The past as present

The attacks on medieval Muslim rulers by the Hindu right wing constitute not only an attempt to rewrite the past but also to interpret the present in a way that demonises Muslims and their culture.

Published : Nov 22, 2017 12:30 IST

A late 18th century oil portrait of Tipu Sultan done by G.F. Cherry.

A late 18th century oil portrait of Tipu Sultan done by G.F. Cherry.

ABOUT two years ago when Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam breathed his last, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government decided to live up to tradition in paying tribute to the former President. Kalam, who was famously called a “nationalist despite being a Muslim” by a Union Minister, had a road named after him in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. There was a catch, though: Aurangzeb Road was renamed A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. It was the latest instance of the time-worn “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary, the liberal, nationalist Muslim versus a bigot. A few eyebrows were raised, but nobody complained. Kalam deserved to be remembered by posterity. No questions were asked.

Now it seems the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary is being given a public burial. There are no good Muslims left, at least in history. Or that is what right-wing leaders would have us believe with concerted attempts to paint all Muslim heroes in negative hues. Earlier in the year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister Rajnath Singh claimed that Rana Pratap was the victor of the famous Battle of Chittoor, and the media faithfully reproduced their comments. No questions were asked about their credentials to speak on history or their criteria for reinterpreting events past. History books have always praised Rana Pratap for his valiant fight, not for winning the battle. Historians on the Left and the Right agreed that the Mughal army of Akbar won the battle and entered into an alliance with the Rajputs for a more broad-based, inclusive administration. But Yogi and Rajnath Singh felt it necessary to hail the Rajput prince as the victor. The motivating factor was not their love for Rana Pratap but hatred for Akbar and, by extension, all contemporary Muslims. Soon, a BJP leader demanded that Akbar Road in New Delhi be renamed after the Rajput prince. Akbar was no longer a leader ahead of times who sought to build bridges between Hindus and Muslims. If the modern-day Muslim had to be humiliated for the alleged actions of Aurangzeb, the modern-day Indian, cutting across all religions and regions, had to live with the diminution of Akbar, his unifying tactics very much an anathema to the Hindutva brigade with its devisive politics.

Now the net is being cast wider. On the chopping block is not just Akbar but also Shah Jahan, who gave us a lasting monument of love, Taj Mahal, Humayun, and the Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khalji. Not to forget Tipu Sultan, who is being painted as a traitor. A BJP Minister even called him a “rapist” and a “murderer”, prompting Tipu’s descendants to threaten to go to court. Ironically, the Hindu right wing, which had no role to speak of against the British colonial regime, is now busy painting as a traitor a king who stood up to the British military power.

The BJP’s Sangeet Som described the Taj Mahal as the work of a “traitor”, while the BJP leader Vinay Katiyar said it was actually Tejo Mahalaya or a Shiva temple. Som also said Shah Jahan was “a man who had imprisoned his father”: he was clearly mixed up between Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb. Katiyar and Som revived the failed argument of P.N. Oak, who first alleged in the 1960s that the Taj was a temple once and also that the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi was a Vishnu temple while the Qutb Minar was a Vishnu “stambh”. Oak, who failed to win over any historian, was often quoted at the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi controversy. In these divisive times, his arguments seem to have got a fresh lease of life.

The allegations produced enough shock for Yogi to rush to Agra on a damage-control mission and declare that the Taj was a gem built with the blood and sweat of Indian labourers and that it was his government’s responsibility to defend the monument.

Curiously, he avoided giving any credit to Shah Jahan as the emperor who built it as a mausoleum for his wife Arjumand Bano, popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal. He was also silent on how the Taj Mahal was the result of collaboration between artists, architects and craftsmen from various religious communities and regions. For instance, the tomb was constructed under the supervision of Makramat Khan and the chief architect was Muhammad Isa Afandi of Turkey. The veteran columnist and chronicler R.V. Smith said in The Taj: Myth and Reality : “The dome was built by Ismail Khan, also of Turkey, the inscriptions were executed by Amanat Khan of Shiraz and the beautiful inlay work was done by Hindu artisans of Kannauj and some from Baghdad. India, Central Asia and other regions contributed the materials.”

The Chief Minister’s attempt to quell the controversy over the Taj Mahal, however lopsided, was based on sound economics: with an annual contribution of Rs.25 crore, the Taj Mahal earns more than any other monument of the country. In 2014, however, he, too, had said that the Taj was the work of a traitor.

If Yogi sought to douse the fire on the Taj, it took nobody less than President Ram Nath Kovind to silence detractors of Tipu. On a visit to Karnataka, the President not only called Tipu a great patriot but also praised his role in fighting the British, thereby acknowledging his status among the earliest freedom fighters of the country. “Tipu Sultan died a historic death fighting the British. He was a pioneer in the development and use of Mysore rockets in warfare. This technology was later adopted by the Europeans,” the President said.

There has been a demand to raze Humayun’s tomb in New Delhi to make way for a cemetery. It comes from Waseem Rizvi of the Uttar Pradesh Shia Wakf Board, who is happy to be an apologist for the Hindutva regime. Similarly, Alauddin Khalji has been described as barbaric and murderous on the basis of Padmawat , a work of fiction by Malik Muhammad Jayasi; no attention is paid to his praiseworthy work in providing a stable administration and a uniform policy of weights and measures.

Rewriting the present These attacks undermining the contribution of Muslim rulers of medieval India are more than an attempt at rewriting history. The noted historian Harbans Mukhia said: “The Sangh Parivar is not seeking to rewrite the past; it is seeking to rewrite and reshape the present. Its command over history is evident from the half-witted statements emanating from half-literate MLAs and Ministers, and these become headlines for the television channels and newspapers. The statements are always about Muslim rulers or Muslim monuments, never against colonial structures like the Rashtrapati Bhavan and North and South Block. The objective is to create antipathy towards Muslim rulers, which then gets transferred on to Indian Muslims of 2017. It is the latter who are the targets of this hostility.”

Aurangzeb has always been criticised, projected as a villain who did nothing right. Why do the same with Akbar or Tipu, widely acknowledged for their contributions to peace and progress in their territories in days predating the concept of the nation?

Mukhia said: “The targettng of Akbar and Tipu is to reinforce the ideology spread through RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] shakhas that all Muslims are the same and their chief preoccupation was to oppress Hindus. Over five and a half centuries, this was the only thing they did. And now it is our turn to avenge that. So how does it matter whether what they say about history or Taj Mahal or Akbar or anything else is historically validated or not so long as it can turn social hostility towards Muslims and thereby pitch the entire social, cultural and above all political discourse on the Hindu vs Muslim axis.” Ali Nadeem Rezavi of the Aligarh Muslim University, who is Chairman, Centre for Advanced Study, Department of History, said: “There is nothing surprising about what is happening. Actually, they have to present every Muslim ruler in a bad light in order to demonise the whole community. In their heart of hearts, these turbulent dark forces Hindutva cannot tolerate anyone who can be presented as a symbol of harmonious communal relations. Akbar and Tipu thus are especially anathema to them. As long as these icons exist, the communalists would appear in bad light. Thus they have to be dragged down and somehow proved to be nothing like what they actually were.”

He drew an interesting parallel with the way history is used to serve political ends in Pakistan. “This is true not only for Hindutva forces but also the communal strands on the Muslim side. Akbar thus is a villain in Pakistan too. He has been thrown out from school curricula and textbooks there.

“As for Tipu, you can either be a follower of V.D. Savarkar, who grovelled before the British, or a sympathiser of Tipu and Hyder Ali, who were the first and foremost enemies of British rule in India. If Savarkar was a collaborator, then Tipu was a visionary who had written to Napoleon Bonaparte to come to India and throw out the British! It is thus natural that Modi’s BJP is trying to denigrate both Akbar and Tipu. After all, Akbar stood for an understanding between Hinduism and Islam. He ordered Hindu texts to be translated into Persian and Persian texts into Sanskrit so that people of both religions should understand each other. This understanding has to be opposed at any cost. The Hindu contemporaries of Akbar considered him an avatar of Lord Vishnu. It was during his reign that Surdas composed his dohas; the sect of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu flourished; and Mathura emerged as a pilgrimage centre! How can the BJP afford these facts to become common knowledge? Thus he has to be vehemently denigrated!” Rezavi added: “There is a serious attempt being made to browbeat history and replace it with a mythology. It is not the case of rewriting history or reinterpreting the past: it is a process of manufacturing a non-existent mythical story which has no basis. And because they are not dealing with history but dabbling in a manufactured mythical past, they can invoke no historian. Thus, they have to create historians, too. P.N. Oak was no historian but a journalist and an official in the Ministry of Information. He held many fantastic ideas which were never taken seriously even by the Hindu Right historians of the period. He has now been pulled out of cold storage and presented as “professor” Oak, the historian!”

No matter how unfounded the claims, the allegations surrounding historical monuments have produced fear about their security. Memories of the Babri Masjid demolition are still fresh in many minds. Should one worry about the fate of the Taj Mahal or Humayun’s Tomb? Rezavi’s view was: “History can never be distorted or manufactured. In the short run, they may be able to create new myths, but truth has a tendency to bounce back.

“Hitler tried to rewrite history and succeeded for a few years. Before that the Ummayids tried, but that failed. The Hindutva fantasies will also soon disappear! But yes, I fear too. We have already lost some of our heritage structures in the past which fell victim to mob frenzy and religious bigotry. We should not forget the Bamiyan Buddhas and the Babri Masjid. But then this might be repeated. They may not be able to physically harm the Taj, which is actually a jackpot for the government, but the other monuments are in danger. What the attitude of the government of the day would be is clear in the way that some bhakts were allowed to contravene the law with impunity.”

Mukhia said that the media were also to blame for the present situation: “And they [the Hindu right wing] are getting immense help from our secular media. As soon as some stupid statement is issued by one of these illiterate guys, the media forget everything else and start discussing its validity or otherwise. This is what they want: to keep their stupid statements in the centre of discussions, never mind how much you can disprove their contentions. They will succeed at least in creating ‘another opinion’ for public consumption. And when you get an Irfan Habib or a Romila Thapar to comment on these stupid statements, you lend them respectability as one of two opinions—one of Sangeet Som and the other of Irfan Habib. Exactly the trap they have laid out. And we are all falling into it, hook line and sinker.”

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