History has the habit of repeating itself, they say, albeit in a less glorious fashion. It seems that a statement recently made by our Home Minister has brought two iconic rulers back to a metaphorical battlefield. Only last week, members of a right wing Hindutva organisation had attacked the legacy of Akbar, now seen as an exclusively Muslim leader, defacing road signs with Muslim names in New Delhi. What followed was a communalization of our history, a desperate attempt made by right wing organisations to divide and rule.
To add fuel to fire, Rajnath Singh recently tweeted demanding the epithet of ‘the great’ for the Mewar King Rana Pratap. He compares the Rajput king with his contemporary Akbar, which opened the debate on who is greater. Naturally, the issue found its way to communal politics as internet forums were filled with lengthy discussions on Akbar versus Rana Pratap.
If Akbar can be called 'Akbar the Great' for his contribution then why can't Maharana Pratap be recognised as 'Maharana Pratap the Great'
— Rajnath Singh (@BJPRajnathSingh) May 17, 2015
The two iconic figures had faced each other in the legendary battle of Haldighati (1576) which led to the defeat of Chittor, but they never captured Rana Pratap as he had retreated from the battle field. Rana Pratap’s retreat to the forest made him a master of what would later come to be known as “guerrilla warfare”, which centuries later would inspire the Vietnamese during the US-Vietnam war. Rana Pratap had contrived to be an irritant to the ambitions of Akbar, who eventually had to give up. Therefore in the words of Kesri Singh, “for the imperial army, no victory was ever more like defeat; for Mewar, no retreat more glorious”.
The battle fought between these two historic figures was in no sense at all flamed by religious strife. The leader of Akbar’s army was in fact a Rajput, Man Singh, while the leader of Pratap’s army was a Pathan, Hakim Khan Suri. It would be irrational to assume a Hindu-Muslim narrative of conflict. Akbar has been considered a symbol of religious tolerance. His view of nationhood was more secular. Rana Pratap, on the other hand, has always been associated with Hindu resistance against outside forces. Even then, the battle between the two was never a religious war.
This is where we come back to the present. Rajnath Singh’s perceived lack of importance given to Rana Pratap Singh is not only uninformed but also absurd. His contention is that if Akbar can be called ‘the great’, then Rana Pratap should also have the privilege of the epithet ‘the great’. The statement made by the Home Minister assumes that there is some kind of conspiracy against the Hindu King, whereby refusing to associate him with ‘the great’ means we are privileging Akbar, a Muslim leader over a Hindu leader. This is exactly where the problem lies. The minister seems misinformed about the fact that Maharana is an epithet used specifically for the Sisodia clan of Mewar, as Maha stands for ‘the great’ and Rana stands for chief. The title given to the leaders of Mewar is a proclamation of their supremacy over all other kings.
Further to draw comparisons between two legendary leaders is to cause great injustice to their legacy. Both the leaders have different socio-cultural contexts. It would be bizarre to pit them against each other on their greatness. It is a communalist campaign meant to achieve political ends. In doing so, it creates a hierarchy. History does not operate like that. Their greatness is derived from their consistent efforts to protect their kingdom, their valiance, and their political ideals. Akbar’s greatness lies in the fact that he was a conqueror, not a plunderer, unlike his predecessors. He sought to unite the fractions to his grand vision of a secular nation. Rana Pratap is considered great because of his ecstatic display of heroism and his relentless struggle to maintain the independence of his country.
Unlike these historical figures, the political machinations of the present times seem to focus more on division rather than unity. If the logic of privileging one over the other is to be followed, we risk eliminating entire histories. To be uninformed of our past, is indeed dangerous.