Emperor Akbar is still relevant: Manimugdha Sharma

Author Manimugdha Sharma talks about his new book Allahu Akbar to TERESA REHMAN

What inspired you to write a book about a medieval king? Why did you choose Akbar?

In 2015, there was a saffron charge against Shahenshah Akbar and the Mughals led by the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar. It began with the then home minister Rajnath Singh questioning why Akbar was great and not Rana Pratap. Immediately, as if on cue, the Parivar and its acolytes mounted a smear campaign against Akbar, with a BJP spokesperson—a popular face on TV—even comparing the emperor to Adolf Hitler. Abusive rants were aired by foot soldiers of Hindutva on social media, and anyone questioning their narrative was declared a traitor, anti-national, and heaped with expletives of the worst kind.

This was in stark contrast with what most of us had grown up hearing about Shahenshah Akbar. He wasn’t seen as a Muslim emperor but as an Indian king—one of the only two Indian rulers who got the epithet ‘great’. As a tolerant and just king, even cute and cuddly as Akbar-Birbal stories made him appear to us when we were kids.

In that backdrop, I wrote a series of articles on Akbar and his journey from being great to not-so-great. In 2017, I was introduced to Praveen Tiwari of Bloomsbury, who had gone through the body of work I had produced for The Times of India. He asked me if I could write a book on Akbar as that would be very timely. I said aye. After cogitating for a while, we decided to do a book comparing and contrasting the past with the present. There were two objectives: one, to situate Akbar in his own time and context and understand the challenges that he faced; two, to address the modern politics around him and the Mughals so that we could have a better understanding of the present and what Hindutva politics seeks to achieve. 

2. Why do you think is there a recent spurt in history books in India? A lot of books on Indian mythology are also being written.

It is true that in recent years, there has been a flood of historical non-fiction in India. Historical fiction always had a market in India, even if it were limited in scope as compared to the West. For instance, Conn Iggulden’s books on Mongols or Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series are very highly read. Alex Rutherford sort of bridged the West-East gap with his fiction series on the Mughals. Then Indian authors came forward and started experiencing success. People like Indu Sundaresan, Madhulika Liddle and in more recent times, Anuja Chandramouli. Their books were lapped up by readers as they filled a void that always existed in India. With their appetite whetted, the Indian readers next looked towards non-fiction. The field was wide open there with William Dalrymple having given the people a taste for historical non-fiction. So, one by one, new authors started writing historical non-fiction. And their craft was recognised by the people. Today, they are celebrated and feted because they have appealed to the audience.

But there is a political factor too, which I believe has made the historical non-fiction market quite vibrant.

History has always been the politician’s playground. But it’s a bit different with Hindutva politics. Hindutva is all about myths and dogma, and a lot of it is based on imagined past hurt. That is often used as a justification for the communally charged propaganda that its adherents belt out. When Aurangzeb, Alauddin Khilji and Tipu Sultan are invoked by none other than the Prime Minister during election rallies, you could very well assume the kind of interest a common man can develop in history. To bust myths and false claims, some authors feel motivated to write about historical episodes or characters; conversely, some other authors feel the need to accentuate that propaganda by putting out charged narratives either to lionise or demonise historical personalities. And yet there is a third kind of author who may not have any of those objectives but still feels that it is worthwhile to explore history that’s topical.

All of these factors have contributed to the spurt, I think.

As regards mythology, that has always been kind of life blood of Indian culture. People largely believe the Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to be historical chronicles. And these are fascinating tales, aren’t they? Beautifully rendered, everything well connected with everything else, with a narrative voice that has a cadence about it. Authors who are writing mythology-based fiction, like Amish Tripathi, are doing a very good job by offering alternative interpretations that just take such stories to another level. Devdutt Patnaik too. His takes on Hindu mythology are fascinating, aren’t they?

But again, things work better when they are about Hindu mythology. I doubt if a similar attempt with something like Dastan-e Amir Hamza would have encouraging results in India today. Religious preferences and sensitivities of Indians also play a part in fiction choices, I think. And that’s true about non-fiction as well.

3. What are the lessons that we can learn from history in the present political landscape?

Look, the past is a different country. But it appeals more in the present because the lived experience of the past is missing in the present and what we have is a romanticised idea of it. Depending on what sort of an atmosphere prevails in your immediate surroundings, your idea of the past could be very different from past itself. To give you an example, you would find that many people who lived through Partition in 1947 didn’t have that bellicosity towards the ‘other’ on both sides of the border. I remember my own grandmother, who had lived through Partition, remember people who became part of Pakistan fondly despite the horrific communal riots that she saw. She remembered Partition as a tragedy; and while she never forgot the images of blood and gore, which was her lived experience, still for her, Partition was not an instrument of hate and othering which it has come to symbolise today. Because until it happened, nobody thought it would happen. And when it happened, many thought it was just temporary and they could return to their homes some day after the dust settled. That generation understood Partition very differently. 

But it were the people who came after them—their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren—who hate people from across the border and use Partition as justification for their hate. In their case, they have no lived experience of the tragedy, just an understanding of it based on tales they heard and influenced by modern realities like communalisation of the socio-political discourse and active othering of people not just across the border but within your own country who belong to a different religion. 

At the same time, we need to understand that this active othering is being furthered by using past hurt. Today, whenever there is some crime against Muslims in India, we see social media commentators use whataboutery to justify, even rationalise those crimes. So, if you talk about the lynching of Akhlaq or Pehlu Khan, they will say “what about Aurangzeb torturing Sambhaji to death?” Or, “what about Mahmud of Ghazni sacking Somnath Temple, Muhammad Ghori killing Prithviraj Chauhan,” and so on. So, you see how they are convinced that a 17th-century insult or humiliation is being avenged in the 21st century.

In India, if we just look at how the othering of people started in the second half of the 19th century, which progressed bit by bit leading up to the division of the subcontinent in 1947, we will try and not repeat them today. History is a constant teacher, you see. But it is our wont not to take her seriously. Therefore, we find ourselves condemned to repeat the past mistakes. Only if we realised that our ancestor’s burden is not for us to carry, that their realities were different from ours, we would be a happier people.

4. How do you see the representation of the Mughals in mass media?

It has been less than satisfactory. In the 70 years since Independence, there have been only two noteworthy period films with Akbar as protagonist—K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008), both nearly 50 years apart. Both were heavily fictionalised takes on Akbar and the Mughals that distorted history like anything. Akbar was presented as this prim and proper man who spoke chaste Urdu and wore formal courtly attire all the time. The real Akbar, and I have described this in my book, wore the lungi while not holding court and used expletives in Hindustani, some of which are still used in India today. One of his chroniclers, Bayazid Biyat, suggests that when the Emperor was angry, he would speak (read abuse) in Hindustani.

If you remember a story by Gopal Bhar about a multilingual man who comes to the court of Maharaj Krishnachandra and the man throws a challenge to figure out what his mother tongue is. Everyone tries and fails until Gopal Bhar makes him trip and get hurt. The angry man screams at Gopal Bhar in Odia and he figures out that it is his mother tongue, as when angry, a man only uses his mother tongue.

With this logic, we can understand what language Akbar spoke in his day to day life.

But I have to concede that despite its inaccuracies, both Mughal-e-Azam and Jodhaa Akbar were positive portrayals of Akbar. What have followed them has progressively worsened the image of the Mughals. History-themed TV serials have done far more damage. They depict the Mughals as scheming, vile and vengeful creatures instead of the people who brought about the high noon of Indian power and prestige on a global stage.

We must also understand that socio-political forces are at play here. When Mughal-e-Azam had come out, socialism and secularism were like the two eyes of the Indian state. These were cardinal principles that almost everyone adhered to. When Jodhaa Akbar came, that era was coming to an end but it still hadn’t given way to a majoritarian impulse that we now see. So, in this new era of dominant religion-centric nationalism, Mughals are the irredeemable villains of Indian history. That’s how they will be represented as till the society has another hallelujah moment.

5. Which is your favourite line from the book? Is there any message you would like to give in the book?

This line that occurs on page 271: “At his Ibadat Khana, which was the first nursery of secularism in India, Akbar exposed himself and his courtiers and inner circle of friends to all kinds of ideas gleaned from different faiths. Ideas that were illuminating at times and disappointing at other times; ideas that energised the mind and soul at times and enervated them at other times. In this contradiction, Akbar found a way to end strife and heal wounds.”

This is not my only favourite; there are other lines too, but I will not repeat them here due to paucity of space and also because I would want the reader to pick up my book and find their own favourite lines.

My message is simple: in our supercharged times, Akbar is very relevant as someone who united different people around him by finding a common platform for all of them to stand on. Yet, we also need to understand that he was a 16th-century monarch who lived in an age of wrath very different from today. In the 21st century, we should not long for a 16th-century despot to come and rescue us. But, we do have a problem when a 16th-century monarch appears as the better man than 21st-century democratically elected leaders.

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist based in Northeast India. She had worked with India Today magazine, The Telegraph and Tehelka. She is now the Managing Editor of The Thumb Print. She has been awarded the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010. She had recieved the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category 'Reporting on J&K and the Northeast (Print). She received the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. She was also featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012. Her two book are 'The Mothers of Manipur' (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin).