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Emperor complex in Modi era

Updated on: 12 February,2024 06:49 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

By seeking to heap humiliation on a community for political ends and ruthlessly clamping down on regional powers, the BJP seems to be modelling itself on the absolute monarchs it professes to loathe

Emperor complex in Modi era

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Sewri Nhava Sheva Atal Setu on January 12. Pic/X

Ajaz AshrafDecades from now, a scholar poring over archival documents on the Modi era will likely be stunned at the propensity of the Bharatiya Janata Party regimes, at the Centre and in the states, to target Muslims. The long list of incidents manufactured to torment the community will have the scholar wondering about the motivation of these regimes. S/he will ultimately ascribe it to the BJP’s sense of history, a sense which made them believe that Muslim rulers, particularly the Mughals, deployed their unbridled power to do whatever they wished, including subjugate Hindus, convert lakhs of them to Islam and destroy their temples.

This sense of history, the scholar will summarise, spawned in BJP leaders an emperor complex, which first manifested in 2014 and grew thereafter. The emperor complex has leaders mistake the power acquired by winning an electoral majority to be that of an emperor, neither circumscribed by the Constitution nor democratic norms. And just as people become what they hate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took measures to heap upon Muslims the humiliation that his sense of history made him believe Hindus endured under the Delhi Sultanate and Mughals, the scholar will gravely speculate.

It is likely BJP leaders will claim the experience of Muslims today is incomparable to the magnitude of suffering of Hindus under Muslim rule—so skewed is their sense of history. This should become evident with the question: would the Hindus have constituted an overwhelming majority today had Muslim rulers used their power for converting them to Islam?

Academic Richard Eaton points to the anomaly that areas exposed to intense Muslim rule and for the longest period, such as Uttar Pradesh, have far fewer followers of Islam than those areas, such as East Bengal and West Punjab, which were on the fringes of the empire. The geographical spread of Muslims would have been the reverse had conversion under the sword’s shadow been the dominant feature of those centuries. Eaton cites a variety of factors to explain the conversion phenomenon during Muslim rule.

Among the Muslim dynasties, the BJP’s aversion to the Mughals runs the deepest, perhaps because the dynasty has been celebrated for fostering religious tolerance. Indeed, Akbar’s policy of sulh-i-kull, or peace with all, involved an outreach to Hindus, forging of marital and military alliances with the Rajputs, undertaking translation of Sanskrit texts, and bestowing land grants to temples. Even Varanasi’s famous Vishwanath temple, which was demolished on Aurangzeb’s order, was built by Brahmin scholar Narayan Bhatt and Mughal noble Raja Todar Mal under the patronage of Akbar. The Mughal era was neither an unmitigated horror nor unalloyedly tranquil for Hindus. This tradition continued under Akbar’s successors.

Texts written by Hindus of the bygone era do not allude to Hindu suffering under the Mughal rule. Rajeev Kinra’s Writing Self, Writing Empire is a study on the writings of Chandar Bhan Brahman, the Persian poet and state secretary, or munshi, whose career spanned the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and for some years of Aurangzeb’s rule. Kinra says Chandar Bhan’s writings do not hint at an effort to convert him, nor did he try to camouflage his religious identity to promote his career.

“Would we not expect a Brahman like Chandar Bhan… to show at least some indication that he felt threatened by the ‘much more orthodox stance’ of Akbar’s successors?” Kinra asks. Chandar Bhan’s works, in fact, mention several munshis who served the Mughal administration. The most prominent of them was Raghunath Ray Kayastha, whom Aurangzeb appointed as his prime minister and bestowed on him the title of Raja.

Historian M Athar Ali shows Hindus constituted 31.6 per cent of all nobles at the end of Aurangzeb’s reign in 1707, up from 22.5 per cent under Akbar. Those intent on projecting Aurangzeb in the monochromatic glow of a villainous zealot should remember that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Union Council of Ministers does not have a single Muslim.

From the sources available to us, it is hard to tell precisely what the people, as against the elite, felt at the demolition of temples. Abhishek Kaicker, the author of The King and The People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi, in an email exchange with me, aptly said, “We can accept that Aurangzeb may have ordered temple destruction for whatever reasons—including, let us say, the desire to inflict humiliation on certain groups—for political ends. The question really is—do we still believe in the so-called Republic of India that we should humiliate certain groups for political ends?”

Yes, those with the emperor complex would say.

A feature of the Muslim emperor was that he brooked no opposition, nor allowed an autonomous regional power to emerge. The emperor complex explains why Hemant Soren is in jail, a prospect that now looms over Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The emperor complex explains why governors harass chief ministers of Opposition-ruled states, which are denied their share of revenue. Or why the Enforcement Directorate raids the stables of those who are vociferous in their criticism of Modi. It is the emperor complex that is turning our democracy into electoral despotism.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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