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Death in Service: compensation for loss of life in late Mughal (early 18th century) India

Nandini Chatterjee, January 2021

PI, Forms of Law project

Hand weaver in India Credit Omar Khan/CNN

Muslim weavers in present-day Banaras, northern India Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

This post, like James Fisher’s excellent one preceding mine, begins by looking at a legal document - one related to employment. Where James was looking at documents that initiated a period of employment, mine deal with a particularly violent ending to one such relation of work. In my case, the person employed had been killed in the course of his work, and the female members of his family sought compensation from his employer for this loss to their key manpower resources. By looking at the document in detail, I am going to open up some questions about legal norms and the extent to which they were shared, while also attempting to explore cultures of employment, especially the mutual expectations of landlords and retainers, in the period of imperial crisis towards the end of the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire in India. Some of the points below were clarified during discussion with the HERB group; many thanks for pushing me on my thinking!

In or around the year 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, five Muslim women turned up at the court of the qāzī (Islamic judge) in a small town called Dhar in central India, which was then under the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire. The women’s names were Nanho, Nur Bibi, Taj Bibi, Chand Bibi and Hayati Bibi. Nanho was the widow of a man called Daulat Khan, the other women were his daughters. All these women were complaining against Daulat Khan’s employer, a Hindu landlord called Hira chaudhrī, about Daulat’s disappearance, possibly death, while on a dangerous mission. They narrated that Daulat had been sent to the neighbouring district of Amjhera by Hira chaudhrī to bring news of another servant who had failed to return. Now, Amjhera was the stronghold of a Rajput lineage who incumbent patriarch was called Jasrup, and Jasrup hated Hira chaudhrī. (Rajputs were a Hindu warrior group, frequently employed by the Mughals.) Daulat’s fate was similar to that of the previously desptached servant; he was cast into the Rajput noble’s private prison, where he perished after a few months. It appears that his employer, Hira chaudhrī, himself died soon afterwards. The women of Daulat’s family went up to Hira’s son, Bardman, and demanded that he bring Daulat back. Since Bardman was unable to, in their desperation they brought their plaint to the court of the city judge of Dhar, Muhammad Mustafa. The qāzī  had a riwāyat (another word for fatwā, legal opinion) brought from the muftī (juriconsult) of the larger neighbouring city and provincial capital of Ujjain. It was decided on the twin legal basis of sulḥ (resolution/truce)and legal opinion, that the women be awarded 50 rupees as compensation. Thereafter, they wrote out a deed saying that they had received the money in question and brought it into their possession, and thereby relinquished all further claims on Hira chaudhrī’s heirs of their own free will and while in full possession of their senses.

The document recording this legal declaration is not a judgement – no record series similar to the court registers or sijillāt of the Ottoman empire have been discovered for Mughal India. Instead, the document recorded a binding legal declaration or iqrār; which, when written down and sealed by the Islamic judge or qāżī, formed something very similar to a deed. Such documents are still ubiquitousall over South Asia even today, mostly rotting in attics in private homes.

Qazi's Seal for Death in Service blog

Fig. 1 Qazi’s Seal

The qāzīnamed in the document – Muhammad Mustafa – was the established local judge for around thirty years between 1690 and 1720. We see his seal on numerous documents associated with the local landlord lineage, on whom I have written a book, Negotiating Mughal Law. In this instance, Muhammad Mustafa sealed the document, and wrote a short note which simply recorded that the wife of Daulat Khan and his daughters had made an iqrār or a legally binding declaration. His seal bore the date 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, and that is the date that I attribute to the document, although qāzīs’ seals were not always updated every year. Several people witnessed the document on its margins – there were three Muslims of unknown professions, who used even more backdated seals and wrote notes or had notes written for them in Persian; there was a note in Hindi (Nagri script) of Hamir Chand, who I know was one of the biggest landlords of Dhar, a scion of the lineage I had researched, and may have been Bardman’s relative; and there were ‘signs of the hand’ by the women, who were most likely illiterate.

So, what does this document show us?

Sociologically, it reveals the turbulent and highly militarized nature of the area. The murderous violence of the Rajput chief and his tendency to make people disappear may have been enabled by the rapid decline of Mughal power and attacks by new state-builders, the Marathas, in this period, but the area had always been turbulent. Existing literature already tells us that Rajput chiefs, especially the bigger ones, while signing up to work as imperial servants for the Mughals, remained practically autonomous rulers in their local strongholds. The Mughals formally enabled this by modifying their system of assigning ranks and fiefs in favour of certain privileged Rajput lineages.

Here, it is necessary to step back a minute to clarify matters for the non-specialist; historians of Mughal India can safely skip this paragraph. The Mughals were a Central Asian dynasty, descended from Chinggis Khan and Amir Timur, who invaded northern India and set up rule in 1526 CE. By the third generation, they had developed an inter-linked strategy of matrimony and recruitment to nobility; defeated chieftains, including Hindu Rajput ones, gave daughters as wives to the Mughal emperors and their sons, and were recruited into the nobility. The Mughals had ambitious bureaucratization and centralization aims – hence their regime has been called ‘patrimonial-bureaucratic’ – and  they treated their multi-ethnic and multi-religious nobility as rank-holding officials, graded by a decimal system, calling them mansabdārs (Persian, ‘rank-holders’). Each rank-holding officer was assigned the temporary right to collect taxes from certain designated areas, called jāgirs, in order to defray the costs of maintaining a specific number of equipped horsemen, which corresponded to their rank. To prevent entrenchment in any area, assignments were changed every few years.

The exception to this rule of circulating officers and changing jāgir assignments were those Rajput lineages that got to keep their own erstwhile kingdoms as their waṭan jāgirs (homeland jāgirs). The Rajput lineage of Amjhera was not very eminent, but they seem to have enjoyed a waṭan jāgir, because lineage histories show them entrenched in the same place since the sixteenth century. 

Existing literature focusses upward, on the mode of attaching such military lineages to the Mughal (and other regimes). There is considerably less clarity about the effect this had on the local area itself, and especially the effect it must have had of creating flashpoints of conflict with neighbouring martial landed lineages, and no-go zones for imperial functionaries such as the Islamic judge.

On the other hand, the document shows that whatever the politico-geographical fragmentation caused by the recruitment and entrenchment of such warrior lineages, retainers expected not only protection from their employers, but also the protection of imperial Mughal law. The bereft women did seek redress from their employer’s son first. But when he proved unhelpful or simply unable to help them, they turned to court.

The justice they expected was formally Islamic, but to a great extent pragmatic. Islamic law offers the right of proportionate retaliation for physical injury or death of a relative; these provisions, derived from the Quran, are called qiṣāṣ. It also recommends mercy, and the offers the alternative of forgiving the errant person with or without compensatory payment, which is called diya. These complementary legal provisions are still operational in several countries around the world that apply Islamic law, both Sunni and Shiʿa; for a really lively depiction of how mercy may work in law, and in relation to Indian migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, I recommend the Indian film Dor. Comparison with the American legal provision of civil claims for injury and death can help de-exoticise the Islamic legal provision of diya. Unlike the American legal system however, the basic principle in Islamic law is that the unlawful killing of a person did not constitute an assault on the state (the monarch or officers of state were in a different category); it was a loss inflicted on the dead or injured person’s family, and to be compensated through the principle of equivalence (an eye for an eye…). An Islamic regime might indeed punish those who unlawfully assaulted, injured and killed others, thereby causing disorder, and make specific rules for such, which are classified under ʿzīr (chastisement), but it was not mandatory in Islamic law. To deal with this ambiguity, the historian of Iran Arzoo Osanloo has referred to homicide in Islamic law as ‘crimtort’.

No Islamic legal provision, however, provided for the claim that the women successfully made, which was not against the killer himself, but against the employer of the person killed. In making such a claim, they seem to have been working with an idea of reasonable responsibility and liability of an employer for the safety of his retainers; something like a very precocious version of health and safety duties!

Legal choices and expectations: Cultural and social factors appeared to have had striking impact on the choices people exercised with relation to retaliation and compensation. In his ongoing work on legal cultures in nineteenth-century Iran, Farzin Vejdani is finding that a surprising number of women sought retaliation for the killing of their relatives, and even chose to execute the guilty party themselves. In contrast, records from (other parts of) late eighteenth-century India, when the incipient British judicial system was still using Islamic criminal law, shows overwhelming preference for monetary compensation. We also have records of people explaining their choice; people said that they did not see any benefit in killing other people’s relatives. 

Poverty, and the need for monetary compensation, especially on the death of an important bread-winner, must have complemented what might appear to be a pacific tendency. There is also the very real possibility that, people who turned up in court asking for compensation were the ones who did not have the wherewithal to avenge themselves directly; people like Daulat Khan’s widow and daughters, who seem to have lacked an adult male relative. They were likely to be aware about the limits of the state’s reach – if a Rajput noble was able to imprison and kill with impunity, and their employer was unable or unwilling to avenge them, the regime would be unlikely to deploy resources to avenge a poor man.

It is also worth noting that although South Asia in the late Mughal period was a highly violent place, the claim of Daulat Khan’s relatives arose from the fact of his unlawful and unexpected killing. While employed as a retainer and messenger, and possibly in possession of a stick or spear, Daulat Khan was noted in the document to be of the community of ‘momin safīd bāf’ which translates literally as ‘the spinner of white stuff, a believer’, which shows that he was from a community of weavers. Daulat Khan was not a professional soldier, and did not expect to be killed in confrontations. His imprisonment and killing, by action or inaction, was unlawful, and that is why his family felt legally entitled to compensation. But it is striking that these bereft and illiterate women knew enough of the provisions of Islamic to pursue their claims in court, and were pragmatic enough to know what kinds of claims were most likely to succeed. 

Women's marks for HERB Death in Service blog

Fig. 2 Women’s witness marks

The value of a life was calculated in the process of this legal case, and the answer arrived at was a significant but not princely sum. We know from other documents in the same collection that a modest house in the same city cost 13 rupees; we also know from another document in the same collection that a tailor’s yearly earnings were 48 rupees. If that is so, then the family may have been offered his wages for a year. This would postpone immediate penury, perhaps, but no more.

Finally, to the archives that preserved this tantalizing document. Currently, this specific document is housed in the National Archives of India, in New Delhi, as part of its acquired Persian papers series, which are collections sold or gifted by various private families, mostly in the 1950s. As part of my research for my book, I established that the 80 or so documents pertaining to this collection in the National Archives were part of a larger collection pertaining to, and before the 1950s, preserved in, a landlord family in the city of Dhar – the family of Hamir Chand, who appears as witness. I was able to put 188 such documents, and for those interested, there is a list here.

Historians of Islamic law, who generally miss out on pre-modern India, have tended to focus on fatwā collections (collations of responsa from jurists), in association with registers of decision summaries (known as sijillāt). This documentary landscape, which to some extent has been generalized, is actually specific to some regimes – most consistently that of the Ottomans. In South Asia, for example, there are fatwā collections, but no registers or series of legal decisions has been discovered so far. Instead, what we have are household archives, of landed or merchant lineages or of religious corporations. Most records in these collections pertain to the entitlements of the lineage itself; but there are also stray documents, such as this one, which are somewhat eccentric. It is possible, of course, that Hamir Chand maintained a copy of this document because he was related to the employer Hira chaudhrī, but we have no direct evidence of that. So there is also the possibility that he kept document which he had witnessed, and since he did not keep many of such, perhaps he kept it because of potential interest to himself as an employer of retainers himself.


Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge, 2020. Open access.

Colin Imber, Ebu's-su'ud: The Islamic Legal Tradition (Edinburgh, 1997), Chapter 9 ‘Crimes and Torts: Offences against the Person’, pp. 236-68.

Dirk Kolff, Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: the ethnohistory of the military labour market in Hindustan, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 1992)

Arzoo Osanloo, Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton, 2020)

J. F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge, 1995)

Nandita Prasad Sahai, Politics of Patronage and protest : the state, society, and artisans in early modern Rajasthan (New Delhi, 2006)

Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (New Delhi, 2000)