Published in Arab News on Thursday, April 10, 2008
The 1990s were a turbulent period in the history of modern India. The phenomenal rise of Hindu fundamentalism raised alarm in a nation that prided itself on unity in diversity. When the 400-year-old Babri Mosque was destroyed in December 1992 by a frenzied crowd drunk on misplaced religious fervor, secular Indians of all communities found themselves under siege. It was also during this politically turbulent and communally violent period that talk of rewriting history books was first heard. In the demolition of the mosque, the Hindu fundamentalists saw a victory for “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism. What until then was a whispering campaign against Muslims became a battle cry for some political parties: Muslims were now being pejoratively described as “Babur Ki Aulad,” Babur being the first Mughal emperor.
As all this was taking place, Salman Khurshid, the writer of the brilliant play which is the subject of this review, was part of the government in Delhi, being the deputy minister of commerce and minister of state for external affairs. The intellectual and humanist in him must have been eager to formulate a fitting riposte to the forces of exclusivity and darkness. Being a politician and an integral part of the Congress party, however, he remained bogged down in politics. Finally this year, he published a five-act play entitled “Sons of Babur”. It posits strongly that the later Mughals could not be classified as invaders and that all the Mughals contributed immensely to the idea of an entity called Hindustan. The play drives home this idea by pointing out that no matter how narrow-minded people may try to label them as foreigners and invaders, even a blind and helpless Mughal king was made to sit on the throne by the Marathas because it was felt that they could not do without the Mughal sovereign’s legitimacy.
The play documents the history of the great Mughals and both their love of, and contributions to, India. Although it depicts actual events that occurred hundreds of years ago, “Sons of Babur” could easily be set in the 21st century, so deftly does it portray the tensions that grip the subcontinent today. Through the play, Khurshid helps Indians understand their differences in this polarized world and offers trustworthy solutions of reason, hope and civility — quite an achievement for this extraordinary academic, politician and lawyer.
Khurshid’s credentials are impeccable. He studied at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. He then taught law at Trinity College, Oxford. He was twice Congress president in Uttar Pradesh. A renowned legal thinker, he is a practicing senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India. If the play is a delight to read, imagine the thrill seeing it enacted.
The “Sons of Babur” successfully explores the meaning of nationhood and, in particular, India. It traces the birth of a nation through the eyes of a questioning and determined college student, Rudranshu Mitra, and his college friends, fresh with idealism and purpose. Rudranshu travels back in time to revisit the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, with an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar as his guide. Bahadur Shah Zafar takes Rudranshu through the blood-stained and eventful passages of history to unravel its workings and intrigues, its sacrifices and disappointments. The central theme of the play is the relationship of India and all Indians with the history of the Mughal Empire and consequently the role that the Mughal emperors played in the development of the modern idea of India.
In his preface to the play, Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Dr. Ather Farouqui writes that Khurshid’s interest in Bahadur Shah Zafar dates back to his school days. “Although he was not a formal student of history and had very little time for Bahadur Shah Zafar, nevertheless, the last Mughal captured his imagination not only as an intriguing tragic figure in Indian history but also as one of the most endearing, easy to understand Urdu poets.”
As Farouqui says, the play tries to answer a very critical, timeless question: “Why was it that a remarkable young warrior — Babur — from Ferghana in Uzbekistan, who journeyed across the Hindu Kush to lay the foundations of a vast empire in Hindustan, couldn’t relinquish Kabul, even in death. His descendants, at the same time, developed such feelings for Hindustan that the last among them wrote some of his most beautiful poetry in anguish at the loss of that motherland?”
Talking about the events of 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar tells the British court that was trying him: “What you choose to call a mutiny will surface again for freedom. You have sought to crush the Emperor of Hindustan. We should thank you indeed. For in this very dust shall bloom an idea too powerful for you to overcome. The pain of this defeat is but the birth pangs of modern Hindustan, a greater land than ever before: Greater than your land. Our people will prevail. The wasted lands will flourish.” It was for this reason that historians and academics describe the events of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence.
Khurshid has an answer in the play to those who insist that 1857 was basically a Muslim revolt. “Muslim? Most of the sepoys were Brahmins from Awadh, Purabi Bhumiars, and Telingas. And Nana and Tatia Tope? What of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi? Surely they were not Muslims. The wretched ‘firangis’ were clever.”
The play also puts Emperor Aurangzeb’s rule in proper perspective. Aurangzeb was truly the last of the great Mughals having ruled for nearly 50 years. “Emperors Jehangir and Shah Jehan also rebelled against their fathers; the former had blinded and imprisoned one of his sons; Emperor Shah Jehan liquidated his brothers and nephews. Why then reserve such criticism for Emperor Aurangzeb alone? Don’t judge the past by present standards. If you do, no one will pass muster.”
The play is gripping from the first word and it sets the clock ticking from the first moments. Khurshid has indeed done a remarkable job in telling the history of the Mughals in a most lucid fashion. If the Taj Mahal is the crowning glory of the Mughals, then this play is the crowning glory of their history. It is an epic drama.
My own favorite scenes are those in which Urdu poetry is quoted with telling effect. The scenes deal with the last Mughal’s love for Hindustan and his yearning to be buried in his own land, a wish which was denied by the British. Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon (Burma) and buried there, much against his wishes:
Lagta nahin hai ji mera, ujre dayar mein
Kiski bani hai alam-e-na-payedar mein
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye
Do gaz zamin bhi na milee ku-e-yaar mein