Legacy of freedom movement: Why India cannot go back in history and resurrect feudal rule

unnamed (16)By Sadhan Mukherjee*

Someone asked me that if Alexander could be defeated and his invasion into the Indian subcontinent halted by a Hindu king, how is it that the Hindu kings could not prevent the Muslim invasion? I am no historian except that I have interest in history. I guess what he had in mind probably was the current attempts at revival of Hindutva and Hindu rule.

There is no shortcut answer to the question why such invasions could not be prevented. One thing however is certain: History can never be rewritten. What has happened has happened; as they say time and tide wait for none. First of all, let me deal with the esoteric question. Why it is a misnomer to call them Hindu kings?

These kings were following what was then the Brahminical order of Varna dividing society into four simplistic categories according to profession. Even today the Constitution of India does not define the term ‘Hindu’; in fact it uses the word Hinduism in some places only. What is meant by Hinduism is that it is a way of life. So it is really not right to ascribe these kings as Hindu kings in terms of a distinct religion and counterpoise them against Muslim or other religions which the invaders belonged to.

The main point of their failure is that these indigenous kings lost mainly due to their own disunity, internecine wars and lack of a common military strategy. There was no dearth of individual bravery or even of groups but there were no strategic command as such. That disunity and diversity persist even now in varying scales though we have since then traversed a long journey from the rulers and emperors to democracy where everyone is equal in their social and political rights. Our Constitution enshrines the principle that there shall be no discrimination of citizens based on religion.

During the period of repeated invasions, there were a lot of intermixing; hardly anyone remained “pure”. Yet, the Hindutva believers maintain that once you are born into a Hindu family you remain a Hindu.

The evolution of society followed some distinct stages; from hunter-gatherer, pastoral, horticultural, agrarian, industrial, to post-industrial. In terms of social order it followed the phases of common social property to private property to feudalism, capitalism, imperialism and finally to democracy. Feudal rule in the Indian subcontinent has taken time to emerge and in that context we can take a bird’s eye view of our history. The early kingdoms here have germinated from 16 Mahajanapads when the nomadic tribes settled down during 600 BCE to 400 BCE.

These kingdoms, starting with Magadha till Satvahanas ruled the subcontinent, mainly in the northern part, till overthrown by invaders. This part of history is also the history of internecine wars. The Magadha rulers ruled from c. 684 BCE – c. 413 BCE. It was overthrown by Nandas who ruled from 5th century BCE to 4th century BCE, roughly 100 years. Nandas then fell to Maurya Empire which began in 322 BCE and lasted till 185 BCE.

It was the Maurya king Chandragupta who halted Alexander’s invasion. Chandragupta later married the daughter of Greek King Seleukus who was earlier the commander of Alexander’s infantry and then was made king of one of satrapies which Alexander set up when he retreated from the Indian subcontinent. Then Sunga dynasty took over after killing the last Mauryan king. But already after the death of Mauryan King Ashoka in 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire had begun to fall apart. The Sungas were the last of the great empires.

After the Sunga rule that lasted till 73 BCE, it was followed by the rise of Kanva dynasty which fell to the Satvanahas that ruled for less than 50 years. These great empires had by then broken up into small territories ruled by small kings. A sort of matsyanaya prevailed among the rulers where the big fish ate the smaller fish during drought, that is, bigger rulers gobbling up smaller kingdoms.  In the southern part of Indian subcontinent, the Cheras and Cholas ruled.

This is the time when outside hordes began to invade the subcontinent. These Indian kings divided as they were depended on their war strategy and military might mostly based on elephants while the tribal and Muslim invaders relied on faster moving horses.  Before the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent, much of north and west India were ruled by Rajput dynasties. They were able to effectively halt the expansion of Central Asian hordes for several centuries. Till the early 8th century, Kabul, Zabul and Sindh resisted the Muslim Arabs but then Sindh succumbed to the Arab assaults, opening as it were the door to Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent.

Nobody questions the valour of Rajput kings. Rana Pratap was indeed a great warrior and the story of his Chetak horse is well known. But he had no cavalry as such. Also Rajputs badly lacked firearms and cannons. Still, it took several centuries for their rule to end.

The Arab expansion to India, from Sindh to Punjab and other regions, was thwarted by the kings of Kashmir and Kannauj. The resistance to Arabs in Sindh also grew but was soon subdued. Then a large Arab army attacked and plundered several cities of Rajasthan, eastern Malwa and Gujarat. Still the Arabs could not make much headway and remained restricted to Sindh.

It was only in the 11th century that Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the Rajput Shahi kingdom and after repeated attacks weakened the Pratihara kingdom. It was Mahmud who vandalised the Somnath temple in Gujarat.

Meanwhile, the Rajputs occasionally united against foreign invaders but once the invasion was defeated, they returned to their disunity and fight among themselves. Major wars broke out between the Tomars of Delhi and the Rathores of Kannauj. Similar fights continued among other Rajput kings. The most popular one among them was Prithviraj Chauhan who was defeated by Mohammad Ghori. In the first war, Ghori was defeated by Chauhan but in the second war Chauhan was betrayed by king Jai Chand whose daughter Samyogita was abducted by Prithviraj. He lost to Ghori ending the ‘Hindu’ rule in Delhi.

A few of these kings also converted to Islam and some formed alliance with the Muslims. Ghori’s successor Quitbuddin Aybak established the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century but Ranthambore, Jalore and Hadoti could not be taken over. Sultan Alauddin Khilji in the late 13th century conquered Gujarat and Malwa. The Songara Chauhans forged an alliance with the Sultan and he gave them the Mandu fort. The Songaras captured Ranthabore, Chittorgarh and Jalore after a long siege and fierce resistance.

Khilji also led a war against the Bhatti Rajputs of Jaisalmer and occupied the Golden Fort. He also captured three Rajput forts of Chittor, Ranthambore  and Jailsalmer but could not hold on to them for long. Within 50 years Mewar re-established its supremacy and defeated Muhammad Tuglaq and captured him. Tughlaq had to pay a huge ransom and forced to relinquish all of Mewar’s lands. After this the Delhi Sultanate did not dare to attack Mewar for a few hundred years.

The Rajput states remained independent and extended east almost near Bengal and north into the Punjab. The Tomars established themselves at Gwalior. Mewar emerged as the leading Rajput state and led by Rana Sanga, Rajputs defeated the sultanates of Malwa and Gujarat. They also defeated Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi and extended their rule up to the boundaries of Delhi.

While the Rajputs were planning to capture Delhi and dethrone the Lodhis, Mughals under Babur invaded the Lodhi territory and defeated Ibrahim Lodhi at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Rana Sanga rallied the Rajput army to stop Babur’s advance but at the battle of Khanwa in 1527 Babur defeated the Rajputs with his superior techniques. This led to the establishment of the Mughal empire in India. The Rajput rulers agreed to pay tribute to Babur and most retained the control of their states.

Babur’s successor Humayun (Mughal) and the Suri dynasty (Afghan) remained engaged in struggle to control the Delhi sultanate for several decades. Sher Shah Suri who built the Grand Trunk Road, was the founder of Suri dynasty. He died in 1545 CE and his successors could not hold on to Delhi and in 1555 lost to Humayun.

Rana Sanga died in 1528 and Bahadur Shah (Afghan) of Gujarat meanwhile became a powerful sultan. He captured Raiseen in 1532 and defeated Mewar in 1533. He helped Tartar Khan to wrest Bayana from under the Mughal rule. But Tartar Khan was killed and defeated by the Mughals with the help of Raja of Amber Pranmal, who was also killed in the battle.

Bahadur Shah meanwhile besieged the fort of Chittorgarh and Humayun moved in against him. Ranag Sanga’s wife Rani Karnavati sent a Rakhi to Humayun who accepted it but stopped at Sarang Pur. Rajputs waited for long for Mughal help and then had a last fight in 1535 with Bahadur Shah and were defeated. Rani Karnavati with other women committed Jauhar (mass suicide). Humayun’s efforts to oust Bahadur Shah however failed and Bahadur Shah and Sher Shah Suri in a pincer attack ousted Humayun. After nearly 10 years Humayun was able to regain his empire but died within six months.

His son Akbar carried on the expansion of Mughal Empire and most Rajput kings agreed to accept the Mughal suzerainty but Rana Uday Singh refused. Akbar besieged the Chittor Fort in 1567 and Rana Uday Singh left the fort with his family. Jaimal Rathore and Fatah Singh were left to look after the fort. In 1568 Jaimal was hit by Akbar’s gun. Wounded Jaimal and Fatah led the Rajput men to fight Akbar but were defeated. The same night the Rajput women in the fort committed jauhar. Akbar entered the fort and at least 30000 people were killed.

The Rajput reign did not end then. Raja Uday Singh continued to rule Mewar from other places. In 1572 Uday Singh died and his son Maharana Pratap ascended to the throne. He vowed to liberate Mewar from the Mughals. Several attempts were made to sign a treaty with Maharana Pratap. These attempts failed. Akbar then deployed Raja Man Singh whose sister Akbar had married and Maharana Pratap was defeated at the battle of Haldighati in 1576. He had to abandon his fort, which he was never able to recover. Most Rajput kings did not come to his support.

Maharan Pratap carried on with guerrilla warfare but died in 1597. His son Amar Singh took over and Akbar ordered his son Salim to attack Mewar in 1603. But Salim stopped at Fatehpur Sikri and sought Akabar’s permission to go to Allahabad and went there. Meanwhile Akbar died and Salim ascended to the throne and took the name Jahangir.

Jehnagir sent his son Parvez to attack Mewar in 1605. The battle was indecisive. Then Mahabat Khan was sent in 1608 but again without result. Next year Abdulla Khan was sent, followed by Raja Basu, and then Mirza Ajij Koka but still no conclusive victory. Jahangir then came himself and waited at Ajmer in 1613 and appointed Shahzada Khurram to fight against Mewar. Khurram devastated the areas of Mewar and cut all supplies to the Rana who then sent a peace delegation to Khurram who agreed to a treaty in 1815.

It was a coexistence considered respectable to both the sides. This was broken in 1618 when Aurangzeb came to power. When Maharana Jaswant Singh of Marwar died childless, Aurangzeb put a Muslim on his throne. By another version, it is claimed that he had put a nephew of Jaswant Singh as the ruler. Ajit Singh, Jaswant Singh’s son, was born after his death. When the Marwar nobles requested Aurangzeb to put him on the throne, Aurangzeb refused. He even tried to kill him. The Rajputs then smuggled Ajit Singh out of Delhi to Jaipur.

Then the Rajput rebellion against Aurangzeb began which lasted for 30 years and united almost all the Rajput clans. An alliance was formed by the states of Marwar, Mewar and Jaipur. Among other things, it also stipulated that Jodhpur and Jaipur should regain the privilege of marriage with the ruling Sisodia family of Mewar, on the understanding that the offspring of Sisodia princesses would succeed to the throne over any other offspring.

Thus however led to several future conflicts among the various Rajput clans and ultimately they were all vanquished or assimilated by the Mughals through marriages, thus finally ending the ‘Hindu’ rule in India. Mughal rule itself ended in India after 1857. India’s freedom struggle from British rule was led a composite movement that included all religions. There is no record that any ‘Hindu’ king died fighting the British.

The Mughal rule had made these kings spineless. They were happy with their idle luxurious life. No wonder some 400 ruling chiefs and princes, maharajas and rajas were in attendance when King George V was proclaimed king Emperor in Delhi in 1911. The British ruled till 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned between India and Pakistan and became independent. Pakistan became an Islamic state. Later Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) also became an Islamic state.  India declared itself a secular Republic.

The point in narrating this longish historical background here is that

  1. the indigenous kings always fought among themselves to acquire more territory and never remained united;
  2. the long period of foreign rule took away their fervour of independence; and
  3. they remained traditional, never wanting to adopt modernity.

Today our society has crossed the stage of feudalism and is going through a higher stage of capitalism. The Indian independence has been won by people’s movement which did not distinguish between citizens professing different religions.

Today, there is neither feudalism nor imperialism; the era of decolonisation has rendered most countries free. There is a sort of neo-colonial attempt to subjugate people economically. How can one now go back in history and resurrect feudal rule?

*Veteran journalist


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