Monday, July 7, 2008

Indian Identity (1): A Tale of Two Emperors

Emperor Akbar (1542 -1605) ruled India with a radical pluralism that could teach today’s multiculturalists a thing or two. “He sought for truth amongst the dust-stained denizens of the field of irreflection and consorted with every sort of wearers of patched garments such as yogis, sonyasis and qalandars, and other solitary sitters in the dust and insouciant recluses.” noted one verbose contemporary chronicler. Born in India (Umakot, in present-day Pakistan), he had known no other land since his birth. “To Akbar Indians were not the uncultured mass of infidels who so horrified Babur; they were his countrymen,” writes historian John Keay. Here was perhaps the first argumentative Indian.

Emperor Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707) ruled India with the kind of oppressive measures people assume characterizes Islamist (to use an anachronistic term) rule. According to Keay, “he wanted to create a moral climate in which Muslims could live in accordance with the tenets of Islam and in which non-Muslims would be aware both of their subordinate status and of how they might improve it by converting.” If Akbar was an argumentative Indian, Aurangzeb was an oppressive Muslim.

Akbar lifted discriminatory measures against Hindus, like the tax on pilgrims. He celebrated the Hindu festivals of Divali and Dussehra. Through marriage, he diversified the royal court, without forcing his new nobles to abandon their faith. Dynamic religious debates were held in the new imperial capital of Fatehpur Sukri, the architecture of which itself testified to Akbar’s eclecticism. In contrast to the disputations being carried out around the same time in Europe, they were scrupulously fair, with every religion represented, and no pre-conceived outcome sought.

Aurangzeb restored the tax on Hindu pilgrims, with revenue endowments enjoyed by temples and brahmans rescinded. Hindu merchants were penalized by heavier duties. Provincial administrations were made to replace Hindu employees with Muslims. Newly built, or rebuilt temples, were destroyed. These included the Vishvanatha Temple in Varanasi, and the Keshawa Temple at Mathura. In 1679, the jizya (per capita tax levied by a Muslim state on certain of its non-Muslim citizens) was restored.

“Akbar [had] disrupted the Muslim community by recognizing that India was not an Islamic country; Aurangzeb disrupted India by behaving as if it were,” writes one historian. In the balance-sheet of Mughal rule, which at its peak covered nearly 90% of the subcontinent, Akbar and Aurangzeb represent the two extremes: to speak crudely, the other emperors fell broadly in between. Today, however, Akbar’s rule (alongside the earlier Buddhist emperor Ashoka) is remembered as pioneering a specifically Indian form of multiculturalism, while Aurangzeb is remembered as an aberration. Why?

I write these lines from Varanasi, where I have just visited the rebuilt Vishvanatha Temple. A mosque still stands on the site, although heavy security (strengthened in the wake of recent disturbances in Kashmir) meant I was not able to visit it. There is a very real fear that Hindu extremists may seek to destroy the mosques, just like they did to the Baba Masjid in Ayodya in 1992. The tensions I have tried to tease out by my loose contrast between the reigns of Akbar and Aurganzeb are alive and well in contemporary India.

A formally secular republic, with a majority Hindu population (itself defied on caste and linguistic grounds), India is also home to the world’s second largest Muslim population (around one fifth of the total population), a well as Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and many other religious groups. Optimistic observers of the Indian scene call it as ‘sumptuous thali’ (in conscious distinction to the melting-pot, the favoured metaphor of western ‘multiculturalists’), with different groups living happily side by side, content in their shared Indian identity. More pessimistic observers point to the generally lower socio-economic status of Muslims. They note the rise of the BJP, as well as the state-sanctioned murderous pogroms against Muslims in a relatively prosperous state like Gujarat, in 2002. And then there is the political divide, with the Congress promoting a secular-pluralism, with the BJP in favour of the country’s Hinduisation. Again, Akbar and Aurangzeb.

Some personal context before continuing: I come to India as an Israeli-Jew from Britain, proud of Zionism’s historical achievements, but agnostic about its ability to be the ideology of Israel’s future. At the same time, though, I’m cynical about the visions offered by post-Zionist and anti-Zionist thinkers. Surely there’s a third way somewhere? Maybe inspiration can be found in India.

Enough of the Middle East; this blog remains very much about India. But I’m fascinated by the possibilities offered by Indian pluralist-nationalist thought. At the same time, I’m disturbed by how the reality has all too often turned out. I can’t help but thinking that Indian thinkers – particularly those resident in the west – are too ready to dismiss the violent outbursts as aberrations. The likes of the BJP draw their strength from somewhere – complacency will not help the fight-back. In the post-9/11 world, Indian identity politics have been surprisingly neglected. For anyone interested in a more tolerant world, it is absolutely vital that Indian pluralism can reach the heights its creators ambitiously laid out for it. Will India go the way of Aurangzeb or Akbar? In future posts in this series, I hope to examine this question more closely.


Anonymous said...

as an Indian, i think your articles are really well-written, and quite astutely other words, rather spot on.

but i would say this: try and refrain from taking sides in the political debates; calling the congress "akbar" and the BJP "aurangazeb" would really be oversimplifying it a bit. It's way more complicated than that; the congress might look like the lesser of two evils, but it does have a history of trying to please the minority for the sake of votes - at the cost of the majority. so well...the BJP is, to some extent, a reaction (or overreaction, if u please) against the congress'so-called secular politics.

h said...

as an Indian currently based in europe, i have to say your posts are quite astutely-observed and well-written: i mean, I'm fairly tired of coming across europeans who view india's poverty as a "spiritual experience", as something they must get a look at in their gap year so as to be able to "find" themselves; so it's refreshing to see someone who can see it as the disease that it actually is.

but i will say this: refrain from commenting too forcefully on the political situation. calling the congress "akbar" as opposed to the BJP's "aurangazeb" is really far too much of an oversimplification; akbar was a good king who accepted that india was principally a hindu country and took it from there, while the congress party has a long history of pandering to the minority communities (not just religious but also those on caste lines) for no nobler objectives than in order to win votes, often at the costs of the interests of the majority. true, the BJP is a radical overreaction to the situation, but again, the comparison with Aurangazeb is a misplaced one: he tried to penalise the majority hindu population for their faith, unlike the BJP, which, if it had more sense, would basically want that the majority do not get sidelined in the quest to appease the minority.

Alex Stein said...

h - glad you're enjoying - spread the word...I'm trying to use the dichotomy as a broad paradigm, rather than a specific analogy...