Mint ST - - FIRST -

In 1683, a lit­tle be­fore the Mughals com­pleted their fi­nal con­quest of the Dec­can, a Brah­min sub­or­di­nate of the Qutb Shah of Gol­conda made a fas­ci­nat­ing re­mark to a friendly Dutch­man. Akkanna, whose brother was minister to the sul­tan, was talk­ing to Michiel Jan­szoon of the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany. And in the course of their dis­cus­sion, the Brah­min said to the Euro­pean: “You your­self can imag­ine which gov­ern­ment serves the king best, ours or that of the Moors (i.e. Mus­lims)”. He and his as­so­ciates were “not peo­ple who have or seek other coun­tries” and, in con­se­quence, were “full­heart­edly devoted to the wel­fare of (this) coun­try”. The “Moors”, on the other hand, came to the Dec­can with the chief in­ten­tion of “be­com­ing rich and then to leave for those places which they con­sider to be ei­ther their fa­ther­land or holy”. In other words, their sole in­ter­est was self-ag­gran­dize­ment, all at the cost of the coun­try that en­riched them in the first place.

It is a re­mark­able state­ment for its time, al­most Savarkaresque with its talk of fa­ther­lands, holy lands, and the al­leged illegitimacy of some groups on ac­count of their for­eign­ness or lack of re­li­gious com­mit­ment to In­dia. Equally in­ter­est­ing is that this state­ment ap­pears soon af­ter the cel­e­brated Maratha war­rior, Shivaji, ar­tic­u­lated his own dharmic vi­sion of power and king­ship. Was this, then, the begin­ning of the crys­tal­liza­tion of re­li­gious iden­ti­ties, if not in In­dia as a whole, at least in the Dec­can? Was it the start of the cre­ation of a mod­ern sense of be­ing Hindu, de­fined against “the Moors” and their faith? And what does it say of schol­ar­ship that sug­gests that Hindu-mus­lim re­la­tions in In­dia were largely syn­cretic, poi­soned by com­mu­nal ac­ri­mony only as a con­se­quence of colo­nial di­vide and rule? The an­swers, as it hap­pens, are about as com­plex as the ques­tions.

No­tions of “us” and “them” among elites did ex­ist but these sat along­side ev­ery­day syn­cretism—akkanna’s brother was a spon­sor of elab­o­rate Muhar­ram ob­ser­va­tions in Hyderabad, just as he fed nu­mer­ous Brah­mins dur­ing Hindu fes­ti­vals. The Qutb Shahs were pa­trons of the Tel­ugu lan­guage, ad­mir­ers of the San­skrit epics, hus­bands to Hindu women, and well in­te­grated into the land where their for­bears were im­mi­grants. But when it came to ar­tic­u­lat­ing their power, it was Is­lamic ideals they up­held, im­i­tat­ing Per­sian cus­toms and seek­ing ap­proval from the Shah of Iran. In other words, where for­mal def­i­ni­tions of power were con­cerned, it was Is­lam­i­cate ideas that held pri­macy, even if ac­tual, lived pol­i­tics was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. In Hindu royal houses, too, things were not dif­fer­ent: the kings of Vi­jayana­gar for­mally ex­pressed their iden­tity in San­skritic terms even as they em­ployed Mus­lims, re­spected the Quran, adopted Per­sian sar­to­rial tastes and called them­selves “Hindu Sul­tans”. One emperor ev­i­dently even sug­gested a mar­i­tal al­liance with Catholic Por­tu­gal. But de­spite mul­ti­ple ex­changes on the ground, the for­mal self-im­age of Hindu and Mus­lim houses could be dif­fer­ent.

Big­otry ex­isted too: tem­ples were de­mol­ished dur­ing war, usu­ally to flat­ten the le­git­i­macy of en­emy kings. But some­times wan­ton acts of vi­o­lence were also pos­si­ble on ac­count of in­di­vid­ual fa­nati­cism—afzal Khan’s des­e­cra­tion of the great shrine in Pand­harpur on his way to bat­tle Shivaji is a case in point, an in­ci­dent that deeply of­fended even those Marathas loyal to the Mus­lim gen­eral. For the most part, how­ever, just as re­li­gion lent it­self as a gloss to power, it was also de­ployed for pur­poses that had less to do with the gods than claimed. As the Mughals made gains in the Dec­can, for ex­am­ple, re­stric­tions were placed by its Sunni em­per­ors on Shia prac­tices at the Qutb Shah’s court—and this de­spite the fact that Ja­hangir, Shah­ja­han and Au­rangzeb were mar­ried to Shia women, and many of their own gen­er­als were also “heretics”. It did not mat­ter so long as they were loyal to the Mughals: but when Shi­ism was the en­emy’s re­li­gion, it sup­plied a “le­git­i­mate” ex­cuse to mask the ageold im­pulses that gov­erned pol­i­tics— avarice, a quest for power, and more— and com­mence con­quest in the name of a for­mal ide­ol­ogy.

So Shivaji was de­scribed as an “in­fi­del” even as Au­rangzeb despatched pre­cisely an­other “in­fi­del”, the fa­mous Ra­jput gen­eral Jai Singh, to fight him; a man ad­dressed in one fir­man (im­pe­rial edict) as “faith­ful and obe­di­ent to Is­lam”. Bukka Raya, who founded Vi­jayana­gar, might call him­self Kr­ishna-in­car­nate to rid the world of mlech­has even as he sought an al­liance with Delhi’s mlechha (for­eigner) sul­tan. Signs of re­li­gious sym­pa­thy ex­ist too: Au­rangzeb’s fi­nal siege of Gol­conda in 1687 saw his Shia nobles be­tray con­cern for the Shia en­emy, just as Jai Singh looked away dur­ing Shivaji’s fa­mous es­cape from Agra. All this be­ing the case, what ex­actly was Akkanna talk­ing about in 1683 when he ex­pressed hos­til­ity to­wards the “Moors” in the name of his home­land?

The Qutb Shahi court was a bal­ance of fac­tions: there was a Per­sian Shia fac­tion, a Sunni party of In­dian Mus­lims, groups of Hindu war­lords, and even­tu­ally a pow­er­ful Brah­min bureau­cratic es­tab­lish­ment. Dif­fer­ent groups held dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­flu­ence at dif­fer­ent times, and in Akkanna’s day the Brah­min net­work ac­quired more power than ever be­fore. Akkanna, for in­stance, was even granted a se­nior mil­i­tary rank— and this when he never went near a sin­gle bat­tle. When he re­ferred to “the Moors”, the idea was to stand up to the Per­sian im­mi­grants and not all Mus­lims as a blan­ket cat­e­gory, and to in­crease the power of the Brah­min fac­tion, un­der whom the state was run with a cer­tain vi­sion—one where the wealth of the king­dom stayed in the king­dom. In the end, in 1685, Akkanna and his brother were mur­dered at the be­hest of two be­gums by their African slave (yes, there was an African fac­tion too). But when they were gone, did Brah­min in­flu­ence end? No—for the two years of Mughal­free in­de­pen­dence the state had left, the Qutb Shah granted his favour to other Brah­mins, in­clud­ing Ves­sanna, an­other brother of the dead Akkanna.

Medium Rare is a col­umn on so­ci­ety, pol­i­tics and his­tory. Manu S. Pil­lai is the au­thor of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sul­tans (2018).


Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, who ruled dur­ing the time of Akkanna.

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