Monday, 27 June 2011

Of PNS Babur, INS Godavari and a tale of Mughal Hindustan

Despite recent talks between India and Pakistan's senior Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, there is little the two countries can agree upon. Even the rescue of six Indian crew members aboard an Egyptian merchant ship threatened by pirates by Pakistan Navy warship 'Babur' caused a diplomatic incident.
Interestingly enough, Pakistan's rescuing warship's name, i.e. Babur, personifies South Asia's rich, confused and often bloody history. Zaheerudin Babur (1483 – 1530), after whom the Pakistani ship is named, was not an Indian, and at best, an honorary Pakistani.
Babur was a tribal leader born in Andijan, a city in present day Uzbekistan. He was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur (aka Tamerlane). 
A miniature painting from Babur's memoirs, the Baburnama
Thrown out of hereditary lands by rivals, Babur was forced to flee south towards India. After a series of military battles, in 1526 Babur took control of Delhi and founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur's direct descendants ruled India until the British colonized the region in the 1800s.
Like most Muslim rulers, Babur ruled for the pleasure of Allah. Throughout Mughal lands, Friday sermons were read in his name. Official decrees were issued in the name of the Supreme Sovereign, i.e. Allah. Yet, while Babur ruled in the name of divinity, he was very much a man of this world. Many of his military victories were due to early adoption and effective use of modern technology e.g. cannons.
Babur also enjoyed life. Almost without exception, Mughal emperors maintained large harems, were 'recreational' users of opium and drank alcohol with reckless abandon. The Mughals easily reconciled these personal habits with their Islamic piety.
While Babur never completely adopted India as his home – he longed to return to Central Asia – his successors shaped India in many different ways.
Babur's grandson, Mughal Emperor Akbar, is referred to as Mughal-e-Azam or the Great Mughal. Following Akbar, the Mughals were no longer viewed as foreign invaders but legitimate rulers of Hindustan. For their part, the Mughals slowly dropped Turkish as their courtly tongue in favour of Urdu; a move which made it much easier for North Indian political elites to participate in Mughal India.
Babur is Indo-Pak in so many different ways. He was born in the far off Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan. He spoke Turkish. He died in Delhi, from where he established the Mughal dynasty. On Babur's own insistence, he is buried in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Babur had little love for India or its 'native' people and did not wish to be buried there.)
Babur was a Muslim conqueror, as 'Muslim' as political expediency required of him. Nevertheless, the Mughals are 'Indian' rulers – not alien invaders out to convert Hindus to Islam. Many of India's most prominent sights, such as the Taj Mahal are monuments to Mughal rule.  
Mughal Emperor Babur's tomb in the Bagh-e-Babur, Kabul, Afghanistan

Babur's legacy remains with us in more ways than just PNS Babur.
Babur's ghosts most recently arose during the controversy over the (now destroyed) Babri Masjid. Babri Masjid was a mosque named after Babur and allegedly built on sacred Hindu ground during his reign. After Hindu fundamentalists demolished Babri Masjid in 1992, communal clashes leading to the death of thousands erupted across India. 
Babur may be the name of a contemporary Pakistani naval warship. To some, Pakistan's PNS Babur may represent Turkish speaking Muslim invaders. To others, Babur without the PNS prefix denotes the beginning of centuries of Hindu-Muslim amity under an enlightened Muslim dynasty. Or is it more appropriate to say Indian Muslim dynasty? Perhaps.

* As an aside, readers might be interested to note that the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is buried in Yangon, Myanmar.

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