Author Archives: Lubna Irfan

Who owns the land?

There are certain questions that evade clear answers; the question of the ownership of land is a similar one. Land is a part of the natural resources of the category of water and air, both of which don’t have clearly marked ownership. It is because of this ambiguity that different civilizations have looked at land in different manners. Some provided certain individuals with absolute private proprietorship rights while others kept the rights fluid. The Indian civilization belongs to the latter category.

There was a never a clear idea of the land being a private property in India. However there were certain theoretical notions about the sacrality and divine ownership of land which were sometimes different from ground realities.

The theoretical aspects of the land ownership involved the divine attributions and the kingly supervision on the basis of divine rhetoric of kingship. Through ancient and medieval ages in the Indian history these notions have time and again propped up. It can be safely said though, that whenever there was a centralised rule the theoretical aspect of king being the caretaker of the land on behalf of the Almighty was asserted. During times of decentralization this notion couldn’t have been asserted. However even during the times when divine authority over land was expounded, the practical realities remained different. The peasant or the local land tiller and holder on the ground exercised more immediate proprietary rights. However absolute proprietorship did not rest with any authority. The peasant held the land on the ground, the king held the right to extract revenue due to his divine association and due to the fact that he provided protection to the given piece of land.


source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Ancient Period

For ancient India nature of land use has been divided into three types by scholars:

  1. The land being owned by the sovereign
  2. The land being communally owned by the village, these later developed as feudal centres
  3. The land being owned by the peasant

None of these however were applied exclusively to a piece of land and the major phenomenon was the King regulating and governing the land which was essentially under peasant proprietorship.

A brief look at the role of the ruler in managing the land would be helpful. In ancient India it was understood that the king had the right to confiscate and to transfer land from one person to another. This understanding is supported by a quote from the Arthashastra, which says ‘lands may be confiscated from those who do not cultivate them, and given to others’. In fact in the absence of the owner of land it went to the King. These two things can be used to conclude that the King is only the in-charge as long as there is no claimant to the land and that the propriety rights rested at local level. Junnar inscriptions has example of private transfers of land owned by individual proprietors

Counter to this narrative there is another interesting aspect that has been reported in Mimasa texts of ancient times. There the question ‘What can a man legally give as his own?’ comes up to which the answer is given that Land can not be transferred, for it belongs equally to all and men enjoy lordship over the fields but not the whole earth. The aspect of divine right  and protective custody over the land also can be made out from a reference in the Narasihtha Purana which states, ‘By conquest, the earth became the property of the holy Parasurama; by gift, the property of the sage Kasyapa; and committed by him to Ksatriyas for the sake of protection’.

Both the trends of thought, on suggesting divine authority over land and the other suggesting private proprietorship existed in ancient India. The King was allowed to manage and extract revenue by the virtue of him protecting the domain.


 Medieval Period

 In the Medieval period the theoretical aspect of divine attribute of land and king’s right to manage and protect it was properly formalised. Bernier and certain other European travellers call the king, the owner of the land, which is a wrongly placed notion, coming up due to their European understanding of land ownership. The Mughal Emperor was not the owner of the land but merely an in-charge. The European travellers misunderstood the Indian land system as they understood it to be like European feudal system where lord had absolute proprietorship rights.  The land in medieval Indian understanding truly belonged to God. The King didn’t take a rent on land from the people instead he took a tax on the crop. According to Abul Fazl, he did so only as remuneration for his services of providing protection and justice to the subjects. The concept of rent on an owned entity was completely absent in Indian scenario as was the case with the feudal Europe. The absence of any absolute authority over land can be made out from the fact that there was provision known as ihya land which was a piece of unclaimed fallow land which became the domain of anyone who cultivated it.


Having established this the ground realities were slightly different and despite his justified claims over the tax which made him de facto manager of the land of his domain, the king dare not disturb the local potentates who commanded ground level authority. Thus we see that it was more often than not that the local zamindars with roots and links with the peasants and workers on ground were incorporated in state machinery. Rajputs were not shifted from their homelands when they were inducted in the government services and were mostly assigned lands in their ancestral areas. The workers at the immediate ground level, muqaddams (village headmen) and patwaris (village accountant) were not state appointed but locally chosen. The local potentates like zamindars could even sell their zamindari rights. The same cannot be said about Iqta or Jagirdari rights, which bestowed economic and administrative authority over a piece of land given to a noble by the Emperor for a limited time.  In fact the developed system of Iqta or Jagirdari land grants had an inherent element of shifting where the authority over the resources of these lands was subjective to the King’s will.


Thus in Medieval era too there were notions of divinity associated with land and similarly there were certain proprietorship rights that could be exercised by private individuals on ground.


 Colonial Period

 This ancient and medieval understanding of land ownership changed with the coming of the colonizers. The British drastically changed the way of looking at land which till now was as an entity with fluid proprietorship with divine attributes and multiple claimants. They had the concept of feudal ownership in their minds where the feudal lord was considered the ultimate authority over land. And having seen that system they understood the Indian subcontinent’s land tenure to be of the same nature, and thus they claimed rent from the land and not taxes. The rent presupposes the notion of absolute ownership. On their arrival to the Indian subcontinent they couldn’t really identify the owner of land and the first thing they did was to assign an absolute owner of land and then extract the revenue. They auctioned the land on the basis of who can make the payment of revenue to the British government. Their extraction from the land became rigorous by the day because of the colonial parasitic nature.

The coming of concepts of western modernity where the state was supposed to be completely divorced from religious elements discounted all the notions of the divinity of land and it solely became a property of the private individuals. It is a version of this idea of land ownership that has come down to present.

Thus it can be said that the pre-modern concepts of ownership of land, did not divorce the land from the divine attribute that it had because of it being a natural and not a man-made entity. With the coming of the  ideas of western modernity to the Indian subcontinent in the form of colonial hegemony, the land now developed the nature of a property completely alienable,  devoid of its sacred nature.



Water aesthetics: Life around water structures in Medieval India

Water as a utilitarian and ritualistic element has been important throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent. Rgveda has associated water with the idea of creation and so has the Islamic doctrine.  This association of water with the divine attribute of creation in almost all the pre-modern civilizations seems to have been the result of the life sustaining quality of this natural element.  Apart from acquiring it from natural sources, civilizations have also succeeded in controlling, diverting and manipulating water. The architecture used in this process is called water architecture and in Indian context this architecture manifested in many building types including wells, step-wells (baolis), well houses, ponds, reservoirs, pools, tanks etc.

These water structures were not only spaces of utilitarian and economic activity but they also emerged as upholders of many socio-cultural aspects of public life like pleasure and entertainment. The architecture and the presence of the element of water made these structures visually appealing which must have been an important factor in the arrangements of pleasantries around them.

A Sultanate period baoli known as Ghandak ki Baoli in Mehrauli.

A Sultanate period baoli known as Ghandak ki Baoli in Mehrauli.


Social gatherings and parties:

There is a considerable information about the social gatherings that were organized around water architecture.  Ibn Batuta writing in the 14th century AD talks about Tank of Sultan Iltutmish at Delhi. He tells that it was the place on the western side of which were two built platforms. These platforms had stairs which led to the water of the tank and beside the platforms were domes containing seats for the people to sit and enjoy the view. These domes were the haven of pleasure and amusement seekers reports Ibn Batuta. Further in the centre of this tank was a great pavilion built of squared stones which was two storeys high. This structure could only be reached by boats when the tank was filled with water but at other times it could be walked to and inside the domed structure there used to live world renowned fakirs. This reference comments upon the nature of social gathering at such water structures and their public spirit. The other major tank at Delhi is also mentioned by Ibn Batuta, regarding which he writes that this Hauz-khas was larger than the Hauz of Iltutmish and on its sides were about forty domes and around it the musicians lived and performed and such was the significance of the presence of musicians there that the place had come to be known as Tarababad (House of musicians). This was a site of organization of a large market as well which was described to be one of the largest in the world. The space around the hauz was also marked by a number of mosques including the one congregational mosque and many smaller ones. In these mosques female and male reciters used to perform the tarawih prayers during the month of Ramazan and there were a considerable number of women who attended the prayers. These references hint upon the essence of public pleasantries as experienced in the vicinity of the visually relieving and physically soothing structure of a tank.

Hauz Khas, originally Hauz-i-Alai. (Source: Wikepedia)

Hauz Khas, originally Hauz-i-Alai. (Source: Wikepedia)

The pleasurable element associate with these tanks at Delhi seems to have survived till much later time. There is mention of this tank as a space for parties and gatherings during the Lodi period (16th century AD). A source reports that one of the nobles under Sultan Sikandar Lodi, Miyan Zabar-ud-Din used to spend 8 months of his year in Delhi. About his stay at Delhi it is said, “… he used to go on every Monday to the Hauz-i-Shamsi (Shamsi tank) along with his friends, among whom were included the scholars, Mashaikh, Sufis (Saints), poets, scientists, Qawals (singers) and musicians and held a party on its bank. He maintained a large kitchen from where victuals were freely distributed.” This reference acts as an important marker of the persistence of the nature of the pleasantries as was experienced around the Hauz of Delhi from Tughlaq to Lodi period. Further the presence of Jahaz Mahal on the bank of the Hauz-i-Shamsi with its clearly Lodi architectural features also asserts the continued occupation of the site and most probably it was this structure or a similar structure that must have been used by Miyan-Zabar-ud-Din for his extravagant parties.

A glimpse of public pleasantries along the water bodies can be had from a reference to a later Mughal Shahjahanabad. It is informed that the bank of dariya (river/ lake) was an important space of gathering of the crowd and of performers for showing off their skills.

Jahaz Mahal, a Lodi period water pavilion on the tank Hauz-i-Shamsi

Jahaz Mahal, a Lodi period water pavilion on the tank Hauz-i-Shamsi



Sports and Hunting:

Apart from the parties, performances and public gathering that went on in the vicinity of the water structures, they were also sites where the sport of hunting could be pursued. This pursuit could be made both by the royals and by the common travelers. It is significant to note that when passing through the country of Champarin, Peter Mundy came across two large tanks which were lying on the outskirts of the establishments he visited. He informs that there was abundance of fowl in both these tanks and when they stopped by them on their journey, they did manage to kill some of these fowls. Not only did the fowling take place in such structures but there was scope for fishing as well which was an important activity undertaken. Mention can be made here of a town which is called by Peter Mundy as Puttatalaw (Patthar-talao, Patari), it is said that by the side of this town was a Large Tank where the king used to stop by on his journey from Agra to Burhanpur. And it was in this tank that the Emperor enjoyed the sport of fowling and fishing. The lake under the city of Fatehpur Sikri is reported to have a store of fishes as well.

The water aesthetics along with public gathering, music, food, sport and parties present an interesting picture of public pleasure as was experienced around water structures.

A Sultanate period baoli at R.K. Puram Delhi

A Sultanate period baoli at R.K. Puram Delhi



Women and water architecture:

On the front of gender these spaces became domains of female expression and also acted as sites of gender interactions. The public nature of the spaces made these interactions discreet. Anecdotes mentioned in Waqiat-i-Mushtaqi , an important source of Afghan history, mentions many stories of forbidden love and most of them unfold in the theater of water structures. One of these stories takes place at the site of a well at Bhogaon, which was the stronghold of Rai Pratap the Rajput chief during the reign of Sultan Bahlul Lodi. It is reported that there was a girl who was drawing water from this well and a student who was passing by the place stopped by to have some water. On looking at this beautiful girl the student was captivated by her beauty and fell in love and refused to take water to drink from any other women who were present there but this woman. She agreed to give him water but got irritate because of the fact that he couldn’t drink water and continued to stare at her face, this made the woman angry and she asked him to jump in to the well. The lovestruck man soon jumped into the well and ended his life. There are more such anecdotes reported.  Ovington, a traveler in Mughal India gives a detailed analyses of the ornamentation and beauty of the Bania women who used to come to collect water from the well. He writes about their gold rings, bracelets and anklets which they show off when they go to collect water. These women might have come to well to collect water and gossip with the other women but they also were visible and accessible in these public spaces. These references  suggest that the public water structures were spaces of interaction of genders and of discreet, forbidden love in addition to being sites of regular mundane life activities.

Water spaces of medieval times then can be understood to have been lively places of much public activity, party and other pleasures and pleasantries. They also sometimes acted as means of subversion of social norms regarding gender.

What did the Mughals eat?

While most of the historical narratives give detailed information about political developments under the Mughal Empire, there are certain aspects that have not been much touched upon regarding the Mughal past, Mughal eating habit is one of such topic.

In this article, we try to partly answer the question: What did the Mughals eat, with the help of information contained in an important Mughal source, Zakhiratul Khwanin.  This work forms an important source for understanding and reconstructing certain socio-cultural aspects of the Mughal Empire.  It is a biographical dictionary of Mughal nobles and forms part of Biographical Literature (Rijal).  It covers a range of nobles from Akbar’s reign to that of Shah Jahaan’s, till 1651 (A.H. 1061), when the work was completed.  Its author is Shaikh Farid Bhakkari who had joined Mughal service sometime before 1592, and having served under several important nobles retired after 1649.

Farid Bhakkari refers to various kinds of eatables laid out during feasts and special occasions and also the kinds which were consumed on a day to day basis. Mention is also found of the cultural underpinnings of the Mughal Nobility where pan, opium and wine appear to be an important part of the Mughal culture.


Babur feasting at Kohat, Baburnama, fol. 137r, AD 1597. National Museum, New Delhi.

Babur feasting at Kohat, Baburnama, fol. 137r, AD 1597. National Museum, New Delhi.

Mughal Feasts

It has been informed that Said Khan Chaghata, an important amir (noble) of Akbar’s time who used to organize for the first twelve days of the month of Rabiul Awwal , the death/birth  anniversary of the Prophet dinners of  lavish nature. In these feasts each person was served a meal of nine shirmal loaves and nine trays of dishes as well as a packet of five seers of sweets, wrapped in white cloth with velvet outer cover, to be taken home. There are also references in Zakhiratul Khwanin to other kinds of feasts which were held in the Mughal society amongst these the commemoration (urs) celebrations appear an important occasion for holding feasts. Feasts were also organized by nobles on special orders of the Emperor. Farid Bhakkari informs us of one such feast held on the orders of Akbar by Abul Fazl for Khudawand Khan Dakani, who used to hold a high position in the Nizamul Mulk regime of Ahmadnagar and had risen to a mansab of 3000 under Akbar. In this feast in front of each of Khudawand Khan’s servants nine trays of dishes and one roasted sheep with one hundred loaves were served, while in front of Khudawand Khan, various dishes like roast of fat fowl, partridge, titar (fowl), leafy vegetables (sag) and curries were laid. Farid Bhakkari also mentions that regarding this dinner Akbar said that ‘in India there is no feast more honourable and more elaborate than this.’


Daily Cuisine of Mughals

From Zakhiratul Khwanin we also come to know of the daily cuisine of the nobles. For Example  Farid Bhakkari mentions the food consumed by Nawwab Islam Khan Fathpuri, foster brother of Jahangir and governor of Orissa and Bengal, who took millet(jowar and bajra) bread, vegetables or spinach (sag) and dry rice (bhat) of the variety called sathi. Mention of food consumption by Mahabat Khan, an important noble under Jahangir and Shah Jahan, shows how elaborate the daily meals of nobles were. Mahabat Khan’s one-time meal consisted of two trays of pulao (fried rice cooked with meat), two trays of khishka (fried rice) made of  kamod rice, thirteen seers of melted butter, two trays of rice-khichri and two trays of millet-khichri  and a seer and a half sugar and a dish of meat, spinach (sag) and vegetable curry (salan). One very interesting observation that comes up from reading the text is that khichri figured as an important element in Mughal eating habit. We find a number of examples in the text, one of them being the khichri that was cooked the entire day in Abul Fazl’s establishment during the Deccan Expedition. Among the common dishes mentioned by Farid Bhakkari we also find reference to dal, for which hing was used as a frying condiment.


Pan, Wine and Opium

In addition it appears that certain edibles formed an important part of Mughal cultural life; a number of references in Zakhiratul Khwanin are made to pan, wine and opium consumption which must have become symbols of high cultural life of Mughal society. Itiqad Khan Mirza Shahpur, son of Itimadud-Daula, who was considered a person of the most refined taste in India, had a liking of pan and Farid Bhakkari informs that for him kangiri pan were sent from Burhanpur. Pan as an important element of eating habit of Mughal nobles is also reflected in the incidence where Raja Man Singh proposed paying the Muslim nobles money equivalent to a pan-leaf every day as a compensation for him not being able to dine with them due to his caste. Thus pan appears an important element of consumption by the nobility. There are also a number of references to wine drinking by nobles in Zakhiratul Khwanin, Farid Bhakkari mentions the tempting wine parties of Nawwab Mirza Ghazi Baig Tarkhan, a noble of Jahangir. According to Shaikh Farid these parties were held in such a way that if a hundred year old ascetic would have passed by, even he would have forsaken prayer and fast to join this assembly. From the account of nobles mentioned by Farid Bhakkari it appears that Mughal Emperor had elaborate arrangements for wine drinking, with certain timings fixed for it. Wine and wine drinking also appear to have ceremonial significance, Khan Jahan Lodi was offered the cup of Ram-rangi wine by Jahangir before any other grandees, this, Shaikh Farid informs us, was an expression of the favours enjoyed by Khan Jahan Lodi.

Another element which we find considerable mention of in Zakhiratul Khwanin, is opium. Quite a few nobles are mentioned to be addicted to this intoxicant. Examples of this can be  Mirza Ali, an important noble of Akbar, who was addicted to opium and Safdar Khan who was sent as an envoy to the King of  Iran during Shah Jahan’s reign, was offered poppy fruit by Shah Safi, and eventually formed a habit of taking opium.


These references to not only the daily food habits of Mughal nobility but to the food served during feasts and the intoxicating edibles like opium and wine help us develop an idea of how the life of the Mughals were in context of food and hunger. The preference given to khichri by Mughals and their love for wine are points of interest.

The Faqir who Read Half the Kalma

The complex of the Jama Masjid, Delhi, a symbol of one of the most glorious times witnessed by the Indian civilization houses the grave of a heretic. The alleged Jewish priest who read half the qalma and got executed by Aurangzeb, the alleged Muslim bigot, Sa’id Sarmad, lies beneath the sacred earth of the great congregational mosque, listening to and crying at, the enormous amount of  pain and prayers hurled at him every day, coming from all faiths and none. Saint Sarmad is remembered as one of the intellectual companions of another heretic, Dara Shikoh, the could-have-been philosopher king of India. Though it is well known that Dara had serious leanings towards comparative study in religions yet what is little known is that a Jewish priest who went about naked had a role in the formation of his intellectual imagination.


It is claimed by scholars that Sarmad was an atheist and agnostic of sorts who didn’t believe in God and went about naked dismantling the social set up of his times. Ones’ mind wanders to what the “Saint” would have felt at being classified with atheists and at becoming the object of being prayed at and to, the collection of his verses which are known to the world by the name of Rubaiyat-i-Sarmad (1949) gives a slight peek into the working of the mind of this intriguing man. To stay true to the spirit of the time, it would be unjust to take his words literally when Sarmad claims to be a Sufi, a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, a Jewish rabbi, an infidel, and a Muslim at the same time. This might also suggest that the man belonged to all religions and none. And it can be agreed too that the naked fakir was a critical thinker of the highest order. He, when presented before the court of the newly enthroned Aurangzeb, and asked to read the Kalma to save his life, read half of it. La Ilaha, meaning, there is no god. And left it at that and when further questioned about it he claimed that he had till then reached only that stage of knowing god that he knows none and once he knows It he would recite the entire Kalma. This kind of critical spirit was the most dangerous weapon that could have existed, and it still is the most dangerous one to those who want to maintain the status quo and who feed off the ignorance of the minds of the people, be it the political establishment or the religious superstructures, nothing troubles them more than a man who could dare to think on his own without intermediaries. Thus execution of Sarmad was necessary. It would be unjust to not mention how Sarmad writes about his relation with God, his attitude towards God, seems definitely of the order of one of a Sufi in real search of truth, he claims that his poor heart desires nothing but union with the God. But his idea of God, wasn’t the idea that was being shoved down his throat by the orthodoxy.

On reading Sarmad it clearly surfaces that his battle was with the great bearded obnoxious orthodox Mullas who had caused the decay of the innocent minds, he says it clearly, “He who understands the secrets of the Truth, became vaster than the vast heaven; Mulla says, Ahmad went to heaven; Sarmad says, ‘Nay heaven came down to Ahmad”’. In these verses, giving his apparently heretical remark about the contested issue of Prophet Muhammad’s Miraj, he clearly seems disillusioned from the Mullas who do not really as much worry to seek the truth but to gain on their personal level from political establishment and the common ignorant folks.

He also comes close to the stand of Mansur Al Hallaj’s ‘I am the truth’ (An’al Haq) in his quest, he claims, that if your faith is pure than the entire world would be in your control. Thus execution of Sarmad becomes even more necessary than had been the execution of Mansur Al Hallaj, the 10th century mystic who was killed on the grounds that he claimed himself to be the God, because the latter had already found the answer, An’al Haq, and that answer didn’t match the established idea of truth, with Sarmad however the issue is even more dangerous he hadn’t found the truth, he was looking for it. He was looking for answers to believe in the remaining half of the Qalma and that was to come through, through a critical evaluation of every established structure around him, including the political one.

Thus for the survival of the establishment, Sarmad had to die and he was executed in 1660. Sarmad died a death where he was lost also because of the meager amount of information left behind about him; his ideas have been lately rediscovered and rethought about.

The question whether Sarmad was an example of a Saint which wanted to find the God and Truth in it through his own way or if he was a heretic anarchist who aimed at disrupting the established social and political order is a question that needs to be asked, thought and rethought again and again till one can come to a conclusion, but there are serious reasons to believe that he was a man who had had enough of the religious and even spiritual deterioration that had set in during the 17th century India and that is why though he speaks more or less the same things that the great sufi mystics of earlier times say yet he leaves no reason to be associated with them, he claims, “Whether an ascetic or anything else, I’m concerned with the Beloved only(God); Really I have no business with rosary or sacred thread. This woollen cloak (suf) which conceals hundreds of evils under it, I shall never put it on, as it is a disgrace”.

To sum up it needs to be said in defense of the saint who read half the Kalma that his actions were probably motivated by the most serious issue that ruins any society, the decay and rotting of its intellectual class. Sarmad was probably closer to the true idea of God than the idea the people who killed him had, people who killed him claiming he believed in none.

Our Idea of India

We the students of History, in strong terms condemn the authoritarian abuse of the basic human rights and civil liberties that is being carried out in the name of nationalism. As students of History we hold the idea of critical spirit in high esteem and refrain from categorizing the dynamic ideas of nation, nationalism and patriotism in narrow criteria limited by the understanding and the benefit of one section of the population. We enquire into the possibilities of understanding a single concept through various diverse aspects and in the process we, more often than not, contradict ourselves and when we do, we don’t stop, we work towards a solution, this ‘working towards a solution in our opinion reflects the idea that we call India.

A political miracle, India, for us is reflected in dialectic interaction of various strands of thought. It is this privilege of being able to disagree with the powerful is what is under threat due to authoritarian acts of arresting a student leader, stifling critical voices and maiming our beloved democracy. Self-criticism is one of the major elements that push the human race forward and it is this right that is being denied to us. We condemn this act and we struggle towards a society where self-criticism and debate is appreciated and upheld. We work towards what Constitution of India has promised to us. For us the Indian Nation is manifestation of dialogue and debate on every aspect, it is only through this spirit of dialogue and debate that a diverse country like India has come into being and has survived. We uphold the idea of India, We struggle for its survival. It is the Rule of Law based on Justice that we struggle for not Rule of Fear.

Images: Second Seminar of Itihas Ke Karigar Conducted Successfully

The second seminar of Itihas Ke Karigar proved to be a great success, thanks to the active participation of the audience. Some very interesting issues were discussed.


Itihas Ke Karigar Seminar

Itihas Ke Karigar Seminar

The inquisitive audience

The inquisitive audience

Lubna Irfan discussing the social and economic factors behind Aurangzeb's actions.

Lubna Irfan discussing the social and economic factors behind Aurangzeb’s actions.

Hisham Islam talking on "Revival or Reinterpretation"

Hisham Jameel Siddiqui talking on “Revival or Reinterpretation”

Anupama Thapliyal giving an overview.

Anupama Thapliyal giving an overview.

Shamim K K speaking on the composition of nobility under Aurangzeb

Shamim K K speaking on the composition of nobility under Aurangzeb

Speakers answering the questions raised by students

Speakers answering the questions raised by students

Itihas Ke Karigar Seminar

Itihas Ke Karigar Seminar

Aurangzeb is Dead, long live the Road?


Amidst all the chatter about the changing of the name of Aurangzeb Road to that of Abdul Kalam, two types of arguments about the 6th Mughal Emperor are propping up, and as a student of medieval Indian History both arguments not only infuriate the historian in me but also sadden me about how we have still not yet moved ahead of the naïve acts of Herofication and vilification of historical Characters.

One set of arguments portray Aurangzeb as a devout, pious, religious ‘muslim’ who was the only sensible Mughal, working for the cause of Islam. Another set of arguments try to project him as a devout ‘muslim’ too, but an iconoclast who was the destroyer of temples, ironically both these extremes sound strikingly similar and serve the same purpose of communalizing the present.


History: Breeding Ground for Communalists

Indian history, especially Indian medieval history has been the breeding ground of communalists. As much as I hate to refer to people in terms of them being merely ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, when talking about the present scenario, I am but helpless before this divide constructed very subtlety by our long gone colonial masters. While the Muslim communalists bank on the return of ‘past glories’ to Muslims as the means of mobilizing masses, they also have the ‘fear’ of complete domination by so called ‘Hindu majority’ to bank on. On the other hand Hindu communalists have no such ‘fear’ to propagate as they are already in majority, and here is where the past comes into play where these communalists invoke the past injustices of the so called Muslim monarchs and then mobilize the masses to ‘correct’ the wrongs of the past. Here is where Humanity and History lose and short term political ends win.

The easiest target for such parasites of hatred is Aurangzeb, however what these people tend to forget is that in those times (like in our times), the actions were motivated mostly by political and economic ends in mind, and like present times they were enveloped in a cloak of religious justifications.


Religion: Not so much in the mind of a Politician

“The evidence I assembled did not in any sense exonerate Aurangazeb, but I think it did set different limits within which the Emperor’s personal preferences and decisions had impact: and it suggested a number of other factors, besides the one of religious bias…”  says Athar Ali in his book The Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb, where he tried to give a new perspective to the actions of Aurangzeb.

Certain examples from the past may help in clarifying things.

Aurangzeb during the war of succession, issued a nishan(royal order issued by a prince), which is found in Udaipuri records, to Rana Raj Singh, which from the perspective of modern historians sounds like the preamble of independent India, where Aurangzeb claimed the equality of all people, irrespective of their caste and faith. He even asserted the legacy of his enlightened great grandfather Akbar in this document to forge political alliance with the Rajputs, thus it becomes clear that the cause of propagation of religion was hardly in his mind.

Another very interesting fact that most of the people tend to overlook is that most of the temple demolition took place where there were political disturbances, rebellions or potential threats to the authority of the monarch. One instance that has been conveyed to us by Waqa-i-Ajmer(reports of news-writers of Ajmer covering the period of Rathor rebellion of 1679-80) would bring a whole new perspective to iconoclastic tendencies of Aurangzeb, the rebellion broke out mainly on the issue of succession to the throne of Marwar and Aurangzeb’s involvement in it, Rani Hadi one of the leading queens of the deceased ruler offered to destroy all the temples of Jodhpur and erect mosques if  her claimant was made the successor, this ‘tempting’ proposal was rejected by the Emperor without a second thought.


Religious justifications to Political actions

In medieval times, unlike in present, religion and politics were not segregated, these ideals of secularism dawned upon the world only with the coming of Reformation and became popular only with the rise of liberalism, the entwined nature of religion and politics can be understood by studying Akbar’s theory of kingship, where the king was the representative of God on earth and it was his duty to establish God’s justice, thus the legitimacy to the political rule came through religious justifications, thus to assert political authority one had to assert religious authority too. Destruction of temples was a means to strike fear and awe in the hearts of the vassals and rebels.

Contemporary historians of Aurangzeb, in order to attach a sense of glory and legitimacy to the emperor, tend to give religion as the reason of his acts, accepting all these sources without critical analysis would only create a distorted and biased picture of the past that would haunt the present.


Asserting religion to cope up with political troubles

Aurangzeb, by imprisoning his father and by murdering his brothers, destroyed the aura and authority attached to the Mughal throne and he had to give justifications for his coup of 1657-58, and for that he first tried to give military successes as the justification but by 1666 this attempt had failed and whatever gains Aurangzeb made were soon lost, it was then that the need of invoking religion as a legitimizing force came up. Aurangzeb also couldn’t afford to displease any section of nobility, especially not the ones who exercised great influence amongst the masses and played key role in the act of king making, namely the Ulema, and it might have been to please these sections that jizya was re-imposed after a long time after his accession.

The calls for the protection of religion and jihad were often voiced when a military campaign was to take place in order to rally the troops behind the monarch. Aurangzeb even tried to call the campaign against the Muslim kingdoms of Deccan as jihad by highlighting their vicious un-Islamic practices and portraying himself and his state as the ideal one. He also did not hesitate to play with the superstitions of his people during Satnami rebellion when the rumours of Satnamis possessing supernatural power had demoralized his army, he claimed to be a Zinda-Pir in order raise the spirits of the soldiers and was called ‘Alamgir Zinda-Pir’.  Thus it becomes evident that military and territorial gains motivated the 6th Mughal Emperor much more than religion.

Economically speaking Aurangzeb’s were hard times, with the unending campaigns in Deccan and continuous rebellions in the empire, some of his acts like that of banning music and discontinuing official history writing were due to economic considerations and religion was merely a face saving explanation to them.


Aurangzeb: A despot with his own shortcomings

Aurangzeb was a despot, a politician and an imperialist who tried his best to maintain the proper functioning of his empire. It is true that some of his policies might have conveyed a sense of discrimination to the ‘non-muslims’, but there was no great consequence of it, this becomes clear from the Rajput support to Aurangzeb during the Rathor rebellion, and also from the significant number of Marathas and Rajputs in his nobility.

Aurangzeb was not a hero, nor was he a villain. He had blood on his hands, even of his own brothers, but so did numerous other despots of this dynasty and of dynasties before it. He might have stitched caps but he also led campaigns to gain territory and treasure. One thing that nobody can deny is that Aurangzeb had to encounter innumerable difficulties which were not so significant during times of his predecessors, there were rebellions (Jats, Satnamis, Sikhs, Afghans), there was be-jagiri-where the state had shortage of land grants to give to its servants and on the top of it there was the Deccan Ulcer. Thus there is much more to this monarch than destruction of temples.


Names, identities and Politics

It is easy to blame things on a dead man and even easier to divert popular attention to artificially constructed issues. Aurangzeb is dead, Abdul Kalam is too, they both contributed to history in their own capacity, that’s what they should be remembered for, not for them being just ‘muslims’ or good or bad ones. We need to get over this false consciousness that religion motivates all actions of human beings, it might at times, but mostly it is used as a cover up for pure political or economic ends.

In all this chatter of changing road names have we stopped for a moment and thought how much does the name of a road matter to a child starving to death on a similar road?

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past


To understand the condition of communally charged times we today live in we need to trace our steps back as historians to the time when it all started. To ask the question if it all started at the same time or is the communal atmosphere a culmination of various processes that pull India apart. When did it become inevitable for “muslims” to have a separate nation of their own and was that nation the true manifestation of dreams of people who fought for it. Why would Ram Chandra Guha call independent India an unnatural nation? What is so unnatural about it?

Here I’ll try to make sense of the events that led to the freedom of united India into two separate nations, divided on the lines of religious affiliations.

The elections of 1937:

It has been said that most of the communalists before 1937 operated within a liberal framework, only after 1937 did the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and RSS veered towards extreme or fascist communalism. The question arises of the reason of this shift, which can be searched in the elections and results of elections of 1937. In 1936 All India Congress Committee decided to contest elections but left the decision of office acceptance for later. While the Socialist Party members were averse to the acceptance of office, the right wingers wanted Congress to accept office and form the ministries. While office acceptance raised great expectations it also brought power to right wingers who tried to rid congress of the clutches of socialists. And it was due to the pressure of these right wingers that not a single muslim representation was there in these 1937 congress ministries in 8 provinces. This became the basis of the idea of muslim Alienation by the Congress, which had until now been subtly expressed in the absence of major muslim participation in Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movement.  Moreover it has been noted that Congress and Hindu Mahasabha shared their cadres till the 1930s which would have made muslims apprehensive of the actions of Congress.

Dismal performance of Muslim League in these elections in muslim majority areas of Punjab and Bengal due to the presence of class based parties like Unionist Party and Krishak Praja Party, led Muslim League to launch a mobilization plan on the lines of religion. The passage of Shariat Application Act 1937 with spirited advocacy by Jinnah in the Central Legislative Assembly  provided a symbolic ideological basis for Muslim Solidarity on a national scale, transcending all divisive internal political debates.

Thus we see that when protesting against India’s drawing into World War 2 the Congress ministries resigned in 1939, Jinnah celebrated it as a “Deliverance day”.


The blurred idea of Pakistan:

In theory communalists, both majority and minority bank on the concept of a homogenous identity of a community which overshadows all other identities.  And it can be said that the idea of the utopic land of Pakistan was to some extent an elite manipulation of the masses, the intensity of emotions involved had more to do with the political and economic anxieties of various classes than with a profound urge to create an Islamic state.  Pakistan was presented as “a peasant utopia” which would bring in liberation for the Muslim peasantry from the hands of the Hindu zamindars and moneylenders, here again the basic reason was of social and economic in character. Moreover, it has been argued that Jinnah’s stand though belligerent was still inclined towards negotiation with Congress, his major public pronouncements in 1938 were ‘a model of communal moderation’. In an article published on 19th January 1940, he did not refer to Hindus and Muslims carving out their separate destinies, but commented ambiguously on two nations ‘who both must share the governance of their common motherland’.

Thus it can be positively concluded here that the idea of Pakistan as a separate nation sovereign in itself was not very clear, because viceroy Linlithgow could find no genuine enthusiasm for Pakistan among the muslim Leaguers even in 1942, he concluded that they would be content with Pakistan within some sort of a federation.


The Fateful Conference at Shimla:

Prior to the conference at Shimla that sealed the fate of the millions of muslims calling themselves Indians, in 1944 there was a huge blunder on part of congress that was that of the recognition of the demand of Pakistan as legitimate, where in April 1944 C. Rajagopalachari had proposed a plebiscite of the adult Muslim Population in muslim majority areas to assess if they wanted to join Pakistan and in July 1944 Gandhi proposed talks with Jinnah on the ‘Rajaji formula’ which amounted to an acceptance of Pakistan demand. But the talks failed due to non-compliance of Jinnah.

Thus the British intervention in June 1945 to start negotiations led to the Shimla conference, where Jinnah claimed for Muslim League the exclusive right to nominate all the Muslim members in the cabinet of an entirely Indian executive council, with the viceroy and commander-in-chief as the only British members. Congress, which then had Abul Kalam Azad as the president, however, refused Jinnah’s demand for that would amount to an admission that Congress was a party only of the caste Hindus.


The misinterpretations of the cabinet mission of 1946:

Ayesha Jalal argued that at no point between 1940 and the arrival of Cabinet Mission in 1946 did either Jinnah or Muslim League ever coherently define the Pakistan demand. But it was the very vagueness of the demand that made it an excellent instrument for a muslim mass mobilisation campaign in the 1940s, where everyone could interpret it in its own terms, where for peasants it was freedom from Hindu overlords , for the corporates it meant ending of Hindu competition.

The cabinet mission arrived in India to discuss two issue:

  1. The principles and procedures for the framing of a new constitution for granting independence.
  2. The formation of an interim government based on widest possible agreement among Indian political parties.

But it was seen that the two political parties had become more intolerant about their contradictory political agendas, with Muslim League Legislator’s Convention defining Pakistan as a “sovereign independent state” consisting of the muslim majority provinces and congress declaring that complete independence for united India as its demand.

After wide consultation across political spectrum a three tier structure of loose federal government for the Union of India, including both the provinces and the princely states was offered. Constitution would be settled for three levels of Union, Group and Province, the provinces would have the right to opt out of any particular group but not out of the Union. On July 6th,   Muslim League accepted it on the assumption that the basis and foundation of Pakistan was inherent in the plan. Congress announced conditional approval to this on July 6th but on 10th of July it declared that congress agreed to nothing else other than participation in the Constituent Assembly.

This event marks the shift of League from constitutional politics to agitational one. This was the beginning of the frenzy and madness with which Partition is today remembered.



Looking at the series of events that led to the ultimate division of a colony into two nations we can conclude here that religious fervour was basically a cloak in the guise of which many political and social ends were served by the people in position of power to manipulate masses, not all the muslims of undivided India dreamt of a Pakistan. The clever mixture of the propagation of terror and fear, the incapability of secularists, the economic and social desperations and the political manoeuvring were some of the reasons behind the creation of Pakistan but one can never truly find reasons for the inhuman massacres that were associated with it.  Violence was both the cause and consequence of Partition and this Partition was to haunt Indian nation was a long unending time.

Protector of Cow, Protector of Nation, Protector of Women: It has always been the same ‘Hero’

Protector of Cow, Protector of Nation, Protector of Women: It has always been the same ‘Hero’

Protector of Cow, Protector of Nation, Protector of Women: It has always been the same ‘Hero’

Wandering very near the fringes of oversimplification of complex ideas, I can not help but see the world divided into two groups, the protector and the protected, with glorification of the protectors to the extent of their being worshipped. But we have rarely stopped to ponder over the question of protection. From what do we need protection and why?

If we try to ask this question, our voices are hushed back into our throats by horrifying instances of violence around us. With a Hindu nationalist organization equating Rape of a woman to the Slaughter of cow and failure of the masses to counter or even recognize the disgusting, inhuman tone of this remark, we need to wonder how far have we deviated from the ideal of a sensitive sensible society.

Importance of cow in particular and cattle in general grew from the Rigvedic times. In fact, according to historian R.S. Sharma, there are so many references to cow and bull in Rig Veda that the Rig Vedic people can be called a predominantly pastoral people. Most of their wars were fought over cows. Even the term for war in Rigveda is gavishthi which means search for cows, in those times cow seems to have been the most important form of wealth. Gradually cow seized to be the cause of violence and land took its place. Since we aren’t pastoral anymore, the logic of protection of cow, today, with the devotional strings attached, relates to the need of protection of God. Protection of Whom by man has caused innumerable deaths of His creation. Only cause that nears the amount of violence done for the protection of god is that of the protection of nation.

The concept and term of rashtra for territory can be traced back to the later Vedic times. And across the waves of time, kingship has been unapologetically linked to Divinity. With king being the representative of the Superior Being on earth, he became the ‘protector’ of land and its inhabitants.  And obeying King became obeying God, this in addition to giving legitimacy to the ruler gave him not only a temporal authority over his subjects but also a moral and spiritual one. In ancient and medieval times protection of the rule of the King meant the protection of God. With time, this glorification of protection of King’s authority faded and with the national struggle and the emergence of nation states emotions were attached to nations, and killing in the name of protecting them became an honor.

In justifications of such bloodshed in the name of nation or god, we often find mention of ‘vulnerable women’. This ‘vulnerable woman’ is a voiceless creature who can’t think and who always needs a protector to keep her breathing. For women in ancient philosophy, there has been assigned no greater role than the service of husband. Even her spiritual and religious existence breathes life with the ceremony of marriage which is recognized by legislators as taking the place, for women, of the sacrament of initiation prescribed by the Veda. And in return of her selfless devotion to her better half, she gets ‘protection’ by him. Whether it be the logic of need of respecting and protecting women just because of them being daughter, wife, sister or mother of ‘somebody’ or  the propagation of idea of a veil to protect against lustful gaze we somehow still can’t rid ourselves of the tendency of deciding what a woman needs.

History is filled with instances of people using the slogan of women’s vulnerability, national pride and religious fervor to further their political and economic ends. What comes as a surprise is how we haven’t learned anything. The act of attributing positive traits to women which highlights them mostly as innocent vulnerable beings and nonetheless justifies their subordination by the protector falls in a broad category of what sociologists call benevolent sexism. And often the protected group consents to the “need” of being protected due to propaganda of fear. And with this discourse we grow into a society where glory to the sword is praiseworthy, where fear rules. Amongst the tools of avarice and fear used for controlling people, fear has always been the easiest and most effective instrument of the oppressors to keep the oppressed in their place, and this need for the creation of fear lies at the core of the propagation of the instances glorifying protection and protectors. It is this protection that manifests itself in the form of violence.

The irony is how when we don’t agree on anything ever, we all agree on violence. Attackers of Charlie Hebdo were protecting their religion, Dylann Roof was protecting his women and nation when he attacked the African American church, the sorry story is the same everywhere, it always has been the same with varied degree of passion and execution and madness. But what nobody notices is how in justifications to these acts of violence we have dehumanized women, and how in protecting god and nation, we have failed to protect the humanity.

Identifying and brushing up life changing Skills

What are we missing and why are we not able to assess the problems?

In a world where the competitive spirit rules and one ought to pull down the other to rise up the ladder of ‘success’, those with a bit of sensitivity need to stop and  examine why have we reached such a hopeless place. What we never bother to ask are the questions of what success actually is? Where are we as a society heading with such hedonistic ideals? And what we truly need to make world a better place for not just ourselves but for a large number of people around us. We also need to realize how this need of making the world better is not an act motivated by selflessness but is in fact a very selfish act because we need the people around us to be good, for the maintenance and upkeep of a harmonious society. A far sighted vision and an open approach towards things is what we need.


Success: A myth?

When we talk about someone being successful, what is it that we refer to? The power. The money, The happiness? To be true, success may have different meanings for different people and these meanings may vary widely. But what we need to wonder is, if these different meanings of success are to be seen as a problem, some people might say they need to be, because with different meanings of success one would not be able to classify the levels of success of different people and would not be able to create a hierarchy. But why is having a hierarchy so important? It is not! It’s just that some people make us think of it is important. Different people have different opinions, views and aspirations and them having different definitions of success seems like a natural phenomenon.


How do we succeed?

The key to success is hard work and there is no de tour to success they say apart from hard work and it might be true, but what we need to understand is where we direct our hard work is equally important. Channelizing once potential towards developing a skill is a hard work that promises long term benefits. People might develop inclination towards some things but working hard on that inclination and passion is what transforms it into a skill that would help you succeed. But the sad truth is, we ignore the need to nurture individual skills and passions from a very basic level. By burdening the students with the responsibility of meeting the standards of success set by the society, we are doing a disservice to ourselves. We are leaving no scope for the creativity to take roots and flourish. We are leaving no space to breathe for the ‘round pegs in square holes’.


Ignorance of Diversity by our Education System:

There is an inherent contradiction in the Indian Education System, while we expect students to grow and contribute to the society and the nation with their varied skills, we teach all of them the same things for a large part of their student life, these things mostly turn out to be irrelevant in the greater struggles of practical life of these students. While a 12 year old would easily solve complex arithmetic problem, he would not be able to speak a single sentence about himself in front of a small crowd. Yes, it is true that we might not expect all the students to be vocal extroverts, but the point here is the negligence on the part of the teaching elements of the unique ability and talent of each student. This contradiction is explicitly visible to most of the people and organisations but hardly anyone tries to raise their voice against this inhuman practice of forcing on students to learn what they are not interested in and then demoralising and degrading them when they fail to meet the ‘set standards’ of success.


Lacunae between what we learn and what we need:

The greatest misunderstanding of the student life which is busted when one wakes up to the harsh morning of adulthood is that their entire childhood marked with Results, Mark-sheets and home works was a lie and these things hardly play any role in the greater struggles of survival and success. It is at this stage that we think about learning skills which would actually help us survive. Skills like Content Writing, IT management, Designing, Communication skills etc. are the skills which have always been ignored in our school lives and if not totally ignored these skills were always overshadowed by the need to study the ‘greater subjects’. However in practical life these are the skills that count the most. And not just that, our education system is in general very averse to progress, most of the courses still teach age old syllabi and hardly any attempt is made to understand and incorporate new researches. May be it is here that we can find a suitable explanation to the pathetic condition of employment of Indian Youth and the slow rate of progress of India as a whole.


What possibly can cause such blindness on the part of the Educational System?

Utter lack of interest on part of the Educational Organizations to improve the deplorable condition of Indian Education System is explicitly visible. The reason might be the selfish short sighted vision of most of the elements of the System. While the elaborate educational system provides livelihood to a huge amount of population of the country, the returns from this field might not be equal to the amount of investment being put into it. This affects the national growth adversely in the long run. While illiteracy still looms large as a huge dark cloud over the future of the nation, the means of overcoming it are also not showing promising results. Though we have national level organizations to look after skill development programs but what we tend to ignore is that skill development should be a part of the overall educational system of the country.


Degree: A Piece of Paper that creates more problems than it solves:

The paranoia over having a degree is basically because of the promise of livelihood that comes with it. While it is true that basic training is necessary to perform a particular task, and degree acts as a proof of this training, today degrees have become a mere piece of paper which guarantee no skill in most of the cases. This havoc over acquiring degrees has led to mushrooming up of a number of institutes that ‘sell’ these degrees to the students in need and make their own fortunes by charging huge amounts of money. Can we blame the students or even these institutions? No we can’t because the functioning of the state and its organizations makes it impossible for the ‘degree-less’ folks to even  attempt to make any difference no matter how skilled they are. There have been instances where even peons are expected to have a high school degree to get employment. How is one supposed to survive in such situations without giving in to the faulty corrupt system?


Skills: Definition and Need:

As we step into the huge world of opportunities we encounter the harsh reality of how ill qualified we are for being of any use in that huge world. What makes us useful are the skills, and skills may have a varied definition but we may say anything that helps us contribute productively to the cause of the development of society can be a skill of importance, it can serve material, sociological, emotional or psychological ends. But it would contribute to the betterment of the society as a whole in the long run. Here we would need to redefine what we mean by skills, they do not just include the qualities we acquire after rigorous training, but also some basic things necessary for survival, they might range from the ability to fix an electric wire to be able to manage information on a large scale. IT management is one of the growing fields these days however we hardly see any institute providing training in this field. Nor do we see any seriousness in the society about the development of skills of content writing or graphic designing or public speaking, when these are the skills which play a major role in shaping of the society.


What needs to be done?

In this huge world resonating with material benefits a writer can just try to provoke the human sensitivities of the people in charge. In our society we have already seen a lot of stagnation due to the huge disparity between the skilled individuals and the organizations wanting of such skilled individuals. While the restructuring of the education system would serve a long term greater goal, the immediate action might be to make the skilled meet the organizations in need of skilled people. And for doing that one needs to learn to sell their skills in such a way that it helps the growth of the individual along with the organization it is meant to serve while contributing to the growth of society. Because we don’t realize that the huge population that is often seen as a liability can very easily be turned into an invaluable asset if we concentrate on skill development of these masses.


Is the ability to sell your skill also a skill?

When we talk about skills and contribution of these skilled individuals in the long-term development of the society and nation, we mean that these individuals would also use these skills as means of their survival and sustenance. And this in turn would mean that they would need to sell their skill to the potential buyers who would nurture these skills and use them for their benefits. What is relevant here is the gap between the two. And we need to devise a way to bridge the gap between the two and create more opportunities for the skilled. The means to achieving that end is inculcating in the skilled the ability to sell their skills, one other important thing that comes in to play is the confidence of people in their skills and confidence in significance of those skills for the world. Thus what we need to learn is to have confidence in our own abilities to contribute for the betterment of the nation, and to have faith, because we need to accept that skills don’t develop in a day and nor are they recognized in first attempt.

Resilience and tireless effort is the way to developing skills and ascending our own ladder of success.

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