Why Pakistan's historical heroes are India's villains and vice-versa

  • Haroon Khalid
  • 17 Jul 2019

Pakistani nationalism was modelled around the 'valour' of Muslim kings who ruled the sub-continent for several centuries and India does the same with its ruling party aggressively rephrasing history to promote Hindu nationalism.

Shivaji Baji Rao was a general of the Maratha Empire in India in the early 17th century. ( Courtesy of: WikiCommons )

Partitioned along religious lines in 1947, India and Pakistan became Hindu and Muslim-dominant countries respectively, resulting in the exodus of a large Hindu population from Pakistan into India, and vice versa. In the years to come, as these two countries constructed ‘national stories’, history with all its characters was also partitioned into Pakistani and Indian versions.

The complexity, contradictions and the continuity of history was neatly compartmentalised into Muslim, Hindu and Sikh history. Muslim kings such as Mahmud Ghaznvi, Babur, and Aurangzeb, who had either raided India or ruled it directly as a result of these invasions, became heroes of this new country for Muslims. Legends and tales of Muslim ‘valour’ in the face of Hindu ‘cowardice’, as represented through the stories of these kings, not just became national truths but also a source of inspiration for Pakistan, a small country with limited resources in the context of its much larger and more powerful neighbour.

For example popular legends about Mahmud Ghaznvi, an 11th-century Afghan King who invaded India several times, stating how he defeated a major Hindu confederacy of thousands of soldiers with only a few hundred armed men, became part of the national historical discourse. In 2004, a surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile in Pakistan was named Ghaznvi, in honor of this king.

This framework of extolling Muslim kings also crept into archaeology and heritage preservation. In the 1970s the populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ordered the renovation of the much-neglected mausoleum of Qutubuddin Aibak in Lahore. King of north India for a short period of time in the 13th Century, Aibak rose to power from the humble origins of being a slave, his story neatly fitting into the narrative of comparing the ‘democratic’ spirit of Islam with a ‘caste-ridden’ Hinduism. Interestingly the meteoric rise of Bhutto was also premised on his antagonism with India, which he often expressed in historical terms citing the ‘centuries’ old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. While this mausoleum was being renovated, a historical Hindu temple facing the mausoleum was left to its fate, its crumbling structure taken over by several residents.

On the other hand, in India the same narrative was crafted with villains becoming heroes. Using a language that became popular during the colonial era, Muslim rulers and invaders were categorised as ‘foreigners’ while Hindu kings who had opposed them came to be seen as ‘nationalists’ fighting for the sovereignty of India. Hindu rulers such as the 12th-century King Prithviraj Chauhan, who lost his empire to Muhammad of Ghor, became a national hero. There is an Indian Prithvi Missile, as opposed to the Pakistani Ghori Missile.

Similarly the character of the 17th-century Hindu King Chhatrapati Shivaji, who challenged the Muslim Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, became significant. His legacy is today appropriated by a right-winged Marathi nationalist party in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The party calls itself Shiv Sena, the army of Shivaji.

This process of historical appropriation has only gained momentum under the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has been in power since 2014. 

In 2014, Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, named after the 17th-century Mughal king, a much reviled figure in Indian history but celebrated in Pakistan, was rechristened Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road. In 2018, the name of the city Allahabad, a name which was given to it by the 16th-century Mughal Emperor Akbar, was changed to Prayagraj, as part of the Hinduisation process. Pakistan experienced this phenomena soon after its creation with Hindu names being replaced by Muslim ‘symbols’ and ‘heroes’.

There are signs however that the situation is changing. Eager to promote a softer image of the country, in the face of rising extremism, Pakistan began warming up to its non-Muslim history. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took up the case of an ancient Hindu temple, Katas Raj, and ordered the government to maintain its sanctity. Similarly the government in 2018 opened discussion for the Kartapur Sahib corridor, a sacred Sikh shrine in Pakistan. 

As part of the same process, the Punjab government on June 27, in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, inaugurated the statue of Ranjit Singh, an 18th-century Sikh ruler who has long been portrayed as a villain in Pakistani historiography, celebrated in India. This was a rather remarkable step for a state that has demonised non-Muslim kings and history since its inception.

The step however, has had to face backlash. Columns in local newspapers and other social media posts have challenged the act of the government recalling ‘oppressive’ acts of Ranjit Singh against the Muslims. For now it seems the state is adamant in ignoring the opposition. However, the framework that divides Muslim and non-Muslim history, Muslim and non-Muslim heroes, still remains part of the state and its outlook on history, with the statue of Ranjit Singh being more of a symbolic act than representing any structural change. This one tiny step is still a far cry from dismantling the system that has been more than 70 years in the making.

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