Battle for history

5 quintessentially Indian things that will have to go if we #RemoveMughalsFromBooks

From the Hindi language to shalwar suits to having Delhi as India’s capital – without the Mughal period and the preceding Delhi Sultanate, modern India would be a rather different place.

Twitter has many positive features but enabling careful debate and discussion is not one of them. Hate speech on the social network has reached levels where a growing chorus of voices are asking whether Twitter is dying.

This is, of course, doubly relevant on Indian Twitter, where all of Wednesday #RemoveMughalsFromBooks trended, a particular vituperative and simple-minded hashtag, even taking past trends into account.

“Mughals” are of course a rather well-known dog whistle with which to attack India’s Muslim minority. In the 1980s, during the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid, for example, “Babur ke aulad”, sons of Babur, was a frequent barb thrown at Muslims. Thus, on Twitter, #RemoveMughalsFromBooks soon began to encompass all of what colonial historiography had taken to classifying as the “Muslim period”.

This period starts with the Turkic sultanate of Qutb-ud-din Aibak in Delhi at the start of the 13th century and continued till the last Mughal Emperor was banished to Myanmar for leading the Revolt of 1857 against the British. In between, the Indo-Persian culture that these rulers of Delhi and the many sultanates that dotted India subscribed to, embedded itself deeply into the land – so much so that modern-India as we know it would not exist without it. Here are a few key contributions.

Delhi as capital
In the Indian mind, Delhi is the natural capital of the Indian nation. In the mid-1940s, as Subhash Chandra Bose, a Bengali politician, led an army of Indians based out of Singapore, his evocative cry was “Dilli chalo”, march on Delhi.

Remember, at the time, Delhi was a small town, dwarfed by the giant industrial centres of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It had been like this for some time. In the mid 19th century, when the poet Ghalib travelled to Calcutta, he was so wonderstruck by the avenues of Chowringhee that that he wrote a sher speaking of his jealousy as a Delhiwala. Even then, the emotional importance of Delhi did not decline.

The installation of Delhi as India’s capital started with the Turkic invasions. Right from Qutb-ud-din Aibak to the last Mughal emperor, Delhi was the political centre of North India and then – as the Mughals expanded – the centre of the subcontinent itself. Pan- subcontinental empires in India’s ancient period had their centre of gravity to the east, either in eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

So strong was Delhi’s siren song that even the British – looking for a contiguous link with the Mughals in order to legitimise their rule – moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in the 1930s. After 1947, the modern Indian state has maintained Delhi as the capital – and along with it, the Mughal link. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it quite clear that he considers Mughal rule to be a time of slavery, so strong is the imagery of Mughal Delhi in the Indian mind that even Modi needs to be seen standing on top of the imperial Mughal palace, the Red Fort, on days of national importance such as Republic Day or Independence Day.

The Hindi language
In 2009, Pranab Mukherjee quipped that he had never aspired to be prime minister because, as a Bengali, his Hindi wasn’t good enough. Mukherjee isn’t exactly a straight talker, but this had a ring of truth: while on paper, India is a federal union of linguistic states, Hindi occupies a charmed space as the country’s “Rajbhasha” or language of the Union government. But how did it ever get that way?

Hindi is what is called a register (or style) of a language known as Khadi Boli (or Hindustani). While all languages have multiple registers (think Queen’s English and Nicki Minaj lyrics), Khadi Boli is rare in that it has two formal, written registers: Hindi and Urdu.

Use tons of Persian in your Khadi Boli and it becomes Ghalibian Urdu, boatloads of Sanskrit and you get Dinkarian Hindi. Khadi Boli, though, is only one of the many languages across the cow belt and one of hundreds of languages across India. In fact, even in the cow belt, historically, Khadi Boli was rarely used as a formal or literary language. In ancient and even in medieval India, the language of literature has mostly been Braj (think Kabir) or Awadhi (Ramcharitramanas).

How did Khadi Boli replace these two? The answer lies in its location: Delhi. Khadi is the native language of Delhi – the centre of power in north India ever since the first Turkic sultanate was set up. Thus, when Persian was losing sway as a literary language in the 18th century, the North Indian elite took to using a Persianised form of Khadi Boli called, of course, Urdu. A couple of centuries later, Hindi nationalism looked to change Urdu by replacing these imported Persian words with a more Sanskritised lexicon. Thus, was born modern standard Hindi.

Without the Mughals and their base in the Delhi region, for all you know, Hindi would not be a lingua franca and much of the cow belt would still be writing in Braj, Rajasthani or Awadhi, as they were a millennia ago.

Hindustani classical music
Without the Mughals – and Turkic rules in general – India would have no Hindustani classical music as we know it today. The dhrupad genre of Hindustani classical was shaped in the Mughal court by masters such as Tansen, under the direct patronage of the Mughal Emperor. So influential is Tansen that almost all gharanas try to trace a link to him.

Earlier, the 13th-century poet laureate of the Delhi Sultanate, Amir Khusro, is said to have invented the sitar, tabla and musical forms such as taraana, qual and khayaal – a one-man army whose contribution to the art and culture of north India is seminal.

The shalwar qameez
If Indian women had a national dress, what would it be? The sari? Undoubtedly, a magnificent garment, but one that is now almost totally confined to the marriage closet. India’s true national dress is, of course, the shalwar qameez. Step out into any city, be it Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi or Hyderabad, the salwar suit is the primary sartorial choice of the modern Indian woman.

So quintessentially Indian is the shalwar qameez that there have actually been a spate of incidents where colleges have banned jeans, western-style trousers and skirts and urged women to stick to sanskari Indian dresses such as the shalwar qameez.

Well, if we want to #RemoveMughalsFromBooks, to be logically consistent, we’ll also have to #RemoveSalwarSuitsfromCupboards because, guess what – the garment came into India during the sultanate and Mughal periods. Professor of Anthropology at the University of London, Emma Tarlo writes:

Muslim women generally wore a veil (dupatta), a long tunic (kamiz) with trousers (shalwar) or the wide-flared skirt like trousers (gharara). Following the Muslim conquest of northern India, many Hindu women gradually adopted such dress, eventually making it the regional style for parts of Northern India.

Oh and achkans, bandhgalas, sherwanis – and even the newly christened Modi jacket – will have to go as well. They are all sadly smeared by association with the Mughals.

The samosa
The samosa is a deep-fried pillar of Indianness. Back in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s heyday, his supporters coined the slogan, “jab tak rahega samosa main aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar main Lalu”: as long as there are samosas filled with potato, Lalu will be around in Bihar.

Like the Mughals, the samosa is Central Asian. The name is derived from the medieval Persian word “sambosag” and in Mughal kitchens the pastry was often stuffed with minced meat. The mince samosa still survives and is popular as a Ramzan staple and as a small Hyderabadi turnover called the luqmi, amongst other variants. After leaving the Mughal kitchens, though, the pastry was most often stuffed with potato, the tuber being in itself a very recent addition to India, available only after Europeans found a route to the Americas. Two non-potato variants are the cauliflower samosa of Bengal and the Jain banana mash samosa.

The samosa is, of course, only one food item that would need to be eased out. Vast arrays of sweets (halwas, barfis), pulaos, biryanis and kababs will have to go through a rigorous vetting procedure in case India ever decides to do a thorough job of expunging the Mughals from its history.

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