In the late seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire (1526–1857) achieved its greatest territorial extent in South Asia and came to represent one of the most complex bureaucratic regimes of imperial power in the early modern world. The untold histories of early modern cities at the heart of this major empire have yet to be reconstructed by social and legal historians. MugUrba examines century-long processes of urbanisation that began with the consolidation of the imperial capital of Delhi in the 1650s, and which grew to encompass a dynamic urban triangle, along with the cities of Agra and Mathura situated in the Yamuna river plains. Suburban growth was fuelled by imperial privileges granted to the military elite to settle agglomerations with merchants and artisanal communities from the rural hinterland. By the 1740s, successive military occupations of northern India transformed urban life leading to a decline in infrastructure and security.

As sites where multiple social and economic actors intersected and interacted, these cities were governed under specific ideologies and institutions, namely, Hanafi law, one of the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. This legal system was also practised in the Ottoman Empire and the Central Asian Khanates. In the 1700s, over 20 percent of the world’s population lived under different kinds of Hanafi legal regimes making it one of the largest legal systems of the period, comparable to Civil law and Common law. However, how Hanafi legal norms and practices moulded South Asian urbanisation has not received scholarly attention so far, especially in the context of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Irrespective of religious identity, Hanafi law was the empire’s legal system on “secular” matters such as fiscality, public administration, judicial procedures and urban planning.

MugUrba examines the growth of state agents’ functions over this period and how administrative rules and regulations evolved within the Hanafi legal framework. In an urban society of Muslim, Hindu and caste-based neighbourhoods, asymmetrical power relations existed between legal authorities and civilians. Non-Muslims were considered dhimmis or “protected communities” of the Mughal State with autonomy concerning their religious, ritual and kinship relations. On matters of general concern such as private contracts, commercial rights, and public transactions, Muslims and non-Muslims were treated equally aside from specific legal forms of discriminatory practices. Public figures like judges, censors, agents, police and governors managed the major urban centres. How did legal authorities maintain Islamic legal conventions and limit their transgression while also permitting ordinary people to carry on their social life? On the one hand, the project demonstrates the protection of entitlements and autonomy of ordinary subjects that middling officials oversaw. On the other hand, it argues that the urban ecological landscape was also regulated to strike a balance between private interests and public welfare of maintaining law and order. How did the residents of Mughal cities experience public life while proving fraud at courts or dealing with petty crimes, paying user charges as much as tolerating heavy-handed policing and handling bureaucratic red tape?

Through a range of multi-lingual and multi-sited archives, it reconstructs the first urban legal history of artisans, merchants, soldiers and state officials, exploring how the busy marketplaces, streets and main squares of Mughal India, were also sites of contestation, legal entanglements and public life. Thus, the project puts Mughal urban history into dialogue with the fields of imperial and institutional histories of the Islamicate world.

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