In August 2015, New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. On the surface, this was done because Aurangzeb wasn’t a very nice man – or so goes most of popular Indian history. Of special note are his policies that supposedly discriminated against non-Muslims and his support for puritanical religion: a special tax on non-Muslims, temple destruction banning music and so on. So terrible is Aurangzeb’s image in modern India that not only Hindutva ideologues but even liberals and some left-wingers came out in support of the renaming.
Now, after Aurangzeb, the BJP has set its sights on Akbar Road, another street in Lutyens’ Delhi. On Tuesday, VK Singh, minister of state for external affairs, publicly demanded it be renamed Maharana Pratap Singh Road, after the Sisodia ruler of Mewar who was defeated by Akbar’s forces in 1576 at the Battle of Haldighati. Singh isn’t alone. The BJP chief minister of Haryana ML Khattar and Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy have backed him, as has the party's national spokesperson, Shaina Chudasama – who, in a rush of enthusiasm, declared that Akbar was like Hitler.
Aurangzeb and his great-grandfather Jalaluddin Akbar are the Cain and Abel of popular Mughal history. Even while Aurangzeb is reviled, his great-grand father Akbar shines through as an embodiment of the Idea of India: a broad-minded, catholic ruler who united the large parts of the subcontinent under one flag and also happened to be Muslim. It was a Nehruvian jackpot. That even Akbar is now being targeted shows just how far to the Right India has moved. From now, practically no Muslim can stake a firm claim to be a part of the country’s historical pantheon – not even if you were one of the country's most powerful emperors in all of its history.
Secular pin-up boy
Akbar made alliances with Hindu Rajputs, who were the backbone of his army – even at Haldighati, Akbar entrusted his forces to a Rajput, Man Singh (who has his own Delhi road). He had a Khatri, Todar Mal, for his finance minister, whose revenue system more than anything, ensured that the Mughals ruled for three centuries. Theological debates were organised by the emperor at a time when religious-driven prejudice was so strong that most Indians wouldn’t even so much as touch each other for fear of losing their jati and "upper" castes thought most of their countrymen subhuman. Jalaluddin, it seems, even left formal Islam, founding a religion called the Deen-e-Ilahi, angering the Muslim clergy – a grudge held till today by conservative Muslims.
The clamour to rename Aurangzeb Road was pinned on the man being a tyrant. However, in spite of these spades of liberalness, why is Akbar in the cross-hairs today?
The answer is simple: the powerful demand to strike out Akbar Road shows rather clearly that the move to rename Aurangzeb Road had very little to do with the character of Aurangzeb itself. While modern scholarship has shown that the colonial binary between Akbar and Aurangzeb was a false one, making cardboard cut-outs of complex historical figures and administrative systems, at the end of the day, in the public sphere, Akbar or Aurangzeb really doesn’t matter: any Muslim ruler simply has no place in the popular historical imagination as an Indian anymore.
It is important to note that revulsion for Akbar isn’t a one-off thing popping up now with a few leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is actually rather widespread and in keeping up with the overall rise of Savarkarite Hindutva nationalism, which treats Muslims as permanent outsiders to the Indian nation. The internet abounds with narratives of Akbar which, contrary to all historical evidence, treats him as a religious tyrant. Even worse, Ekta Kapoor, the storyteller laureate of Hindi-speaking India, has produced a television show which has an out-and-out negative portrayal of Jalaluddin.
Most worryingly, Akbar has been a political untouchable since 1947. For a person of his stature and power, surprisingly little of Akbar is seen on the street. India loves to name public works after Hindu rulers such as Shivaji and, of course, Pratap but Akbar, a man many times more powerful than both of them combined, is conspicuous by his absence. India has no roads, roundabouts, airports or museums named after Akbar; no equestrian statues of a man who was the most powerful sovereign in the world during his time. (The Akbar Road at the centre of this debate is a name bestowed by the British, who made sure that their new capital city embedded the historical memory of the seven cities of Delhi.)
Maharana Pratap, on the other hand, is well remembered. Kolkata has a park named after him, Mumbai a chowk and Lucknow a road. Udaipur has its 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). This when Pratap was the ruler of a tiny principality and was rather easily defeated by Akbar – a man whose empire had a massive impact on not only the rest of the Mughals and the British Raj but even the modern Indian state.
Towards a Hindu Pakistan
While Akbar and Aurangzeb are attacked for their faults – an easy enough thing to do given how different modern values are from medieval times – Pratap is let off. Temple destruction is a hot topic of debate but untouchability and caste is silently forgotten. Tsunamis of uninformed outrage crash onto the internet over the Mughal treatment of Hindus but there is pin-drop silence on the Rajput treatment of Dalits. If one is objective about using 21st century values to judge 16th century potentates, no one will come out smelling of roses.
In the end, the personal qualities of the icons India choses is hardly the matter here – it is their religious community. India is simply hurtling towards becoming a mirror image of Pakistan. Pakistan’s Muslim nationalism disallows it from accepting non-Muslims into its popular historical pantheon. The country literary begins its history from the time Islam enters Sindh and excises great rulers such as Ranjit Singh of Lahore as well as its rich Buddhist pre-Islamic past. Bhagat Singh, a man claimed by almost the entire political spectrum in India, struggles to get even a square named after himself in the very Pakistani city where he gave up his life struggling against colonialism.
Increasingly, Akbar is now to India what Bhagat Singh is to Pakistan – a remarkably admirable historical figure struggling to be remembered simply because he happens to have been born into the wrong religious community.