For one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is not a bit surprising that money does not dominates headlines in India as much as history.
Astonishingly, it is history that seems to capture India’s collective imagination – or at any rate the headlines - and not bread and butter issues, which matter the most to common peoples’ lives. May be common people are too boring and complicated to be chronicled or maybe there is too little money to be made in their lives. An interpretation of the country’s complex history by many who have probably never seen the front gate of a school, seems a more lucrative proposition.
But by any reckoning, India’s obsession with history is something that is compulsive. The role of the Congress vs the saffronites in India’s Independence movement is one obsessive debate that frequently grips the social media. The undeniable importance of India’s charismatic first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru vs those who followed him is another. The rise of the Hindu Right is a box office hit for connoisseurs of modern Indian history while the glories of ancient India or the Bharatvarsha, continues to inflame passions.
Yet there is nothing quite so sensational as the ‘Muslim rule’ in India, which most historians describe as Medieval India, a standard prescribed course in post-graduate history classes in most, if not all, central universities. Its period begins roughly with the advent of the Muslim rule in the 12th century to the decline of the Mughals in the 18th. Some historians refer to an extended period as ‘early medieval’, which lasted from the sixth to the thirteenth century and the ‘later medieval period’, which began in the thirteenth century to sixteenth century ending with the start of the Mughal dynasty in the eighteenth century, but typically, the periodicity differs from one school of historians to the other.
This period, it now turns out from the benefit of hindsight, is not just significant for what happened then, but its impact centuries down the line on the national politics of the day. What else can explain this compelling desire to establish on ground what Allauddin Khilji did or did not do with queen Padmavati in mid-fourteenth century?
If it is to be believed that history is written by victors and not the vanquished, then it becomes clear why the current controversy around this queen of Chittor is being used by all concerned, for their very different and individual ends: the film producer to sensationalise the film, guaranteeing a grand release, politicians facing tough elections in states where the Rajput vote bank is substantial like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, fringe politicians of the Karni Sena out to make a make a mark in their failed careers and dyed-in-the-wool secularists, who want to show the Modi government in the direst possible colours and for which they are getting ample opportunities.
At another level, the situation could be considered ludicrous and bizarre. The protagonist of the movie around which the current controversy revolves is, as a matter of fact, a fictional character based on a semi-mythical if brilliant epic poem of a sixteenth century sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi (from a village called Jayas near Amethi in central UP). Altogether 12 adaptations of Padmavat exist in Persian and Urdu. Padmavat is also the ultimate source of Albert Roussel’s opera Padmavati, a favourite in Paris when it was screened there in 1923.
Rani Padmavati makes her first appearance in Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat’, which narrates the tale of Alauddin Khilji’s historic siege of Chittor in the fourteenth century. In the poem, Khilji, upon hearing about Padmavati’s beauty (also known as Padmini), marched towards Chittor to demand her hand in marriage and defeated her husband. But before he could reach her, she committed jauhar or suicide.
While Khilji vanquishing Rana Ratan Singh, Padmavati’s husband, is a historical fact, no serious historian has given credence to any tale of Padmavati, which probably exists in the folklore of Rajasthan that incidentally has many other Rajput folklores to its credit. Neither is there any serious historical or numismatic evidence to suggest that Khilji’s trip to Chittor was prompted by a woman’s beauty.
This figment of a poet’s brilliant imagination has been told and retold over the centuries, slowly becoming a symbol of Rajput glory and defiance in the face of external threats. Padmavat is a classical example of how fact, myths and justifications meld into one seamless theory. Initial translations of the poem showed Khilji courting Padmavati with the intent of marrying her. However, there appears to be a paradigm shift during the colonial period. In an effort to inspire a latent nationalism and fledgling patriotism, the translations gradually evolved into the story of a heroic queen choosing death over a lusty Muslim invader to save her honour. By 2017, what was pure mythology has now become undisputed history.
Vote bank politics has become so effective and the battleground so constricted that it takes one fringe group to take law and order in its hands for the entire political class to fall in line. India remains one of the most tolerant societies in the world, notwithstanding political posturing.
In 1976, when the Congress government in UP decided to ban Periyar’s ‘Ramayana’ because it was an alternate narrative that hurt Hindu sentiment, the Supreme Court quashed the ban and berated the government for not being objective enough. This government’s acting out in response to Padmavati row makes the same error of pandering to subjective demands.