Dr Roshni Mooneeram
India has redefined itself radically at different moments in time. It remains the only country in the world in which large areas have at different periods been ruled by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Over the past two years I have travelled regularly to India to complete the research for my forthcoming book on Empire. These encounters with India have raised a number of questions relating to the relationships we have forged in Mauritius with one of our ancestral lands. And this at a time when Gujrat ka lalla, as Arundhati Roy cheekily refers to Prime Minister Modi, has plans to shrink the historically big India into the myth of Hindutva, a nationalist ideology that focuses on the exclusivity of Hindu antecedents in a deliberate revision of history. In my last journey to the South, the sentiment of the average Keralan against Modhi’s Hindu-nationalist government was overwhelming. This article explores some of the stories that we have been told about India and those that we haven’t.
The British empire spun a number of stories to justify the feeding off its colonies while it turned weavers into beggars, and actively fuelled famines in India. The story of the Raj as part of the ‘white man’s burden’, in the middle of which Gandhi was an irritating semi-naked fakir was part of a crass justifying discourse. Religious missionary work would paint a picture of various strands of Hinduism as idolatry and superstition. Lord Macaulay’s suppression of all local narratives in his Minute on Education of 1835, ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the native literature of India and Arabia’ comes across today as infantile. But the desired outcome was that the educated in India, by the end of the Raj, would have limited access to their own cultural capital and would be brainwashed into not valuing it.
Since independence, a number of political, activist, philosophical, academic and artistic voices have risen to restore different self-narratives and allow a different picture of the wealth of India to emerge through stories that had been repressed. More recently, technology has allowed us to view the superb discourse of Sashi Tharoor about the Raj in recent Oxford Union debates.
But it’s not just about the stories that Empire spun and then, in Mauritius, our very own Plantocracy told us and those they did not tell, it is also about the stories that political leaders choose to tell us and those they choose not to tell us. Here is a chapter of Indian history that challenges a number of precepts in our relationship with India. The story of Malik Ambar, a habshi, an African slave in India, takes place during the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Originally brought from Ethiopia, Malik Ambar worked as a slave in Baghdad and then Iran before ending up in India to serve Chengiz Khan, Chief Minister of the Deccan. Evolving in a context that allowed for the social mobility of slaves, Ambar would learn financial management and political strategy from his master. When his master died and he was freed, Ambar was only in his mid-twenties. He would spend the next two decades building up an army. He rose to become a kingmaker and then a leader.
Eventually he built an army of 50, 000 men and through his innovative guerilla warfare tactics, he stopped the Mughals from entering the Deccan, ruling from Daulatabad. Neither an Indian nor a Hindu, Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian of great flair and a power-entrepreneur par excellence, became one of the greatest resisters to Akbar’s son, Jahangir. In fact, the latter was so unsettled and obsessed by Malik Ambar, whom neither his own father nor himself would ever bring down, that he had a painting commissioned of himself, standing on top of the world as a supreme archer taking a shot at the severed head of Malik Ambar. The painting conveys a fantasy that Jahangir was never able to realise. Ambar’s fortified port at Janjira would remain under the control of habshis until 1948, holding fort against the Portuguese and later the British.
The story of the big India is one which once allowed a remarkable slave to rise to power and defend parts of India and Indians against invaders five centuries ago. There are many such stories of the diversity-respecting humanism which make India an incredible world of its own.
Ultimately in an age of increasing access to information, as we redefine our relationship with India, we have the choice between Modi’s little India or the bigger India beyond the colonial and current dogmas that are shriveling it.