What If Hemu Had Lived To Rule?
Completely against the run of play, Hem Chandra Vikramaditya, the last Hindu emperor, lost the Second Battle of Panipat to the Mughal army nominally led by a teenage Akbar. But suppose that arrow had not struck Hemu in the eye?
Supporting Hindus in Indian history is like supporting Pakistan in cricket. It means digesting a stream of defeats. For over a thousand years, in match after match, the Hindus kept on losing. The stakes in these conflicts were high. This was an era when towers were built with the skulls of the losers. Yet our scorecards were practically blank. Our victories were statistical anomalies.
There are many explanations for this. Some say the Hindus were generous and kind, while the Muslims were treacherous and cruel. Others say the Muslims were more energetic in pursuit of their religion, while the Hindus were more like, yeah, man, whatever. Pass the chhil before I lose my mellow. Other factors could also have been involved. Any modern visitor to Kabul or Samarkand can see why residents of these places might be keen to get away.
There’s nothing much to do there, except throw dry fruit at each other. Compared to home, Delhi was like Disneyland. Muslims were motivated. They also lived nearby. It made perfect sense. The people you really have to wonder about are the British, who undertook perilous, long sea journeys across the world, risking loose motions, heatstroke and malaria, just so they could get their hands on other people’s property.
Gandhi broke our losing streak, by showing us how to win with empty hands. His approach had much that was Hindu in spirit, including bhajans and spinning and kindness to goats, and aversion to spilling of blood. Did he really drive out the British, or were they just exhausted from war, and itching to get back so they could strangle Churchill? Historians are divided about this. Whichever you may believe, the fact is, he taught the world something new.
Before we evolved this new method of struggle, Panipat, home of Pachranga pickle, is where Hindu hopes have been dashed most often. The most celebrated case is that of Hem Chandra Vikramaditya, the Last Hindu Emperor.
Very little is known about the early life of Hemu, not even his name. Was he Hem Rai, or Basant Rai, or Hem Chand? Most historians agree that he came from a humble background, and began his life as a petty trader in the town of Rewari in Mewat. He lived in exciting times. When he was in his 20s, Babur invaded India. Babur’s invasion was like Ram Gopal Varma’s Sholay remake, a thing of enduring horror. Luckily he died young, and his son Humayun was more interested in books than blood.
He sounds like a nice man in many ways, not a very good general, and constantly forgiving his brothers. He died appropriately enough, in his library, falling down the stairs with his arms full of books. But before that, he was driven out of India by Sher Shah Suri, a Bihar-born Afghan who rose from ordinary foot soldier to ruler of India in less than 20 years. He built the framework for an empire. In just five years of rule, he invented the rupee, set up the postal system, revived Patna, and built the Grand Trunk Road from Chittagong to Kabul.
His immediate successors were disastrous, however, and we descended into chaos, as various members of the Suri family tried to massacre one another. This just goes to show that we need to get rid of competent rulers quickly, before they can put their children in charge.
We first hear of Hemu when he was in his 40s, supplying grain to Sher Shah’s army. Over time, he became trusted enough to supply gunpowder. Sher Shah’s son Islam made him Superintendent of Markets, a position currently held by Arun Jaitley. Subsequently he became Superintendent of Posts. After the early death of Islam, Hemu remained loyal to the next ruler, Adil Shah, who was addicted to opium, and by and large unwilling to leave the harem.
The Suri empire disintegrated into warring factions. At this point, Hemu suddenly turned into Julius Caesar.
Leading his army with remarkable self-confidence, he won 22 battles in a row. He worked hard to re-establish the rule of Adil Shah. Unfortunately, while he was busy in Bengal, Humayun crept back to Delhi. This time, he wisely left the military operations to his trusted commander Bairam Khan. They were often unopposed. Unlike his father, Humayun did not have a reputation for using skulls as decorations, as a result of which quite a few of his enemies surrendered without fear. Soon after, he was dead, thanks to excessive reading.
Hemu led his army back to Delhi. Throughout his career, he was loyal to the Afghans, and the Afghans were loyal to him. Does this mean he was a stooge of the Muslims? Or was he waiting for the right moment to betray them? It could have been more about geography than faith. Modern Afghanistan was once Gandhara, part of India since the time of Chandragupta Maurya. For over two thousand years, natives of this region were considered local. Tough men with big noses, who were good in a fight, and often the source of dry fruits.
Afghanistan was created recently, mostly thanks to the British, who had a mania for drawing maps. As a result, the Afghans were seen as our boys, while the Mughals were barbaric Central Asian invaders. They never denied it. In between massacres, Babur spent much of his time in Delhi pining for the little boys and melons of Tashkent. In resisting the Mughals, Hemu would most likely have seen himself as a patriot. This is the essence of Akhand Bharat, which is not necessarily a good thing. Had it existed today, we would be fighting both the Maoists and the Taliban.
Hemu swept the Mughals from Delhi, and surprised everyone by crowning himself Emperor Vikramaditya. Adil Shah remained in his harem.
His coronation was conducted in Purana Qila on October 7th, 1556. There is no evidence that any Afghans objected. Hemu was by far their best general. His courage was legendary. He led from the front, jumping in wherever the fight was hardest. He had never been beaten. He distributed the spoils to all his soldiers fairly. He was also a successful businessman. He was like a cross between Napoleon and Dhirubhai Ambani. Everyone knew he was the best man to lead them.
And lead them he did, less than one month later, at the Second Battle of Panipat. Bairam Khan and Humayun’s 14-year-old son Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar waited eight miles behind their army, ready to ride for Kabul at the first sign of trouble. Hemu leaped into the fray, as usual, fighting hand-to-hand. In case you think he was foolish, remember, Alexander the Great used to do exactly the same. We remember Alexander because he won. We forget Hemu because he lost.
Hemu was hardly the underdog. His army, Hindu and Muslim, was five times the size of the Mughal one. The Mughals were nervous, outnumbered, and running low on melons. They were on the verge of breaking, when a stray arrow struck Hemu in the eye. He removed the arrow, strapped up his face, and fought on, but soon after, he fainted from loss of blood. His soldiers lost heart. The Mughals won the day, and captured Hemu. He was beheaded by Bairam Khan. Bairam Khan ordered a massacre of the “followers of Hemu”. Like his grandfather before him, Akbar rose to a throne that was thoroughly washed in blood.
What if Hemu had won? What if this battle had marked the beginning of the reign of Emperor Hem Chandra Vikramaditya?
In this new version of India, there is no Mughal Empire, which means no Akbar, no Shah Jahan, no Aurangzeb. But Sher Shah left behind a framework, which Hemu inherits. He knows it well. He played a big role in designing it. The empire evolves and develops, and Hemu establishes a dynasty. There are Afghans who pine for the days of Sher Shah, but they appreciate the peace and prosperity. Future historians will refer to this as the Golden Age of Hem Chandra Vikramaditya. The Grand Temple of Somnath, re-built towards the end of his reign, becomes one of the wonders of the world.
Foreigners come, and Hemu welcomes them. He has always supported trade. India’s economy flourishes. Throughout his reign, Hemu upholds Hindu pride, but treats his Muslim brothers with respect. Hemu was always a general who took good care of his men.
Hemu’s descendants are less capable than him, and no dynasty lasts forever. Eventually the family produces either a Rahul Gandhi, or a Hindu version of Aurangzeb, who toils selflessly to ensure Hindu supremacy, and destroys the Rajput-Afghan alliance at the heart of the empire. Meanwhile, a Maratha chieftain named Shivaji rises in the West, and challenges their disintegrating rule. India sees a series of Rajput-Maratha wars, as the Afghans switch sides with bewildering speed. The Marathas add to the confusion by attacking the Nizam from time to time. Spared from persecution, the Sikhs remain a simple sect, spreading the message of love and feeding people whenever they can. The inexorable rise of bhangra begins.
In June, 1744, a ship arrives at Fort St George, near the village of Madraspatnam. One of the passengers is a 19-year-old trainee clerk.
As he stands on the deck, he likes what he sees. Everywhere he looks, he sees Indians fighting each other. They fight for power. They fight for money. They fight for religion. They fight in the name of historical sins that some have committed on others, never forgetting, and never forgiving.
Robert Clive steps ashore, whistling.
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