Across the border

Shivaji the great to Aurangzeb the terrible: We see in our kings what we want to see in ourselves

India and Pakistan, though always in opposition, are similar in many ways – one among them being how they have appropriated their rules and invaders.

In October, the Maharashtra government approved the construction of a Shivaji Memorial in the Arabian Sea – at a cost of Rs 3,600 crore. Just saying that out loud makes me blush, and when I multiply this figure by two to calculate its worth in Pakistani rupees, it seems even more unreal.

The Maharashtra government’s obsession with Shivaji, a 17th-century warrior who founded the Maratha Empire, is no secret. The city’s airport, Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji, is named after him. There is a giant painting of him inside the airport and statues built in his honour in the city. In popular political imagination, he is a supreme warrior, the ultimate rebel who rose up against the mighty Mughal Empire and formed an independent sovereign kingdom and abolished Mughal hegemony by replacing Persian with Sanskrit and Marathi in his court.

For a post-colonial state, Shivaji serves as the ultimate symbol of Maratha nationalism. His rebellion against Emperor Aurangzeb is depicted as a testimony to Marathi heroism that challenged the bigotry of the Muslim fanatic king and re-instated the political significance of the Sanskrit culture.

In many ways, the state sees itself as a political descendant of Shivaji that wants to carry forward the steps taken by him. Marathi nationalism today goes hand in hand with a condescension towards other cultures, including Islamic culture, which is associated with the culture of the other, of Emperor Aurangzeb.

The ‘evil’ Mughal

In its hatred towards Emperor Aurangzeb, Marathi culture is not alone. Last year, the New Delhi Municipal Council renamed Aurangzeb road in the heart of the city to APJ Abdul Kalam Road, in honour of the former President of India after he passed away in July 2015.

The move, which reflected the mood at the Centre, re-enforced the myth of Emperor Aurangzeb as a fanatic Muslim despot who persecuted non-Muslims. There was a reason why Aurangzeb Road and not Akbar Road, which runs parallel to it, was renamed. Emperor Akbar in the modern Indian State is seen as a symbol of secularism, and therefore, a reflection of the state itself. This symbol needs to be appropriated while the other needs to be rejected. The renaming of the road also gave birth to the debate of “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim. Both Abdul Kalam and Akbar represent “good” Muslim hence they have a space in India. The “bad” ones should go to Pakistan.

But one has to ask: is contemporary idea of Shivaji, Aurangzeb or Akbar an apt reflection of their historical roles, or is it just the product of our-present day political fantasies? Is how we imagine these historical characters just a reflection of how we want to see ourselves?

The other ‘bigot’

I was in Bangalore last year when a debate was raging about the role of Tipu Sultan and there was much opposition to the government’s plans to celebrate his birth. The Congress-led government wanted to celebrate the King of Mysore as a hero for holding fort against the British East India Company for several years and mark November 10 as Tipu Jayanti. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in opposition in Karnataka, vehemently opposed the idea, attacking the legacy of Tipu Sultan by calling him a religious bigot. They accused the government of using Tipu Sultan to appease the Muslim “minorities”, as they are called, and garner votes.

With the BJP in power at the Centre and a debate raging around the time about the purported intolerance in the country under its rule, this issue acquired national significance. At a time when the beef-ban, the Dadri lynching and the subsequent award-wapsi campaign had put the heat on the BJP, the Congress undoubtedly thought that appropriating Tipu Sultan would help project the party as a protector of the minorities. The BJP on the other hand wanted to be seen as a protector of Hindu culture.

The stance of both parties was a reflection of how they wanted themselves to be identified. Historians, researchers and scholars all tried to decipher whether or not Tipu Sultan was a bigot and if he should be celebrated.

Eager to learn more about the issue I asked my host in Bangalore, renowned historian Vickramm V Sampath, what he thought. I knew that Vickramm had expressed his views on the issue at several platforms. What he told me changed my entire perspective.

He said that it does not matter if Tipu Sultan was a bigot or not – of concern was the fact that we were using modern-day standards to judge a historical character, and an absolute monarch at that. The standards of tolerance, rhetoric, political exigencies were different at that time, he said. So, Tipu Sultan was a despot according to modern standards and therefore, the Indian republic, which defined itself as democratic after 1947, has no need to honor an 18th-century king. Let them be historical characters with all their short-comings and absolute power, he said. There is no need to appropriate them in a modern society as they will not fit.

Opposites attract

The Pakistani State, like its Indian step-brother, is no different. Here too, there is a desperate need to appropriate historical kings as part of the project of self-identification. Muslim kings and invaders like Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznvi, Mohammad Ghori and Ahmad Shah Abdali are seen as heroes of Islam and their battles are depicted as a fight against the pagans. This coincides with Pakistan’s identity of itself as an upholder of Islamic culture.

These figures are celebrated in school textbooks. Various roads and monuments around the country are named after them. Three of the most powerful short range ballistic missiles created by the state are named after them. And so, stripped off their political realities and transformed into caricatures, these historical characters – be it Shivaji and Aurangzeb or Qasim and Abdali – are celebrated or reviled in these two countries, desperate to project themselves in opposition to each other, but annoyingly similar in their habits.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.

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