Demonising Akbar

The move to rename Akbar ka Quila in Ajmer is another step towards advancing the BJP’s agenda to paint the Mughal emperor in negative hues and aggrandise Rajput history.

Published : May 24, 2017 12:30 IST

THE era of Rajput aggrandisement and parallel diminution of the Mughals is upon us. Akbar, arguably the greatest of emperors who ruled over India, is the “New Age” Aurangzeb. For long perceived to be the originator of the modern Indian state’s concept of secularism with his policy of Sulh-i-kul (absolute peace), Akbar is now sought to be viewed afresh by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh pitched in to confer retrospective greatness on the Rajput ruler of Mewar, Rana Pratap, who was defeated by Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576.

Lending his voice in Pali, Rajasthan, after unveiling a statue to mark the 477th birth anniversary of Rana Pratap, Rajnath Singh asked historians to look again at the contribution of Rana Pratap and wondered if the Rajput king should not be conferred with the title “great”. Incidentally, the term Maharana affixed to Rana Pratap means the Great Rana. Rana Pratap enjoyed the title even after he was defeated by the Mughals. Rajnath Singh’s attempt to refer to Rana Pratap as “a true statesman”, whose deeds “inspired the revolutionaries of 1857”, is part of a persistent effort to undermine the greatness of Akbar.

Although Rajnath Singh’s words were measured, he did not dispute the honorific Akbar the Great. What he left unsaid was declared more forcefully by Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, who seems to have found a new interest in things past.

At a function to celebrate Rana Pratap’s birth anniversary in Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath said: “Maharana Pratap, Guru Gobind Singh and Chhatrapati Shivaji are our role models, and we must follow the path shown by them. Youngsters must learn a lesson from the self-respect and strength of character displayed by Maharana Pratap. Akbar, Aurangzeb and Babur were invaders. The sooner we accept the truth, the sooner all the problems of our country will vanish.”

Akbar an invader? He was born in Amarkot; Aurangzaeb was born in Dahod, Gujarat. Babur, well, was an invader, but he came here on the invitation of Daulat Khan Lodi, the governor of Punjab. So, is Adityanath a bad student of history or is he just indulging in wilful vilification? Probably both. This certainly takes forward the BJP’s agenda to paint Akbar in negative hues so as to augment the prowess and accomplishment of the Rajputs, Akbar’s contemporary princes of Rajasthan. Many of them served him with valour and loyalty. Perception rather than facts seems to be the mood of the day.

Yogi Adityanath’s attempt to put Mughal kings on a par with invaders such as Mahmud Ghazni is similar to a proposal made in May 2016 to rename Akbar Road in New Delhi Maharana Pratap Road. What was said was obvious: give the Rajputs a place of honour. What was left unsaid was critical and objectionable: the greatest of the Mughals had no business having a road named after him in Delhi, which was once an important component of his empire.

Incidentally, this proposal came close on the heels of renaming Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi after the late President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Many read in the renaming of Aurangzeb Road the reiteration of the “good Muslim versus bad Muslim” debate. There are no such nuances this time as the BJP leadership appears to be keen to belittle the contribution of Akbar in nation building and project him as the new-age Aurangzeb. It all stems from the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, a concept intolerant of everything non-Hindu. While tales of bigotry are yet to emerge around the man who famously married Rajput princesses and did not insist on their conversion to Islam, Akbar is certainly seen as a man who came second only to the Rajputs, and whose area of influence did not include modern-day Rajasthan.

Brick by brick, Akbar’s contribution is sought to be underplayed. The latest evidence of this emerges from the controversy surrounding the 16th century Akbar ka Quila in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The Mughal emperor’s name has been struck off from the fort on the verbal orders of the Subdivisional Magistrate. Contrary to the claims of the local BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly, Vasudev Devnani, that the fort was just called Ajmer Fort, the official gazette notifies it as Akbar ka Quila. Just as historians, whatever their academic or political leanings, have done down the ages.

The move to rename Akbar ka Quila has left historians unimpressed. Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, who specialises in medieval Indian history, said: “Actually, we are living in a time which can be defined as post-history. It does not matter what the past tells us. Whatever happened in the past is now unimportant. What matters in these times of New India is what we perceive or feel, what and how it happened or should have happened, truth be damned. It is our perception which is important. This is the age of mythology. Even our Prime Minister claims that the Vedic Age was the age of supersonic jets.” He scoffs at the proposal to call Rana Pratap Maharana Pratap: “I won't be surprised if one of the ‘new-age’ historians comes out to claim that Maharana Pratap, the Great, was a world conqueror and mlechha Akbar was his feudatory.”

Well-designed ploy

The historian and researcher Abdul Azim Akhtar strips bare the factors behind the attempts to undermine Akbar. “The reason to attack Akbar with fabricated and distorted views from the lawmakers is a well-designed ploy to confuse the common man, as Akbar enjoys a good reputation among all Indians even centuries after he died. That is why television serials such as Akbar-Jodha enjoy better TRP ratings than an Indian Premier League match. Some people have a problem with Akbar because he was a great warrior, a great builder and a great humanist. He does not fit in with the Muslim ruler stereotype. They hide the fact that Hakim Khan Sur was the commander of Maharana Pratap. They suppress the truth that it was not only Hemu who was defeated, but even the descendants of Sher Shah Suri were vanquished by Akbar. They do not want the world to know that the Afghans and Mughals were arch rivals until both were finished in the 19th century.”

The attempt to underplay the work of Akbar goes beyond perception and cannot really be changed with a television serial. After all, a brick-and-mortar structure in Ajmer has just seen his name obliterated from its entrance. Rezavi argued: “Granted that the city of Ajmer and its fort predate the Mughals. Epigraphic evidence and sources, including bardic literature [as cited by the well-known historian Dashrath Sharma] show that they were probably founded by the Chahamanas [Chauhans] around the 11th century. However, the buildings within the present fort date back to Akbar’s period. If we believe Abul Fazl, the structures within the fort were constructed in 1570. It remained an important fort under Jehangir, who stayed there for a long period as Prince Salim.”

Explaining that during Akbar's time, Hindus enjoyed great powers, Akhtar said: “Akbar laid the foundation stone of Amer Fort in Jaipur. Kayasthas [a Hindu caste] managed the accounts of the Mughals. Equal opportunity was ensured and an effort was made to please Hindus by inducting them in the army in large numbers and cementing matrimonial alliances.”

Incidentally, Ebba Koch in her monumental work on Mughal architecture has painstakingly shown that the plan used in the Akbari structure in Ajmer is the same which under the Safavids was called the Hashtbihisht plan. This non-partite plan was used in Humayun’s Tomb and later in the Taj Mahal. Architectural features that are typical to Akbar’s era are also encountered there.

Is not this new nomenclature of Akbar ka Quila part of “othering” Muslims to underplay their contribution to the nation’s history? First, the alleged bigotry of Aurangzeb was highlighted and his grants to Hindu temples underplayed. Now, Akbar is treated the same way. Rezavi agreed: “Yes, these days serious attempts are being made at ‘othering’ Muslims, their culture and their history. Not only that, an attempt is on to create a new ‘Hindu’ who is straitjacketed into an image which actually is an antithesis to the known Hindu identity. He is a belligerent, intolerant and touch-me-not buffoon who is very different from an expansive, all-encompassing and compassionate all-inclusive follower of a religion which was hard to define.”

To freedom fighters, Akbar was a symbol of inclusiveness. He was an ideal. Now that those who did not have a role to play in the freedom struggle are occupying positions of authority in government, Akbar, as a natural corollary, is reduced to a footnote. “To the Hindu Mahasabha, which opposed the freedom movement, Akbar was anathema,” Rezavi said.

“A Jesuit, Fr Monserrate, a contemporary of Akbar, had opined that by tolerating all faiths, Akbar was dismissing all religions. A Muslim zealot such as Badauni opposed Akbar. It is not surprising that today’s communalists, both Hindu and Muslim, hate Akbar. In Pakistan, a nation based on religion, Akbar is a villain. In India, for those who want to convert India into a mirror image of theocratic Pakistan, Akbar likewise is a villain. Akbar stressed on wisdom and rationalism. Those who believe in irrational-ism are bound to oppose Akbar!”

As for Rana Pratap being an inspiration for revolutionaries, Nana Phadnavis and Rani of Jhansi gave the leadership of the 1857 war of independence to Bahadur Shah Zafar and not to Maratha Peshwas. Although advanced in years and not much more than a nominal ruler, in the minds of common Indians the Mughal king was still the emperor of the land. “Both Nana and the Rani were mujahids who then became shaheed! Where was the invocation to Rana Pratap or Shivaji?” Rezavi asked.

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