Colonialism: How truthful is depiction of Mughals as Indians?

In historical studies, Asian colonialism is romanticised and celebrated as a representation of India while European colonialism is demonised

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Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey, meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, by Francis Hayman. National Portrait Gallery, London

This is the Oxford definition of Colonialism: The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.

This begs the question as to why discussions on colonialism in Indian history are restricted to European colonialism while ignoring Asian colonialism. India since time immemorial has borne the brunt of various invaders: Greeks, Arabs, Scythians, Hunas, Turco-Mongols and Europeans (British, Dutch, Portuguese, French). However, all invaders cannot be viewed in the same light. Some invaders such as the Yuezhi (popularly known as the Kushanas) integrated into the Indian society and celebrated to this day (children in this country are still named after the most famous king of the Kushanas, Kanishka) for their pivotal role in popularising Buddhism. However, the same cannot be said for the Turco-Mongol Mughals and their predecessors, the Central Asian Sultans, who ruled Delhi. They were, in fact, no different from British colonists, in many instances perhaps worse, as they made attempts to wipe the native culture.

The unfortunate part of the entire colonial history of India is Asian colonialism is romanticised, identified with the “Indian culture” and celebrated as the representation of India while European colonialism is demonised. Historians and pop culture have collaborated hand-in-hand to promote this false narrative, which can no longer be the norm in the 21st century.

Comparison between invaders: Greeks, Mughals, British

During the ancient era, the conquests of Greeks, the original European invaders, were very different than those by the medieval conquerors. They would treat war as a contest to determine the ruler, and wouldn’t necessarily engage in destroying native cultures, barring a few instances such as the destruction of Persepolis in Persia as vengeance for the destruction of the temple of Athena.

Alexander’s descendants ruled in Bactria and later came to India to rule as Indo-Greeks. They adopted Buddhism and integrated with the local cultures while enriching them. They didn’t impose Greek as a court language — they allowed both Greek and Prakrit to be used in the court — neither did they try to import rulers from Greece on a large scale. The tribe which defeated the Greeks, the Yuezhi from China, continued with the same policies. This was why Kanishka became a popular ruler in India.

The same cannot be said of the Turco-Mongol invaders such as the Mughals or dynasties with Central Asian Turkish origin such as the Khiljis, Thuglaqs, Ghoris, etc. Even though conquest was their prime motivation, contrary to the portrayal in history books and media, they were colonists who, as per the classic dictionary definition, exerted political control and occupied the land with settlers and exploiting it economically.

While politicians such as Shashi Tharoor use the phrase “they became us” to depict them, the historical records show otherwise. They made attempts to wipe out and suppress the native culture, imposed a foreign language as an official means of communication and their prime intention was to treat the land as a conqueror treats the conquered.

First, the most commonly ignored fact, especially with respect to the Mughals, is the term “Mughal” itself. It’s Persian for Mongol, a term Indians used for the dynasty. Mughals did not use that term; they called themselves Gurkani. Gurkani means “son in law”, a reference to Timur being a son-in-law of a descendant of Chengiz Khan.

The court of the Mughals was a bit better than those of the previous Central Asian Islamic invaders, as they slowly inducted a few natives. However, this is celebrated as a massive achievement, and Akbar, the most well-known figure, is portrayed as a “liberal”. Even in Akbar’s court, there were 43 natives (both Indian Hindus and Muslim) noblemen compared to 222 foreign noblemen, by 1580, as recorded by historians Percival Spear and John Keay. This is relatively seen as an achievement because previous rulers didn’t even allow the natives in the royal areas.

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Akbar in his court: A painting

The Mughal court was divided into Turani (Central Asian Turkish Sunni) and Irani (Persian Shia) factions. However, nobles from Arabia and North Africa were present, too, in addition to Turks and Persians. Even as late as post-Aurangzeb’s death, when Sayyid brothers, the power centre of the Mughal court (who were from Iraq), cosied up to the natives, abolishing jizya and cow slaughter in many districts, the Turani and Irani factions were outraged.

This trend had not changed in 150 odd years since Akbar had initially abolished jizya and inducted native noblemen in his court, leading to massive outrage. Needless to add, the backers of the Sayyid brothers were Marathas and Rajputs while their main opponent was the Central Asian or Turani Nizam ul Mulk. This clearly suggests that a majority of the rulers possessed a colonial attitude and changes in the status quo resulted in civil wars, death or often revolt.

In 1757, Indian natives had been fed up with centuries of Islamic rule. They were welcoming any attempts to depose the outsiders. The natives in Bengal happily cooperated and financed the British to depose Siraj-Ud-Daullah. Robert Clive celebrated Durga Puja with the natives in Bengal after his victory over Siraj-Ud-Daullah at Plassey.

Babur: A painting

The Tharoor saying “they became us” and classifying the British rule as an “era of darkness smacks” of a selective attitude. Did Babur celebrate Durga Puja after deposing Ibrahim Lodhi? You know the answer.

It must be noted that India contributed to 25% of the world GDP during the Mughal rule (Aurangzeb’s period), which became 3.4% after the end of the British rule. While romanticizing the Mughal rule one must not forget the fact that GDP is not the sole indicator of economic prosperity as most economists would agree. This was particularly true for Mughal times where nobility lived in grand palaces while the average person lived in abject poverty.

French traveller Bernier during his travel to India noted that in the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad (present day Delhi) “a man must be either of the highest ranks or live miserably” .The Frenchmen described the bazaars as dirty, chaotic, full of dust and flies. It’s safe to say the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the rulers while the average citizen lived in abject poverty. Delhi was a city of extremes. Hence, it can safely be concluded that the GDP wasn’t a true reflection of the wealth and prosperity during the Mughal epoch.

Normalising colonialism: The cultural angle

While Mughals being invaders is well documented in history books, ballads and folklore of those who fought them, the education system and pop culture have collaborated to portray them as “Indian” rulers.

Take the case of the movie Jodha Akbar where Akbar is portrayed by an Indian man Hrithik Roshan who bears no similarity in facial features. If one calls this creative licence, why are such liberties not extended to European colonialists? Why aren’t British men played by the likes of Hrithik Roshan and Ranveer Singh? Surely, if you cannot find a talented actor from Central Asia, you can find an Indian with Mongoloid features. That would, however, burst the narrative that Akbar was a quintessential Indian rather badly.

Akbar: Nearer to and farther from reality

Akbar is portrayed as a man of valour who was adept at warfare. Truth be told, he was not at all adept in battles. Akbar realised this and would, hence, select the best generals and commanders to head his armies.

During the Siege of Chittor, Akbar lost his cool and went about slaughtering the entire populace of Chittor , after his army was held out for eight months. Such an act of brutality was not even performed by the despotic ruler Ala-ud-din-Khilji and Bhahadur Shah of Gujarat during the previous two sieges.  Consequently during the Battle of Haldighati, he didn’t engage directly with Maharana Pratap despite a superior cavalry, artillery, and a larger army, but preferred to send another Rajput king Man Singh to fight him.

Similarly, Ranveer Singh, an Indian man who bore no resemblance to the actual Central Asian conqueror, is portrayed as Khilji in Padmaavat. The average Indian is more likely to be impacted by pop culture than what narrative Romila Thapar and Tharoor peddle. Hence, countering it is even more essential. It is no surprise that children in India are able to recall the names of Mughal invaders from Babur to Aurangzeb without a pause while floundering on the first three rulers of the Gupta Empire (if they have heard about the Gupta Empire at all).

However, Bollywood and television shows cannot be made to share the entire blame of pop culture. What about paintings and architecture?

Consider the image to the right. It’s a painting of Akbar from the 19th century, which is most commonly used in textbooks. Akbar is portrayed more like a Rajput Prince than a Turco-Mongol ruler.

This may have been done to convince Indians that Akbar and Mughals were their ancestors, particularly to Indian Muslims. However, Islam came to India 630 AD, almost 900 years before Mughals set their foot on the subcontinent, hence why this narrative is peddled is anyone’s best guess.

While we are on the topic of Islam in India, let us take a look at the original Cheraman Perumal Jumma Mosque in Kerala which was built during the Prophet’s lifetime. Later, in 1974 during the restoration, there is a clear Persianised touch to stay in tune with the colonial past of India.

If you consult any Islamic scholar, they will tell you there are no particular patterns or designs to building a mosque except that the entrance should face Mecca. So, why was one of India’s oldest mosques refurbished to represent a Persianized structure, as opposed to an original restoration, is anyone’s guess.

The original mosque
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The current mosque

Next, we come to food. A whole cuisine called “Mughlai” was developed, which bore no resemblance to anything Mughals historically ate. It was essentially Indian cuisine, which was passed off as having a Mughal heritage! Mughlai cuisine is as “Mughal” as Chicken Tikka Masala is British.

Take the case of Biriyani, for example. Mughal accounts make no distinction between biryani and pulao while others have attributed the dish to Arab traders who brought it in the 8th century AD. While there are differences between pulao and biryani and their origins are not clear, what is very clear is that biryani existed in India long before Mughals. Many historians and food writers credit Mughals for the tandoori cuisine when tandoors dating back to Harappan times have been discovered!

Fake history

As recent as this year, some online news portals ran a fake history story of how Akbar started the tradition of Naboborsho and invented the Bengali Calendar when it is well documented in The Land of Two Rivers by Nitish Sengupta the tradition and the calendar existed long before.

This pretty much proves a concerted effort to romanticise and normalise a Central Asian Islamic colonial rule has gone on while sacrificing historical facts and even engaging in distortions if necessary. This normalisation isn’t just overlooking the misdeeds.

Course correction in history is necessary to prevent it being misused. The rise of right-wing counter-propaganda and identity politics is worrisome and no answer to leftist pamphleteering.

Historical figures who resisted the colonial rule are often blown out of proportion with unrealistic depictions as it suits the narrative of some political groups. The root cause of such movements lies in a concerted cultural and historical narratives of peddling half-truths and glorifying Central Asian Islamic colonialism. While European colonialism in India has been objectively analysed, it is quite clear Asian colonialism hasn’t.