Why the Mughal Empire declined has been a subject of debate among historians. Scholarly opinion can be divided along two broad lines—those who view the matter as generally empire-related and those who regard the developments as region-related. The empire-related or Mughal-centric view sees the causes of the decline within the structure and functioning of the empire itself. The region- related view finds the causes of Mughal decline in the turmoil and instability in the different parts of the empire. The decline was due to both aspects.
The process of disintegration of the Mughal Empire began during the reign of Aurangzeb, but it picked up momentum only after his death in 1707. At his death, conditions were not such that the process of decline could not be checked. Although Mughal authority was challenged by several chiefs and rulers, none could assert independence in the face of the imperial might. The Sikhs, Marathas and Rajputs did not possess the capacity to overthrow the empire; they merely resisted Mughal power to gain and keep their independence in their respective territories. Thus, if the successors of Aurangzeb had been capable rulers, the empire might not have fallen. Most of the emperors who came after Aurangzeb proved to be incapable, weak and licentious monarchs who hastened the process of disintegration of the empire and, finally, its collapse.
The major factors which contributed to the downfall of the Mughal Empire are discussed below.
Shifting Allegiance of Zamindars
Two classes shared the power of the State with the emperor during the medieval period—the zamindars and the nobles. The zamindars were hereditary owners of their lands who enjoyed certain privileges on hereditary basis, and were variously known as rais, rajas, thakurs, khuts or deshmukhs. They occupied an important place in the empire because they helped in the collection of revenue and in local administration, for which they maintained soldiers. Though the Mughals had tried to curb the power of the zamindars and maintain direct contact with the peasants, they had not wholly succeeded. During the reign of Aurangzeb itself, there was a marked increase in the power and influence of the zamindars. The biggest fallout of this was that regional loyalties were encouraged. Many local zamindars helped the nobility, the other powerful class within the empire, to take advantage of the weakness of the empire and carve out independent kingdoms for themselves.
this class belonged many Rajput rulers, subahdars and mansabdars. Mughal rule has often been defined as “the rule of the nobility”, because these nobles played a central role in administering the empire. Although Akbar had provided a well-knit organisation for them, there was divisiveness among the nobility on the basis of religion, homeland and tribe, and each category formed a group of its own. Mutual rivalry, jealousy and contest for power among the various groups during the rule of the later Mughals (in the absence of a strong central leadership) not only reduced the prestige of the emperor, but also contributed to the decline of the empire.
Rise of Regional Aspirations
Aurangzeb’s reign itself witnessed powerful regional groups like the Jats, Sikhs and Marathas defying the authority of the Mughal state in their bid to create kingdoms of their own. They did not succeed in their efforts, but they influenced the future course of political events in their respective regions. Their continuous struggle against the empire for political ascendancy weakened the empire considerably. Aurangzeb, and after him Bahadur Shah I, by attempting to suppress the Rajputs, spurred them to battle against the Mughals. The later Mughals made an effort to follow a policy of reconciliation with the Rajputs, but by then it was already too late: the Rajputs no longer trusted the Mughals enough to ally with them for the welfare of the empire.
The Marathas too were becoming a formidable enemy. Their aim was at first limited only to regaining control over the region of Maharashtra; but it soon went on to include getting legal sanction from the Mughal emperor for collecting sardeshmukhi and chauth throughout India. They forged northwards and, by 1740, succeeded in spreading their influence over the provinces of Gujarat, Malwa and Bundelkhand. The Rajput struggle against the empire and the growing ambition and power of the Marathas, thus, adversely affected the Mughal might.
Economic and Administrative Problems
The number of amirs and their ranks or mansabs had increased sharply over time; there was little land left to be distributed among them as jagirs. Aurangzeb tried to solve the problem of acute shortage of jagirs or bejagiri by showing enhanced income from the jagirs on record. But this was a short- sighted measure as the amirs tried to recover the recorded income from their jagirs by pressurising the peasantry. So both the amirs and the peasantry were antagonised. Then there were the wars, the luxurious lifestyles of the emperors and amirs alike, the reduction in khalisa land, all of which burdened the state. The result was that the expenditure of the state much exceeded its income.
There was, moreover, no significant scientific and technological advance that could have improved a stagnant economy. The once flourishing trade did not enrich the empire’s coffers even as the inroads by European traders grew along coastal India.
These economic and administrative problems only multiplied following the death of Aurangzeb. The empire had become too vast to be efficiently administered by a centralised system when the rulers were weak and incompetent.