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Maharashtra textbooks' 'erasure' of Mughals: History is being held hostage by politics

Would Shivaji have fought to carve out a kingdom of his own, had it not been for the Mughals?

According to a recent Mumbai Mirror report, the Maharashtra education board has revised history textbooks for classes VII and IX, removing almost all traces of the rule of the Mughals and the monuments they built, instead focusing on the Maratha Empire founded by Shivaji. The role of the Indian king in medieval history and that of his family and the Maratha generals, reportedly, have been expanded upon.

 Maharashtra textbooks erasure of Mughals: History is being held hostage by politics

'Shivaji openly defies the Great Moghul', illustration by AD Macromick, via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, political identities have evolved in their retaliation to thriving empires and powerful kings. Indian historians feel an overcorrection of history in terms of present political experiences results in ripping off its context, its truths, and its nuances. In the book Traditions in Motion: Religion and Society in History; Oxford University Press (2005) is a chapter on Shivaji’s identity, where his unique style of Hindu revivalism is intricately explained against the backdrop of Mughal practices. It has been mentioned here that by the 17th century, an important ritual among the Rajput rulers was getting a tika, or an auspicious mark, from the Mughal emperor. The abhiseka on the other hand was an archaic style of royal consecration that had nothing to do with the Mughals. Shivaji deliberately chose the latter ritual and rejected the tika. Identities develop in resistance to established orders, within those established orders.

But in order to argue over history, it requires that one first reads it. Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple spoke to Firstpost about the right way to read and write history. “The end of the Mughals is linked to the rise of Shivaji. If you selectively choose periods, it will be harder to teach history neutrally. In 2015, the MET Museum in New York showcased the exhibition Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy. I would say it is easier to sit in New York and get a better sense of Deccan history than in a classroom in India,” says Dalrymple, best known for his books on the Mughal era, especially White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India; Penguin (2002) and The Last Mughal; Penguin (2006).

Dalrymple adds, “In the 17th century, the Mughal Empire was in power in India, which from Agra ruled all of North India, as well as most of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But the Deccan was fragmented into small, culturally-dynamic and independent sultanates, the most prominent of which was Bijapur, which was also closest to Portuguese Goa. In 1610, the Dutch Mannerist painter Cornelis Claesz Heda arrived at the court of an unlikely but enthusiastic patron Ibrahim Adil Shah II. He ruled the central Indian kingdom of Bijapur. He was a scholar, lute player, and had a keen interest in poetry, singing, calligraphy and chess. It was Heda’s good fortune that Bijapur then happened to be ruled by someone with a keen interest in painting. Ibrahim Adil Shah II was a contemporary of Akbar. While Akbar liked to have himself depicted at the head of his army, raiding the forts of his Rajput rivals, Ibrahim is typically depicted either sleeping, being fanned by his servants and having his feet massaged, an opium cup by his side, or strumming his tambur. Heda’s letters have left behind an outsider’s insight into this world.”

Schwartzberg Atlas

Schwartzberg Atlas


Dalrymple then shared that in Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s court, craftsmen, artists and scribes were drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds and religions: there were Shias, Sunnis and Hindus. Although Ibrahim was officially Muslim, he was syncretic and the one trait that he shared with his Mughal contemporary Akbar was a fondness for Hinduism. He visited Shaivite temples and the monasteries of the Nath yogis, and interestingly, was more fluent Sanskrit than in Persian. Early on in his reign, Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted the rudraksha rosary that symbolises the austerity of the Hindu sadhu.

Do we need to first erase one hero in order to embrace the virtues of another?

Renowned historian Romila Thapar told Firstpost, “It is not only a question of discovering new heroes but also of seeking to legitimise the status of the caste to which the hero belongs. The basic question concerns the inter-relation between national history and regional history. Over emphasis on some aspects of the history of one region also has a bearing on the history of adjoining regions and sometimes even more distant regions.”

Neeladri Bhattacharya, who has served as the chief adviser of the NCERT history textbooks replied to the same question with the answer: “Who you celebrate and who you villainise has a politics and it is that politics which has to be understood.”

Syed Irfan Habib is one of the few historians in India whose scholarship has helped academia re-imagine a hero in a different light. Through his book To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades; Three Essays Collectives; 3rd edition (2007), thinkers are re-understanding Bhagat Singh as a social revolutionary, and not just a martyr, especially through his reading into Bhagat Singh’s writings on the responsibility of the media, the evils in the caste system and the necessity of women to be in the forefront of social struggles.

“We cannot find a hero in the medieval past and re-imagine him as a figure relevant to modern concerns. Shivaji was a great hero who was fighting for his own little kingdom, which he wanted to carve out of the Mughal Empire that Aurangzeb had established from north India to the Deccan. He had commanders who were Muslim, who fought on his side against the Mughals. Shivaji didn’t communalise,” he says, adding that positioning a ruler like Shivaji as a symbol of nationalism would be a mistake because nationalism didn’t exist back then. These were bifurcated feudal struggles against a large empire, which is why Rani Laxmi Bai is known to have said ‘Mai apni Jhansi nahi doongi’, where she wasn’t voicing the demands of other rulers in the Central and North India.

The history department of Rajasthan University in June included in its syllabus a book claiming Maharana Pratap defeated Emperor Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati (1576). “Maharana Pratap was fought by Man Singh of Amber (later, Jaipur), a fellow Rajput of the Kachhwa clan, whose fortunes had soared under the Mughals. Man Singh was deputed by Akbar to go fight this war. Today, when people say that Akbar’s motive was to bring Maharana Pratap to his court and pay obeisance, they are putting a spin on the historic facts. That was not the motive. Maharana Pratap had committed himself to fight, he didn’t surrender and died as a fighter, while other Rajputs had collaborated with the Mughals and were enjoying the spoils of the kingdom,” explains Habib, and added that those in power should understand that we cannot talk about the past in a way that we have to live it.

A Raja Ravi Varma painting of Maharana Pratap. Image via Wikimedia Commons

A Raja Ravi Varma painting of Maharana Pratap. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Historians feel the need to de-politicise history and feel that each political formation is somewhat guilty of the practice of fine-tuning history to suit the acoustics of the present political setting. Aditya Mukherjee, director, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, JNU, was one of the co-authors of the widely referenced book on modern history India's Struggle for Independence; Penguin (1988) edited by late historian Bipan Chandra. Last year, the book was under fire for referring to Bhagat Singh and other revolutionary leaders as ‘revolutionary terrorists’. However, Mukherjee, along with the other co-authors had then explained to Firstpost how they are very much in favour of removing the word from the book, as it had acquired quite a negative meaning over time. Mukherjee told Firstpost that if one looks at the history of modern scholarship, most of it has actually been anti-congress, anti-emergency and radical. “Let academics define history, and keep politicians out of it, otherwise we will find heroes where none existed,” he said.

It will be harder to understand Shivaji without a detailed reference to the Mughals. A case in point is historian Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations: A History of India in 50 Lives; Penguin (2017), which features a chapter titled Shivaji: Dreaming Big, where it is stated,

“The big showdown between the Mughal emperor and the Maratha upstart occurred not on the battlefield but at Aurangzeb’s Agra Court, in 1666. The previous year, one of Aurangzeb’s generals had dealt with a partial defeat to Shivaji’s forces and the Mughals now hoped to incorporate him into their empire. They thought they could buy him off in a way the emperor Akbar had done two generations before with the troublesome Rajputs. Shivaji saw advantages to the deal so he journeyed to Agra in hopes of striking a deal. Once there, however, he was slighted and mistreated by Aurangzeb, who placed him under house arrest. Shivaji outwitted his captor, slipping away, in a basket of sweets. He then headed back to his hill forts — not to hide — but to announce himself as a new power. Aurangzeb never forgot this humiliation. In his will, it is recorded: Negligence for a single moment becomes the cause of disgrace for long years.”

There is no need, perhaps, to balance history, for those who have read it in detail believe that it balances itself out on its own. It pays for its own sins and takes its own revenge.

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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 10:23:44 IST