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‘Love Jihad’, Mughals, Propaganda: Ira Mukhoty Responds

There is in fact no data to support the charge that mass conversions were organised by the Mughals at the end of the sword.
Ira Mukhoty | Sarmaya/Facebook

Ira Mukhoty | Sarmaya/Facebook

The Sangh’s propaganda of “Love Jihad” has seen its recent policy manifestation in the ordinance cleared by the Uttar Pradesh government, led by BJP’s Yogi Adityanath. The ordinance makes religious conversions through what they define as “unlawful means” a non-bailable offence, and requires that these be sanctioned by the district magistrate first, citing rising incidents of forced & fraudulent religious conversions.

However, what is evident is that this is part of the Hindutva government’s anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-Ambedkarite agenda, as laid bare in a recent speech delivered by Adityanath, in which he declares that they would come up with a strict law to curb “Love Jihad” — a Hindu fundamentalist conspiracy theory developed as long back as the 1920s that Muslims were engaged in forceful mass conversions of Hindu women. An open violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private”, this would be detrimental to the syncretic, diverse nature of the country as well as to the right to choose one’s partner and convert to the religion of one’s choice.

Time and again, the Mughals have been brought into the conversations around “Love Jihad”, with the argument that it was practiced widely in the subcontinent under its emperors. This narrative is then imposed on today’s Muslims to establish it as an age-old Islamic tradition. But what do history and evidence say? We find out in this conversation with Ira Mukhoty (@mukhoty).

Mukulika R (MR): What’s your take on the following quotes?

Love Jihad is not new. It’s not something that the Hindu community came up with. The Mughals brought it here”.
(Chetna Sharma, convenor of Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini)

“According to the Islamic text ‘Tabkat-i-Akbari’ of Akbar’s times, Akbar had married Jodhabai as per Islamic traditions. At the time of ‘Nikah’, she converted to Islam and was named Mariam-uz-Zamani”.
(“Love Jihad History”, Hindu Jana Jagruti Samiti

Ira Mukhoty (IR): Marriage for the Mughals, as indeed for many Kinship systems, was a way of consolidating alliances with various tribes and rulers and incorporating and aligning these families into a common vision of rule. Akbar, especially, when he realised how many different religions, ethnicities and tribes lived in Hindustan, decided to marry women from various regions and kingdoms so as to assimilate these regions into the growing Mughal empire. Very early in his rule Akbar realised the many fractious tribes of Rajasthan would need to be…. and so, alongside military options and force of arms, he also began marrying into some of the Rajasthan clans. The first such clan was the insignificant clan of the Kacchwahas of Amer and it was Raja Bharmal of Kacchawaha who approached the young emperor, offering his daughter in marriage. Raja Bharmal had faced decades of bitter disputes with his own clansmen and decided that the growing might of the Mughal army would prove a useful deterrent.


Portrait of a woman | Mughal art, ca. 1640

Akbar, therefore, married Raja Bharmal’s daughter, Harkha Bai, who did not convert to Islam and continued to practise the rites and rituals of her religion. We know this because of the critical account of biographer Badauni, who lamented the fact that Akbar allowed his wives to continue to worship at the holy fire, offering prayers in the Hindu manner etc and indeed described the way in which Akbar participated in these very rites and traditions. Under the rule of Akbar, all the imperial women were given titles as it was considered improper for their names to be of common knowledge so all those women, including his mother and his wives, were given titles reflecting their power and prestige as Mughal royalty. “Maryam-uz-zamani”, or “Mary of the World”, was, therefore, the title given to Harkha Bai, while “Maryam Makani” was Hamida Banu’s title. So both Akbar’s mother and senior wife were given prestigious titles. This was a reflection of both these women being respected imperial Mughal women, and not of their religion at all. For someone who preached “sul-e-kul”, universal peace, Akbar continuously reiterated the need for his people to have freedom of religion, and this included all practitioners — Hindus, Shia Muslims, Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians and so on. He wrote letters about this to his sons, to foreign Muslim leaders, and to all his provincial administrators. So to imply that he would force his own wife to convert is aberrant.

MR: Another widely accepted argument is that “Jauhar” (self immolation) was invented & practiced by Rajput women to escape being “captured” by Muslim/Mughal men. We have even seen contemporary Indian cinema and pop culture glorifying it as a heroic act of resistance by Hindus against Muslims. What’s your take on all this?

IR: The glorifying of Jauhar and Sati from the 18th century onwards — both from British men like James Todd and then the Hindu nationalists, as well as pop culture — completely obscures the origins of the practice. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Rajput clans practiced polygamy as a means of securing alliances in an extremely violent and warring community. Large zenanas became common practice, and when in conjunction with the linking of Rajput honour to the virtue of their women, led to the prickly problem of a large number of women who had to be “guarded”. In the unsettled lands of Rajputana, chieftains were constantly fighting other clans, usually for territory. When a chieftain’s life was in danger and because the virtue of his women-folk had become inextricably linked with the idea of Rajput valour and honour, it was considered necessary for the women to commit Jauhar. Rima Hooja, historian of Rajasthan, has shown that Rajputs did not only fight Muslims but often each other, and jauhar would occur also when one Rajput tribe lost against another Rajput tribe, as for example when the Bhati Rajputs were defeated by invading Panwar Rajputs.

Also Read | ‘Love Jihad’, Mughals, propaganda: Audrey Truschke responds

These violent outcomes were much more to do with political and economic realities, than with religion. To reduce these complicated equations to a simple “Muslim v/s Hindu” one is not only misleading, but dangerous.

As for the valorising and exoticizing of such practices by popular culture — this is unfortunately in line with a long and inglorious tradition of a means of controlling women. The lamentable practice of child-marriages, and young brides being sent far off from their natal homes, and all sources of comfort and support, has also been glorified through the singing of the “bidai” lament, again a saccharine scene in many a Bollywood story. 

MR: The idea of the Mughal harem as a “problematic” space features in both right-wing and colonial narratives, often described as a place to keep Hindu women captive and such. Considering how the “Love Jihad” discourse too is about Hindutva’s desire to control Hindu women’s sexuality, this becomes doubly interesting. The harem has been described by historians like yourself as something that was quite different from such narratives. Could you elaborate?

IR: The harem that I have been writing about in my books is specifically the Mughal harem. This is an important distinction to remember, because the Mughals were Timurids — descendants of Timur Beg — and had an altogether more cavalier relation to Islam than other Islamicate dynasties like the Ottomans, for example. Timurid rulers from Central Asia were well aware of the multi-ethnic nature of their kingdoms too and found pragmatic ways for Islam to co-exist with these other beliefs. They were semi-nomadic, and their women travelled in a peripatetic cortege alongside the men, very lightly veiled if at all. Imperial women could get divorced, re-marry or never re-marry, and commanded considerable respect and power. When the Mughals arrived in India, they brought their ideas too with them and Akbar encouraged divorced and widowed women to re-marry and was aghast when he realised that Hindus did not usually allow this — bemoaning the fact that child brides were often left leading a long a barren life because of these restrictions.

The harem of the Mughals, as demonstrated by historian Ruby Lal, was a place where powerful and ambitious women exercised considerable power, and were essential members of decision making processes in many areas. This harem, unlike the one of erotic European imaginings, was not a place filled to the brim with women sexually available to the Emperor. There were, instead, a large number of relatives such as unmarried sisters, widowed aunts, refugee noblewomen, divorced relatives and the like, in addition to an entire microcosm of women who kept the zenana functioning — administrators, dancers, cooks, priests, musicians, writers and such. It was an extremely complex, well-ordered and busy space, through which imperial women carried out their many functions including managing their trade ships and administering their jagirs, or lands. Unfortunately, the trope of the degraded and cloistered space where women only gossiped and were subject to every sexual vagary has been a hard one to displace.

It is instead clear that the “Love Jihad” discourse is really about controlling women, who are considered little more than chattel, or property, to be partitioned out according to the whims of men, usually upper caste men.

MR: If not through marriage, is there evidence to show that there were other kinds of mass conversions during the period, organised by the Mughals? Additionally, despite the subcontinent having had multiple Islamic rulers before the Mughals, why is it that it’s only the latter that continue to face such a concerted attack till date?

IR: There is in fact no data to support the charge that mass conversions were organised by the Mughals at the end of the sword. Historians like Harbans Mukhia have shown that the demographic distribution of Muslims in early modern India was largest at the periphery of India — in Kashmir, Kerala, Bangladesh and in present-day Pakistan. The population of Muslims was least in the central Indo-Gangetic lands where the Mughals held sway the longest. This is entirely counter-intuitive if we believe the narrative that the Mughals forcibly converted large sections of the population. Moreover, looking at the records, there was a large jump in the Muslim population of India in the 100 years before 1940, i.e. the time when the British were ruling India and not connected to the Mughals at all.

Men with fireworks

Men with fireworks | Mughal miniature, ca. 1730-40

I believe the Mughals have been at the receiving end of a lot of backlash because they are the closest empire to us in time. Their presence is palpable, and all around us — from the gorgeous monuments which can’t be wished away to a more subtle presence in music, language, culture, food, and clothes. This must clearly be a constant irritant to those who like to speak of “a thousand years of oppression”.

MR: Sex starved, lustful and frustrated, animal like and barbaric, constantly courting innocent Hindu women into marriage etc — these are some of the tropes that Indian pop culture often uses to portray the Mughals and Muslims rulers, in general. As a historian, how do you think such narratives can be countered?

IR: As a writer of history, I am fully aware of the power of stories. Unfortunately, in India, the stories today are mostly circulated through pop culture, in which Bollywood is a major player, and through mythology, which is a great deal more tenaciously relevant to people than history.

So many readers have approached me to tell me how much they learnt through my books, about a history which they really should have known about. So in my opinion, we need to democratise access to Indian history and make it not only accessible to all but also entertaining and engrossing. For a long time, history in India has remained the carefully guarded domain of career historians, universities and libraries. It needs to be disseminated much more widely, if we are to reclaim it in a wider sense. If we look at other countries, history is available to all ages of the populations in different forms. For example, the Horrible History series in the UK captures the interest of young readers by luring them, using the macabre and the unmentionable. In the past few years even in India, there has been a spate of interest in popular history writing by a number of non-professional historians as well as some young historians. This is a hugely encouraging trend that needs to keep growing. If school textbooks are being manipulated and white-washed, then stories need to find new platforms — podcasts, blogs, graphic novels, popular histories, are all essential tools in this most necessary of battles.

Ira Mukhoty is the author of Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal EmpireHeroines: Powerful Indian Women in Myth and History, and Akbar: The Great Mughal. She writes rigorously researched narrative histories that are accessible to the lay reader.
Mukulika R is a member of the Editorial Collective at Indian Cultural Forum, New Delhi.

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