Of the many ways a sidelined minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government can grab some attention, nothing seems to be more effective than stirring the communal pot. That’s exactly what Home Minster Rajnath Singh did on Sunday, hinting at a grand epithetical conspiracy to deny Mewar’s ruler, Maharana Pratap Singh his due, even while setting up a comparison with Pratap’s contemporary, Mughal emperor Akbar, who fought Pratap in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576.

Maha meaning

Secret conspiracies and shadowy visions of victimisation are, in many ways, the bread and butter of the Hindutva ideology that Rajnath Singh subscribes to – a rare case of a majority group running afraid of a minority. In this case, though, the patent absurdity of Rajnath’s Singh’s victimisation complex can be seen from the fact that "maha"’ – the prefix in Pratap’s title of "Maha-rana" – in a number of Indian languages, including Singh’s mother tongue of Hindi, literally means “great”.

Like the absurdity of the accusation that the descriptor “great” isn’t associated with Pratap Singh’s name, the underlying charge that somehow India’s official histories give more primacy to Akbar, over his adversary Pratap is absurd.

Akbar forgotten, Pratap remembered

Far from mollycoddling Akbar, modern-day India, in a willful act of amnesia, seems to have completely forgotten one of its most impactful rulers. Let us take public works, given their high visibility: there seem to be no roads, roundabouts, airports or museums named after Akbar, post-1947. There is an Akbar Road in Lutyens’ Dehi 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.

In comparison, the Indian state takes great care to publicly remember Maharana Pratap. Kolkata has a park named after him, Mumbai a chowk and Lucknow a road. Udaipur’s airport is called the Maharana Pratap Airport and Delhi’s interstate bus terminal is named after the Rana. Equestrian statues of Pratap 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, Rajnath Singh’s paranoia of Akbar swamping Pratap in India’s historical memory is just that – paranoia.

Material impact

What is interesting in this massive imbalance in the way India fetes Pratap over Akbar is, materially, how much more impactful the latter was compared to the former. Akbar laid the foundation of an empire that ruled the subcontinent for three centuries. The structure of governance he set up was adopted by the Raj and elements of it still exist today. The musicians he patronised fundamentally impacted Indian music and our modern songs and films still feature tunes composed in Akbar’s court. The religious scholarship that was undertaken in his kingdom defines our theology today: Tulsidas was a subject of Akbar’s.

Pratap, on the other hand, was the rule of small principality which, soon after his death, merged with the Mughal empire. The material sphere of his impact, by extension, will obviously be magnitudes smaller than Akbar’s.

But, it might be argued, material impact isn’t everything. Pratap’s tale of holding out against an overbearing foe is a gripping and inspiring tale. Fair enough.

Some heroes are more equal than others

But India has a rich history and there are other tales of valour: one is the story of Chand Bibi, the remarkable Queen Regent of Ahmednagar, a Sultanate in the Deccan. Chand Bibi, like Pratap, also defended her kingdom against the forces of Emperor Akbar in the face of overwhelming odds. And she did it as a woman, with all the difficulties that would entail. In a fascinating bit from historian Richard Eaton’s book, A Social History of the Deccan, a Mughal general mocks Ahmadnagar’s diplomat, Afzal Khan, calling him a “eunuch” for fighting under a woman. In a line that Bollywood would take up after four centuries, Khan simply stated that he had “eaten the salt of the Sultans of the Deccan” and would die for them.

In spite of this, Chand Bibi is a forgotten figure. There are no airports, roads or bus terminals named after her for her courage. No roundabouts with her perched atop a rearing steed.

We see the same dialectic at play with Shivaji in his battles against Aurangzeb. Chand Bibi was the first of many powers in the Deccan to resist Mughal supremacy. Five sultanates in the Deccan countered Mughal belligerence as part of a long drawn out war and it was only Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb who was able to subdue them. Yet of all these tales of Deccan resistance, why is Shivaji the only one played up in the state’s histories and in the popular realm? Why is, say, Malik Ambar, Peshwa of Ahmednagar, who pioneered the light cavalry guerrilla tactics that Shivaji would use later on, forgotten?

Hindu-Muslim narrative

If the unique key to being remembered in modern India is not material impact or even intangibles like valour, what is it? What separates out Shivaji from Chand Bibi or Malik Ambar in the Deccan. And from the Battle of Haldighati, why is Pratap remembered but Akbar and the general commanding the Mughal army, Man Singh of Amber, left to fade out?

The answer it seems is a narrative that sets up a millenarian belief in communal conflict – a largely imagined Hindu-Muslim crusade. Anything that can be force-fitted into this narrative seems to be worth celebrating as a part of the history of modern India. Anything that doesn’t is forgotten. Shivaji versus Aurangzeb plugs in to this narrative as does Maharana Pratap against Akbar. Both Pratap and Shivaji are presumably glorified for supposedly fighting Muslims. Man Singh, Akbar’s general is forgotten. As are the exploits of Chand Bibi and Malik Ambar in the absence of any overarching narrative of Hindu-Muslim conflict.

History is often seen as a passive recording of events gone by. Far from it, it is an active process of creating a past and is informed as much by our present as by previous events. It seems that when we create our national histories, we require a mirror of our 20th century obsession with communal categories.

Jinnahesque gesture

This is something that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had bought up in 1940 as he laid out his arguments for what he believed would prove the existence of the “Two Nation Theory”.
“It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. “


There are a great many ideas that have been relegated to obsolescence since 1940 but Jinnah’s malevolent history lesson still rings true, it seems. Rajnath Singh’s Pratap versus Akbar is a small illustration. Narendra Modi himself made his views quite clear when he announced, soon after being sworn in as prime minster, that he considers the past “1,200 years” of Indian history a period of “slavery”. For Modi, literally not a single Indian Muslim ruler could be a positive part of the nation’s history. Moreover, to mark Modi’s first anniversary in office, the BJP is planning a celebration of India’s Hindu historical icons.

The Jinnahesque prescription of deriving inspiration from different sources of history, one apparently Hindu and the other apparently Muslim, it seems has now taken root in the highest echelons of India’s government. Acche din, indeed.