History in the Age of Delusion
The abuse of history sends its readers on a spree of ego massaging.
Shraddha Kumbhojkar | One common joke goes,
Baman: My dad gulps down a hot cup of tea in no time at all.
Aman: My dad drinks his tea right from the boiling kettle.
Chaman: That’s nothing! My dad eats the tea leaves, sugar, milk and water and goes on to sit on the gas stove!
‘I am better than you simply because I have something that is older, better or more expensive than everybody else’- this belief is not a prerogative of the school-going children. It can be seen in all sections of the society. The child-like exaggeration and fun might bring a smile on our lips. However, when grown-ups start believing that their food, their religion, their nation or their language are the oldest and hence the best- one is forced to seek an answer to the question- what use are such beliefs when one needs a solution to the current problems? The purported greatness, obviously, is of not much use then. Meanwhile, such competition for perceived greatness works to widen the gap between Us and Them.
The quest for a Golden Age is accompanied by a competition of victimhood.
People love the idea of a Golden Age that existed Once upon a Time because it has a therapeutic value for nursing their hurt egos. This therapy is fine as long as it gives temporary relief from the current angst. However, the quest for a Golden Age seems to be accompanied these days by a competition of victimhood suffered by 'Us' at the hands of 'the Big Bad Them'. The identities of ‘Us and Them’ are conveniently determined and changed. The acts of injustice are highlighted and paraded in the media- many a time by obfuscating true evidence, by manufacturing false evidence, and by foregrounding violent exceptions at the expense of the mundane, constant happenings. Such abuse of history sends the readers on a spree of ego massaging - deluding them that there were historical wrongs committed against their community and that they are now entitled to correct the wrongs.
The Taj Mahal, for example, is known around the world as a World Heritage Site. Attempts are being made these days to disprove the fact that this building was built by Shah Jahan. The rationale for this is the crazy and dangerous notion that "Shah Jahan is a Muslim, that is, he is not ‘one of us’ and if his deeds can be erased from history, it will bring glory to the non-Muslims." This is an area that is very well-researched thanks to the meticulous records kept by the Mughals and the Rajputs. Historians such as Professor Ali Nadim Rezavi from the Aligadh University have shown that the land where the Taj stands today was offered by Jaysingh for free to the Mughal emperor. However, as per an Islamic convention, a Makbara site had to belong to the person who wanted to build the tomb.1
Therefore, Jaysingh was paid four times the price in exchange for the Taj land. However, in this age of delusion, once the media has decided to confuse the people, what is the value of truth and what is the use of a historian? In fact, one could have concluded that we should be proud of Jayasingh's generosity. It is probably not possible to polarise people with such pride and hence such a conclusion would not be convenient. Rather, demands are made that 'our land was taken over by these evil Mughals, and that getting the land back now should be the topmost priority today.’
A convenient past is being fashioned out to suit our present-day politics. This is not only wreaking havoc with our history, but it is also preventing us from salvaging the present.
Global histories are full of examples where the victors have damaged the property and honour of the vanquished just to showcase their strength. Sometimes their heritage was destroyed like the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, sometimes human habitations like Hiroshima were destroyed, sometimes the lives of women are destroyed in the name of providing 'Comfort Women'. Sometimes, people considered Untouchable were buried alive in the name of sacrifice meant to consecrate the ramparts of a fort.2 History recognises that these injustices were indeed perpetrated, but it also teaches us that we should not repeat the same injustices today in the 21st century.
Aurangzeb’s religious policy is a case in point. Aurangzeb demolished the Kashi Vishwanath temple and constructed a mosque there without respecting the sentiments of the people. His arrogance tells us about his misplaced ideas of religion and power. In a few decades, Ahilya Devi Holkar rose to power in Malwa and was a force to reckon with in North India. She rebuilt the Kashi Vishwanath temple. However, she did not demolish the Gyanvapi Mosque, keeping in mind that it was also a place of worship. Ahilya Devi honoured the faith of the people as against Aurangzeb, who did not. There are no marks for guessing who amongst the two enjoys eternal fame as a benevolent ruler.
Contrary to the perception being popularised, temple destruction was not exclusively committed by the Muslim rulers. As mentioned in 'Rajatarangini', King Harsh of Kashmir had appointed an official named Uday to the post of 'Devotpatannayak', the idol-digging officer, to plunder the treasure from the temples. More recently, for the Kashi-Vishwanath corridor project, many people's houses, as well as their private temples, had to be relocated. Religious places are demolished, built and relocated due to various economic, religious and political reasons. It is up to us to decide whether the issue of temple destruction should top our national priority list. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s actions and words might help us in making this decision.
Aurangzeb broke away from the accommodating traditions of Mughal diplomacy and began to discriminate against the ryots on the basis of religion, and to levy the Jazia tax on the non-Muslims. Consequently, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj wrote a letter to Aurangzeb in 1679.3
(Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan)...These emperors could have levied the Jazia tax, but they did not think of oppressing anyone, knowing that all the big and small (persons) are following their own religion. They all belong to God. Their benevolence is still glorified and their praise and blessing are on the lips of every single citizen. Everyone blesses them. Their wealth was due to their nature. Those emperors had an eye for the welfare of the people. Nowadays, in your reign, many forts and regions are lost. Those that remain will also soon be lost, because the ryots, which should never be harmed, are in a state of despair in your reign…
In summary, how to run a state when soldiers are troubled and traders are wailing, Muslims are crying and Hindus are burning in their hearts, and many people are not getting enough food to fill up their stomachs?
The Quran, the heavenly Book, is the voice of God in which it is commanded, that all individuals- good or bad, both are created by God. Wherever there is a Masjid, people remember God and sing His praises. Where there is a temple, bells are rung. To oppose another’s religion is to break away from one's religion and to blemish His name by disobeying God's writings. Good or bad, nothing should be destroyed. To condemn a creation is to blemish the creator.4
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj's advice to the emperor to keep ‘an eye for the welfare of the people' should be taken into consideration by all of us citizens of a democratic state today.
At a time when India is plummeting to the bottom of the World Hunger Index, and "many people are not getting enough to eat" and people are in a state of despair, we should be aware that there are deliberate attempts to divert our attention from these challenges. Cooked-up controversies over old buildings such as the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Taj Mahal find a more prominent place in the public discussions than the pressing problems of unemployment and hunger. It might be remembered that it was a guerrilla tactic of the Deccan to tie up burning torches on the horns of a pack of oxen and deliberately send them on a different route at night- this worked to mislead the enemy.
Today, we, the people are being misled by igniting the horns of the past so that the 'we' are dissuaded from the path of solving the current challenges. It is time for us to make the choice- should we follow the path of religious discrimination shown by Aurangzeb or should we follow the footsteps of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Ahilya Devi Holkar and ‘keep an eye for the welfare of the people.’
1. Truths about Taj - MidDay
2. G. C. Wad, P. V. Mawjee and D. B. Parasnis (ed.), Sanads and Letters, 1913, P. 7. The Sanad narrates a story of the land grant given in lieu of a human sacrifice. The Padshah of Bidar was restless that the ramparts being constructed on the Fort Purandhar were not holding the ground. He had a dream wherein a human sacrifice was demanded by the deity. He narrated the story to his executive, who obtained a young couple from the supposedly untouchable caste of Matang. The couple were buried alive under the ramparts. The construction went ahead successfully. The Padshah awarded a sanad to the couple’s relatives as also to the king’s executive who obtained the couple.
3. There’ve been some aspersions cast on the authenticity of this letter. However, the Marathi version of the letter found and published by S. M. Garge settled the question of authenticity. Jadunath Sarkar, G. S. Sardesai, Pagdi, Parasnis, Wad and A. R. Kulkarni have accepted the letter as authentic. Hence, I think that it can be trusted as an authentic source.
4. Sardesai G. S., Aitihasika Patrabodha, K. B. Dhawale Prakashan, Mumbai, Pp. 11-12. 1939. ( Farsi to Marathi Translation – Wad & Parasnis; Marathi to English Translation- mine)
Shraddha Kumbhojkar is the Head of the History Department, Savitribai Phule Pune University.
She can be written to at firstname.lastname@example.org