Sunday, December 6, 2015

Were Akbar and Tipu Sultan secular or Islamist?

The apologists and propagandists who seek to justify Islamic rule in India invariably point to mostly two specific  figures -Akbar and Tipu Sultan for their vaunted secularism ,glory and nationalism. Let us leave us aside the curious aspect that in nearly 700 years or intermittent Muslim rule which saw hundreds of rulers in various parts of India, secularists and Muslim apologists are only able to provide two which are supposed to be palatable to Hindus! And even these two are certainly are not lacking in bigotry and monstrosity. That more than anything highlighted the extreme cruelty and exploitation of most of the other Muslim rulers rather than suggest a tolerance and humane governance was typical of Islamic empire by using these two individuals as example! But that is the sad state of debate and scholarship today!

Lets start in chronological order. I find it rather strange that even some Hindu revivalists such as Sitaram Goel are willing to pardon Akbar's excesses if only he was less brutal than other rulers. While Koenraad Elst is not so forgiving and sees him plainly as a jihadi based on his callous of Rajput troops as cannon fodder since they are "kaafirs" anyway. Akbar was the offspring of the hapless drug addict and bookworm Humayun who found himself besiged by Sher Shah Suri on one hand and the Persians on another. As such it was upto him to put affairs in order and he did so in a very effective manner.
He ritually decapitated Hemachandra Vikramaditya, the last great hope of Hindus of north India after Harshavardhana after the disastrous 2nd Battle of Panipat where the Hindu army was routing due to a freak accident wounding Hemu in the eye and rendering him unconscious compelling the Hindu army to panic and flee.
Akbar also indulged in Khilji esque tactics of dragging as sister and another relative of Rani Durgavati to his harem in Agra.
Maharana Pratap led a sustained rebellion against the Moghul which while not religious in nature had religious overtones.  In the end, Pratap failed as too many Rajputs had their peace with Mughal power to the extant of supplying their daughters to Mughal harems, not even for marriage! Something to akin the Nambuthiri sambandham in Kerala. All the while Mughal princesses for Rajput nobles were not forthcoming. The secularists who crow about stories such as Jodha Akbar seem to leave out this detail that matrimony was a one way street as far as Hindus were concerned. And this reflected the power equations of the era where Hindus played second fiddle. Is it unfair to expect the Moghuls to offer their daughters in marriage to Rajputs who were in a subordinate position.?Heck no. Indian history is replete with examples where the son of a lesser king would would end up marrying the daughter of a more powerful king or emperor. The Pandya princesses and Sri Lankan monarchs as well as Vakataka kings and Gupta queens come to mind.

However when his power stabilized , he indulged in his "navaratna" of which Birbal was not so much his witty court jester popularized by mass (secular) entertainment but a strategic advisor and even military figure who died crushing a rebellion of Yusufzai Pathans. Akbar even flirted openly with blasphemy (from the Islamic POV) when he declared himself Gods representative on earth as per his own established faith Din i illahi. An incoherent hodge podge of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism with him as the central figure.

While Tipu Sultan was never as ambitious in his theological excursions as Akbar, he nonetheless was just as opportunistic as Akbar when it came to matter of religious faith. He was probably the first Deccani Muslim since Hasan Gangu to lead a major kingdom as all  Muslim kingdoms were controlled by those of Turkic and Persian extraction. While his father Hyder Ali's exact origins are unknown , some speculate that his grandfather hailed from Punjab or Afghanistan, he certainly did not suffer from the myriad of identity crises that his son. He was quite comfortable in his background from the Kolar region close to Mysore. He was quite happy to converse and administer in Kannada, the court language of his bosses, the Wodeyars. Neither did his excursions against Kerala result in the wanton destruction and bigotry that his sons invasions entailed. All in all, Hyder Ali may have been the defacto ruler of Mysore kingdom he never really saw himself as a king and therefore didnt feel in contention with all the "noble" born Turks and Persians who dominated the elite ranks of the Nizams, Nawab of Carnatic and of course the Mughal Empire.

Tipu Sultan however took more extreme measures in isolating the Wodeyar royal family and wished to imitate the Mughals in their style of governance to the extant of introducing Persian in administration while the Marathas who had reduced the Mughal empire to a narrow strip along the Yamuna river, were slowly making the transition from Persian to Hindi and Marathi. He went as far to concoct fanciful lineages all the way to the tribe of Quraysh of Prophet Mohammad by way of Persia.

It may seems like a trivial matter but intra Muslim prejudice was a real issue in that era (as it is today). The Bahmani kingdom racked by internal dissension between Deccani and Persian born Muslims which Vijayanagar was more than happy to take advantage of. To this day, Deccani Muslims eschew any connection with a Kannadiga heritage and still cling to the fantasy of origins from Uzbekistan, Persia, Afghanistan, Iraq and what have you. The number of Mysore Muslims who speak Kannada as a first language are few and far between. Even with the Hyderabadi tehzeeb of Urdu, there are still a substantial number of Telugu speaking Muslims of which Zareena Wahab , Waheeda Rahman apart from the singer Mano are the most famous members. Again compare these communities to the Muslims of Kerala and Tamil Nadu who barely speak any Urdu but at the most interperse Malayalam and Tamil with Arabic words.
Apart from stray incidents such as the Khilafat which was instigated by an outside actor(Mohandas Gandhi of all people!) , the Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are by and large well assimilated and peaceable. What is more ironic is that unlike Deccani Muslims, Muslims of Kerala actually do have foreign blood(from Egypt, Iraq and Yemen)!

Why did Tipu lead a jihad against Kerala ,Mangalore and Coorgi Hindus and Christians while at the same time going out of his way to donate for repair of Sringeir Math when it was plundered by a Maratha raider?
Simple, Tipu cared simply for the religious sentiments of his own his subjects and wished not to aggravate them. Sringeri Math and Sri Ranga was important to Mysoreans, not so much Tala Kaveri of Coorg or Padmanabhaswamy of Kerala. Like Akbar, he had also recruited Brahmins as his trusted advisors in various capacities such as Shyamaiya Iyengar and Poorniah who had positions such minister of police and post and even served honorably on the battlefield against the East India company. As for his so called patriotism, he was happy to inducted as an honorary French citizen and had no problem being a vassal of the French Republic to conserve his kingdom. The defeat of Napolean at the hands of the British ensured that such a dream did not come to fruition.

All in all, we make mistakes when we ascribe our narrow categories of jihadi,secularist, multiculturalist, freedom fighter etc etc to these two figures. These individuals it should be emphasised were products of their time and place and our modern definitions of nationalism, religous bigotry, open hearted tolerance arent applicable.
To this one can add a bizarre dash of regional politics where Tipu is viewed as mighty Kannadiga figure versus the unwelcome and ravaging Marathas! This is where the silly ,cheap and short sighted people such as Siddaramiah and the more cultured Girish Karnad come in. Once again Hindu nationalism due to its north centric focus failed in dealing with the myriad contradictions and complications of south Indian identity.

To my mind , first and foremost they were opportunists who were out for personal gain and glory. To this end, Akbar was more successful as he had momentum of Islamic expansionism on his side while Tipu seemed to have been born about a 150 years too late and hence despite impressive military victories ultimately was a doomed figure due to being a hunted man by not just the resolute Nairs in Kerala(where he met his first spectacular defeat) but even the Nizam, Marathas and British looked forward to tightening the noose.

This is not to excuse their excesses against the Hindus. But a word of criticism should be reserved for the Hindus who served both these personalities even when they outraged Hindu sensitivities. Here the secularists are on firmer ground when they point a lack of Hindu solidarity for their own. Muslims by contrast were far more hesitant when serving a Hindu king to engage in anti Muslim activities.
Only the Marathas and to a lesser extant Vijayanagar showed any sense of intra Hindu solidarity but eventually the latter succumbed which led to its defeat.

My personal position is simple: Neither was Akbar a tolerant multiculturalist , neither was Tipu Sultan a Shankaracharya hugging nationalist hero. But neither are they monsters. In an ideal scenario, I don't want either. I prefer to have been ruled by Hemachandra, Maharana Pratap and the Wodeyars. I am unable to view any Muslim ruler in a positive light. I prefer Hindus be ruled by badly by Hindus rather than be ruled well by the British,French, Mughals or what have you. It is a simple matter of honor and pride. Good governance and prosperity by foreign rule is still akin to a form of spiritual slavery and cultural degradation which leads to all sorts of social dysfunction in the long term. If you dont believe me , take a look at the prosperous but broken society of Japan and their twisted sexual subcultures. Same goes for the technological and financial powerhouse of Germany who until 2010 was the world largest exporter of goods and not China as most assume.. Both of whom are not really independent countries in their own right but client states of America. Japan actually needs permission from America for even a show of muscle against China! The pathetic German military machine, once a shadow of its glorious self who despite its obvious moral shortcomings almost single handedly took on the British Empire ,Soviet Union and the U.S.A all at once and nearly won. It now finds it hands tied firmly behind its back by the U.S.A  Is it any coincidence, these countries with their abnormally low birth rates are breeding themselves out of existence?

So even if all the wild claims by the secularists about Tipu and Akbar are true,even if the claims of Hindutvadis of their cruelty and bigotry are exagerrated, on this matter I will have to reluctantly side with the Hindutvadis for their disdain of a Muslim ruler.