India at 70: Why Hindu nationalists are afraid of Mughals

Ignorance is bliss for the Right.

 |  5-minute read |   14-08-2017
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Over the last several years, Hindu nationalists have fought - with increasing success - to remove traces of the Mughals from the Indian public sphere. In 2015, Aurangzeb Road was renamed in Delhi. Other renamings have followed, including, this year, Akbar Fort in Ajmer and Mughalsarai Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh. A second front of the Hindu nationalist war on Indian history is school textbooks. The RSS has been saffronising Indian textbooks for some time, and news broke this month that they had wiped all but a few lines on Akbar from Maharashtrian textbooks.

Hindu nationalists have offered several justifications for their sanitising efforts. Early on, they rallied against honoring tyrants or "invaders," as the Rajasthan education minister described the likes of the Indian-born Akbar. As the months and years have passed, many on the Hindu Right have offered alternative motivations that deemphasise their Islamophobia.

For instance, the recent changes to Maharashtrian textbooks have been characterised by those responsible as framing history within a "Maharashtra-centric point of view." Yogi Adityanath's government has defended its retitling of Mughalsarai Railway Station as having little to do with the Mughals and instead as an attempt to pay tribute to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, an RSS ideologue whose name the railway station will soon bear.

haldigati_081417050344.jpgMaharana Pratap (as he is more commonly known among historians) fought at Haldighati in 1576 against another Rajput, Raja Man Singh, who led the Mughal forces. Shivaji allied with Muslim kings - including the Mughals - on and off throughout his life.

Such flimsy justifications do little to cover up the real fuel behind the Hindu nationalist renaming frenzy: hatred of Muslims, past and present.

Hindu nationalists are arguably growing bolder in their anti-Muslim bigotry, as can be seen from the names they choose to fill the vacuum created by their erasure of the Mughals. In 2015, Aurangzeb Road was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road, and thus an acceptable Muslim - in Hindutva eyes - supplanted an unacceptable one. But Mughalsarai is being replaced by the name of a Hindutva man. Ajmer's Akbar Road is now known, blandly, as Ajmer Fort. Instead of learning about the Mughals, Maharashtrian school children will learn more about the myth of Shivaji (the actual history of Shivaji being largely unpalatable to current Hindutva sensibilities and so obscured). Such actions communicate the hateful view that only a narrow band of Hindu nationalists can qualify as patriots.

India's Hindu Right has never been good with history. For instance, in the lead up to the seventieth anniversary of India's independence, we have seen an uptick in desperate Hindu nationalist claims that the RSS participated in the Quit India Movement, in contravention to the real story that the RSS was somewhere between being aloof from the independence movement and collaborating with the British Empire.

Shame about opting out of the Quit India Movement is understandable, given subsequent historical events. But why is the Hindu Right unable to come to terms with the Mughals, an empire that ended 150 years ago in name and fell apart far earlier in terms of power? For the rest of the world, the Mughals are ancient history, best left to the musty shelves of libraries and the curious minds of scholars. So why are the Mughals - long ago decayed into the dust of the earth-so viscerally threatening to the 21st century Hindu Right?

mughs_062117105329_081417050116.jpgYogi Adityanath's government has defended its retitling of Mughalsarai Railway Station as having little to do with the Mughals.

Hindu nationalists often fail to grasp the purposes of historical study. History is not supposed to be a glory story where you only show the bits favorable to your own political viewpoint and cut out the rest. That's propaganda. History, in contrast, attempts to summarise and explain key moments, ideas, people, and trends in the past, regardless of whether we think these things were "good" or "bad."

Mughal history has things to say to modern Indians, however, and here is where the Hindu Right begins to quake in its boots. Mughal history complicates Indian identities in many ways, such as by offering alternative visions of what it meant to be Hindu. In the Mughal past, we find Hindus who helped the Mughals. Brahmins like Birbal served as advisors to Akbar, and some Rajputs fought vehemently to expand the Mughal Empire.

Some Hindus even seemed to like the Mughals or at least became enmeshed in the Mughal cultural world. For instance, the little-known Sanskrit poet Ishvaradasa praised Aurangzeb's tax policies as just. The two most famous Sanskrit intellectuals of the seventeenth century, Kavindracarya Sarasvati and Jagannatha Panditaraja, both accepted patronage, including financial payments, from Shah Jahan's court. Kavindra taught Sanskrit and Hindi texts such as the Yoga Vasishtha to members of the Mughal royal family, and Panditaraja pursued a love affair with a Muslim woman (to the chagrin of some of his contemporaries).

What kind of Hindus were these men? They were certainly little like the khaki-clad foot-soldiers of the RSS or the zealous youth of the Hindu Yuva Vahini who appear more interested in killing Muslims than working for them. People like Ishvaradasa and Kavindracarya did not even call themselves "Hindu," for this Perso-Arabic term was still primarily used by non-Hindus in the seventeenth century.

Mughal history underscores the newness of some ideas propagated by the Hindu Right. Hindu nationalists want to believe in "Akhand Bharat" for which great heroes like Maharana Pratap and Shivaji fought. The problem is, this idea of Bharat is false. Maharana Pratap (as he is more commonly known among historians) fought at Haldighati in 1576 against another Rajput, Raja Man Singh, who led the Mughal forces. Shivaji allied with Muslim kings - including the Mughals - on and off throughout his life.

Neither Maharana Pratap nor Shivaji ever fought for "India" as such or for "Hindus" as a group. In fact, Shivaji was once literally laughed out of court by Rajputs who found him uncultured in Mughal norms, which they had long ago adopted as their own. The concept of "Indian" as a national identity is, from a historian's perspective, in its infancy, measured in decades rather than centuries. "Hindus" have not widely identified themselves as such for much longer, a few hundred years at most.

The leaders are of the Hindu Right are ashamed that their religious-cum-nationalist identity lacks historical grounding, and so they create the illusion - for their followers as much as for the rest of the nation - of deep roots by rewriting the stories of people like Shivaji.

It is far easier to convince people that such mythologies are true if Indians lack knowledge about the medieval Mughal world. Ignorance is bliss for the Hindu Right.

Also read: Cringe politics of Adityanath govt renaming Mughalsarai railway station


Audrey Truschke Audrey Truschke @audreytruschke

Audrey Truschke, Assistant Professor, Department of History Rutgers University-Newark.

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