What makes Akbar 'great' and not Maharana Pratap

SS Dhawan
SS DhawanMay 13, 2017 | 21:02

What makes Akbar 'great' and not Maharana Pratap

Some kings are born great, others have greatness thrust on them - centuries later.

But even though comparisons are odious and both Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar and Maharana Pratap cannot be placed on the same pedestal - there must be some gold standard by which the greatness of a king can be measured?

The benchmark possibly can't be longevity, though a king who ascends the throne at the age of 14, which Akbar did, and ruled for 49 years is bound to have accomplished much more.

Maharana Pratap, on the other hand, neither had the time, nor the resources on his side; nor did he have the backing of the other Rajput clans; he also spent the first half of his life cooped up in Mewar and the second half on the trot in the Aravalli hills after he lost the Battle of Haldighati.

But even though Maharana Pratap finds just a mention in the postscript to Mughal history he is surely embedded in the collective social consciousness in his native Rajputana, having left an imprint in the sands of time for his valour and tenacity - primarily for cocking a snook at Emperor Akbar.

Or is greatness to be seen through the prism of conquests and annexation? Akbar's litany of acquisitions stretched from the frontiers of Persia to Assam and Burma and from the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas to the Godavari river.

Considering that the Mughal empire was almost tottering when Akbar ascended the throne under the tutelage of his guardian Behram Khan, there is surely much to celebrate.

Maharana Pratap had no durable conquests to his credit, he was not able to redraw the contours of his kingdom and for all his valour, he was not able to liberate Chittor, though he was able to claw back and wrest Mewar from the Mughals.

But at that point, historians tell us, Akbar was more concerned about the Afghan threat up North and less about what was happening in his backyard in Rajputana. Moreover, by then Akbar had already weaned away most Rajpur rulers and was not unduly worried about the Maharana.

What really stands out about Akbar's reign was not just the vigorous territorial expansion but the manner in which the Emperor reached out to the tiniest principalities and convinced them that if they aligned with him, they would be able to manage their fiefdoms with some semblance of autonomy.

Where political manoeuvres failed, Akbar decided to secure alliances, especially with the formidable Rajput rulers, with marriage almost becoming an instrument of State Policy.

However, Maharana Pratap was not inclined to allow himself to be co-opted like the other Rajput rulers of his ilk, many of whom were content with plum postings in the Mughal court, looking at the arrangement as some kind of perpetual bondage.


Akbar, in all fairness, made several diplomatic overtures but Maharana was not inclined to play along; he even rebuffed an invite from Akbar to appear in the Mughal court.

It was this diplomatic standoff with Akbar that finally resulted in the Battle of Haldighati.

So, Maharana is remembered not so much for his conquests as his tenacity - a doggedness that he exhibited even on the deathbed, when he is believed to have asked his son to carry on the "war" against the Turks.

Result: Pratap's persona is the stuff of folklore - his robust build, his valour in the battlefield, the manner in which he sliced open a Mughal soldier and his horse in half, how he led from the front in the Battle of Haldighati against a numerically stronger Mughal army - possibly with double the numbers. Even his horse Chetak has been immortalised in a poem by that name.

Historians, too, seem to agree that Maharana had the battle of Haldighati all nicely sewn up having sliced the right and left flanks of the Mughal army, which was largely incapacitated by their failure to move heavy artillery in the rugged terrain. But he was not able to hold out when Akbar ordered the reserves into the battlefield. However, from all accounts, the Mughals were not able to match the Rajputs man-to-man in conventional combat.

But quite unlike the Mughal emperor, Maharana was not able to build a lasting partnership with like-minded rulers, except for pairing with the tribals while he was hiding in the Aravalli hills. From these forested sanctuaries he continued to needle the kings who had aligned with Akbar, waging what is described in modern day parlance as jungle warfare.

He was also able to regroup what remained of his motley group and plan the recapture of Mewar but unable to stall Akbar's territorial overreach. Maharana remained just a blip on Akbar's radar after he lost the decisive battle of Haldighati, but his unconventional warfare tactics did resonate decades later, with both Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh in their incessant fight with the Mughals.

But to look at Pratap's intransigence as a precursor to some kind of a Hindu resurgence would be going off the tangent.

What really made Akbar "great" was his well crafted policy of integrating rather than assimilating all subjects - both Hindu and Muslim - within the mainstream. They co-existed in a mixed milieu, even as they seemed to inhabit two different religious streams.

Akbar's excellent understanding of the dynamics of the Hindu-Muslim interface gave him the confidence ''to bring all non-Muslims in Muslim territories within the ambit of the same law, the Shari'a, but he also allowed the Hindus in territories under their control to remain under their own law, called the Dharmashastra, and to retain their own courts''. Also, his bureaucracy had a Hindu face in Todar Mal and numerous others, even though the administration was entirely "Islamic in spirit".

Even if greatness is all about administrative acumen, Akbar acquitted himself rather well: he was not only able to weld the geographically contiguous but disparate units into a coherent whole, but he was also able to put in place a superstructure of territorial autonomy, even in areas that were dominated and presided over by Hindu overlords.

Akbar seems to satisfy all other prerequisites of greatness as well: he acquired a reputation for being a benign monarch who was in sync with the sensibilities of his subjects; the abolition of the pilgrim tax and the land and revenue reforms - he allowed a minimal deduction in farm yield - further reinforced this notion of a well-meaning monarch.

But for some "greatness" is all about religiosity: how many temples or mosques did the king build - that becomes the touchstone. Akbar went a step further: he offered his subjects his own indigenous spiritual project of a syncretic religion called Din-e-Ilahi but stopped short of imposing it on even his Muslim subjects.

Even if we were to look at "greatness" through the prism of our adult experiences in a modern welfare state, the most important question anyone would ask is: "Did the king come anywhere close to being a pan-India figure?" Akbar indeed did, and he also gave his subjects uninterrupted rule of durable peace.

Last updated: May 10, 2018 | 11:26
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