By Manimugdha S Sharma
May 24, 2016
Mughal Emperor Jahangir had some wild fantasies. Adversaries he couldn’t defeat in real life, he would defeat and annihilate them in his fantasies, which he would get recorded on canvas. A particularly interesting ‘dream painting’ shows Jahangir shooting an arrow at the severed head of Malik Ambar standing on a javelin. In reality, Malik Ambar, the brilliant prime minister of Ahmadnagar, could never be humbled by the Mughals.
Cut to modern times and we have a Hindu nationalist government at the Centre with a popular Prime Minister at the helm whose rise to 7 RCR was described as the liberation of Delhi from foreign rule by a Hindu after 800 years. And the votaries of this government are trying to translate their fantasies into reality. What’s even more interesting is that while Jahangir fantasised about humbling his contemporaries, members of the Sangh Parivar, including a Union minister, a BJP chief minister, and some forgettable characters playing side roles in BJP, fantasise about trumping some “enemies” from the past.
Last year, a road named after Jahangir’s grandson, Emperor Aurangzeb, was changed. This year, the target is Jahangir’s father, the great Emperor Akbar. Two weeks ago, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar raised the demand to rename Akbar Road after Rajput hero Maharana Pratap. Last week, minister of state for external affairs General V K Singh (Retd) reiterated the demand.
Singh insisted that his demand was not based on sectarian considerations but a genuine wish to honour a great Rajput hero. Singh is a Rajput himself and served in the Rajput Regiment of the Indian Army. It’s perfectly understandable if he wants to honour a Rajput hero. But Singh has also commanded one of the most secular armies in history, so it becomes a bit difficult to digest when such a man pits a Rajput king who swore by narrow caste and sectarian identities of the time against an emperor who overcame all of that in establishing a secular state.
Perhaps General Singh didn’t know or didn’t want to acknowledge that until Akbar made the Rajputs equal stakeholders in the Mughal Empire, and by that in the control over India, the brave sons of Rajputana had to make do with being extras mostly or occasional guest appearances in the history and power politics of north India since the Delhi Sultanate, that is if you treat it as a movie.
Rajputana did throw up brilliant warrior-kings in the person of Maharana Kumbha and Maharana Sangram Singh or Rana Sanga of Mewar. The latter’s name literally meant struggle and his life came to symbolise struggle, first for the throne of Mewar, then for acceptance as king and leader of the Rajput confederacy despite his infirmity, and then for the control of Hindustan (the term in those days meant North India).
A certain Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur ended Rana Sanga’s dream when he worsted one of the largest field armies ever assembled in India at Khanwa. But both Babur and his son Mirza Humayun had won some Rajput hearts; Humayun’s gracious treatment of the Rajput garrison of Agra after the First Battle of Panipat had not just earned the Mughals goodwill but also the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which the Rajputs gifted the young prince out of gratitude.
Humayun as emperor had to deal with the threat from the Muslim ruler of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah. In 1534, he sent his brothers, Mirza Hindal and Mirza Askari, to recapture the fort of Bayana that had been captured by Tatar Khan Lodi with Sultan Bahadur Shah’s support. Fighting for the Mughals and dying in the Battle of Mandrayal was the King of Amber, Puranmal. A year later, Bahadur Shah attacked Chittor and Rana Sanga’s widow appealed to Humayun for help. The help didn’t come on time and the Chittor garrison, including the queen-regent, committed Jauhar and Saka. But Humayun avenged Chittor by defeating Bahadur Shah and restoring Rana Vikram Singh to the throne.
Sometime later, Humayun himself was ousted by Afghan war lord Sher Shah Suri. The royal family, in dire straits, wandered about the sizzling deserts of Sind and landed at the doorstep of the Rajput ruler of Amarkot (now Umarkot in Pakistan). It was there that his Persian wife Hamida Bano Begum gave birth to the future Akbar-e-Azam.
I run the risk of venturing into the realm of superstition, but perhaps Akbar was destined to be close to the Rajputs since the story of his life began from the house of a Rajput. But the socio-cultural ground of India at that time was quite fertile for a new crop of tolerance and social integration to grow due to the Bhakti Movement and the spiritual work of the Prem-margi Sufis in the previous centuries. Akbar inherited this when he became emperor.
In 1562, Raja Bharmal of Amber decided to go beyond what his predecessor Puranmal had established with the Mughals: he gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar. And Akbar not just took a Hindu wife, he accepted her brother and nephew, Bhagwant Dass and Man Singh, as partners to author a new story of India: one where the Muslim ruler and the Hindu subject were no longer antagonists but equal stakeholders of the state.
A year later, in 1563, Akbar abolished the Pilgrim Tax on Hindus despite stiff opposition from Muslim radicals and the clergy. A year after that, Akbar also abolished the Jizya tax levied on non-Muslim subjects. A secular polity was shaping up and the Mughal state was on the verge of becoming non-Islamic. More Rajputs and other Hindus came closer to the Mughals. This burgeoning empire was for all of them, they believed.
This belief was vindicated when amazing cash flows from the imperial treasury entered those states of Rajputana. Strong central authority also solved law and order issues, especially in those parts of India such as Gujarat where marauding brigands troubled tourists and businessmen alike. In Akbar’s lifetime, it became possible for the traders of Surat to come all the way to Agra and back without being molested by brigands.
The coming of so many Hindus in Akbar’s life also changed his world view. But change began from his kitchen. Akbar started having vegetarian food on certain days of the week. And he also gave up beef to the extent that he decreed against cow slaughter (Babur had already prohibited cow slaughter in his time and had asked Humayun to adhere to it).
The Mughal court and the palaces started developing sensitivities keeping in mind the Hindus; the palaces themselves got Hindu architectural elements, like the Chhatri style of the Rajputs. The Mughals had earlier adopted a Rajput dagger called the katar (or jamdhar) and started wearing it as a sidearm. By Akbar’s time, the weapon had become a status symbol and a legendary blade due to the emperor’s patronage. And just to refresh General Singh’s memory, the Rajput Regiment’s crest has two crossed jamdhars over a shield.
The Rajputs and others, too, took numerous things from the Mughals. If they gave them the katar, they took the Mughal Talwar and brigandine armour. The traditional Rajput sword, the Khanda, was a straight-bladed brute of a weapon that needed immense strength to wield. Although known for its amazing cutting power, it paled in front of the lighter and more agile Talwar and the Shamshir.
But despite this integration, there were some Rajput states that didn’t join the Mughals, the most prominent among them being Mewar under the Sisodias and Ranthambore under the Hadas. Only one ruler had conquered both the forts together until then, Alauddin Khilji in the 14th century.
Akbar laid siege to Chittor in 1567, which soon turned into a nightmare for him when the sturdy Rajputs put up a gallant fight. But it was the sheer grit and determination of the emperor coupled with superior military technology that resulted in a complete Mughal victory. Once again, the women committed Jauhar and the men Saka.
But Akbar did something that wasn’t unthinkable in mediaeval times but certainly shocks his modern admirers: he even put the peasants who had helped in the defence of Chittor to the sword. Up to 30,000 people were said to be slaughtered and their heads were put up on display on towers that the young emperor got erected throughout Rajputana.
Later, when he went to Ajmer to offer his prayers of gratitude at the tomb of Gharib Nawaz, Akbar issued a Fatahnama (victory proclamation): a document reflecting a markedly intolerant impulse of the emperor.
Akbar followed up this victory with another brilliant siege of Ranthambore. Unlike the Chittor fortress, this one fell in just two months.
The two back-to-back victories softened up other rulers of Rajputana. One by one, they started accepting Mughal vassalage. But Mewar still held out, necessitating another conflict. And this one would be long.
General Singh as well as others in his party like to argue that Rana Pratap was equal or more than Akbar. Their sole yardstick of measuring greatness is Pratap’s refusal to bow down before the Mughals. Indeed, there can be no doubt that Pratap was a great warrior. And his resistance was also admirable. Yet it is ironic that another man who had exactly the same ideals and had actually died fighting the British, Tipu Sultan, isn’t a hero for the BJP or the Sangh.
But is that the sole parameter for calling someone great? Hardly. Somebody is considered a good or great ruler based on not what he did in war, but what he did in relative peace. That’s why Ashoka is called great irrespective of the fact that he slaughtered many more people than Akbar or Aurangzeb combined in war.
But what sort of a man was Rana Pratap? Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajputana Vol I tells us about a meeting between Raja Man Singh and Rana Pratap where Pratap put out a spread for him but didn’t eat with his guest. His reason was he couldn’t eat with a Rajput who gave his sister to a Turk and who probably ate with him.
There was an exchange of words between the two and Man Singh vowed to humble Pratap’s pride. Then somebody from Pratap’s side mocked Man Singh and asked him to bring his uncle (Akbar) along.
As Man Singh left in utter humiliation, Pratap and his courtiers deemed the ground on which the feast was spread impure. The ground was broken up and “purified” with Ganges water. Then everyone bathed and discarded their clothes as they had been “polluted by Man Singh’s presence”.
The above incident shows that Pratap was a man who swore by the narrow social codes of his time, unlike Akbar who established new norms and rose above the narrow definitions of faith, caste and creed. Akbar promoted merit. The right man always got the right job irrespective of his faith. And a brilliant general like Man Singh was not just given the highest Mansab in the empire but also given the title of Mirza (restricted to Mughal princes alone) and Farzand (son) of Akbar.
Another incident from Pratap’s life illustrates how he treated his own people. When he was living a Spartan life in the mountains after the defeat at Haldighati, he had resorted to a scorched earth policy to deny the Mughals any advantage. His followers were barred from venturing into the plains. One unfortunate goatherd, with his livestock dying without forage, made the mistake of taking his animals to a patch of green below. He was caught and brought to the king, who questioned him for a while and then ordered his execution. His body was left hanging to terrorise anybody who had the slightest thought about disobeying the king.
In contrast, Akbar forgave even those who rebelled against him. It didn’t matter if the individual was an Afghan, a Hindu, a Turk or a collaborator with the enemy; Akbar forgave all, even when the individual was a repeat offender. In fact, Akbar even tolerated scathing criticism of people in his own court: people like the chronicler Badaoni who did hit-jobs on the emperor. Or Khwaja Baqi Billah of the Naqshbandi Silsila who opposed the eclectic policies of the emperor and led a political movement against him.
But where it was required to make an example, such as during revolt of the Mirzas or the Qazis in Bengal, Akbar executed quite a few of them to ensure that they refrained from troubling him too much.
The advocates of Ghar Wapsi should also know this that it was Akbar who had first allowed Hindus forcibly converted to Islam previously to return to their faith without incurring the wrath of the state.
All these acts raised Akbar to the status of a god among his Hindu subjects. They thought he was an avatar of Vishnu. Temple hymns eulogised the emperor, Rajputana bards sang paeans to his glory.
And yet, all the good work of Akbar is dismissed on social media as acts of political expediency. While there was certainly a political objective, but Akbar did practise what he preached. Some political leaders giving lip-service to secularism today can sport the headgear of the Nagas and even the Dastar of the Sikhs while campaigning for elections but cannot wear a Muslim skullcap—that’s how hard it is to follow such lofty ideals in personal life.
Akbar’s greatness lies in his Sulh-i-Kul—a concept derived from the pluralistic Chishti order that espoused the cause of peaceful coexistence of different communities. And sociologists would tell you that we haven’t been able to go beyond this even today.
Yet BJP spokesperson Shaina NC chose to equate Akbar and Hitler in a ridiculous tweet recently that only reflected the exceptional intellectual bankruptcy of the Right in general and her party in particular. Imagine someone telling you that Sulh-i-Kul and the Final Solution were the same thing—that’s how absurd it was.
But clearly, they are not willing to read or understand the nuances of history. Instead, the Right-wing trolls are busy conducting social engineering experiments. Every now and then, canards are dropped linking the Mughals with the Nehru-Gandhi family and there is outrage on social media. And these are not symbolic linkages, mind you, but concocted blood ties.
So I suppose it’s quite natural that both the Mughals and Pandit Nehru are gradually being obliterated from history books, with the BJP-ruled Rajasthan leading the way. Ironically, it’s the same Rajputana that once adored the Great Mughal and whose progress he ensured.