Monday, October 27, 2014

Meet the icons of India's refurbished history: Mukherjee, Upadhyaya, Malaviya

With India’s medieval history irrevocably communalised, the rise of the BJP now portends a steady reworking of modern history to suit its Hindutva agenda

[version of this piece was first published on]

When well-meaning people protest history being politicised, it’s a bit like complaining about water being wet. Nineteenth century ideals of positivism, of history being an objective science seem to still be extremely popular. Of course, there is nothing perfectly objective about the writing of history—subjectivity in interpreting facts is a necessary part of the discipline. This also means that history can be, and often is, utilised by politics for its own needs. After all, whoever controls the past tends to controls the future.

It is in this light that we must see the flurry of activity in the usually sedate world of academic history ever since the Modi government assumed power with an absolute majority on May 16. Most recently, the Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), a historical research organisation with ties to the RSS, held a symposium to celebrate Hemu, the so-called last Hindu king of Delhi, who controlled the city with his Afghan forces for exactly 29 days. Unfortunately, like so much of Hindutva “history”, the core facts of the argument were simply made up and, in one rather hilarious example, scenes from the Bollywood movie Jodha Akbar were screened as part of a “documentary” on the period.

Medieval history has already been communalised

The ABISY might have made a hash of things, but it must be noted that at the popular—and political—level, the object of politicising medieval history has already been realised. Publicly, India has disowned the Muslim rulers who governed most of the subcontinent. Delhi and Agra might have been the capitals of the vast Mughal Empire but Mughals today are absent from the city’s roundabouts where you’re far more likely to find a statue of Shivaji, who ruled a kingdom 1,500 km away. On the Internet, there are many rants about roads named after Mughals in Delhi, but the fact is that in independent India, street nomenclature has scrupulously avoided medieval Muslim monarchs: the existing “Aurangzeb Road” and so on are parting gifts bequeathed by the British builders of Lutyens’ Delhi. In Lucknow, there is a road named after Maharana Pratap of Mewar but, ironically, Wajid Ali Shah, the tragic last nawab of the city itself, has been ignored by Lucknow’s civic planners.

Medieval therefore being won, the real fight is in more recent history. And some headway has already been made there, starting with attacks on Nehru, whose liberal policies make him a special hate figure in the Sangh Parivar. Modi set the ball rolling right at the campaign stage where he opined that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster than Nehru, echoing his guru, M.S. Gowalkar who greatly admired the Sardar as well.

However, communalising modern history isn’t going to be as easy as medieval history was. The latter has been undergoing this process since the time of the British who found it convenient to silo India’s history into “Hindu” and “Muslim”. The communalisation of modern history, though, is something which is far more recent. This explains the paradox of Modi, quite suddenly, calling upon the legacies of Nehru and Gandhi as he tries to build political capital for his schemes. Nehru as a political icon is no pushover and while Modi might love to snap his fingers and have the Pandit airbrushed from the scene, currently he will have to compromise with the past in order to secure his future.

India’s potential new icons

This does not mean an abject surrender to the Nehruvian version of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but a steady erosion of it. Sure enough, the previous budget had social schemes named after Right-Wing stalwarts such as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya. All three are relatively unknown in the popular discourse but hold a special significance for the BJP as well as the larger Hindutva movement.

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a party he started with the backing of the RSS in 1951 after falling out with Nehru. He persuaded the RSS to involve itself directly in political affairs. Till then the RSS had avoided politics, preferring to direct its energies towards Hindu society instead. The current BJP is, of course, the direct successor of the Jana Sangh. For its position on Kashmir and Article 370, the BJP takes direct inspiration from Mukherjee, even as it ignores the fact that he was a party to the disastrous decision to refer to the Kashmir issue to the UN.

Organisationally, however, Mukherjee had a limited impact on the Jana Sangh since he died within only two years of its founding. After that, Deendayal Upadhyaya took up the task of building up the Jana Sangh and had a seminal role to play in shaping the party’s ideology. His philosophical tract, Integral Humanism still has a key impact on the BJP, even being named in several manifestos. In it, Upadhyaya lays out the Hindutva view of India, rejecting Individualism and even Capitalism, both of which he characterised as Western imports alien to India and supported an “organic” form of the caste system which he felt would lead to a harmonious society. His social agenda has survived more or less intact in the BJP till this day. Upadhyaya’s Swadeshi economic agenda is less popular but rears its head every now and then as was demonstrated by Modi’s protectionist decision to reject the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Madan Mohan Malaviya is, of course, a Congress leader having been the party’s president on two occasions (1910 and 1918). But, like Patel, Malaviya’s religious and social conservatism endears him to today’s BJP. Additionally, he is also one of the early leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, which during his time, functioned as a Hindu nationalist pressure group within the Congress (it would delineate itself as an independent party in the late 30s under the leadership of Savarkar). Malaviya founded the Banaras Hindu University with the aim of upholding Hindu tradition, including a hereditary caste system, even as he strongly opposed untouchability, correlating it to Muslim and Christian conversion, a strain of thinking which strongly influences the Hindu Right.

Fairly or unfairly, depending on your own political proclivities, Nehru, Gandhi and then Indira and Rajiv have dominated our public airwaves, as the Congress tried to cement its rule with help from its past icons. With the verdict of May 16, a realignment of the historical stars is on the plate. Already the BJP’s chief Twitter intellectual Subramaniam Swamy, never one to miss a chance at medievalism, has called for the books of Nehruvian historians to be “burnt in a bonfire”. “It is important to resize the stature that Nehru enjoys in Indian history,” said Swamy later on in an op-ed in The Hindu. Slowly the BJP will push its own icons to replace the old Nehruvian ones. This will include fellow ideological travellers such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Madan Malaviya, Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda but will also include people such as S.P. Mukherjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya who have contributed organisationally to make the BJP what it is today.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shivaji, Afzal Khan and the Assembly Elections

The Shivaji statue inside the fort,
inaugurated in the '50s by Nehru

The Shivaji-Afzal Khan encounter is Maharashtra’s most evocative tale and was used to the hilt in the Assembly Elections. In the midst of the polls, Tarikh par Tarikh travels to the venue of the battle and discovers the history that still lives and breathes there.

[An edited version of this piece was first published in the Hindu Business Line]

The recently concluded Maharashtra assembly elections saw an interesting intra-saffron contest, as the BJP and Shiv Sena ended their 25-year old alliance. Break-ups, though, are hard. So bitter was Uddhav Thackeray over being dumped, he even compared the BJP to the army of 17th century Bijapuri general, Afzal Khan. This might not seem like much at first glance, but if you’re acquainted with Maharashtra, you’ll know that Khan is the state’s most-hated villain.

His unpopularity stems from the fact that he was the main antagonist in the Battle of Pratapgarh against Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire. The status of Shivaji in Maharashtra has no parallels in any other part of the country. Every school child in the state learns of his heroic exploits and the traditional histories of Maharashtra (called bakhars) treat Shivaji as a quasi-divine figure, often inspired directly by the Goddess Bhavani. Each town in Maharashtra will have an equestrian Shivaji statue in its main square and in the capital city of Mumbai, its airport, its largest train station, largest park and principal museum, are all named after the Chhatrapati. Not surprisingly, the story of Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan is known throughout the state and is one of its most enduring tales.

The Battle Site

The town closest to Pratapgarh fort today is the colonial-era hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Situated on a plateau, Mahabaleshwar has various “points” which overlook the valleys below. At Bombay Point, once I had zoned out the boisterous families, the valley that stretched out before me appeared gorgeous. Everywhere the eye could see, there were rolling hillsides of lush monsoon green interspersed with large splashes of canary yellow, courtesy the Graham’s Groundsel, a flower that’s aptly called the sonki (golden) in Marathi. If you were at Bombay Point on 8 November, 1659, however, a less pretty sight would have greeted you. In the Radtondi pass below, you would have watched the massive Bijapuri army rumble by, headed to the Pratapgarh fort where Shivaji was.

For a long time, the Bijapur Sultanate—the Deccan’s most powerful state—had been forced to ignore Shivaji, as the Maratha captured one Bijapuri fort after another in the Sahyadri hills. Bijapur’s internal strife and conflict with belligerent Mughal prince, Aurangzeb meant that Shivaji got a free hand. Finally in 1659, Bijapur dispatched one of its top generals, Afzal Khan, to confront Shivaji. To note one of the many ironies of that period, Shivaji’s father, Shahji, one of Bijapur’s most powerful nobles, had served alongside Afzal Khan in 1641, as Bijapur endeavoured to crush an uprising of rajas in Vellore.

As Afzal Khan marched to Pratapgarh, he decided to adopt a policy of intimidation of the worst possible kind by destroying a number of Hindu temples on the way, the most important of which was the Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. Today it is probably Maharashtra’s most popular temple, a status it had even in the 17th century.  Furthermore, as Stewart Gordan points out, “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force” given the kingdom’s past history of syncretism.

Not only was this act morally unconscionable, it was also highly impolitic since it served to alienate the bedrock of Bijapur's civil and military bureaucracy, Marathi Brahmans and Marathas. In the end, the strategy behind the destruction, that of forcing Shivaji to come down from the hills was also a failure. Shivaji knew his forces would be no match for Bijapur’s well-equipped army on the plains and, wisely, did not budge.

Khan, on the other hand, rashly, decided to pursue Shivaji, who then immediately retreated to his fort at Pratapgarh. Like many Deccan forts, Pratapgarh is perched on top of a hill. When I drove up to the fort, it loomed up sharply, its sheer black stone walls enclosed in mist, making it look ominously beautiful. As was obvious at first glance, the fort would be impossible to break into.

Afzal Khan was therefore forced to wait at the foothills of the Sahyadri in Wai. Time however was running out both for Shivaji, who had limited food supplies in the fort, and Khan whose massive army needed to be fed.  Khan therefore sent his envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar to promise that Shivaji would be treated with respect and rewarded if he surrendered. Shivaji agreed to meet with Afzal Khan, but at the base of Pratapgarh fort, deep in the ghats. In this terrain, Bijapur’s heavy artillery would be useless and Shivaji’s men, who knew the Javli forest around Pratapgarh intimately, would have a tactical advantage over the Bijapuris.

The Encounter

Greatly underestimating Shivaji, Khan accepted this stipulation. He moved his massive army within a few miles of Pratapgarh in the village of Par, deep inside the Sahyadri hills.

Par is today a small village of about 30 shingle-roofed houses and one convenience store. The store stocks five-rupee bags of potato chips, Coke, hair oil and fairness cream. Unfortunately, I arrived just after lunch time and found the attendant asleep at the counter. The rest of the village was deserted, the afternoon siesta apparently being a popular Par tradition. Gingerly, I woke the attendant and asked him about Afzal Khan. Thankfully, he was a good-natured chap and didn’t mind his nap being interrupted. “There is an old mazaar from that period. Ramzaan is the caretaker,” he said, pointing me to Ramzaan’s house. In gratitude, I bought a bag of chips and a small tube of fairness cream.

Ramzaan, a man of about 70, and his wife were the only two Muslims in Par. The mazaar, he informed me, was the tomb of Amir Shah Bijapuri, the maternal uncle of Afzal Khan. Amir Shah had died the day the Bijapuri army reached Par and was buried there on top of a hillock. Unfortunately, by now, nothing remained of the original tomb, which had collapsed around 50 years back and a new modern structure built in its place. It was surrounded by graves, which, Ramzaan claimed, were of the Bijapuri soldiers killed in the battle.

As I chatted with Ramzaan, I discovered he knew an incredible amount about the history behind the battle. He rattled off the names of the Bijapur sultans, the names of Afzal Khan’s entourage and even the exact date of the battle itself (in the Islamic calendar). Amazed, I asked him how he knew so much. As it turned out, Ramzaan was a descendant of one the aides of Amir Shah, or so he claimed. “I am the 15th generation of my family to act as caretaker of this dargaah,” he informed me, a note of pride creeping into his voice.

While Amir Shah is not mentioned in the histories of Pratapgarh, it is recorded that Afzal Khan waited for two days in in Par before going off to negotiate terms with Shivaji. The two were to meet in private, unarmed, at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and discuss the terms of Shivaji’s surrender.
What happened next, however, is a Rashomon-like tale which depends greatly on which source you believe. In the Marathi bakhars, it is recounted that Khan resorted to treachery, attacking Shivaji with a hidden kataar (dagger). Parrying his blow, Shivaji hit back, disembowelling Khan with a hidden weapon of his own: a set of tiger claws. In the Persian accounts of the Mughals and Bijapuris, however, historians such as Khafi Khan claim Shivaji attacked first.

No matter the means, the end result was that Shivaji ended up killing Afzal Khan. As soon as Khan was dead, Shivaji’s forces attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army in Par. The ensuing Battle of Pratapgarh was short and decisive as Khan’s leaderless troops were routed. This would be one of many instances in the career of Shivaji when his intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery would result in an improbable victory.

Modern Politics

Shivaji had Afzal Khan buried at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and, chivalrously, even had a tomb constructed for his vanquished opponent. As time passed, the local Muslims of the area, as is common across the subcontinent, started to treat the tomb as a mazaar. All this came to grinding halt in 2004 when, just before the General Elections, the VHP made the existence of the tomb into an issue. They even threatened to demolish the structure. It was a tense time and “for months no tourists came to Pratapgarh because of these politicians,” angrily remarked my Pratapgarh fort guide, Tanaji.

The police at the time managed to protect the tomb but, bowing to pressure, closed it to visitors and it remains shut to this day. I had barely walked up to within 50 metres of the tomb when 3 policemen all but pounced on me and forced me to leave the area. Amazingly, a garrison of 30 policemen has been maintained outside Afzal Khan’s tomb for the past decade in order to guard against further trouble.

After the VHP’s shenanigans, there is much sweet irony in the fact that today its close partner, the BJP is being associated with Afzal Khan. Of course, both incidents indicate how the history of this period has been completely distorted, being moulded, twisted and contorted into shapes which conform to the politics of the 20th century, either as a Hindu versus Muslim contest or a Maharashtrian versus non-Maharashtrian one.

Both Bijapur’s and Shivaji’s armies contained a mixture of faiths as was the norm in the Deccan at the time. Shivaji’s military commander-in-chief was Nurkhan Beg and the Maratha handpicked a Muslim, Sidi Ibrahim as one of the ten trusted commanders who were his first line of defence at the meeting with Afzal Khan. And while Shivaji’s army was largely Maratha so was Bijapur’s, the composition reflecting the martial traditions of the Maratha castes since the time of Malik Ambar and had nothing to do with a 17th century “sons-of-the-soil” policy. Similarly, on the Bijapuri side, religious identity was delinked from political loyalty. Afzal Khan’s trusted envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar was a Marathi Brahman. Analogous to Shivaji’s faith in his Muslim soldiers, Khan had no issue in trusting his life with a Hindu and Bhaskar was one of the ten Bijapuri commanders at the meeting. In fact when Bhaskar saw his general rush out, severely wounded, he immediately sprung to Khan’s defence only to be cut down by Shivaji’s men.

Our politicians may not care much for history but this is one comparison that Uddhav Thackeray might regret making. Afzal Khan’s army came to Maharashtra only to be soundly defeated — the BJP, on the other hand, has swept the state.

Afzal Khan's tomb

The Pratapgarh fort 
The Pratapgarh fort

The Pratapgarh fort 

The Pratapgarh fort 

The mazaar of Afzal Khan's uncle

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gandhi Jayanti Special: Rafi Sings the Life of the Mahatma

In 1948, some time after Gandhi was assassinated by an RSS worker named Nathuram Godse, the composers Husnlal-Bhagatram teamed up lyricist Rajinder Krishan to write a song as a tribute to the Mahatma.

Called Bapu Ki Amar Kahani, it spanned a rather substantial 12 minutes and narrates in surprisingly detail the life of Mohanlal Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. As a surprise bonus, it's sung by none other than the man himself: Mohammad Rafi.

Listen to it on Gandhi Jayanti to get a quick, lyrical recap on the life of the Father of the Nation.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV: