Battle for history

How Amit Shah and the BJP have twisted the story of Salar Masud and Raja Suheldev

Should an uncertain history and malleable popular memories be turned into a register of grievances that need to be redressed in the 21th century?

For three years now, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah has been praising Raja Suheldev, who is said to be an 11th century ruler of Shrasvati, located in present-day Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district. Shah has often hailed Suheldev as a national hero, and unveiled his statue in Bahraich in February 2016. Two months later, the Indian Railways, perhaps taking a cue from Shah, reversed its policy of not naming trains after personalities and started the Suheldev Express between Ghazipur and Delhi

Last month, the Uttar Pradesh government announced plans to install a statue of Suheldev – to be cast in bronze and measuring 16 feet to 18 feet in height – inside the Ambedkar Memorial in Lucknow. It is as if Suheldev is to the BJP what BR Ambedkar is to the Bahujan Samaj Party.

In a speech last year in which he condemned cow protectionists as “anti-social by night and gau rakshaks by day”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “You must have seen in the olden times a badshah who used to put a herd of cows in front of his army. It put the raja [he was fighting] in a dilemma.”

The raja’s dilemma was that cows would inevitably die in an assault. He clandestinely released the cows yoked before the badshah’s army, and then launched an offensive in which the badshah was killed in 1034.

The raja was none other than Suheldev. (His name is spelt differently by different writers. Their style will be respected in this piece as well.)

But who was the irreverently clever badshah in Modi’s speech? It was Salar Masud, popularly known as Ghazi Miyan, whose mausoleum in Bahraich attracts thousands of people, a large number of them Hindus, during his urs (death ceremony) celebrations every year.

Therein lies an irony – Suheldev, much feted today, barely has any existence outside the popular memory and history of Salar Masud, who is said to have been a nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni, that dreadful conqueror of Hindutva’s imagination who symbolises the brutality of idol-hating Muslims.

Masud’s death turned him into a martyr. Though seldom mentioned in Hindutva narratives, his commander subsequently slew Suheldev.

The Mirror of Masud

These details, spun in manifold ways, have been taken from Mirat-i-Masudi or Mirror of Masud, a Persian hagiography written by Abdur Rahman Chishti in the 1620s. A biography authored six centuries after the subject’s death, obviously, raises several questions about its authenticity.

This point is made sharply by historian Shahid Amin in his masterly work, Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan.

To begin with, Abdur Rahman claimed his story of Masud was based on Mulla Mahmud Ghaznavi’s Twarikh. Facts collected from Twarikh were then vouched for by none other than Masud, who appeared to Abdur Rahman in a dream to corroborate the story he was writing. Amin writes in The Afterlife, “Quite clearly, Mirat-i-Masudi…was the artefact of a Sufi saint’s [Abdur Rahman] febrile intellect.”

No wonder, Abdur Rahman’s narrative has several discrepancies: Mahmud Ghazni did not have a sister named Sitr-i-Mualla, the mother of Masud in Mirat; his father Salar Sahu was not the commander of Ghaznavid forces in Hindustan; and neither did he have a nephew named Salar Masud.

Twarikh has neither come down to us nor has it been quoted in other contemporary works. It was most likely Abdur Rahman’s invention to give credibility to Mirat, presaging the literary trick the Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges employs in his stories.

Nor did Mahmud Ghazni’s troops venture as far as present-day East Uttar Pradesh, an occurrence that was to happen nearly a century later. Masud came to the area in his teens, after being exiled from Ghazni because of court intrigues.

According to Mirat, before coming to India, Masud accompanied Mahmud Ghazni on his campaign to Somnath. For a hagiography, Mirat is surprisingly silent on the role Masud played there. This could have been only because Abdur Rahman would have had a tough time explaining, as Amin points out, “the young man’s complete absence in the consistently bloated historical accounts of that expedition”.

The real-life Masud

By contrast, Masud appears in documents pertaining to Muslim rulers in India long before Mirat was written in the 17th century. By then, there was already a flourishing cult of Salar Masud, who had morphed into Ghazi (an Islamic fighter) Miyan.

The poet Amir Khusro alluded to him in a letter he wrote in 1291. In 1341, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta accompanied the Sultan of Delhi, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, to the Bahraich shrine. Tughlaq’s successor Firoz Shah Tughlaq had his head shaved after Bahraich’s warrior-saint appeared in his dream. In 1571, the Mughal emperor Akbar made a land grant for the upkeep of the Ghazi Miyan shrine.

Innumerable ballads celebrating Ghazi Miyan’s supernatural powers were already extant. It was precisely why Muslims and Hindus, the poor and the royalty alike, had taken to visiting the Bahraich mausoleum. Perhaps Abdur Rahman wrote Mirat, Amin suggests, “to reign [rein] in the multiplicity of popular accounts… within an historicist hagiography”.

For the purpose of writing history, Abdur Rahman had to invent a genealogy for Ghazi Miyan, whose origin was not known. This purpose was served by imagining a relationship between Masud and Ghazni, who had begun to be credited by Islamic scholars, much before the 17th century, for bringing Islam to India. Masud was thus claimed for Islam, his supernatural powers projected as arising from his quest to spread Islam.

It is in this part-fictive, part-mythical world that the rivalry between Salar Masud and Raja Sohal Deo (same as Suheldev) has to be located.

Once exiled to India, Masud, Mirat says, established his kingdom at Satrikh, located near present-day Barabanki. It was from here that he went on hunts even as he dispatched his commanders to bring territory under his sway.

On one of his hunting expeditions in the jungles of Bahraich, Masud came across the Suraj Kund, a water body dedicated to the worship of the Sun God, represented by the image of Bala Rikh. Mirat claims the weekly worship of the Sun God distressed Masud.

Bahraich was then populated by cowherds. It was India’s Wild West of the American lore, so to speak. Their chiefs asked Masud to leave their territory or else fight them.

The “unbelievers”, as Mirat describes Masud’s rivals, camped in the jungle. Masud drew his army out to meet them. On being told his cattle had been driven away by Sohal Deo, an enraged Masud attacked him. Thousands died. For a week, Masud buried the dead, retiring thereafter to Bahraich, where he rested under a large mahua tree by the Suraj Kund.

The locale made a deep impression on Masud, who had all trees uprooted except the mahua tree. A garden was laid out. His trusted slave, Miyan Rajab, wanted to know whether his master would want the Suraj Kund and the Bala Rikh image to be destroyed. The master declined consent.

The final battle between the confederation of chiefs led by Sohal Deo and Masud began on June 14, 1034. Many of Masud’s soldiers perished in the battlefield, their bodies then cast into the Suraj Kund, which Mirat, hyperbolically, described as a site “sacred … for all the unbelievers of India”.

This desecration was to become ideological ammunition for Arya Samaj ideologues from the late 19th century onwards.

With the bodies of his soldiers disposed of, Masud mounted his favourite grey mare Lilli to court martyrdom at the age of 19. A handful of his surviving servants buried Masud in the garden he had laid out. The next day Masud’s “base commander” at Bahraich killed Sohal Deo.

From Masud to Ghazi Miyan

Mirat refers to two incredible events as proof of Masud’s supernatural powers. One of these pertains to a blind girl, Zohra Bibi, whose eyesight was restored because of Ghazi Miyan’s intervention. She and her family constructed a mausoleum for Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich.

There are many versions of this story still recounted through ballads. One has her betrothed to Ghazi Miyan, who is killed by Sohal Deo on the day of their marriage. The aborted marriage ceremony is celebrated every year, with the residents of Rudali, the girl’s village, taking out a baraat to Bahraich.

But the mausoleum could not have been constructed had the grave of Ghazi Miyan not been found by an infertile milkmaid, to whom a child was subsequently born because of the former’s grace.

This story too has several versions, each, again, retold through stirring ballads. In one, the inability of the milkmaid, Jaswa, to conceive has her mother-in-law turn her out. Jaswa takes to the jungle, where Banspati Mai, the goddess of vegetation, advises her to visit the grave of Syed Salar, whose powers, as she says, are still unknown in Hindustan.

Jaswa locates the grave that is buried under mounds of leaves. She cleans the place with her long tresses. As night falls, she tries to drown herself in the lake, but Masud rises from the grave and causes the water to recede. He asks her to immediately return to her husband Nanda or Nand, who is about to take a second wife.

Indeed, the marriage preparations are afoot as Jaswa arrives. Enraged, Nanda asks his clansmen to beat her up. Miraculously, it is they who get beaten up. Stunned at the powers Jaswa has acquired overnight, all the 700 cowherds now become Ghazi Miyan’s devotees. Nine months later, Kanhaya or Krishna is born to Jaswa.

This story of Nanda becoming a devotee of Ghazi Miyan is tweaked to include the battle between him and Sohal. In one ballad, Masud is preparing to get married when Jaswa cries out, “Save your cow. Pray! Listen to me before you tie the nuptial knot: Sohal has rustled your cows. Pir, your herdsmen are dead.”

Masud leaves forthwith. Masud is quoted saying, “Here I was engrossed in my nuptial rites and you [Sohal Deo] ambushed my cows and cowherds!” No mention here of Masud’s intent to spread Islam.

The battle takes place, Sohal Deo’s army is decimated and his forts are taken over. This is the beginning of his inevitable end.

However, a third version depicts Masud, after he has freed the cows Sohal Deo had whisked away, taking shelter from the blazing sun under a tree. An “unseen arrow” pierces Masud, who dies there and then, achieving martyrdom.

In these ballads, Masud is projected both as the protector of cows and herdsmen.

But there are ballads in which, to quote Amin, “there is a clear mention of Masud spreading Islam by putting adversary Sohal to the sword”. One has the idol of Shobhnath in Banaras [Varanasi] express his readiness to become a follower of Islam; in another version the nose of the idol of Durga is nicked.

Yet, tales of such excesses did not diminish the popularity of Ghazi Miyan, who continued to draw followers, and still does, from across India’s social spectrum, including people from Varanasi.

The grave of Salar Masud in Bahraich.
The grave of Salar Masud in Bahraich.

Truth and legend

So how do we read the battle between Masud and Sohal? Was it akin to a local skirmish, our modern-day mohalla fight? When did this battle occur? It certainly did not occur in the 11th century as Islam had not penetrated into that region by then. Was a local skirmish embellished by balladeers before Abdur Rahman trapped it in the frame of history, transferring to it his own concerns and sensibilities?

These questions are pertinent because we cannot even be sure, as Amin says, “whether or not Salar Masud existed at all”. Therefore, the question: Should an uncertain history and malleable popular memories be turned into a register of grievances that need to be redressed in the 21th century?

For Hindutva ideologues, the answer is: yes, it must. For them, the confrontation between Masud and Sohal Deo is a story of intolerant Islam seeking to root out Hinduism, the defenders of which arose, Sohal Deo-like, to protect their faith.

Such a viewing of the past was because a new narrative of Ghazi Miyan began to emerge from 1870, courtesy Arya Samaj activists. They took to reimagining, as also eliding, the history and folklores of Ghazi Miyan.

Mirat’s exaggerated tales of Masud’s life came in handy. That he was a nephew of Ghazni now had a special meaning for those weaned on the writings of colonial historians, who portrayed British rulers as having been liberators of Hindus from the barbarity of Muslim emperors.

Chapbooks were written to undermine the cult of Ghazi Miyan. Amin’s citation of a passage from Pandit Ramprakash Tiwari’s Ritiratnakar is revealing: “Hai! Hai! Have people here taken leave of their senses?…Ghazi Miyan was a commander in the army of the Musalmans…There was a big fight between Hindus and Musalmans, at the end of which the Hindus slew Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich where his associates built a grave of [this Musalman commander]. Since then the bird-brained [among the Hindus] started worshipping him.”

The “bird-brained” were largely from middle and lower castes, whom the Arya Samajis sought to dissuade from venerating Ghazi Miyan. Their special focus were the women, derided for pining for a male child and irrationally hoping they could sire one by visiting Ghazi Miyan’s mausoleum. Pamphlets spread the canard that lonely, desperate Hindu women were molested by Muslim rakes at the mausoleum.

Chapbooks insisted on a literal interpretation of Mirat. Their authors took to writing a Hindu history, conferring on Raja Sohal Deo the status of Kshatriya. He was portrayed as a mighty emperor and master strategist. (He is now particularly projected as a symbol of pride for the Rajbhar and Pasi castes.)

By contrast, Ghazi Miyan’s passion for cows was ascribed to his desire for its meat. Thus, Sohal Deo did not steal, but rescued cows from being slaughtered for the wedding feast of Masud.

In an allusion to the sacrilege of the Suraj Kund and Bala Rikh, Amin cites one pamphlet in which Sohal Deo tells Ghazi Miyan: “Don’t you forget, just as you pulverized the ears and nose of the Somnath idol into lime, so shall I crush today your bones to lime dust, and with that cement the nose and ears of that idol.”

These authors wished, as Amin says, to “purge common Hindus of all traces of an Indo-Muslim popular cult”. This could only be done by ignoring the rich vein of ballads and treating Mirat’s narrative as a true rendering of the 11th century reality.

Transforming Suheldev

By 1920s, the concerted attack on Ghazi Miyan prompted the managing committee of the Bahraich dargah (mausoleum) to issue a booklet countering the Arya Samajis. But it was to no avail – Amin cites police records to show that in 1926 the attendance at the urs ceremony of Ghazi Miyan nearly halved.

The next sally against Ghazi Miyan came in 1950. Then the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Ram Rajya Parishad organised a fair at Chittora village, Bahraich district, to commemorate the memory of Suhaldev (same as Suheldev), writes Badri Narayan in his book Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Mobilisation. The fair was to be inaugurated by a state-level Congress leader at whose house Nehru and Gandhi had stayed on their visits to Bahraich.

On the day of inauguration, however, a member of the Bahraich dargah committee complained to the administration that a riot-like situation had been created. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code – prohibiting the gathering of more than five people – was imposed, triggering a riot. The administration made arrests, goading the Hindu leaders to initiate a jail-bharo andalon. Under pressure, Narayan writes, Section 144 was lifted.

Enthused, local Congress leaders inaugurated the fair. A statue of Suhaldev was erected, a temple was subsequently built around it, writes Narayan. Thereafter, the passion for Suhaldev seemed to have ebbed.

In 2001, however, the Maharaja Suhaldev Sewa Samiti was floated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Three years later, a five-day celebration was inaugurated by Yogi Adityanath, then a BJP MP from Gorakhpur.

Narayan writes:

“The construction of aggressive hatred against Muslims can be clearly observed during the celebration of the memory of Suhaldev by the RSS during the festival.”

The attempt to transform Suheldev’s persona as a militant Hindu hero is no longer confined to Bahraich. It has now become a state and national project, what with Suheldev having powerful followers as Shah and Adityanath.

This is indeed the story of power reordering memory. Fifty years from now, it is possible that Shahid Amin’s erudite, masterly analysis of Mirat-i-Masudi could be treated as an outpouring of “febrile intellect”. On this trajectory India has sadly already set upon.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

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