The Mughals had supplanted Afghan power led by the Lodhi dynasty but Babur’s victories at Panipat and Gorga did not result in the complete annihilation of the Afghan chiefs.
They were seething with discontent against the newly founded alien rule and only needed guidance of a strong personality to coalesce their isolated efforts in to an organised resistance against it.
This they got in Sher Khan Suri, who effected the revival of the Afghan power and established a vigorous, though short lived, regime in the subcontinent by ousting the newly established Mughal authority.
Sher Shah Suri is duly recognised as a philosopher king deeply propelled by his sense of justice and fairplay.
He had an uncanny intellectual perception quite rarely found in medieval rulers and his bent of mind was clearly welfare oriented.
His depth of perception could be measured by his lament at coming to power in the autumn of life, deprecating the rigours of age confronted by human existence. Another perceptive comment he made was after he won a tough campaign against Malwa and said that he almost lost his kingdom for a handful of millet, wryly downplaying the prevalent principle of kingship that was based on aggrandisement, irrespective of measuring its pros and cons.
Born in 1486, the career of Sher Khan Sur is as fascinating as that of Babur and not less instructive than that of the great Mughal, Akbar. Named as Farid, he began his life humbly and rose to prominence by dint of his personal merit. His grandfather, Ibrahim, a horse trader, an Afghan of the Sur tribe, lived near Peshawar and migrated with his son and Farid’s father Hasan to the east in quest of military service in the early part of Bahlul Lodhi’s reign and both first entered the service of Mahabat Khan Sur, jagirdar of the paraganas of Hariana and Bakhala in Punjab and settled in the paragana of Bajwara.
His father, Hasan, under the influence of his second wife became indifferent to Farid compelling him to leave home at the age of twenty-two and he went to Jaunpur. During his stay of ten years at Jaunpur, Sher Shah applied himself to learning. He learnt Arabic and, in particular, read Arabic grammar. He memorised the 13th-century books Gulistan and Bustan by Saadi Shirazi and the Sikandarnama by Nizami. He loved to read books on the virtues of ancient kings. This education diverted him from military service, which was the preferred vocation of the Afghans. He is the lone empire-builder who became the founder of a ruling dynasty without being a soldier in his early life. Early in his life he acquired firsthand knowledge of revenue affairs, the distress of the cultivators and the corruption of the revenue collectors. It was commonly accepted that amongst all Afghan campaigners in India, there was no one who was as learned, talented and wise as Sher Shah. He used this education and knowledge later to provide just and efficient foundations for his empire.
After reconciling with his father, Farid returned to Sasaram to administer the paraganas of Sasaram and Khawaspur and their successful administration again increased the ire of his step-mother and Farid had to leave again. On the death of his father, Farid took possession of his jagir on the strength of a royal firman which he procured at Agra. In 1522 he got into the service of Bahar Khan Lohani, ruler of Bihar who conferred on him the title of Sher Khan after he killed a tiger single-handedly. He was also appointed the deputy (Vakil) and tutor (Ataliq) of his mentor’s minor son, Jalal Khan. His enemies poisoned his master’s mind against him and he was once more deprived of his father’s jagir. Impressed by the complete success of Mughal arms and with the prospect of future gain, he now joined Babur’s camp where he remained from April, 1527, to June, 1528.
On his close association with Mughal setup he became convinced that it could be confronted and he openly expressed dissatisfaction at the fall of Afghan power and boasted of recovering it. His boasts came to the notice of Babur but warned of Babur’s displeasure, Sher Khan left the Mughal service and rejoined Bihar to become again its deputy governor and guardian of his former pupil, Jalal Khan. In the course of four years he won over the greater part of the army to his cause and elevated himself to a state of complete independence.
Meanwhile, the fortress of Chunar luckily came into his possession as Taj Khan, the owner of Chunar was killed by his eldest son who had risen against his father for his infatuation with a younger wife, Lad Malika. This widow, however, married Sher Khan and gave him the fortress of Chunar along with plenty of wealth.
The rapid and unexpected rise of Sher at the expense of the Lohani Afghans made the latter and even Jalal Khan, impatient of his control. He fought and defeated his rivals at the battle of Surajgarh, on the banks of the Kiul River in 1534 and this victory was a turning-point for him as it made him the undisputed ruler of Bihar and encouraged him to invade Bengal. The weak ruler of Bengal, Mahmud Shah, entered into peace with Sher Khan after paying thirteen lacs of gold pieces and by ceding him large territory. Most importantly his rise compelled many distinguished Afghan nobles to join him.
Humayun was disconcerted on hearing of Sher Khan’s activities and left Bengal for Agra but his return was cut off at Chaunsa near Buxar by Sher Khan suffering defeat in June, 1539. Most of the Mughal soldiers were drowned or captured and the life of their unlucky ruler was saved by a water-carrier who carried him on his water-skin across the Ganges. The victory over the sovereign of Delhi made him the de facto ruler of the territories extending from Kanauj in the west to the hills of Assam and Chittagong in the east and from the Himalayas in the north to the hills of Jharkhand and the Bay of Bengal in the south. Next year Humayun made another attempt to recover his fortune but in May, 1540 the Mughals were routed again at Kanauj ending the work of Babur in India and sovereignty once more passed to the Afghans.
Sher Shah’s reign of five years was marked by the introduction of wise and salutary changes in every conceivable branch of governance. Most of his endeavours were entirely original in character. In the spirit of an enlightened despot, he attempted to found an empire broadly based upon the people’s will. He divided the kingdom in forty-seven units (sarkars), each of which was again divided into several paraganas. To check undue influence of the officers in their respective jurisdictions, the king transferred them every two or three years.
Sher Shah’s land revenue reforms served as model for future agrarian systems. After proper survey he settled land revenue direct with cultivators; the state demand fixed at one-fourth or one-third of the average produce, payable either in kind or in cash, the latter being preferred. For actual collection of revenue the government utilised services of officers like Amins, Maqadams, Shiqdars, Qanungos and Patwaris; most of them still in vogue in revenue systems of the subcontinent. He instructed revenue officials to show leniency at the time of assessment and to be strict at the time of collection of revenues. The rights of the tenants were duly recognised and the liabilities of each were clearly defined in the kabuliyat (deed of agreement), which the state took from him and the patta (title-deed), which it gave him in return. Remissions of rents were made and loans were advanced to tenants in case of damage to crops caused by the encampment of soldiers or the insufficiency of rain.
The currency and tariff reforms of Sher Shah were also calculated to improve general economic condition and he introduced some specific changes in the mint. The system of tri-metalism, that later characterised Mughal coinage was introduced by Sher Shah. He also introduced Rupiya as the public silver coin having a standard weight of 178 grains, which was the precursor of the modern rupee commonly used in the majority of South and East Asian countries. He reformed the tariff by removing vexatious customs and permitting the imposition of customs on articles of trade only at the frontiers and in the places of sale. This considerably helped the cause of commerce by facilitating easy and cheap transport of merchandise.
This was further helped by the improvement of communications. For the purpose of defence, as well as for the convenience of the people, Sher Shah connected the important places of his kingdom by a chain of excellent roads. The longest of these, the Grand Trunk Road, which still survives, extends for 1,500 kilos from Sonargaon in Eastern Bengal to the Indus. One road ran from Agra to Burhanpur, another from Agra to Jodhpur and the fort of Chitor, and a fourth from Lahore to Multan.
Sher Shah planted shade-giving trees on both sides of roads, and sarais or rest-houses at different stages. These sarais also served the purpose of post-houses facilitating quick exchange of news and supplied the government with information from different parts of the country. The maintenance of an efficient system of espionage also enabled the ruler to know what happened in his kingdom. To secure peace and order, the police system was reorganised and the principle of local responsibility for local crimes was enforced. The village headmen were made responsible for the detection of criminals and maintenance of peace.
Sher Shah’s strong intellect gave him a strong sense of justice and administration under him was even-handed. In parganas, civil suits were disposed of by Amin and other cases, mostly criminal, by Qazi and the Mir-i-Adal. Several paraganas had over them a Munsif-i-Munsifan to try civil cases. At the capital city there were the Chief Qazi, the imperial Sadr, and above all, the King as the highest authority in judicial as in other matters. Though a pious Muslim, Sher Shah was not a bigot and his treatment of the Hindus in general was tolerant and just. He employed Hindus in important offices of the state; one of his best generals was Brahamjit Gaur and Todar Mal was his revenue adviser.
The services of a body of armed retainers, or of a feudal levy, were not considered sufficient for his needs and he took care to maintain a regular army, the soldiers being bound to him, through their immediate commanding officer, by the strong tie of personal devotion and discipline. Garrisons were maintained at different strategic points of the kingdom; each of these, called a fauj, was under the command of a faujdar. Besides duly supervising the recruitment of soldiers, he personally fixed their salaries, took their descriptive rolls and revived the practice of branding horses