By Binoj Nair
History is small fry to seasoned craftsmen like the RSS who can come up with dummies that look more authentic than the real. There is no better testimony to this statement than the mangled legacy of the greatest of all Mughals, Emperor Akbar, who is deservedly called Akbar the Great. A malicious campaign against the peerless monarch has been going full throttle since the ascension to power of the Hindutva-propelled BJP government in New Delhi under Narendra Modi. Myths, fantasies, hearsay and deliberate falsification of history have been rolled into melodramatic TV shows, fake documentaries, spiteful social media posts and state-sponsored mudslinging at the noble emperor who is being deliberately portrayed as a blood-thirsty Muslim bigot.
Back in 2017, the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh blared his indignation at the historians for denying the brave Rajput king Maharana Pratap “his fair share of veneration”. He seemed flabbergasted at the preferential treatment given to Akbar through the adulation ‘Akbar the Great’ while Pratap, who despite being equally great was never treated like one! The BJP ruled Rajasthan’s School board was quick to toe the minister’s line and promptly ‘corrected’ history to magically turn the fortunes of the epic Battle of Haldighatti in Pratap’s favor in school text books. The Minister, understandably, was annoyed more by the defeat of a Hindu king at the hands of a Muslim than anything else. Fact, if anyone cares, has it that Pratap was routed in the battle and was forced to retreat by Akbar’s Mughal forces. The effect of a spurious Hindutva-friendly television soap was such that a blogger who took to social media about it, revealed that her five-year-old neighbor, who is yet to start school, hates Akbar already! The Minister, while trying to portray the Battle of Haldighatti as a Hindu-Muslim war, was ignorant of the fact that Akbar wasn’t even involved in the battle, and that it was the Hindu, Raja Man Singh, his trusted general who thwarted Pratap on the battle field to keep the pride of the Mughal Empire. On the other side, one of the commanders of Pratap’s army was the Pathan general Hakim Khan Suri, who laid down his life fighting for the Hindu king. Now, a quick peek at the real story of the Emperor. Historians who have approached the matter with propriety are united in their opinion that Akbar was quite possibly the most tolerant and benevolent of all Mughal rulers. Having realized the importance of keeping the majority non-Muslim population amused with his reign, he used a conciliatory path to maintain peace and stability in his highly diverse empire. Like his grandfather Babur, he advanced ‘marriage diplomacy’ as a tool to bridge the gap with the Hindu community. Akbar was a true egalitarian who firmly believed that all people in his kingdom should be treated with the same respect.
Akbar quite persuasively broke away from the conservative clutches of the Islamic clergy to widen his mental horizons beyond the limits of his religion. One of his ambitious and encompassing moves was the promulgation of a new faith framework, the ‘Din-i-Ilahi’ (The Divine Faith), where he pulled in ideas from all the major religions including the polytheistic Hinduism, in a bid to foster a ‘catch-all’ secular empire and reduce communal tensions. His Ibadat Khana at his capital Fatehpur Sikri became an assembly of the best brains from various religions. He conscientiously participated in the debates every Thursday, and had a keen attachment to Sufism, which he called “the wisdom of the Vedanta”. Akbar was a champion of social justice too, and was a pioneer in fighting the evil Sati. There is literature about his rescuing the daughters of the Raja of Jodhpur and Raja Udai Singh of Jaipur from self-immolation. Akbar also encouraged widow re-marriage among Hindus, but didn’t really enforce social reforms through legislations so not to offend the strong traditionalist lobby.
Despite being illiterate, Akbar had a penchant for literature and owned a massive library in his palace with collections in a variety of languages and topics. He was well ahead of his time to open a library for women only. He oversaw an ambitious project of the rendering of religious texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bible to Persian, and set up a translations department to enable the work. While the work on Ramayana took Akbar’s court historian Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni four years to complete, the Mahabharata was adapted first into Hindi, and later into Persian in a two-step process. The style of architecture fostered during his rule is a strong touchstone of his openness to diversity and inclusion. Traditional Hindu ingredients were an outstanding feature of the Indo-Islamic architectural scheme that was conceived during the time. His capital city of Fatehpur Sikri is an impressive tribute to the sublime synthesis of dissimilar and distinctive traditions. The elephant-shaped brackets that adorn the pillars of the Lahore fort are redolent evidences of a strong Hindu influence on the structural patterns followed in those days.
An enduring testimonial of Akbar’s remarkable ‘easement’ with other religions is his long-standing camaraderie with his advisor and friend, Birbal. The witty Brahmin gained respect and adulation of the entire Mughal Empire as the “brightest jewel” among the ‘Navratnas’ (the nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. Akbar’s trust in his intimate friend of three decades was unshakeable, and Birbal was the only member of his court to reside within the palace complex and the only other subscriber to his new religion. Historians Abu’l Fazl and Abdul Qadir Badauni have recorded Akbar’s desolation and anguish at the death of his friend, and state that he refused to eat or drink in grief for two days. The king was despondent over his inability to confine the unclaimed body of his friend to flames as per Hindu tradition. Birbal was killed in his master’s service fighting the intruding Afghani Yousafzai tribe, and as a mark of respect to the unflinching devotion of his friend, Akbar named one of the seven gates to his palace after his close confidante. Together, they derived the best out of the synthesis of the exquisite features of Hindu and Islamic traditions.
The progressive and all-encompassing policies of Akbar are detested heavily in the neighboring Pakistan for understandable reasons. While they have invoked the more orthodox legacies of Babar, the Ghazni and the Ghori in their missile programs, they have purposefully downplayed Akbar’s significance over the years and have hit the delete key on his rich and libertarian legacy. On the Indian side of the fence, Akbar has historically been referred to as the Mughal-e-azam or the Great Emperor until recently. The country’s Supreme Court hailed him “the architect of modern India” while the first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru paid him rich tributes in his phenomenal work The Discovery of India. Nehru showered abundant praise on the dynamic ruler for creating a “sense of oneness among the diverse elements of north and central India”. However, the launch of the Sangh Parivar-led government in New Delhi under Narendra Modi in 2014 marked the beginning of the befouling of the Muslim heritage associated with India’s past. Keeping with its persistent attack on the Mughal phase of India’s history, the Hindutva right wing has been trying to smudge the prestige and splendor of Akbar’s legacy. Attempts ranging from distorting history to defacing signs of streets named after the Great Mughal are living examples of the fast diminishing tolerance of a large section of the country’s Hindu population towards Muslim artifacts.
The Sangh Parivar, while distorting history to show Akbar in a bad light, is essentially discrediting a glorious phase of India’s history, which was, in fact, profusely benevolent towards the Hindu culture. Sheer hatred for Islam has numbed their common sense to prompt such disgraceful disfiguring of history as ‘re-writing’ the Battle of Haldighatti with the ease of editing a movie script. It is quite emotive for a passionate student of history that it was at the trusted hands of a Hindu Rajput prince Man Singh, who was his chief commander and governor of a Mughal province, that Akbar left the reins of his critical military offensive against Maharana Pratap. Historian Rima Hooja has testified that on the ground, the battle was essentially fought between two Rajputs, Man Singh and Pratap. Contrary to the distorted narrative popularized by some Hindu fascist corners, Akbar was not even in the field brandishing his sword at Hindu self-respect. So it was Man Singh, who convincingly overpowered the mighty forces of Mewar under Pratap, to save the dignity of the Mughal Empire.
Historical accounts of the socio-political climate of Akbar’s period validates the boundless freedom the Hindu population enjoyed under him, which also drew them closer to their Muslim brethren more than ever before during the period. Thus, the period served to be the triumphant prototype of the secular India that came into being after independence from colonial rule. Sadly, we are presently up against the perturbing sight of those secular pillars of the country corroding away rapidly, at the connivance of the RSS-family. The Hindu-Muslim discord has hit such an alarming peak that, all evidences factored in, it can be safely concluded that Akbar’s Mughal India was way more secular and tolerant than Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
My tributes to the Mughal-e-Azam on the 417th anniversary of his death.
1 November 2022