25.5.15

RSS Communalism

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How Akbar went from great to not-so-great

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The Akbar vs Rana Pratap debate is driven by myth-making rather than facts, say scholars.

In the latter half of the 16th century, when Elizabethan England was persecuting Catholics and the Spanish Inquisition had become an instrument of terror, one Indian ruler had established the first nursery of Indian secularism at Fatehpur Sikri. He held socio-religious and spiritual discussions with men of different faiths at the ibadatkhana. 
 That was Mughal emperor Akbar, a man far ahead of his time.

But the emperor's legacy is now under siege. Last week in Delhi, members of a Hindutva outfit defaced the signage of a road named after Akbar and several other Muslim rulers. They wanted these roads renamed after Hindu rulers like Shivaji and Maharana Pratap.

Days later, Union home minister Rajnath Singh demanded the epithet 'great' for Rana Pratap. He also said that the rest of the country should follow Rajasthan's example and devote a full chapter to the Mewar ruler in history textbooks. Many interpreted this as an official signal to knock down one of India's most remarkable rulers.

A smear campaign against the emperor seems to be currently running on social media. Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and chainmail are calling Akbar a "rapist, looter and killer coming from a family of drunkards, illiterates, homosexuals and child molesters". And all sorts of falsehoods culled from TV serials, myths, legends, and propaganda are being passed off as the "real history of Akbar".

"It's unfortunate that people are so gullible that they lap up fiction as fact. While there can be no doubt that Maharana Pratap was an important figure in history, it's unfair to compare him with Akbar," says archaeologist and historian Dr KK Mohammed, who discovered Akbar's ibadatkhana at Fatehpur Sikri in the 1980s.

The scholar elaborates his point with a historical anecdote: "Once in Hormuz, some Portuguese had tied a copy of the Quran around the neck of an ass and released it in the market. When Hamida Bano Begum, Akbar's mother, learnt about it, she asked the emperor to tie the Bible around a dog's neck and release it in Agra. Akbar refused. If the actions of the Portuguese were wrong, then this would be wrong too, he reasoned. His stance showed his remarkable mind and spirit."

Professor Jos Gommans of Leiden University says for the cohesion of India as a nation, Akbar will do a much better job as a hero than Rana Pratap or Shivaji. "Akbar inspired even Dutch liberals in the mid-19th century to build a secular society without religious interference."

Dirk Collier, author of The Emperor's Writings: Memories of Akbar the Great, points out that historical facts are being ignored in the debate. "The resistance of Maharana Pratap against Akbar has often been portrayed as a desperate and noble struggle for Hindu independence against the overwhelmingly superior forces of a Muslim invader, but, as most historians agree, it was hardly that. The Hindu kings of Amber, Bikaner and Bundi sided with Akbar, and even Rana Pratap's own brother Sagaraj did the same. Pratap's army, on the other hand, included large Afghan contingents. Only 30 years before the fall of Chittor, an earlier Rana of Mewar had marched against the neighbouring king of Malwa in alliance with the Muslim sultan of Gujarat. In other words: the Mewar conflict was essentially one of local rivalries," he says.

A current television serial eulogises Rana Pratap and vilifies Akbar as an ever-scheming, bloodthirsty bigot. Its impact has been such that one blogger says her five-year-old neighbour is yet to study history but already hates Akbar. But, argues historian Tripta Wahi, Akbar's secularism remains unmatched even today. "He separated religion from the state — his Tauheed-i-Illahi or Din-i-Illahi was essentially a reflection of that policy. It was Akbar who had abolished slavery in India. He also abolished sati in his empire, centuries before Sir William Bentinck," she says.

Wahi also points out that in the 1560s, when the Mughals were trying to create a bigger state system, the indigenous states, Hindu as well as Muslim, were resisting it. "Akbar was resisted by the Sharqis of Jaunpur, the Afghan sultans of Bengal, the Bahmani kingdom and its splinter states, Gujarat and Malwa — all these were Muslim kingdoms. And some of them resisted for far longer than Mewar. Yet you don't hear the proponents of Hindutva talking about Chand Bibi or Malik Ambar of Ahmednagar sultanate."

The historian points out that Akbar made intelligent use of secularism in his statecraft. For instance, post-war, he treated defeated Rajputs and Muslims differently. He returned to Rajputs their vatanjagirs (patrimonial estates) and gave them high mansabs in his military bureaucracy. Neither favour was granted to defeated Muslim landed gentry. Akbar wanted the Rajputs to become important shareholders in his successes. Across the border in Pakistan, Akbar is not seen as a great ruler either. Islamic hardliners there sometimes dismiss him as the "infidel king" for his secular views. All of Pakistan's missiles or weapon systems are named after Babur, Ahmed Shah Abdali, Mahmud of Ghazni or Muhammad Ghori but none after Akbar.

Ironically enough, in India, there are no public buildings or spaces named after the Great Mughal. But there are roads, universities and public buildings — including an airport — named after Maharana Pratap.