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Why Bankim Chandra Chatterjee Dismissed the Claim of Mughals Being Colonisers

Bankim Chandra, a founding father of Hindu nationalism, described India under Pathan and Mughal rule as free, except under Aurangzeb.
Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks of India being under foreign occupation for a millennium, he echoes the 19th-century Hindu nationalist idea that “foreign rule” began with the defeat of the north Indian Hindu king Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192 and the subsequent establishment of the Ghorid dynasty in Delhi.

“We celebrated a remarkable journey of our 75 years of freedom after thousand years of foreign rule in one form or another,” Modi said while addressing a joint sitting of the US Congress in Washington DC in June.

The establishment of the Ghorid dynasty is considered the beginning and later spread of Muslim rulers in India, though early Muslim dynasties ruled only over some parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Looking at both Muslim rule and British rule as “foreign rule” started in the 19th century, initially during the Bengal Renaissance which later spread to other parts of the country. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, one of the founding fathers of Hindu nationalism who penned ‘Vande Mataram’, had a very different view of history.

He elaborated his understanding of independence and subjugation in two different essays, both originally published in the literary journal Bangadarshan – which he edited for four years from 1872. He later selected them for the second volume of his essay collection, Bibidho Probondho.

In the essay titled ‘Bharatbarsher Swadhinota O Poradhinota’ (India’s independence and subjugation), Chatterjee categorically stated that he would consider a nation to be ‘subjugated’ only when a foreign ruler discriminated between subjects of their own nationality and the native people.

“A nation does not become subjugated just because the ruler belongs to a different nationality,” he wrote, and added, “I will call that land subjugated where the foreign ruler discriminates between people of their own nationality and the native people. The land which is free from the oppression of other nationalities is independent.”

That Chatterjee is one of BJP’s ideological gurus was made clear in no uncertain terms in 2018, when Amit Shah – the current Union home minister who was then president of the BJP – told a gathering in Kolkata, “Our nationalism is cultural nationalism and Bankim Chandra is the fountainhead.”

Leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological and organisational parent of the BJP, have on numerous occasions described their ideology, Hindutva, as ‘Hindu cultural nationalism.’

Chatterjee’s concept of national freedom, however, is quite contrary to the one preached by today’s Hindu nationalists.

The novelist argued that Britain could not be said to have been under foreign rule during the reign of the 18th-century kings George I and II, who were of German nationality, or the 17th-century king William III, who was of Dutch origin. Therefore, there was no way India under Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658) or Bengal under Nawab Alivardi Khan (1740-1756) could be called colonies, he argued.

He extended the argument further in another essay, titled ‘Bangalar Itihas’ (History of Bengal), where he described Bengal under Pathan rule as free but as subjugated under the Mughal rule, especially from Akbar’s time. His understanding was the same – a land cannot be called to be subjugated only because the ruler belongs to a different nationality.

Throughout the book, he uses the word nationality instead of religion, race, or ethnicity.

“Bengal did not have the bad experience of enslaved states during the times of the independent Pathan rulers… one of the prime outcomes of subjugation is known to be the loss of mental energy of the enslaved nation. Bengal’s mental splendour became only brighter during the Pathan rule. Two of Bengal’s greatest poets, Vidyapati and Chandidas, appeared in this period. And Emperor Akbar whom we highly praise is Bengal’s nemesis. He was the first to actually subjugate the Bengalis,” he wrote.

The Pathan rulers lived in Bengal and Bengal’s money did not go Delhi or Agra’s way during their rule, Chatterjee argued. Akbar’s annexation of Bengal meant subjugation because Bengal’s wealth started flowing out of the state.

Similarly, the Mughals did not send money to any faraway home of theirs. It needs to be noted that Chatterjee rejects Aurangzeb (1658-1707) from a different perspective – that of discriminating between the subjects on the basis of nationality (read religion here) – but never says India’s wealth was being taken outside India.

Aurangzeb is known to have imposed the jizya tax on non-Muslim subjects, which is one of the reasons his rule comes under frequent criticism.

Group portrait of Mughal rulers, from Babur to Aurangzeb, with the Mughal ancestor Timur seated in the middle. On the left: Shah Jahan, Akbar and Babur, with Abu Sa’id of Samarkand and Timur’s son, Miran Shah. On the right: Aurangzeb, Jahangir and Humayun, and two of Timur’s other offspring Umar Shaykh and Muhammad Sultan. Created c. 1707–12. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 igo

Chatterjee identified England under Norman rule (1071-1154), northern India under Qutb ud-Din Aibak (1206-1210), and India under Aurangzeb as subjugation. “We call India under Akbar rule as independent and free,” he clarifies.

It is this understanding of independence from the perspective of discrimination that prompts him to declare India under European rule as beneficial for the majority of Indians – except only for the Brahmins and the Savarna – as he found that caste discrimination under Brahmanical rule more oppressive for the masses than the British rule.

“Under English rule, the natives and the Britons have separate courts. English judges can convict a native but a native judge can not convict an English person. There are not many discriminatory systems greater than this. But far greater discrimination can be observed under Brahmanical rule,” he wrote in ‘Bharatbarsher Swadhinota O Poradhinota’.

Chatterjee explained that the English may have had separate courts for them but the law remained the same – if a native killer of an English person is worthy of capital punishment, so is a Britisher for killing a native. “But under Brahmanical rule, there is a great difference in the punishment meant for a shudra who killed a Brahmin and a Brahmin who murdered a shudra,” he wrote.

He then asks a potentially troubling question for the proponents of Ram Rajya: “Babu Dwarakanath Mitra has illuminated the face of modern India by sitting in the Supreme Court – where would he have been in ‘Ramrajya’?”

Chatterjee argued that the nationality of the oppressor did not matter to the oppressed. “In place of domination of a nationality, as seen in modern India, ancient India had caste dominance. For the majority of the people, they are no different,” he wrote, adding that if modern India was being oppressed by the (foreign) masters, ancient India was ‘highly oppressed’ by the Brahmins.

“It is therefore concluded that the Brahmins and the Kshratriyas, i.e. the upper caste, have experienced deterioration in modern India, but the shudras or the ordinary subjects have experienced some upliftment,” Chatterjee wrote.

His arguments stand in stark contrast to the recent Hindu nationalist spree of erasing Mughal history through the renaming of places and architecture and omitting that period from school textbooks.

Earlier this year, when the iconic Mughal Garden at Rashtrapati Bhavan was rechristened as Amrit Udyan, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan wrote on Twitter, “This new name not only shreds yet another symbol of a colonial relic but also reflects India’s aspirations for the Amrit Kaal.”

Chatterjee was not the only Indian freedom fighter who had such views. Mohandas Gandhi’s 1909 book, Hind Swaraj, identified Mughal rule as Indian, and nationalist leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru held the same view.

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