Khilji and Padmavati
Snapshot
  • The trauma of Alauddin Khilji’s rule is remembered till date through oral histories and folk stories. And no, the source of the trauma was not just economic inconvenience borne by non-Muslims.

And so it begins. With Padmavati set to hit the screens, there is a sudden rush to recreate the image of Alauddin Khilji as a just man wronged by history. This article appearing in a website seems part of such a project. In what is a desperate attempt at rebranding, Khilji is referred to as the ‘People’s King’ who implemented a series of reforms that included a new taxation system and the introduction of an espionage system ostensibly for the welfare of the people.

Among his other achievements is cited the successful fending off of successive Mongol invasions, while his subsequent vilification in Indian history as a cruel despot is blamed at Rajputs and other Hindu power brokers who got shunted out of the system when Khilji implemented his series of wide-ranging agrarian and fiscal ‘reforms’. The piece is not only factually misleading, in the sense that it deliberately hides from the reader a number of known facts about Khilji and his administration, it is also propaganda masquerading as an informed opinion that seeks to subvert the history of oppression and violence against a people.

Such an attempt at rebranding despots is of course nothing new and has been a part of a larger and much older debate about Indian history, where one side has been forcefully arguing that historical acts of genocidal violence against Hindus were merely ‘political’ in nature and, being embedded in specific historical contexts, should not be judged by modern standards . There is, in such interpretations of Indian history, a strong desire to purge any possible vestiges of religion as a driving motive for peoples’ actions. In its place, a secularised, or rather, a sanitised, narrative is posited, reminiscent of a vulgar Marxism long discarded even by the fringes of the academia, in which purely economic motives govern peoples’ lives, motives, desires and memories.

It is sad that despite recent advances in sociology and social history allowing for a far greater range of sources to be accepted as credible historical evidence – including oral histories and folklore – such crude materialism still appears to emanate out of certain sections.

The People’s King?

In the case of Khilji and this particular article, it is strange that nowhere does it occur to the writer that Khilji may have gone down the annals of history as a villain for his wanton murder and rapine rather than merely for economic reasons.

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Take for instance the writer’s claim that the predecessors of the Rajputs were the primary land owners and power brokers in the late thirteenth century and Khilji’s supposed reforms broke their back leading them to revile the Sultan in their histories written two centuries later. It is true that with the onset of Islamic rule in India, practically all native chieftains saw a reversal in their fortunes. However, the power brokers and large landholders in early thirteenth century North India were not just Hindu Rajas but also included a large number of Afghans, Mongols, Persians and Turkish noblemen who had settled all over north India following the Ghurid invasion of 1192AD.

By the time Khilji came to power, Muslim rule had been established over most of north India for over a century during which Afghan and Turkic warlords acquired large landholdings and established themselves as middlemen between the state and the peasantry, eating into the power and influence of the Hindu warlords.

Although many Hindu chieftains still managed to cling on to their power and even managed to rise among the ranks, they always had to accept the suzerainty of the provincial governor who was, without exception a Turkic or Afghan nobleman, and they were always susceptible to the envy and the ire of the Persian/Turkic lobby who could, and in many instances did, invoke religion to curtail the power of the Hindus. Given such a scenario, it doesn’t seem logical to presume that Khilji should have come in for special vilification in history from these Hindu warlords whose power he supposedly effaced.

And what of the ‘reforms’ themselves? What was their nature and what effect did they have on the lives of the people who lived through them?

To understand this it is necessary to have another look at Khilji’s legacy, beginning with the famed taxation system which is touted in this article as the single greatest achievement that ought to have ensured lasting fame for Khilji in posterity.

Alauddin Khilji enforced four taxes on non-Muslims in the Sultanate — jizya (poll tax), kharaj (land tax), ghari (house tax) and charah (pasture tax). Of these, the Kharaj or the land tax was the form of taxation that the peasant paid in the form of nearly half of his standing crop. As the historian Zia-ud-din Barani, writing shortly after Khilji’s death, informs us about the consequence of Khilji’s taxation system :

While the cultivators were free from the demands of the landowners, the high taxes imposed by the state meant they had “barely enough for carrying on his cultivation and his food requirements.
Zia-ud-din Barani,

Barani further informs us:

He (Khilji) also decreed that his Delhi-based revenue officers assisted by local Muslim jagirdars, khuts, mukkadims, chaudharis and zamindars seize by force half of all produce any farmer generates, as a tax on standing crop, so as to fill the sultanate’s granaries. His officers enforced tax payment by beating up Hindu and Muslim middlemen responsible for rural tax collection.

Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, writing in their “History of India” again quote from Barani

Furthermore, Alauddin Khilji demanded from his “wise men in the court” to create “rules and regulations in order to grind down the Hindus, so as to reduce them to abject poverty and deprive them of wealth and any form of surplus property that could foster a rebellion; the Hindu was to be so reduced as to be left unable to keep a horse to ride on, to carry arms, to wear fine clothes, or to enjoy any of the luxuries of life”
History of India

It is likely that the accounts of both Zia-ud-din Barani and his contemporary Amir Khusraw, that form the principal primary sources for Khilji’s reign, could be exaggerated, in accordance with the literary style of the period. However, they certainly give us a clear enough picture of the Sultan’s attitude towards his subjects, and the condition of his impoverished people.

A second, much-trumpeted achievement of Khilji is the establishment of an efficient system of espionage. However, it is not certain whether Khilji set this up to ensure better tax collection ( as the article would have us believe) or because he feared for his life after facing no less than four major revolts against his cruel administration. The last of these revolts resulted in the mass massacre – over the course of a single night – of over 30,000 Mongols residing in the capital who the Sultan suspected of plotting his overthrow. This was followed by a total ban on any social gatherings of his nobles within the capital, enforced with the help of the Sultan’s network of spies. It would appear then that the espionage network was used more to exert total control over the lives of his nobles who, the by now paranoid Sultan, suspected of murdering him anytime, rather than to ensure the welfare of the peasantry.

As for the feat of repelling successive Mongol invasions, it was hardly a feat given that Khilji himself ravaged all of India with his armies’ plundering raids deep into southern and eastern India massacring thousands and destroying countless temples. The Mongols could scarcely have done worse. For instance, the following description of the sack of Somnath by Khilji in the Khaza'in-ul-Futuh of Amir Khusrow, offers a case in point :

After a great slaughter , so that in celebrating the total destruction of the Hindus, even the beasts ate Tanbul and dyed their feet in Henna, they made the idol-house of Somnat prostrate itself towards the exalted Ka’ba, and when they cast the reflection of the upturned idol-house in the sea it seemed as if that idol-house first offered its prayers and then took a bath. But they sent one idol which was the largest to the royal presence, so that it may relate to the idol worshipping Hindus the destruction of these helpless gods hoping that they would say that the tongue of the royal sword interpreted clearly this verse: and in that old land of unbelief the cry of the muezzin rose so loud that it could be heard in Baghdad and Medinah and the music of the ‘Alai Khutba vibrated so mightily that it reached the dome of Khalil and the well of Zamzam.
Khaza’in-ul-Futuh

The above description has been taken from a translation of Khusrow's work by M. Wahid Mirza (pg 90) which is one the few standard translations. The nearest surviving Hindu account of the event was composed 150 years later and is the Kanhadade Prabandh by Padmanabh and corroborates the above narrative. Both the sources concur that after a slaughter of the general populace, the temple itself was destroyed and confined to the Arabian Sea, which Khusrow refers to metaphorically by saying that "they made the temple itself prostrate towards Ka'aba". Further after all the idols had been destroyed, the largest one was carried off to Delhi, to serve as a reminder to the general populace of the Sultan's power and to remind them of the futility of worshipping idols and the superiority of Islam.

The Somnath temple was looted, desecrated and completely destroyed during the invasion. Certain historical sources claim that the idol the temple was “taken to Delhi, where it was thrown to be trampled under the feet of Muslims.” (Sharan Kishori Lal, History of the Khaljis)

As if this was not enough, Khilji’s destructive expeditions also brought in their wake the curse of the Sufis – militant Islamic warrior saints looking for converts to the new faith. Like scavengers scouring the site of a massacre for bits of flesh and bone, these early Sufis trailed the Islamic armies to whichever land they laid waste, looking to convert people even at the pain of death.

Professor Richard Eaton, who has done pioneering work on Sufism in India, has pointed out that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Sufis had not yet embraced the benign pacific transcendentalism that was to become the hallmark of their sect.

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The latter was to emerge only from the sixteenth century onwards, after a prolonged and painful process of conflict and discourse between the austere, dogmatic, monotheistic Islamic worldview and the varied, pantheistic Indic philosophies that were keen to assimilate all they came in contact with. The early Sufis instead were zealous warrior saints who trailed the invading Islamic armies hungrily looking to spread the new faith and saw conversion or death as the only two options open to the infidel.

Richard Eaton gives the example of Sufi saints like Pir Ma’abari Khandayat, Sheikh Ali Pahlavan, and Sufi Sarmast etc who followed in the wake of Khilji’s army in the Deccan and tried to convert people at the edge of the sword. Quoting hagiographic literature, Professor Eaton writes of Pir Ma’abari Khandayat :

“It is said that in the time of the arrogant infidels, surly Hindus and powerful Rajas ruled Bijapur by force. He (the Sufi) came here and waged Jihad against the Rajas and the rebels. And with his iron bar he broke the heads of many Rajas and drove them to the dust of defeat. Many idolators who by the will of God had guidance and blessings repented from their unbelief and error and by the hand of Pir Ma’abari came to Islam.”
Professor Eaton

Citing the instance of another Sufi by the name of Sarmast, Prof Eaton writes:

Sufi Sarmast is believed to have migrated with four companions to the town of Talikota, fifty miles south-east of Bijapur. There he and his companions engaged a number of Hindus in combat and after killing countless numbers of them were themselves slain.
Professor Eaton

The Persistence of Memory

The question that arises then, is why, and how does the memory of Khilji’s despotic rule linger almost a thousand years since the despot’s death?

Marianne Hirsch, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia coined the term ‘Postmemory’ to describe the manner in which transmission of trauma and hurt following a catastrophic event are transmitted through the medium of stories, behaviours, practices etc. down to later generations so deeply such that they begin to feel like memories of the event itself to those that came later.

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While Hirsch was writing specifically in the context of the Holocaust, her ideas have since been elaborated to expand our understanding of the manner in which trauma and pain are transmitted down the generations through mediums of cultural production such as oral histories and folklore.

What is especially devious about the given article is the manner in which the persistence of the memory of a traumatic event is dismissed, stripped of its humanity, and the trauma is attributed to the mere transitioning to a new economic order. The disingenuity is glaring because similar events in world history are treated, especially by the academic Left, with a far greater degree of empathy.

The colonisation of the Americas, or the transatlantic slave trade, or the Jewish or the Armenian Holocaust; in all these cases, the violence is not dismissed away as being embedded in a specific historical context and thus beyond the purview of modern standards of judgment. Nor are oral histories and folklore summarily dismissed in favour of more positivist explanations. The latter methodology seems reserved only for violence perpetrated on Hindus.

Trevor Noah a South African television personality in his autobiography, “Born a Crime : Stories from a South African Childhood” offers a beautiful explanation for such a reading of history by comparing western attitudes to the Jewish Holocaust with those towards colonial atrocities perpetrated on Africans :

“The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst a black South African can imagine. If black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s king Leopold’s name would come up before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson. I often meet people in the West who think the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history without question. Yes it was horrific, but I often wonder with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The African people don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess.”

But we cannot equate Khilji’s atrocities to those of the Holocaust because like the Africans of Congo, we do not have the numbers. We know that millions were killed resisting Khilji and the army of maniacal Sufi zealots who followed in his wake. Many millions more were enslaved and sold off.

And here, like in all pre-modern tragedies, oral histories and folklore remain our primary source of remembrance. It is surprising then that certain sections of the academia should be so keen on brushing these away, while embracing the same oral histories and folklore for research when it comes to, say, Native Americans.

Until this trauma that lives on in ‘post memory’ and folklore is acknowledged, addressed, and productively engaged with, debates on Indian history will continue to remain bitter and divisive.

Note: An earlier version of this article mentioned about Hasan Nizami’s description of Alauuddin Khilji’s attack on Gujarat. An alert reader pointed out that this was anachronistic. The same was verified and that error has now been corrected.

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