(IGP) GS Paper 1 - History of India & Indian National Movement - "India in the Eighteenth Century"

Integrated Guidance Programme of General Studies for IAS (Pre) - 2013

Subject -  History of India & Indian National Movement
Chapter : India in the Eighteenth Century


The eighteenth century is a historical landmark in the history of the Indian sub-continent. The Mughal Empire which was brought to its pinnacle of glory by the great Mughals saw decline in its fortunes and glory in the eighteenth century during the last years of Aurangzeb’s reign who died in February 20, 1707. The succeeding Mughals of the eighteenth century, collectively called the, later Mughals Babadur Shah-I (1707-12); Jahandar Shah (1712-13); Farrukhsiyar (1713-19) Muhammad Shah (1719-38); Ahmad Shah (1748-54); Alamgir II (1754-59); Shah Alam II (1759-1806) were too weak and incompetent to maintain the banner of the Mughal rule and could do little to prevent the rise of the regional powers and Later, the East India Company.

The Decline of the Mughal Empire

  • The traditional historiography held the weak successors and incompetent commanders as being responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire.
  • Sir J. N. Sarkar understood the revolts by the Marathas, Jats and Sikhs against the background of the religious bigotry of Aurangzeb.
  • While some problems were created under Aurangzeb’s rule, some were inbuilt in the Mughal system of administration and only heightened under Aurangzeb who had to face more than enough share of problems.
  • While Aurangzeb expanded the Mughal Empire to its maximum boundaries, the campaigns greatly strained the financial basis of the Mughal Empire.
  • The Mughal system of governance was dependent on the personality of the Emperor. Strong Emperors like Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb could exercise a greater degree of check and balance over the vast aristocracy which was of different ethnic background- Turanis, Iranis, Afghans, Sheikhjadas or the Indian Muslims and the Hindus (the Rajputs and the Marathas).
  • Militarily, the Mughal army was weak due to lack of technological innovation and organization. There were contingents of soldiers who owed allegiance to their immediate overlords. It lacked a national character.
  • The Deccan campaign of Aurangzeb proved to be suicidal for the Mughal Empire The war with the Marathas preoccupied Aurangzeb keeping him away from Delhi, the center for power, for most part of the last twenty years of his life.
  • Matters were worsened by the series of tribal incursions or raids in India from Central Asia, Eurasia and Afghanistan in the eighteenth century. 
  • Due to the weakening of the Mughal Empire many Provincial Governors like those of Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad and Carnatic established independent kingdoms by 1740s. The period of the later Mughals was marked by the use of the regional powers and gradual decline of the Mughal suzerainty.

The Debates on the Eighteen Century

  • The eighteenth century has been conventionally viewed as a period of decline, anarchy, and economic decay or simply put as the Dark Age. It was held that the decline of the Mughal state corresponded with an overall decline.

  • The division of 18th century into two periods of transition by Seema Alavi
    1. Gradual decline of the Mughal Empire, especially after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the subsequent rise of the regional political order.
    2. Consolidation of British colonial power through English East India Company (henceforth EIC)- After Battle of Plassey 1757 and Battle of Buxar 1767- EIC founded in 1600- by a Royal Charter, outsets the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and other regional powers by the second half of the eighteenth century.

  • They trace the economic decline of India beginning with the decline of the centralized Mughal Empire, which led to dispension of political, economic, cultural vitality from then strong centers of power. This was manifested by the decay of Delhi.

  • The Sikh uprisings blocked the trade routes to Lahore thereby affecting trade.

  • The Maratha incursions brought much dislocation to Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. They hastened the destruction of the Gujarat silk manufactures.

  • C. A. Bayly opines that the eighteenth century witnessed devolution of not only political but also economic dynamics to the lower levels of sovereignty regional rulers, small potentates and even the little rajas of the villages.


In the eighteenth century one observes several strands of development. While on one hand Mughal rule did wane, on the other hand, the century was marked by rise of regional power. The East India Company signified the next successor political order. The economy too underwent changes. While the traditional centers declined there was a corresponding rise of the regional powers that opened new vistas in economy. The host from the point of modern Indian history, was the growing political influence of the East India Company that gradually became embroiled in the politics of the country, especially Bengal. But even then, the Company rule did not mark a complete break with the pre-colonial time. The Company could establish it influence only on the basis of collaboration with various indigenous groups, merchants, officials and so on.

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