The India I loved

First published in Countercurrents on 28/1/2021. Click here to read in full.

kitnaa hai badnasiib zafar dafan ke liye

do gaz zamiin bhii na milii kuu-e-yaar men

Exiled in Rangoon in the colonial British India, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote these lines, which expresses regret for the fact that he was not allowed a burial in his own beloved country. Used emblematically as the figurehead for the 1857 revolt, he was the last occupant of Red Fort. He was born of a syncretic marriage between a Mughal ruler and a Hindu Rajput princess.

The Red Fort has always been an iconic location for events that determined historical overtures that led to different movements in India — some that heightened oppression, as in the condemnation of Bahadurshah Zafar, and some that lightened oppression like the trial of the INA officers in 1945 which led to nationwide unrests and finally to an overthrow of colonialism. The Red Fort, historically, hosted not only the Mughals but also King George and Queen Mary in 1911, Nehru as the first premier, and then a host of politicians who used the iconic backdrop to reinforce the existence of a syncretic, multicultural India. It was so iconic that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, when he initiated the ‘Chalo Dilli’ movement, wanted his troops to march to Red Fort. Three of his men hung from there and their death rode on a wave of nationalist sentiments that upheaved a new India.

I remember as a child watching not just the Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Red Fort, but also visiting the monument. In recent years, we have revisited the fort. It has enabled us to bring history alive for our children, to show them how the river flowed right next to the fort, how unique was the history of a people which could home Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb in the same family — both brothers but different in their outlook. What made one tolerant and one intolerant? That is what history shows. Avik Chanda’s book called Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would be King shows prince Dara as a man — not just an ideal. The book would have drawn sympathy for young Aurangzeb as a neglected sibling if the emperor’s cruelty had not been recorded. The cruelties highlight the monstrosities of an intolerant ruler. But one wonders at the end of the book, if his elder intellectual liberal brother Dara Shukoh, who was contemptuous of conservatives and ulemas, would have been tolerant of divergent views? Are we falling into a trap reminiscent of intolerance when we condemn people who think differently…

Click here to read the whole essay