Power Politics in the Governance of Bengal Sultanate
Many of historical events of medieval period of Bengal remains disputed among modern scholars because of lack of contemporary commentary from Bengal. What we know about Bengal today are based mostly on numismatic evidences and stone inscriptions. Commentaries of contemporary foreign historians and travelers also have been used as reference. Most quoted contemporary commentaries that have descriptions about Bengal are Ain-i-Akbari, Tabaqat-i-Akbari, Tarikh-i-Firishta, and travel of Ibn Battuta (Ali 1985; Sarkar 1948). But in those sources, Bengal came as a short reference when there was an incidence of Delhi or other sultanates with Bengal or when the respective traveler had a visit to Bengal. Therefore, those historical records cover a very small part of the whole history of medieval period of Bengal. Reaz-us-Salatin by Salim (1788) is considered as the first comprehensive text on the history of Bengal sultanate that broadly covers medieval period of Bengal. But still Reaz-us-Salatin was not as complete as it was required. That was caused by very small number of numismatic evidences and stone inscriptions available at hand to Salim (1788) when he wrote his said book. That also resulted into controversies among modern scholars that has been discussed later in this chapter. Further discovery solved many, not all, of those controversial issues. Therefore, numismatic evidences and stone inscriptions have played a vital role in the process of construction and reconstruction of the history of medieval period of Bengal.
A controversial character of that time in Bengal is Raja Ganesh who was a Hindu in religion. In a crucial period of Bengal sultanate, Raja Ganesh wanted to seize power of Bengal from Muslim rulers. Later he had to convert his son to Muslim which has an implication to governance in Bengal sultanate. Current chapter presents this extraordinary but controversial event in the history of Bengal. This part of history of Bengal remains enigmatic as modern historians are divided in presenting the role of Raja Ganesh in change in power of Bengal during his time. A group presents him as wicked, while another group depicts him as a clean character. Here also history of Bengal depends on numismatic evidences and stone inscriptions. This chapter covers the period of usurpation of Raja Ganesh from Muslim sultans where commentaries of historians have been moderated by available numismatic evidences.
Early Muslim Rulers of Bengal
The Muslim conquest of Bengal dates back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the year 1201 AD/597 AH, a troop of 19 soldiers of Malik Ikhtiyar al Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji attacked suddenly and captured Nudia palace (West Bengal) of King Rai Lakshman Sen, a Hindu ruler of Bengal from Sen Dynasty. Bakhtyar Khalzi completed his conquest of the Varendra, which was one of the ten administrative divisions of Bengal, with the historic city of Gaur (East Bengal) during 1204 AD/600 AH. After the assassination of Bakhtyar Khalzi in August of the year 1206 AD/601 AH, Bengal was dividedly ruled by several Muslim rulers. Coins of Bengal reveal two sultans, one from East Bengal (Fakhr al Din Mubarak Shah, 1334–1349 AD/734–750 AH) and the other from West Bengal (Ala al Din Ali Shah, 1339–1345 AD/740–746 AH), simultaneously at almost same time showing a divided Bengal. It was Shams al Din Ilyas Shah (1342–1357 AD/743–758 AH) who successfully unified East Bengal and West Bengal and became sultan of unified Bengal (Bangala) that included Sonargaon, Satgaon, and Lakhnauti. He is regarded as the first independent Muslim ruler in Bengal sultanate. Reign of Ilyas Shahi dynasty took place in two periods. First reign continued until 1414 AD/817 AH. Shams al Din Ilyas Shah was succeeded by his son Sikandar bin Ilyas (1357–1389 AD/758–792 AH), grandson Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah (1389–1410 AD/792–813 AH), and grand grandson Saif al Din Hamza Shah (1410–1412 AD/813–815 AH). After Hamza Shah, Bengal sultanate saw a political crisis that was led by a Hindu usurper known as Raja Ganesh, as claimed by contemporary and modern historical records.
Political Rise of Hindu Raja in Muslim Bengal
According to Reaz-us-Salatin (Salim 1788), Raja Ganesh conspired in killing Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah. His able minister Khan-i-Jahan Yahya was also murdered shortly after the death of the sultan Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah, which brought Raja Ganesh in the forefront of the struggle of power (Ali 1985). That may also indicate that there might be active role of Raja Ganesh in the killing of Khan-i-Jahan. After the death of Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah, his son Saif al Din Hamza Shah (1410–1412 AD/813–815 AH) was murdered followed by the killing of usurper Shihab al Din Bayazid Shah (1412–1414 AD/815–817 AH), who was a slave of Hamza Shah, and Bayazid’s son Ala al Din Firuz Shah (1414 AD/817 AH) who wanted to overpower Raja Ganesh in the struggle of power in Bengal sultanate. According to historians of Bengal sultanate, Raja Ganesh had a role in conspiring all these subsequent murders (Ali 1985; Salim 1788).
Year 837 AH (1432/1433 AD) is also a year of political conflict in the history of Bengal sultanate when the power of Bengal went back to the descendant of Ilyas Shah, Nasir al Din Mahmud Shah (832 AH/1427 AD and 837–864 AH/1433/4–1459 AD) from the family of Raja Ganesh. But the type of coins of Siraj al Din Sikandar Shah and Qutb al Din Azam Shah is different than that of Ghiyath al Din Nusrat Shah and also they don’t have dates. Therefore, the coins of Siraj al Din Sikandar Shah and Qutb al Din Azam Shah have been placed in the time of usurpation of Raja Ganesh by present scholars (Karim 2012; Nasir and Islam 2014). According to Karim (2012), Qutb al Din Azam Shah was a contestant of Bengal sultanate during 1412/13 AD or 815 AH to 1415/16 AD or 819 AH. The same author also anticipates that Qutb al Din Azam Shah was a minister of Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah. After the murder of Hamza Shah, he fled to East Bengal and revolted in some times against conspiracy of Raja Ganesh. As there was no other evidence of survival of Qutb al Din Azam Shah as Sultan of Bengal and because of rarity of his coins, it is presumed that this contestant of Bengal sultanate was later killed by Raja Ganesh. On the other hand, Nasir and Islam (2014) concluded that Siraj al Din Sikandar Shah whose name was found in Reaz-us-Salatin (Salim 1788) as an appointed chief judge (Qazi) in the court of Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah fled to East Bengal after Raja Ganesh dethroned Hamza Shah and later rebelled against Shihab al Din Bayazid Shah or Raja Ganesh. Similar to the fate of Qutb al Din Azam Shah, it can be presumed that the rebellion of Siraj al Din Sikandar Shah also ended up as a failure and he was also killed by Raja Ganesh or Shihab al Din Bayazid Shah. Later, as it has been said earlier, Raja Ganesh killed Shihab al Din Bayazid Shah and his son Ala al Din Firuz Shah. Probably after all these, Raja Ganesh finally got ultimate supremacy in Bengal.
Trade-Off of Religion for Power
After securing his power in Bengal, Raja Ganesh continued elimination and persecution upon the Muslims (Ali 1985). According to Reaz-us-Salatin (Salim 1788), Raja Ganesh continued oppression over and bloodshed of Muslims to make his power more secured. He killed many Muslims and Sufis or scholars of that time. Muslim scholar Shaikh Badr al Islam and his son Farid al Islam were killed by Raja Ganesh as they persistently refused to acknowledge his supremacy in Bengal (Ali 1985; Blochmann 1968; Salim 1788). It is claimed that Raja Ganesh conspired to kill a large number of Muslim scholars by ordering the drowning of a boat where Muslim scholars were on board (Blochmann 1968; Salim 1788). He also demolished mosques and massacred Islamic establishments.
As said earlier, on his coins Raja Ganesh took the title Danuja Marddana Deva. On the obverse of the coin at the center within a multifoil, the Bangla inscriptions have been read as shri shri danuja marddana deva. On the reverse of the coin, Raja Ganesh introduced religious legends showing respect to Shri Chandi, a name of Hindu goddess Durga. The inscriptions at the center of this coin have been read as shri chandi charana parayana that has been translated as obedience to the feet of Shri Chandi. Margin of the reverse bears the date and mint of the coin. The mint is not on the flan and so not readable. But the date on this coin is read as 1339 (Sakabda). Raja Ganesh died in 1418 AD/821 AH. According to the statement of a few historians, he was killed by officers of his son Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah (Ali 1985; Blochmann 1968).
Reconstruction of Ganesha’s History by Sarkar (1948)
Sarkar (1948, pp. 125–128), a modern historian of Bengal, offers a “modern reconstruction of the history of Ganesha and his sons” where he rejects most of the claims made by Salim (1788) by calling them as “pious frauds.” According to Sarkar (1948), Raja Ganesh was “a baron of Dinajpur.” His ability, experience, and material resources helped him to become the most powerful man in the court of Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah. These also made him natural de facto ruler of Bengal after Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah. He set Saif al Din Hamza Shah, a minor prince, to throne as a puppet of him. Raja Ganesh did it in concert with certain widow queen. This led other dowager queens and disappointed nobles in plotting against Raja Ganesh that ended up in a civil war. At this stage the puppet king was somehow lured into rising against the force of Raja Ganesh but later was killed.
When Ala al Din Firuz Shah was assassinated by regent of Raja Ganesh, the latter assumed the crown himself. According to Sarkar (1948), this led Islamic theologians and “unruly and ambitious” Shaiks to invite Ibrahim Shah Sharqi, the sultan of Jaunpur, to invade Bengal. Later a truce was reached, the Jaunpur force went back “for a money consideration,” but Raja Ganesh converted his son “Jadusen” to Islam to make him sultan of Bengal.
Sarkar (1948, p. 127) disagrees with the claim of Salim (1788) that Raja Ganesh attempted to uproot Muslim scholars instead claiming that he tried to “reduce the overgrown and unruly Muslim monastic orders to obedience and to squeeze out of them a portion of vast treasures they had accumulated by beguiling sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Azam in his old age… .” He adds that Ganesha was not murdered by his son Jalal al Din Muhammad. Instead he died peacefully in his old age. Sarkar (1948) also turns down possibility of any civil war between Jalal al Din Muhammad and his younger Hindu brother, Mahendra Deva, who succeeded his father for a short reign.
Criticism of Sarkar’s “Reconstruction” by Ali (1985)
Ali (1985) criticizes Sarkar’s (1948) “modern reconstruction of the history of Ganesh and his sons” by calling it as “attempted apologies for the Raja” based on Sarkar’s “historical imagination.” Ali (1985) calls Raja Ganesh’s natural position of de facto ruler after Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah simply because of the weakness of infant rulers, which has been claimed by Sarkar (1948) as “obviously far too much of an apology for him.” According to Ali (1985, p. 156), “all the extant sources rather show clearly that he came to occupy the position which he did by clever machinations resulting in a series of murders.” He also questions source of claim made by Sarkar of Ganesha’s having recourse to bribery that led Jaunpur sultan to withdraw troops from Bengal.
Ali (1985) also criticizes Sarkar’s (1948) claim that Raja Ganesh died peacefully in old age and was not murdered by his son Jalal al Din Muhammad as Sarkar (1948) indicates this as piously imagined event by Salim (1788) on the “gossip of some” (ba qaul-i-ba’ze). Ali (1985) introduces contemporary historian Al-Asqalani (in Habashi, 1971) who unequivocally mentioned that Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah revolted against his father Raja Ganesh and killed him. Hence Ali (1985) instead claims that Sarkar’s (1948) indication was his “pious imagination” instead. Further, Ali (1985) also criticizes Sarkar’s (1948) effort to hide Ganesha’s oppressions over Muslim scholars as claimed by Salim (1788) by calling it as Sarkar’s (1948) “labored apology” for Raja Ganesh.
There is disagreement with the conspiracy theory, developed based on the commentary of Salim (1788), of Raja Ganesh against Ghiyath al Din Azam Shah and his successors. There is disagreement also on how Raja Ganesh died. But there is no controversy on the fact that Raja Ganesh agreed to convert his elder son Jadu to Islam who was later given a Muslim name Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah. Historians also agree on the role played by Nur Qutb al Alam, a Muslim religious leader, in power politics of Bengal Sultanate. There is also no disagreement among historians that Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah came back in his second reign as a Muslim ruler. Contemporary coins of Bengal act as a series of evidence of the agreed events in the history of Bengal.
It is true that numismatic evidences do not tell anything about how Raja Ganesh died or whether the sultan of Jaunpur went back in money consideration or not. But two recently identified sultans of Bengal, Qutb al Din Azam Shah and Siraj al Din Sikandar Shah, who have been placed by modern numismatists in the crucial period of usurpation of Raja Ganesh, indicate a series of conflict between Raja Ganesh and contemporary Muslim leaders who struggled for power against each other. Contemporary Muslim leaders challenged usurpation of Raja Ganesh, while the latter ultimately defeated them to establish himself as supreme power of Bengal. It has also been observed from numismatic evidences that Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah did not hesitate in discarding trend of coins that carry Hindu images, which was introduced by his father and reinstating Islamic coins in Bengal. This move of Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah indicates sign of no respect for his Hindu father. After the death of Raja Ganesh, enthronement of his younger son Mahendra Deva instead of elder son Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah puts a question mark on the claim of Sarkar (1948) that there was no conflict of power among sons of Raja Ganesh. The short reign of Mahendra Deva, rarity of his coins, and continuation of Hindu legends on his coins that were introduced by his father in contrast to Islamic coins of Jalal al Din Muhammad Shah indicate conflict of power between siblings of two religious beliefs.
In conclusion it is evident that Raja Ganesh wanted to establish him and his family in the power of Bengal. He also wanted to uphold his religious belief, Hinduism, over Islam. Raja Ganesh challenged sultans of Ilyas Shahi family, while afterward was challenged by Muslim religious leaders of Bengal. Raja Ganesh successfully placed him and his family in power of Bengal by outperforming Ilyas Shahi family. But he was defeated at the prudence of religious leader Nur Qutb al Alam, who above all wanted supremacy of Islam in Bengal. Raja Ganesh established his family in power, but Nur Qutb al Alam at that time saved Islam in Bengal.
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