kitnaa hai badnasiib zafar dafan ke liye
do gaz zamiin bhii na milii kuu-e-yaar men
Exiled in Rangoon in the colonial British India, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote these lines, which expresses regret for the fact that he was not allowed a burial in his own beloved country. Used emblematically as the figurehead for the 1857 revolt, he was the last occupant of Red Fort. He was born of a syncretic marriage between a Mughal ruler and a Hindu Rajput princess.
The Red Fort has always been an iconic location for events that determined historical overtures that led to different movements in India — some that heightened oppression, as in the condemnation of Bahadurshah Zafar, and some that lightened oppression like the trial of the INA officers in 1945 which led to nationwide unrests and finally to an overthrow of colonialism. The Red Fort, historically, hosted not only the Mughals but also King George and Queen Mary in 1911, Nehru as the first premier, and then a host of politicians who used the iconic backdrop to reinforce the existence of a syncretic, multicultural India. It was so iconic that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, when he initiated the ‘Chalo Dilli’ movement, wanted his troops to march to Red Fort. Three of his men hung from there and their death rode on a wave of nationalist sentiments that upheaved a new India.
I remember as a child watching not just the Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Red Fort, but also visiting the monument. In recent years, we have revisited the fort. It has enabled us to bring history alive for our children, to show them how the river flowed right next to the fort, how unique was the history of a people which could home Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb in the same family — both brothers but different in their outlook. What made one tolerant and one intolerant? That is what history shows. Avik Chanda’s book called Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would be King shows prince Dara as a man — not just an ideal. The book would have drawn sympathy for young Aurangzeb as a neglected sibling if the emperor’s cruelty had not been recorded. The cruelties highlight the monstrosities of an intolerant ruler. But one wonders at the end of the book, if his elder intellectual liberal brother Dara Shukoh, who was contemptuous of conservatives and ulemas, would have been tolerant of divergent views? Are we falling into a trap reminiscent of intolerance when we condemn people who think differently?
The India I grew up in, I loved was the one that was syncretic, tolerant, coloured with diversity of not just cultures but religions. It was the India that multiple award-winning writer Ruskin Bond continues to highlight in his stories — full of humanitarian values and tolerance with a dollop of goodwill and humour.
One of my Catholic Italian friends once said that she was astounded that Indian Catholics married Hindus. It was not allowed in her country. I told her with pride how I attended cross religious weddings in India in my circle of friends and within my family. Even Hindu and Muslim — where no one converted to the other’s religion even after decades into the marriage. That is the India I would want to go back to and the only one that draws my unerring respect. Holocaust and the colonial intrusions should have been used as lessons to instil in our blood and bones that we are all of the same species. If we ride on differences and hate, we will only decimate our own numbers and harm ourselves. We are all one.
The diversity should be perceived as the colours of a rainbow. When we treat the colours as a pollutant – for instance, the rainbow-like hues from oil spills in water — we endanger our own existence as a race. But if we treat ourselves as a part of the white light that refracts into multiple colours, our differences will only add variety to our lives — not be a reason to hate, violate and kill.
All this is a part of our common heritage as mankind. We draw from nature and history to educate. History is an important truth which can teach us what not to do from past mistakes; how to override hurdles and learn to be inspired by resplendent occurrences of yore— not to be confused with glorifying the yesteryears, neglecting the present and marketing the glories of antiquities as the sole reason for naming a nation great.
Greatness, to me lies in recognising and tolerating diverse colours of humanity, in not infighting within the species but joining forces to overcome larger battles which could threaten our homes, our existence and wipe us out, like climate change and the pandemic — two very real threats to mankind. The call now should be for all players to unite in a battle of survival. And perhaps, that is a call that can be given from the ramparts of the Red Fort, a call that should travel across oceans and seas and ring through the corridors of parliaments across the world.
Mitali Chakravarty dreams of a world imbued with kindness, love, tolerance and compassion. And in that spirit, she founded the Borderless Journal.