‘How Could Mughals Be Our Heroes?’ UP CM & the Politics of Naming

If governments care about popular sovereignty, they should refrain from valorising rulers & politicians of all hues.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Once upon a time, fortune and industriousness accosted Lord Shiva to ask who, between the two of them, was more powerful. Lord Shiva responded by giving the example of the Mughal ruler Jahangir, presumably to illustrate how one needed both hard work and luck in order to excel in this world.

There is clear evidence (pragat praman), said Shiva, that Jahangir was the patron (sahib) of both the religions (duhun deen), and the ritual umbrella (chatra) of his patronage adorns the whole world.

The conversation between the celestial characters is reported by none other than the great 17th Century Brahmin poet Keshavdas in his Braj Bhasha composition Jahangir Chandrika.

There is no reason for us to take this depiction at its face value. But it does give us a measure of how the upper caste urban elite viewed the Mughal state in the early 17th Century. More than two decades earlier, Jain poet Padmasagar wrote in his Sanskrit composition Jagadguru Mahakavya that Akbar’s newly constructed Phattepur (Fatehpur Sikri) was like the city of Dwarka established by Krishna.

Two decades after Keshavdas, Jain merchant Banarsidas recalled that when Chhatrapati Akbar Sahi Jalal (Mughal dynast Akbar) breathed his last, the people suddenly felt orphaned (anaath) and insecure. Banarsidas himself started shaking uncontrollably and tumbled down the stairs when he heard the news, injuring his head in the process.


Who the Mughals Were

The purpose of these references is to put in perspective a recent decision by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister to change the name of the under-construction Mughal museum to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum.

“How could Mughals be our heroes?” he wondered.

I have quoted above from some of the contemporary texts composed by non-Muslim authors not associated with the Mughal court. The idea is to get a sense of how the Mughal rulers were perceived on the parameter of even-handedness vis-à-vis different religious communities. I could have done worse. I could have taken a short-cut and referred to the official policy directive famously promulgated by Akbar in the early 1580s, namely sulh-i kul (peace for all), but that was only a slogan.

Moreover, it sounds a little too much like sabka sath, sabka vikas to be taken seriously today.

Let me put in a word of caution, lest the readers think that the Mughal rule represented Indian history’s forgotten golden age that some had been looking for in vain in the Vedic times. Far from it. Like other medieval rulers, Mughals assessed taxes at a very high rate and were unrelenting in their collection drive. True, they did not have an Enforcement Directorate or a Department of Income Tax to let loose on political suspects. Yet, anyone who refused to pay taxes was deemed to have committed sedition (bagawat), and considerations of religion or even the defaulter’s proximity to the court were usually no alibi for leniency.

Rhetorically asked then, it is a good question, ‘how can Mughals be our heroes?’ (Let’s ignore the minor quibble as to why a museum showcasing Mughal weapons and objects should be named after their famous foe, Shivaji Maharaj).

After all, the Mughal state was not, nor did it pretend to be, a democracy. The trouble, however, is that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the great Maratha ruler, was not an elected leader either. Nor did any of the premodern rulers enjoy a duly vetted popular mandate – Rajputs, Marathas, Turks, Timurids, et al.


What the Mughals Did

So, what possibly could be the motive, and the message, behind the move to replace Mughals with Shivaji Maharaj? Having changed dozens of names, including his own, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is fully aware of the political significance of naming.

It is not very difficult to see the intended message here. His tweet provides a clue. “There is no space in your new Uttar Pradesh,” he claimed, “for the symbols of the mentality of slavery (ghulami ki mansikta).”

Did the Mughals, directly or figuratively, reduce their subjects to servility? Did they preside over a ‘foreign’ rule?

The answer to the first question is, no more than any other premodern state. All states were exploitative, and so was the Mughal state. The more efficient ones could also marginalise the local princes often without wreaking any dramatic change in the way the common people, like peasants, experienced the excruciating fiscal burden of state.

The answer to the second question must begin with the plain observation that Mughals did not rule with a view to financially benefit another country outside of their kingdom. Unlike the British colonial government, they did not either directly through remittance, or indirectly through commercial instruments like manipulated trade relations, try to pass on resources to another region.

Secondly, the redistribution of resources that the state effected through its system of patronage and taxation actually enriched both the local rajas (mostly upper caste landlords) as well as high ranking officials called mansabdars. The latter were drawn from different regions and communities including Rajputs, Turanis and Marathas.


What Your Choice Conveys

Yet, there are many reasons why a modern democratically elected government might not want to pick up heroes from amongst rulers and those in positions of authority.

All premodern rulers were aggressors – not because they were pathologically evil, but because that was the precondition of their survival.

If political theorists in different times and places shared one characteristic, it was their advice to the rulers that they must continuously seek to expand their territory. From Kautilya in ancient India to the medieval Seljukid scholar Nizam-ul Mulk Tusi and early modern European thinker Machiavelli, the message was simple: expand or perish.

If our own democratically elected governments care about popular sovereignty, they should always refrain from valorising rulers and politicians of all hues. The Warsaw International airport is named against the great 19th Century Polish music composer Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin. And the biggest statues in the west German city of Bonn is that of Beethoven.

Isn’t it ennobling to think of an airport named after Kabir, and a railway station named after Ustad Alla Rakha? Who you choose to name your city after, Dronacharya or Eklavya, conveys who you stand with.

(Pankaj Jha is a professor in the Department of History at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi and Editor of The Indian Economic and Social History. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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