By Najmul Hoda


Title: Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Rajkamal Publications

Pages: 368

Price: Rs 799

To buy

Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb is arguably the most readable and riveting book written on Akbar. History, biography or historical novel — call it what you may, Shazi Zaman has pulled a major tour de force. This is way better than what the Dalrymples and Rutherfords of the Indian historical fiction industry keep churning out. It has little exotica. Not much trivia. Hard historical facts. Culled from the primary sources, and strung together to make a seamless narrative with minimum speculation and intervention from the author. He lets the historical texts speak. And they speak loud and eloquent.
It’s not about empire building, wars, conquests and administration. Not much. Not directly. If anything—and if the word can be retrospectively used—it’s about nation-building.

It’s about Akbar, the thinker. The seeker, not the believer. The restless contemplator yearning for the resolution of myriad contradictions whirling in his mind. The free-thinker whose mind was free from the shackles of inherited wisdom and certitudes. The man who had the audacity, eagerness and enterprise to go beyond the limits set by his time, place, tradition and culture.

He never rejected Islam. He was devout. Deep. Spiritual. Mystical. Sufi. He delved deep into the meanings of both the precepts and the practices. Precepts kept him tethered. Practices made him break loose. Particularly the shenanigans of the religious establishment, most visibly personified in the unscrupulous and overweening arrogance of Shaikh Abdun Nabi who had the temerity to hit the adolescent emperor with a stick for something as innocuous as wearing saffron during the basant festival.


The theft of indiaTHe PoRTuguese

Terror, Luxury and Decay

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Gujarat was probably the most important trading centre in India. Broach, at the mouth of the great River Narmada, was its principal port and market. From there, goods were despatched to the Indian interior, southern and western India, Arabia, Central Asia, Europe and to the Far East. At the beginning of the century, much of the pepper and other spices of the Malabar Coast, and from the Far East, had been taken north to Gujarat for sale. When the Portuguese took control of the spice trade in Malabar and the East, and shipped directly to Europe, Gujarat’s trade suffered. Nevertheless, with its access to the routes into northern India and Arabia, Gujarat was still a major business centre.

The Gujaratis were considerable shipowners. Moreover, the Gujarati merchants regularly travelled on business to Arabia and the Far East. In other parts of India where trade was mostly in the hands of Hindu merchants, these were inhibited by the Hindu prohibition on ‘crossing the black sea’. Hindus who did travel were liable to be ruined by being expelled from their caste. In Gujarat, not only were there many Muslims who were, of course, free to travel, but also many well-off Hindus who had converted to Jainism. To become a Jain was perfectly acceptable to most Hindus since they regarded the Jains as a Hindu sect. Moreover, they were much admired for their belief in the sanctity of all life. Naturally, adhering to such a belief meant the Jains were unable to indulge in warfare, a common occupation of upper- caste Hindus. The Jains were free to focus their energies on moneylending, banking and trade. Moreover, their religion had no restrictions on travel, so they were able to conduct business abroad. Both the Jains and the Muslims established themselves as major overseas traders.

The Portuguese, having secured domination over Malabar, wanted to gain control over Gujarat too. Their first opportunity came in 1533, when the Mughals attacked Gujarat. In 1534 the ruler of Gujarat entered into a pact with the Portuguese to resist the Mughals. In return for their help, he gave them the district of Bassein and its dependencies, including the islands that would eventually become Bombay. The Portuguese greatly strengthened the existing fort at Bassein and built many more. Two years later, they managed to obtain the island fort of Diu. The Gujaratis tried to reclaim Diu in 1538 and again in 1546. The later siege was an epic battle. The governor of India (later viceroy), João de Castro, commanded the Portuguese relief. From Bassein, he sent one of his commanders on a preliminary foray to intercept any ships taking supplies to the enemy. This he did with great savagery. The mutilated bodies of the men he killed were cast into the mouths of the rivers so that they would drift up to the towns as a warning of Portuguese vengeance. When the commander returned to Bassein, the yardarms of his ships were decorated with the hanging bodies of sixty Muslims.

It needed all the naval and military resources of the Portuguese to raise this siege of Diu, which could well have terminated their attempts at domination, but they prevailed and massively extended the fortifications. The reprisals after the second siege of Diu were savage. The governor told the king of Portugal that he had sent a commander with twenty ships to:

Burn and destroy the whole coast, in which he very well showed his diligence and gallantry, because he caused more destruction of the coast than was ever done before, or ever dreamt of, destroying every place from Daman up to Broach, so that there was no memory left of them, and he butchered everyone he captured without showing mercy to a living thing. He burnt twenty large ships and one hundred and fifty small ones and the town squares were covered in bodies, which caused great astonishment and fear in all Gujarat.

At Gogha, the Portuguese heaped up the bodies of those they had killed in the temples. They then cut the throats of cows and defiled the temples by sprinkling them with the blood.


The political scope of non-violence

Gandhi does not envisage a tactical non-violence confined to one area of life or to an isolated moment.

His non-violence is a creed which embraces all of life in a consistent and logical network of obligations. One cannot be violent, for example, in interpersonal or family relations, and non-violent with regard to conscription and war. Genuine non-violence means not only non-cooperation with glaring social evils, but also the renunciation of benefits and privileges that are implicitly guaranteed by forces which conscience cannot accept.

Austere political implications of the non-violent way of life are suggested in some of these texts.

So long as I lived under a system of government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war, unless I non-cooperated with that government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me.            I–73

There is no escape for any of us save through truth and non-violence. I know that war is wrong, is an unmitigated evil. I know too that it has got to go. I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.      I–75

Merely to refuse military service is not enough…This is [to act] after all the time for combating evil is practically gone.     I–106

Non-cooperation in military service and service in non- military matters are not compatible.        I–108

Non-Violence to be a creed has to be all-pervasive. I cannot be non-violent about one activity of mine and violent about others. That would be a policy, not a life force. [1935]


By Abhishek Sikhwal


I have been waiting for a book like An Era of Darkness for quite some time. While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire). In reviewing this book, my slight bias, of which I’m forthcoming, arises squarely from the fact that there hasn’t been anything similar that singularly deals with the Indian experience of colonization.

Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.

Tharoor rubbishes the argument that the British were better than the native kings they were supplanting by citing the good governance in kingdoms such as Travancore, Mysore and Oudh. Even the Moghuls, who ruled India for over three centuries, assimilated themselves into the region and the capital extracted under their empire never left the country. The British, however, kept themselves aloof from the customs of the indigenous people and systematically siphoned off the country’s wealth to Britain. According to Tharoor, “By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.

While some think that the British should be thanked for introducing the railways, press and parliamentary system into India, Tharoor argues that these were only introduced in order to accelerate the purloin of the country’s riches and to maintain control over the land. He also points out how India is still suffering under a system that was framed with Victorian values. Our bureaucracy, corruption and unfortunate laws pertaining to homosexuality and sedition can all be attributed to the archaic system set up by the British. Even the divide-and-rule policy initially used by the British to keep Indians quarrelling amongst themselves, created a gulf between communities that continues till today.


By the end of the nineteenth century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.

Taxation remained onerous. Agricultural taxes amounted at a minimum to half the gross produce and often more, leaving the cultivator less food than he needed to support himself and his family; British estimates conceded that taxation was two or three times higher than it had ever been under non-British rule, and unarguably higher than in any other country in the world. Each of the British ‘presidencies’ remitted vast sums of ‘savings’ to England, as of course did English civil servants, merchants and soldiers employed in India. (After a mere twenty-four years of service, punctuated by and including four years of ‘home leave’ furloughs, the British civil servant was entitled to retire at home on a generous pension paid for by Indian taxpayers: Ramsay MacDonald estimated in the late 1920s that some 7,500 Englishmen were receiving some twenty million pounds annually from India as pension.)

While British revenues soared, the national debt of   India multiplied exponentially. Half of India’s revenues went out of India, mainly to England. Indian taxes paid not only for the British Indian Army in India, which was ostensibly maintaining India’s security, but also for a wide variety of foreign colonial expeditions in furtherance of the greater glory of the British empire, from Burma to Mesopotamia. In 1922, for instance, 64 per cent of the total revenue of the Government of India was devoted to paying for British Indian troops despatched abroad. No other army in the world, as Durant observed at the time, consumed so large a proportion of public revenues.