on whom rest the excessive royal attention and kindness. Be it known that, it is a matter of great regret that the Prince having been unmindful to his moral obligations to royalty and responsibilities to parents has shown symptoms of inconsistency and malevolence in the house of the Caliphate and the royal family and has made up his mind to make a stand against his father for securing the throne and the crown: that, there is hardly any instance in the the royal family of a prince hurling defiance at his father. It’s a pity that, a fortunate and prosperous scion like the Prince should have displayed such arrogance! If the Prince had set his heart upon fighting his way and securing dominions, he would better march out to Iraq with a body of sincere nobles and faithful adherents and measure swords with Emperor Abbas, who was set upon rooting out Mughal authority over Qandhar [Kandahar/Gandhara], and, in retaliation, do away with his (Abbas) sovereignly over his countries.

It makes one’s blood run cold to think that the Prince should turn hostile to his father for the possession of the crown. Is sovereignty obtainable by effort alone? The key to future success lies with Khuda’s Providence, and it is He who bestows royalty on his elect! Therefore, it is essential that, the Prince should, with pride and humility alike, put on the ring of submission and obedience on his ears and should be compliant like a child. He should set forth his military ability in the battlefield and having proceeded to Qandhar, exhibit his valour. In return for the gratitude that the Prince would thus show by his action to the world-decorating royal court [i.e., Jahangir’s court], his sins of omission would be forgiven and he would be blessed with royal favour and compassion!

Khurram’s Response

On receipt of this letter, the Prince has kissed it and placed it on his head. He next opened the letter, read it and bowed his head in respect. Humbly and quietly he now writes the following reply:

“I am weak as a child and Your Majesty is the protector of the weak: Khuda pardons the faults of His slaves. You are my master and I am your slave—penitent of my actions. I am too feeble and you are the conqueror of the world. Be charitable and condone my fault!

“It is for fear of my life that I fight shy of the imperial court, and I aspire not after the crown or the throne. How can l set my heart upon sovereignty when I have a thin time? Come what may, I am your bondsman in all ages: if I am a falcon, I have been netted by you!

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“I live in hope that Your Majesty would never put me to shame. In fact, you are the king of the country, and may the throne and the royal seal be with you for ever!

“For God’s sake, do not take amiss. I am on my last legs and I dare not set my face against you. Can an ant stand out against Sulaiman?

“Sure enough, so long the Emperor is in my favour, I do not run any risk of personal injury. I am, after all, reconciled to my portfolio in Bengal. I shall he cut up if I become a prey to misfortune. If I remain apart from the pomp of the royal court, may Your Majesty not grudge it, for, it’s a just punishment for my actions.

“Distinction is achieved by degrees, but, Parwez has cut a figure beyond all expectation. Your Majesty has made Parwez the heir-apparent, but you have branded me with the reproach to having shed Khusrau’s blood! If dare say, Parwez is a villain, and it is he who is guilty of Khusrau’s blood.

“As I am charged with Khusrau’s murder, it matters not if I make away with Parwez. If God has favoured Parwez with renown, he has, I can assure Your Majesty, graced me, likewise, with a blood-shedding sword! If Parwez is unfriendly to me, I am equally inimical, if he is fraternal, I am also pacific.

“My goodness! I have been asked to attend the court. How can I come to terms with Parwez who is unworthy of it? If Your Majesty smiles upon me I am your slave, but if you are unsympathetic I shall keep myself away so long I am alive.

“Once I unsheathe my sword, I shall not, I am afraid, be considerate to the Emperor or the Prince! Need I tell you that there is in the empire hardly any equal to me in military accomplishment? Your Majesty, I dare say, would not have lost your hold on Qandhar if you had requisitioned my services. So long Parwez was in charge of the Deccan, it was a hot-bed of disorder and confusion. But twice did I conquer the country by my sword and I took no care to my life on those occasions. Further, the story of my conquest of Kangra is a common talk in Hindustan. It was I, again, who challenged the Rana to arms and struck him down: it’s a feat which is unparalleled in history. It is by the grace of the Emperor that I have been successful in all my wars. I have reflected honour on the Empire and have secured payments from the Rana. Again, it is due to me, that the infidels have accepted Islam and the Mughal army has penetrated into the Rajput country. I can, by my wit, level mountains in the dust and stem the tide of foreign aggression. What do I care for the mountains? If they are made of stone am I not made of steel? Need I put up a prayer for the keys of the royal treasury? I hold the keys so long I have the sword with me! My superiority in arms gives me precedence over Parwez. The world is a brave and valorous bride who avoids the old and weak suitors and selects an intelligent and dexterous warrior as her mate. It’s only in the fitness of things that she would woo me!

“I have laid bare my mind. I fail to understand the ways of the world—it is so perplexing and complex!

“I am at the root of dynastic prosperity. For goodness sake, do not cast shame upon me.

“I believe my messenger will, like the hudhud of the fables, carry this letter of mine that contains the true state of affairs to the court. He has been sent as an agent of the ant to the court of Sulaiman!

“Oh Saqi! Pour the wine of happiness in my cup—the wine that dispels gloom, puts out the internal fire and changes malevolence to amity.”

Epilogue

We suppose this correspondence between father and son shines a self-explanatory light on the fundamental nature of Mughal politics and statecraft—if it can be called that.

History unambiguously shows that Khurram had indeed blinded and murdered his own brother, and that he was misleading his father by faking subservience, simultaneously issuing a veiled threat. Jahangir was not fooled. He met Khurram’s open rebellion in 1622 and clobbered him at Bilochpura, forcing him to flee to Udaipur. But that is a story for another day.

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