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The 'Great' debate

Was Rana Pratap a nationalistic warrior worthy of the appellation of "great" or just a chieftain protecting his own honour? The author turns to historians for an answer

Indulekha Aravind 

Rana Pratap

It is a beguiling narrative: the ruler of a small principality who refuses to surrender to the might of an empire, even if that means living a life of great hardship. Nobody would deny that such a ruler's actions were heroic, even extraordinarily courageous. But does that then catapult him into a league "greater" than an emperor, and with motives and principles ascribed to him that he himself might never have dreamt about?

This was the cat Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh set among the pigeons earlier this month when he remarked that if Mughal emperor Akbar could be called "great", why then shouldn't Rana Pratap of Mewar also be designated as "Rana Pratap the Great". Singh's words came on the heels of Rajasthan's education minister, Vasudev Devnani, being quoted in the media as saying, "Because Rana Pratap fought against Akbar, both cannot be great. It is Pratap who was the great one", and that "the title of greatness belongs to Pratap alone".

The two ministers' opinions aside, these are the undisputed facts. Rana Pratap ascended the throne of Mewar, "the most powerful and prestigious state in Rajasthan", in 1572 at the age of 26. By then, many Rajput principalities had already become allies of the Mughals. Akbar sent various emissaries to Rana Pratap, who spurned all of them, partly because the proud ruler refused to personally submit to Akbar, according to various accounts. Akbar knew that he would have to wrest control of Mewar and in 1576, the storied Battle of Haldighati broke out between Rana Pratap and the Mughal army. The Rajput ruler and his forces, though outnumbered, put up a fierce fight against the might of the Mughals and subsequently adopted tactics of guerrilla warfare, never surrendering till Pratap's death in 1597 due to an internal injury.

The valorous ruler of Mewar, often portrayed astride his legendary horse, Chetak, has thus long been a favourite hero of folktales and poems. His story has been revived in popular culture today in the TV serial Bharat Ka Veer Putra Maharana Pratap, which just completed two years and over 400 episodes on Sony Entertainment. The story of Rana Pratap conveys a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism, says Abhimanyu Singh, CEO of Contiloe, which is producing the show. "From a nationalistic point of view, these freedom fighters have done the greatest service to the country and their stories are inspiring," Singh says on why he chose to produce a series on the Rajput ruler.

But while there is unanimity on Rana Pratap's courage, which historians say was acknowledged even by his enemies, the home minister's version of the Mewar ruler being the "great of greats", particularly when compared to Akbar, might not be so readily acceptable.

"What are the criteria one uses to call somebody 'great'?" wonders Najaf Haider, associate professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. "Historians don't usually use the term and no modern historian would call Akbar or Ashoka 'great', let alone Rana Pratap." Between the two, Akbar was an emperor ruling over a territory the size of an empire, which denotes political and monetary unification of territory, while Rana Pratap was the chieftain of a much smaller territory of Mewar in Rajputana. "So, I don't know how you can make a comparison," says Haider, who specialises in medieval history.

The other narrative being peddled is that Rana Pratap was a Hindu king who was battling Islamic foreign forces. But again, historians strongly dispute this. "Rana Pratap's war against Akbar is often regarded as a fight for Rajput honour or even for Hindu honour. It was hardly that," the late Abraham Eraly wrote in The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals. The Rana's army was not all Rajput or even entirely Hindu, with many Afghan chiefs fighting with him. Similarly, "on the Mughal side was arrayed the cream of Rajput nobility", including Rana Pratap's brother and the army was led by Man Singh. "The Mughal-Mewar conflict was primarily a fight for power, as between any two kings. Honour was certainly involved, but it was the personal honour of Pratap Singh, not Rajput or Hindu honour," Eraly concluded succinctly.

In A History of Medieval India, Satish Chandra, founding member of the Indian Council for Historical Research, says much the same: "The Rana's forces included an Afghan contingent led by Hakim Khan Sur, while Akbar's campaign was led by Raja Man Singh… Thus the battle of Haldighati was not a struggle between the Hindus and the Muslims, or between Indians and foreigners."

Historian Irfan Habib points out that even the best official account of Rana Pratap based on what is available in the Mewar archives, which is Shyamaldas's Vir Vinod, does not justify the statements made by the ministers. "Rana Pratap had no notion of defending India, he was defending his patrimony. You can see that in the later arrangements Jehangir made with the Mewar house." Records note that Jehangir made peace with Rana Pratap's son, receiving the prince of Mewar with great pomp at court and wisely avoiding insisting on a personal submission. What the ministers claim, therefore, is historically unendorsed. They have an agenda for which they are using Rana Pratap and running down Akbar, suggests Habib.

The reality is that the Rajputs and Mughals shared a mutually beneficial relationship, with both flourishing together, explains Haider. Thus, while we do highlight the fact that Rana Pratap was not willing to submit to the hegemony of the Mughal empire, "which was quite extraordinary… " we do not single it out as an example of some kind of proto nationalism or religious nationalism "because it's part of a larger story of the relationship between the Mughals and Rajputs," he adds.

"By forcing a comparison between Akbar and Rana Pratap, they (the ministers) are inflicting damage on both history and myth," insists social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. "They become tokens in an electoral game, creating new symbolic domains." This is not dissimilar to the recent invocation of poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, which analysts viewed as a move to woo the state's Bhumihar votes. "All these people are trying to create symbolic vote banks," says Viswanathan.

Haider says the desire to portray resistance, by itself, is fine because one should not become a cheerleader of the Mughal state. "But if you are looking for rebels who defied the Mughals, there is also Khan Jahan Lodi who rebelled against Shah Jahan - why choose only one set of people," he asks. Neither is it logical to exclude historical figures like Man Singh just because he was part of the Mughal state structure. "That does not make him any less important," he reasons.

Last year, the Indian Historical Congress had passed a resolution asking people holding public office not to make irresponsible, unhistoric statements. Evidently, no one is listening.

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First Published: Sat, May 30 2015. 00:19 IST