Rajputs, their women, & Muslim rulers

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on January 6th, 2018 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


A casteist outfit, the Rajasthan-based Sri Rajput Karni Sena’s objection to the movie ‘Padmavati’ is somewhat surprising because the Rajputs acquitted themselves honorably in this period. The Delhi Sultanate was relatively a new thing and the Rajputana rulers were still hopeful of challenging it militarily. They fought valiantly till the end and their women took their own life to protect their honour.

Mughal-Rajput marriages

As time passed, Rajputs became increasingly disadvantaged. Babar defeated the Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sanga of Chittor. His widow Rani Karnavati’s appeal to Humayun for help against the Gujarat Sultan failed to elicit any prompt response. The rules of the game changed with Akbar. Rajput rulers became allies of the Mughals, but at a price. They were asked to send their daughters to the imperial harem. The practice lasted 150 long years, from 1562 to 1715.

From Jodha Bai to Indira Kanwar

 The first Rajput girl in the Mughal zenana was a daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber, known variously as Jodha Bai, Hira Kunwai or Harkha Bai, who was married to Emperor Akbar. Given the secular image of Akbar, the marriage has been presented as an inter-religious affair. Movies and television serials have romanticised this particular pair, but the reality, in general, was different. It is noteworthy that Mughal chronicles do not record Hindu names of Rajput wives; they know them only by their Muslim titles. While the Rajput wives in the Mughal harem would probably have met their male blood relatives, it is unlikely that they ever visited their parental home.The last incidence of a Mughal-Rajput marriage is particularly unsavoury; it belongs to an era when the Mughal power had precipitously declined. In 1715, Maharaja Ajit Singh of Marwar was compelled to marry off his daughter Indira Kanwar to Emperor Farrukhsiyar. The Maharaja showed no fondness for his Mughal son-in-law. He, in fact, was instrumental in Farrukhsiyar’s dethronement and assassination. Indira Kanwar was converted back to Hinduism and brought to Jodhpur with all her property. It was the first ever instance of a Rajput princess being “restored to her own people after she had once entered the imperial harem.” The daughter was obviously nothing more than a pawn in her father’s politicking.

Karni Sena’s aim

The Karni Sena has violently reacted to ‘Jodha-Akbar’ and ‘Padmavati’. One shudders to think of its reaction if someone were to make a movie on Indira Kanwar. The Karni Sena’s avowed aim is to consolidate the Rajput vote with a view to striking a hard bargain at the next General Election. Keeping the vote bank politics in mind, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has argued: “Why insist upon a film if it is hurting the sentiments of a particular caste?” Pandering to populism, the governments of Rajasthan, Haryana and MP have banned the film even without waiting for a decision by the certification board.The Karni Sena president has demanded that the film be cleared by the erstwhile ruling family of Mewar. This is a pernicious principle. Every Hindu has a caste. Historical personalities cannot be considered as the property of their present-day caste descendents. If Maharana Pratap can be a national hero, why can the others not be seen from a general perspective?

History and art

The National Film Certification Board has announced that historians would be included in the panel that views ‘Padmavati’. Such a move can serve no useful purpose. History is a tricky subject; it cannot be written without implicating the historian. Not all historical facts are recorded nor are all points of view accommodated. What is considered important today may not even have been considered worthy of notice in the past. Alauddin Khalji’s chronicler Amir Khusro records the jauhar committed by the queens and other women in the Ranthambore Fort which was conquered in 1301. It was the first description of the custom in Persian. Two years later, the Chittor fort was reduced under similar circumstances but no jauhar is mentioned. It will be wrong to conclude from this that no jauhar took place. The absence of mention does not constitute proof of absence. Muslim chroniclers may not have been overly enthusiastic about recording the goings-on in the Rajput camp. It is probable that Amir Khusro’s interest was in reporting a new phenomenon to his readers. Once the purpose had been served, there was no need to report the incident again. If the womenfolk in Chittorgarh did not take their own life, what happened to them? If they had been taken to Delhi, surely the Sultanate historians and chroniclers would have found it worthy of mention. It is pointless to speculate whether Padmini or Padmavati was a real person or not. There would have been a chief queen in Chittor even if we do not know her real name.Suppose Jayasi had set his epic in Ranthambore rather than in Chittor. There would have been no controversy on the historicity, but the impact of the epic would have been the same as now.No movie can ever be made based solely on the inputs provided by chroniclers and historians. Even if names, dates and events are authentic, characters will have to be fleshed out, tensions created and drama enacted. As the high court has said, a movie should not be pre-judged. The decision on its release should be awaited and respected. More importantly, a nation should be able to look its past in the eye without feeling discomfited. It should allow its artistes and creative persons to function in an atmosphere free of fear.

Google’s thoughtless doodle on Nain Singh, the 19th century camouflaged trans-Himalayan explorer

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 25th, 2017 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


As a gimmick, Google temporarily amends its logo to commemorate events, anniversaries, and the like. It calls the  altered image a doodle, Google must have a research team at work to identify country-specific dates. It must also have at hand the services of a powerful public relations network, because a new doodle invariably becomes a news story.

The original meaning of doodle is ‘a rough drawing made absent-mindedly’. Google doodles show sophistication in drawing, but can be thoughtless and unhistorical as can be seen from the commemoration of 187th birthday of the trans-Himalayan surveyor, Nain Singh.

The British colonial Empire made use of Indians whenever needed. This role was necessarily marginal. It was exaggerated after Independence, and now in the global age, dominated by Google, it is being unhistoricized as can be seen from the

Trigonometrical Survey of India that began rather modestly in 1800 very soon transcended its colonial utility to emerge as a vast and ambitious exercise of great geographical, geodesic, and geo-political significance. Indians were hired as mathematical calculators but were debarred from actual survey work within the country, for security reasons. There was however one type of survey which the Indians alone could do. And that was clandestine exploration of Trans-Himalayan regions, where Europeans would have been immediately spotted and put to trouble if not death.

The proposal by colonial surveyors  for a systematic clandestine survey of the Trans-Himalayas by the Indians was put forward in 1861. For Tibetan survey Hindus from the mountainous region were chosen because they could pass off as Buddhists while for Central Asia Muslims were the natural choice. With characteristic British thoroughness and disdain, the Indian surveyors were only taught how to take observations, but were not taught how to reduce the data lest they cheated. Although they were given jagirs, scientific medals, and titles like Rai Bahadur and Khan Bahadur, official records did not mention their personal  names. They were referred to as Pundit (irrespective of caste), Havildar, Mirza, etc., or by alphabets and dashes.

Nain Singh was known as the Pundit. His cousin ( not brother as mentioned in records) Kishen Singh was officially known as Krishna. His name was spelt backwards, and the first and the last letter were written down separated by dashes to create his codename: A__k.

On 25 May 1868, Nain Singh was awarded  a gold watch, worth thirty guineas, by the Royal Geographical Society. And yet he was almost irrelevant at the award ceremony. Nain Singh was not named. He was the  ‘wily’ and ‘skilful ‘ ‘Pundit employed by Captain Montgomerie’. The real hero for the Geographical Society was  Montgomery. The Pundit ‘ had proved himself in every way worthy of Captain Montgomerie’s selection’. For this, ‘tribute of gratitude and admiration’ was due to him. Others before him had employed the native agency ‘for the purpose of acquiring political and statistical information’. However, it was Montgomerie, who ‘discovered that they could use a sextant or a theodolite as well as Europeans. That was really a most valuable discovery.’ It was now hoped that further explorations would be carried out by ‘native enterprise directed by English enterprise’. Nain Singh was further honoured in 1877, when  the Society conferred its coveted  Victoria or Patron’s medal .

More substantially, the Government allotted him a jagir in the plains. He was also  created Companion of Indian Empire.

During 1865 and 1866, Nain Singh as a pioneer trans-Himalyan covert explorer made a 1200-mile route survey. During this survey  he traced the route of Brahmaputra from its source near Lake Manasarovar to Lhasa. In addition, he fixed the altitude of 31 distinct locations including Lhasa.  He also made observations of temperature of air and boiling water , by which heights of 33 points were fixed. He also provided  ‘ Notes as to what was seen, and as to the information gathered during the expedition’. For this and subsequent field work, he disguised himself as a Tibetan lama, equipped with a fake rosary and a fake prayer wheel. He had to go to extreme lengths to hide his true identity. He tried to keep aloof from others so that he could focus on counting his paces. He could make his astronomical observations only at night when no one was around.

Nain Singh Rawat’s 187th birthday

Google’s carelessly conceived doodle shows a tall dark man in a European dress, a frock coat and tight trousers. He has a tripod in front of him and is observing the Sun in full glory. If  Nain Singh had dressed like that and observed like that in Tibet, he would have been jailed or expelled. There then would have been nothing to be googled or doodled about him.




Government College University Lahore: Book Review

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 22nd, 2017 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

This is an enlarged version of the Book Review published in TheTribune(Spectrum) 22 October 2017 http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/books-reviews/making-of-an-institution/485000.html


Khalid Aftab (2017) Against All Odds: Institute Building in the Real World (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications)



Rajesh Kochhar

Panjab University Chandigarh

[email protected]


The author, Prof. Khalid Aftab, served as the Principal of Government College Lahore (GCL) from 1993 till 2002. Thanks to his sustained efforts, the College was made into a full-fledged Government College University Lahore (GCUL) in 2002 with him as the first Vice-Chancellor which post he held till 2011. He was thus at the helm of the institution’s affairs for close to two decades.

He has now written a personalized memoir describing how discipline was enforced against all odds, and academic standards raised. It is interesting to note that political leadership and bureaucracy who had happily been meddling in the college affairs finally became a party to efforts to try to restore it to its former glory. It of course helped that many influential people were old students of the College. The only other college in the sub-continent which has been comparable to GCL is Presidency College Kolkata which became a university in 2010. A comparative study of these two institutions would be instructive indeed.

Introduction of English education into the erstwhile Sikh kingdom was an immediate consequence of its annexation by the British in 1849. The colonial education policy in Punjab however was markedly different from that in Bengal. In Bengal and Bombay, the colonialists had the convenience of dealing with a mercantile class which they themselves had created and which was very enthusiastic about English. In contrast in Punjab the British had to come to terms with the rajas, zamindars, and raeeses who did not place high premium on western education.

Government College Lahore was formally established on 1 January 1864. Its first regular Principal was not hand-picked bureaucratically, but selected on the basis of an open newspaper advertisement in England. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, who arrived in November that year, was an oriental scholar and at the time a lecturer in Arabic and Muslim Law at King’s College London.


Throughout the colonial period, GCL remained a bastion of  liberal English education. The two Punjabi science Nobel laureates, Har Gobind Khorana and Abdul Salam were former students, who were and are called Ravians after the College Magazine which in turn took its name from the river. Other prominent names among the old Ravians include  Faiz Ahmad Faiz (poet), Khushwant Singh (writer) and Dev Anand (actor).


At GCL as well as elsewhere English education scene was dominated by Hindus. I have carried out an actual head count of teaching staff at GCL during 1944-45. Of the 46  faculty members (excluding the Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit departments), only 11 or 24% were Muslim. With the migration of non-Muslims to India in 1947, GCL (as well as other educational institutions in Pakistan Punjab) was drastically depleted, with reverse Muslim migration from India having a very small compensatory effect.


Because of the post-colonial socio-political changes it became impossible for the College to maintain its earlier elitist culture. ‘[T]he events that unfolded on the campus in the 1980s were worse than at any time in the past’. Throughout the sub-continent, college and university hostels almost invariably situated in the heart of the city  hold great attraction for anti-social elements whether they are enrolled as students or not. True to form, politically-backed lumpen elements increasingly gained ascendancy in GCL thanks to the appeasement policy adopted by the College administration. Rival student factions took control of the hostels and converted the College campus into a battleground.


In November 1993, Dr Khalid Aftab, then the head of economics department, was called by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for a meeting. It is not every day that a prime minister officially meets a college professor. We do not know anything about the background to the meeting but it turned out to be a watershed in the history of the college.


The meeting was held in the Governor’s house under whose administrative control the College lay.  To the College’s good luck, both the Prime Minister and Governor were old Ravians . Given the lawlessness that prevailed in the college, it is understandable that the Inspector General of Police was asked to be present. The Mayor of Lahore who was a close political associate of the Prime Minister also attended. When the Prime Minister asked Dr Aftab  to take charge of the College and stem the rot, the Principal-designate boldly pointed towards the Mayor and aid that his son was an important gang leader of the College. Very astutely, Nawaz Sharif changed the topic by drawing attention to the high quality of the prawns being served as snack, but surely the pre-prawn message was not lost on the Mayor.


The first task before the new Principal was instilling the fear of authority in the minds of students and staff. On his third day in office, the Principal was greeted by exchange of gun fire in a College hostel. The incident was not new but the official response was. The College filed a complaint with the police, expelled the gang leaders, and refused to budge notwithstanding the all-round political pressure and the threats from the expelled students’ families.   Similarly, the wife of a faculty member who served as superintendent of the girls’ hostel rudely told the Principal that since she had been appointed on directions from the Prime Minister’s wife she was not answerable to him. She was dismissed.


In a major development, GCL was given degree-awarding status in 1997. The influential Committee on Education of members of  Punjab Assembly had no objection to the move except that they wanted a bigger share in the Board of Governors of the autonomous College. Being powerful, politicians can be direct in their demands but vested interests employ devious strategies. Under its newly found autonomy, GCL set out to revise the syllabus, and brought out a book in English reading and comprehension for BA students, by ‘a foreign qualified teacher, Suraiya Shafi Mir. Authors of guide books based on old curriculum, the Urdu Bazar  publishers and book sellers, supported by a section of press launched vicious campaign against the new English curriculum. A privilege motion was tabled in the Punjab Assembly alleging that the new curriculum was anti-Islamic. The matter however  was settled in the College’s favour on the personal intervention of the Education Minister, a retired brigadier. At the end, an erstwhile objector, who ‘represented a religious group of Southern Punjab’ asked for a copy of the controversial book for use by his own children!


One of the most illustrious alumni of GCL was Abdus Salam  who was a student during 1942-1946 and then a professor during 1951-54. He went on to jointly win the 1979 Nobel physics prize. Pakistan however was most reluctant to own him because he was an Ahmadiya. An internationally appreciated initiative of Principal Aftab was to get government sanction in 1996 for a chair in Salam’s name.


Islamic Studies was a compulsory course at the undergraduate leve. GCUL’s curriculum on it was criticized in sections of the press and denounced as un-Islamic in the Friday sermon in many mosques. The situation was serious enough for ISI to depute an officer to visit the College for investigation. The new curriculum demanded extensive reading in subjects like philosophy of Islam and a few articles in English. While the students and most of the faculty were happy with the curriculum, a handful of teachers felt unequal to the task. Finally, the rabble-rouser was identified as a teacher in the College doubled as an Imam in a mosque in the walled city. The problem was solved by repatriating erring teachers back to the government education department and hiring younger teachers. It is noteworthy that serving army officers and retired army officers in administrative positions were quite supportive of the Dr Aftab’s modernizing agenda.



In 2002 the Higher Education Commission (HEC) permitted GCUL to hire foreign faculty. The experiment was considered to be a success except in cases where the foreign academics were of Pakistani origin. In the ‘peak years’ there were as many as 53 such professors, but by 2015 their number had fallen to zero.


Dr Aftab took a commendable initiative in collecting memorabilia connected with eminent people. The daughter of the celebrated Urdu writer Noon Meem Rashid presented the University with her father’s smoker’s pipe. She also presented a typewriter which had originally belonged to Saadat Hasan Manto and which he had sold to Rashid for 16 rupees.


Following a top-down approach, HEC announced financial incentives for promoting research among the faculty. Excessive pressures led to instances of plagiarism. An economics teacher had the temerity to lift passages from the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen for his paper in the College journal. He was forced to quit. In another case however the University was rendered helpless. Even though it was proven that  a PhD thesis in chemistry was based on ‘other’s data’, the University was ordered by the High Court to award the degree.


Academic administrators often find government auditors unreasonable. The audit team visiting GCUL objected to the purchase of furniture for the library on the ground that government rules forbade it. The argument that that a library would be meaningless without furniture cut no ice with the auditors who went to the extreme of suggesting that the cost be personally recovered from the Vice-Chancellor. He had to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of the Punjab Assembly for explanation. Finally, the matter was laid to rest by obtaining ex-post-facto permission from the Chief Minister. Interestingly, all the trouble could have been avoided if under-the-table payment had been made to the audit team as demanded!


A major contribution of Dr Aftab towards infrastructural development was the acquisition of a 370-acre chunk of land in the nearby Kala Shah Kaku town of Sheikhupura district. Dr Aftab’s friend from College days was now a big businessman and politically very well connected. At his daughter’s wedding, he contrived a meeting of the VC with the President and the Punjab Chief Minister which finally clinched the long pending issue. Here was an instance of high-powered networking being used for institutional purposes rather than personal gain.


No VC of a state-funded university has ever found a way of ensuring that government grants are released in time and the budget deficit is bridged as a matter of course. In 2010-11, GCUL’s total expenditure stood at 695 million rupees while the income was only 612 million rupees leaving a shortfall of 83 million. Over the years the University was able to build a reserve fund of 550 million rupees. Curiously, the administration was asked to keep the fund secret because the government finance department ‘kept sniffing for unspent grants like a hound’. Of course, the reserve fund is no more a secret!


Dr Aftab visited India in 2006 on invitation from India-based Ravians. The highpoint of his eminently successful and emotionally charged tour was his brief visit to his birthplace Muktsar where his grandfather had been a successful medical practitioner. (According to a report in The Tribune, Dr Aftab’s father, Dr Mohammad Khan, was a government veterinary doctor who anticipating the partition had already bought property in what became Pakistan.) The president of the municipal council presented Dr Aftab with a copy of his birth certificate and pointed out that even though Muktsar had produced three chief ministers, only one of its citizens had risen to the high position of a Vice- Chancellor.


Within a few years of 1947 both Pakistan and India renamed their part of Punjab as the Punjab as if theirs was the only one. It would have been better to retain the epithet East and West to underscore the fact that both are portions of a common cultural entity.


Dr Aftab closes his professional biography by quoting Iqbal: ‘The days of this Faqir have come to an end/ Another Seer may come or not.’


Dr Aftab was history’s choice for leading the Government College Lahore  and the Government College University Lahore at a critical juncture. His memoirs thus have an intrinsic value. They would also be of use to anybody interested in the post-1947 history of educational institutions not only in Pakistan but also elsewhere in the sub-continent.  /