That Yogi Adityanath chose to term Babur and Akbar as "outsiders" is not a surprise. The Hindu right, of which he is a flag-waving member, has made this accusation many times earlier. They have also asserted that a "golden age" existed prior to the Muslim invasions.
This golden age is sometimes dated back to Vedic times, sometimes to the heyday of the Gupta Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC and grudgingly sometimes (on account of his Buddhist faith) to Ashokan times.
To decode the nature of this thinking is to be able to develop a counter to this. That is the challenge before the nation today.
In the late 1980s, India witnessed a peculiar phenomenon. Many throughout the country spent every Sunday morning glued to television sets watching the televised version of Ramayana. It was an obsessive experience for most Indians as roads emptied out and functions were rescheduled in order that people were able to watch their favourite epic.
Later, when the Mahabharata was televised, the cycle repeated itself. What lay behind this obsession? Why were the epics such crowd-pullers? Understanding this might help understand the current mood of the country too.
Certainly, it wasn’t curiosity about what was going to happen next that prompted such obsessive watching. So while the pull of television today has to do purely with good old-fashioned suspense about the course of the storyline, that was not the case with the epics.
Given Indian familiarity with the epics, most Indians knew the storyline in excruciating detail. And yet to watch them became de rigueur.
What then could have prompted such loyalty to a TV programme? At one level, it was perhaps the sheer excitement of getting to watch what one had merely "heard" or watched in shoddy neighbourhood Ramlilas and other such amateurish set-ups.
There was a certain religious pull to the epics. Watching it was almost equivalent to a regular visit to the neighbourhood temple, something that many Indians did anyway. But equally the underlying reason was that many Indians had grown up being fed the fantasy that the Ramayana and Mahabharata were set in "better times", a "golden age", so to speak.
Understanding the prosaic origins of this imagined "golden age" is perhaps a way to understand the popularity of televised epics more than a quarter-of-a-century ago, as well as developing a greater understanding of the current mood of the country.
British rule that by the mid-19th century had taken hold of the entire nation not only impoverished India economically, but also knocked the stuffing out of Indian self-confidence about its culture and its history.
The sub-continent had come to internalise the British view that Indians were a second-rate people. The defeat in the 1857 War of Independence decimated all hopes of an Indian revival.
Ironically, British education it was that swung the pendulum the other way. The products of British-established schools and colleges who began to emerge in the late 19th century did not all become Macaulay’s "clerks".
More than a significant few used their knowledge in the Indian cause. To overcome the national mood of despondency, they chose to look afresh at Indian history. The British had put it out that Indians lacked the ability to rule themselves and that "outsiders" had always ruled them. The British were but the latest.
The long spell of Muslim rule under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, both of whom had their origins outside the sub-continent, was the clincher in this argument.
To counter this, early Indian nationalists authored histories that chose to look back to pre-Muslim times for "Indian" rulers who had ruled competently. History provided some succour in this regard. Ashoka, Harshavardhana, Samudragupta and a few others were cited as examples of the homegrown variety.
Parallel to this, people like Dayananda Saraswathi and Swami Vivekananda introduced a religious twist to the tale. They harked back to the epics and the scriptures (Vedas, Upanishads, the epics) to lift the national mood.
By doing so, they were also attempting a defence of Hinduism that had come increasingly under attack on account of its regressive practices like sati, child marriage and others. The objective was two-fold.
Kanishka of the Kushana dynasty who ruled in the second century AD belonged to the Yuezhi tribe that has its origins in what is today the Chinese heartland of Gansu.
Firstly, it was to rid the religion of what they perceived as its aberrations, and secondly, by asserting that in a distant "golden past" India was a heaven on earth, they wished to motivate the nation to wake up from its despondent slumber.
One could perhaps take the view that both nationalist historians as well as religious revivalists were harking back to a "golden past" due to the circumstances. Indians needed a role model to look up to. Ancient India and the world of the epics provided just that.
The epics, which in pre-colonial times had been moral guides, now came to acquire a semi-historical hue in view of the need of the times. Later on, Mahatma Gandhi’s repeated references to Ramrajya further strengthened this view.
But in this process, an inadvertent internalisation also took place. The rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals actually came to be viewed as "outsiders". Their deep connection with and contribution to the nation was summarily overlooked and only their origins focused upon.
Later, the events that led to Partition further encouraged this view among many sections of the people. Now, the likes of Yogi Adityanath think nothing of blatantly stating this view from public platforms.
Ironically, another "wholly Indian" ruler who has had aircrafts and hotels named after him is as much an "outsider" as Akbar, going by the logic employed by Yogi Adityanath. Kanishka of the Kushana dynasty who ruled in the second century AD belonged to the Yuezhi tribe that has its origins in what is today the Chinese heartland of Gansu.
In the first millennium BC, the Yuezhi began to move westwards from China through Central Asia and Afghanistan, before making their home in the western region of the sub-continent, most of which is today in Pakistan.
At the height of its power, the Kushana Empire stretched from Peshawar (then Purushapura) to Patna (then Pataliputra) incorporating much of today’s northern India.
Since Babur and Akbar are sought to be categorised as "outsiders", will the Kushanas who made major contributions to architecture, religion and administration too be categorised as such? The absurdity of Adityanath’s logic is now evident.
The subcontinent has for long attracted traders, scholars, sailors and invaders for a variety of reasons. Many invaders have pillaged, plundered and left. Equally, many have stayed on and blended in.
For good or bad, modern-day India has drawn from all of these varied influences. It is an irrefutable fact of history. Categorising a select few as "outsiders" is incorrect. It is only by appreciating the nuances of history that we understand things in their context.