Some observations on “Medieval India,”
History textbook for Class VII by Romila Thapar.
(Relevant also for “Medieval India,” History textbook for Class XI by Satish Chandra, which is simply an enlarged version of the first text and shares all its traits.)
The year 800 AD cannot rightly be regarded as marking the beginning of the medieval period in Indian history. The ancient civilization of the land continued to flourish as before at this time and underwent no dramatic discontinuity or change to warrant the closure of one era and the heralding of another. The Indian creative genius scaled new heights in the period between the 8th and 12th centuries, as is evidenced in the profusion of religious thinkers (Shankara and Ramanuja, among a host of others), the hectic pace of temple construction (examples include the Rajarajeshwara temple at Thanjavur, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho, the Jagannath temple at Puri and the Sun Temple at Konarak), and the spurt in the development of regional vernaculars.
A number of discerning scholars abroad have questioned the application of the western concept of feudalism to the Indian society of this period. In particular, they have refuted the Marxist contention that there was a paucity of money and coins in the post-Gupta period and that this triggered off feudal conditions in India. On the contrary, they say, India had a thriving money economy and the evidence in the shape of the abundant coinage found has been deliberately overlooked by Indian Marxists in order to fit Indian history in the Leftist mould.
Since all the processes that India was under going in this period in the realms specially of religion, language and literature were internally generated and internally rooted, it is difficult to comprehend the connection between this period (8th to 12th centuries) and the ensuing one (13th to 18th centuries), which clearly marked the ascendancy of external forces and culture.
Clearly the forced clubbing together of highly disparate eras has been motivated solely by the desire to downplay the cataclysmic nature of the Muslim advent in India.
In the circumstances, the second era in Indian history should properly begin with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 AD. Instead of focusing on the Hindu states of the 8th to the 12th centuries, which were in any case anathema to the Muslims, the introductory chapter should discuss the rise of Islam in Arabia, the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, the Islamic expansion, the Arab-non Arab tussle within the expanding Muslim polity, the status it accorded to its non-Muslim subjects, its treatment of the ancient civilizations and cultures in conquered Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria. The exclusivist nature of Islam and its rejection of pre-Islamic states, scripts, languages and cultures in the entire Middle East need to be adequately discussed.
Since the Islamic advent was the real story of medieval India, it is wrong to forcibly bring the Cholas into the picture. The Cholas belonged neither to the feudal nor the Dark Age, nor did they share any features with Islamic states.
There is also a deliberate attempt to interpolate caste tensions into Hindu society as is evident in the off-hand reference to Shudras. In reality, the so-called Shudras were dominant castes in many areas, they controlled large amounts of land and were a force to reckon with. Ethnographic studies have also recorded the pride they took in their Shudra status till as late as the 19th century when caste underwent a series of changes as a result of colonial intervention. The noted historian, Burton Stein has alluded to the close Brahmin-peasant partnership in the extension of cultivation in the south.
In the discussion on religion, there is little attempt to highlight the fact that the reformist impulse came from within Hindu society and that many of its proponents were Brahmins.
Misrepresentations about Indian society abound in this chapter as well. There are the standard stereotype references to the caste system with absolutely no appreciation of the elasticity that was its essential feature. In the context of the period under discussion, this elasticity is most vividly illustrated in the elevation of several nomad-pastoral communities into Agnikula Rajputs created by the Brahmins to specially defend the land against the invading mlechhas. Needless to say, this finds no mention in the text.
The inclusion of Mohammed Ghazni alongside the Rajputs in the discussion on the kingdoms of North India is surprising unless, of course, the intention is to blur the distinction between the two. The rest of the chapter is a continuation of the half-truth and untruths in which the book abounds. There are again the motivated statements on land grants to Brahmins, the intention obviously being to reinforce the negative stereotypes of the latter. The pertinent point, however, is what percentage of such grants were actually given to Brahmins and what percentage to other sections of Hindu society. The references to the miserable plight of the peasants and the assertion that it mattered little to them whether they were ruled by Rajput or Turk flies in the face of later statements made by the authoress herself wherein she concedes that the land tax increased from one-third to almost half of the produce by the later Mughal period. Romila Thapar’s views here seem to be colored by her commitment to the Marxist ideology of dividing the human societies to classes, real or imaginary, as a basis for all analysis.
The section on society presents a distorted view of the Indian social scene. It has long been conceded that the essential constituent of the Indian village community was its mutually dependent nature. The system was reciprocative in regard to services and redistributive in regard to agricultural produce. There was joint enterprise to raise the crops, to defend life and property from free-booters and natural calamities, there was even joint celebration of festivities. Outside observers, in fact, often noted with amazement that villages containing a sizeable number of caste groupings, could nonetheless exist as a unit. None of this finds mention in the text.
The section on religion creates the impression that it was only with the advent of the Bhakti movement that the lower castes were brought into the Hindu spiritual ambit. This is incorrect. From the outset, only Vedic literature was outside the purview of the common people but the philosophical truths contained in it were popularized and made easily comprehensible through the wide dissemination of the Agamas, Ramayana and Mahabharata which incidentally also contained the Gita.
The momentous fact that for the first time in Indian history the religion of the rulers was different from that of the ruled is not mentioned in this chapter. Nor the fact that from thence on, the economic exploitation of the peasantry was systematized as never before, courtesy, the system of measurement of land and record of actual production.
The extremely closed nature of the governing class, with entry being restricted to immigrant Muslims, is also glossed over. There is no reference to Balban’s well-advertised repugnance for even Hindu converts to Islam, nor the fact that the first Indian-born Muslim to accidentally stray in was soon executed. References to Hindu participation in the system are misleading. The so-called Hindu involvement was restricted to the clerical level, much as it was under the British. If Indian participation at the lower levels of the administration did not make the colonial state an Indo-British venture, surely the same logic should hold good here as well.
The word jaziya does not occur even once in the discussion on the entire Sultanate period. Firozshah is described as interested in the ancient culture of India when the fact is that it was during his region that jaziya was levied on Brahmins for the first time.
The pan-Islamic dimension of the political philosophy of the Sultanate has not even been alluded to. All the Sultans, without exception, looked to the Caliph as the source of their legitimacy. Even after the Caliph has been murdered and the Caliphate abolished (1258), his name continued to appear on the coins of the Sultans of India. They continued to swear allegiance to a “hypothetical Caliph.”
The attempt to sanitize the activities of every Muslim ruler is particularly glaring in the case of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The intensity of Hindu resistance is ignored, the savagery involved in the conversion of Kashmir is not even hinted at. Similarly, the religious dimension of the Vijaynagar-Bahmani dispute is totally missing in the narrative. The entire exercise is reminiscent of the attempts to white-wash Nazi history by their modern apologists.
Despite the misleading assertions, there is simply no concrete evidence of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement in the Sultanate period. It is grossly improper to include Hindu princes, landholders and priests as constituents of the new aristocracy that arose at this time. The author should be asked to furnish the actual details of such participation. Leaving aside the ruling houses of Rajputana, Rajput resistance even in the neighbouring Katiher region (remained Rohelkhand after the Afghans) remained intense even throughout Mughal rule. Similarly, the participation of landholders in the ruling class remained restricted even under the Mughals, a point conceded by the late Prof. Athar Ali. To assert that the involvement of such groups was intense in the Sultanate period is a blatant form of dishonesty.
It is also grotesque to talk of the respect of the Delhi Sultans for Brahmins and to suggest that both Brahmins and the Ulema were equally permitted to spread their faiths in the subcontinent. Nor is there any mention of the infamous pilgrimage tax. Aside from the reference to Mohammed Ghazni, there is no mention of temple destruction in this period.
The talk of intermarriage between Turks, Afghans and Hindus who had been converted ignores the deep racialism of the rulers and the contempt they had for Indian Muslims. It is not mentioned that the non-Muslim partner of the marriage always had to convert to Islam.
There is similar dishonesty in the discussion on the Sufis. There is no evidence to suggest that the Sufis advised Hindus to be better Hindus as the authoress alleges. Indeed, in the popular Indian folklore, Sufis are viewed as pioneer Muslims who ventured out to claim fresh territory for their faith. “Warrior Sufis” were active participants in frontier warfare. Moreover, Sufis did not challenge any of the precepts of Islam and always remained within the Islamic tradition.
Contrary to the impression given, Muslims had no role in the development of the regional languages discussed here. Also, the architectural style remained distinctly Islamic and did not deviate from Islamic forms in the slightest, despite the addition of a few Hindu frills.
Babur’s well-known dislike for Hindustan is not mentioned, nor his association with the Ayodhya temple. The Renaissance and the Reformation in Europe are not relevant here.
There is no hint at the complex processes that went into the shaping of Akbar’s policies, nor the fact that he started his reign as a conservative Sunni Muslim monarch. He, after all, re-christened Hindu holy cities (Prayag being the most notable), imposed the jaziya and pilgrimage tax, and even indulged in forcible conversions in the early part of his reign. Though he ultimately did seek a more neutral legitimation, at least by way of supplement, the state under him remained unmistakably Muslim. 70% of his nobility consisted of foreigner-Muslims. The Hindu representation was confined to the Rajputs, there being just four other Hindus in the upper echelons of the nobility. These were Birbal, Todar Mal, his son, and another Khatri.
An alien tongue remained the court language and the language of administration. The translation of Hindu epics into Persian was intended to wean away the Hindu administrative elite from their own languages, and thrust Persian on them. Akbar’s so called patronage of Hindu writers also needs to be examined afresh, in view of the fact that the greatest Hindu writer of the age, Tulsidas, certainly received no state funding.
The section on the Mansabadari system is poorly formulated and incapable of being comprehended by the students.
The write-up on the Din-i-Ilahi smacks of total intellectual dishonesty. In the western world, it is by now generally accepted that the Ilahi was not influenced by, nor a concession, to Hinduism. In fact, nine of the ten virtues it enjoined were derived directly from the Koran, while the tenth was a commonplace basis of all Sufi thought. It should be noted that even his Hindu wife Jodhabai, was converted to Islam and buried with him in the manner of a Muslim at Sikandra.
The omission of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, the leading revivalist thinker of the time, is also indicative of the political agenda of the writers.
There is almost total silence on the growing powers of orthodoxy in the reigns of Jehangir and Shah Jehan. The intention is to present them in as favourable a light as possible. Thus, Jehangir’s revolt against his father, and his suspected involvement in the murder of Abul Fazl, who was a relatively liberal Muslim, find no mention in the text.
The lengthy treatment given to the mythical chain of justice at Jehangir’s palace further confirms the deliberately biased treatment of the subject.
The cursory discussion on Aurangzeb, which is also appended to this chapter, is not only a masterly exercise in evasion, but also incomprehensible on its own terms. After reading the text, it still remains unclear why according to the authoress herself, the Sikhs, Marathas and Jats revolted against the Mughal domain. She further talks of Aurangzeb having trouble with the Rajputs, rather than vice versa. Incidentally, the word jaziya is used for the first and last time here (page 109 of the book), but the reader is not even told what this tax was all about. To further confuse matters, Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi is discussed in the middle of Aurangzeb, while there is no mention of Shah Waliullah.
The most important characteristic of the post-Aurangzeb period was that the successor states continued to uphold and propagate the Mughal system and its Muslim values, and made no attempt to link with the indigenous ethos. Needless to say, this finds no mention in this chapter.
(The reviewer’s name has been withheld as per his request.)