Predictably, the loudest and angriest voices of Hindu-triumphalist Twitter were at it again on Tuesday. What triggered them off this time? Bollywood actor-couple Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor had the temerity to give their child a name that they liked, instead of going first to get permission from the nearest RSS-shakha.
These same loudest and angriest have an amusing conception of which decisions demand prior discussion. Ninety-nine per cent of them insist that Narendra Modi did not need to discuss his decision to demonetise India’s currency with the important stakeholders or those responsible for implementation or senior members of his party or even the Cabinet he himself appointed. The demonetisation decision has had a material impact on – without exaggeration – hundreds of millions of lives. But, of course, when a couple of celebrities are naming their own child, that requires the sanction of every duff who wishes his keyboard was a trishul.
The charge against Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor is so ludicrous it hardly merits rebuttal. Their young son has been named Taimur, presumably after Timur Laing, the founder of the Timurid Empire. Timur is something of a mythic villain in North Indian lore, surviving from the late 14th century in family stories and folktales. He is remembered as a descendant of Gengis Khan, and as the hobbled leader of an all-conquering horde of great cruelty, one that laid waste to a great deal of the population of the northern subcontinent. Much of this matches what historians believe, though the genetic link to Gengis Khan seems to have existed not in reality but in Timur’s imagination.
Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerors, and it’s unsurprising that Saif Ali Khan, a man who continues in private to use the title “Nawab” (despite the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, and that half the builders in Delhi have constructed residential complexes bigger than Pataudi), felt some kind of grandiose kinship with this figure. But in today’s hyper-nationalist climate a gesture like this can only be seen in terms of Hindu and Muslim.
Saif Ali Khan’s contribution to Indian culture, his public displays of patriotism, his family’s contribution to Indian cricket, all of that seems to be forgotten because of the name he gives his son. This is the double-test of patriotism every Indian Muslim knows only too well. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, or even what you’re doing now. If any accusation of disloyalty, of disrespect to the motherland can be made, there will be thousands who make it.
For the record, Timur killed in the name of Islam and the restoration of the Mongol empire, but his army was decidedly multi-ethnic. In addition, his invasion of the subcontinent was the death knell for the crumbling Delhi Sultanate – which was, of course, not a Hindu empire but the first of the great Muslim kingdoms of Delhi. None of this matters, of course. The political analyst Ashok Malik managed to explode the premise with a single tweet.
Taimur was a villain. He invaded countries, razed cities, killed many. Alexander was a hero. He invaded countries, razed cities, killed …— Ashok Malik (@MalikAshok) December 20, 2016
Invaders killed, armies battled, conquerors were often unimaginably cruel in victory. Yet no one questions someone named Sikander (Alexander, in fact, is regarded with special affection in Indian folk history). No one questions the name Ashok, though Ashoka is believed to have been remarkably violent during his empire-building period. Examples abound. And while I don’t want to be unnecessarily controversial, even the Hindu Lord Rama is portrayed as an invader in some histories.
The anger around the naming of Taimur Ali Khan reflects the Hindutva idea of the deep barbarity of Islamic invaders and rulers. This supposed barbarity is then used to attack today’s adherents of the religion. Seven hundred-year-old angers can be stoked up in a trice because Hindutva history argues that that Muslim rulers were especially barbaric, and especially punitive on Hindus. It is because this ahistorical notion is embedded in so much of the Indian population that a small move like this can turn into an online conflagration.
The most egregious example is a name common throughout India: Manu, the author of the Manusmriti. That text lays out in great detail the rules and prohibitions around caste, the most abhorrent social reality of India today. Ambedkar deemed Manu the originator of the caste system. Yet every year, children are named after him. Does this mean all those parents are endorsing, even celebrating the horrific treatment lower castes have endured for 3000 years?
History depends on who is doing the telling. Remember: this is a battle not over Taimur, but over who gets to tell the history of India.