“Akbar anticipated the modern, multicultural and secular state”: Parvati Sharma
On your biography of Jahangir, you said, it was like bringing him out of obscurity. When you were writing about Akbar (Akbar of Hindustan: Imperfect and Extraordinary. The Man Behind the Myth), was the challenge reversed?
There is nothing in the book this will be new for a historian, but much of what I read about Akbar was completely unknown to me. On the one hand, Akbar is this ubiquitous figure but, paradoxically, much about him is less known. For example, the fact that the greatest resistance Akbar ever faced came from his own Central Asian nobility who had accompanied Humayun to Hindustan, came as a surprise.
So what made you write about him?
You can’t really understand the Mughals without getting to know the man who actually created the empire. Also, I started this book in 2019 and there was something about the timing that focused my attention on Akbar in a different way. I was reading the story of a man who built a Empire and building an empire isn’t necessarily a pretty sight. And besides, back when I was trying to write about him, there was a lot of “empire building” going on around me. You’ve had Donald Trump trying to make America great again, more recently we’ve had Putin trying to restore the Russian Empire and we’ve had this emerging Hindu rashtra back home. So that kind of ambition for empire building was all
around. I couldn’t escape it.
In some ways, Akbar is no different from other emperors. So what makes it great?
The cruelty he shows is not very “great”. Second, it is very common among those who crave power; it is not exceptional. But gradually, understanding how he lived and ruled, his greatness began to reveal itself. He resides in the idea which becomes the foundation of his reign, which is sulh-i kul, peace for all. Here is a man who grew up in Kabul, surrounded mostly by Central Asians, mostly Sunni Muslims, who then, in his twenties and thirties, is expanding an empire stretching from Gujarat to Bengal. His empire and even his own family – in his late twenties, Akbar has a son, Salim, from his first Rajput wife – contain many different ethnicities and religions. He is a man whose power is growing exponentially but there is this question he asks himself: he wants to know what is the right way to exercise his power.
He says that “true greatness consists in doing the will of God”, but which God? And Akbar seems to conclude that what a king is supposed to do (following God’s will) is to create peace, prosperity and justice for his people and his empire, so why not make that the fundamental tenet of your reign, sulh-i kul, and leave God out of it? In a way, it’s anticipating the modern, multicultural, secular state and doing it in the 16th century with such clarity is truly remarkable. It is also remarkable now, at a time when this idea of the One, or this pure type of ethnicity or the religion that is supposed to define your nation seems to be growing across the world, and in that sense Akbar is a counter to that. His life speaks as an argument against it.
There are so many stories of Akbar in popular stories. What are the myths that have collapsed during your research on him?
Well, almost everything is a myth! The romance with Jodha – first of all, her name is not Jodha, her name is Harkha – there is not even a whisper of it. If there was one person to choose for whom Akbar had great affection, it would be Birbar (not Birbal, as he would later be called). But when it comes to the relationship between Akbar and Birbar as told in the stories, while Birbar is said to be very intelligent and talented, there is no indication that he is that witty courtier who always gets the upper hand. on Akbar – this is a much later invention. Other common misconceptions are that Rana Pratap is his greatest enemy, but if there is any real threat to Akbar’s throne, it comes from the Central Asian nobility. The big rivalry, as I understand it, is between Rana Pratap and Man Singh.
The Mughals had matrimonial alliances with the Rajputs. How outrageous would it have been at the time to consider such marriages calling for the label of love jihad all these centuries later?
It’s hard to say, but in the archives of Abul Fazl and Badauni, neither of them makes much of Akbar’s marriage to Harkha Bai. Of course, marriage is only one aspect of a political alliance which means that many Rajputs are now entering government and becoming more and more powerful there.
It was shortly after this alliance that Akbarfor the first time abolished the jizya, and it was shortly after that there was an Uzbek rebellion against him, and part of the reason for this rebellion and subsequent rebellions might be that Abkar was now centralizing more authority in itself and demands more revenue, more accountability from its warlords, but also that the Central Asian nobility is now losing ground to the other types of people rising up in the empire – the Rajputs , Indian Muslims, Persians.
Akbar was always considered a good Muslim and Aurangzeb a bad Muslim. Is this too simplistic a reading?
Yes. The good-bad Muslim binary is quite suspect in modern times; seeing historical figures through this doesn’t help us understand them at all. Akbar is a complicated person. Sometimes he does terrible things, which are not defensible, but at the same time he is really extraordinary in what he manages to do and how he achieves it, not only in creating this empire, but also in laying the administrative and philosophical bases. . The fact is that he once ordered a massacre of civilians after the siege of Chittorgarh, perhaps to proclaim his Muslim credentials to Central Asian nobility after an Uzbek rebellion, but he is also a changing man and has the ability to look back. . The man who admits that “when I was younger I converted people to Islam by force because I thought it was the right thing to do, but later I realized I ‘was wrong’ is also the man who leaves complete freedom not only to practice but to propagate any religion in his field.
How do you see the growing efforts to write down the Mughals of our history?
Anti-Mughal speech is not an attack on Mughals, they are long dead and don’t care; it is not an engagement with history, it is an attack on Muslims in India today. The Mughals are one of the greatest dynasties in the world. Their achievements (and failures) in all sorts of areas have been extraordinary. To erase them from our history is simply insane. It’s like that expression – cutting off your nose to upset your face.