The seventieth anniversary of India’s independence occurred on August 15. For the fourth time during his term, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation from the Red Fort in Old Delhi. From the very formation of the modern state of India, the imposing fortress built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century has offered a stage for national remembrance of the independence movement. Wearing a saffron turban, Modi addressed the nation in a live broadcast streamed to millions. References to Hindu mythology peppered his speech, which frequently turned to the stories of Rama and Krishna. An exhortation against the “poison of communalism and casteism” can also be heard. But this perfunctory gesture toward inclusion belied the majoritarian policies and sentiments that the present government promotes.
Critics of Modi’s brand of religious nationalism penned somber reflections on Indian democracy, often lamenting the decline of secularism and the muzzling of civil society. For many, the unfolding violence against both bodies and ideas represents an impasse in the social fabric and a rupture with conditions that bound the state to particular values spoken in the name of secular reason. These convulsions include a reconfiguration of history, as well as of the significance of the physical monuments from the past. Yet, as with the Red Fort repurposed as a parapet of Hindu nationalism, the symbolic value of history is itself deeply disputed. In response to the question “Is this all there is?” I turn to these ruptures and fields of contestation to reflect on the lineaments tying political Hinduism to the subcontinent’s Mughal past, and with it changing notions of secularism.
The current government’s many ideological interventions include attacking discourses on Indian secularism, as well as challenging the meaning and content of Indian history. One of the most powerful historical resources for imagining secularism in modern India has been the era of Mughal rule in the early modern period. From the perspective of the state, secularism in India has generally meant the embrace of religious pluralism, allowing each community to flourish. In the language of its votaries, secularism often stands for interreligious amity. Social activists, politicians, and other public figures frequently extol the relative harmony in which religious communities coexisted during Mughal rule. Mughal emperors, aristocrats, and the court cultures they fostered have long formed part of a national mythology of secularism. This is not without reason. The Mughal court played host to a diverse range of individuals, including Brahmin pandits, Jain munis, and Jesuit priests. Hindu and Muslim artists worked together in Mughal ateliers, sometimes painting scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Mughal administration employed large numbers of Hindus at various levels. And for many Indians, in contrast to British colonialism, the Mughals also had the benefit of having been largely naturalized as indigenous rulers.
Celebrating a figure like the sixteenth-century emperor Akbar, for instance, not only highlights a past when India’s various religious communities seemed less rigidly divided. It also inserts the Mughal state into a teleological narrative of modernity. In this vein, the influential historian Jadunath Sarkar (d. 1958) views the Mughal empire as taking “the first step necessary for the modernisation of India and the growth of an Indian nationality in some distant future.” Writing more recently on secularism, Amartya Sen makes a similar argument. He sees in Akbar’s religious policy “the foundations of a non-denominational secular state which was yet to be born in India, or for that matter anywhere.” While quite influential, these perspectives are certainly vulnerable to critique for their lack of historical nuance and contextualization. Such modern projects of recovery smooth over the complexities of the precolonial past.
But it is precisely the importance of the Mughal state as a symbol of religious tolerance that makes it such a site of contestation. At the other end of the spectrum, the present Hindu nationalist government strives to purge Mughal India from public discourse. For instance, a road named for a much-reviled Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (d. 1707), was renamed after a former president, a Muslim who affirmed his Indianness by playing the sitar and eating a vegetarian diet. There is even an ongoing move to rename a road named after Akbar. In a further gesture of effacing the calligraphic presence of Muslim history, the new signs eliminate the Urdu script traditionally used to mark New Delhi’s avenues along with English and Nagari.
In March 2016, the hashtag RemoveMughalsFromBooks surfaced to the top of Twitter trends. Although it attracted a fair amount of sarcasm (What is India without the Taj Mahal? Or Mughal cuisine?), this sentiment mirrored state initiatives already taking place. For instance, textbooks in Bharatiya Janata Party–ruled Rajasthan and Maharashtra now skip over much of Mughal history. Riding this wave, an avowedly Hindu nationalist educational group wielding influence with the government recently recommended that school textbooks in Hindi be divested of all Urdu, Persian, and English words. Its founder, Dinanath Batra, earlier described the presence of Persian couplets in Hindi textbooks as a “distortion” of the Hindi language.
These revisionist efforts, though, only serve to refocus attention on seventeenth-century Mughal India as a contested arena. They also mask a deep irony: some early Hindu reformers, direct forebears of today’s Hindu nationalists, owed very much to Islamic forms of knowledge. Their lives and projects were inextricably enmeshed with both Persian and Urdu, as well as the courts and cultures in which these languages flourished. They were steeped in a culture of Persian learning linked to the Mughal empire. Among them are figures such as the famed Raja Ram Mohan Roy (d. 1833) and the much lesser known Kanhaiyalal Alakhdhari (d. 1882), both of whom were instrumental in the development of modern Hinduism.
Though Kanhaiyalal Alakhdhari is almost entirely forgotten today, he was a prominent social reformer and activist who sought to arouse a Hindu consciousness in the Punjab. There is an unmistakable link between Alakhdhari and Dinanath Batra, the aforementioned educational activist. Batra earlier served as principal of the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College in Dera Bassi, Punjab. The influential nineteenth-century Hindu reformer Swami Dayanand Saraswati, after whom this chain of schools is named, might never have had a large following in the Punjab had it not been for Kanhaiyalal Alakhdhari’s efforts. Alakhdhari was instrumental in establishing the Arya Samaj (the Noble Society), Saraswati’s organization in the Punjab.
Alakhdhari believed that Hindus needed to learn more about their own religion. They had suffered, he felt, under the yoke of Islam and then colonialism. For eight hundred years, he declared, “the fate of India was as dark as the reflection in a mirror.” Hindus had strayed far from their own books and practices, Alakhdhari argued. They needed to become more like Muslims and Christians in privileging their sacred texts.
To remedy this, Alakhdhari published book after book on Hindu thought. His works included translations of the Yoga Vasishtha, several Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Manusmriti, and the Ashtavakra Gita—all into Urdu. He considered Urdu a language that was easy for ordinary people to comprehend. In fact, he frequently did not translate directly from the Sanskrit. Rather, he used Persian renditions of these texts, produced during the Mughal era.
For example, he based his translation of the Upanishads on the Sirr-i akbar (The Greatest Secret), a collection of roughly fifty Upanishads that the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (d. 1659) compiled and translated into Persian, assisted by Brahmin scholars. The prince’s stated aim was to secure privileged access to a text that he believed expressed truths about God’s unity like no other, in order to unlock the mysteries of the Qur’an. For Alakhdhari, Dara Shikoh was an exception, a Muslim who “laid out the tablespread of universal peace for the sake of commoners and the elites” in the face of attacks by “fanatics.” Alakhdhari declared that through this Persian translation, the prince made spiritual liberation available to all.
Alakhdhari’s promotion of monotheism and the privileging of certain Vedantic works mirrors earlier Mughal engagements with Indic religions. Alakhdhari also references another idea arising during Mughal times: Mughal writers from the seventeenth century onward postulated a shared universal core at the heart of different religions. Numerous authorities in and beyond the Mughal court advanced the idea of a universal truth shared by all monotheists, including Hindus. This concept, to which Alakhdhari subscribed, contributed to the widespread notion in nineteenth-century India that religion was a universal category applicable across time and place. A good deal has been said about the importance of colonial officials and Christian missionaries in the textualization of religious authority through scripture and in the constitution of the idea of religion. Much less appreciated is the role that earlier Indian discourses, in both Persian and Urdu, played in these processes.
Alakhdhari’s sectarian leanings did not prevent him from embracing Persian and Urdu. Indeed, through his reliance on Mughal translations, Alakhdhari engaged with more than just the translated source texts; his own writings fully absorb and repurpose a conceptual vocabulary fostered by Mughal cosmopolitanism. Yet his vision for reform written in Urdu would be eclipsed soon after his death by stronger associations between language and religion: Hindi for Hindus, Urdu for Muslims. Similarly, the influential Arya Samaj reform movement, with its focus on the proselytization of Hinduism, would evolve and hone its own positions and sectarian identity.
For many in India today, it is difficult to imagine that there were forebears of modern Hinduism who wrote in Persian and Urdu and engaged with Mughal discourses on religion as a basis for their own recovery of Hindu sacred texts. Likewise, the Persian translations produced in and beyond the Mughal court of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, and various treatises on Advaita Vedanta and Yoga are anathema to the ideology of political Hinduism. So too are the numerous Hindus who came to access these Indic scriptures through Persian and Urdu translations, in manuscripts and later also in lithographs.
We are repeatedly faced with efforts to demolish the architectural remains of Mughal history, from the actual destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, which helped galvanize Hindutva as a political force, to repeated attempts to make the state affirm that the Taj Mahal built by Shah Jahan is actually an ancient Shiva temple. In these arenas and numerous others, the narrowing and redirection of social memory is designed to limit the very possibilities of what can be recovered from the past. While a liberal embrace of Mughal pluralism as a basis for modern secular politics in its very appropriative logic effaces as much as it reconstitutes, the damage is of an entirely different magnitude.
Alakhdhari and countless others like him remind us of the entangled histories of modern Hinduism and the subcontinent’s Mughal past. The ties that bind Persian and Urdu to Hindu scripturalization offer a means to historicize the transcendental mythologies of Hindu nationalism. Like most ideological configurations, Hindutva’s universalism is meant to escape historical inquiry. But such an appearance is never all there is. The intellectual genealogies of political Hinduism are more deeply entwined with the complex tapestry of Islamic history than the mere decorative appropriation of the Red Fort as a symbol of nationalism would suggest.