Monday, March 31, 2014

Indira Kanwar and the Road to Ayodhya

Farrukh-siyar receiving Ajit Singh

It is an astonishing fact for historians and sociologists alike, that Hinduism managed to hold on to India, its home, for so long. The historical path was definitely no bed of roses. Religious aggression from abroad that lasted for nearly a millennium, occupation by aliens, gruesome superstitions like sati, and oppressive practices like untouchability and castes – the list is a long one, which could have been proposed, had the religion been rooted out of India. In fact, what is more natural than the abandonment of such an ideology, that clung on to concepts incompatible with modernity? But still, owing a large part to its unorganized character and the flexibility it conferred, coupled with its readiness to assimilation of ideas, especially under duress, helped Hinduism still going strong in its home country, which only Islam could claim among the other major religions.

Muslim sultans who ruled the land in the Medieval period tried all weapons in their arsenal to convert the country into a dar ul Islam (abode of Islam), but failed. Forcible conversions, destruction of temples, imposition of the hated poll-tax jizya, grabbing of women from aristocratic families to harems, preferential tax rates for Muslim traders (2.5%, whereas it was 3.5% for Jews and 5% for Hindus), discrimination in the employment of political power - the clever little stratagems were endless. And yet, Hinduism survived. I think we can pinpoint a moment in time when the Hindu resurgence categorically took root and made a point of no return. However, this is definitely a simplification of the complex processes operating over a large period of time and need not be taken much more seriously than the conventional practice of assigning the beginning of Middle Ages to the Sacking of Rome in 476 and the end of it on the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. This post is my idea of such a moment shortly after the death of Mughal emperor Farrukh-siyar in 1719. There is no denying that this event is related in its inspiration from the successful campaigns of Hindu chieftains who stood up against the Mughals to make their point. The Rana of Mewar and Shivaji comes to mind. But, there was a sense of finality when they were defeated. Shivaji was only subdued, but his descendants got the nerve to go forward only after the incident I am going to narrate.

The Rajputs were handsome, fair and aristocratic. Their princesses were routinely demanded by Mughal emperors as concubines in a kind of tribute after military victory over them. These women were converted to Islam before marriage itself and then not allowed to visit their homes ever again. When such a lady died, the body ended up in a Muslim cemetery. Even Aurangzeb, the most bigoted among them, continued the custom. But the stream of Mughal inventiveness had started drying up during the reign of Aurangzeb himself. After his death in 1707, weak princes carried on the mantle and Farrukh-siyar ascended the throne in 1713, after a fratricidal war of succession.

Meanwhile, the Rajput states were in veiled revolt against the imperial authority for the past 50 years or so. Bahadur Shah, the deceased emperor had been unable to reduce them effectively. Ajit Singh, chief of the Rathore clan of Rajputs and ruling from Jodhpur found the time ideal for some adventures of his choice. He forbade cow killing, stopped the call for prayer (azan) from the Alamgiri mosque, ejected Mughal officers from Jodhpur, destroyed their houses and occupied Ajmer, a holy site for Muslims. Even with severely curtailed power, these things couldn’t be tolerated by the central authority. Farrukh-siyar immediately delegated Sayyid Husain Ali Khan, brother of Sayyid Abdullah Khan, the Wazir, to lead the march against Jodhpur. The king had the secret objective of turning at least one of the Sayyid brothers out of Delhi, as he rightfully suspected intrigue, judging by the power the brothers enjoyed. The army reached Jodhpur in January 1714, but adopting a much used Rajput tactic, Ajit Singh fled.

The commanders called a council of war and put forward two options before the Rajput chief who accepted defeat without even fighting. Either he must be killed and his severed head sent to the emperor or his son surrendered as a hostage and his daughter offered as bride to the emperor. It didn’t take much time or moral compunction for Ajit Singh to choose between the two. His son, Abhai Singh, was to accompany Husain Ali Khan to court and his daughter, Bai Indira Kanwar (Inder Kunwar) was to be offered in marriage to the emperor in the mode styled ‘Dola’ (informal marriage).

The girl was delivered at Delhi in September 1715 and on repetition of the creed, admitted to the Muslim faith. The marriage rites were scheduled on the night a few days later by the chief Qazi of the court. One lakh gold coins were entered in the deed as dowry. The bride temporarily stayed at the residence of her captor and the emperor entered the residence as scheduled and completed the usual ceremonies. At this point, the ulema and the more orthodox-minded of the courtiers witnessed events not to their tastes – for the first time in Mughal history. The rites on this occasion were a mix of Muslim and Hindu traditions. One which caused much remark was the drink offered to the guests – a mix of rose-water, sugar and opium, which horrified the hardliners. But it was pressed on them on the plea that it was the custom of Rajputs. As can be expected on similar occasions even today, many Muslims drank it, but a few objected.

Farrukh-siyar’s reign and life was however short. The tussle between the king and his Wazir (chief minister) grew to serious proportions. Each side plotted secretly against the other, but professed warm relations in public. Farrukh-siyar wanted to depose the Wazir, but lacked the courage and tact to get it implemented. The Wazir, meanwhile, replaced all court officials with persons loyal to him alone. It took only three years for the feud to erupt in public and in 1719, the Wazir imprisoned the king and ruled as a regent. Farrukh-siyar was murdered in cold blood under custody.

Sanguinary succession struggle was the hall mark of Mughal inheritance. The entire drama was re-enacted again at the death of the king. Ajit Singh, the dead king’s father in law, had assumed prominence in court in the meantime. He was assigned to Agra to quell an uprising in the fort. But Singh commenced to make excuses on the ground that, if he left his daughter, Farrukh-siyar’s widow, behind him, she would either poison herself or her name and fame would be assailed. Yielding to these pleas, Abdullah Khan made the lady over to her father – another first in Mughal annals. She performed a ceremony of purification in Hindu fashion and gave up her Muslim attire. With all her dowry collected back, she was sent back to Jodhpur with much fanfare. The Ulema was thunderstruck. The Qazi issued a ruling that the giving back of a convert was entirely opposed to Islamic law. But, in spite of the opposition, Abdullah Khan insisted on conciliating Ajit Singh so as to coerce at least one prince out of his growing horde of enemies. Thus ended the first episode of a woman reverting to the Hindu faith after she had converted and entered the imperial harem. Whenever such issues originated in the past, the ruling came invariably in favor of religious diktats and the administration siding with the qazis.

One thing led to another, and Delhi witnessed riots of a communal nature in the next decade. The ‘shoe-makers’ riot’ in 1729 was one such incident. The Muslims found themselves burdened with the necessity to take the offensive, whereas previously, the royal troops did it with ruthless efficiency at killing, pillaging and raping. Hindu resurgence was making its first faltering step and the stride continued to gather momentum. For a brief time, it expressed itself as the First War of Independence in 1857, then the Nationalist Movement and finally at the devastating incidents at Ayodhya in 1992. Shall we say that the steel which was used to mould the spade that brought down Babiri Masjid was cast on the day of the little incident of Indira Kanwar’s embracing her original faith again?

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