A letter to a son

Published October 5, 2019

IN the current superheated nationalistic discourse that is at the heart of India’s Hindutva appeal, the Mughals are cast as the villains.

In this version of Indian history, this dynasty contributed little to the country’s architecture, administration and the arts. Indeed, Emperor Babar and his descendants are supposed to have done little but destroy Hindu temples, and cruelly subjugate non-Muslims.

This crude, black-and-white portrayal of the Mughals seeks to justify the treatment of Indian Muslims under Modi’s right-wing BJP government. For years, the Mughal contribution to India has steadily been airbrushed from textbooks and public consciousness. But in these febrile times of hysteria and hyperbole, it is useful to read Babar’s letter to his son Humayun written on Jan 11, 1529:

“Oh my son! The realm of Hindustan is full of diverse creeds. Praise be to God … that He has granted unto thee the empire of it. It is but proper that you, with heart cleansed of all religious bigotry, should dispense justice according to the tenets of each community. And in particular refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan; and the subjects of the realm will, through royal favour, be devoted to thee.

Tolerance is fading across the world.

“And the temples and abodes of worship of every community under the imperial sway, you should not damage. Dispense justice so that the sovereign may be happy with the subjects and likewise the subjects with their sovereign. The progress of Islam is better by the sword of kindness, not by the sword of oppression.

“Ignore the disputations of Shias and Sunnis; for therein is the weakness of Islam…”

If there’s a lesson here for India, there’s a more powerful one for Pakistan. Indeed, the entire Muslim world would be a far better place if we took Babar’s words to heart. Although his message of tolerance is universal, it is now largely ignored.

But it is not just Muslims who are intolerant: from America’s Trump to the UK’s Brexit, the public discourse has coarsened. Instead of listening to each other, we shout stridently in an effort to gain acceptance of our views. Recently, the speaker of the British parliament had to rebuke members for the toxic language used on the floor of the house.

Closer to home, we constantly persecute our minorities. Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadis, live in fear, as do the Shias. Hindu temples and holy carvings have been defaced. Christians have often been accused of blasphemy, a crime that, if proven, carries the mandatory death penalty. Ahmadis can be thrown into jail for the ‘crime’ of using a Muslim salutation. Young Hindu girls have been frequently kidnapped and forced to undergo conversion to Islam and then married to powerful feudals.

What would Babar make of our attitudes today? We proclaim ourselves to be heirs to the Mughals, and yet behave like barbarians. There was a time, not that long ago, when India set an example in democracy and secularism. No longer, alas. There is considerable irony in the fact that voices in Pakistan — an Islamic republic — are now reminding India of its secular constitution.

Tolerance is fading across the world, and yet it is the foundation of democracy. A country may have all the external features of a democratic dispensation, but the most liberal constitution in the world will crack and buckle before a forceful executive prepared to ignore legal niceties.

Americans were justly proud of their groundbreaking constitution drafted by the country’s founding fathers in 1787. Incorporating a wide-ranging set of checks and balances, the document sought to limit the powers of the president by counterbalancing them with the judiciary and the legislature.

However, as Donald Trump has shown us, these checks and balances only work if the president respects them. In many countries, the constitution limits a leader’s terms in office to usually two. But powerful presidents with dictatorial tendencies have either forced through amendments that allow them to hang on forever, or switch jobs with their prime ministers for a term while continuing to remain de facto rulers.

In brief, without tolerance, a constitution and all the trappings of democracy are worthless. If there is no will to ensure that India remains a truly secular state, no number of constitutional clauses will make it one. Simi­larly, the constitutional protection Pakis­tani minorities are supposed to receive is meaningless when the state caves in to mob rule.

There was no concept of a democratic dispensation when Babar ruled India. But as an administrator, he understood that social harmony in a huge and diverse country was only possible by dispensing even-handed justice to every community. A small Muslim minority could not rule by waging war against a much larger number of Hindus.

In both Pakistan and India, as well as in many other countries, suspicion of the ‘other’ drives persecution and fear, and robs us of our humanity.


Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2019



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