Saif Ali Khan spoke of an inclusive legacy. Then he picked a mass-murderer’s name.
When we discuss names, the much-quoted Shakespearean quip, “What’s in a name?” comes up often. This is, however, dramatically opposite to the Indic view. Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas proclaims, naam bada hai ram te, which translates to, the name of Ram is greater than Ram.
Naam is of paramount importance in Indic traditions, and the Namakaran (naming) ceremony is one of the most important samskaras of a child. This is true of many native cultures and different from the relatively casual secular-Abrahamic view of names.
The reaction to the naming of actors Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan’s baby as Taimur is interesting to analyse with that lens. Why did some Indians feel so offended by the name, and why, equally, were some others contemptuously dismissive of this reaction? It depends on where one is emotionally and intellectually rooted – in the Indic traditions, or in the Abrahamic religions and their mutation called “secularism.”
The name Taimur is a name of terror for Hindustan. Where collective consciousness merges into oral histories, I have a vague childhood recollection of hearing about the horrors of Taimur and of waking up in a sweat, feeling terror to the pit of my stomach. Taimur’s cruelty, unusual even for the medieval Middle East, is of course well-documented. The terror of Taimur Llang, Taimur the lame, is lodged into the memories of the people of northwest India as one of the most horrible civilisational traumas. Yet, Saif and his wife have chosen this man’s name for their child.
It is sad that too much importance is given to religion, and not enough to humanity and love. My children were born Muslim but they live like Hindus (with a pooja ghar at home), and if they wanted to be Buddhist, they would have my blessing. That’s how we were brought up.
We are a blend, this great country of ours. It is our differences that make us who we are. We need to get beyond mere tolerance. We need to accept and respect and love each other.
How is naming his child Taimur, a name identified in Indian consciousness with the brutal Islamic tyrant-king, respectful and loving of the land of Saif’s birth? How does it jive with the mixed ethos he claims for his children (they “were born Muslim but live like Hindus”) to have a name like Taimur Ali Khan, no part of which reflects this mixed ethos? The name is like a slap on this shared heritage Saif writes about.
Rather than Taimur, the tyrant foreign to India who massacred with great cruelty, why not Raskhan, the other Khan, who embraced his syncretic heritage with his beautiful poetry of adulation for Krishna, the cowherd on the banks of the Indian river Yamuna?
Of course, parents have every “right” to choose their child’s name. This is not a discussion about rights but about sensitivities. When Saif and Kareena choose a name so utterly insensitive to its historical context in India, we have a few ways to interpret it. Either they are completely unaware of its historical baggage, or they embrace the legacy of Taimur. Given the claim that Saif is a history buff, the former is unlikely. What, then, does it mean for Saif and Kareena to embrace Taimur’s legacy?
Why are Saif and Kareena important at all? For better or worse, they are celebrities of contemporary India. Exemplars are very important to the Indic moral landscape, where we look not to abstract “commandments” but to the stories of heroes. It is a sad reflection of our society today that our celebrities are not the real-life heroes on the battlefield or great scientists or innovators, but simply those who can gyrate their hips on a screen with no great distinguishing merit other than their own names. Be that as it may, with celebrity comes responsibility; and it is natural that their child’s name will attract greater scrutiny.
Taimur represents unprecedented barbarism, one that earned him a reputation of cruelty, even in the medieval context of wars and invasions. This is a tyrant who ordered each soldier to produce two heads of people they had slaughtered when he sacked Delhi. Some allegedly resorted to beheading their own wives when they had run out of people to kill. The story is that Taimur beheaded his own mother. In a land where contextualised morality is well-understood, Taimur’s actions go beyond vile Rakshasas.
One would imagine that there would be a rock bottom of Indian secular apologia for Islamic atrocities, but it is a bottomless pit. No character of Islamic history is barbaric or vile enough to have them not rush in to defend him. The first argument was that Taimur was a “successful emperor.” Arushi Jain in the Indian Express writes a glowing account of Taimur, completely omitting his legacy of barbaric cruelty, preparing the ground for how Islamic State should be treated if “successful.”
A variation of this is that Taimur is bad but needs to be “contextualised” for medieval times. Shoaib Daniyal comes up with this argument for Scroll, pointing out that the people of Odisha should be similarly miffed at Ashoka for the Kalinga war.
The “what about Ashoka” argument is a great example of a false equivalence propagated by Abrahamic secularism. Accounts are that thousands died in the Kalinga war, and Ashoka was moved by this so much that he gave up war and dedicated himself to spreading dharma. The first difference is that a war is a case of engagement between combatants. But can one legitimise scorched-earth massacres of non-combatant civilian populations, men, women and children? This is adharmic by any account, but a standard occurrence in some Abrahamic tales. The god of the Bible, for instance, commands to:
…utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.1 Samuel 15:3
But apologists like Shoaib need to make up their minds. If Taimur is their great Islamic hero, what of the protestations on how Islamic State and terrorism are “not Islam” since the latter does not permit the “killing of even one innocent”? If Taimur is a hero, why not shed the pretence and embrace Islamic State, Baghdadi, who form a continuum of cruelty in the Islamic cause?
In any case, the defence that Quran doesn’t permit the killing of even “one innocent” is long , both because that quote was aimed at the children of Israel, not Muslims, and secondly, us pagan polytheists are guilty of the gravest shirk of idolatry, and are by definition, not innocent. This is why Taimur , as a good Islamic jihadi:
I ordered my troops to attack on all four sides at once, to force their way into the defiles, and to kill the men, imprison the women and children, and plunder and lay waste their property. In obedience to these orders, my nobles and troops made a valiant assault on all sides at once and put the remnant of the infidels to the sword, after which they made prisoners of their women and children and secured an enormous booty. I directed towers of the skulls of those obstinate unbelievers to be built on the mountain…
In contrast, casualties in war moved Ashoka. His story is one of transformation. There is no transformation of Taimur’s blood-thirst; he not only orders the massacre of civilians and the rape and enslavement of women and children, but delights in this in his memoir as a “religious duty” as a Muslim.
This is a stark gulf from the refined moral sensitivity of a dharmic society. Kauravas were reviled for attacking Abhimanyu, a warrior in battle, simply for going against the proper conduct of war and having multiple attackers against one combatant. The differences between Abrahamic barbarity of Taimur and the subtle morality of war in the context of dharma are so vast that they may well belong to two different planets. It is no wonder then that the secular-Abrahamic apologia for Taimur causes such revulsion among those sensitive to dharma.
Some commentators, who had a little bit of conscience but couldn’t quite bring themselves to whitewash Taimur, tried a different tack. One is to say that every name has baggage. When Shehla Rashid claims there’d be issues with naming a child Maya, because of one Maya Kodnani, she misses the point. . When one uses the name Maya, hardly anyone thinks of Kodnani, while the names Stalin (not “Joseph”), Hitler and Taimur naturally evoke their famous counterparts.
Similar arguments were given for other obscure references with suggestions of “Google them.” Such weak defence does not cut it. Taimur carries the tyrant’s name as baggage in India, even if some people in Afghanistan may choose that name today.
For lack of any other justification, some like Barkha Dutt resorted to simple name-calling. It was “monstrous and vile bigotry” to point out that Taimur was a mass-murderer and that the name was inappropriate. But one wonders who Ms Dutt would call vile and bigoted if Donald Trump named a son Hitler?
It is time for us to question the hagiography of brutal invaders, rapists and mass-murderers like Taimur and Aurangzeb. Tolerating that monstrous and vile bigotry will lead to neither harmony nor reconciliation.
Saif had a chance to break free from that and proclaim his Indianness. Unfortunately, he chose to identify with a brutal invader and killer of Indians.