History

There Is Nothing Shameful About Being a Medieval Indian

The promised liberation from ‘1000 years of slavery’ remains a war-cry to fool the gullible. But those who have some idea of medieval India know that it was not a particularly repulsive place to inhabit

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Aurangzeb. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the ways in which the British justified the imposition of colonial rule early in the nineteenth century was to pitch the notion of their new western modernity against an alleged pre-colonial barbarity. The picture of medieval India, especially under Muslim rulers, as brutal, barbarous, dark-age was assiduously built by the British as one of the strategies for the legitimation of colonial rule in India, portrayed as meant for liberating and civilising the Hindus.

Historians sitting on Commonwealth chairs have continued to press the claim that Imperialism was a good thing to happen to the uncivilised people of the colonies, who were not only protected from the alleged horrendous violence of medieval Islam, but also modernised in the way they dress, speak in English, and have developed a sense of history, which they had previously lacked altogether. Much of this is false propaganda of the kind attributed to the reactionary right-wing.

The British succeeded in their divisive agenda for some time, but they had to leave as quickly as they had arrived; 150 odd years of colonial brutalities is nothing in the history of an ancient civilisation. The difficulties either created or aggravated by colonial rule, especially uncomfortable community relations, remain a disturbing legacy—faultlines, which continue to be exploited by those who thrive on the politics of hate.

The promised liberation from ‘1000 years of slavery‘ remains a war-cry to fool the gullible. But those who have some idea of medieval India know that it was not a particularly repulsive place to inhabit. And, there is no shame in being un-modern before the spread of the virtues of western modernity which came in the wake of capitalism and colonialism.

At the risk of speaking like an Indian nationalist, if we must use the language of development and market economy that is rage these days, India on the eve of colonial conquest in the 18th century was one of the most vibrant economies with a highly skilled population, and an international balance of payment heavily-loaded in its favour. In knowledge-production and the culture of civility, Indian cities could compete with the best in the world, even when they might not have been that smart in the contemporary sense.

That pre-colonial, early modern world was systematically destroyed within a few years with new weapons and a new language of politics facilitating and justifying brutal conquests as well as severe exploitation. It was only logical for those in power to do what they liked to do. However, if lessons from political theory and history are any indication, exclusive, narrowly-conceived political strategies cannot be sustained for long; only a broad-based, inclusive political theory and practice will find its place in history.

Against the current background of Aurangzeb’s name being effaced from the heart of New Delhi, close to the residence of the Prime Minister, one may possibly submit that the Mughal emperor was certainly not as bad as he is made out to be in both secular and communal-Hindu narratives, nor was he an angel of the kind that Muslim separatist writings present him as. Above all, he was a medieval Indian ruler, part of an entire chapter of national history that one cannot possibly discard just because it does not fit comfortably with the politics of those in power.

Raziuddin Aquil teaches medieval Indian history in Delhi University.

Categories: History

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