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Politicized history books promote communal strife, religious antagonisms


By Moin Qazi*
The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell
Too much of the thinking about Muslim rulers is now being shaped along predictable, clich├ęd lines. This is true of all shades of opinion, perception and scholarship. There is evidence from a number of established scholarly discourses that the public perception about Muslim rulers is being increasingly manipulated to fit into a profile built by right wing historians.
The negative images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure of Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred. Ignorance of Islam exists among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Similarly, Muslims have their own misconceptions. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non-Muslims, create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of sanity are drowned.
The greatest damage to Muslim history has been done by the infamous book, “The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians”, authored by Elliot and Dawson. There was a time when this book was widely prescribed in schools and colleges. A casual glance at a few pages would reveal the determined effort of the authors to poison the minds of readers against Muslim rulers.
The authors, keen to contrast what they understood as the justice and efficiency of British rule with the so-called cruelty and despotism of the Muslim rulers who had preceded that rule, were anything but sympathetic to the “Muhammadan” period of Indian history. The politics of the history textbooks in India today promote communal strife by creating a historical consciousness that gives pride of place to religion and proposes a narrative that traces back community identities and antagonisms, and hence legitimises their existence.
Several new studies, coming from western scholarship, also show that the Mughals were pluralists and catholic in their outlook and in their policies. According to Audrey Truschke, a Mellon post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, much of the current religious conflict in India has been fueled by ideological assumptions about that period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent’s history.
In her book, “Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court”, Truschke says that the heyday of Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of “tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization,” not religious or cultural conflict. A leading scholar of South Asian cultural and intellectual history, Truschke argues that this more divisive interpretation actually developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947.
“The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviors who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay,” she says. “While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the modern Hindu right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict.”
Truschke finds that high-level contact between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines:
“Aurangzeb protected more Hindu temples than he destroyed. He employed more Hindus in his imperial administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a fair margin (50% more Hindus, proportionally, than Akbar had included, for instance). Aurangzeb asked Hindu doctors and astrologers for advice throughout his life, even in his final years. Aurangzeb also destroyed some temples, reinstitute the jizya tax, and, along with the Marathas, caused mass human suffering in central and south India. The goal for a historian is to make sense of all of these aspects of Aurangzeb rather than singling out only one side of this complicated king.”
Another great ruler vilified by historians was Tipu Sultan, who was the fiercest foe the British ever encountered. As one of the first Indian rulers to be martyred while defending his homeland against the Empire, Tipu figures prominently in the British Army’s National Army Museum as one of the ten greatest enemy commanders the British Army ever faced. In his capability as a military strategist, Tipu was an equal of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Besides being a great military strategist, Tipu was also a visionary and innovative ruler. Aside from military innovation, Tipu is said to have introduced new coinage, a calendar and a system of weights and measures mainly based on the methods devised by French technicians. Thus, he was a modernist who even planted the “tree of liberty” at the Srirangapatna fort, in honour of the French revolutionaries.
Tipu Sultan is, however, demonised, largely due to the particularly biased trajectory of British historiography, which branded him “a furious fanatic and an intolerant bigot.” Some even retained a fondness for comparing Tipu with Mahmud Ghaznavi and Nadir Shah. Wilks and Kirkpatrick accused Tipu of exiling 60,000 Kanarese Christians. But one must not forget that the Kanarese Christians apparently helped the English to conquer Mangalore during the Second Anglo-Mysore war. He treated the Syrian Christians of his kingdom extremely well and also encouraged Armenian merchants to settle in Mysore.
Similarly, he was falsely accused of resorting to forced conversions. An archival record unearthed in 1913 revealed 21 letters he wrote to Sringeri monastery proving him to be a patron of many Hindu maunders (temples). The reason for the acute venom spouted against Tipu by the British lay in the challenge he posed to colonial power. When the princes of Rajputana had surrendered and Ranjit Singh, “The Lion of Punjab,” compromised, and the Marathas quietly buckled under the threat of British arms, Tipu dared to confront the colonialists.
The defenders of Tipu Sultan say that when he was not fighting the British, he focused on welfare works such as improving irrigation and agriculture and making just laws. The 1988 Annual Journal of the Tipu Sultan Research Institute and Museum reprinted parts of a 1786 proclamation that abolished flogging and whipping. The edict also said:
“Looting a conquered army enriches a few, impoverishes the nation and dishonors the entire army. War must be linked to the battlefields. Do not carry it to innocent civilians. Honour their children and the infirm.”
Research by Dr BN Pande showed not only that Tipu paid annual grants to 156 temples, but that he enjoyed cordial relations with the Shankaracharya of Sringeri Math to whom he had addressed at least 30 letters.
The developments that occasioned the Indian Partition catalysed a process of sectarian politics that found its logical end in the creation of separate nations altogether. Seven decades after the partition of India, a debate on what caused it is merely academic. But the question of how to contain and tame its lingering sparks and bushfires is of immense practical importance. Hindu nationalist ideologues still periodically subject Indian Muslims to loyalty tests.
The saffron discourse normalizes a certain cultural-nationalist worldview which recasts the historic, 300-year rule of the Mughals (whose empire at one point stretched from Burma to Afghanistan and produced, among other things, the Taj Mahal and the Urdu language) as a form of Muslim settler-colonialism that oppressed Hindus. As the great American writer and social critic James Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son”: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
A reappraisal of history can alone put the record straight and clear the misconceptions created by partisan historians, in whose works fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes have replaced fact and reality. Or else we will be confirming the fears of the great thinker, Walter Benjamin: “History is written by the victors.”
The paradox underlying this conundrum is best captured in the dedication template of Bhagwan S Gidwani, author of “The Sword of Tipu Sultan”, who devoted 13 years to part-time research on his book in the archives of half a dozen countries for writing his novel. It reads:
“To the country which lacks a historian; to men whom history owes rehabilitation.”
*Development expert

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