Harbans Mukhia


The Mewar royal descendant Vishwajeet Singh’s recent differentiation, in a newspaper article, between history and fiction with regard to the film Padmavati, came as a refreshing surprise. I recount here the historical facts and the popular versions of the story.


Sultan Alauddin Khalji had earned a reputation among contemporary and modern historians for several achievements: Successfully thwarting Mongol invasions of India, conquest of large territories, strictly enforcing low prices of commodities in the markets for the common people’s daily purchases, declared defiance of the Shariat in matters of governance etc, but not for lustful pursuit of women. So how does he get tied up with Padmavati?


Khalji defeated the Rana of Chittor in 1303 and died in 1316. No one by the name of Padmini or Padmavati existed then — or at any time — in flesh and blood resembling the story. She was born in 1540, 224 years after Khalji’s death, in the pages of a book of poetry by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, resident of Jayas in Awadh, a very long way from Chittor. Jayasi was a Sufi poet and followed the poetic format where God is the beloved and man is the lover who overcomes hurdles to unite with the beloved. Khalji embodied the many hurdles. There are just two historical facts relevant to the story: Khalji’s attack on Chittor and Rana Ratan Singh’s defeat.


But then, besides recorded and verifiable historical facts, there is another set of facts too, culturally constructed and embodied in popular memory, told, retold and retold yet again. Untrained to distinguish historical facts from cultural memory, these acquire the status of history for common people. Jawaharlal Nehru was particularly sensitive to this blurring in people’s minds. As memory does not follow the norm of verifiability, it is subject to quick metamorphoses.


The Padmavati story, like many others, has undergone several mutations. Ramya Sreenivasan has traced the wide circulation and mutation of the story from North India and Rajasthan to Bengal from the 16th to the 20th century in her magnificent book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen. To begin with, in Jayasi’s version and its several Urdu and Persian translations between the 16th and 20th centuries, Khalji was courting Padmini with a view to marrying her. In Rajasthan, during the same period, the emphasis changed to the defence of Rajput honour which had come to be invested in Padmini’s body. It was in Bengal in the 19th century that Padmini acquired the persona of a heroic queen committing jauhar in order to save her honour against a lusty Muslim invader. Concealed in it was a vicarious patriotic resistance to colonial dominance which also characterised other literary productions in the region such as Bankim Chandra’s celebrated Anand Math.


It is this memory in Rajasthan that has been turned into a hard, unambiguous historical fact which brooks no disputation. The inversion of a character imagined by a Muslim poet into the defender of Hindu honour can pass quietly unnoticed.


This brings us to the present-day political context. While communal conflict is not a late entry into the Indian social and political scenario, for it has often been used as a form of electoral mobilisation, what is new is its propagation with the use of state power almost as an inalienable attribute. If the Congress tactically flirted with the communal card at times to corner the minority vote and at others to win the majority support, as Indira Gandhi did in Kashmir in 1983, for the Sangh Parivar this lies at the very heart of its ideology and is now flaunted openly as Hindutva.


The Parivar has long envisioned a consolidated Hindu vote bank. M S Golwalkar had sought to accomplish this by restricting the franchise to the Hindus alone. That is also the target of the present regime, by implicitly disenfranchising the largest minority, the Muslims — to begin with, by making its vote irrelevant to their electoral strategy. Social acceptance of this irrelevance is promoted by a demonisation of Muslims, past and present, in which each individual, and by extension, the community, is projected as cruel, lusty, and above all, an enemy of the Hindus.


It is strategic for it to create the image of the 80 plus per cent Hindu community under siege by the Muslims and to create a long “history” to back it up. If historical facts point to a more mixed picture of interaction, one where Hindus and Muslims do not stand in exclusive, opposing camps, manufacture a dispute, change the text books and let MLAs and ministers have the final word on what constitutes true history. There is the popular memory to be mobilised as its authentic version.


It is notable that no professional historian of the Parivar, if there is one, has come forward to engage in a discussion of what the Parivar claims is the wrong, left-liberal history, whatever it means. No serious book, or even an article, has been written on this theme so far. All we have are loud screams on TV channels and periodic declarations by non-historians that all history has so far been a single distorted version; no one has taken note of the fact that there is not one but innumerable “left-liberal” and other versions of history and that often “left-liberals” have been sharply critical of one another; nor has anyone unearthed any new facts hitherto ignored or proposed a clear new nationalist version of how history should be written.


There is much to be gained by the Sangh Parivar from this strategy. Whether the BJP wins or loses the next election, the social discourse will remain fixated on the Hindu-Muslim question, from Akbar and Aurangzeb to Taj Mahal and Padmavati, and the questions of economy, development, equality, Dalits, caste oppression, cleavages within communities etc will remain on the sidelines — the very colonial strategy of divide and rule.


Stories of a Rajput queen


The writer taught medieval history in JNU.

November 17, 2017

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