Lajpat Rai’s comparison of Hindu-Muslim relations to Christian sectarian conflict already imputing an in-built intimacy, he underlined their relative peaceful coexistence under Muslim rule. He not only lauded Akbar for his interest in and patronage of all faiths, but questioned whether “even Aurangzeb” had ever seriously tried to “overpower and outcast” Hinduism. Vincent Smith was criticised for claiming that under the Delhi sultans, the “public exercise of Hindu religion was illegal”, “frequently treated as capital offence.” Quoting William Archer, he argued that Muslim princes had ruled over Hindu subjects as Hindu princes had ruled over Muslims – with a “very tolerable impartiality of rule or misrule.” Rai concluded that “Hindus had come to realise that, after all, the Mohammedan rule in India was not so bad or tyrannical and oppressive as they were told by interested historians” and that “even Aurangzeb was not, after all, as bad as they had supposed him to be”.

Lajpat Rai challenged British imperialist discourses, which contrasted an India in which Hindus and Muslims were historically locked in religious bigotry and conflict, with Europe as the locus of enlightenment and civilisation. He instead conjured late medieval/ early modern Europe as a site of religious conflict and dogmatism, against which the “Muslim” period of Indian history was contrasted as a site of peaceful pluralism. While Europe had ruthlessly stamped out religious diversity, India’s Muslim rulers had not. Thus, just as Lajpat Rai affirmed America’s federalism as a model for realising a culturally plural polity, and Britain’s history to tackle the Muslim conquest of India, he pointed to Europe’s wars of religion to highlight the relative peace and tolerance under India’s “Muslim” period.

Instead of massacres, conflict and oppression, Lajpat Rai’s history of the “Muslim” period evoked images of peace, fairness and even benevolence. Refuting Vincent Smith’s evaluation of Akbar’s rule as representing a “vast multitude of petty local despotisms” kept in order by “an overpowering autocracy”, Lajpat Rai proclaimed that this was a better description of British rule in India. He constructed Akbar’s reign as a period of good statesmanship, brilliant and efficient administration, and economic abundance – conveying images of order and prosperity. In doing so, he again diverged from British as well as Indian/Hindu nationalist discourses which presented Muslim rule in India as a period of despotism, misrule and anarchy.

Motifs of historical Muslim violence and oppression against Hindus had the potential to arouse resentment and animosity at worst and otherness and estrangement at best. By positing an alternative history of “Muslim” rule marked by fairness towards Hindus, Lajpat Rai implicitly nudged Hindus to view Muslims as a community whom they could trust, live with peacefully and unite with for common action. This reconfiguration of India’s history encouraged present-day Hindus and Muslims to recognise each other’s worth, “take pride” in each other’s history and culture and see themselves as sharing a common Indian identity. While his newly imagined Indian nation led him to readjust his historical narrative, revising the latter in turn enabled him to rationalise, legitimise and fortify his reinvented Indian nation. As these words from The Problem of National Education show, Lajpat Rai was conscious of the role rewriting history could play in fostering present Indian national unity

“The teaching of Hindu-Mohammedan unity can be greatly facilitated by the writing of special and carefully worded theses on the lives of our national heroes. Lives of Shivaji, Pratap, and Govind Singh, as well as those of Akbar, Sher Shah and Shah Jahan, must be carefully written . . . they should be scrupulously true, but written from a broad, patriotic and national point of view. They should be a composite production of patriotic and scientific history. Hindus should learn to take pride in the achievements of Mohammedan heroes, saints, and writers, and the Mohammedans in those of the Hindus.”

Rewriting history to foster a national identity and unity was of course not unique to India. In the 19th century, Britain had seen similar attempts to revise history to forge a British national identity that included the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish alongside the English. Even real historical conflicts between the Scots and the English were deliberately ignored to create a British national identity and unity in the face of constant wars with France. A reconfigured history – of the Normans and Saxons (from whom the English claimed ancestry) eventually setting aside their enmity in the interest of national unity – was advanced to foster British national unity in the present. Lajpat Rai’s reinterpreted history of Hindu-Muslim relations intended much the same for his newly elaborated Indian nation in the early twentieth century, although he in fact moved closer to, rather than further away from, how professional historians today understand India’s medieval history.

To be sure, residues of an earlier historical imagination remained. Apart from the motif of Hindu resistance to Muslim rule, Rai’s narrative still sporadically associated the “Muslim” period with medieval decline and stagnation. In one newspaper article, he claimed that the position of Indian women had declined since Vedic times, “the worst changes having occurred under the influence of Moslem dominance.” In his review of Smith’s Akbar, he pronounced that there was “great truth” in Smith’s remark that the “Mohammedan period” was “necessarily a chronicle of kings, courts, and conquests, rather than one of national and social evolution.” Here, despite his elaborate indigenisation of India’s “Muslim” rulers in Young India, he also referred to Akbar as “a foreigner, in whose veins there was not a drop of Indian blood.” But rather than belying his endeavour, these remarks highlight both the fragility of Lajpat Rai’s new vision and the genuine and enormous effort he had mustered elsewhere to break out of his older mode of thought to forge a new, shared Indian national identity for India’s Hindus and Muslims.

Excerpted with permission from Being Hindu, Being Indian: Lala Lajpat Rai’s Ideas of Nationhood, Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav, Penguin India.