Monday, August 10, 2015

Babur, Timur and Shastri: as Modi visits Tashkent, a short history of Indo-Uzbek ties

First published on Scroll.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks off his tour of Central Asia on Monday with a visit to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a speck in modern India’s view of the world but the subcontinent's history has greatly been influenced by a man who was born here in 1483: the founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.

Given the saffron turn in events, many Indians actively revile Babar. But Uzbekistan celebrates the founder of the Mughal Empire as a national hero. Babur’s home is now a museum. Parks and monuments are dedicated to him. The Uzbekis even have an organisation – the Babur International Foundation – expressly devoted to the study of Babur’s history.

Despite this retrospective adulation, Babur didn't have an easy time in his homeland. Although Babur is descended from the fearsome Timur, he was himself born to a rather modest father, the ruler of the small principality of Fargana. Babur struggled to gain a toehold in his home and was eventually forced into neighbouring Afghanistan. It was here that his military genius flowered and he ruled Kabul for more than a decade. He loved his time in Kabul and after he died, his body was buried in the city. His tomb is still there in the city and in fact, the Kabulis see him as a hero too.

Babur could never go back to his land of birth. Instead, he came to India, where the empire he founded is often seen with hostility in modern times, in spite of being a seminal influence in the formation of modern India.  The influence of the Mughal empire can be seen from the fact that in 1857, when the Indian soldiers of the British army revolted, the first place they headed for was the Mughal palace in Delhi. The emperor, although powerless and poor – he received a pension from the British – was still seen a symbol of national unity and thus provided the sepoys the legitimacy they needed.

The Mughals

When Babur first came to India, though, he didn't like it very much. He pined for the mountains and melons of Central Asia, even though he noted how much Indians liked the mango but churlishly added, “It is not so good as to warrant such praise”.

His descendants, however, quickly took to the subcontinent and, of course, the mango. Babur’s grandson, Akbar, planted the “Lakh Bagh”, a mango orchard containing one lakh trees in Darbhanga, Bihar.

While they might have taken to Indian fruit, the Mughals always had a desire to take back the birthplace of their founder. At the height of Mughal power, Shah Jahan sent his sons, Murad and Aurangzeb into Central Asia, with the ultimate aim of conquering the legendary city of Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. The Mughal army never did reach the city, being furiously tormented by the Uzbek tribes in a land that was, after more than a hundred years, now completely foreign to them.

Historian Abraham Eraly writes that in spite of spending Rs 20 million on this campaign, the Mughals gained nothing from it.

Timur’s sack of Delhi

While the Delhi Mughals had great trouble in trying to reach Samarkand, their ancestor, Timur, the ruler of Samarkand reached Delhi with relative ease in 1398. And like in Baghdad and Damascus, Timur sacked Delhi with brutal ferocity. While he did not much like Delhi’s citizens, he did warm to the city’s architecture, making sure to take back a great many builders and architects back to Samarkand.  It also seems that Timur so impressed with the Jami Masjid in Feroz Shah Kotla that he copied a large part of its design to build Samarkand’s greatest mosque, the Bibi Khanum.

Timur is also a national hero in Uzbekistan and Modi might even catch a glimpse of his statue as he is being driven around Tashkent.

While that might be terrible enough, Tashkent has even more recent bad memories for India. In 1966, the Soviets moderated peace talks between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1965 War. The Indian delegation was led by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died a sudden death immediately after the peace agreement was signed. His official cause of death was a heart attack but his family suspected foul play. Nothing, however, could be ascertained since no postmortem was conducted.

On his Facebook wall, Modi said that he would pay his tributes to Shastri during this Tashkent visit.

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