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Military History science

The oldest weapon

Throughout history, humans have invented an infinite array of tools to perfect the art of waging war. Over time, this has created a variety of weapons to choose from: guns, swords and arrows are the most visible ones. But there were so many others that didn’t quite survive into the modern age – like spears, slings, atlatl and The Terminator.

But what was the first weapon humans used? Trying to answer this question is more complicated than I first thought. There are many red herrings, questions of semantics and a whole heap of (I think) illogical candidates. Plus, it doesn’t help that science has come up with several different candidates at various points in history. This post summarises the history of the history of our weapons, and tries to provide a definitive answer to the question “what did the earliest humans use as weapons?”

Semantics

The first issue with uncovering the forefather of all modern weapons is semantics – or the meaning of certain operative terms. What do we mean by ‘weapon’? Do we mean anything with which you can hurt another person? What about animals and other living beings? What does it mean to cause hurt? Do we mean any kind of hurt, or do we mean physical pain? Moreover, what does it mean to be able to hurt? Does it have to be intentional, or is unintentional use alright? Depending on how you answered the above questions, a stone, a poisonous leaf and a racial slur can all be classified as weapons. But that’s silly – the list of weapons we seek to control have never included rocks or any other suitably dense object. Airplanes still allow you to carry onions, even though they’re highly toxic to cats and dogs. And despite all the progress we’ve made in eradicating racial slurs and epithets, popular discourse has never seen them as ‘weaponised language‘, although some sociologists are starting to push for changes in this direction.

So clearly, our definition of weapons is much more narrow: a weapon is a tangible device that humans use to inflict physical pain and/or death upon prey, game and other humans.

But here, we run into another complicated term: what do we mean by ‘human’? Do we mean modern humans who have discovered fire, wheel and agriculture? Or do we mean historical humans who may have had knowledge of these concepts but did not have any means to control them? If we accept that we mean Homo sapiens, how do we then view the weapons that may have predated our species? What about weapons that Homo sapiens may have picked up from other Homo species? In answering this question alone, we run into the full weight of human taxonomy, and all the interesting branches of Homo that we humans derive from. In a previous post, I’d written about emerging research on human migration, which paints a much more colourful and contentious picture of our ancestry than we could have imagined even a decade ago. For example, are Neanderthals a separate species of Homo, or are they merely subspecies of Homo sapiens that died out before historical times? At one point in prehistory, at least nine species of humans walked the Earth – and now there’s only one. Where did the rest go? Did we kill them all? Or did we absorb some of their genetic makeup into the human pool? These and many other questions remain unanswered to this day – for what it’s worth, I think some of these questions will never truly be answered by science alone. But our inquiry must go on, and we must draw a line somewhere.

The many human species that we know of. Source: ScienceAlert

My definition of ‘human’ is essentially a cop out: I mean any Homo species that were present on Earth by the time Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa, and came in contact with Homo sapiens, either through warfare or through interbreeding. So, by this definition, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis are both ‘human’, even if this stretches the word to its limit.

Finally, there is the question of ancestry. When we say ‘ancestor of modern human weapons’, what do we mean by ‘ancestor’? Do we mean weapons that have survived to the present day? Or do we mean any weapon that may have evolved into a weapon we can recognise today? What about dead-end weapons that humans may have used at some point, but are no longer seen to be of any value?

For me, the definition of ancestor is the one that is most useful to understanding weapon evolution and migration. So, dead-ends and made-up weapons are of no use. So, I will only consider weapons that are the direct evolutionary forefathers of modern weapons i.e. bows, swords, spears, catapults, slingshots etc.

Definition

To summarise, this is the definition of “modern human weapon” I will use:

  1. It inflicts physical pain and/or death to humans and other animals
  2. It was created with the intention of causing pain or death
  3. It was created by any of the 4 to 9 human species present on Earth by the time Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa
  4. It has survived to the present day either in its original form or through some direct evolutionary descendants

Candidates

With these in mind, there are several candidates for the title of ‘ancestor of modern human weapons’. Some are not as obvious as the others.

Boomerangs

Yes, the boomerang. That same icon of Australian aboriginal culture. While we think of aboriginal people in Australia when we think of boomerangs, we find anceint boomerangs all over the place: from Africa to Europe. Boomerangs with gold tips were even found in Tutenkhamun’s tomb, showing that the story of boomerangs may be an ironic tale of Eurocentric world’s “self-discovery”. Boomerangs are surprisingly old: the oldest boomerangs we know of were found in a cave in southern Poland. Dated to about 23,000 years ago, these boomerangs were made of mammoth tusk and were likely used to hunt small-medium sized game like deer and boar. Interestingly, the oldest evidence of boomerangs from Australia are from nearly the same time period: about 20,000 years ago.

Paleolithic boomerang from southern Poland. Source: Reddit

Although we only think of boomerangs as those wooden things that return to the thrower, returning boomerangs are not the only kind of boomerangs humans have used. In Australia, both types of boomerangs are used to hunt birds and game. A returning boomerang can be thrown above a flock of ducks to simulate a hovering hawk. The frightened birds then fly into nets set up in their flight path or, if they come within range, the hunters can use non-returning boomerangs to bring the birds down.

Other than their use as weapons, boomerangs are also incredibly versatile tools: you can dig holes with them, flint-tipped ones can be used to start fires, weighted boomerangs can be used as hammers and to stun fish underwater, and some Aboriginal communities use them to make music.

The varied uses and the timeline of artefacts from Australia and Poland suggests one of two things: either early humans were already using boomerangs when they moved out of Africa, or the invention of boomerangs occurred independently on mainland Eurasia and Australia. If boomerangs were invented around Europe, what role did Neanderthal communities have in their creation? While this possibility would make for some juicy military history, the timelines just don’t support either side of the argument. Neanderthals went exist around 40,000 years ago, and we don’t see any evidence of boomerangs for at least 20,000 years after that. So yes, you can assume that Neanderthals gave humans more than just 20% of their DNA, but there isn’t any evidence to support it.

Atlatl

You may wonder why this list of prospective candidates does not include the bow and arrow. The bow and arrow is undoubtedly one of humanity’s most important weapons of war – entire empires have risen on the backs of people’s skill with launching sharpened projectiles using a taut string. The Mongols proved for all posterity that agility and mastery of archery are enough to turn a forgotten people into a truly fearsome force. The subsequent invention of crossbows, longbows and later seige instruments only serves to prove the point that archery has been one of the strongest shapers of human civilization.

Some have suggested that bows and arrows predate modern humans, but I can’t find any evidence that this is a popular view among paleoarchaeologists, so that remains an interesting theory – even if highly unconventional. However, we do know what bows and arrows came from: in Africa, we have remains from ~40,000 years ago of a weapon that works on the same principle of using tension to propel projectiles. Before there were bows and arrows, there was the “Stone Age Kalashnikov“: the atlatl. The construction of atlatl is surpringly simple: all you need is a long, flexible spear that is pointed on one end and held taut in the notch of a “spur” at the other. You create tension in the spear by driving it into the notch, and let it go to send the spear flying.

The atlatl is a curious thing. While the principle makes sense to anybody who’s played with pen refills in school, its construction is almost alien to us. It’s also a humble reminder that ancient people saw the world around them in ways we’d scarcely recognise now. If nothing else, the atlatl pushes our timeline for early weapons to at least 40,000 years ago.

Daggers, swords and the such

If you thought daggers were the most obvious candidates for early weaponry, you’d be very very wrong. Daggers are short, close-range weapons with at least one sharpened edge. Unlike arrows and spears that really only need a pointed tip, daggers need a sharpened edge, which requires considerably more effort and skill. Moreover, early humans used rocks, wood and things like volcanic glass, which are all brittle and hard to shape into the form of a dagger that needs a sharp edge and a blunt handle that is comfortable to grip. So, daggers really only came into the picture in the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago. Significant as they may be to warfare historically, daggers and swords are very recent inventions in most parts of the world.

Spears

Then we have the boring “pointed stick”: the spear. Spears are good melee weapons, used to maintain distance between the human and the prey (possibly another human), while causing damage. They offer many advantages to simple hand-to-hand combat: you can put some distance between yourself and the other party, thus minimizing injury; you can sharpen one end and use it to bleed the other person, thus reducing the amount of effort you need to bring them down. Also, you can accessorize your pointy stick by tying a sharpened piece of rock to the end.

Spears have a solid paleoarchaeological footprint: there is evidence of humans using spears from as long as 400,000 years ago. No other weapon comes even close to this. Nearly every Stone Age site on every continent shows evidence of spear usage, sometimes tipped with sharpened stone fragments. Paleolithic remains from Europe and Africa are littered with pointed sticks, leading us to believe that they could very well be the oldest weapons we know of. More clinchingly, modern chimpanzees use pointed sticks to hunt bushbabies.

Chimps hunting bushbabies. Source: National Geographic

Is this the answer we have been looking for? Are spears the forefathers of swords, pikes and all other weapons? In my humble opinion, probably not. Spears need you to be very close to the other party before they can be of any use. Unless hunting defenseless animals like fish, rabbits and small deer, the prey can very easily fight back or run away. Moreover, spears are absolutely useless against any large mammal – and paleology has shown definitively that early humans frequently hunted large mammals like mammoths, bison and even saber-toothed cats. Even if hunting in a group, a bunch of 5 foot tall bipeds with large brains and reduced musculature wouldn’t be able to hunt a 12 foot mammoth with a 6″ thick skin and a prehensile trunk. Clearly, a spear would be of very limited use to early humans.

What they’d need is a throwable spear – something that can be used for melee if necessary, but intended to be thrown. Something about 2-3 feet long, made of easily-available material like wood and tipped with only a perfunctory rock or glass. Something versatile but also easy to make. Something like a javelin.

Javelins

Javelins are a forgotten class of weapons. Javelins were replaced by bows and arrows when archery was “discovered” by Europeans who were repeatedly trounced in the battlefield by armies from Central Asia. Time and time again, the disciplined, regimented armies of Rome would be defeated by “barbarians” with superior archers. This would be a pattern with established armies across the world: the incumbent armies, lulled into a life of stability and safety, invested in ostentatious melee weapons like swords, fancy war horses and warhammers. Invading generals chose instead to shed all weight and invest in nimble ranged weapons that allowed them to attack with force and retreat with speed. The Hindu rulers of northern India were conquered by marauding armies of Muslim generals who relied on improvised seige weapons and horse archers. A similar fate befell the wealthy rulers of West-Central Asia when Genghis Khan adopted similar tactics.

Javelins served the same purpose in prehistoric times. Whereas prey had various means to defend themselves at short range (tusks, trunk, claws, hide, antlers etc.), humans hunted that prey from a distance. Their weapons would have been intended to cause damage over multiple hits. Fossil remains show that early humans on the African savannah hunted this way, using javelins to help them chase an animal to death. This hunting method has been called “persistence hunting”, and evolutionary biologists have used it to explain many features about the human body that seem to be designed to help us run more efficiently and for longer: the Achilles tendon, arched feet, short toes, wide shoulders, etc. I’ll be the first to admit that persistence hunting is a hotly-debated issue in academic circles, and there’s strong evidence on both sides of the debate.

But there are many reasons for why we should suppose that the earliest weapons were indeed javelins. First, the Hadza people of Tanzania. These hunter-gatherers are known to engage in persistence hunting for at least part of the year. Their methods are very similar to what early humans would have employed, and the prey they hunt is mostly the same as well – large animals like the kudu, wildebeest and zebra. The weapons they use are not spears and swords. They use javelins and bows and arrows. Here’s a summary of their technique as captured in Attenborough’s “Life of Mammals”.

Second, people who think that humans had to use spears just because chimpanzees also use spears tend to minimize the differences in the type of prey hunted. Early humans hunted in large groups to bring down large mammals. Chimpanzees hunt in small groups to hunt small-medium sized mammals, generally smaller than the chimps themselves. Their prey of choice are colobus monkeys and bush babies, both of which are much smaller than themselves and largely defenseless against the more aggressive, powerful chimpanzes. Also, humans hunted out on the savannah and in forest clearings whereas chimps are mostly arboreal hunters that go after other tree-dwelling animals. The weapons you’d use to hunt a fleeing kudu or gazelle are very different from what you’d use against a baboon.

Finally, the earliest spears archaeologists have uncovered are almost certainly javelins. Conard et al. (2020) almost state as much, by showing that most Paleolithic artefacts misclassified as spears would be better labelled as “throwing sticks”. In addition, stone-tipped javelins found in Ethiopia have been dated to around 280,000 years ago, suggesting that these weapons probably predate Homo sapiens, which are known from the fossil record only around 200,000 years ago. In Germany, there is evidence of wooden throwing spears from as far back as 350,000 years ago, well before Homo sapiens evolved.

So there we have it. The mystery has been solved: the earliest human weapons were probably javelins.


Bonus: The Flail

Do you know what a flail is? You know what a flail is. It’s a stick with a spiked ball at the end, attached to a chain or rope. It’s a very common trope in medieval fantasy literature, and a steady fixture in any Hollywood scene showing brutality and torture in early Europe.

The cool thing is, it probably didn’t even exist. There is a whole fascinating article on The Public Medievalist that goes into more detail of why it’s so prevalent in our popular imagination, and goes to debunk the idea that these impractical, unwiedly things ever existed.

Categories
Book Reviews Culture Indian History Indian politics Religion

The Indian Conservative: Hindu apologism goes mainstream

Jaithirth Rao is an Indian businessman who founded Mphasis, a cookie-cutter IT outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. In time, his stature as one of India’s aspirational new tech elites gave him space to air his views on politics, history, culture and a range of other social subjects. Rao calls himself a true-blue conservative in the Burkean sense – small government, free markets, traditional family values, continuance over radical change … the whole kit and kaboodle. “The Indian Conservative” is a compilation of his various lectures, talks and thoughts on an assortment of issues that Indian conservatives have concerned themselves with. It seeks to put forth an argument that conservatism in India has a long and colourful history that deserves further study. In doing so, Rao tries to elevate the status of conservative figures like Sardar Patel and Dadabhaoi Naoroji who’ve been given short shrift due to independent India’s wholesale adoption of Nehruvian liberalism.

Before reading the book, I was genuinely curious about a lack of cohesive picture of the conservative movement in India. Other than recent speculation about how different India would have been if Sardar Patel had been made PM instead of Nehru (a long shot considering the zeitgeist of the time), there’s very little we know of the other side of Nehru’s liberal India. The previous hints I’d seen were through Guha’s books, and even he laments the lack of scholarship on Indian conservatism. So when I came across this book, I picked it up without even checking reviews online. In a way, this turned out to be a good thing because I could start with no prejudgments about the author, content or style, and could appreciate the book for exactly what it was supposed to be – an overview of conservative thought in India, and a case for why it should be studied more intensively.

Boy was I wrong! In this post, I want to do two things: firstly, review the book for what it is, and then talk about all the things that it isn’t – so you can see for yourself the various ways in which Jaithirth Rao missed the mark in entirely avoidable ways. My overall assessment of Rao’s book is mixed – on the one hand, it brings conservative thought to the mainstream and gets us talking about it on an intellectual level and without the baggage of Hindu extremism. Equally, the book fails to deliver on every single claim it makes at the outset: it’s not historically accurate or complete, it never explains what makes Indian conservatism different from its Western cousin, isn’t held up by solid arguments so much as statements of intent, and finally, is too heavily reliant on the author’s 10-mile-high understanding of Indian society.

What follows is an expansion on these two sides of the coin. This post is going to be longer than average (which is already much longer than most blogs) so if you’re liable to get bored, I’d suggest skipping the next section and jumping straight to the second part where I make my case for why Jaithirth Rao’s latest book is only a 4/10, and can be ignored by most people.

What It Is

“The Indian Conservative” considers various spheres of conservative thought, namely political, cultural and social. The book also includes a small chapter about Rao’s own views on aesthetics and education. The chapters on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres cover what it means to be Indian, and how the conservatives of history, legend and imagination have all combined to create a rich, vibrant, multiethnic and multicultural polity we know as India. These chapters are all fairly boring with very little to stand on other than a smattering of religious texts and some well-intentioned proclamations by leaders.

The really interesting bits are actually all in the first chapter: the political sphere. Here, the author begins with a broad definition of what Indian conservatism is and what its guiding principles are.

Conservatism is a school of philosophy which is not characterized by rigid contours or definitions. It believes that human beings as individuals and as communities have evolved over time, developing laws, institutions, cultures, norms and associations. This evolutionary process undoubtedly contributes to practical utility.

The conservative position is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful. Sudden, violent attempts at so-called improvements are viewed with suspicion, because they are likely to backfire, destroy much of the good in the past and the present, and deliver a situation substantially worse than the earlier one.

For those with an interest in political theory, it’s not hard to notice a direct and strong link to Western conservatism – more specifically as a school of thought containing Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. However, Rao reminds us that these ideas are not foreign imports to India. Indeed, if one were to consider the Mahabharatha and Tirukkural to be foundational texts of the Indian civilization, we would see that the Indic civilization itself is a deeply conservative one.

These two texts – one a religious epic and the other a collection of words of wisdom – deal with the three pursuits of humankind: artha (material, political and economic wellbeing), kama (beauty, passion and sensous pleasures) and dharma (virtue and morality). A fourth pursuit – moksha – is attained when the other three are achieved.

Then, the author makes the link between ancient Indic thought and modern history.

Let us switch gears and consider names associated with modern Indian conservatism, focusing for the time being on the pre-Independence era. The first is Rammohun Roy, who was a political conservative and a supporter of British rule, while being a social and religious reformer – a reformer and not a radical. The second is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who can be characterized as almost the founder of Hindu conservatism. […] Bankim and Lajpat Rai along with several others realized that a shared Hindu cultural identity could be the basis of overcoming vertical and horizontal boundaries among Hindus, like caste.

Hinduism, in other words, formed pre-Independence India’s “imagined community” a la Benedict Anderson. This is where Jerry Rao (that’s what the author goes by apparently) brings modern day Hindu nationalism back into the conservative fold. In his analysis, the roots of Hindu nationalism and that of Indian conservatism are one and the same. There may be some merit to this line of thought, but I think there are some gaps in Rao’s reasoning that someone else will have to fill. We’ll pick up this thread later in the post.

To those who might argue that conservatism everywhere is merely reactionary hand-wringing, Rao has a ready response:

The view that conservatives love the old and oppose all change is both simplistic and wrong. Conservatives are most certainly not reactionaries. We only love those parts of the old and inherited that are constructive and creative and not dysfunctional. We are committed to change, which as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, and as the Yajur Veda articulates, is inevitable. We, however, do not believe in jettisoning features of the past that are worth preserving or that we feel are worth cherishing.

While this is a sensible position to take and I personally find it hard to refute, it’s nigh impossible to shake the feeling that much of Rao’s analysis is based on European and American conservatism, with all the Indian bits retrofitted to prove his point. We’ll return to this objection in the next section.

Returning to the question of political conservatism, the author details how the Indian National Congress until the late 1920s saw British rule as a benevolent protector state. Its only demands were only for ‘home rule’, on the lines of what the Irish were fighting for. We know that Dadabhai Naoroji’s strongest allies in the British parliament at the time were Irishmen, and even before Naoroji’s time, Raja Rammohun Roy was received in England by the liberal Unitarians. So almost unwillingly, the author concludes, Indian conservatives ended up in the wrong camp due to the obstinacy of the British Conservative party. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that this is just how politics is played and there are no unconditional alliances in the pursuit of power.

[…] even though Rammohun Roy went to England as a very conservative emissary of the impoverished Mughal emperor, he was feted not by the High Church party, but by nonconformists like the Unitarians. Willy-nilly, even conservative Indians ended up being seen as liberal fellow travellers. In the decades that followed, British Tories preferred Indian maharajas to scholars like Naoroji. It was only the Liberal Party which would nominate Naoroji for a parliamentary seat. Gokhale faced the same situation. His only interested audience in England was to be found among liberals.


In the struggle for independence, Rao makes a case for why conservatives largely supported India’s British overlords, and why many chose fight their own countrymen alongside the colonial powers. His argument is a tried-and-tested one about maintaining continuity, making incremental progress, sticking to available remedies etc. In this regard, he sees Ambedkar, Gokhale and Savarkar as incrementalist heroes who ensured that when India did gain freedom, it would retain much of the old legal and civic structure. The Indian Constitution – despite the devious machinations of socialists and Soviet sympathizers – is thankfully only a minor facelifted version of the Government of India Act of 1935.

Here, Rao anticipates an objection from the other side: given that in one stroke the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, gender or religion, all so deeply embedded in our history and our country, would it not be more appropriate to call it a revolutionary document, far from being a conservative one? His answer is a firm “maybe”. He argues that under the British, all Indians were treated alike – as chattel to be thrown out of trains when caught travelling in the whites-only carriage. So, Indians had already internalised some of this non-discrimination anyway, and the constitution only ensured that the progress made was not lost at some later time. A supremely weak argument; but a coherent argument nonetheless.

From independence, Rao draws a straight line to the modern-day Modi government, through Partition, the Emergency, 1984 Sikh riots, 1992 Babri riots and the single-term Vajpayee government from 1999-2004. Needless to say, he papers over inconvenient pieces of history. For example, this is what he had to say about the way Advani and the BJP riled up millions of Indians to march to Ayodhya and destroy a centuries-old mosque:

BJP put together a well-crafted national programme in support of the proposed Rama temple. The party organized a motorcade, referred to as a rath yatra, from different parts of the country to Ayodhya. […] The BJP also used the Rama temple movement very intelligently on the caste front. The volunteers in the marches and motorcades came from all castes. Dalit volunteers were specially honoured as layers of foundation stones. The BJP had successfully broken away from the accusations of its critics that it was an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania party.

The denouement of the temple movement came on account of mob violence, which the Uttar Pradesh state government had solemnly assured the Supreme Court would not happen. The inability of the Hindu nationalist forces to control extreme elements remains problematic for conservatives.

And in that one line, he sweeps aside all the many ways that conservative forces – much more than any leftist threat – threaten to pull this nation apart by force. To Jerry Rao, the problem with the Babri demolition wasn’t its complete illegality, or the fact that the Hindu side has no historical claim to that piece of land, or the months of communal provocation by Advani, Uma Bharti. No, the problem was that a handful of extreme elements resorted to mob violence, which was not controlled by the Uttar Pradesh government. So really, we’re told, the UP government was at fault.

But regardless, I’m quite aware that this kind of reasoning is not entirely uncommon in Indian political circles, and even in some intellectual quarters. We can excuse Jerry Rao this piece of unoriginal falsehood as just another symptom of the moral bankruptcy that infects modern-day conservatives everywhere. While their forebears were willing to go against king and society to defend individual freedoms and bring about real change, the modern conservative movement increasingly busies itself with engaging in revisionist storytelling and name-calling instead of getting its house in order and taking a stance against extreme elements.

In responding to any and all critique of this kind of reactionary rationality, Rao likes to fall back on the concept of yuga-dharma to illustrate how the nature of Indian conservatism has evolved over time.

[…] Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda, which the historian P.V. Kane dates to the fourth century bce, talks of Yuga Dharma: the virtue or the ethic that is appropriate to the age. It is Parel’s case that Mahatma Gandhi in his own inimitable way figured out that in the present yuga, it makes sense to walk away from the excessive emphasis on moksha. […] The dharma of Gandhi’s times demanded an active involvement with this world, with his country, with his city.

Modern day conservatives like Jerry Rao fail to consider that in this yuga, yuga-dharma demands that the most conservative thing to do is to stand up against Hindu extremists and defend the Indian way of life from a complete dismemberment from the inside.

In the subsequent sections on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres, Rao has precious little to offer, even when you try very hard to see his point. In the chapter on social issues, Rao offers a tepic objection to the caste system, concluding that the caste system has some limited utility in modern India but society needs to be reformed to make sure that things like untouchability are not brought back in fashion. On the role of women, Rao acknowledges wholeheartedly that women have been mistreated and marginalized for millennia – an unusually candid admission from a writer who seems to skirt all other issues, no matter how obvious they may be to Indians or outsiders:

The same issue received considerable attention from our detractors like Kipling who argued that Indians did not deserve freedom principally because we were given to oppressing our women and our poor and in fact it was the British who protected these unhappy residents of our fair land

Lost in the chapter on aesthetics is another easily-missed admission of guilt: the mistreatment of Muslims. Rao accepts that Muslims are treated as purely political entities to be herded and cajoled into voting for whichever party represents their interest. He sees much to be achieved to bring them back to the mainstream and open up the floor to debate on social issues affecting Muslims.

Issues connected with Indian Muslims that do not deal with religion are largely seen through a political prism and not a social one. I believe that this is a mistake. Muslims are more than just voters. They have given to the country important legacies in architecture, painting, music, dress, food, landscape gardening, literature and much more.

Mysteriously, however, his thoughts on purdah, the role of women in Islamic society and hot-button issues like triple talaq are never clarified. More importantly, his expression of solidarity with Muslim conservatives is entirely undercut by the fact that this is the only time in the book when the author considers the plight of Muslims. You need to be three-quarters of the way through the book to find an acknowledgment of Muslim contribution to Jerry Rao’s “Indic culture”. This and other substantive issues with the book are the subject of the next section.


What It Is Not

At the outset, Jerry Rao’s book is not an honest retelling of Indian history. It leans too heavily on upper-caste tropes of “centuries of humiliation” under successive Muslim rulers, falls prey to the same trite upper-class arguments about the “benevolent British”, and consistently diminishes the serious differences that have always existed between various schools of thought. Let’s consider the matter of Muslims first.

The Islamic Question

In his entire chapter on Indian conservatives in the political sphere, Rao does not find space to drop a single Muslim name. I can name a few stellar individuals right off the bat: Maulana Azad, Shafaat Ahmed, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, and the indomitable Sir Allah Bakhsh.

The last name may be unfamiliar to some, and in all fairness deserves a whole post to himself, but here’s the run-down: Allah Bakhsh was the Premier of Sind in British India – up to 1942 a career conservative within the British Raj. An inveterate secularist, he championed a popular movement against the divisive Muslim League. His popularity was so immense that the Muslim League made nearly no advances into the province of Sind until his death in 1943. In 1942, Churchill’s infamous speech to the British parliament where he refered to Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement with utter disdain and made some unsavoury remarks about the possibility of granting independence to Indians. Allah Bakhsh made it clear that he’d had it – he renounced his post and fully intended to dedicate the rest of his life to gathering support for a free, secular and united India. The united part of his personal manifesto bothered the Muslim League, and every clue points to their involvement in his eventual assassination in 1943.

Was this not relevant to Rao’s case for conservative thought in the country?

Rao might counter my objection by stating that Allah Baksh was indeed a conservative for the most part but by renouncing his premiership, he also renounced all claims to being part of Indian conservatism. Fair enough. But if one is to buy this argument, why does Naoroji figure so conspicuously in Jerry Rao’s narrative? Naoroji too began as a conservative who thought he could make a difference from within the British parliament. Although he made some progress towards his goal of Indian home rule, he soon realised that the powers in Britain wanted control over India at any cost, and saw the predatory Crown as a leech sucking the Indian body dry. By the time Naoroji died in 1917, he was thoroughly disillusioned with the British ability to govern India and wanted them gone.

Naoroji was as radical as they came in 1917. And yet, Rao has no trouble including him in the political narrative. Wilful omission? Maybe. Double standards? Most definitely.

This exclusion of Muslim individuals isn’t restricted to the Independence movement – Rao ignores all Muslim contributions to Indian political thought despite the fact that for over 600 years, this nation was ruled by Muslim rulers. I want to go easy on the author and assume that he ignored them because they were causing many changes to Indian culture by bringing their new ways of life to this land of Hindus. At the risk of being accused of whataboutery, I want to put to Rao this following: if this is the case, why not at least mention Akbar, a man who fought his own zealous family to ensure equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural background? For a man so fond of name-dropping, the silence on political changes due to Mughal rule is deafening. On the matter of trade and economic issues, why not mention Sher Shah Suri, the man who facilitated free and fair trade so much that during his time, a caravan could travel unmolested from Peshawar in modern Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh – a distance of over 2000 km. Such free movement is still only a distant memory in modern India, where highway robberies are painfully common. As a lover of free markets and open trade, shouldn’t Rao appreciate this unprecedented effort a bit more?

The 16th century Grand Trunk Road, a truly impressive trade route connecting Bengal to the Hindukush

In the end, it is obvious to all but the most intransigent that Jerry Rao’s recounting of Indian political history deliberately omits Muslim names while trying to secure ‘Indian conservative’ firmly in the hands of Hindu actors. In case you needed more convincing, here’s how the author summarizes what Indian culture is:

I would argue that “we the people” is meant to be a reference to people with a shared culture, however limited or tenuous that idea may be. We call it Indian culture. The fact that many of its traditional elements have a Hindu touch does not make it an exclusively Hindu culture. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are doubtless central. But so are the Jataka tales, Jain sutras, Sufi music, the Sikh gurbani, Reverend Beschi’s Tamil epic Thembavani, Abraham Panditar’s Carnatic music compositions on Jesus, Avestan verses, Bene Israel psalms, Santhal chants and so much more.

So it’s everyone on the planet except mainstream Muslims. Good to know, Jerry!

Conservatism and Its Masters

Perhaps the most cringeworthy parts of the book are where Jerry Rao echoes Indian conservatives in his defence of the British Raj as a benevolent, positive addition to Indian history. A century of poverty, strife and gradual resurgence seems to have granted him a doe-eyed version of what the British were actually doing in India. This is how Jerry Rao views the

The fundamental political dispute that defined the first half of the twentieth century in India had to do with the approach to the Raj. Many conservatives believed that with all its faults, on balance the Raj must be leveraged as a force for the good. […] It is not uncommon to keep running into the view that we were in a sense lucky not to have been colonized by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch or even the French. The Indian encounter with the Anglo-Saxon has been seen as one that resulted in a refreshing outburst of creativity, which had constructive outcomes.

A “refreshing outburst of creativity”? In what, massacring peaceful protesters?

And yet, Rao does not spare the pre-British Mughals the same generosity; this despite the undeniable fact that everything from food to clothing to our culture itself was made infinitely more colourful by Mughal patronage.

Rao’s claim that the 1950 Indian Constitution must be seen as a conservative document is comical in its absurdity. His whole argument hinges around the Manusmriti, an ancient Indian document that lays out the various rules governing Hindus, codifies the ways in which they may interact with each other and prescribes a very rigid set of roles that individuals of each caste, creed and gender could perform. Many devout Hindus consider this document to be divinely handed down from God to the sage Manu – therby making it inviolable and sacred. Most contemporary discourse about “Brahminical orthodoxy” ultimately refers back to this text. Let’s consider the evidence presented before us:

One can argue that the idea of non-discrimination too had an evolutionary history through the Raj. […] The jury is out on whether the Manusmriti was simply an idealized text or if it was practised. But for what it is worth, it did have a measure of social sanction and it did provide for differential punishments for identical crimes committed by persons belonging to different castes. It turns out that the Raj successfully subverted this ideology fairly early in the game.

[…] in the area of gender, the practices of the Raj were not necessarily much behind those prevalent in Britain and America. In the late nineteenth century, the Madras Medical College did admit women. In the early twentieth century, Cornelia Sorabji was not allowed to practise in the Bombay High Court because women were not allowed to practise in English courts at that time. The enhancement of women’s rights can also be seen as a gradual and phased affair, rather than one which was parachuted in by our Constitution.

Some have argued that the grant of universal adult franchise by our Constitution was truly revolutionary. The very chronology by which the political institutions of India evolved from the Regulating Act, Pitt’s India Act, the Charter Acts, Queen Victoria’s Proclamation, the creation of Councils, the Minto-Morley Reforms, the Montagu-Chelmsford Act and the 1935 Government of India Act all the way to our Constitution makes it an evolutionary, gradual, constitutional process. The retention of the key features of the political institutions bequeathed to us by the Raj makes the process a conservative one. The new Constitution did go against doctrines like the Manusmriti. But that process had started long ago.

Much has been written regarding the status of Manusmriti in pre-colonial Indian culture, and I don’t want to belabour this point too much. However, two things need to be noted: first, as pointed out by historians such as Ram Guha and Shashi Tharoor, the Manusmriti was considered as useful in daily affairs as the Bible is to Americans today. Laws existed separate from the rules laid out in the Manusmriti, and it was really the British who gave Manusmriti more weight than society did. The Gentoo Code that the British adopted in their dealings with Indians was the first time in centuries that the Manusmriti came to be regarded as anything more than a historical relic. This is not to imply that all pre-colonial Indians were casteless hippies enjoying life freely. No, by codifying these loose and amorphous rules as the basis of all Indian law, the Raj actually cemented the very discrimination that Jerry Rao so gleefully tries to downplay.

Second, if Jerry is fine with the British state because it subverted the provisions in the Manusmriti, one wonders if this is a matter of principle or a convenient factoid the author is exploiting. Supposing a Muslim ruler had done the same thing by imposing a set of rules that applied to Hindus without any regard to their castes, would Rao be equally glad that age-old shackles of caste had been broken by a wise ruler? What if Jerry Rao reads a bit more Indian history and learns that Aurangzeb did exactly this? Would he start singing praises about the great ruler Aurangzeb who ruled over all of India and destroyed the caste system for all eternity? I doubt it very much, and I think this inconsistency proves that for Jerry Rao, the Manusmriti matters purely because the British first legitimized it, and then subverted it. That’s not conservatism; that’s just boot-licking.


Coda

It’s now getting tiring to point out the fact that Indian conservatives are without exception drawn from the same mold of upper-caste, upper class urbanites who seem to be entirely removed from the rest of India’s “unwashed masses”, all while simultaneously preaching what the caste system actually is to people whose daily lives are defined by it. Trust me, I hate this dreadfully boring continuance as much as anyone else. And it brings me no small amount of frustration to be saying that of a writer who I thought could make a genuine attempt at wrestling with the vexed issue of conservatism in India. But Rao shows neither the self-awareness nor the honesty required to carry out such a task. In the end, his book is just another in a long line of sad restatements of cliched elite truisms about India’s glories and its colourful past, and adds nothing to enrich popular discourse. If I’d gone my whole life reading this book, I don’t see how I would have been poorer by a paisa, an ounce or a thought. However, I suspect that “The Indian Conservative” is going to be instructive to liberals looking to rebutt Indian conservate arguments. If nothing else, it goes to demonstrates all the reasons why it may be considered at best a hollow intellectual space, and at worst a dangerous normalisation of previously taboo apologisms.

In one word, Jaithirth Rao’s attempt at mapping out the history of conservative thought in India can best be summarized as ‘dishonest’. It papers over many issues in Indian culture purely because the author finds them inconvenient to his narrative that ther is a positive thing called “Indian culture”. Where impossible to ignore, Rao’s hamfisted arguments only delegitimize the conservate case, even while exposing his less-than-adequate research. Nevertheless, the book is important as an emblem of the growing brazenness with which Hindu apologism is seeping into everything in India. If nothing else, it may be a sign of the books to come.

Categories
History Military History

The Better Cavalry (pt. 3)

This one’s for the forgotten

This is the last leg of my trilogy examining various types of cavalries used throughout history. In part 2, I talked you through some reasons why I think elephant cavalries were the absolute best. There are other reasons, of course, but there are also other alternatives. If cavalries are like milk, horses are like dairy; previously, we’ve looked at coconut milk (elephants) – the obviously superior milk.

In this post, I’ll introduce you to some unconventional, bizarre and sometimes just WTF alternatives. These are the soy, rice, oat, cashew and other “mylks” that honestly deserve more love than they receive currently.

Look at all these alternatives! Source: Frankly Fodder

But first, some housekeeping

In the last part, I kind of glossed over the facts of how truly useful horses have been since some drunken maniac in Central Asia decided to jump on a kicky, bitey, foul-tempered animal and somehow managed to survive. Horses have been used for every part of their bodies: from their hides and hair to milk, meat and even bones. That last item is still a popular product and has some anti-wrinkle properties (on a side note, I will never get people’s obsession with having wrinkle-free skin).

But actually, it’s even more than that. Horses have been the single most useful thing for people who want to kill other people and get away with it. Here’s a picture I took of rock carvings in Wadi Rum in Jordan from around 5000 years ago (or so I was told). You can clearly see the depictions of humans coexisting with (and hunting, presumably) what look like horses and oxen.

But here’s the thing: horses have only ever been useful as a great draught animal. And as meat. Their use as cavalry was mostly just experimental until Central Asians started attacking Rome and Romans were so enthralled by the superiority of these nomadic archers that they started adopting all of the Central Asian tactics blindly without any question.

Here’s how I see things: nomadic “barbarians” were simply better at wars than Rome because of their mobility. That’s it. And the role of cavalry was mostly incidental. Urbanised civilizations like Rome and pre-Yuan China always lost to militaristic barbarian invaders; and their loss was always because they were stuck in one place while the barbarians were nomadic, more loosely organised and therfore, more nimble. We see this time and time again throughout history: Gauls were a constant annoyance to Rome, but they had no horses. Vikings overran Britannia in no time and completely displaced the native culture. Was that because of their superior horses, or stirrups or some other stupid reason people always use? No. They were nimble, ruthless and constantly towards the horizon for their next quest. It was this same military zeal that created invaders such as Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timur and countless others. Instead of learning their strategies, we just picked up their tactics.

Imagine you were asked to define what makes a great leader. Let’s say you start to look for clues in history, and go through the biography of every world leader in the last century: Roosevelt, Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Che, JFK etc. The right way to approach a solution is by outlining some broad, high-level traits they display. Trying to find common personality traits shows us that they’re almost all charismatic, gifted with words, persuasive, empathetic and so on. This is what we are supposed to do with history: take particulars and add a few levels of abstraction. What we’ve done instead is obsessed over details and decided that history is all about the tactics; the particular. Going back to that example, it’s like we went through the biographies and decided that great leaders smoke, drink, sleep and beat their wives. This kind of faux depth in historical analyses is what gives us completely nonsensical books like ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People’. That book is stupid, shallow and is obviously a very cynical way to appeal to vulnerable people who don’t know any better.

So, to recap: horses were mostly useless as cavalry and their popularity is incidental. Rome was just a convenient target for nomadic Central Asian tribes, which used horses for everything just because they had horses in abundance and knew what to do with them.

The quest for the second best war animal

So, horses are pathetic. Noted. What other options did people have? The answer is: lots. And at some point or the other, nearly every continent on earth had viable alternatives to horses.

The most obvious: cows. Or, to be more precise, bulls and oxen. People have used cows as farm and draught animals for at least as long as horses. There are remains in Harappa and Egypt that show that at least 5000 years ago, people already knew how to tame oxen and use them to transport loads. They offer many advantages over horses: much more sturdy animals, easier to feed and house and can carry heavier loads. As anybody who’s faced up to a bull can tell you, they have a much greater willingness to stand their ground and fight. Disadvantages: slow, clumsy, kinda dumb, hard to train, easy to topple, not pleasant to ride.

If it’s good enough for Mongo, it’s good enough for me.

Overall grade: B-. More or less the same grade as mules and slightly better than donkeys. Way better than zebras though.

On a slight tangent here, we’ve seen from history that moose cavalry was a thing. Sweden and Russia both tried their hand at using moose in war, and Russia almost deployed them in WW2. You can see the allure here: moose are fast, strong and adept at getting through deep snow. The only trouble is, the cavalrymen soon found out that moose are just terrible for war. The biggest issue is that they’re almost comically frightened of gunfire. And even when trained to ignore it, they were unwilling to charge at humans, got all sorts of diseases and as soon as the rider got off, the moose just fled. So, if you lost your footing, that’s it. You’re walking home now.

Next up, pigs and boars. Massive boars are a staple of medieval fantasies: they’re scary, aggressive, almost freakishly indestructible and are definitely capable of carrying a grown man. And war pigs have actually been used in recorded history. Appropriately, they were used by Romans to scare off war elephants because they thought that elephants were scared by the sound of a pig’s squeal. I have no idea if that’s been scientifically shown, but I can see people riding giant boars to battle war elephants.

That’d be quite a sight.

In case you’re thinking “that’s not physically possible! There’s no way a boar can carry a full grown man and all that armour”, think again. There are wild boars in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region that regularly reach heights of over 5′ and weigh close to 250 kg. A few centuries ago, before rampant overhunting made boars smaller and smaller, there were probably giants the size of mules. And people ride mules. You’ve most likely watched this video already, but here’s a video of a bush pig running at a decent speed with a monkey on its back. That’s a pig running with a load of over 40% of its own body weight. So, forgive me for entertaining a notion that riding boars into battle was a thing at some point.

Wishful thinking aside, this never came to be. But, because of the difficulty of proving a negative, we have no proof of its non-existence either. So, my grade is a solid B, but no more. Still way better than ostriches, though.

A ‘war ostrich’ stretches the limits of what might be possible, but not as much the highly dubious idea of a ‘war rhinoceros’, an idea so stupid on so many levels that I absolutely would have liked to pick it apart at some point. Not anymore, though. It got some screen time in ‘Black Panther’, and that got people thinking. Inevitably, everybody realised that it was unrealistic. Even for an idea out of a superhero movie about a prosperous all-black civilization hidden in the mountains of Rwanda and ruled by a strong African leader whom all the white guys respect without any prejudice.

So, I’ll just refer you to this Kotaku article about the challenges of domesticating rhinos to see what I’m talking about here.

Cool concept though.

With all the consolation prizes given out, it is time now to talk about the real second-best cavalry: the humble camel. Specifically, the “hill camel”, a small but sturdy variant of the dromedary camel widespread across much of Africa and west-central Asia. They were common across the deserts of the middle east, parts of western India and northern africa. Beyond the Sahel, though, they were uncommon but not unknown. Through a predictable chain of events, some people decided to populate Australia deserts with camels. And now, even after years of merciless “culling”, Straya has half a million of them, just roaming around, eating cactus shawarma, destroying native plants and having fun making white people feel like shit for letting immigrants in.

The best breed for use as a mount is supposed to be the ‘pahari’ (or hill) breed, found in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Iran.

The best camel breeds in India were the small but strong Afghan or
Pahari dromedaries that were also fit for the cold and hilly conditions
of Central Asia. The Mughals were very well aware that good bukhti
dromedaries could be produced from interbreeding one-humped female dromedaries (arwanas) with two-humped male Bactrian camels (bughur).

Jos Gommans, in ‘Mughal Warfare’

A lot of African and Asian countries maintain camel corps. We saw a bunch of them in Jordan, but the camels looked mangy and unimpressive. Despite the obviously Muslim nature of the import, India maintains a small number of camels to patrol the western borders with Pakistan. And for some reason, the same Rajasthanis that reject all things Muslim have taken quite a liking to camels.

That’s some cool cameldung you’ve got there.

They’re actually, a surprisingly useful and versatile animal. For one thing, a camel can carry weights of over 200 kg, more than a horse or ox. Unlike horses, they’re gentle, eat whatever they can find, can go days without food or water, don’t bite and for the most part, get along with very well with humans. The best part: a camel with a human on its back can probably run at least as fast as a horse. Even without any loads, camels are only slower than horses.

Disgusting thumbnail, I know. I’m sorry.

Across the regions where they could be used, camels were the most versatile type of cavalry. Not least because they were larger than horses while having the same kind of mobility. They’re more sturdy, don’t have many natural predators so don’t really get spooked by anything, could be easily trained to ignore gunfire, had low operating costs, sang beautiful songs from the Arabian Nights, and were generally more chill companions to spend a month or two with while making your way across an unfamiliar land to sack a city.

When I put it like that, of course! It’s obvious, right? Yes. Solid A. Can’t give them an S because they’re kind of stupid animals, take forever to grow to a battle-ready size and are highly sensitive to changes in climate.

Camel Camel Camel!

So, to recap, elephants are the undisputed #1. Camels are great in some conditions, but just useless in others. Horses are good overall, but not great at anything. Here’s the full tier list a la TierZoo:

This took a while to make. So, if you’re going to use this image, credit me.

Armed with this knowledge, you are now legally required to convince everyone else around you. Let’s build a movement. No more horse worship! Only prostration at the elephant god’s feet.

Categories
History Indian History Military History

The Better Cavalry (pt. 2)

Our glorious past

This is part 2 of 3. If you’re not familiar with the background, check out part 1 here. If you don’t care for rambling posts that end in a pointless cliffhanger, don’t bother with that. If you’re one of those people who are “here for a good time, not a long time”, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait because this post is going to be slightly longer than part one. Because the whole point of this post is the comparison of horses and elephants in cavalry, this will need some digressions into history before we get to the argument itself.

Because – as you might have guessed – between the introduction and the substance lies a story. Unlike last time, this one is based on true events and is about 30% relevant.

The name’s War. Total War.

It is the ninth century CE. India is deep in the throes of a period of great religious, political and economic change. Buddhism is dying a slow and protracted death, and Jainism is now all the rage. Since the fall of the Gupta empire, northern India has seen the rise and fall of at least five truly great emperors that recaptured the territory but ultimately failed to build an empire of their own. The pattern was familiar to anybody that had lived through the whole period: brilliant warrior rises through the ranks by suppressing revolts for the king, gains reputation and power, builds his own parallel army and takes down the king, expands the territory through relentless campaigns (mostly by attacking riverside cities) with the ultimate goal being to conquer at least two of the three great cities of Kanyakubja, Pataliputra and Ujjain. Likely, he’d have shifted his capital once or twice to a prominent location and minted a few gold coins to show off his new wealth. Once this original creator was dead, the kids would quickly squander the great opportunity they’re handed and the region would begin the cycle all over again.

Something similar was going on again. Harsha, the all-round top bloke that he was, was all about the culture, and kind of let his empire slip away from him. To make matters worse, he decided one day in the mid-seventh century that for personal reasons, he would die without an heir. Centuries later, historians and students still groan about this fact, because they now need to start keeping track of names.

Source: Wikipedia

Taking advantage of this power vacuum, the Pratiharas of Gurjara (aka Gurjara-Pratiharas) slowly start to detach themselves from their original Rashtrakuta masters (Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas deserve a whole post of their own, but you’ll just have to read the Wikipedia link for now). Deciding that it was going to be too easy for the distracted master to crush their fledgling kingdom, they create a marriage alliance to prevent any such actions in the future. This turns out to be a fantastic move, because the Rashtrakutas now start to see the Pratiharas as their vassal state and maintain friendly trade and military relations. But the Pratiharas don’t have to pay any tribute because of the close marital ties. Some might term this stereotypical gujju stinginess, but I think it’s just a genius move.

In the process, they also fight off the first wave of Turkic invaders, and gain a reputation as the worst enemy of Islam in Khorasan. With the help of the Rashtrakutas, they hold Ujjain and Kanauj, which makes them the pre-eminent power in the North. Cool.

In the east in Bengal, there is, at the time of Harsha’s death, another “defender of the Hindu faith” in control: Shashanka.

Compared to the erudite and tolerant Harsha, Shashanka is a zealot. He tears down stupas, massacres monks and leads an all-out war against Buddhism. Along the way, he burns the Mahabodhi tree as a way of denying Buddhists their greatest religious symbol. To me, Shashanka is proof that unlike faith – which is personal – a religion is a political entity. And no religion expands without massacres, intolerance and violent conquest.

Intolerance notwithstanding, Shashanka creates a strong regional identity in Bengal, that helps create several powerful kingdoms in the region, which collectively form the eastern edge of north Indian kingdoms’ power. In a cruel turn of events, Shashanka’s line dies almost immediately after he dies. And the next time Bengal is unified, it is under a Buddhist kingdom: the Palas.

The Pala, Rashtrakuta and Pratihara “tripartite” struggle forms a neat summary of the religious struggle of the time as well: while they are all cosmopolitan to some degree, they favour Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism respectively. And in this period of near-constant conflict, their efforts are all for control over one city: Kanauj.

Never did all three kingdoms look this way at any one time. The areas show the general sphere of control and Kanauj is at the intersection

The emperors and their high horses

So, that’s the scene. Three mighty kingdoms each seeking to call itself an “empire” by conquering Kanauj. Let’s focus on the dominant struggle here: the Pala-Gurjara conflict. Specifically, let’s take a look at their militaries, as they meet at Kanauj.

For this part and the next, I’m going to rely very heavily on ‘Mughal Warfare’ by Gommans, which paints a good picture of Indian military history and organization. I’ll also be using some accounts from ‘Chinese and Indian Warfare – From the Classical Age to 1870’ by Kaushik Roy and Peter Lorge. Most stuff about Bengal is from ‘Early History Of Bengal From The Earliest Times To The Muslim Conguest’ by Lal. European context is from ‘Combined Arms Warfare in Ancient Greece’ by Wrightson. A lot of the information about elephants and their use in battle is from ‘Elephants and Kings’ by Trautmann.

The Prathara army borrowed heavily from its Central Asian neighbours: horses were abundant in Central Asia and the long history of horse breeding had given rise to a wide range of breeds for everything from farm labour to military uses. So, the army was organized along similar lines: cavalry and infantry in agile formations with a focus on maneuverability, flanking and speed. By contrast, the Pala army is from the thick, humid jungles of Bengal and Burma: prime elephant territory. So, the Pala army is very elephant-heavy, with a small cavalry force that’s just supposed to act as a go-between for infantry, and for scouting. It is also unique among Indian states in that it maintained a sizeable navy, a navy that would only be surpassed by the mighty Cholas in a few centuries. I mean, look at what the Cholas were doing in 1025 AD, when Europe was in the embrace of the Dark Ages.

This is impressive, but is only half the picture. The Cholas were also engaged in trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Scythia.
Source: Swarajya

But for now, the war is essentially hordes of horses vs several elephants. So, you can imagine how things unfolded when the Palas, under Dharmapala, attacked the Pratihara forces under Indrayudha at Kanauj. Most people would guess that the superior speed and agility of the horse archers would have allowed them to disrupt Pala lines, cut off supplies and defend the city from those pesky eastern invaders.

And they’d be wrong. The Pala war elephants mop the floor with the western cavalry, reducing them to such a state of helplessness that once the siege is over and Dharmapala is victorious, nearly every other state nearby declares fealty to him almost immediately. The victory is resounding, and unlike what we may expect now, practically everyone back then would have said the same thing: it was obvious that the elephants would win.

Why? Because horses have always been somewhere between useless and a bad idea. And in this battle, they offered nothing to the Pratiharas.

No horsing around

I have no love for horses but I know that they’re extremely useful animals. So, this section won’t be very long. I suspect you already know most of what makes horses useful in war. So, let’s go over the major points of why they’re not a good idea.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: horse riding is stupid. Chariots were a good idea, but when people took the logical next step and removed the carriage, they took a good idea too far. Horses are timid, have a nasty temperament, get spooked easily, and when spooked, can kill the rider with frightening ease. The key trouble with riding horses, though, is that it is simply inefficient. Dragging is simpler than carrying, which is simpler than lifting. Anybody who’s tried to move a bench at the gym known what I’m saying: you always begin trying to lift it to where you need it, but once you realize how hard it is, you just give up and surrender yourself to dragging it around like a wimp. A chariot requires the horse to drag the weight around, which is simple enough and allows a horse to move a carriage easily even with several tonnes of load. Carrying, though, requires special conditions to be efficient: the animal must have a slightly bent vertebra that allows it to absorb the weight and creates a small depression for the rider to sit comfortably in. Even then, getting off the ground is much harder. So, if your animal collapses due to weakness, its unlikely to get back on its feet without extra help.

In case you’re not convinced yet, here’s a video by one of my favourite YouTubers to persuade you further.

Terrible as horses are, they’re absolutely worthless in most parts of India. First, they’re not native to the land so they have no immunity to tropical diseases and parasites, and don’t seem to enjoy the climate very much. Where introduced, there are other issues as well. Subcontinental India has many features that make it simply a horrible place for horses: there isn’t enough hard grain and the ones that do exist cause digestive issues, terrain like marshes and jungles that horses are completely unsuited for, and not enough free open fields for them to graze in. So, feeding a large cavalry in Medieval India required pouring additional resources into feeding them special food, housing them in fancy stables (even now, horses are prone to cold and rain damage; that’s why they need those funky-looking jackets) and training and taking care of them needed specialists that had to be hired from outside the land. Also, most Indian states had no cultural memory of breeding horses so the indigenous breeds were weak and sickly and had to be regularly bred with horses from the Central Asian steppes.

TL;DR: The horse’s primary strength is and always has been speed, but when the terrain is tricky, convincing your horse to follow you is worse than just getting there by foot. They’re only about as effective as ostriches, really.

So, breeding horses was too expensive for the average farmer and only selectively useful for kings. As a result, where possible, Indians took to using other animals: oxen and asses for draught purposes, and infantry and elephants in warfare. Elephants, though, are not a poor man’s horse. So why did every Indian army have them? Not to mention that at one point or the other, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Egyptian, Carthagian, Scythian, Arabian, and Nubian armies all had a separate elephant division.

The elephant in every room

Elephants are majestic beasts. They’re intelligent, powerful, (mostly) peaceful and have complex social structures that make them eerily similar to humans. They use tools, manipulate others to get what they want, retain memories for upto 25 years, can be taught to paint and play, grieve when a family member dies and show creative problem solving abilities. They’re regularly classified as the third/fourth most intelligent animal on the planet, only slightly worse than the great apes (and possibly some cetaceans). Look at this totally legit “scorecard” that rates animals on various atributes of intelligence, and notice how well the elephant does compared to every other animal on there:

I know that whales/dolphins are missing here, but you get the idea

The only reason elephants are not higher on that list is that they’re stubborn, proud animals that just cannot be forced into anything; even if it’s a researcher trying her best to make a case for it to be classified a non-human person. So, we simply don’t know the extent of their intelligence. Kind of like octopuses and cuttlefish.

What we do know about is their immense strength and dexterity. And speed. I’ve seen elephants charge at people and I cannot exaggerate how insanely quick they are. Just because an elephant looks chunky and awkward does not mean it’s slow, and don’t believe the “fact” that elephants can’t run. Research has shown that they can and do sprint.

The combat potential of elephants has been an open secret for millennia. Alexander witnessed it first-hand at the Battle of Hydaspes when his forces fought a king called Porus in Sind (Pakistan). Nobody actually knows who this Porus fellow is, and his name (to me; others have suggested alternative explanations of where his name came from) seems like a Hellenised version of ‘Purus’ or ‘Purush’, meaning ‘man’ or ‘master’ in Sanskrit, which was one of the many languages in the region at the time. Porus defended his borders against the vast invading army using only a few dozen elephants as a wall. Alexander’s horses were so scared of these bedecked beasts that they simply refused to advance. Alexander eventually defeated Porus, of course, but was so impressed by him that he let him stay in charge of Sind as his satrap (later Sanskritised to ‘kshatrapa‘, a title that everyone from early Indo-Scythians to the Saka peoples used to mean ‘governor’). Plutarch notes the relationship between man and elephant:

Most historians agree that Porus was four cubits and a span high, and that the size and majesty of his body made his elephant seem as fitting a mount for him as a horse for the horseman. And yet his elephant was of the largest size; and it showed remarkable intelligence and solicitude for the king, bravely defending him and beating back his assailants while he was still in full vigour, and when it perceived that its master was worn out with a multitude of missiles and wounds, fearing he should fall off, it knelt softly on the ground, and with its proboscis gently took each spear and drew it out of his body

Plutarch, in ‘The Life of Alexander’

But he took with him a few of these impressive war elephants as a proof of concept for old-timers in Macedonia. Alexander, you’ll remember, never made it back to Pella to impress his lady friends back home. But war elephants made their own way to Europe through their use in the Roman, Scythian, Seleucid and Carthaginian armies, most famously in Hannibal’s entourage as he tore through Europe around 200 BCE.

Carthaginian war elephants. Their number is greatly embellished in this impression from the 19th century, but it’s useful as a guide to how Asian elephants from India, Ceylon and Burma were being used in faraway European wars
Seleucid cavalry and elephants. Note that these elephants tend to be more geared towards use as a ranged weapon, whereas Indian armies used them either as a defensive unit or as a charging unit designed to break up ranks and cause mayhem

Unlike the horse, which is a weak animal by itself and is only as good as the rider, an elephant has a range of utilities on the battefield. I showed you some cool specimens earlier, but most of them are just one class of elephants: the “walking towers”. They gave you visibility, range and allowed for better planning and coordination. They also stand out as a symbol of strength and act as an indicator of how well the war is going. As long as the commander’s elephant is visible, the army is motivated to fight on. This is what Duryodhana achieves when he rides on an elephant in the closing sections of the Mahabharata.

The most crucial reason elephants could be found in armies well into the 17th century was their use as a siege unit: the “bulldozers”. An elephant can be trained to tear down walls, doors, gates… If you can build it or grow it, an elephant can probably destroy it with very little effort.

I know that’s an African elephant. I’m trying to make a point here.

There were also the “tanks”. These were the OG war elephants: five tons of muscle, tusks and pure rage (because many of them were either intoxicated or in musth). Their only role was to charge at enemy ranks, scatter cavalry and crush anybody that happened to slip. Unlike horses that are scared away by blood, elephants seem to get even more agitated by the smell of blood. This excited males in musth even more, making them that much more lethal. These have been called the “world’s first combined arms” tactics.

We also had the “walls”. These were elephants stationed near the rear guard, just in front of city gates or the general’s retinue, and their job was to repel any enemeies that managed to get past the front line. These had a small group of archers or javelin throwers that could do proportionately more damage than they could from ground level.

Particularly sadistic rulers also used “wildcards”, which were recently captured wild elephants that would be led on to the battlefield before the army’s advance, to do as they pleased. The elephants would charge, kill, maim, crush and rip through anything the army possessed, at very little cost to the other party. This was generally not kosher, and books on ‘Gajashastra’ (or ‘elephant science’) explicitly forbade this use on the grounds that it is cruel, unpredictable and disreputable.

So, elephants were extremely versatile animals of huge strategic value. And every Indian ruler knew it. Gommans writes:

Abul Fazl maintained that experienced men of Hindustan considered the value of a good elephant as equal to that of 500 horses; and they believed that, when guided by a few bold men armed with matchlocks, such an elephant alone was worth even double that number.

None knew this better than the Palas, who maintained around 5000 elephants in their army, and could call upon upto 7000 in times of need. That’s some serious elephantpower. If Fazl’s estimation is true, that should be enough to crush 2.5 million horses. Even if they were only equal to one-tenth that number, it would have been hugely to Dharmapala’s advantage. But of course, as with all things in life, things aren’t that simple.

The chinks in an elephant’s armour

For one thing, elephants are hard to breed, even harder to train and fiendishly expensive to care for. Each elephant needs a mahout, a retinue of cleaners and a steady supply of food. In the 12th century, an Arab traveller estimated that caring for one elephant cost 500 rupees a month in fodder alone. I have no idea what this number translates into in today’s money, but I’m guessing it’s at least a few thousand times the original number. The rupee grew 70 times from 1958-2019 at 7% per annum. If we assume the average inflation rate to be even 1% per year over 800 years and use the formula for compounding interest

FV = PV (1 + i)n

We get an inflation-adjusted figure of 14.32 lac rupees (1.432 million rupees for those unfamiliar with Indian numbering system) or roughly USD19,800 per elephant per month. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.

So, rulers let their elephants feed along roads and on the edges of forests. This took away from food for cattle, goats, horses, even people. There’s a reason that large, impractical gifts are called “white elephant gifts“. Uniquely though, and unlike horses, they show a great degree of war weariness. Elephants in captivity also get depressed, escape, get aggressive and moody, or starve themselves to death. So, unless well cared for, there’s a big chance that your elephant fleet will simply not exist when it’s time for war. All of this means that most elephants in the service of a king are fresh out of the jungle with just enough training to make them rideable. Only a few of the thousands are likely to see another war.

Fun fact: this is how war elephants are used today. Yes, you read that right: there are still war elephants in the world. They’re used by tribes such as the Khamti in the remote jungles of Myanmar on the border with India and China. The people capture elephants, use them for war for a while and then either release them or use them for other purposes. There’s an argument in ‘Hybrid Communities’ by Stepanoff and Vigne that this is a better model for animal-human interaction for both humans and elephants as it creates a more mutually respectful relationship that reduces chances of exploitation. The operating word here is “better”, because there is no excusable case for treating animals this way, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition they may be. And no matter how much people try to convince themselves that their models of treating animals are better, I find that as long as the focus is on how an animal can be of use to humans, no amount of sanctity will ever make up for the extent of exploitation that the animal is likely to face.

That’s why I find the standard argument of the “holy cow” to be a completely hollow argument. If you worship an animal for what it gives you, you will also doom the animal to a life of endless servitude, torture and eventually a slow and painful death. There are millions of cows in India that roam city streets and end up as roadkill because their owners just don’t see any output out of them and therefore, don’t need them anymore. As a result, if you ban the killing of cows out of some misplaced sense of reverence, you’re effectively giving them no exit when they’re suffering in pain or have no food or water to survive. All of this is entirely apart from the human side of the argument, which is that if you’re telling people to view cows as an economic commodity that exists to be traded and to be utilized as a commodity, you’re saying that cows exist to help them subsist, they should be allowed to do with them as they please; even if it means killing the cow for meat when the farmer’s family is going through hard times. Those are the only two arguments here; there are no hybrid models. There can be no “religious commodity”. A cow is either a holy object that needs compassion and must not be exploited in any way (which means setting them loose and criminalising their use, harm and killing for whatever reason), or it is an economic entity that can be used for whatever purpose the farmer sees fit. There is no other option.

Anyway, that’s the end of the cow tangent. Let’s return to Kanauj and finish the story.

Kanauj: the perfect elephant use-case

My source for the account of Dharmapala’s attack of Kanauj comes from the fantastic Kit Patrick on the ‘History of India’ podcast. The relevant episode is 5.16 (By setting of the eastern sun) and the scene begins around 24:02.

Sun Tzu says of sieges:

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, Ch. 3

When attacking a city, the defending army always has a massive upper hand. As a result, at Kanauj, Dharmapala was the underdog by a huge margin. He managed to turn things in his favour by using the elephants’ weaknesses to his advantage. By letting the elephants eat whatever they felt like, he was causing untold economic damage to his enemy’s kingdom. By advancing across the kingdom this way in a haphazard fashion feeding on everything along the way, he spread the defenders thin and made them vulnerable along the rivers, where he used his navy to great effect. Then, when the invaders were attacked, it was conventional melee, where horses are at a huge disadvantage facing anything other than a lump of grass.

The most decisive advantage the elephants conferred upon Dharmapala was their versatility. What was a grain sink while grazing in a poor peaasant’s field could be turned into an angry in a few moments. And when faced by archers at the gates, elephant archers could actually engage them by virtue of their elevation; even as the elephant happily destroyed the city’s fortification. Once the walls were breached, these same elephants could just turn around, stand their ground and act as a rear guard while the infantrymen breach the city walls and complete the siege.

From start to finish, an elephant in battle acts as a fully-capable, self-sufficient and versatile all-purpose war machine. A horse would have been just a dumb animal that carries the same rank as its rider.

That is why elephants are the better cavalry.

Still to come

So, I’ve let you in on why I think elephants are the undisputed kings of cavalry. But is cavalry itself a valuable part of an army? What about Genghis Khan, Attila, Kublai Khan, Tamar and all of those other Central Asian peoples that used horses to such effect? And if elephants are as good as I say they are, why did everybody use horses so much? Why didn’t I talk about alternative cavalries like boars, pigs, oxen, ostriches, emu and camels in this post?

I’m going to cover all of that and some more in the conclusion, to be posted in a few days. Until then, you will just have to hold your horses.

Categories
Culture History Religion

The Better Cavalry

It’s kurmas all the way down

My previous post was a bit much for many of my Hindu friends. Some of you wrestled with me regarding the substance in the post, and some others tried to convince me there was none. That’s fine; in fact, I agree with most of you that it was maybe a bit too anti-Hindu. Maybe it felt like I was needlessly needling your sensitive constitution. Let me try to assuage some of that animosity with a little story. About me.

A scenic detour back in time

As a kid, I was wildly enamoured by Hindu scriptures. I loved reciting Sanskrit shlokas, learnt as many of them as my supple brain took soak up, and would enthusiastically take part in competitions where my parents would engage in a Brahmin version of the rap battle. I would be paired up against a kid, roughly my age, and we would try to outdo each other with our delivery of ancient religious and philosophical texts. My weapon of choice was the Vishnu Sahasranamam or “the thousand names of Vishnu” – a blistering train of tonguetwisters sure to destroy you in the 20-odd minutes it should take to get through. I knew the whole thing by heart (in fact, I still retain some of that memory), and could recite it near-flawlessly without so much as a stutter.

When I recited it at a contest at the age of 10 – and won – I felt like a king for making my parents happy. But they weren’t as proud of me as they should have been. Well, the joke’s on them because I’ll never give them that opportunity again.

Vishnu Sahasranamam sung by the inimitable MS Subbulakshmi.

Another ballroom classic was the dreaded Bhagavad Gita. Or ‘Gita’, if you’re a fan of chopping the endbits off things. The west knows the Gita for such gems as the old favourite of Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb” (shoutout to the Civilization fans out there).

Now I am become death; the destroyer of worlds

Robert Oppenheimer, after witnessing what he’d created by supervising the detonation of the first nuclear weapon

The line above is from verse 32, ch. 11, and is more accurately translated as “I am mighty Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds”, but that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Here’s the full verse, if you’re interested (and yes, it’s supposed to be sung that way; it’s not prose).

śhrī-bhagavān uvācha

kālo ’smi loka-kṣhaya-kṛit pravṛiddho

lokān samāhartum iha pravṛittaḥ

ṛite ’pi tvāṁ na bhaviṣhyanti sarve

ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣhu yodhāḥ

Ch. 11 v. 32
Follow along if you want to hone your pronunciation

The Gita, however, is about more than just destruction and religious, portentious imagery. It’s a good work showing off everything that made Sanskrit a great (and dead) language: there are double entendres like nowhere else, spiritual wisdom and philosophical critique cloaked in layers upon layers of literary devices: riddles, paradoxes, anagrams, palindromes, metaphors and complex words that make you pull your hair out.

It’s still not as bad as Kalidasa, who was fond of using words like “शरच्चन्द्रचन्द्रिकाधवलं” (read: sharachchandrachandrikAdhavaLam) meaning “as white as the full moon on an autumn night”. Scholars that study Kalidasa use commentaries by later authors; only masochists read the originals.

But I digress

The Bhagavad Gita is a freestanding work, but is better understood as a book of the Mahabharata – easily one of India’s greatest works of literature. People these days tend to view it as a religious work. I don’t blame them; it has been misinterpreted, misunderstood and whitewashed beyond recognition. If you strip away the generational rot of creeping Hindutva politics and lazy readings of history, the Mahabharata is a brilliant political treatise written over several centuries containing everything you’d expect from a genre-defying work of the highest calibre. Its complex narrative, multilayered characters (compare the vengeful warrior-queen Draupadi with the Lois Lane-like damsel in distress called Sita) and condensation of human life and suffering are so timeless that at every point in history, writers have seen it as the perfect balance to the simplicity of Ramayana. Let me repurpose a quote about Homer:

The poems […] differ from all other known poetry in this that they constitute in themselves an encyclopædia of life and knowledge; at a time when knowledge, indeed, such as lies beyond the bounds of actual experience, was extremely limited, and when life was singularly fresh, vivid, and expansive

As much as that is true of Homer, it’s much more true of the unknown author(s) of the Mahabharata. So you’ll forgive me for going on about it at every opportunity.

And this is where I get to the point

As I graduated beyond the tried-and-tested Vishnu Sahasranama, I began reading the Gita. It appears in the Mahabharata in the Bhishma Parva (“the book of Bhishma”). There’s also some pretty unwholesome description of war, death and war strategies. My dad thought it would be a good idea to try to connect these concepts with something I enjoyed – chess.

I wasn’t a prodigy or anything. I’m sure I’d lose to a blindfolded footstool. But that isn’t important. What’s important to this story is how Indian chess (called “chaturanga”, or ‘four units’) differs from the more familiar chess. Here’s a summary:

  • Pawns don’t get the two-square first move
  • En passant is not allowed (because of above)
  • Promotion of pawn is dependent on where it ends up
  • King is always placed to the right of minister (‘queen’), regardless of colour
  • The four familiar units of queen, bishop, knight and rook are replaced by minister/queen (mantri/rani), camel, horse and elephant

It’s the last difference that really stuck with me, and was partly why I started to resent people who trained to be chess masters. Most of my better-educated friends would refer to the units by their English names, and would pull fancypants moves like en passant and underpromotion that I never understood the logic of. Why would a pawn be captured just because it passed by your unit after having just moved two squares? Makes no sense at all.

But what always annoyed me was that the Indian units that I’d grown up with did not match the shape of the pieces on the board. It infuriated me that my elephant looked like a stumpy pillar and the camel looked like an infected phallus, but the horse was just a horse.

And that, is why I’m writing about the various kinds of cavalry in the armies of the world. Because my knowledge is restricted to Indian, Persian and European armies, I’m going to focus my energies on showing why cavalries were a stupid idea and should not have been popular for as long as they were.

Then, I’ll tell you why horses are the worst idea and elephants are the absolute best for pure destruction. And then, maybe I’ll make a case for camels too.

But you’ll have to wait.

Categories
Indian History Indian politics Religion

The Idea of Ayodhya

Hindustan as an alternative to India

“A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when it was des­erted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and f­orce at the spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night, but did not apparently act.”

— K.K.K. Nayar (23 Dec, 1949)

This is the first time in years that I’ve decided to write several thousand words on anything other than an academic assignment. So, I’ll try to string my thoughts into a nice blog-friendly structure. Bear with me.

So there’s this idea in political science that when the British waved a wand and vanished in a puff of smoke from what they called “India”, what they left wasn’t so much a country as a bunch of identities loosely confined within an area roughly the size of the Amazon. A fevered puzzle of peoples that had hithertofore agreed to disagree on everything from religion and development to the role of women. People have discussed it for the longest time, in newspaper articles, editorials and countless sneering told-you-sos, and some like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have built their whole careers wrestling with what that means for the India of today.

So you’ll forgive me for my insistence that in order to reach Ayodhya, we need to pass through the bylanes and durbars of Delhi.

What gave us this nation? Why did we end up with the nation we have today, with all its contradictions and problems? How did this chaotic country of 300-something million at independence decide to become a democracy, granting everyone suffrage from the get-go, working within the first decade to dismantle pernicious social structures like untouchability, inequality and zamindari that had hamstrung us for millennia? India’s story is not only surprising within the context of history, but within the broader geopolitical realm in the middle of the 20th century. In a sea of multicultural melting pots like Syria, Nigeria and Iraq (all wrecked by the British, but that’s a story for another day) that never saw an ounce of development or harmony, India stands out as a curious anomaly. Even today, there isn’t another country with the level of diversity of opinion, identities, languages, faiths, opportunities and aspirations as India.

And yet, there’s a level of agreement on some basics: we are all equal but not the same, we get to pick our leaders (to whatever extent any modern democracy allows its citizens to), and we all get to argue, bicker, fight, shout and scream till we’re blue in the face; just to be able to believe whatever we want to. In other words, we all believe in the nation-state of India. So, a natural question to ask is: how is it that if we can’t agree on anything, we can all seemingly agree on what is and what isn’t India? It’s a weird question – and not just because I framed it that way.

One fantastic book that captures the essential absurdity of this contradiction is The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani.

TL;DR: there is no single India, and there never was. What we have now is mostly a Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India as a pluralistic, egalitarian experiment where the state gets to tell its citizens how to conduct themselves with dignity. The other ideas that lost out were: the capitalistic India of Naoroji, the Hindustan of Golwalkar, the kookyland of Besant and the militaristic powderkeg of Bose.

And there began our troubles

See, the issue was that not everybody bought into this idea. There are many that still cling to this outdated and entirely absurd notion that India was a “Hindu rashtra” at some point and we need to return the nation to that. When exactly? 2500 years ago, when the only “Hindus” were in what is now Pakistan, and everybody else prayed to whatever animal they felt like? 2000 years ago, when the country was mostly Buddhist as a rejection of the Hindu social order? 1500 years ago, when the country was so divided on religious grounds that the Buddhists, Shaivas and Vaishnavas considered each themselves entirely distinct religions and burned each other’s temples to the ground? Or was it 1000 years ago, when the Muslim rulers started to organize themselves around Delhi and a large part of northern India was naturally converting to Islam? Or India’s inarguable glory days of wealth and prosperity under the rule of Sher Shah Suri or Akbar but without the Muslim monarchs who are just too much for you to bear? But if you don’t like any of the above, everything else is mostly just a country fragmented into a million states that were only ever united under Ashoka, Akbar and the British Raj. Notice how none of them were ever Hindu empires.

Any way we slice it, in the 2500 years of history of India as a geopolitical entity, it’s only since the 15th century (after the Bhakti wave peaked) that India was a Hindu-majority region. Not Hindu, merely Hindu-majority. So, the idea of Hindustan is based around a narrow focus on 20-25% of the entire history of this country, without any clear reason for why we should focus on this specific 20%. It’s a baseless idea built around flawed logic and a poor understanding of history.

It’s kind of like planting a Hindu image in what is clearly, obviously and historically a non-Hindu building, getting a mob together, performing a puja and hoping that the noise can hide the fact that this idol didn’t exist yesterday.

A bit like the symbolic fight over Ayodhya.

Symbolic of his struggle against reality

The Muslim argument is built on history

We all know the Muslim side of this. Babur, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek warlord who claimed to be descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur, fought his way through the Hindu Kush and arrived in Delhi. He did not like the city or the region and prefered Kabul instead.

Hindustan is a place of little charm… There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

Babur in “Baburnama”

His sister, Khanzada, is one of the most badass and underrated female figures in history (Netflix Originals, where you at?). Also, fun facts: Babur appears to have had homosexual tendencies, drank like a fish, loved music, did every drug that Kabul could offer him and his autobiography (by all accounts, a beautiful work) seems more like a Sufi work than anything a pious Muslim would write. Here’s one gem:

Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye.

We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.

If that doesn’t make you think about the impermanence of glory on the same lines as Ozymandias by Shelley, I don’t know what will. Needless to say, he was also a very characteristically harami Mughal emperor. Another thing that gets overlooked: Babur (and his line) would have preferred to be known as Timurids instead of as Mughals, because they were proud of their Timurid heritage and not so much of their Mongol blood. Babur, as should be obvious by now, had some not-so-nice things to say about the Moghuls:

The Moghul troops who had come as reinforcements had no endurance for battle. They left the battle and began to unhorse and plunder our own men. It was not just here they did this: those wretched Moghuls always do this. If they win they take booty; if they lose they unhorse their own people and plunder them for booty.

Think about that when you’re thinking about why Baburnama is essential reading in most of Central Asia, and I believe should be in Indian schools as well.

He also seems to have ordered the construction of a small mosque in a little sleepy town called Ayodhya. “Seems to have”, because the only record we have of the date is from several decades after the mosque was constructed. Also, for a guy who liked Babur as much as Babur did, there’s no mention of this “Babri Masjid” in his autobiography. There’s also no real evidence to show that Mir Baqi was a “Mir”, or even a significant individual of the time. But the mosque stood nonetheless and people prayed there for centuries, seemingly unmolested by the Hindus around it.

So, let’s not belabour the point here. the Muslim argument is solid and rests on some evidence, but like all Indian history, the details are a bit fuzzy. Let’s look at the “carefully constructed”, “historically accurate” Hindu argument.

The Hindu argument is a whole load of cowdung

Long, long ago, a Dalit man wrote a wildly speculative book called “Ramayana” which said that a racist, sexist hunk called Rama was born in Ayodhya. Nobody seriously takes it to be historically accurate – not least because there are no man-sized apes in Karnataka that can leap across an ocean. It only starts to resemble reality if you reduce it to this:

  • man marries woman
  • they leave on a holiday/exile/honeymoon
  • woman escapes/elopes/gets kidnapped
  • man needs to prove his manliness and ownership over woman by killing the “kidnapper” who actually treats her with more respect than the husband ever does throughout the length of the tale
  • man returns victorious but shames wife for getting kidnapped in the world’s oldest tale of victim blaming.

But even then, it’s little more than a myth to most modern Indians.

Except people like Subramanian Swamy, who’s just a litigious joker with a sensitive ego – and we don’t need to worry about him. Or maybe we do, because rabble rousers like him planted an idol in 1949 and started this whole drama in the first place. Then, they razed Babri to the ground in 1992, on live TV no less. Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

The key instigators like Uma Bharti and LK Advani were rewarded by the Indian political class with MP posts, pretigious ministries at the centre and a whole lot of political capital. The people who stood in the way and tried to prevent popular violence were figures we’re now uncomfortable with. Don’t believe me? Watch:

Later, when the case made its way to the Allahabad HC, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) found some structural remains under the Babri masjid complex, and the layout of the leftovers looked vaguely like a temple. And that’s it – that’s all the “scientific proof” that the Hindu side’s argument rests on.

The Hindu argument then boils down to this Sparknotes version:

  • Book of fiction written at some unclear point in history says Rama was born in Ayodhya
  • There was a temple under the Babri Masjid
  • Some travellers to Ayodhya write that there was a temple to Rama there at some point
  • Ergo, this site is where Rama’s temple stood.
  • Therefore, it’s ours.

For more insights into the outrageousness of Hindu fundamentalist arguments about Ayodhya and many other topics, watch Vivek (‘Reason’ in English) by Anand Patwardhan. It’s won a bunch of awards, but is not a pretty movie, and is not meant to be a casual watch on the bus ride home. Sit down at a desk and watch. I could only find a link to the Hindi version, so I’m sorry if you don’t understand Hindi.

The emptiness of this case doesn’t end there, because there are some uniquely Indian peculiarities at play here. Enter the courts.

This shit is tiring, man

I’m way out of my depths in the legalities in this section, but I’ve been following this case long enough to be able to see a pattern of complete nonsense in the shenanigans and dirty tricks being used here. Here’s a timeline to help you follow along. There’s a ton of supplementary reading material available in a bookstore near you, if you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the below.

The first is the legal oddity left over from the British period that the deity aka Ram Lalla (aka made up idol placed in temple to provoke Muslims) carries legal rights of its own and is thus represented in court by its own lawyer. The history of this is fascinating and speaks volumes about how the British deepened India’s societal divisions and turned them into active political tools.

And then, one of these clowns on the Hindu side had the bright idea of taking this idea further. He filed that the site itself, “Ramjanmabhoomi”, be added as a party to the claim on the grounds that the site itself is sacred to Hindus and its identity cannot be separated from Ram Lalla. You can see the logic at play here.

To make matters worse, the Shia and Sunni sides, predictably, started fighting each other in public statements, weakening each other’s arguments and undercutting the legalese they were spouting in court. This, added to the open hostility and downright backwardness of some of their arguments during the triple talaq hearings just made it much harder for them to convince anybody that there was a “good” Muslim team here.

In the end, the Hindu side won the case with a weaker argument and no claim to the title.

The Hindu side won (obviously)

How did this come to be? The fact is, it was almost inevitable. For one thing, the Hindu parties were better organised and presented a unified face, with most of their disagreements about the role of the Nirmohi Akhara and amicus filings kept under wraps by the guiding hand of the RSS, or Sangh.

Second, the Muslim side had the rug pulled from under them by the Ismail Faruqui ruling in 1994. This meant that the court effectively proclaimed that mosques were not essential to the practice of Islam. When challenged in the SC, the Court decided to not refer this case to a constitution bench because that earlier ruling was only about that specific land dispute. So, the writing on the wall was clear: Muslims cannot expect the courts to hold up their right to worship.

Fundamentally, there was a huge asymmetry in what the two sides were expected to accomplish through the case. For one thing, the Muslim side had to show that the land was being used for prayers, had a clear line of usage and was essential to the Muslim population around there. They were unable to get a mass of people to prove it because of the slightly inconvenient fact that the masjid no longer exists and thus a revisionist could always say that it was never needed in the first place, and the larger issue that UP under Ajay Bisht is on a fast track to the stone age. The Hindu side only needed to show a few pamphlets and “sacred texts” of zero factual value to prove that a temple to Rama existed around that area. However, their frequent shows of force with rallies and procamations meant that courts had to factor into their decision the possibility of sectarian violence erupting as soon as the verdict was out.

And there, we see the problem coming full circle: India’s highest court itself no longer fully subscribes to the “Idea of India” written into the Constitution.

The Ill, The Illiberal and The Illegitimate

The Indian Constitution is a thing of beauty. But not the kind of robust, timeless beauty of the Grand Canyon or Everest. Instead, it’s a bit like the beauty of Michelangelo’s Painting in the Sistine Chapel: artificial, ethereal, delicate and dependent on something else for structural support. The Supreme Court was just that: the meat and bones to a spectacularly liberal and progressive body. Go over the list of landmark SC cases and you’ll see a pattern: the Court has built an image of steadfast justice and no-holds-barred discipline to the founding principles of the Constitution. Apart from the Emergency years (when practically nothing was untouched by Indira Gandhi’s powerlust), the SC has an almost squeaky-clean bill of health. And it’s not just me saying it.

But now, there’s some walking back going on. The SC is no longer an apolitical body, for better or for worse. There are many reasons for this: India’s growing illiberal class, the deviation of executive capacity from the goals of the judiciary and temptations of the legislative, disintegration of the Congress, etc. But I think the fundamental issue is much more pedestrian: just plain corruption.

What this means for the country is that there’s that much less willingness within the judiciary to fight the excesses of legislation, or to push the executive to do more to pretect people’s rights. We see this time and time again, from the court’s unwillingness to engage with the reality of “sedition laws” to the weaponization of the CBI and NIA to the fact that nobody raises a finger against blatantly religious content in states’ academic curricula. Outgoing CJIs get cushy jobs on “committees” designed to do nothing, and immunity from prosecution in the case of inconvenient allegations against them.

The trouble with the new normal

I like the idea of India I grew up with – a pluralistic, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It makes sense to me, seems just, fair and something for the political class to aspire towards. Nothing captures this spirit as much as the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. The white Dravidian building in a city of glass and steel is a bit of an anachronism these days, but just its existence is a testament to the character of this country.

The Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, in Jan 2019

The building was mostly designed and conceptualised by the Chief Minister at the time, K. Hanumanthaiah, a man with no architectural knowledge, to commemorate the independence of the Mysore princely state, a wealthy and progressive subject of the British crown. The basic idea is said to have begun from the structure of a Dravidian temple – more specifically the architectural style of the Badami Chalukyas, hence the distinct and rounded “gopuram”. Upper reaches of the gopuram incorporate some elements of Persian architecture as well, a nod to the significant role that successful Muslims had played in shaping the state’s history – one of Mysore’s most famous rulers was Tipu Sultan, a legendary warrior-king whose tales of valour and indomitability inspire many to this day. The gilded lion of Sarnath at the top symbolizes the Union of India, of which Mysore was now a part. But the building was to be more than just a statement of the state’s identity – it was also a declaration of the new India’s aspirations: the Romanesque columns holding up the front are a mishmash of various architectural elements picked up in his travels through Europe. With the construction of this building, Hanumanthaiah was stating his intention to develop the state along Western European lines, but without forgetting its unique place in history.

If you peer closely at the inscription right above the columns, it says “Government’s work is God’s work”, a clever inversion of the priorities in “work is worship”. This, to me, is the right role of religious identities – as a factor to be mindful of. Not be guided by it as fundamentalists of every yarn would have us do, or be entirely agnostic to the religious beliefs of the population you govern – as Western democracies tend to view “secularism”. To me, the secular character of India is about more than just professed agnosticism. It is the duty of the state to respect Constitutional principles, actively engage every group and bring a compromise that serves the weaker sections of society. It is served by giving each group a voice, amplifying it so we hear the substance of the argument and then, collectively agreeing upon a mutually respectful course of action.

The Ayodhya verdict is a farce

The Ayodhya verdict achieves most of these but essentially assumes that the Muslims can determine their own course of action in the regular democratic processes of elections and politics. In doing so, the bench misses the most crucial point: if Muslims could dictate their own fate, they would not have to reach the highest court in the country to have their say. The Hindu side has been agitating that if the land wasn’t handed over to them, they’d find other means to achieve it. What recourse did the Muslims have if their side lost? Nothing.

The bench stated that this was merely a property dispute, and that it was not in the court’s mandate to dictate matters of faith. Therefore, the bickering Shia side and Ramjanmabhoomi were thrown out since they were not parties to the dispute. The verdict gave all of the 2.77 acres to the Hindus and instucted the government to hand over a 5 acre piece of land “in a prominent place” to the Muslim parties as compensation.

Seems fair? Sure. But consider this: it was the Muslim side with a stronger claim to the property, and the Hindu side produced no documents to prove the provenance of the land under question. In a property dispute, the Hindus only argued on matters of faith. So why were they rewarded? Let’s assume it’s not a property dispute, despite what the court says. If this was a religious dispute instead, why were the religious arguments of the Muslim side truncated? Why was the role of a mosque not examined again? Why was the Hindu side not required to produce any material on the reliability of Ramayana as a mapping tool? So, it’s not a religious dispute either. Things don’t add up because the case was neither about property nor about religion. It was purely political.

The court – as is the norm these days under loquacious CJIs like Misra and Gogoi who care more about the language of their judgment and the number of times they quote Shakespeare and Locke in one paragraph – wrote in beautiful prose about the high ideal that the Supreme Court of India stands for and the importance of the following rule of law, and of respecting everybody’s opinion. Then quickly turned around and spat justice in the face.

Coming right after the FRA verdict recently, this goes to show that the SC is no longer a reliable friend of the downtrodden. The court decided in favour of the status quo; and thereby implicitly chose the powerful. It abdicated its duty as we watched and cheered on.

The idea of India stands tall in Bangalore and houses the state legislature. Now, a monument to the idea of Hindustan will be built in Ayodhya, acting as a refuge to everybody who thinks that an equal society undermines their right to superiority over someone else.

Shame on all of us for letting it get this far.