New Delhi: When admin Birbal logged into Instagram to post a curated book list for Mad Mughal Memes on 9 November 2019, he noticed some unusual activity. The notifications were blaring, and the DMs were flooding over with hate — “We will find you. You will have to pay for this,” one message read.
That evening, though, everything seemed unusually loud. The Supreme Court had passed a verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case. India had come to a standstill, and many schools and colleges were shut. People anticipated violence on the streets, and social media, in particular, was burning with hate. It was a day when all things Mughals were the target. How could a meme page escape it?
For the past seven years, the Mughal memes page on Instagram and Facebook has been trying to push back on the hatred and daily vilification of Mughal rulers, making them more relatable and offering history with a tinge of humour. Memes have now become their mode of everyday resistance.
“The Mughals were not all about gunpowder, wars, and nautch girls. They were great patrons of art and had a cultural sensitivity like no other,” said Birbal. Bollywood and contemporary works fail to give them their due.
Gateway to Mughal history
India is going through unprecedented head-butting over history. Many historical characters are being dragged into 21st-century India’s polarising politics. And the Mughal rulers are the favourite punching bag and trigger words for some Hindus today. What began as hate for Babur and Aurangzeb has now not even spared Akbar. There’s articulated resentment – not just on social media, but even by people such as Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar and Anupam Kher — over what many regard as Indian school textbooks’ undue focus on the Mughal period at the expense of Hindu kingdoms.
But Mad Mughal Memes on Instagram is trying to change that one meme at a time. This is when even small efforts to put out facts or teach Mughal history can be seen as audacious acts. From death threats to doxing warnings to almost having their account removed, these admins have faced criticism from every corner. Online hate and ridicule have become a part of their lives.
What started as a seven-member team’s ambition to impart knowledge and spread the passion for Mughal history quickly became the go-to page. Mad Mughal Memes has amassed over 3,00,000 followers on Facebook and 28,000 on Instagram – including big names like William Dalrymple, Rana Safvi, Ira Mukhoty, and Manu S. Pillai.
“This is a part of our existence, it is something we derive oxygen from,” said Admin Birbal. The hate and ridicule they face give them an incentive to come back stronger. “Despite the hate, we believe that those trolling us are a microscopic minority of those who love us and our content,” says Birbal.
It all started with admin Babur who first started the page on Facebook. Then came the others with a shared love for history and memes. “Memes are like science, which, in the hands of a good person, can create wonders. They can also be used for propaganda and to fuel hate. It is as dangerous as misinformation,” said Birbal.
Mad Mughal Memes admins include Babur, a school teacher, Zauq, an IT professional who once worked with Google, Ruqqaya, a young lawyer, Roshanara, a postgraduate student, and Shahjahan, a Ph.D. candidate. The admins all have day jobs, but they brainstorm regularly to come up with witty memes. They work remotely and are based across different cities in the India and South East Asia.
The admins chose to remain anonymous for the sake of their security, especially because of the hate brigade hounding them for their “alleged glorification of Muslim invaders”. But now, they have started to enjoy hiding behind the veil of anonymity. “It’s our secret identity like Batman,” said Birbal.
Most of their friends and relatives have no clue about their secret online lives as history guerrillas. It began as one-hour-everyday work, but now Mad Mughal Memes is taking over more and more of their waking hours, lives and mind space.
They barely have the time to set up online meetings but remain connected on WhatsApp to brainstorm and discuss feedback. Their small victories come in the form of people saying, “This is how history should be taught.” Admin Birbal especially enjoys it when his students use memes in their class discussions and presentations.
Admin Birbal also recently started using memes during lectures to introduce certain key events in Indian history, and the students are enjoying it. “It gives them a break from their textbooks,” he said.
The above meme highlights Mir Jafar’s treachery during the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when he sided with the East India Company behind Siraj ud-Daulah’s back.
“I come across many people who want a quick way to learn history and are often led to wrong information on the internet. History should not be boring to anyone, and the admins at Mad Mughal Memes are doing a good job busting myths,” says Suranya Sengupta, author, and history enthusiast.
Also read: Jahnvi’s emojis, Malaika at gym, Urfi at airport—Paparazzi’s secret handshake with Bollywood
Bringing The Times of Medieval India to life
Aside from witty memes, they have also come up with a fictional and funny newspaper called The Times of Medieval India.
Through this, Mad Mughal Memes admins have tried to dramatise sub-plots in history, and the followers love it.
“Sometimes we come up with a very clever meme that surprises us too. But we don’t get the response we expect. We post it, and it gets 30 to 50 likes in an hour. So, with an online audience, content is also a hit or miss. Other times, the oddest things become popular,” says Birbal.
Gen Z finds Ravish Kumar fascinating because of the way he reports consequential news. Birbal has tried to bring Ravish Kumar’s ingenious anchoring ability to life through the functional newspaper. Ravish Kumar’s typical “darr ka mahol hai” commentary during prime-time TV debates raised has spiralled into meme-worthy content for many.
Ravish Kumar’s commentary in The Times of Medieval India is amusing . Now fans ask for ‘Ravish Kumar’ with every edition of the newspaper. Another fan favourite is Abdul Qadir Badayuni, the first ‘Grand Mufti of India’, a historian in Akbar’s court. His ever-permanent dialogue “Blasphemy, Madness” is a running gag. The idea behind including Badayuni was to depict his annoyance at Akbar’s religious policies — he hated Akbar’s liberalism and did not regard him as a ‘good Muslim’.
For Badayuni, a good Muslim would never abolish jizya, a pilgrimage tax levied on non-Muslims. That’s why Akbar was the ‘walking motif of blasphemy’. Unlike the “Babur ki aulad” politics propelled by the Yogi Adityanath government, Mad Mughal Memes is on a quest to portray an alternative image of the Mughals.
Despite the high popularity of ‘Ravish Kumar’ and Badayuni among Mad Mughal Memes followers, nothing triumphs over Humayun memes. Admins haven’t spared the Mughal emperor’s death by falling from the stairs in his library: Memes say that stairs were a bigger antagonist in Humayun’s life than Sher Shah Suri himself.
Here, Mirza Kamran, Humayun’s brother takes a dig at Humayun. They have also memed Jahangir’s alcoholism.
Also read: How the cheetah, hunting ally of Mughals & ‘vermin’ for British Raj, went extinct in India
Podcasts to Mughal games
Mad Mughal Memes admins constantly scour through pop-culture references and contemporary news to make relevant content for their audience.
Apart from keeping the debates on history going, they have also started other gigs. They started the Mad Mughal Memes podcast and have recorded episodes with Rana Safvi, discussing her recent book A Saint, A Folk Tale, and Other Stories: Lesser Known Monuments with India. They also spoke with actor Charu Shankar, best known for playing Nur Jahan in her period drama, Siyasat came out in 2017.They talked about the drama’s popularity, the script, and female representation in history.
Mad Mughal Memes is also on its way to collaborating with SemiMyth Entertainment, a software games company. Their latest venture is into creating a strategy game based on South Asian medieval history.
Now on Imran Khan’s Instagram
Mad Mughal Memes is only going from strength to strength, but their “I made it” moment was filled with shock and confusion because former Pakistan PM Imran Khan had “stolen” their post.
Birbal had penned down a small article on Tipu Sultan and posted it on Instagram. Just a day later, the post was on Imran Khan’s Instagram feed. Birbal was told by a follower, “Dekho kaun chori kiya tumhara post (Look who stole your post).”
“I had mixed feelings, I was sad and angry, but oddly happy because a world leader noticed our work. We were hysterical because this was content theft coming from a world leader. But we will cut him some slack considering his dramatic ousting,” Birbal said.
Birbal and Ruqaiya, who handle Instagram are torn between taking to Khan’s social media team or settling the matter at the International Court of Justice.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)