Padmavati, Alauddin Khilji: What does the History Say

The release of film Padmavat has been a roaring success, this after all the protests and opposition to the film. The forces which had opposed the film are and should be happy about the message of the film, as it fits precisely into their agenda. Just to recall the protests and violence around the making, anticipated release and final release of film Padmavat have shamed the democratic ethos of our society. The organizations behind these acts are primarily Karni Sena, Hindu right wing types who told us that Rajput honor has been undermined in the film. The protests had begun even as most of those protesting had neither seen the film nor read the script. The main grudge of the protesters had been that there may be a probable dream sequence between a Muslim, villain type Alauddin Khilji and the Rajput princess Padmavati.

While there have been protests mainly on the grounds that the history of Rajputs has been distorted in the film, the fact of total distortion of the persona of Khilji has been totally missed out in the social discourse. While Padmavati is a fictional character, the way Khilji has been projected is far from true.

The film toes the line which is in conformity with the prevalent stereotypes in India of ‘noble Hindu kings’ versus ‘evil Muslim kings’, the obverse of which is prevalent in Pakistan. On one hand it follows and boosts the patriarchal notions, which by now should have pleased the Karni Sena clones to their heart’s content on the other they should equally be pleased that the Muslim king has been presented as a devilish brute devoid of any culture. The way Khilji is presented, a barbarian savoring meat, wild haired, baring his chest, running after women, a murderer and a rapist; does not conform to the accounts which serious historian have presented. The historian of medieval India, the likes of Satish Chandra, Rana Safvi and Rajat Datta for example tell us that he was like many of the kings holding court in a royal manner and expanding the empires like most kings do.

Khilji drew from the sophisticated Persian culture. Historian Safvi points out that he followed the culture where “The rulers followed the exact code of conduct and etiquette as in Persia. It would have been very formal — the eating, dining and sartorial choices.” Satish Chandra tells us that he did make rules, which were not in conformity with the dictates of conservative Ulema. His image shown in the paintings of his time show him to be a finely attired person, a far cry from the rugged firs in which he is depicted in the film. He did undertake tax reforms to smoothen the process of taxation on land; revived and implemented the tax to the farmers based on the sown area of the land. This assessment of land revenue on the individual cultivator reduced the burden of strong (landlords) on the weak (cultivator). Land revenue was central to kingdoms and later Sher Shah Suri and then Akbar in their own ways modified the land revenue system.

His alliance with Hindu king Raja Ramdev of Devgir (Gujarat) was an act of expansion of his area of influence. His focus on the constructions of buildings in his tenure was remarkable as he employed nearly 70,000 workers for this work on regular basis, and the outcome like Hauz Khas was just one of these acts. While it is difficult to comment as to who is a better ruler in the history, one thing is sure that Khilji, through his clever strategy as a military general thwarted off the attack of Mongols and protected the Delhi Sultanate from the invasion of nomadic Mongols. Mongols were expanding their empire but their only interest was to extract the tribute and plunder wealth from the kings whom they defeated, their destruction in defeated areas left those civilizations in dire straits. Mongols being nomads were unlike Khilji etc. who settled and developed the mechanisms of state formation. Warding off Mongol invasion saved the destruction of syncretic culture, the interaction of Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Buddha, which was developing here.

As the kingdom was growing, Khilji also focused on the development of market mechanism in Delhi. His policy, controlling the prices of different goods in Delhi, which was centre of trade, led to growth of townships and state. Overall while Khilji was a king who grew in the royal family with influence of Persian culture, his contribution lay in strengthening the foundation of Delhi sultanate, bringing in system of land revenue and controlling the market prices on one hand. On the other he undertook alliances with Hindu-Muslim kings to expand his empire and also indulged in wars, like the one of Chittor to expand his empire.

The image of Khilji presented in the film is influenced more by the present stereotypes about Muslim kings in India. Since the British communal historiography presented the kings in the prism of their religion, the major policy aspects of kings have been undermined and their entire rule has been reduced to glorifying them or demonizing them according to their religion. In Pakistan Hindu kings are either deleted from historical accounts or presented as weaklings. In India this pattern of history will present the Muslim king are spreading Islam on the strength of sword and doing atrocities on Hindus. Many atrocities were unleashed by most of the kings to suppress rebellions against their rule. Their cruelty in extracting taxation, which was across the board, has also been given religious color. Some Muslim kings who have already been presented as evil villains like Mahmood Gazni, Ghouri and Aurangzeb find a new addition to the list in the form of Khilji; courtesy Bhansali’s film Padmvati. In today’s times we do need to change the parameters of evaluations of kings, away from just their religion and need to focus on their policies of revenue, trade, tolerance and promotion of culture.