Earlier this week as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh visited Hardoi, the auditorium where he was to speak was renovated for him: the white tiles in its bathrooms were taken out and replaced with saffron ones.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and especially Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath have never been shy of saffronisation. Yet, to take the act so literally signifies a new urgency in the BJP’s attempts at stirring the Hindutva pot even as a string of election losses focus public anger on the brass tacks of economic distress. While maybe not as farcical as saffron bathroom tiles, part of this attempt to scrape the bottom of the identity barrel is the renaming of the busy Mughal Sarai junction in eastern Uttar Pradesh on Monday. Its new name: Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Junction, after one of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideologues.
That even the very name “Mughal”, referring to medieval India’s most powerful empire, is now under attack is troubling but not unexpected. The trend started early on in the tenure of the new BJP government, as demands arose to rename Aurangzeb Road in Delhi. At the time, the argument was couched in reservations about Aurangzeb’s personal character. Yet, as it clear, Aurangzeb is incidental to this: the attack is basically on any Muslim ruler in India and by extension, on the existence of a multi-religious subcontinent.
Hating the Timurids
Dislike of the Mughals has been a recurring trend for Hindutva politicians since 2014. In October, the Uttar Pradesh government excluded the Taj Mahal from the state’s official tourism booklet. That same month, BJP MLA Sangeet Som said that the marble mausoleum had been built by traitors and that Shah Jahan “wanted to wipe out Hindus”.
BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao described the period of Mughal rule in India as “exploitative, barbaric and a period of incomparable intolerance which harmed Indian civilisation and traditions immensely”.
Even Akbar, globally seen as a stark example of tolerance in the medieval age, came in for attack. In 2016, VK Singh, Union minister of state for external affairs, demanded that Delhi’s Akbar Road be after Maharana Pratap Singh Road, the Rajput ruler of Mewar who was defeated by Akbar’s forces in 1576 at the Battle of Haldighati. Backing his demand, BJP spokesperson Shaina NC even went so far as to compare Akbar with Hitler.
Uniting India politically
The Mughals were medieval India’s most powerful empire – the only ruler since the Mauryans to politically unify the subcontinent before the modern age. Naturally, modern India owes much to this dynasty, from culture to politics. The Mughal Red Fort, for example, is a symbol of Indian nationhood unlike any other monument, given its role as the seat of Mughal emperor. In 1857, as sepoys – mostly upper caste Hindus from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, revolted against the British – they naturally looked to the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to act as leader. Zafar had no actual power but that he was the Mughal emperor was enough for the sepoys to want him as a legitimising figurehead.
This has worked not only amongst the sepoys but also with other competing powers such as the Marathas. While the Mughal-Maratha wars are often portrayed in today’s India as a mirror image of modern communal bitterness, the Maratha confederacy never did not seek to dethrone the Mughal Emperor even after Delhi had waned in power. In 1752, in fact, the Marathas signed a treaty to defend the Mughal Empire against external aggression.
The modern age
This role of the Mughals in India was sharply upended by the arrival of the British Raj. History came to be seen sharply as Hindu or Muslim. In this, the Mughals fell by the wayside in the newly independent India after 1947.
While it is maybe easy to simply blame Hindutva, the problem goes much deeper. Even non-Hindustva political parties do not fare very well. Muslim kings are severely underrepresented in public works. The rulers of a small kingdom such Maharana Pratap has many more roads, roundabouts, airports or museums named after them than powerful emperors such as Akbar or Shahjahan. Shivaji is (rightly) feted for his David-versus-Goliath battle against the Delhi emperor yet Chand Bibi, the remarkable Queen Regent of Ahmednagar, a Sultanate in the Deccan, is ignored even though she did much the same thing.
This trend has only become sharper with the rise of the BJP and the ascendancy of Savarkarite nationalism that treats Muslims as permanent outsiders to the Indian nation. The mythology that helps to build this is the creation of a history that either is devoid of Muslims or only has them in the role of an antagonist – the foreigner or the tyrant.