Khilji as villain

Print edition : December 22, 2017

At a protest by the Rajput community against "Padmavati" in Surat on November 12. Photo: PTI

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The protests against the film "Padmavati" and the vilification of Alauddin Khilji are part of the Hindu right-wing’s scheme to distort history in order to make electoral gains.

RATTLED by the impressive response to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s speeches in election-bound Gujarat, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader G.V.L. Narasimha Rao did what comes naturally to right-wing leaders: evoke Aurangzeb and, hold your breath, Alauddin Khilji.

“Rahul Gandhi is following in the footsteps of Aurangzeb and Khilji. Aurangzeb destroyed many temples. When the common people opposed him, he promised to build two or three temples. Alauddin Khilji did the same. And now Rahul Gandhi is going in the same direction,” Rao said after Rahul Gandhi visited a number of temples, among them Akshardham in Ahmedabad.

It did not strike Rao that both Aurangzeb and Khilji were victorious in their Gujarat campaigns. What his statement also did was to put Khilji on the same plane as Aurangzeb. Just as the Mughal emperor, for all his military exploits, is seen only as a bigot, so is Khilji. However, some of the early reforms of the astute Sultan of the late 13th and early 14th centuries paved the way for the modern market economy. Many even think that by defeating the Mongols, Khilji made the idea of India possible, as the Mongols were known for their scorched-earth policy wherever they went.

In fact, at least a part of the controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s now withheld Hindi film Padmavati centres around Khilji, who has been shown to be little short of a barbaric ruler, driven by lust, and not averse to blood and gore. This vilification of Khilji to appease the Hindutva lobby wherein even a fictional Padmavati should not be seen by a Muslim ruler translates to a deliberate denial of Khilji’s contribution to agriculture, trade and economy at that time. Interestingly, he was a non-practising Muslim who steered clear of religion as the defining principle of state policy and dealt a serious blow to casteism.

Forgotten is his drive against exorbitant pricing and black marketeers, probably the first such known drive in Indian history. Easily ignored is his fight against hoarding, and so is his attempt to bring about an equitable revenue collection system. The noted historian Satish Chandra, who passed away in October, in his landmark book Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals (1206 -1526), outlined some of the important actions of Khilji, who ruled from 1296 to 1316. He gave Khilji credit for market reforms. Khilji is said to have regulated agricultural markets from Lahore to Allahabad and brought the land under the Khalisa. Land revenue was fixed at half the production and other duties were waived. He piloted the concept of specialised markets for foodgrains, cloth, ghee, oil, dry fruits, cattle and the slave trade. It was in many ways a precursor to the modern-day concept of separate wholesale markets for foodgrains, fruits and vegetables, besides cattle fairs.

Satish Chandra based his arguments on solid facts, not on a piece of poetry or an exercise in fiction started by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540, more than two centuries after Khilji died. Ignored, too, is the political stability he provided, first in northern India by twice repelling the Mongols, then by stitching up an empire of sorts by bringing in some of the southern states into his sultanate. Under Khilji, Gujarat and central India were conquered and, thereafter, a good part of the Deccan and southern India, embracing the kingdoms of the Yadavas of Devagiri, the Kakatiyas of Warangal, the Hoysalas of Dwarsamudra and the Pandyas of Madurai. It was the biggest, in fact, real Indian empire for the first time since the Mauryas.

The historian Irfan Habib says: “Alauddin Khilji was harsh, no doubt, but he had so many other sterling qualities. He worked towards centralisation. He achieved mulk ki unity. He provided political unity and administrative uniformity. Without the nomenclature of India, he gave what was almost like an Indian empire. Even for the purpose of the film, there was no need to show him as a barbaric ruler, governed by lust. It is distasteful. The film-makers just stuck to the malignant stereotype of Muslims being cruel, uncouth, meat-eaters. If you see a film like War and Peace, you would notice that Napoleon was not shown as a barbarian. It is unfair to Alauddin to project him that way, but the idea probably was to show the entire community in a bad light. Unfortunately for Bhansali, the very forces he was pandering to have come back to haunt him.”

The point is buttressed by the Jamia Millia Islamia historian Rizwan Qaiser: “It is a deliberate distortion of facts. Padmavati was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. Khilji was real, a man whose reforms and some of the administrative measures aimed at curbing economic malpractices laid the foundation for what we follow today. Unfortunately, in this manufactured protest and dissent against the movie, Khilji has been reduced to collateral damage.”

Qaiser takes particular objection to the portrayal of Khilji as a man besotted with Padmavati’s beauty and driven by baser instincts. “All this talk of Khilji being a barbaric man, a lustful man stems from a lack of knowledge. In ancient or medieval India, which king did not have a harem? This moral compass did not exist then. It is a Victorian concept.” The same is true for the criticism of Khilji having usurped the throne from his uncle. “Regicide, patricide, fratricide, it was all common those days. To point out Khilji is a travesty,” says Qaiser.

Indeed, much before this bid to show Khilji in poor light, facts about his administrative and political acumen and religious neutrality had been laid out by a number of historians, notably Satish Chandra and, before him, Mohammad Habib.

Revolution in rural areas

In Studies in Medieval Indian Polity and Culture: The Delhi Sultanate and Its Times (edited, and with an introduction, by his son Irfan Habib), Mohammad Habib showed that Khilji brought about a revolution in rural areas of northern India though he knew nothing of the Shariat. For matters relating to cultivation, Khilji had a simple formula: the burden of the strong was not to be thrown at the weak. The arable land was measured and the farmer had to pay according to the amount of land he cultivated. The entire land was measured under the supervision of the revenue minister, Sharaf Qai, and Khilji’s great army, said to have been the mightiest since the days of Samudragupta, banished any thought of short-changing the sultanate’s representatives.

Khilji smartly reduced the role of middle men—these were usually upper-caste men—thus greatly reducing the burden on the lower-caste cultivators under them. Since both the cultivators and the intermediaries were usually Hindus, it did not bring about any conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, Khilji was not a communal man. The Hindu naiks were organised into a corporation. Interestingly, while trade in ordinary cloth was left to private enterprise, trade in finer textiles was reserved for Hindu merchants of Multan. He also fixed the tariff for all goods and services.

Writes Mohammad Habib: “The greatest ruler that the Musalmans of India have produced neither fasted nor prayed. He never went to the Friday congregation.... He was hundred per cent Indian; he had never been to foreign lands. He knew nothing about the Shariat, and did not care to go to it for guidance. He was neither afraid of meeting death nor reluctant in inflicting it.... the sole object of Alauddin’s policy was ‘service of the people of God’. Of all the schools that have filled this earth with their chatter, Alauddin believed in one school only—the school of experience. He was concerned exclusively with a patent, all-India injustice, the domination of the intermediary over the cultivator; and he liquidated the intermediaries as effectively as Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party have liquidated feudalism in China.... After the tremendous Khilji adventure India would never again become the land of caste privileges it had been for centuries past. Whatever shape the future may assume, Alauddin had assured one thing for all time. In all spheres of life, except marriage and personal laws, India would become what the Manusmriti so intensely hated—‘a confusion of castes’.” Khilji repulsed the Mongol attacks, too. Irfan Habib puts it in perspective: “The Mongols though still formidable were in relative decline then. Khilji deserves credit for repelling them. Once he stayed in Delhi, against the advice of his courtiers, and shut out the Mongols.” Incidentally, Khilji has been laid to rest in the Qutab Minar complex in Delhi.

Qaiser says: “If you have to talk of Alauddin Khilji, judge him for his governance. If he had exploited the poor, they would have rebelled. Back then, when some people and kingdoms challenged the authority of the state, he subdued them. He brought about a market revolution. In many ways, his actions paved the way to modern India, so far ahead of the time was his planning and control over the market. He was an exceptionally good administrator, a fearless warrior. He was much more than he has been constructed in Bhansali’s movie. Today, people are being allowed to get away with threats to life and limb. All this takes the focus away from the ruler Khilji was. ”

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