Rewriting History

Tipu Jayanti: BJP wants to correct history’s wrongs. It should start with caste oppression

Or is Hindutva’s war on the past restricted to Muslims?

For the last three years, November 10 has become the date on which history is turned into the site of a bruising political battle. Since 2015, the Congress government in Karnataka has held public celebrations on the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore who died more than two centuries ago fighting the British. But these celebrations have been vehemently opposed by the Sangh Parivar and its supporters.

This year, the battle over history and Tipu began several weeks ago. A farmer from Coorg named KP Manjunath unsuccessfully petitioned the Karanataka High Court to impose a stay on the celebrations in Kodagu. He contended that Tipu was an “invader and dictator and glorifying such a person is a matter of shame”. Union minister Anantkumar Hegde wrote to the state government saying he should not be invited to the event because Tipu was a “brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist”.

It has become standard practice for Hindutva supporters to portray Muslim rule as a dark period of India’s history. For instance, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Sangeet Som last month called the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian culture. BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao added that
India’s 800 years of Islamic rule were a “period of extreme exploitation, insane barbarism and unprecedented intolerance to the other faith”.

Even though many historians caution against judging the past from the moral perspective of our times, Hindutva supporters believe that the temple destruction and religious conversions that occurred during the reign of some Muslim kings are the wrongs of history that must now be reversed and their perpetrators condemned as villains. This is vital to restore the Hindu pride and heal the wounds of the past.

Hindutva’s moral position on history raises three questions. Do only temple destruction and religious conversion constitute what it calls the wrongs of Indian history? Is the only way to correct mistakes of the past to turn the clock back centuries – for instance, by restituting to Hindus the temple sites that Muslim rulers allegedly usurped? If so, what consequences could this have for India?

If Hindutva supporters were really serious about righting history’s wrongs, they would also turn their attentions to the centuries-old system of institutionalised caste-based discrimination and exclusion that is, without argument, as unconscionable as temple destruction, if not more. Worse, unlike temple destruction, the wrong of caste exploitation still persists.

Union minister Anantkumar Hegde says Tipu Sultan, who died fighting the British, was a 'brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist' who deserves no glorification. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Union minister Anantkumar Hegde says Tipu Sultan, who died fighting the British, was a 'brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist' who deserves no glorification. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unending oppression

An example of the institutionalised caste exploitation can be found in GW Briggs’ early 20th century study, The Religious Life of India: The Chamars. “There are other social customs, more or less objected to [by the Chamars], but often allowed and not considered wrong…such are the jus primae noctis of landlords and gurus,” Briggs writes.

Although widely regarded as a historical fabrication, jus primae noctis refers to the supposed European tradition that bestowed on the local noble the first right to have sex with the peasant girl on her wedding night.

From Briggs’ account, the sexual exploitation of Chamar wives did not end with their nuptial nights, but continued as long as the local zamindar paid their husbands. Even relatively prosperous Chamars were compelled to render service to the landlord. Briggs narrates the story of a Chamar who returned to his village after having worked in the city. On seeing the Chamar, the master said, “Give me that umbrella [the Chamar had]. You have no use for it. I will give you eleven annas.” Once the umbrella was taken, the master ordered, “Go to work with the plough.”

Next morning, the master’s servant arrived at the Chamar’s house to execute his order. In the evening, the young man received “three pice” for his day’s work and “he realised that he was only a Chamar”. Briggs narrates this story to make a larger point: “For the most part he [the Chamar] is still in an almost hopeless state of degradation and serfdom…and dares not lift his voice in protest lest he beaten or driven from his village.”

Under the infamous Devadasi system, girls, mostly Dalit, were dedicated to the goddess Yellamma. Marriage was then proscribed to them. On attaining puberty, they were accessible to any man who, as sociologist Gail Omvedt writes wryly, was not polluted by sexual relations. After undertaking a survey in 1983, Omvedt concluded that the Devadasi system “institutionalised the sexual accessibility of Dalit women for higher caste men”.

In an incomplete essay published in Shamsul Islam’s Untouchables in Manu’s India, BR Ambedkar lists the inegalitarian laws framed in pre-British days. For instance, under Peshwa and Maratha rule, untouchables (now called Dalits) could only enter the city of Poona around sunrise or sunset so that they would not cast a long shadow that could fall on Brahmins and pollute them. The untouchables had to carry an earthen pot around their necks so they did not spit on the ground. A caste Hindu could, after all, be defiled if he were to step on the lower-caste person’s spit.

Ambedkar writes that the untouchables in Gujarat had to wear horns to identify themselves. Those in Punjab had to carry a broom for the same purpose. In Bombay, the untouchables could only wear soiled or torn clothes. Those in the Malabar could not build multi-storey houses nor could they possess umbrellas or milch cows.

A formidable opponent of the caste system, Ambedkar did not argue for turning the clock back: he did not want to impose similar harsh, inhuman rules on members of the upper castes who had framed these laws for Dalits. Instead, he ensured the Indian Constitution abolished untouchability, caste-based discrimination, and extended to all the right to equality before the law. The state was ordained to discriminate in favour of Dalits in jobs, education, and representation in legislatures.

Shahidganj Gurdwara in Lahore was built on land attached to a mosque. Photo courtesy Sikhi Wiki
Shahidganj Gurdwara in Lahore was built on land attached to a mosque. Photo courtesy Sikhi Wiki

Setting an example

This method of setting right the wrongs of history is in complete contrast to the demands of Hindutva’s votaries that mosques that they believe were once Hindu places of worship should be turned into temples again. This attempt to wreak vengeance on history could well inspire other social groups to also turn the clock back to resolve their own grievances.

It was this grim possibility that deterred Punjabi Muslim politicians from turning the Shahidganj Gurdwara in Lahore into a mosque. Its story is narrated by AG Noorani in The Babri Masjid Question: 1528-2003. In 1722, Falak Beg Khan created a waqf, or trust, and donated land to build a mosque, a school, an orchard and a well. In 1762, Sikhs conquered Lahore and took possession of the mosque and the land attached to it. Sikhs believed it was where Bhai Taru Singh, a Sikh icon, had been killed by a Muslim ruler. They built a gurdwara and used the mosque to house Sikh priests.

After the British annexed Punjab in 1849, a man named Nur Ahmad filed a case for the return of the mosque, placing on record the trust deed of 1722. The suit was dismissed three times between 1853 and 1856, on the ground that the mosque had been in “adverse possession” of Sikhs for nearly a century and, consequently, Ahmad’s rights had been extinguished.

In the 1930s, the mosque was listed as a gurdwara, much to the anger of Muslims. An attempt was made to broker a compromise between Muslims and Sikhs. In 1934, to rescind Muslim claims, Sikhs destroyed the mosque attached to the gurdwara. Once again, a civil suit was filed to claim the mosque. It was dismissed by Lahore’s district judge and then, on appeal, by the High Court.

An attempt was made to enact a law to overturn the High Court judgement. It was proposed that the government would acquire the site and deem it as a mosque, but not rebuild the demolished structure.

However, Prime Minister Sir Sakandar Hayat Khan of Punjab cautioned against such a move. He told the Provincial Assembly, “Such a bill…would provoke similar Bills in those provinces where non-Muslims are in a majority, for the restoration of many historic and important places of worship originally belonging to non-Muslims but now in Muslim possession…Its only practical effort would be to increase bitterness.”

Khan’s plea had a sustained effect. Not only was the proposed Bill dropped, but even after the birth of Pakistan, the status of Shahidganj Gurdwara was not changed. The late educationist Prof Amrik Singh noted, “If this can happen in Pakistan, which according to its Constitution is described as an Islamic state, can India, which describes itself as a secular state, act differently?”

If the BJP uses its power to right the wrongs of history committed by Muslim rulers, will it also declare the upper castes as untouchables? Will it grant to Dalits jus primae noctis with upper caste brides? Indeed, in trying to set right the wrongs of history, Hindutva will only shackle the past to the future and turn the present into a bloody nightmare.

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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