different rules

Go ahead, rename Aurangzeb Road. Our view of medieval Indian history is already communalised

It is near impossible to find a Muslim ruler being publicly remembered or celebrated by the Indian state.

“I am OUTRAGED that a road where Billionaires live and a stone’s throw away from the Prime Minister’s residence; is named after one of the most tyrannical tormentor perpetrator of Intolerant Inhuman Barbaric crimes in India.”

This passionate line – reproduced verbatim with capitalisation and bold font intact – is taken from a petition by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee to rename Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road as Guru Tegh Bahadur Road.

That Aurangzeb wasn’t the most liberal of Indian rulers (to put it mildly) is a common historical narrative. What I found more interesting about the petition, however, was the contrast it drew with Akbar. “We have no misgivings against the name of the Akbar Road, as Akbar was known as a benign ruler who treated Muslims & Hindus, and all other religions equally with all respect,” clarified the petition, striving to make it clear that its gripe was only with Aurangzeb.

While the one road in India named after the “tyrannical tormentor” Aurangzeb seems to be reaching the end of its lifetime, what about the “benign” Akbar? While Aurangzeb must be erased from public memory for his misdeed, surely Akbar, as a man who “treated Muslims & Hindus, and all other religions equally with all respect,” should be feted publicly by modern-day India?

Selective memory

Unfortunately, modern-day India seems to have missed that memo. There seem to be no roads, roundabouts, airports or museums named after Jalaluddin, post-1947. There is an Akbar Road in Lutyens’ Dehi (which runs parallel to Aurangzeb Road, in fact) but credit for that goes to the British, who made sure that their new capital city embedded the historical memory of the seven cities of Delhi. Akbar might have been one of the most enlightened rulers of his age whose actions would shape the subcontinent for centuries, but for the modern Indian state, he seems to be a persona non grata.

Interestingly, modern India hasn’t forgotten Akbar completely: it takes great care to publicly remember Maharana Pratap, the ruler of Mewar who fought Akbar at the famous Battle of Haldighati. Kolkata has a park named after Pratap, Mumbai a chowk and Lucknow a road. Udaipur’s airport is called the Maharana Pratap Airport and equestrian statues of the Rajput king abound across India, with one even making it to Parliament – one of only three medieval rulers to be so feted (the other two being Ranjit Singh and Shivaji).

Clearly then, there is a communal angle at play as to how India publically remembers its medieval history. This simplistic segmentation of history into “Hindu” and “Muslim”, a narrative of a “clash of civilisations” was first put forward by colonial historians but seems to have taken root firmly in modern-day India (and also, of course, in Pakistan).

Flawed narrative

This narrative is so dominant that it is close to impossible to find a Muslim ruler being publicly remembered or celebrated by the Indian state. Even medieval India’s most dominant power, the Mughals, lie forgotten, to say nothing of the many sultanates that once dotted the subcontinent and played a crucial role in shaping modern India.

While Pratap is a good example, this narrative of “Hindu versus Muslim” medieval history reaches its zenith with Shivaji. Shivaji, by all accounts, was a remarkable individual and his personal exploits make for exciting – and inspiring – reading. Nonetheless, the dominant public narrative of him being a “Hindu” king engaged in a millenarian war against “Muslim” rulers is difficult to substantiate.

As Stewart Gordon says quite plainly in his historical work, The Marathas, “Shivaji was not attempting to create a universal Hindu rule." Shivaji freely allied with Muslim powers such as Bijapur and Golconda even against Hindu rulers such as the Nayaks of Karnataka. In one particularly interesting example, Shivaji allied with Aurangzeb’s army as the Mughals attempted to conquer the largest kingdom in the Deccan, the Bijapur Sultanate. As part of the pact, Shivaji’s son, Shambhaji was given the rank of a Mughal mansabdar (commander). If anyone wants to play devil’s advocate in favour of Aurangzeb Road, I guess this would be one fact he would want to present. Like any other political player in the Deccan of the time, Shivaji tried a number of strategies, none of them necessarily matching with an overarching “Hindu versus Muslim” narrative that many in the modern age would like to foist upon him.

Popular verdict

While rivers of ink are being spilt in academia and in English-language newspapers over the communalisation of history, as these examples show, at the popular level the fight is already over as far as the medieval period is concerned. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the verdict quite clear when he announced that he considers the past “1,200 years” of Indian history a period of slavery. This of course means that no matter his individual merits, each and every Muslim ruler is in the dock, be it “tyrannical tormentor” Aurangzeb or his “benign” great grandfather Akbar.

Given these conditions, reversing the British decision to name a road after Aurangzeb will be nothing more than a footnote, if even that. The real story – and tragedy – is how we have cemented a popular narrative of “Hindu versus Muslim” in our reading of medieval India.

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