The Nature of Conflict in Medieval India
Another guideline laid down by the NCERT for school-level textbooks of history exhorts that ‘no exaggeration of the role of religion in political conflicts is permitted’.
Let us for the time being forget the fiat of the State as to what is permitted and what is forbidden while writing the new textbooks of history. Let us first find out the facts as recorded by medieval historians, and review the various interpretations of those facts.
Hindu View of the Conflict
The Hindus of medieval India have not left many accounts of the numerous wars which they were forced to fight with Muslim invaders over a period of several hundred years. All we have from the medieval Hindus are some settled sentiments expressed by them in contemporary literature regarding the nature of the Muslim menace. The Hindus advance the following seven accusations against the Muslims:
They kill the Brahmins and the cows;
They violate the chastity of Hindu women;
They demolish temples, and desecrate the idols;
They cut the tuft of hair on the head (Śikha) and break the sacred thread (sutra);
They circumcise people and make them eat beef, that is, convert people by force;
They capture people, particularly women and children, and sell them into concubinage and slavery.
They plunder people’s properties, and set fire to whatever they cannot carry away.
In the records referring to the rise of Vijayanagara, the Marathas, and the Sikhs, the religious motive is brought into a sharper focus. These records leave us in no doubt that the defence of Hindu Dharma was uppermost in the minds of Madhava Vidyaranya, Samartha Ramdas, and Guru Teg Bahadur. The purpose for which the sword was unsheathed by Harihar and Bukka, Shivaji and the Sikhs, becomes quite clear in many poems written in praise of these heroes by a number of Hindu poets. The purpose, we are told, was to save the cow, the Brahmin, the Śikha, the sutra, the honour of Hindu women, and the sanctity of Hindu places of worship.
The Hindu records about pre-Islamic foreign invasions present a striking contrast. The Greeks, the Scythians, the Kushans, and the Hunas are accused by them of savagery and lust for plunder. But they are never accused of making Hindu Dharma or its outer symbols the specific targets of their attacks. We have also the accounts of these alien invaders becoming good Shaivites, and Vaishnavas, and Buddhists after their first fury was spent, and they settled down in India.
Muslim View of the Conflict
On the other hand, many Muslim historians of medieval India have left for posterity some very detailed, many a time day-to-day, accounts of what happened during the endless encounters between Hindus and Muslims. The dominant theme in these accounts is of mu’mins (Muslims) martyred; of kafirs (Hindus infidels) despatched to hell; of cities and citadels sacked; of citizens massacred; of Brahmins killed or forced to eat beef; of temples razed to the ground and mosques raised on their sites; of idols broken and their pieces taken to imperial headquarters for being trodden underfoot by the faithful on the steps of the main mosque; of booty captured and carried away on elephants, camels, horses, bullock carts, on the backs of sheep and goats, and even on the heads of Hindu prisoners of war; of beautiful Hindu maidens presented to the sultans and distributed among Muslim generals and nobles; of Hindu men, women and children sold into slavery in markets all over the Islamic world; and of kafirs converted to the true faith at the point of the sword. The Muslim historians treat every war waged against the Hindus as a jihad as enjoined by the Prophet and the Pious Caliphs.
In these Muslim accounts we never notice any note of pity, or regret, or reflection over deeds of wanton cruelty and rapacity. On the contrary, the Muslim historians express extreme satisfaction and gleeful gratitude to Allah that the mission of the Prophet has been fulfilled, the light of Islam brought to an area of darkness, and idolatry wiped out. These historians go into raptures over the richness of the booty acquired for the service of the Islamic state, for distribution among the mujahids and the ulama and the sufis, for the promotion of Islamic learning, and for securing the seats of Islamic power.
The same Muslim historians also narrate many wars fought between Muslim princes. Significantly, here we find no dramatisation of mu’mins against kafirs, mosques against temples, iconoclasts against idolaters, beef-eaters against Brahmins, ravishers against maidens, and captors against child and female captives of war. They only talk of treaties violated, tributes not paid, strategy and tactics employed, horses and elephants mobilised, armaments assembled, defeats suffered, victories won, and men and equipment lost in battle. In between, there are some accounts of sacks and massacres, plunder and pillage. But there is always a wail of extreme anguish about Muslims fighting and killing other Muslims, which the Prophet had strictly prohibited.
No Controversy on Recorded Facts
These are the facts of recorded history. Only a small fraction of these facts is found in Hindu records, and that too in a stray and scattered manner. The overwhelming wealth of these facts is stored in histories written by Muslim historians in a systematic manner, dynasty by dynasty, reign by reign, battle by battle. And these Muslim histories are available in manuscript form, in cold print of modern critical editions, in original as well in translations, in major world languages, in archives and libraries all over the civilised world. Collections of these histories have always been prized as priceless possessions in the palaces of Muslim aristocracy.
There can, therefore, be no serious controversy about the facts of recorded history. There may be some differences in different accounts of the same event, reign, or regime. There may be some internal contradictions in the same account. But these are minor details which can be sorted out by critical analysis and cross-referencing.
Sharp differences arise only when we come to the interpretation of these facts, and the passing of value judgements on them. It is here that the subjective and ideological inclinations of the interpreters and evaluators come into play. It is the varying interpretations and evaluations which have raised controversies regarding the desirability or otherwise of some textbooks in India’s schools and colleges. The guidelines laid down by the NCERT are also aimed at sorting out these interpretations and evaluations.
The Varying Interpretations
The orthodox or fundamentalist Muslim historians, who are coming to the forefront again with the help of petro-dollars, share the satisfaction expressed by medieval Muslim historians. They approve of and applaud unashamedly the triumphant sweep of the sword of Islam over India. They have no doubt that the medieval wars between Hindus and Muslims were fought by the Hindus as Hindus and by the Muslims as Muslims. They concur that these conflicts were armed contests between Islam and infidelity. The NCERT guidelines are aware of these orthodox Muslim historians, and warn us that ‘there should be no over-glorification of the medieval rule’ and that ‘the writer should not under-emphasise condemnation of bigotry, intolerance and exclusiveness’.
The academic historians, who have ruled the roost since the British bureaucrats devised our system of education in the middle of the 19th century and wrote the first textbooks of Indian history, have mostly compiled, in a chronological order, the data available in the source books and evaluated it mostly with an eye to its credibility. They have seldom conceptualised or drawn clinching conclusions regarding the nature of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in medieval India. Their moral judgements are confined mostly to minor matters such as the justification or otherwise of a twist given to a particular treaty by a particular party. Most of the time they are preoccupied with finding the reasons for the success of those who succeeded, and the factors responsible for the failure of those who failed.
Many secularists have accused the British historians of deliberately presenting Muslim rule in India in a prejudicial, even perverse manner, in order to alienate the Hindus from the Muslims in pursuance of the British policy of divide-and-rule. A sober reflection should absolve the British of that guilt. In any case, the British have departed, and the secularists have taken over. But the Hindu-Muslim problem is far from being solved. The secularists are trying to hide their failure by advancing against ‘Hindu communal historians’ the same accusation as they once advanced against the British historians. The only fault of the British historians was that they did not try to suppress the facts of history as recorded by Muslim historians of medieval India. Most academic historians in India after independence have followed in the footsteps of the British pioneers. The new secularist fashion of branding them as Hindu communalists is nothing short of scoundrelism.
The ‘modernist’ Muslim historians, particularly from the Aligarh Muslim University, have increasingly come forward to ‘correct the perspective’ of the academic historians. It is significant that the Aligarh school did not try to correct the perspective in pre-partition India except for a few Communist historians like the late lamented Mohammad Habib. In his case also the Communist version of medieval history was only a clever cloak for the orthodox Muslim version. For the rest, the Aligarh historians shared the pride which Muslim fundamentalists like Hali and Iqbal and Maulana Azad took in the Muslim conquest of India, and the painful consequence it had for the Hindus. It is only after the Independence that the Aligarh school has changed its strategy.
The Aligarh Apologists
To start with, the Aligarh school warns us against confusing the Turkish imperialism with Islam. The Turks had become converted to Islam no doubt. But that did not mean that they had ceased to be Turks, that is, barbarians from the steppes of Central Asia. Islam could not cure the Turks of their traditional habits of cruelty in the short spell they had spent under its sway. The cruelties which the Turks committed in India should not be laid at the door of Islam. The Turks were only using Islam as a convenient cloak for doing what they did.
Secondly, the record of atrocities attributed to the Turks needs a rigorous re-examination. We should not forget that the Muslim historians of medieval India were courtiers first and foremost. They let go their imagination, and exaggerated in an unbridled manner to please their royal patrons. Suppose a hundred Hindus and a few score Muslims were killed in a combat. The court historians manipulated the count, and reported that a thousand Hindus had been despatched to hell while a few Muslims attained martyrdom. Such reports flattered the martial vanity of Muslim potentates. Again, suppose a temple had been plundered by some insubordinate Muslim soldiers purely for the sake of the treasure it contained. The court historians reported that ten temples had been razed to the ground, twice as many idols broken to pieces, and thrice as many mosques made out of the debris. Such reports flattered the iconoclastic zeal of pious Muslim princes. And so on so forth. The tall tales told by medieval Muslim historians regarding the killing of cows and Brahmins, the molestation of maidens, the capture of booty and prisoners of war, and the conversion of Hindus by force should be taken with a fistful of salt.
To buttress this belittling of Turkish (not Muslim, mind you) barbarities, we are told that if force had been used in the service of religious zeal on a scale such as reported by the medieval Muslim historians, the whole of India would have been converted to Islam under the long spell of Muslim rule. The very fact that India was still a Hindu majority country at the end of the long period of Muslim domination, should dispel all doubts that the use of force for religious purposes was an exception rather than the rule. If there was any religious contest between Hindus and Muslims, it was of an ideological character such as that between the sufi silsilas on the one hand and the various sects of Hinduism on the other.
The ‘correct perspective’, therefore, would be to treat as purely political the wars waged by some states ruled by Muslim sultans against others ruled by Hindu rajas. The Muslim sultans were interested in building their own empires, the same as the Hindu rajas had been throughout Hindu history. It should not be held against the Muslim sultans if the peculiar caste structure of Hindu society made them victorious most of the time. In the words of Mohammad Habib, the contest was between the smiritis on the one hand and the Shariat on the other.
The Communist ‘Historians’
At this point, the defence of Islam is taken over by Communist ‘historians’, and turned into a formidable offensive against Hindu society, Hindu culture, and Hindu Dharma. The Communists accuse the ‘Hindu communalist historians’ of always meditating morbidly on a minor mote in the Muslim eye rather than take the big beam out of their own, and have a honest view of men and matters in medieval India.
The upper caste Hindus, we are told, have always oppressed, exploited, trodden under foot, and killed at will members from a large section of Hindu society, throughout the ages. Why should they shed crocodile tears if the Turks also killed a few of these unfortunate serfs under compulsion of circumstances?
The women in Hindu society, we are informed, have always been slaves who could be molested and dishonoured without arousing so much as a ripple among the Hindu ruling classes. Why be so squeamish if the Turks freed a few of these female slaves, and gave them some status in their harems?
The whole of India, we are told, has always been a vast prison-house so far as the poor people are concerned. Why raise hell if the Turks freed some of these prisoners, and took them out to see the wide world?
Were not Hindus big beef-eaters in the Vedic times, and did they not give up this wholesome food because of the priestcraft practised upon them by those goddamned Brahmins? Why fly into a hysterical fit if the Turks made some of these Brahmins revert to healthier food habits?
Was not the vast wealth which the priests had hoarded in those ‘holy’ temples ill-gotten in so far as it represented a limitless loot of the toiling masses, and was it not lying absolutely useless in those dark dungeons? Why make a hue and cry if the Turks freed some of this frozen capital, and put it to some productive use?
As regards the idols, we are told that even if they were made of gold and studded with precious stones, they symbolised nothing better than primitive superstition and puerile priestcraft. The Turks did a lot of good to the mental health of the Hindus by smashing those molochs masquerading as gods.
The truth about the so-called Muslim conquest of India, they say, is simple and straight-forward. The Turks only helped the enslaved Hindu masses to rise in revolt against their age-old oppressors. Islam had brought with it a message of social equality and human brotherhood which worked a miracle on Hindu society. Look at Kabir and Nanak and Ravidas and a hundred other Hindu reformers who took up the Muslim message in right earnest, and struggled for a casteless and classless Indian society.
These are not exactly the words which Communist ‘historians’ use explicitly in their presentation of medieval Muslim history. This, however, is the exact psychology which guides their ‘interpretation’ of events in that period. The Aligarh apologists can heave a sigh of relief at the sight of these Communist ‘historians’ coming to their rescue, and taking the argument to its logical culmination. Perhaps they themselves could have never mustered the courage shown by the Communists. Moreover, most of the Communist ‘historians’ being Hindus, they carry greater credibility.
The Communist psychology of treating with contempt everything Hindu and restoring respectability to most things Muslim, is largely shared by the socialists, the assorted secularists, and the rest of the Hindu ‘intellectuals’ who pride in calling themselves modern. It is this psychology which has seeped into the ranks of those who are now out to re-write the history of India, particularly the history of medieval India under Muslim rule. The politicians in power also share this psychology, and are out to manipulate it with an eye on the Muslim vote-bank.
Hindu School of History Needed
A Hindu school of historians, alas, is not yet in sight. I cannot, therefore, present a Hindu interpretation of the history of medieval India under Muslim rule. But I believe that as soon as a Hindu school of historians is born and takes up the task of interpreting medieval Indian history, it will have little reason not to agree with the medieval Muslims historians that the medieval period was largely a period of Hindu-Muslim conflict, and that religion played a dominant role in it. Its only difference with these Muslim historians will be that it will treat as villains all those who are treated as heroes by the latter, and vice versa. It will also treat the so-called triumph of Islam in medieval India as the greatest tragedy which Islam suffered in its history after the well-deserved fate it met in 15th century Spain.