Akbar is considered great because he was the second subcontinental ruler, after Ashoka, to conquer independent principalities and meld them together into an empire. By contrast, Rana Pratap was defeated and deprived of his kingdom by Akbar's army in 1576, but continued to wage a guerrilla war against the Mughals.
Rajnath Singh’s intervention in historiography nudges us to celebrate resistance, even failed, as Rana Pratap’s did. The vanquished Rajput ruler is an inspiration because, as the Home Minister said, “The valour and sacrifice the Maharana demonstrated in the Mewar region was equally impressive [in relation to Akbar] and he should be accorded more respect and dignity.”
The heart of the matter
Singh forgets that the essence of the story of Rana Pratap informs contemporary resistance movements too. Should not we celebrate them as well? Or shouldn’t Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at least rethink their attitude to those who, in the manner of Rana Pratap, wage an unequal battle against the Indian state?
Akbar’s annexation of Pratap’s principality of Mewar is of little relevance. What is of greater significance is the valour he displayed and the sacrifices he made. From Singh’s perception of history, rebels and dissidents in India today will all become heroes of tomorrow’s history – from Medha Patkar to Teesta Setalvad to perhaps even secessionists. If Rana Pratap was great, then so are they, pitting their steely resolve against the might of the state.
But “respect and dignity” are not accorded even to those who oppose the Indian state through non-violent methods. Just the opposite – the Modi government entangles them in court cases and freezes their bank accounts, which are the contemporary equivalent of the medieval military strategy of giving no quarter to rebels and scorching the earth to deprive them of resources.
Think Teesta Setalvad, think Greenpeace India. You could, should you be as imaginative as Singh, see in Setalvad’s battle against the government the thrust and parry of Pratap’s against the Mughals in Haldighati.
The theme is the same, the script modern. The Rana did not wish to live in subjugation and so fought against the Mughals. Setalvad, like so many others, wants to bring to account those who triggered the 2002 Gujarat riots and so crusades tirelessly against them.
A witness does a U-turn in return for a bribe and deposes against Setlavad. She is then accused of embezzling funds collected for a museum to commemorate those who perished in the 2002 riots. The government besieges her, as the fort of Chittor once was. Setalvad’s capacity to wage an unequal battle for justice is ascribed to her relatively wealthy family background, it claims. She sacrifices nothing other than her time and energy, for she doesn’t have to earn a livelihood, according to the whispering campaign.
What about Medha Patkar then? She could well have been living in middle-class comfort, but chose to fight the losing battle for upholding the rights of tribals whose land was (and is) to be submerged by the Narmada river. Every now and then, when the villages are on the verge of submergence, she leads their residents to stand in the rushing waters. Photos are taken, stories are printed here and there – but the Indian state still has its way in the end.
Forget Patkar, her compensation, you’d say, includes grabbing headlines and appearing on television. So what about Dr GN Saibaba? Wheel-bound, frail of health, he was abducted by police and thrown into jail for supposedly being a Maoist sympathiser.
These are stories of just a few people fighting battles they are bound to lose. Their methods are non-violent and constitutional. Yet the state turns deaf to their pleas. This is why some dissenters take to arms.
Into this category fall the Maoists. Their intent is ostensibly noble – they want to protect the tribals from the exploitative policy of the Indian state and ensure their land is not usurped for promoting big business. Then there are secessionists who claim they want their lands freed from India’s rule. To their supporters, they could perhaps seem like latter-day Rana Prataps.
What inspired Rana Pratap to continue fighting the Mughals till his last breath? Did he hope to win? Or was it his pride and valour that dissuaded him from emulating Rajput rulers who surrendered to the Mughals? It is impossible for historians to tell.
But we can be certain of one thing – there are just too many Haldighatis being waged in today’s India. We can only speculate on the motivations of dissidents who continue to resist the Indian state, even though they are aware that their mission will not succeed. Perhaps they want to challenge the moral authority that the state rests on. Ironically, conflicts with dissidents often force the state to commit actions that are amoral and anti-people. In the long run, this erodes the legitimacy of governments and leads to them being toppled. In a democracy, that would mean being voted out.
This is one lesson that the Modi government, particularly Singh’s Home Ministry, has ignored in the story of Rana Pratap.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. The psychology of rightwing groups is the theme of his novel, The Hour Before Dawn, which is available in bookstores.
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