Is it a Shiva lingam or an oversized fountain spout in the wuzu tank at Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque?
Has the court-ordered survey found vermillion-coloured idols, lotus, swastika, sheshnag (the mythical multi-headed king of serpents) on its walls?
Does the mosque in the Qutub Minar precincts have an inverted slab featuring a Ganesha?
Was the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura built by Aurangzeb after demolishing the Keshav Deva temple to mark the birthplace of Lord Krishna?
Let’s assume that the answer to all these questions is yes. Because it mostly is, never mind the Shivling-fountain issue.
Three further questions arise:
*All of these are true, but how does it matter?
*If it makes you, the Hindu majority, furious, what can you do in 2022?
*And if you are an Indian Muslim, angry and fearful, how do you respond?
As we explore answers to these life-and-death questions for Indian nationalism, we have to ask one more.
Why does the prime minister, from Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1947, to Narendra Modi from 2014 onward, address the nation on Independence Day from the Red Fort (Lal Qila) in Delhi?
Delhi’s Red Fort, or Lal Qila is accepted as a symbol of India’s sovereign authority across the political and ideological divide. Is it seen as a Muslim monument?
The early 17th century fort is a good symbol of the fascinating — and intriguing — complexities of the evolution of Indian nationalism over 300 years. Or, let’s dare to say, India’s secular nationalism. Fully Indian Shah Jahan ordered its construction in 1638 AD when he decided to move his capital from Agra to Delhi.
Even in the view of the hard Hindu Right, Shah Jahan is seen among the least worse of the Mughals. He was also a victim of the “evil” son Aurangzeb who killed his brother and Shah Jahan’s preferred successor, Dara Shikoh, and imprisoned the “decadent” father.
Nothing is simple with our history, by the way. It was this “less worse” Shah Jahan who ordered the destruction of the magnificent temples in Orchha because its ruler Jhujhar Singh had rebelled. Footnote: The prince he sent on that “punitive” raid was Aurangzeb. Horses for courses.
If the Mughals are seen as foreigners by some wise people, the first sacking of the Red Fort was carried out by a genuinely foreign, Muslim invader: Nader Shah in 1739. The Mughal empire was now in vertical decline, I’d say comparable with that Boeing 737 that went down in China in March. And apparently for the same reason. Like, seemingly for the Chinese pilots, the Mughal descendants of Aurangzeb were also often suicidal.
Nader Shah destroyed the decrepit Mughal Mohammad Shah (he of the ‘Rangeela’ or ‘colourful’ suffix in popular history), destroyed large parts of the Red Fort, carted away most of its wealth, and the Peacock Throne.
Why did he do so? Red Fort wasn’t a Hindu monument, nor housed a temple. It was a symbol of the once great Indian empire’s sovereign power. He, even as a fellow Muslim conqueror, had to sack it in style typical of medieval marauders. That’s why he had to take away its Mughal throne. The next sacking of the Red Fort came 44 years later and it was neither by Muslim invaders nor Hindus seeking revenge. It was now conquered by one of the warrior Misls (factions) of the Sikhs.
Legendary commanders Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and Baghel Singh, hailed as heroes, not merely among the Sikhs, led that venture. The Sikhs returned with their sizeable tribute, the privilege of basing a garrison in Delhi and restored Red Fort and whatever was left of the throne to another Mughal weakling. Just as Nader Shah had done.
Importantly, part of the deal for the Sikhs to leave the Red Fort was the mandate to build seven Gurdwaras in Delhi. That is when Gurdwara Sis Ganj was built in Chandni Chowk where Emperor Aurangzeb had the Ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur beheaded. Religion was essential to medieval conquest. Prime Minister Modi addressed a Sikh congregation at Red Fort on 21 April to commemorate the 400th birth anniversary of the Guru.
And Red Fort wasn’t done yet. The freedom fighters or mutineers, whatever you call them, fought in 1857 for Bahadurshah Zafar and his flag even though he was only a nominal ruler now. For them the titular emperor and the Red Fort represented India’s sovereign authority.
That’s why the last sacking of the Red Fort was carried out by the British once they had crushed the rebellion. If Nader Shah’s was the most destructive by way of loot, this was the worst destruction of royal buildings.
Very little survived East India company. The royal quarters, harem areas were all hammered into rubble and barracks built there instead.
Talk about symbolisms? Even later in 1945-46 the ‘mutiny’ trial of captured soldiers of Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) was held at the Red Fort.
Between 1739 and 1857, or 118 years, the Red Fort, built by a Mughals, suffered depredations at the hands of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians if you describe the British as such. The reason they were all fixated on this one landmark was, it symbolised India’s state power.
We had already accepted that the answers to all the questions we raised initially are yes. That temples in Kashi and Mathura were demolished on Aurangzeb’s orders and a mosque and an idgah built on the ruins is recorded also by historians seen by the Hindu Right as devious liberal Left.
Audrey Truschke, under attack for the supposed crime of ‘normalising’ Aurangzeb, acknowledges this. Richard Eaton of Arizona University, widely respected for his magisterial work on medieval India, records these in detail.
For simpler reading you can access his two-part 2001 essay in Frontline magazine here (Part 1, Part 2). Not just Mathura and Kashi, he lists numerous other temples and Hindu places since the arrival of Muslims, first as mere sack-and-loot invaders like Ghazni, then colonisers and finally the mostly India-born and indigenous rulers, especially the Mughals.
There is nothing new therefore that any court-mandated surveys anywhere can ‘discover’. This is all undisputed history. The three questions we asked earlier need addressing now. What do we do with this history?
If there is no argument that these destructions happened, what is left to fight over is the motive of the destroyers. One side thinks it was purely — or mostly — political and economic. The other believes it was pure religious bigotry and violent iconoclasm. That’s an intellectual debate for scholars from both sides.
It’s also impossible to change this past under our existing constitutional structure. The Places of Worship Act, 1991, bars any such revisionism. To be sure, the 2019 five-judge Supreme Court judgment in Ayodhya has placed it unambiguously within the basic structure of the Constitution.
I can’t see even a Modi majority junking this law and being so destructive of our national interest.
Three decades ago, Nelson Mandela gave us an idea as powerful as Mahatma Gandhi’s Ahimsa, and more contemporary: Truth and reconciliation. It follows that there cannot be any reconciliation without the truth.
At this point in the 21st century, the Hindus can stop digging evidence of their victimhood in the past. It’s already available from the sources even the other side considers credible. The Muslims and the Left-secular elites should similarly get over their denialism of the wrongs of the past, whatever the motives of the wrong-doers.
It is self-defeating now to hang the secular cause on arguments like ‘was Aurangzeb a nice guy?’. No medieval ruler of any kind was a nice guy in 21st-century terms. Some were just worse than others.
Once both sides accept the truth, a slow reconciliation will be possible.