The curse of Dara Sikoh

Take a moment and close your eyes, think of the one person you would want to be if you had the choice. This is the definition of a role model- a position with incredible power. Now imagine if ten million or more wanted to be the same person. That is the colossal power of a celebrity role model. To understand the underlying aspirations and the mental makeup of a population, one needs to only look at the role models that they glorify.

With this background, let’s go back in time 357 years, to circa 1659 A.D where on a hot summer day in Delhi, a weary prisoner in filthy clothes was cooking lentils with his son. All of a sudden four armed men appeared out of nowhere and leapt at him. This might have been just another incident involving a medieval prisoner if not for the fact that barely two years ago this captive was a supremely powerful man, the heir apparent of the mighty Mughal Empire! This man was Dara Sikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan. 

As news of Shah Jahan's illness spread, the three princes Dara Sikoh in Agra, Aurangzeb from Deccan and ShahShuja from Bengal started vying for his succession. The fourth prince- Murad Baksh allied himself with Aurangzeb. 

Dara Sikoh and Aurangzeb were polar opposites of each other despite being brothers. Aurangzeb was a ruthless military commander, a battle hardened, frugal and fearless warrior with a very rigidly intolerant Sunni world view. Dara was a philosophical scholar, a patron of the arts, creatively gifted, pluralistic, extroverted and a secular, humane person. He had always led a protected and sheltered life in the Mughal court, and this would in turn be his greatest disadvantage. 

Dara debating religion with Christian pastors

There are a few defining moments in history where the fate of an entire nation for generations to come, is decided within a matter of hours, sometimes by a seemingly insignificant encounter. One such relatively lesser known battles, took place in Samugarh near Agra on  30th of May, 1658 between Aurangzeb’s forces against the much larger army of Dara Sikoh. Dara Sikoh was defeated and fled to Sindh where he sought the help of local chieftain Malik Jawan, a man whose life he had once saved.  Dara Sikoh was betrayed by him and paraded like a lowly criminal on an elephant through the streets of Delhi. He was eventually imprisoned and beheaded in front of his son, by four of Aurangzeb's henchmen. It was not just Dara but an entire sub-continent that was metaphorically beheaded on that fateful day. 

Aurangzeb shown the severed head of Dara

Some historians argue nothing would have changed drastically and some say it would have been a totally different world order. Both arguments have their merits but surely the history of religious coexistence in India might have been completely different if the secular and scholarly Dara was Emperor instead of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb went on to commit numerous excesses and brutalities that lead to the Rajput, Sikh, Maratha and Jat revolts, which eventually brought down the Mughal Empire within the next fifty years. 

This forgotten chapter in India's history highlights the importance of a role model in shaping the psyche of an entire population. Role models play a significant role in establishing the kind of behavior that is rewarded and punished. An entire nation’s race, religious or ethnic group's behavior can be radically different depending on the role models they collectively choose to emulate. Aurangzeb as an emperor caused the deepening of religious fault lines and planted a seed of Sunni fundamentalism in the Indian- Muslim leadership that makes them choose unworthy Muslim role models even when they have fantastic choices. It has extracted a price on us in the form of partition and other genocides, even 250 years after his death. This malaise of self-destructive behavior by venerating the wrong role models, is what we refer to as the curse of Dara Sikoh. 

Let us take another example from a hundred years after Aurangzeb. In the 1760s there were two famous Muslim personalities Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Ibrahim Gardi of Deccan. Ibrahim Khan Gardi was a Decani General who served the Maratha Peshwa and was considered as one of the finest warriors of his times. He fought bravely against the Afghan invader Abdali in the battle of Panipat in 1761 and in an unexpected defeat, he was tortured and killed publicly by Abdali, but he did not waver from his loyalty to his homeland. In contrast, Tipu Sultan’s father Hyder Ali got the Mysore throne by illegally usurping it from the king. Once in power Tipu destroyed temples, brutalized non-Muslims, massacred the Coorgi’s and even requested for an invasion from the Ottoman Empire to consolidate his power in South India. Even his wars against the British were for his personal power and not for India's freedom. But today, Tipu Sultan is the feted role model and Ibrahmin Gardi is an unknown name. There are no inspired Television serials, glorification in the mainstream narrative, or school text book chapters about Ibrahim Gardi.

Ibrahim Khan (left) with Sadashivrao Bhau (center)

Similarly in India between 1920 and 1947, we were in the middle of a crippling British rule, and once again the Muslims had an option of selecting secular nationalists like Khan Abdul Gafar Khan or even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as role models. But the Muslim leaders were either fanatics like the Ali brothers who were more preoccupied with a Caliphate in Turkey, or religious separatists like Jinnah and Sohrawardy. Maulana Azad could establish even 5% of the votes in the Muslim reserved seats in the provincial elections, and Khan Abdul Gafar Khan was thrown to the wolves after partition. He eventually died a broken man under house arrest in Peshawar. If you  believe that this proclivity to select radicals as role models died with the partition of India, then consider the number of Muslims that turned up for APJ Abul Kalam's funeral against that of Yakub Menon’s! Think of how many share posts glorifying Zakir Hussein vs Zakir Naik. For the recent renaming of Aurangzeb road in Delhi, how many Muslims celebrated and how many defended Aurangzeb's actions? The list goes on but what explains such preferences? Does the fault lie squarely on the Muslim community? Absolutely not. A large part of the fault does lie with having dogmatic attitudes but it always takes two hands to clap. 

There are several other factors involved in deciding what kind of a person is considered as a suitable role model for an entire community. Put yourself in the position of an ordinary Muslim in India and imagine your daily life. You will most likely offer prayers and come in contact with local clergy at least once a week. The clergy's sermons give you a sense of identity, empowerment and community. So if the clergy has supremacist or exclusivist leanings, then it is very likely that it will influence you. A supremacist thinking pattern gives you a sense of inflated entitlement, and when you hear endless victimhood narrative peddled by the media your biases are confirmed. Your school text books or community rarely talk about the excesses committed historically by your co-religionists and whenever you hear some mention of it you conveniently label them as fringe or conspiracy theories. Over time you start to firmly believe that not only are you entitled to certain rewards but are also wronged at many levels. Now add political appeasement to the already volatile blend. When you see a man no less than the Prime Minister overturn a Supreme Court decision to impose Sharia like in the case of Shah Bano by Rajiv Gandhi, it gives you a signal that you can get away with anything. 

With a separate personal law, a special status for a Muslim majority state, special subsidies etc. it ensure that one feels Muslim first and Indian second. The sense of being different from the ‘others’ is further concretized. So effectively grass roots conditioning, media narratives and political appeasement ensures that one’s mind has been systematically conditioned to become a chaotic cocktail of unapologetic entitlement, alienation and victimhood at the same time. In such a cocktail comes a stirrer like Zakir Naik. He speaks up for you, instills pride in your community by calling it the only true path, and openly defies the evil establishment that you think suppresses your voice. He does all of this with a politically correct narrative, that never openly endorses violence. Don't you think a common Muslim will be enamored and will immediately select him as a role model over someone like APJ Kalam who did wonders for India as a country but without wearing his Muslim identity on his sleeve? The result speaks for itself, Zakir Naik's Facebook page has over 14 million likes and APJ Abdul Kalam's barely amasses 300k.

So is India in trouble? Yes we are. We are in deep trouble. In the territories that we have lost to religious separatism like Pakistan and Bangladesh, we can almost abandon any thought of reviving a harmonious co-existence. But the optimistic view is that this is not irreversible in what is left of present day India. It might take generations to cleanse the system of the rot that has collected over centuries and establish a genuine secular democracy, but this is possible provided a firm stance is taken right now. Religious freedom is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen guaranteed by article 15 and article 25 of the constitution, and this must be non-negotiable. Not for one moment are we proposing a caretaker state where there is policing of places of worship, but if one respects the Indian constitution, then one must also respect Indian law. The Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA) was formed to manage the money that flows in from overseas to ensure that they are not used for subversive purposes. There are credible reports that between 2011 to 2013 INR 1700 crores was pumped into India by Saudi Wahabbi Islamists. This resulted in around 25,000 orthodox Wahhabi preachers spreading their tentacles to impressionable youth, who would otherwise have a more tolerant world view. A stronger enforcement of the FCRA law is absolutely permissible within the Indian constitutional framework and can be used to counter such malicious elements.

 Large sections of the media have been systematically funded to be sympathetic to radicals, and have constantly peddled the victimhood narrative for decades. A lie when spoken a thousand times often becomes the truth. A member of a minority community who is force- fed the victimhood story constantly while growing up, is more likely to feel alienated in his own country in spite of the facts being contrary to the mainstream narrative.  The same FCRA law can also be used to monitor illegal funding in the Indian media. However a better weapon to counter the propaganda of a biased media is social media. Access to information has been dramatically altered by social media, which should be used effectively to spread the right and honest kind of information. 

Another major factor is the education system which is responsible for teaching us who our true heroes are. Unfortunately, school text books in India are skewed towards a particular ideology for political reasons. Very few amongst us have ever heard of people like Banda Singh Bahadur, Raja Chatrasal, Shivaji, Lachit Borpokan, Ibrahim Gardi or the dozens of other genuine heroes that we had in our Indian history. A disproportionate amount of focus is given to glorifying monarchs with prominently gray areas and whitewashing their sins. This keeps the general population largely ignorant and incapable of making a factual- conscious decision, of who should or should not be considered a role model. Social media can also be used to counter the selective falsehoods taught in school history textbooks. The final step would be to build an ambience where political will can be generated to give radicalism the final death blow. In a democracy, the political leadership is merely a reflection of the people. The fact that politicians today are unwilling to act on uniform civil code, article 370 etc. is a symptom of the underlying problem. The root cause is because people are not aware or knowledgeable enough to be vocal about implementation. When a larger population understands the implications of having divisive laws like Muslim personal law, they will demand that it be ended and replaced with a uniform civil code. Politicians always act when they sense that their power is being threatened or in jeopardy. When politicians act, the communication on what behavior will be incentivized and what will be penalized will be crystal clear.

History has an uncanny knack of repeating itself when we do not take charge of things and correct past mistakes. The creation of Pakistan was a mistake because it did not lead to a better quality of life for anyone. The Hindus paid the heaviest prize by being completely wiped out of the land they had inhabited for thousands of years. Even the converted Muslims now live a denigrated life with low per capita income, sectarian conflict, terrorism and constant genocidal conflict. Course correction is important in the early stages when we see the same circumstances being recreated. This might seem like an uphill, near impossible path but one must consider that the Ottoman Empire which was the lifeline of the Islamic orthodoxy, took less than a decade under Kemal Ataturk to become completely secular. 

In conclusion, the only way to break the curse of Dara Sikoh, is to build awareness and political will that can someday lead to Dara being considered a role model for Muslims of the subcontinent instead of a Mohammed Ghazni or an Aurangzeb. May there be a future where we see the long tormented soul of Dara Sikoh smile.

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