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In praise of Hemu: Medieval king reveals true intent of Hindutva history

The auditorium at the National Museum, in the heart of Delhi, is packed to capacity on the afternoon of the 5th of October. There is standing room only, and that too, barely.

The draw is a symposium to commemorate Hemu, a medieval era king, in an event organized by the Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), a historical research organization affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and run out of their office in Jhandewalan, Delhi.

The panel consists of Satish Chandra Mittal, President of ABISY, Bal Mukund Pandey, General Secretary of ABISY, Dr Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader, Vinayakrao Deshpande, VHP Joint Secretary, Dr Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor at the Centre of Sanskrit Studies, JNU and Dr Harish Chandra Verma, member of ABISY and author of Hindu Dharma Aur Devlok. Union Minister of Culture, Shripad Naik was supposed to be present but “had to go to Goa last minute”, says one of the organisers.

A couple of days ago Satish Mittal, former professor at Kurukshetra University and author of “40 books and 400 articles”, had helpfully explained the purpose of this event to me.

“Our history has been distorted by Western, Muslim, Communist and Secularist historians. The Western historians wanted to spread Christianity and help England to rule over us, the Muslims wanted to spread Islam, the Communists wanted Mao to come to India and turn us into atheists.” He did not say what the Secularists wanted but did add that all of the above were mercenaries, writing falsehoods in exchange for power, property and money.

“Stories of true patriots who fought for India have been buried so that we don’t find out what a glorious race we are and think of ourselves as the vanquished. We want to commemorate these patriots to boost the morale of the young generation,” he adds.

Mittal reiterates these ideas at the symposium in between talks delivered by other panelists. But there is little by way of commemoration.

The story of Hemu, or Hemchandra Vikramaditya, is summed up as follows – He had humble beginnings but worked his way up, becoming indispensible to a string of Afghan rulers until he finally established himself on the throne of Delhi on the 5th of October, 1556 and set up a Hindu Rashtra after hundreds of years.

We are told that he proved to be a stellar administrator in his 29 day rule. Also that his first Ghoshana Patra (decree) banned cow slaughter and declared that anyone practicing it would be beheaded. Further, he issued a list of corrupt officials and took action against them, altered policy to make his kingdom more business friendly and made new appointments.

At this point Hemu’s life story is beginning to sound suspiciously like the ‘Myth ofNarendra Modi set in Medieval Times’. Every medieval era historian I speak with outside of ABISY tells me that very little is known about Hemu.

None of them has come across any evidence or study that refers to the establishment of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or Ghoshana Patras. “If they have these decrees let them put it out. It will change the way we understand medieval Indian history,” says Sunil Kumar, Professor of Medieval History at Delhi University, calling the claim “astonishing” because “medieval documents were not called ghoshana patras”.

“No king in that period would have put out a plan for intrusive governance so soon after taking control. Consolidation was always a slow process,” he adds.

The Ghoshana Patras are not shown at the symposium but the organizers do screen a “documentary” to prop up their claims. Curiously it largely consists of scenes from Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2008 Hindi film, Jodhaa Akbar. A film that was initially either banned or not released in some Indian states after sections of the Rajput community alleged that it intends to distort history.

Regardless the young man sitting in front of me is visibly moved when Bairam Khan (played by Yuri Suri) beheads Hemu (played by Shehzor Ali).

This martyrdom of Hemu is what entrenches his credentials as a desh-bhakt for ABISY. “The Hindu king led from the front in the Second Battle of Panipat and was close to defeating the foreign army of Bairam Khan, regent to a very young Muslim ruler Akbar, when an arrow hit him, changing the course of India’s history forever. He was captured and killed and his head was taken to Kabul and exhibited,” says Mittal.

When I ask him why Akbar cannot qualify as an ‘Indian’, Mittal gives me two reasons.

One, that he always kept “dreaming of Central Asia where his forefathers had come from” and two, that he was an “illiterate man” who “mixed alcohol and opium and consumed copious amounts of this cocktail”.

When I remind him of Akbar’s state policy of Sulh-i-kuI (religious tolerance) and equal patronage to all faiths that made him unpopular with the Ulama of his time, Mittal summarily says, “his secularism was a political maneuver, not his conviction.” I am not entirely sure what his sources are ,but this conversation is beginning to sound more like the BJP and its supporters’ slander campaign against political opponents – be theyRahul Gandhi’s holidays abroad or Priyanka Gandhi “drinking too much alcohol”- than anything we know about Akbar.

The narrative however is more problematic that that. The concepts of nationhood, Hindutva, secularism being used to analyze this episode from medieval times are in fact constructs of modern history.

To call Hemu a patriot would be to suggest that the idea of India as a political state existed in 1556. “There were mentions of Hindustan in that period but it meant different things to different people,” explains Farhat Hasan, Professor of Medieval History at Delhi University. “Identities were extremely parochial— limited to caste, kin and village.” Which is also what makes the idea of Akbar as a foreigner less than credible. “For most people anyone outside their village would have been a foreigner,” says Hasan.

More problematic is the attempt to frame this as a story of Hindu-Muslim conflict. “Merging of different religious, cultural and social identities into one homogenous identity of ‘Muslim’ is a later development,” says Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, Professor of Ancient History at Delhi University. “There was a lot of borrowing- not conscious but liminal – from each other’s cultural and sacred traditions so it is anachronistic to talk of Hindus and Muslims as well-entrenched or uniform religious identities,” explains Hasan.

Hasan gives several examples to illustrate this point, including that of Premakhyan- texts in the Awadhi language written by writers patronized by Afghan rulers that used indigenous religious mythology to explore Sufi thought and were recited in public places. “New forms of religious experience were being created,” he says.

“But even if one could make a case for the presence of distinct religious identities, that does not automatically establish the presence of religious strife. Most evidence suggests people were either appreciative of or indifferent to belief systems different from their own,” adds Hasan.

The role of religious identity in the political sphere is similarly complex. Where Babur’sfatehnama (declaration of victory) had several Muslim names in the list of ‘kafirs’ (non-believers) murdered; the Vijayanagara rulers of indigenous faith called themselves Hindu Raya Suratrana (Sultan amongst Hindu rajas).

The much hyped destruction of places of worship was an expression of conquest and seen in that light. “Hindu rulers did it as much as Muslim rulers,” says Hasan. “Temples patronized by defeated rulers were destroyed. But it is often overlooked that Mahmud Ghazni also destroyed a mosque at Mansura, now in Western Pakistan, on his way to Somnath,” he adds. Outside of wartime, there is evidence to suggest most rulers, including Mughal kings—even Aurangzeb—patronized all kinds of places of worship, even if not equally.

Hemu’s own final battle is more accurately a chapter in the extended strife between Afghans and Mughals in India.

“It was common for ‘Hindu’ chieftains to collaborate with ‘Muslim’ Sultans against common enemies. The Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur and the Lodis of Delhi both had Rajput confederates in their armies as they battled with each other,” says Kumar.

So Hemu who worked closely with Sher Shah Suri and Adil Shah actually represented the Afghan forces in battles. His army in the battle of Panipat is likely to have consisted of large numbers of Afghan soldiers.

But despite these complexities, the symposium on Hemu seems determined to reduce his life to that of a Hindutvavadi nationalist.

Subramanian Swamy in his nakedly communal speech says it was due to the struggle of people like Hemu that Muslims and Christians failed to convert “80 percent of Hindus. That is the reason ISIS wants to come back to India. To finish the unfinished task.”

Equally blatant are the political motives behind this effort. “In the elections this year when just over 30 percent of this 80 percent got together see what they could accomplish. Next time more Hindus will unite and vote,” says Swamy.

Mittal reminds us that Hemu banned cow slaughter as soon as he came to power, but cow slaughter has not been banned in independent India. “This is all because of Nehru.”

Nehru, who according to Swamy “listened to no one but Edwina Mountbatten” and was determined to keep India “a junior partner of the British commonwealth.” Jibes againstSonia Gandhi being from Italy are thrown in with even lesser pretext.

The communalization of this chapter goes well beyond Hemu’s life. The symposium expresses outrage over the alleged encroachment of Hemu’s memorial in Panipat. “It is a Muslim dominated area and they have built a dargah there. It is shameful,” says Vinayak Deshpande. The natural leap from this is Babri Masjid (named, according to a sniggering Swamy, after a young boy Babur was having an illicit affair with) and the Mathura temple. Swamy pledges to “resolve” both matters. “Muslims should cooperate otherwise we have other ways,” he says.

The foremost casualty of this crusade besides the complexity of Hemu’s story is the idea of history itself- reimagined here first as farce and then as bigotry.

Mittal says that Hemu was brave because he fought “24 battles and won 22”, which is “more than Guru Gobind Singh”. This limited idea of ‘greatness’ and paring down of a rich, fascinating history into simplistic tales of heroes and villains is unfortunate. As is the filling of gaps, “the extrapolation”, as Kumar puts it “with no regard to narratives or contexts, just a presentist politics.”

The spirit of questioning and debate that underpins the study of history is difficult to imagine in this auditorium where every vulgar slight made against ‘others’ is being loudly cheered with slogans of “Bharat Mata ki jai”. To underline the impossibility of intelligent debate Swamy tells his rapturous audience that when Karunanidhi mocked the idea that Ram might have built Ram Setu he was taken ill and rushed to a hospital named after Lord Ram. Naturally, Swamy visited him to rub the moral of the story in- the gods will punish you for asking questions.

What makes this position dangerous is that the VHP, ABISY and BJP leaders on stage are determined to expand the bully pulpit.

“There are six to twelve lines about Maharana Pratap and one and a half lines about Shivaji in NCERT text books. These books must be rewritten,” says Mittal. Swamy, as expected, takes it a step further. “Books written by Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra and other historians of Nehru must be burnt in a bonfire,” he exclaims to deafening applause. The otherwise xenophobic assembly clearly has no issues drawing from the history of Hitler’s Germany.

“This is only the beginning,” says Deshpande, and for once you can count on what he is saying. “ICHR is given Rs 20 crores from the government. Earlier all the grants used to go to Aligarh, Calcutta and JNU,” says Mittal making a highly contestable claim. “Now it must go to the correct places.” Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, who has recently been appointed head of the ICHR by the new government, is from ABISY.

There is no saying what these “correct places” will be or what part of history will be rewritten next. And in the absence of common grounds for debate there is no saying how much of it will be credible. But if this symposium is anything to go by there is reason to worry.

In the final speech of the afternoon Bal Mukund Pandey compares Hindus to the tiger who killed a young boy in the Delhi Zoo recently.

“They might not have hunted for many years but that does not mean they have forgotten how to hunt,” he says. The deceased was a “mentally challenged Muslim boy. When he was about to be eaten he did not say Allah but folded his hands in front of the tiger,” he adds smugly. If this is how they spin the voluble present imagine what liberties they might take with the silent past.

(First published on, October 10, 2014)

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