Manimugdha S. Sharma is a Delhi-based journalist with The Times of India and has an MA in History. He loves to read and loves long conversations over many cups of tea/coffee or pints of beer. He takes a keen interest in politics, military history, the Mughal and British empires, and the two World Wars. However, Military history is his most favourite area of work and he hopes to write something substantial about the Indian role in a global conflict of the past one day. He has recently come out with the book “Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India”, which provides a profile sketch of the Mughal emperor Akbar, his empire and his times.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, the extensive research that it entailed, and the aspects of Akbar’s life that he has highlighted in this book.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a journalist with The Times of India, New Delhi, and author of “Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India”. I am an avid quizzer and quizmaster and take a keen interest in history, military history, politics, the Mughal and British empires, and the two World Wars.
You’re a self-confessed history buff. When and how did you become interested in history?
As a child, my parents would take me to various heritage monuments and tell me their stories. I suppose the interest started from there. In 1989, Doordarshan aired the mega historical The Sword of Tipu Sultan and it gripped me almost immediately. The series was far ahead of its time as it had the best shot battle scenes ever to be shown on TV or cinema in India. I think if you have to instil patriotism in children in India even today, there is no better visual tool for that than The Sword of Tipu Sultan.
Around the same time, the BBC series Soldiers hosted by Frederick Forsyth was aired by Doordarshan Kendra Guwahati. From there began my interest in military history. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t conscious about all this. It is only now that I realise that those were important landmarks in my life.
The interest in the subject developed in school until I read Professor Irfan Habib’s The Atlas of the Mughal Empire in higher secondary (10+2 level). That made me decide to pick history as honours in the undergraduate level. I finished with an MA in History, but till today I consider myself to be a student of history.
In a previous interview, you have said that Akbar loved the ambiguity of the phrase “Allahu Akbar”. Can you tell us more about it?
Yes. Allahu Akbar is an Islamic formulation that means ‘God is great’. Akbar used it almost everywhere. His ardent admirers in court would wear a medallion where Allahu Akbar was inscribed; they would use phrases like jallejalale hu and Allahu Akbar as a form of greeting. Akbar also put it on his imperial seal and coins. This was chanted every time the emperor had a victory in battle. It is quite obvious that he loved this formulation. The pious would have got the picture that Akbar was being a good Muslim and was invoking God’s name; but the conservative elements certainly loathed the idea as they figured that Akbar was using it as a play on his name. The common man would have got the picture that Akbar is equating himself with Allah, they thought and objected, suggesting instead that Akbar used the more neutral (according to them) phrase, la zikrullahi Akbaru (to mention God is a great thing). Akbar would keep quiet and smile when asked about his intention or vehemently reject the suggestion that he was using it to imply that he was God.
It is this ambiguity that the title of my book captures. It captures both Akbar’s ambition to be seen as God and also his denial. It critiques Akbar’s approach to religion and politics and shows how mixing faith with politics has always been part of India’s history, with one difference: Akbar did that to a positive end while our rulers today are doing it with a negative purpose.
What aspects of Akbar’s life did you want to highlight the most in this book?
Akbar as a politician of his time. His wars and conquests, his ruthless aggression, his diplomacy, his magnanimity, his intriguing personality, his curiosity about life, his role as a boss, son, father, and above all as a man who had the power of life and death over millions of his subjects and how he used that power. I have tried to look at him as an empire builder who was far ahead of his time and one of the greatest sons of the soil. A man who redefined the image of India abroad, making it possible for people in other countries persecuted for their faith to escape to Akbar’s empire and rebuild their lives in India. From Elizabethan England to the Russian Steppe, from the court of Spain to Africa, people conflated India with the image of the ‘Great Moghul’. This is what my book highlights.
This book involved extensive research. Can you tell us more about your research process and which sources and texts did you refer to?
I read translations of the primary sources as Persian as a language was inaccessible to me then (I have more familiarity now but it’s still an ongoing journey). Where translations were not available, I sought help of scholars who were familiar with such texts. Apart from that, I read secondary literature and research papers in various journals. Since I had to deal with histories and events of other parts of the world, I had to read such texts too, which were not directly relevant to Mughal history. Apart from Akbar’s history, I have talked about episodes from the Macedonian, Roman, Ottoman, Safavid and British empires; the Wehrmacht’s campaigns in the Soviet Union and the Red Army’s march to Berlin; Amir Timur’s aggrandising campaigns; the Marathas at Panipat; and so on. It’s actually a complicated narrative and I had to work hard a lot to keep it together.
How did writing about Akbar, and researching more about him inform your perspective of the times in which he lived?
As a student of history, I am aware of the fact that the past is very different. No matter how much primary sources we read, we can never have a complete idea about the past whose memory is no longer alive. But we can have a fairly good idea. That’s what happened to me. I could figure out that 16th-century India was completely different from today’s India. The understanding of religion was also different. The society was far more violent than it is now. And rulers didn’t need any excuse to launch bloody invasions.
Human society today is bound by laws that limit our ability to give vent to medieval impulses. And yet, there are many things that have remained the same. Desire for power, going to any extent to achieve it, desire to appear as a messianic figure to the people – these are all very 16th-century ideas and very 21st-century at the same time. My objective was also to show that even though political systems have changed, the motivations of exercising power have remained the same by and large. Yes, you can’t execute a political opponent today like you could in the past; but you still assassinate the character of your opponent through propaganda spread through social media so as to delegitimise him. So, you see, the motivation has remained the same but the dimension has changed.
After researching about Akbar, I understand him as a 16th-century emperor who was ahead of his time. But unfortunately, he is still relevant in the India of today because our rulers today are constantly looking at the past instead of the future and are appearing in many ways worse than a 16th-century ruler.
If you had to send our readers on a tour of the most fascinating places you came across during your research, what are the places that would feature?
Akbar’s empire stretched from the gates of Iran to the border of the Arakan region. It exerted its influence over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where it acted as a rival to the Ottoman Empire, challenging the Sultan’s legitimacy as the Caliph of Islam. We cannot possibly imagine today’s India to exert that sort of an influence. Boundaries of the modern nation states would inhibit a full recommendation but I will share the places that I think are important in the life of Akbar.
Fatehpur Sikri has to be the top recommendation. You just need to see the whole city in order to understand the scale of that man’s ambition. His tomb at Sikandra is a marvel. Every tourist, Indian or foreign, should visit that place. That architecture defines the man. Ajmer was his regular haunt for 17 years. You have to see Chittor and Ranthambor to understand the might of his arms.
It is necessary to visit Lahore, too, to get an idea of the man. Lahore served as his capital for many years. A trip to Umarkot, Sind, Pakistan, would also be needed. That was his birthplace and the Baloch Regiment, Pakistan Army, has built a memorial there. Pakistan never really accepted Akbar, seeing him as a heretic. So you won’t find anything to commemorate his memory by the nation-state of Pakistan.
Kabul and Kandahar would be the other two places. Sadly, I don’t think much of his built up legacy exists anymore in that war ravaged country.
If you could meet any of the historical characters you’ve written about in person, who would it be and why?
Two people I have always wanted to meet are Nawab Hyder Ali and his son, Hazrat Tipu Sultan. They were the other two geniuses who were ahead of their time and understood long before any other Indian king that the British were here to stay and their rule would upset the traditional Indian way of life and dismantle systems. Tipu Sultan, in recent years, especially after Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s book, has been reduced to being the ‘rocket man’ of India. No doubt that’s an important recognition and even NASA has his portrait at its facility in Houston. But this father-son duo was the most serious challenge to the expansion of the British Empire in India. They didn’t compromise on this and didn’t buy their way out of trouble. Their resistance was stubborn, but their rule was prosperous for their own people.
My connection to them is, of course, very personal – without Sanjay Khan’s TV show The Sword of Tipu Sultan, this interview may not have happened. But yes, I completely understand that Tipu at least was quite ruthless with those he deemed enemies. But his heroic resistance in the face of great odds cannot be denied by anyone. So I suppose I would like to meet them some day.
Then I would like to meet Akbar and you know why. Then I would like to cycle forward several centuries and come to the 20th century where I would like to meet Lenin, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. Has anyone built a time machine yet?
What are some of the lessons that can be drawn from Akbar’s court and political ideologies, which might be relevant to contemporary politics?
I suppose one could draw several lessons. Akbar had this great ability to take everyone on board. Being a paternalistic king, he was able to treat his subjects as children and treat them equally. It was possible to speak freely in his empire. There are contemporary Shiite scholars on record having advised other Shias not to hide their faith as they won’t be persecuted by this Sunni emperor. This climate continued even during Jahangir’s time, with some exceptions
There is another lesson to learn from Akbar. He was somebody who refused to subject his reasoning to dogmas of faith. Writing about the Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court at a later time, French Jesuit priest Father Pierre du Jarric wrote about Akbar that he refused to believe in anything that couldn’t be established with logic. So he had in him “all the flaws of an atheist”, Jarric said. Commenting on Jarric’s commentary on Akbar, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Glimpses of World History, said that if that were the case then we should aspire to be like Akbar.
What is important to note is that Akbar’s expanding empire could sustain the aspirations of people. That’s why we see Rajputs becoming such close allies — actually, allies is a wrong expression here, they became stakeholders and partners in the Mughal Empire. The Rajputs were uncles, aunts, cousins, parents-in-law, etc. of the Mughal emperors. But as the empire expanded after Akbar, there were ever more aspirational groups who tried to become part of the Mughal system but couldn’t for various reasons. You have the Marathas as an example of this type. When the empire failed to fulfil the aspirations of these new groups, they came into conflict with the state. And eventually, this inability resulted in strife and conflict in which the empire expended its energies and gradually collapsed. That’s a big lesson for any nation state even today. If you cannot take all people together, you will create conditions that will rip apart the unity and stability of the country.
Which books feature on your current reading list? Please share some book recommendations for our readers.
I am mostly reading primary sources like the Tabakat-i Nasiri and Tarikh-i Firoz Shahi for my book on the Delhi Sultanate. Apart from that, I am also reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin called Waiting For Hitler (two volumes are out but the third one is in the works). I am also re-reading Supriya Gandhi’s biography of Dara Shukoh called The Emperor Who Never Was and Rana Safvi’s Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi. I have recently finished two new books, Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power by Aparna Pande and The House of Jaipur by John Zubrzycki. I don’t read fiction at all nowadays.
What’s next for you? Are you working on any exciting new projects our readers should look out for?
Next is a book on the Delhi Sultanate that I am working on. After that, there is a project on military history. These two will keep me occupied for the next few years.