October 31, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

Was Abul Fazl a Sycophant?


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Abul Fazl presenting the Akbara-Nama to Akbar

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The slave mentality ghula-amaanaa zehniyat inculcated by the British continues to bedevil Indian history. Thus, Mansura Haidar of Aligarh unthinkingly parrots the erstwhile feringhee rulers to, allege: "In Akbarnama, however, one may fail to find an objective analysis and a balanced and unbiased presentation of facts..." As the reader can see the chronicle of a great reign written by a prominent intellectual of the 16th century has been given short shrift and condemned only because Indians continue to echo distortions of Indian history caused by the British need to badmouth all "natives" to justify their own intrusion and destruction of value systems.

Dr Haider, a professor of history at the Centre for Advanced Study, Department of History in Aligarh Muslim University should have known better. She has, under the auspices of the Indian Council of Historical Research, edited selected translations of the legendary Insha or collection of prose masterpieces of Abul Fazl which have been taught as model and text for nearly 400 years as part of the Persian studies syllabus. Her history is not as pointed for accuracy as her critical faculty. She says, "It is significant that the contemporary chronicles present Abul Fazl as the most important figure at court during the first three decades of Akbarís reign even though he did not hold any important post at that time." As readers know the Emperor came to the throne in 1556, and Abul Fazl makes his entry into the court on June 20, 1573. The translations fail to convey the power and the glory the romance and the heartbreak of what was unquestionably one of the most fascinating reigns in the history of the world. Alas!

Perhaps these points will be addressed in the second edition of Maktubat-I-Allami. To return to Abul Fazl and the great and encyclopaedic chronicle, the Akbar-nama let us see how the Allama treats the death of his rival, Mahesh Bhatt "Brahm," better known as Raja Birbal. "One of the occurrences was the sending of Rajah Birbar to Swat," Abul Fazl states that he himself was anxious for a military command and asked to be considered for the commission.

"Inasmuch as the head of this confused and ambitious one (Abul Fazl himself) was filled with thoughts of (earning glory in) battle, he represented to his majesty that although serving the presence in person and directly was the elixir of fortune, yet he wished to make an attempt at military service in a distant place as such an assignment would be the testing place of loyalty.

Abul Fazl further records his feelings thus: "I too had been raised by His Majesty from the dark recesses of the lane beneath contempt to a post of prominence and had become conspicuous in the world. By undertaking a venturesome risky commission I too could lighten the burden of gratitude on my back and shoulders... should I lose my brief life, I would acquire an eternal good name!"

His Majesty perceived in my demeanour the marks of sincerity, and accepted my earnest prayer."

At the end of the day when it was time for taking leave the Emperor said it had occurred to him that lots should be cast and drawn between the Rajah Birbar and myself to decide as to who should be given the command. This way the wishes of the two nobles wanting the command would not come into play but the divine decree or what Fate had in store could come into play"
Perhaps Akbar did not want either of his intimate friends and counsellors to feel that he had favoured the other by giving in to his wishes.

As "the little throw came out in his (Birbarís) name... I left with the broken thorn of grief in my heart, and seated myself in the caravanserai of meditation."

That man who was fitted for battle or banquet (babuzm-o-ruzm) went by Heavenís decree on 12 Bahman, January 21, 1586. Qasim Khwaja, Gadai Beg, Haji Siyunduk, Ahmad Beg, Tash Beg, Khwaja Hisamuddin and other distinguished persons went with him."

Abul Fazl informs us that the experienced commander Zain Kh-an Koka who was already in Swat had asked for reinforcements. "Zain Khan Koka had represented that by Godís favour he had got through difficult defiles, and had gained possession of Bajaur and most of Swat, but the troops were exhausted by their strenuous efforts and the forced marches they had had to undertake."
The Afghans were assembled in Karaakar Pass between Swat and Buneyr. If some brave men (reinforcements) were sent to him the enemy would soon have his just desserts and the whole country come into possession in an excellent manner"

Accordingly on the 19th Bahman (a week after despatch of Rajah Birbarís force) Hakim Abul Fath was given Hasan Beg, S. Umri, Ahmad Qasim, Toofaan Beg, Mulla Ghiyuri, Mohan Das along with Cerus and shumsheerbaazaan (skilled wielders of the scimitar ) to accompany his force to reinforce Zain Khan Koka. At the end of the day His Majesty visited the Hakimís tents and gave him excellent counsel." As the reader can see the reinforcements sent to Zain Khan Koka were two armies commanded by his favourites who had no experience of warfare except by hearsay.
Abul Fazl comments: "The Kokaltash (Zain Khan Koka) asked for reinforcements, and His Majesty nominated Rajah Birbar, Hakim Abul Fath and others. When they joined the dust of dissension and doublemindedness (durangey) rose up. Previously, there had been hot words between the Kokaltash (Zain Khan Koka) and the Rajah, and the latter and the Hakim were also not on good terms. By the jugglery of fortune, they in spite of their lofty natures, entered into the narrows of envy. They could not brook any partnership in the royal favour..."

The above observation of Abul Fazl applies to all career development charts military, civil or commercial. A man who could write thus in a chronicle which had to be approved by the emperor was no sycophant and modern or contemporary historians should honour him and not condemn him. The Rajah Birbal was to pay with his life for the dissensions and divided counsels. This was on February 16, 1586 and we hope to narrate details in a future column.


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