POOR old Mahmud of Ghazni has been so many things in his afterlife.
He’s been a rabid religious fanatic bent on physically eliminating Hindus. He’s been a glorious champion of the faith, saving souls wherever he went. He’s been (thanks to the great Khan for the chuckles) a revolutionary who freed the oppressed masses of Sindh. He’s even been a nuclear-capable missile, an avatar in which he’s graced not only silos but also many a roundabout in many a Pakistani town.
What he never is, is what he really was: an opportunistic conqueror looking to pay a fairly large army and appease a notoriously fickle populace the easiest way he knew.
The easiest way for Mahmud to appease his local constituency (all politics is local) and fund his military machine was through largesse and loot, and the means to that end — the path of least resistance — happened to lead south towards the unimaginable wealth and relatively less ferocious armies of the various Indian kingdoms.
Along the way, as conquerors are wont to do, he killed a whole bunch of people. That’s par for the course. Naturally, that’s not going to endear him to those he slaughtered and looted, but if you ask around Ghazni, they’ll have a very different story to tell. While to India he is justifiably a plunderer and killer, to his homeland he is a hero, a builder, a patron of the arts.
If Mahmud was out to convert the infidels, as the religious right claims, he may have stuck around and set up shop. Instead, the only region he retained a hold on was Punjab, and that only because it served as an effective forward base for future raids.
Those who claim he was some kind of Islamic hero also ignore that he spent most of his time fighting his co-religionists in Central Asia and Persia. It was the loot from the Indian invasions that conveniently happened to bankroll these expeditions.
Some historians even claim that, in his final years, he planned to conquer territory belonging to the Abbasid Caliph, his nominal suzerain. Then there’s the small matter of Tilak, a Hindu general in his employ who, according to contemporary sources, held a fairly high place in his military councils. When it came to both allies and enemies, Mahmud was pretty darn secular.
But what then about the general massacres of Hindus, destruction of idols and religious rhetoric? Surely that’s a definite sign of religious zeal? Well, while some lip service to an aggressive holy war was no doubt paid, the first is very likely for the simple objective of cowing the populace and also ensuring that resistance the next time around would be less.
It’s not a pretty strategy and is certainly in violation of the Geneva Conventions but it is, in cold-blooded medieval military terms, the sensible thing to do, especially when you have no real intention of settling in that land. The terror remains long after the armies have left.
The second rises out of a simple need for plunder. Temples were major repositories of wealth, as the recent discovery of treasure worth some several billion dollars at an ancient Kerala temple indicates. Now that’s a temptation that any conqueror would find hard to resist. After all, war is generally all about the money, honey.
As for the rhetoric, well, as Napoleon once said, “a man does not have himself killed for a halfpence a day and a petty distinction; one must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.”
A mostly Muslim army would respond to that kind of motivation, and it would also provide some kind of moral cover and motivating factor for their actions. After all, it’s much easier to commit atrocities if one does it in the service of a higher cause. Or then again, maybe he was just a tad guilty about that whole thing with Ayaz and thought he should try and score points with the divine.
We don’t really know for sure, though a lack of knowledge never stopped anyone from making sweeping assumptions and then defending them as gospel truth. But history, as Romila Thapar put it, speaks with many voices, and we should really try to hear at least a few of them before drawing conclusions with a permanent marker, because a little knowledge is as dangerous as a man who’s only read one book.
Yes, the tyranny of the present compels us to fight our battles on the fields of the past. Yes, political expediency tempts us to press the long-dead into our service. I understand that sometimes you may need to murder history to suit your interests, but must you also exhume and dismember the corpse? Can you at least not take a selfie while doing it?
The writer is a member of staff.