Mahatma Gandhiji’s emphasis on non-violence has largely defined perceptions of Hinduism, both among Hindus and non-Hindus. But this has been exaggerated to imply that Hindus were historically weak people who suffered repeated invasions and were mere spectators to the periodic assaults from foreigners. India appears to have always been an easy conquest – ready to surrender at the first signs of foreign aggression. Some Hindus too support this theory to highlight the superiority of Hindu spiritualism which helped it survive across millenniums despite military weakness.
Nothing can be farther from truth. As a matter of fact, Indians have treated material and spiritual life with equal importance though the material life was also dovetailed towards “dharma”. India was the forefront of trade and commerce and accounted for 25% of world trade as recent as 1750s. The ascendancy of The West is limited to the last 2-3 centuries before which it was India which was a much advanced civilization.
Hinduism did not survive because of some miracle. It survived because Hindus met the cruelty of foreign aggressors with equal tenacity. One cannot divorce Hindu Spiritualism from Hindu Heroism as far as facts are concerned.
Did Alexander conquer India?
Much is made about Alexander conquering India whereas the fact is that he touched modern-day Pakistan and hadn’t even ventured into the Gangetic plains - the mainland India.
We are told that Alexander’s army was exhausted by the long conquest, felt homesick and pressurized Alexander to turn back. This is an interesting, given that Alexander knew the riches India possessed and having come so close he decides to just give up such an opportunity.
No, the real reason as Plutarch writes is:
“…they(Alexander’s army) violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also….., while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at-arms and horsemen and elephants. For they were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with 80,000 horsemen, 2, 00,000 footmen, 80,000 chariots, and 6,000 war elephants.”
Alexander’s army shivered at the reported size of army and elephants waiting for them. So much for Alexander the Great, the World Conqueror!
The Islamic Rule
We begin by noting how Altaf Husain Hali an Urdu poet who lived in 19th century rued that the invincible armada of Islam which had swept over so many seas and rivers met its watery grave in the Ganges.
Our history textbooks do our heritage a great injustice by selectively exposing us only to the victories of Islamic armies as if they met with no resistance. The Islamized Arabs achieved astonishing success in their lightening war which saw fall of Persia, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and even Spain. Yet, their initial campaigns in Sindh were failures. Later, Muhammad bin Qasim succeeded in occupying some areas of Sindh (around 713 AD).But it was short-lived. This expedition by Arabs was a failure.
A full two centuries later, came the man who earned eternal notoriety in Hindus by destroying Somnath Mandir – Mehmood Ghaznavi (he attacked around 1001 AD to 1030 AD). However, he barely consolidated an empire in mainland India though he succeeded in looting a staggering amount of wealth. The first notable success however came with Mohammed Ghori who managed to defeat Prithviraj Chauhan (in 1194 AD), a Rajput king after facing humiliating defeat a few years earlier. Chauhan had earlier defeated him, but when Ghori begged for forgiveness, he let him off. The cunning nemesis returned three years later to defeat and kill him. Thus, it was Islamized Turks who brought Islam rule to India.
So that is a good 500 years of heroic resistance before eventually giving in. This, when other countries like Iran totally collapsed and people converted to Islam en-masse within a generation!
Ghori’s successors established the first dynasty of Delhi Sultanate. The throne passed on to different dynasties which ruled between 1206 and 1526. Though they won some remarkable victories, their empire was far from safe. The Rajputs harassed them no end and it was struggling to keep itself afloat through assistance from foreign Islamic empires. When Mongols attacked Baghdad and foreign assistance wasn’t available, the Rajput kings were quite successful in blunting Delhi Sultanate’s power. Far from being a stable and ever-expanding empire, Delhi Sultanate was constantly rescued from extinction by a fresh wave of foreign assistance/force.
During this time, there were constant raids to South India whose kings were initially was taken aback. But soon, they took stock of the situation, and formed a confederation of nations – Vijayanagar Empire – which stood as a bulwark against Islamic invasions from north for 250 years.
In fact, the first Muslim ruler to successfully consolidate a stable empire was Akbar of Moghul dynasty. His grandfather, Babur was a Mongol from Samarkhand, and attacked Delhi Sultanate with newly available artillery. His victory against Delhi Sultanate put an end to this dynasty and thus began Moghul Empire.
Akbar’s success lay in fact that he befriended Rajputs, therefore Moghul Empire could be called a joint venture. He cancelled jiziya tax and took several measures so that the large Hindu populace could be pacified. This solid foundation that Akbar built was responsible for a strong Moghul empire (1556 -1707 AD) which was successful in ensuring stability for some time.
Things changed when Aurangzeb, the great-grandson of Akbar, reversed the enlightened policies and re-imposed jiziya tax. The fragile balance was broken. Soon, Marathas under the energetic leadership of Shivaji rose to the occasion and offered stiff resistance to Muslim states. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 can be considered as the final nail wedging out Islamic supremacy in India.
Soon Marathas under Peshwas became the de-facto rulers of India. Though halted by the Panipat failure in 1761, it indirectly led to the formation of the Sikh empire which under Raja Ranjit Singh ruled parts of Afghanistan as well besides areas neighbouring Punjab.
So for a brief period of 300 years, a major part of North India was ruled by Delhi Sultanate. The Moghul Empire was powerful for a period of 150 years. This, when Rajputs conquered many areas for Moghuls!
We conclude by noting that the Islamic empire was effective in North India (let alone South India for which duration was much shorter) from 1206 AD to 1707 AD – amounting approx. 500 years. When British took India, it took it from a Hindu-dominated India and not Moghul India as is falsely suggested.
For all the self-aggrandizement of the Great British empire in which “the sun never sets”, they were passive onlookers for some 150 years (from establishing East India Company in 1600 to 1757 AD) before they sensed the opportunity and subdued Bengal province in the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
The First Anglo-Maratha War (1775–1782), ended favourably to Marathas. The Second Anglo-Mysore War (1779–1784), was one last occasion where an Indian king (Tipu Sultan) was able to dictate terms to British army.The complete conquest of Marathas and Mysore was possible only in 1818 and 1799 respectively. The Second Anglo-Sikh War took place in 1848 and 1849, was the last prominent war that completed the conquest of India by British.
Barely 10 years later, Indians fought together and challenged British rule (though it was East India Company and not British Nation directly which ruled so far) in the First War of Independence in 1857. The mutiny failed, but it scared Britishers so much, that it assured Indians that they do not intend to impose their religion and culture on Indians forcefully. The power was transferred to the British Crown from the British East India Company.
Contrary to some notions, the reason of this defeat was not because Indians attacked with bow and arrow and British retaliated with guns. India was the largest producer of gunpowder at that time and Indians had good access to it. And the mutiny was not suppressed by a native-British army – their army was predominantly Indian too from other Indian presidencies.
Yet, Indians rose again and ended the British rule within 90 years of this mutiny – 1947. From the Battle of Plassey (1757 AD) to Indian Independence (1947 AD), India was ruled for less than 200 years. In fact their complete supremacy over whole India lasted for some 100 years only (or 150 years if you exclude Punjab province).
Also note that the glory of British Empire faded with the loss of India and it became a second-rate power immediately after 1947. This was because British Empire rose at the cost of Indians so far.
Indian soldiers were the major contributors to British Army and as late as the Burma Campaign (1942 – 1945 AD), when Japan attacked British Burma, it was (British) Indian Army which broke the back of Japanese forces. Japan tried to attack India too, but the Indian army devastated them. It is one among the wars that completely destroyed Japanese strength and forced them to retreat.
Besides Quit India movement and loss of British morale after World War 2, it was this realization that India has a huge army which has now developed national consciousness that made British quit rather hastily. Now, the army that supported British in worldwide conquests could no longer be relied upon completely. So, far from the notion of British conscience troubled by the non-violent movement of Gandhiji and repentance by giving away India, it was this prospect of bloody exit that hastened their exit. Delay could have meant ignominy of tasting defeat from India.
65 years later - India has again become the fourth largest economy in the world.
Analysis and Closing Remarks
Today we’re faced with a perverted history wherein Indian history is presented in terms of its foreign invaders: Iranians, Greeks, Parthians, Scythians, Kushans, Arabs, Turks, Persians, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British. This was okay as long as British ruled India because they were intent on destroying the collective pride of Indians. They justified their rule by showing that India was always ruled by foreigners.
In fact they went ahead and created a false history of Aryan Invasion Theory wherein the overwhelming Hindu majority is itself represented as the first invader – Aryans - which destroyed native people called Dravidians. This was a stick to beat Indians with: “Look, you were the first invader. What right have you to question us?” Even if for argument’s sake we accept it, isn’t it hypocritical to question the nativity of people who settle thousands of years ago, when Americans call themselves such with barely 400 years of settlement. But, the theory has been proved inaccurate anyway.
The inter-conflicts between Indian kings is cited to convey that India was a never a united nation and this Indian identity was a product of British rule. The same people do not question the German identity with the same vigour, given that Germany was unified by Bismarck as late as 1871. Even the American identity is a much recent product and very slowly the Irish and Jews are also identified as “Whites” which was previously restricted to Anglo-Saxons. If such countries have a secure national identity with young past, why cannot India which predates these nations by thousands of years.
India might have had several states where in-fighting was common. Yet, the overwhelming Hindu Cultural undercurrent is hard to miss. There was no mass scale plunder of a defeated kingdom by the victorious army. There were no forced conversions or destruction of temples/public properties. Kings actively patronized saints of various religions irrespective of their own religion. Except Tamil, most Indian languages are highly influenced by Sanskrit.
The period of foreign domination over most of India is limited to 300 years, (150 years of Moghuls and 150 years of British). Most pre-Islamic Indian Empires lasted much longer than this. This is a relatively short period in 5000 years of continuous Indian history.
Our history proves that we were always able to repulse the fanatic invaders in the final round while assimilating the more reasonable people within our culture without prosecuting them.
While we need to introspect on the factors that lead to our decline, we need not be ashamed of our historical conduct at all – rather, we have a glorious history which one needs to justly proud of. And our pride is doubled by our cultural nobility which European Imperialists cannot claim. Their rapid rise was often at the expense of their colonies. Their growth was supported by systematic loot of their colonies and was not self-sustaining. Whereas, the prosperity of India was always self-driven and not supported by any unfair or coercive loot from abroad.
Kuch baat hain ki hasti mithtee nahi hamari !