Eminent historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar is primarily known for his work on Aurangzeb. But his book Shivaji and His Times is no less seminal. It recalls an episode where Jahangir is “flattering himself that he had killed” the Akshay Bat of Allahabad. The Mughal emperor had cut the tree “down to its roots and hammered a red-hot iron cauldron onto its stamp”. But within a year, the tree began to grow again and “pushed the heavy obstruction to its growth aside”.
Indic civilisation, in many ways, manifests the life of the Akshay Bat. Its obituaries have been announced, written, and even broadcast several times. Most famously by Nirad C Chaudhuri who wrote in the early 1960s, “Hinduism is dying, if it is not already dead.” But each time, just when all seemed over, the civilisation would rekindle itself with renewed vigour and energy. Like a protagonist in a Hindi film climax, it miraculously gathers one last breath to turn things around for a whole new beginning! Though over the passage of time, it did lose some of its territorial peripheries and subtle intellectualism. But the very fact this civilisation still exists — despite being an “area of darkness” for so many centuries, despite being “a wounded civilisation” whose sores just refuse to completely heal, despite being the land of “a million mutinies” that constantly keep Indian society in a state of flux — makes it an intriguing saga.
The civilisational idea of India, however, still faces immense challenges. The latest — though hardly a surprise — one has come from Congress motormouth Mani Shankar Aiyar, who with his infamous “chaiwala” jibe provided Narendra Modi, then a Gujarat chief minister, a momentous push in his Dilli-Chalo march in 2014.
So what did Aiyar say this time? The senior Congress leader heaped praises on the Mughals and claimed that they were patriots who didn’t indulge in religious persecution or forced conversions. He particularly singled out Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India, for being a liberal, secular ruler. “He (Babur) knew he was ill. So he wrote a letter to his eldest son, Humayun, and told him that if he wants to run the country then do not interfere in the religion of the people here. Because they are nice people and so do not interfere… If you want to run the country, respect all,” he claimed.
Aiyar also credited Babur for Akbar’s liberal outlook. “We consider Akbar our own. We don’t consider him an outsider. Because he followed the instructions by his grandfather (Babur). They married Rajput women and hence they were part Hindus,” he added. Aiyar even suggested that there were no incidents of beheading. Apparently, the Sikhs invented the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur for some material benefits! Interestingly, and ironically, Aiyar and his ilk who so proudly announce the Indian-ness of the Mughals invariably work overtime to establish the “foreign-ness” of the Vedic people.
As for Babur’s eclectic, liberal outlook, here’s what Salman Rushdie, in no way a Hindutva writer, has to say about him in his ‘Introduction’ for Wheeler M Thackston’s translation of The Baburnama, written by Babur himself. Rushdie writes, “Who, then, was Babur — scholar or barbarian, nature-loving poet or terror-inspiring warlord? The answer is to be found in the Baburnama and it’s an uncomfortable one: He was both… Both Baburs are real, and perhaps the strangest thing about the Baburnama is that they do not seem to be at odds with each other.”
Rushdie brings out Babur’s dual personality during his conquest of Chanderi in 1528. He writes, “First comes the blood-thirsty description of the killing of many ‘infidels’ and the apparent mass suicide of two or three hundred more. (‘[T]hey killed each other almost to the last by having one man hold a sword while the others willingly bent their necks… A tower of infidels’ skulls was erected on the hill on the northwest side of Chanderi.’) Then just three sentences later, we get this: ‘Chanderi is a superb place. All around the area are many flowing streams… The lake… is renowned throughout Hindustan for its good, sweet water. It is truly a nice little lake.”
Babur also found Hindustan to be “a place of little charm”, with “no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness”. Even the arts and crafts have “no harmony or symmetry”. To be able to find patriotism and love for India in Babur who always longed to return to Kabul, and who would take the title of 'Ghazi' each time a Hindu ruler was vanquished, is a manifestation of Aiyar’s — and by extension the Congress’ — skewed sense of patriotism. Maybe this explains why the Vedic people who wrote one verse after another in praise of the land of the Bharata and who profusely admired its rivers failed to get an Indian passport from these purveyors of history and historiography. But Babur is projected as a naturalist, a poet and a doting father who prayed to Allah to take his life and spare his son!
It is this twisted sense of history and historiography that explains why Sir Jadunath Sarkar was repeatedly refused the Padma awards in the 1950s when Jawaharlal Nehru “wielded an authority usually reserved to dictators”, despite the recommendation from none other than the President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad. Former diplomat TCA Raghavan recounts in History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, GS Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and Their Quest for India’s Past, how Dr Rajendra Prasad first recommended Sir Jadunath for the Padma Vibhushan — independent India’s second-highest civilian award—in 1954. When it went unnoticed, the President, two years later, sent another recommendation, this time for the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour, but to no avail again. So much for the famed Nehruvian liberalism.
The fault lies with Sarkar’s politically-incorrect historiography. His emphasis on Aurangzeb’s orthodoxy was viewed by many as divisive and negative. Raghavan quotes historian AL Srivastava as saying: “The so-called Allahabad school of medieval Indian history, torn between ‘academic rectitude’ and ‘civic duty’, blames Jadunath for not omitting offensive details of temple destruction and putting down of Hinduism by force from his works. It feels that the mere mention of such facts of history is repugnant to Muslim feelings and drives a wedge between the two communities.”
This battle between ‘academic rectitude’ and ‘civic duty’ is still on, as we see Rutgers University historian Audrey Truschke arguing how “Hindu hater, murderer and religious zealot are just a handful of the modern caricatures” of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. In her attempt to bring out his “untold side”, she writes how “detractors trumpet that Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples without acknowledging that he also issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends to Brahmins. They denounce that he restricted the celebration of Holi without mentioning that he also clamped down on Muharram and Eid festivities”. To bolster her claims, she also reminds the readers that more Hindus were employed in the Mughal bureaucracy during Aurangzeb’s era than any time before.
Looking closely, one suspects Truschke first decided to humanise Aurangzeb, and then went about finding documents supporting it. Sadly, for her, Aurangzeb’s chroniclers didn’t need to be politically correct. They gleefully mentioned his acts of violence and destruction. Also, it never occurred to them that they were doing anything wrong; it was a religious act for them. So, when Aurangzeb issued orders in 1669 to “demolish all schools and temples of the infidels and put down their religious teachings and practices”, it was recorded as a badge of honour.
As for bureaucracy, statistically, she is right. But numbers often tell half-truths. Yes, Aurangzeb had a large number of Hindus in his bureaucracy, but this was not because he was tolerant but a practical ruler. He wanted to extend the empire to all corners of the subcontinent and further and this couldn’t have happened without the support of Hindus. Aurangzeb used Hindu generals to either fight the Hindu enemies of the Mughals or to win over the empire’s most treacherous terrains. (Read the history of Raja Jai Singh of Amber who fought Shivaji, or Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur was sent to fight the ferocious Pathans in the northwestern frontier.) There are recorded conversations of Delhi court chroniclers watching excitedly Rajput soldiers employed in the Mughal army fighting their co-religionists in Rajasthan. “Whoever is killed today, it’s ultimately the victory for Islam,” exclaimed one celebrated Muslim chronicler.
Aiyar or Truschke, however, are not the real problems. They are actually the victims. Aiyar, who has spent his prime in the negationist Nehruvian order, grew up believing that fallacy. And Truschke found it an easy way to climb the academic ladder to become a historian of repute — the other way would have been long years in solitude with no guarantee of success and recognition. Remember Sir Jadunath.
The real problem is the prevailing “liberal” preoccupation in finding “secular” traits among some of the most reviled fanatics — from Alauddin Khalji and Aurangzeb to Tipu Sultan. What’s more disconcerting is that the same scholarship works overtime to paint our genuine civilisational achievements with dark hues. It is this malaise that makes our intellectuals — again, Amartya Sen is just an example — celebrate the “argumentative” nature of Indians but never acknowledge its innate Hindu roots. To cherry-pick events from our ancient past to paint them pitch dark, and do just the opposite for the era thereafter.
To project India as a railway platform where people descended from time to time, thus belonging to no one or everyone! To showcase history as a series of defeats, so much so that our ancestors looked like sore losers and our civilisation waiting to be rescued by the marauder from the west. (The reality is starkly different, as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay writes in ‘Is Nationalism a Good Thing?’: “The Arabs subdued Egypt and Syria within 5-6 years, Turkey within eight years, Persia within 10 years and Kabul within 18 years of Muhammad’s death (632 CE). They took only one year to conquer Africa and another year to conquer Spain. However, they had not succeeded in defeating India even after 300 years of endeavour.”)
The Indic civilisation, like the Akshay Bat of Allahabad, is manifesting renewed vigour and energy. It is an awakening to history, which — if Sir Vidia Naipaul is to be believed — is “to cease to live instinctively”. The Nobel laureate explains this awakening-to-history phenomenon in India: A Million Mutinies Now: “It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage.” It’s this rage that we are seeing all across — some restrained, some uninhibited. But then that’s what happens when history retaliates, when civilisation suppressed for centuries under alien regimes and then for 70 years since Independence under an alien ideology, starts coming out of slumber. The likes of Aiyar are the first casualty. The party providing them legitimacy might be the next, which is unfortunate given its role in the making of modern India.