The Litmus Test of Whether Your History is Secular

Arun Shourie



    The pattern of these textbooks thus is set in stone : concoct a picture of pre-Islamic society of Indian history as a period riddled by discord, tensions, inequity and oppression -- evidence or no evidence; on the other side, concoct a picture of the Islamic period as one in which a "composite culture" flowered, one in which, in spite of the errors of few who acted out of normal, non-religious motives, there was peace and harmony -- evidence or no evidence!

    This pattern continues throughout the textbook, Medieval India written by Satish Chandra, and published by the NCERT for Class XI students. Satish Chandra has been a recipient of the ICHR's projects, he has been a member of the ICHR, he has been a National Fellow of the ICHR, he has been Chairman of the University Grants Commission. It is about him that Tasneem Ahmad wrote in his plagiarised book, "My debt to my revered teacher, Professor Satish Chandra is incalculable. He took great pains in reading and correcting the work and his considered suggestions have paid me rich dividend." In a word, as eminent as they come.

    "Thus, there was no atmosphere of confrontation between the Sikhs and the Mughal rulers during this period," says Satish Chandra. "Nor was there any systematic persecution of the Hindus, and hence, no occasion for the Sikhs or any group or sect to stand forth as the champion of the Hindus against religious persecution. The occasional conflict between the Gurus and the Mughal rulers was personal and political rather than religious. Despite some display of orthodoxy by Shah Jahan at the beginning of his reign and a few acts of intolerance, such as the demolition of 'new' temples, he was not narrow in his outlook which was further tempered towards the end of his reign by the influence of his liberal son, Dara."

    That being the case, what do these eminent historians have to say about Guru Nanak, and his searing cry,

    "Khurasan khasmana kiya Hindustanu daraiya
    Aapae dosu na deyi karta jamu kari mughlu chadhaiya
    Aiti maar payi karlande tain ko dardu na ayiya
    Karta tu sabhna ka soi
    Je sakta sakte kayu mare taa mani rosu na hoyi
    Sakta sihu maare paye vagaye khasme sa pursai
    Ratan vigadi vigoye kuttin muiya saar na koyi..."

    "Having lifted Islam to the head, You have engulfed Hindustan in dread....
    Such cruelties have they inflicted, and yet Your mercy remains unmoved....
    Should the strong attack the strong the heart does not burn. But when the
    strong crush the helpless, surely the One who was to protect them has to be
    called to account.... O' Lord, these dogs have destroyed this diamond-like
    Hindustan, (so great is their terror that) no one asks after those who have
    been killed, and yet You do not pay heed..."

    What do they say of Guru Nanak's account of the young brides whose youth, jewels, honour have been snatched away by the invaders on the orders of Babar ? What of his wail,

    "Ikna vakhat khuvai ahi ikhan pooja jayi
    Chadke vindu hindvandiyan kiyu tike kathi nayi
    Ramu na kabhu chetiyo hundi kahndi na mile khudai..."

    "Hindus have been forbidden to pray at the time of the Muslim's namaz, Hindusociety has been left without a bath, without a tilak. Even those who have never uttered "Ram", even they can get no respite by shouting "Khuda,
    Khuda".... The few who have survived Babar's jails wail.... The desolation
    which has come over the land.... The entire races which have been
    exterminated, which have been humiliated..."

    The account not of some merely eminent historian, but of Guru Nanak. [The verses given above are merely illustrative. For a comprehensive account of the question see, K P Agarwal's forthcoming, Sri Guru Granth Sahib aur Islam.] Not some account written by looking at records of centuries ago, but testimony of the moment, of what Guru Nanak had been witness to himself...

    Let us hear these eminent secularists, then, declare that this cry of Guru Nanak was a concoction. And that the entire life and campaign of Guru Govind Singh was born of "personal and political" factors rather than from a profound religious impulse, and that, therefore, all his own explanations, his impassioned, soul-stirring explanations in this regard are that much deception.

    Akbar is the epitome of tolerance, Shah Jahan "despite some display of orthodoxy .... at the beginning of his reign and a few acts of intolerance" remains broad-minded. The only opposition to this liberalism comes from "orthodox elements". But here too Satish Chandra executes the "balancing". The orthodox elements in question are always of "the two leading faiths, Hinduism or Islam," together ! Both sides strive to undo the liberality of the Islamic rulers out of the same mundane motivation, that is, they oppose the liberal policy because it threatens their entrenched interests.

    Aurangzeb's orthodoxy cannot, of course, be entirely denied. Therefore, explanations upon explanations -- secular explanations -- are invented. While reading the following, bear in mind the far-reaching assertions these historians made about ancient India on the basis of little evidence, and contrast them with how they treat unambiguous, overwhelming evidence in the case of Aurangzeb.

    "Later, in the eleventh year of his reign (1669)," remarks Satish Chandra, "Aurangzeb took a number of measures which have been called puritanical, but many of which were really of economic and social character, and against superstitious beliefs... Many other regulations of a similar nature, some of a moral character and some to instill a sense of austerity, were issued..."

    The destruction of temples upon temples by Aurangzeb naturally comes in for the longest explanations! Firstly, we are told that all that Aurangzeb did was to reiterate the old order of the Shariat -- that no new temples shall be built, and that this "order regarding temples was not a new one" -- it merely reaffirmed the position which had existed during the Sultanate period, the period, remember, of "general toleration" ! Satish Chandra adds a second explanation : "In practice, it [the order] left wide latitude to the local officials as to the interpretation of the words 'long standing temples'. "

    A third extenuating circumstance is then invented. Having noted the destruction of temples in Gujarat by Aurangzeb when he was the Governor of that province, and having noted his reiteration of the Standing Order under the Shariat, Satish Chandra says, "however, it does not seem that Aurangzeb's order regarding ban on new temples led to a large scale destruction of temples at the outset of the reign." It is only when Aurangzeb "encountered political opposition from a number of quarters, such as, the Marathas, Jats etc.," that he "seems to have adopted a new stance". When he now came in "conflict with local elements," he began to consider it "legitimate to destroy even long standing Hindu temples as a measure of punishment and as a warning." Thus, first, the order was just an old one! Second, the order left wide latitude to the local officials ! Third, even this order was not implemented "at the outset of the reign"! Fourth, it is only when he encountered political opposition and when he came in conflict with local elements that Aurangzeb began to consider it legitimate to destroy Hindu temples! Fifth, this "new stance" too is only something which seems to have been adopted!

    Moreover, Aurangzeb did so, Satish Chandra tells us, because "he began to look upon temples as centres of spreading subversive ideas, that is ideas which were not acceptable to the orthodox elements. Hence the destruction of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Banaras and the temple at Mathura." "The destruction of these temples had a political motivation as well...", Satish Chandra emphasizes, and continues, "it was in this context that many temples built in Orissa during the last 10 to 12 years were also destroyed." And then, "but it is wrong to think that there were any orders for the general destruction of temples." Lest anyone come up with citations upon citations from contemporary historians, another sentence to explain away what was actually done : "however, the situation was different during periods of hostilities."

    The general conclusion : what Aurangzeb did "was a setback to the policy of broad toleration followed by his predecessors" ! And even he did it for secular reasons! And even though, compelled by these reasons, he did it only for the shortest time, for the years marked by hostilities instigated by "local elements" ! "However," concludes Satish Chandra, "it seems that Aurangzeb's zeal for the destruction of temples abated after 1679, for we do not hear of any large scale destruction of temples in the South between 1681 and his death in 1707."

    Yes, Aurangzeb introduced the jaziya, but, cautions Satish Chandra, "it was not meant to be an economic pressure for forcing Hindus to convert to Islam, for its incidence was to be light." For this assertion Satish Chandra gives two bits of proof, so to say. First, "women, children, the disabled, the indigent, that is, those whose income was less than the means of subsistence, were exempted as were those in government service." How could even Aurangzeb have exacted a tax from those "whose income was less than the means of subsistence? " And why would he exact a discriminatory and humiliating tax from those who were in government service, that is, from those who were already serving his interests and those of the Islamic State? The second proof that Satish Chandra gives is that "in fact, only an insignificant section of Hindus changed their religion due to this tax" -- but could that not have been because of the firm attachment of Hindus to their faith, because of their tenacity rather than because of the liberality of Aurangzeb?

    The jaziya was not meant either to meet "a difficult financial situation". Its reimposition was in fact, says Satish Chandra, "both political and ideological in nature." Political in the sense that "it was meant to rally the Muslims for the defence of the State against the Marathas and the Rajputs who were up in arms, and possibly against the Muslim States of Deccan, especially Golconda, which was in alliance with the infidels." A parity twice-over -- one, that Aurangzeb was only trying to rally the Muslims just as those opposing him had rallied the Marathas and Rajputs ! And, in any case, the ones who were opposing him were "infidels"!

    And what about the "ideological" impulse? "Ideological," yes, but the "ideology" was everything except Islam!

    Furthermore, Satish Chandra explains, "jaziya was to be collected by honest, God-fearing Muslims who were specially appointed for the purpose and its proceeds were reserved for the Ulema." As the proceeds went to Ulama, there was a secular reason for exacting the tax -- it was to be "a type of bribe for the theologians among whom there was a lot of unemployment," and, second, as the tax was being collected by "honest, God-fearing Muslims," one can be certain that they were considerate and, like Allah in the Qur'an, would have never imposed upon anyone a burden which he could not bear !

    Some modern writers, Satish Chandra says, are of the opinion that Aurangzeb's measures were designed to convert India into Dar-ul-Islam but, in fact, "although Aurangzeb considered it legitimate to encourage conversions to Islam, evidence of systematic or large scale attempts at forced conversions is lacking."

    And finally a piece of evidence which is a favourite with the secularists : "Nor were Hindu nobles discriminated against. A recent study has shown that the number of Hindus in the nobility during the second half of Aurangzeb's reign had steadily increased, till the Hindus, including Muslims, formed about one-third of the nobility as against one-fourth under Shah Jahan." Correspondingly, one can claim on behalf of the British Empire that close to 98% of the titles it conferred -- Rai Sahib, Rai Bahadur, knighthoods and so on -- were conferred on Indians ! That they were conferred because these Indians were serving the British Empire faithfully, just as Aurangzeb was taking into his nobility those who were serving his purposes faithfully, is a matter of detail by which naturally Class XI students would not like to be confused!

    The final assessment of our secularist eminence could not be more empathetic! First, Satish Chandra emphasizes that "Aurangzeb's religious beliefs could not be considered the basis of his political policies." Aurangzeb was an "orthodox Muslim," true; he was "desirous of upholding the strict letter of the law," true; but he was also a ruler and was "keen to strengthen and expand the empire." The former required that he be tough with the Hindus. The latter, on the other hand, required that he retain "the support of the Hindus to the extent possible." The two impulses -- his religious ideas and beliefs on the one hand and the requirements of empire on the other -- sometimes "led him to adopt contradictory policies which harmed the empire."

    Our eminent historian then proceeds to give an account of the Marathas, the Jats, the campaigns against Golconda and Bijapur. At every turn he labours to show that the religious impulse did not have much to do with Aurangzeb's attitude towards any of these "rebellions". Indeed, Aurangzeb's religious policy must be seen in the context of the rebellions which were challenging his empire, we are told ! Thus, Satish Chandra's final conclusion :

    "Aurangzeb's religious policy should be seen in the social, economic and political context. Aurangzeb was orthodox in his outlook and tried to remain within the framework of the Islamic law. But this law was developed outside India in vastly dissimilar situations, and could hardly be applied rigidly to India. His failure to respect the susceptibilities of his non-Muslim subjects on many occasions, his adherence to the time-worn policy towards temples and re-imposition of jizyah as laid down by the Islamic law did not help him to rally the Muslims to his side or generate a greater sense of loyalty towards a state based on Islamic law. On the other hand, it alienated segments of the Hindus and strengthened the hands of those sections which were opposed to the Mughal empire for political or other reasons. By itself, religion was not a point at issue. Jizyah was scrapped within half a dozen years of Aurangzeb's death and restrictions on building new temples eased."

    "In the ultimate resort," Satish Chandra concludes, "the decline and downfall of the empire was due to economic, social, political and institutional factors" -- notice, no religious factors! Akbar held the forces of disintegration in check for some time. But it was impossible for him to effect fundamental changes in the structure of society, says our author, and therefore :

    "By the time Aurangzeb came to the throne, the socio-economic forces of disintegration were already strong. Aurangzeb lacked the foresight and statesmanship necessary to effect fundamental changes in the structure or to pursue policies which could, for the time being, reconcile the various competing elements.

    "Thus, Aurangzeb was both a victim of circumstances, and helped to create the circumstances of which he became a victim."

    Empathy personified! And this is the point : the litmus test of secularist writing is whether you are prepared to stand up for Aurangzeb or not.

    India Connect
    October 20, 1998