On 10 October 1941, one Adi K Munshi of Bombay (now Mumbai) wrote a letter to the editor of The Times of India. That was the time of the Second World War, and there was unrest in India. There was a deep chasm between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League following the Lahore Resolution that had envisaged independent states on the North-west and East of India, where there was a Muslim majority. The resulting ill feeling had trickled down to the general populace as well. In hindsight, as we understand today, the ground was being prepared for the eventual Partition. But Munshi couldn’t have possibly known or had any inkling of what lay ahead in the future.
He wished for peace and communal amity, and he longed for a leader whom he thought could unite the Hindus and the Muslims. It was not Mohandas K Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Jawaharlal Nehru. It was not Subhas Chandra Bose or Vallabhbhai Patel either. It was someone from the glorious past of India. It was Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar.
When Munshi wrote that letter, he had the 400th birth anniversary of the emperor in mind, which he thought was on 14 October. However, the newspaper printed it a day later on 15 October, the actual birthday of Akbar. Munshi used phrases for the Mughal emperor that were quite illuminating about his perception among the Indians of that time – like “great Indian soldier”, “statesman” and “the greatest Indian nationalist of all time”.
To bolster his point, Munshi invoked the words of a “great historian” about Akbar – “When we reflect what he did, the age in which he did it, the method he introduced to accomplish it, we are bound to recognise in Akbar one of those illustrious men whom Providence sends, in the hour of a nation’s trouble, to reconduct it into those paths of peace and toleration which alone can assure the happiness of millions.” That “great historian” was Colonel GB Malleson, who concluded his book Akbar and the Rise of the Mughal Empire (1896) with these profound words.
Munshi ended his short epistle with hope, which read almost like a prayer. “In these days of domestic discord, communal dissensions and particularly the Hindu–Muslim split, India feels, more than ever, the need of an Akbar – the Apostle of united India.”
Did Munshi have a premonition of the things to come? We don’t know. But we know that the image of Akbar as a successful ruler who united multiple warring factions around his throne made him an ideal person to be emulated back then. What made Akbar unique was the fact that he had both physical and moral courage.
Anyone who has either kind of courage always wins adulation. But those who are blessed with both not only win admiration but also hearts. Such people make leaders. Great leaders. Even heroes. Akbar was one such man.
In 2017, I was at a talk on the trial of Bhagat Singh by legal eagle AG Noorani at the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Noorani, while extolling the virtues of the young revolutionary, had briefly described the relationship between Singh and the then Punjab Congress stalwart, Lala Lajpat Rai. Noorani had said, and I had reported it for The Times of India:
He (Singh) parted ways with Lala Lajpat Rai when he became communal. But when Rai died after being hit by a police baton charge, Singh decided to avenge him, for he was still a man of principles. And he did.
Noorani was referring to the 1928 protest against the Simon Commission during which Rai had sustained fatal blows. Singh and his associates at the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association had responded to it by killing police deputy superintendent CF Saunders in Lahore, the city that had once been the capital of the Mughal Empire of Akbar.
The Indian Left often alludes to Rai’s communal image, and it is done not without reason. Rai was part of the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate (the other two being Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) that not only led the Extremist faction of the Indian National Congress but also believed in Hindu nationalism.
In Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings (2017), Syed Irfan Habib wrote about how Rai used his nationalism brush to segregate the medieval Hindus from the Muslims. Habib wrote that while both Daulat Khan Lodhi and Rana Sanga had invited Babur to invade India, to Rai, Lodhi’s act was one of opportunism while Sanga’s was of patriotism borne out of the wish to liberate his motherland. But for Akbar, Rai had made a rare exception, and he was willing to lock horns with those Englishmen who portrayed a less than flattering picture of Akbar.
In 1918, Rai was in America as the First World War was ending. There, he had reviewed Sir Vincent Smith’s biography of Akbar called Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542–65, in the Political Science Quarterly. Rai’s first line in the review was – “Akbar the Great Mogul was by common consent one of the greatest monarchs known to history.”
Rai said, “Mr Smith has told the story of Akbar’s life and administration with great lucidity, thoroughness and general impartiality, but at places is unduly hard on him, forgetting the times in which he lived and worked.”
This was a very important criticism by Rai, something that holds true even today for everyone but especially for those new detractors of Akbar who bash him up on television studios and in the Twitter world without bothering to check if they are talking about a medieval Indian emperor or some 20th-century tinpot dictator.
Rai’s review reveals one thing: even for the orthodox politicians of yore, who may or may not have believed in Hindu nationalism, Akbar was a monarch who was seen as India’s own – not some outsider or some oppressor. And any slur on him by anyone was non-negotiable.
So, how did things come to such a pass a century later that the official spokesperson of the Hindu nationalist ruling party casually compared Akbar to Hitler and that Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling party demanded the change of name of the road in Lutyens’ Delhi named after him? This perhaps justifies an old adage: the mob sees no reason.
And though popularly elected, and often projected as the strongest Indian government ever, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of the present time appears vulnerable and helpless, choosing to be a meek and silent spectator as rampaging mobs pull down the very edifice of the state.
This contrasts with the approach of another man, who was also gifted with physical and moral courage – Jawaharlal Nehru. On more than one occasion, India’s first prime minister had recklessly run amok amid rampaging mobs during the Partition riots in Delhi and engaged in fisticuffs with rioters who had attacked Muslims and their establishments.
Seeing the prime minister in their midst, a rioting mob in Chandni Chowk had lost its nerve, pretty much like the Mirzas near Baroda in Gujarat who had melted away when thousands of them were attacked single-handedly by Akbar after dashing across river Mahi with 50 of his associates following closely behind him, and 150 others further behind. This was the Battle of Sarnal fought in December 1572.
Akbar had learnt about Ibrahim Husain Mirza trying to flee Baroda, probably because he had sensed that the imperial army was close. He wasted no time and marched the whole night and the all of the next day without rest with 200 cavalry. By sunset, the Mughals reached the Mahi river and saw the enemy camped on the other side.
Akbar was advised by his generals to wait for reinforcements and not to attack before nightfall. Akbar did not pay heed to any advise and recklessly galloped into the river, crossing it through a ford. His generals, Bhagwan Dass and Man Singh, were with him. On the other side of the river, Akbar was surrounded by three enemy horsemen with whom he parried. His life was in serious danger. But the fate of Hindustan, his dynasty and empire was decided by the point of a spear, quite literally.
Bhagwan Dass speared one of them to death, and the other two abandoned the fight and fled. Though vastly superior in number, the Mirzas were no match for the crack troops of Akbar who hacked and scythed through them as if they were grass. Ibrahim Husain Mirza fled with the rest of the troops. Akbar not only managed to survive a most serious and utterly avoidable brush with death, but he also turned it into a spectacular feat of arms, and a grand victory won by reckless bravery and bull-headed determination.
Someone in The Pioneer described this adventure in beautiful prose with effusive praise a month before Nehru was born. “Of Wallace Wight, or well-skilled Bruce who ruled the fight”, Akbar’s gallantry was described by the English author using Sir Walter Scott’s prose to compare him to the Scottish hero, Sir William Wallace. Other accounts, especially of Indologists, described Akbar as a “prince among men”.
In the late 19th century, it was a prince who had decided to tell Akbar’s tale to the German people, introducing his ideas of tolerance and acceptance to a land that was torn apart by war.
He was Prince Friedrich August of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenberg. A man with an incredible life story himself, Friedrich was also, in his own way, a man ahead of his time. He had consciously given up on the life of an aristocrat and chosen to be a common man. He decided to marry a commoner and gave up his royal title, settling instead for a Prussian peerage of Graf von Noer.
It was Prince Friedrich’s second coming to India that took him to Agra, Delhi and Lahore – three cities that were still very richly Mughal, even a decade after the last occupant of the royal throne at Delhi was packed off to Burma. He undertook a sort of a pilgrimage to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and laid roses on his grave.
The majesty of the tomb struck him with awe. He thought it was a befitting tribute to the life of this extraordinary man. Back in Delhi, Friedrich made up his mind to write a book on Akbar. The year was 1868.
Far away in the Netherlands, Akbar was being discussed and held up as an icon by Dutch liberals who were trying to establish a secular state with Akbar’s empire as a model.
This charge was being led by PAS van Limburg Brouwer, who was, by and large, a man in love with India – her philosophy and her spirit of tolerance. This was the age of orientalism and of Sanskritists like Max Mueller. This was also the age when the Dutch intellectual life was being dominated by debates between the Left and Right-leaning followers of Spinoza, just like the German intellectual arena that had the Left and Right-leaning supporters of Hegel duelling with one another.
For the Spinozists, the East held many solutions to the problems of the West. Hinduism and Buddhism were seen as more than a match for Christianity. Brouwer, who was instrumental in establishing a Sanskrit chair at the University of Leiden, was a Spinozist on the Left side of the spectrum. To him, Akbar was a monarch exemplar.
He saw in Akbar a ruler who combined politics and intellectual spirituality to bring different communities together. Just a few months before his death, Brouwer managed to write a book on his favourite monarch and called it Akbar: An Eastern Romance (1872). He projected Akbar as an example from whom all rulers of the world could learn. The book became a bestseller as the 20th century dawned, and sold over 50,000 copies between 1900 and 1940.
However, by 1940, a lot had changed in Europe. Friedrich von Noer’s book Kaiser Akbar (1880) probably had few or no takers in Germany, after a regime of hate and anguish had come to power in that country in the previous decade and had forced another book named Mein Kampf as a mandatory buy for all. A book that hadn’t sold much previously had become a national bestseller by the time Germany turned aggressor over Czechoslovakia in 1938. The hate- filled propaganda that it contained inspired a generation of youngsters to imbibe it and put it into practice later.
Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator, loved the idea of a colony as large as India and lauded the British Empire for its stabilising effect on the world. His ideas about India were not formed by Noer or Brouwer’s books but by Hollywood movies like the 1935 Hollywood superhit, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Hitler, by his own admission before Lord Halifax in 1937, had watched the movie three times. Later, in 1941, before he invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler supposedly had announced that “The Russian space is our India”.
So, it was quite possible that when Adi K Munshi wrote that letter, longing for an Akbar in the India of 1941 that was on the verge of being ripped apart by sectarian violence, a reader of Brouwer’s work in Holland would have also perhaps longed for someone like him to deliver them from the Nazi yoke.
Excerpted with permission from Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India, Manimugdha S Sharma, Bloomsbury India.