The past weeks have seen some monumental campaigns for justice around the world, ranging from demands to tear down monuments honouring colonial oppressors and slave-owners, to allegations of human trafficking among rich and powerful paedophiles by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, and initiatives to help Yazidi women held as sex slaves by ISIS. In this milieu, one would think that it would be the ideal opportunity for progressive voices in India to push for truth, justice, and reconciliation in a similar manner, for as the Black Lives Matter slogan says, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Instead, we witnessed the opposite this week " a cynical and reprehensible attempt to whitewash slave-owners and sex traffickers, by a darling of the country's literature festival circuit and liberal cognoscenti. After heavy rains in Delhi caused the collapse of a dome of the Mubarak Begum Mosque, also known as the "Randi ki Masjid" ("Whore's Mosque") among the pious locals, we watched Edward Said's Orientalism come to life before our very eyes. The White Man's Burden was bizarrely resurrected in the age of Black Lives Matter, in an effort to enlighten the ignorant natives of the exotic Orient on their own history,
"Mubarak Begum was wife [sic] of Sir David Ochterlony. She started off a Brahmin girl in Pune; >found her way to Delhi where she converted to Islam & married Ochterlony, who built her the last great Mughal tomb, Mubarak Bagh. She then remarried a noble who fought vs the British in 1857."
Fascinating term there, "found her way". Three innocuous words, which say so little, yet hide so much. Those three flowery words sure are a strange way to say, "abducted at age 12, enslaved, groomed, trafficked, and gifted/sold to a debauched, Epstein-esque colonial warmonger who kept 13 sex slaves". One imagines that in the absence of reliable a native munshi these days, the worthy sahib found it too tiresome to have to type out so many long words. After all, it would be difficult to claim it was out of ignorance, having discovered this story himself and profited off it in a book just a few years ago. Is it not strange for one to whitewash the slavery and trafficking aspects of such a remarkable story on a public forum, just as movements for justice for such victims are gaining momentum worldwide?
It is eye-opening to learn that according to our eminent intellectuals, the African-American community were not enslaved, tortured, and raped, they just "found their way" across the Atlantic. Epstein's victims were not groomed and trafficked to a ring of powerful men, they just "found their way" to their bedrooms. Perhaps they think Native Americans just "found their way" off their ancestral lands, reduced to living in poverty and neglect on reservations? Or that Aboriginals just "found their way" to horrifying institutions designed to 'breed the black out of them'? Slavery apologists around the world now have a very useful new addition to their vocabulary of bigotry and hatred, thanks to this egregious attempt at testing the limits of the English language by its resident purveyors in the former colonies.
Upon being pressed repeatedly on this point, a ham-fisted elaboration came forth, "This was a period of Anarchy [sic] &many [sic] of all religions were sold by their starving parents or kidnapped: slavery knew no religious boundaries."
This is simply a cunning repackaging of an old white saviour fantasy of how an upright white man rescued a distressed Indian damsel from poverty, sati, patriarchy, or barbarism. A popular trope in many 19th century novels, and even some 21st century ones, but where the reality is one of paedophilia and slave trafficking. So, perhaps that means that over the past few years, Yazidi women and children were not enslaved by ISIS and sold as sex slaves to violent sociopaths, they just "found their way" into locked rooms at the disposal of assorted sadists, and this is acceptable and can be contextualised since "this was a period of anarchy"? That will surely be a great comfort to them.
It is also a particularly bold statement to claim slavery had no religious boundaries, in the light of extensive primary sources written by Sultanate and Mughal court chroniclers, which describe with pride how for centuries, these "pious and righteous" rulers enslaved and sold hundreds and thousands of >infidels as war booty or in lieu of taxes, and sold them in the slave markets of Central Asia to boost the state exchequer, if they survived the death march through the >Hindu Kush (Persian for "Hindu Killer") mountain range. Or how the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri commissioned by Aurangzeb enshrined the dehumanisation and disenfranchisement of slaves as both state and religious law. This was not some aberration during a "period of anarchy", it was an enthusiastic state policy for centuries. Unless, of course, the period between Megasthenes saying India was remarkable for having no institution of slavery and Shivaji's ban on the sale and transport of slaves in 1677 was a "period of anarchy".
But who do Minhaj-i-Siraj, Ziauddin Barani, Abu Fazl, and the 500 learned Islamic scholars from Mecca, Medina, Baghdad, and Delhi behind the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri think they are, the authorities on this era? Those worthy Oriental luminaries at the royal court never got the memo that the last word on medieval Indian history rests not with them, nor with the bottom-up accounts of ordinary people of the time as Howard Zinn would advocate. No, that privilege lies with firangis — whitesplainers who dismiss these records of lived experience as mere "exaggeration" or gaslight the victims by saying "slavery knew no religious boundaries".
Who are these self-declared experts, to question the historical records of the time? Are they saying every Muslim court historian and jurist from 1192 to 1857 fabricated their chronicles because boasting about inflated numbers of slaves would make them and the ruler look more pious in the eyes of the ulema? This sounds like blatant bigotry and Islamophobia from these supposedly liberal voices. Do these modern luminaries not know that their favourite Kashmiri separatist famously said, "Muslims never lie"? They sure seem okay with treating this community's historical intellectuals and clerics as pathological liars, just because these accounts of the past are inconvenient to their desired narrative today.
That apart, it should not matter whether these accounts were an exaggeration or not, >even a single man, woman, or child enslaved, is one too many. But maybe that is just us being child-like natives, ignorant of the ways of the world. Uncivilised and jahil that we are, according to our colonisers. Perhaps, for these apologists, slavery is acceptable below a certain number and only bad if it is above a certain number. Fascinating insight into how they think. However, what is worst of all, is when such people say, "we must judge these issues by the standards of their time". Like the infamous "Aurangzeb was a secular king for his times" spiel emanating from the swamps of New Jersey every few months.
As Indi Samarajiva wrote in his moving and powerful essay, They Were Monsters In Their Own Time,
"The nine-year-olds taken as sex slaves by Christopher Columbus were not like 'this is a great guy'. While they were being raped or beaten and thrown overboard, they certainly knew that these men were bad ... When people say, "we can't judge historical figures by the standard of our time" what they mean is 'the monsters did not think themselves monstrous'. What they mean is 'colonised lives don't matter'. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters.
If you had your child ripped away from you and sold, would you shrug and say 'by historical standards, my baby is just property'? No. The heart of a mother cries out throughout time, and it never heals... These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today."
Speaking of armchair historians, as Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib cantankerously spiral into irrelevance, it must be comforting for some, to know that there are now worthy successors to their past function as a self-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mandated to protect "communal harmony" and the "secular fabric of the Idea of India" from the savage natives who cannot be trusted to process historical truths in a mature manner without bloodshed and civil war. Plus, this new generation are Europeans and Americans, which means they are naturally more credible than some native historian with a funny name and accent like a Kishori Saran Lal, Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, or Karingamannu Kuzhiyil Muhammed. Don't these uppity natives know they are only useful as munshis and sepoys, and that research on Indian history is only credible when it comes from Western academia?
There are many reasons for this deliberate distortion and disposal of inconvenient historical facts. Firstly, white colonisers and their native compradors have a well-documented fascination with the Mughals. This is because it helps create a narrative to justify foreign rule and alien value systems - that the history of India is the history of successive invaders "civilising" the meek natives who are captives of evil, backward paganism, and who had no military, naval, or cultural achievements of their own. This explains why it was a common European fantasy during colonial times that they were rescuing Indian women from evil, patriarchal native traditions (as illustrated in Around the World in 80 Days), while hiding how British, Portuguese, and Dutch were complicit in slavery and sex trafficking, much like the Mughals they replaced and admired. The protection of this treasured narrative is also why today, we learn the long-discredited Aryan Invasion Theory in schools, but not about Rajendra Cholan and his cultural impact on our civilisational brethren in Champa, Kambuj, Ayutthaya, and Majapahit. Nor the long reign of the Ahom dynasty, the glories of Vijayanagara, the struggle for Hindavi Swarajya. Even Raja Hemchandra Vikramaditya is reduced to "Hemu", the grocer's son. Such civilisational awareness is seen as dangerous revivalism, which may result in self-respect among former colonial populations, which is unacceptable to the colonial master even today.
Secondly, which is another reason why the tweet in question pussyfooted around the abduction, enslavement, grooming, and forced conversion aspect of the Mubarak Begum story, members of the literature festival circuit do not want to get cancelled by their own cabal for undermining the new narrative they have been pushing lately — reversing which community were enslaved and who were the slave-owners in medieval and early modern India, with an infantile "Muslims are now the Blacks of India" analogy. It does not matter that Megasthenes marvelled at the absence of the institution of slavery and the equality by law of all humans in ancient India, or that Sultanate and Mughal chronicles take pride in state-enforced slavery, or that slavery in early-modern India was first banned by Chhatrapati Shivaji, 150 years before the "civilised" British got around to it.
Inconvenient truths should never be allowed to come in the way of the gatekeeping of opinion from the hoi polloi. The descendants of slave owners are the new "Blacks of India" because their self-styled leaders say "there is an atmosphere of fear". By that logic, what does that make the KKK claiming that they "felt unsafe for their views and heritage" during the Obama presidency, or AfD voters in Germany, who claim that refugees and immigrants have created "an atmosphere of fear"? How about white Afrikaner farmers who claim to be "oppressed" and beg for foreign countries to protect and shelter them, because of their fear of having to share political and economic power with the non-whites they treated as an inferior race for centuries? They must all be such oppressed communities! According to our whitewashers and whitesplainers, does that make them the true "Blacks" of these countries, not the actual victims of civil war, ethnic cleansing, slavery, or apartheid?
Thirdly, the new generation of colonisers and their native munshis and sepoys, by whitewashing the horrors of our past, empower certain elements who are proud of their history of enslaving infidels of inferior races. To use the simplistic Western analogies that are so popular these days, these are "India's Confederates", "subcontinental Rhodesians", or "the whites of South Asia". Unlike the US Civil War or Ian Smith's Rhodesia, however, the proud descendants of these slave-owners won the civil war they started, and thus created their own "land of the pure", free of racially-inferior infidels, purged of all leftist and dissenting voices, and eventually even cleansed of "dark-skinned Bengalis, who shared their language and culture with their Hindu compatriots". Where today, schoolchildren are taught about the glories of their slaveholding ancestors and missiles named after notorious enslavers. Some readers may be familiar with the popular expression within these circles, "900 saal tujhe ghulam banake rakha tha, yeh mat bhoolna (never forget that we enslaved you for 900 years)". Somewhat different to the "Never Forget" slogan used in the rest of the world to commemorate the victims of other Holocausts and genocides.
These elements, capable of mobilising prodigious violence against the Indian state and civilians, can be useful assets in the evergreen Western policy of keeping postcolonial and transition states unstable, insecure, chaotic, and poor. A green light from certain foreign capitals, et voila! A media-friendly "Indian Spring" or a neo-colonial "Colour Revolution" on the streets of Delhi, using threats of violence to bait the state and civilian victims into responding. And when this response does come, the propaganda wings of the establishment in Washington, London, Ankara, and Doha spin basic riot control to the world as fascism, hyper-nationalism, and authoritarianism, arguing that regime change is the need of the hour. Ignoring that they themselves handle much milder protests and riots in their own countries with water-cannons, tear gas, and paramilitary deployment.
Finally, while the world protests to end the glorification of slave-owners and bring justice to victims of child sex trafficking, the self-appointed custodians of history, in their infinite wisdom, choose to whitewash both, because according to colonial-era logic, we savage natives cannot be trusted with the truth. We are not empowered individuals, with reason and intellect, capable of solving historical issues through public debates, courts, or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Through their colonial lenses, we are just a powder-keg of various incompatible communities, prone to violence at the slightest provocation, and the role of the state (and a certain enlightened substratum of society) is to "civilise" us by imposing law and order, not delivering truth or justice. It reminds one of the words of the great Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who said,
"The great stumbling block in [our] stride toward freedom is ... the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; — who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."
The African revolutionary and decolonisation icon Thomas Sankara once said, "The enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance." As long as we allow people with colonial mentalities, be they modern nabobs or their mercenary native sepoys to act as the self-appointed gatekeepers of our own history, culture, and knowledge systems, placing them upon a pedestal because of their accents or social circles, the process of decolonisation is incomplete. Swatantrata (independence) is incomplete without Swarajya (self-rule), Swarajya is incomplete without Swabhimaan (self-respect).
The Indian Constitution and state institutions go farther than any Western country in recognising the concept of historical injustice, enshrining affirmative action in universities and jobs on the basis of historical caste discrimination. By this standard, we must similarly deliver truth, reconciliation, and justice to the victims of the Sultanate and Mughal Empire's state-sponsored dehumanisation and trafficking of slaves, instead of blaming and shaming the descendants of those victims for asking inconvenient questions. Statues, monuments, and streets honouring slave-owners should be torn down and renamed, no matter where in the world they are. After all, as we learnt from Black Lives Matter, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And those who then howl in protest at these efforts at decolonisation in India will show their true colours, as supporters of slavery and human trafficking.
As for our esteemed firangi sahibs, let us not get above our stations by asking them to apologise or delete their tweets, they must maintain their stiff upper lip in front of us humble servants. Having achieved the surely hard-earned acclaim of the no-doubt discerning living rooms of Bandra (West) and two whole neighbourhoods in South Delhi, as well as literally dozens of future US and UK citizens temporarily inconvenienced by Indian passports, we must bow to their authority on all subjects. Although there is one piece of advice they could find useful — if anyone ever wants to turn the book White Mughals into a trilogy, "Whitewashers" and "Whitesplainers" would be perfect titles for the sequels. One can only hope the nabobs and sahibs of our time too, "find their way".
The writer is a decolonisation and anti-imperialism theorist.
— Featured image: Watercolour by an anonymous Delhi artist of Sir David Ochterlony ca. 1820s via Wikimedia Commons