Recently, the renaming of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road and Karnataka’s celebration of Tipu Jayanti have ignited furious debates within India and thrown the country’s past once again into the spotlight. Was Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor, a sectarian fanatic who “destroyed the Idea of India”? Or was he instead an enlightened despot who persecuted Hindus only “as punishment for political opposition”? And was Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore,’ an Islamic tyrant, a valiant anti-colonialist, or both?
Under ordinary circumstances, the details of centuries-old rulers would not be of great significance. They are in India because the trauma to which they attest – sectarian violence – is a feature not only of the country’s past but also of the present day. In India, as in other societies beset by sectarian tensions such as Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Nigeria, or Northern Ireland, history is not simply a record of past events, but a tally of grievances in which both sides are continually keeping score.
For Hindu nationalists, that tally is a long one, and the Modi government has attempted to change school textbooks to conform to its version of history. They have claimed that the Hindu population of India declined by 80 million people during Muslim rule, and that millions of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. They argue that invading Muslim forces destroyed 30,000 temples, replacing many of them with mosques. Most of these figures are drawn from the air, and have provoked widespread rebuttals from historians.
Yet, while the numbers can be contested, there can be little doubt about the existence of religiously-motivated violence in centuries past. The Muslim scholar Al-Biruni noted already in the 11th century that the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni were “wonderful exploits” by which “Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions.” John F. Richards noted that the earliest Muslim forces in India “appealed regularly to Muslim militancy in the jihad or holy war against the idolatrous Hindus of the subcontinent.” Aurangzeb’s own court historian Saqi Mustad Khan described him as someone for whom “all aims…were directed to the spreading of the law of Islam and the overthrow of the practice of the infidels.” Tipu Sultan declared that Muslims should “consider the annihilation of infidels as a sacred duty,” while Richards and Grewal argue that under Ranjit Singh Sikhs made “a religious appeal rooted in class hatred” against “prosperous Muslim gentry,” leading to Sikhs taking “a much larger share than Hindus and Muslims” of public lands and grants. Leaving no stone unturned, historians have also unearthed incidents of medieval violence by Hindus against Muslims.
Yet, rather than accept the deep roots of religious chauvinism, in an attempt to defuse the atmosphere, much of the academy has gone to absurd lengths to gloss over, or even defend the bigotry of the past. Let us return to the case of Aurangzeb – by any measure, one of the subcontinent’s least secular rulers – who is at the heart of the recent controversy in Delhi. A recent article on this website argues that:
“Aurangzeb ruled for nearly 50 years, and in that time he ordered many acts and policies that affected specific Hindu communities, often in disparate ways. For example, it is true that he ordered the destruction of certain Hindu temples (generally as punishment for political opposition). But he also gave tax-free lands to numerous Hindu groups. And he employed greater numbers of Hindus within the imperial administration than any of his predecessors.”
Such assertions may be factually correct, but they set a very low bar for what is expected of a ruler. Imagine the same quote, for example, applied to South Africa’s apartheid leaders:
“Vorster ruled South Africa for nearly 12 years, and in that time he ordered many acts and policies that affected specific black communities, often in disparate ways. For example, it is true that he oversaw the demolition of certain townships and murder of activists (generally only as a punishment for black insurrection). But he also granted independence to African homelands. And he employed greater numbers of blacks within the apartheid administration than any of his predecessors.”
Such statements would also be factually accurate. Yet they whitewash a legacy of institutional discrimination and injustice. The logic used to gloss over violence in medieval India could explain away the sins of just about every 20th century Aurangzeb.
There is another way. Rather than projecting twentieth-century secularism onto sectarian medieval rulers, we could acknowledge the wrongs of the past, in an attempt to move beyond them. Recognising historical injustices, such as the temple demolitions by Aurangzeb or the forced conversions of Tipu, and recognising contemporary injustices, such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, should be seen as two sides of the same coin. The fact that some of those clamouring to rename Aurangzeb Road or end the celebration of Tipu Jayanti are motivated by sectarian grievance does not make such grievances illegitimate. We must learn to distinguish between the legitimacy of a historical grievance and the often illegitimate means by which they are pursued.
Certainly, little can be gained by telling a sanitised tale of the past. It would be considered deeply patronising, for example, for historians to tell Catholics in Northern Ireland that they should avoid renaming “Londonderry” to “Derry,” on account that some of the Ulster settlers “were also Catholic.” Perhaps some were, but the majority was not – and their decision to name a new London was no accident. In India, the repeated demolition of the Somnath Temple, or Tipu Sultan’s mass conversions in Malabar, were no less accidental. Even if sectarian identities were not the only motivating factor driving this violence, they were clearly very important. Denying this fact concedes an important weapon – the truth – to those who seek vengeance in the present.
Instead, in societies suffering from the trauma of historical injustice, it is better that historical grievances be aired and addressed, rather than left to fester indefinitely. In Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was for centuries the seat of the Christian Patriarch, but was later looted, sacked, and converted by the Ottomans into a mosque. It took five centuries before Atatürk partially restored the balance by ordering it desacralised and converted into a museum. In the late fifteenth century, Spain forced its entire Jewish population to either convert to Catholicism, leave, or be killed; only now, five hundred years later, has the country finally offered citizenship to the descendants of those exiled. It is never too late to acknowledge historical wrongs, and make small steps, even symbolic, of amendment.
We end with two thoughts. First, as secularists, what is the harm in accepting that communal violence occurred in India’s medieval past? This does not mean that religion is always prone to violence, or that the people of South Asia are inherently intolerant. We see this violence instead as a product of the frenzied clash of cultures that has taken place on the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, what Marc Gaborieau called the region’s “tormented history.” Second, we would suggest that because of its rich diversity, India has had to deal with conflicts that few countries have ever faced. In fact, no country in the world is as religiously fractionalised as India. But for those who wish to protect modern India’s secular and democratic identity, there is no need to defend the religious chauvinists of centuries past.
Roberto Foa is author of a doctoral thesis at Harvard University on the legacies of Indian precolonial regimes, and has been advisor to the Shared Societies project of the Club of Madrid.
Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on South Asian politics, ethnicity, violence, and historical legacies. His book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, is forthcoming in February 2016 from Stanford University Press.