Padmavati controversy: Beneath Rajput anxiety over depiction of Padmini lies a deep-seated complex
The depiction of the legend of Padmini (immortalised in Padmavati) has triggered the anxiety of Rajputs because it can challenge their self-definition in the eyes of others
The anguish of Rajasthan’s Rajputs arises from a deep complex they have about their past, manifest in the movement to have Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati banned. The movement has already received a boost — the release of the film has been postponed. Their complex will only be reinforced further.
The complex of Rajputs arises from Hindutva’s perspective on history — largely influenced by British colonial historians — which teaches people that India had a glorious past until the Muslims and the British conquered it. This has unwittingly turned the past into an undeniable saga of Rajput royal families failing in their duty to protect the interests of their subjects, a duty traditionally enjoined on them because of their Kshatriya status.
The ensuing inferiority complex should have been of the erstwhile royalty alone, but such is the pull of caste identity that even ordinary Rajputs have embraced the psychological bruises of the elite as their very own. They need not have, for the elite’s decisions weren’t based on the consent of ordinary Rajputs. Forget the debate on the historicity of Padmini or Padmavati, supposedly the Queen of Mewar whom Alauddin Khalji is said to have coveted. Forget why Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated in 1192, Rana Sanga in 1527, and the many Rajput dynasties that keeled over between the two dates.
There is little doubt that for centuries, many Rajput ruling dynasties acted out of expediency, cutting deals to save their fiefdoms. Theirs were perhaps sagacious choices, but, because of the tendency to see the past as a morality play, they perennially appear to have been on the wrong side of history, right from what is called the medieval period to our contemporary times. Long before the Battle of Haldighati of 1576 — that some Rajputs, against all evidence to the contrary, now insist Rana Pratap won — Raja Bihari Mal of Amber (Jaipur) submitted to the Mughals in 1562 and gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar.
In 1569, the ruler of Ranthambore surrendered the key of his fort to Akbar. A year later, it was the turn of rulers of both Bikaner and Jaisalmer to submit without a fight and entering into matrimonial alliances with the Mughals. Thus began nearly two centuries of Mughal-Rajput partnership. Their decisions to submit were pragmatic. Certain they couldn’t vanquish the Mughals, they chose not to fritter away their resources in futile battles and lose their principalities as well. Becoming Mughal vassals was infinitely a better choice. From Hindutva’s perspective, though, these choices enabled the foreign conquerors to consolidate their empire easily.
This explains why stray examples of Rajput recalcitrance, from Rana Pratap’s guerrilla tactics to Padmini’s lead in performing jauhar or mass self-immolation, have helped create a collective memory that echoes the Rajputs’ self-definition of themselves as a people who bow their head to none, who perform the duty expected of the Kshatriyas.
But they didn’t oppose the British either, recognising the paramountcy of its rule. The British banded the ruling dynasties of Rajasthan under the Rajputana Agency, which was headed by a British agent. Their vanity was nurtured by creating a hierarchy of rulers according to the gun salutes they were entitled, ranging from three to 21. In return for their loyalty, the princely states could govern their subjects as they wanted. Barring a few exceptions, they were mostly models of autocratic power. The submission of Rajput dynasties to the British is why we don’t read of the Anglo-Rajput war as we do of Anglo-Sikh or Anglo-Maratha wars. This is also why the Rajputs of Rajasthan didn’t produce a rebel leader in 1857.
These ruling Rajput dynasties came under stress as the national movement gathered momentum and the British made it clear before their departure that the princes, for all practical purposes, had the choice of either acceding to India or Pakistan. The ruler of Bikaner was among the first princes to sign the Instrument of Accession. Not so the irrepressible Maharaja of Jodhpur, Hanwant Singh Rathore, who had talks with Muhammad Ali Jinnah to strike a better bargain for himself. He did ultimately accede to India, but not before taking out his revolver and threatening to shoot VP Menon when he presented the Instrument of Accession to him — an episode narrated delectably by Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi.
Although Rathore never fought against the British, he bristled to battle the forces of democracy to preserve the feudal order. A scintillating account of it has been provided by Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne H Rudolph in "The 'old regime' confronts democracy", a chapter in Democratic Dynasties, a book edited by the academician Kanchan Chandra. Just how conflicted the Jodhpur ruler was about India’s Independence became evident when he appeared in black headgear to preside over the flag salutation ceremony on 15 August, 1947, in Jodhpur. He was to later explain, "When the people asked me why on this day of national rejoicing (a black headgear), I replied it might be anything for others, but it was the death anniversary of my six generations."
He then decided to rally the princes to save the old order through the ballot box. The Rudolphs note that Rathore was inspired to participate in the 1951-52 election because of his conversations with Winston Churchill. The former British prime minister warned Rathore that he would be forgotten if he were to remain politically inactive. Likewise, to Rathore, Lord Mountbatten cited his own example to point out that while he had no dukedom to rule, he commanded influence because he used his resources to have a public position.
Rathore jumped into the electoral fray of 1951, contesting against then Congress chief minister Jai Narayan Vyas in Jodhpur. He also rallied other Rajput princes, most of who though refrained from contesting directly but fielded and supported the jagirdars (nobles). However, the rulers of Bikaner and Dungarpur did decide to take the democratic test. Rajasthan was the only state where the opposition to the Congress came from the Right, more appropriately the Hindu Right, as many nobles joined the Jana Sangh, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Ram Rajya Parishad. They also fought as Independents. The nobility appealed to voters in the name of traditional, religion and caste loyalties. The Kshatriya Mahasabha, initially floated for social reforms, began to coordinate the activities of Rajput candidates.
On the eve of counting of votes, Rathore died in a plane crash, on 26 January, 1952. Days later, it was announced that he had trounced Vyas, bagging 62 percent of votes against the latter’s 17 percent. Vyas resigned, as did his finance minister, who too was humbled. The Hindu Right picked up 31 out of 35 Assembly seats in the Jodhpur area, and won all four Lok Sabha seats. Ultimately, though, the Congress squeezed past the majority mark, winning 82 of Rajasthan’s 160 Assembly seats.
The Rudolphs noted, "Had the major rulers of Jaipur, Udaipur and Bikaner, joined the fray with the same enthusiasm as Jodhpur, the feudal order would have gained an overwhelming victory… Prudence too played a part: Jaipur nobles often taunted Jodhpur thakurs across the scotch glasses that nothing could be better expected of those whose ancestors gained riches and honour by joining forces with the Mughals."
No doubt, the Rajput royalty had been thwarted in its fight to preserve the old order, but their animus against the Congress never subsided. Believing the party had weakened because of the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and then Lal Bahadur Shastri, they joined the Opposition, particularly the Swatantra Party, confident that a weak Indira Gandhi would be steamrolled.
They were again wrong-footed.
The Congress lost majorities in several states, but managed to come to power at the Centre. Gandhi blamed the princes for the poor performance of the Congress. The retaliation against the Rajput royalty was swift. In 1967, the Congress passed a resolution to introduce a 10-point programme, one of which was to abolish the Privy Purse. The contemplated measure had a dark side. It implied the Indian State was willing to renege on the Constitutional guarantees given to princes. But then perhaps it is possible to argue that the princes had been engaged, most spectacularly in Rajasthan, in a bloodless counter-revolution through the democratic process. It was therefore necessary to weaken them and undermine their source of authority. After a landslide victory in 1971, the Gandhi government passed the 26th Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Privy Purse.
This was both a symbolical and substantial blow to the authority of several Rajput royal families. Although some had wisely invested their money in business, a good many Rajput royalties were left with decrepit havelis, legends of the past and fading memories of their power and wealth. As their influence waned, the manufactured glory of the past became even a greater source of identity for Rajput royals. Such a past was also their intangible asset. It lured tourists to stay in their havelis-turned-heritage hotels at exorbitant rates.
The depiction of the legend of Padmini has triggered the anxiety of Rajputs because it can challenge their self-definition in the eyes of others. Self-definition of social groups is almost always based on legends and myths. But in the case of Rajputs, it is hard to sustain these legends against the backdrop of historically documented evidence to the contrary, at least since 1562.
This is why the memory of Padmini must be protected, evident in the recent remark of Arvind Singh Mewar, one of the direct descendants of Rawal Ratan Singh, who is supposed to have been the husband of Padmini. Mewar said, "If she (Padmini) didn’t exist then we have also lost our identity. I have come across some written evidence, not from the 14th Century or 15th Century, which we are trying to put together in a very researched manner.”
Given that a descendant of the Mewar royalty is unsure whether Padmini existed in reality, it can’t but be concluded that the Rajputs of Rajasthan seem to be on the wrong side of history all over again. It is through the stoking of caste pride that ordinary Rajputs have been rallied to protect the legend of Padmini. This technique is a throwback to how Muslim leaders rallied their ordinary brethren, many of whom were incapable of reading English, to protest against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Might not ordinary Rajputs wonder how their own protest of 2017 would be remembered a decade or two later? A community out of sync with modernity.
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