Sunday, February 19, 2023

India, not a nation of losers

(Pragyata, Nov 2022) You Hindus have never done anything noteworthy, let alone brave or creative, that the foreigners who forever kept coming to subdue you, could have admired. Or at least that is the message Hindu readers, cinema-goers and schoolchildren get to consume. It is time to correct this negative self-image, as numerous observers muse, but the historians willing and able to transmute this pious intention into cold print haven’t been forthcoming in appreciable numbers. Communal history That is where a new generation of historians is stepping in. Foremost among them is Vikram Sampath, who made his name with a two-volume biography of Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. His newest book, Bravehearts of Bharat, is about a series of freedom fighters that might as well have included Savarkar, but stops short at India’s formal passing into the status of British colony in 1858. It starts with Lalitaditya of Kashmir, who confronted among others Junayd al-Murri, successor as Arab governor to India’s first Muslim invader, Mohammed bin Qasim, but also Tibetans, pre-Islamic Turks; and ends with Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh, who fought the British. Note the large proportion of women among these fierce warriors, six of the fifteen whose story is narrated here. Moreover, two of them were Muslim: Chand Bibi of Ahmednagar, who fought against Akbar, and Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh, who took part in the Mutiny, now increasingly called (after Savarkar) the “First War of Independence”. This term has passed into the Congressite version of history in that it showcases a Hindu-Muslim unity against the British, as against the “communal” (Savarkarite!) emphasis on Hindu-Muslim conflict. The reader won’t notice any religiously partisan attitude in the description of their lives by the historian whom the Left has dubbed “Savarkar’s apologist”. Nonetheless, here and there the sheer facts of history will make the reader draw his own conclusions. Thus, most readers will know the defection in 1565 of the Muslim units of the Vijayanagar force in the battle of Talikota against a Muslim coalition, which transmuted an assured victory into a lethal defeat for the last remaining Hindu empire. Even for them it may be news that this was a repetitive behaviour pattern, e.g. in 712, “about 500 Arabs who were in [king of Sindh] Dahar’s army (…) deserted Dahar as they were reluctant to attack their co-religionists”. (p.12-13) Therefore, skeptics will doubt Sampath’s generous (or Congressite) characterization of Hazrat Mahal’s motive for engaging in the revolt of 1857: after the Indians’ defeat against the British she gained asylum in Nepal and had a “Hindustani Masjid” built there, “named in honour of the country she so dearly loved”. (p.320) Freedom Fighters like Savarkar and their purported heirs in Congress and other secularist circles like to affirm the patriotic motive, but this conceals that the Mutiny was a kind of mutual deception in which the Hindus sought to bring back the Maratha empire while the Muslims sought to re-establish the Moghul empire, which had never ceased to see itself as a foreign occupying force in a country that its founder Babar had cursed, and that was administered in a foreign language till the last. Everybody develops an attachment to his cradle-land, but was it this that motivated Hazrat Mahal, or was it zeal for the remains of a Muslim empire now dissolved by the British infidels? The one does not exclude the other. Martyrdom and victory The list of bravehearts was not selected for their martyrdom, though a few also tasted that. Thus, Banda Singh Bahadur, who pioneered Sikh military endeavour through the Khalsa founded by Guru Govind Singh but was at last captured and tortured to death by Moghul troops; or Rani Abbakka who ended up being captured by the Portuguese and dying in captivity, but was selected here for the more impressive list of defeats she had first inflicted on them. Most heroes here are spectacular and perpetual winners, such as Rajaraja and Rajendra Cola, or Lachit Barphukan. Of the Colas you have at least heard the name, and perhaps even that their policy was uniquely expansionist in that they conquered Eastern India and much of Southeast Asia, a counterpoint to the usual narrative that the Hindus never colonized foreign territories (mouthed both by pooh-poohers of Hindu valour and by Gandhi-style Hindu apologists). For details about their career, you can now turn to the accomplished historian Vikram Sampath, virtually the first to deal with this episode since KA Nilakanth Sastri’s History of South India (1955). But just as spectacular and certainly newer is his chronicle of Lachit Barphukan’s achievements. Indian schoolkids and grown-ups have been led to believe that until Shivaji in the late 17th century, Hindus had been totally helpless against the Muslim invaders. If you look at historical maps, the speed and magnitude of their conquering advances is no doubt impressive. Yet they were not infinite, sometimes because natural hurdles came in the way (thus, they failed to conquer Nepal), but often because Hindu resistance stopped them. That neither the Delhi Sultanate nor the Moghul Empire ever included Assam, was not for lack of trying. The champion of this successful resistance by the Ahom dynasty was Lachit Barpukhan (locally pronounced Borphukan), whose name deserves a similar aura as that of Shivaji (of whom he was a contemporary) or Peshwa Bajirao. He defeated the Moghul invasion force repeatedly, most spectacularly in the battle of Saraighat of 1671. Though the Ahoms ultimately fell due to an invasion, after six centuries, it was one from Burma (just like the Colas, the Buddhists too broke the stereotype with their foreign conquests), but the attempts at conquest from the Muslim-held Ganga plain were all fruitless. Nationalism The perspective of this book is clearly nationalist. More than the reader of his Savarkar biography will expect, Sampath does not hesitate to highlight episodes of Hindu-Muslim cooperation, not just against external enemy like the British but also against co-religionists. Secularists will hail this as proof that religion doesn’t matter, but history shows that Muslims at some point remember their religious duty vis-à-vis others whereas Hindus remain trusting of others until it is too late. To name the best-known examples: Jayachandra of Kannauj thought he could use an alliance with Mohammed Ghori against his rival Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi, but after the victory over Prithviraj he ended up defeated by Ghori too; and Mahatma Gandhi imagined he could enlist the Caliphate movement into the Freedom Movement but only triggered the Moplah jihad against the Hindus of Kerala. That is why I see a need here to repeat that “nationalism is a misstatement of Hindu concerns”. Then again, the identification with India is at least a part of Hinduness. In Savarkar’s Hindu-nationalist (“Hindutva”) definition, a Hindu sees India not only as his Holyland (as a Western Hare Krishna might also do), but also as his Fatherland. For them, unlike for Muslims or Christians, India is not an area of expansion, a colony, but since forever their cradle. The Israeli historian Yoram Hazony shows in his dissident book The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) that nationalism was a great step forwards in the human evolution from a purely local viewpoint to an identification with a larger community mostly consisting of people you don’t personally know; and in India’s case, who fall outside your primary community: your caste. That is why Savarkar was a activist against caste. So from a viewpoint of social justice, this much-maligned ideology is not without its merits. It was one of the pillars of the French Revolution: the “brotherhood” pillar next to “liberty” and “equality”. So it may be a good thing if Indians, including Muslims, are reminded of their common nationhood. And of the virtues it produced, including bravery. Vikram Sampath: Bravehearts of Bharat. Vignettes from Indian History. Viking/Penguin Random House, Delhi 2022, 334 pp., Rs.799.

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