Two Great Men of the Indo-Afghan Continuum

Editor’s Note: In our earlier articles about Afghanistan, we complained about the lack of knowledge about Afghanistan and today’s Pakistan in the American Media. It is not enough to complain. So last week, we began a series on the history of the Indo-Afghan Continuum. Our intention is to bring you important figures & events that shaped today’s environment. In this second article, we bring you two great men of the Indo-Afghan Continuum. We regret the length of this article but we do want to do justice to these two great if relatively less known men.

India and Afghanistan have been a part of the Indian Subcontinent since the beginning of known time. The ashram (schools) of the Vedic Rushis (Sages) were located through out (what we call today) the Af-Pak region.  The Gaandhaar kingdom (today’s Afghanistan) played a major role in the great Indian Epics.  Bharat’s mother in Ramaayan was a princess of Gaandhaar. Gaandhaari of the Mahaa-Bhaarat, the queen of Emperor Dhrut-Raashtra of the Kuru Dynasty was also a princess of Gaandhaar. This long 5,000 year history creates the concept of the Indo-Afghan Continuum.

This continuum has been shaped by geography as well. South Afghanistan which begins at the Khyber pass is a part of the vast plain spanned by the Indus and Ganga rivers. Perhaps as a result of this geography, Afghanistan & North India were ruled by the same ruler for much of history.

In contrast, South India, protected by the Vindhya mountain range, remained outside this continuum for long periods of history. Today we focus on two men who broke through the Vindhya range and created the modern Indo-Afghan continuum.

Most people describe Akbar as the most important of Muslim ruler of North India. Akbar was different from most of his predecessors. Akbar provided a live & let live model for north Indian kingdoms which was later copied by the British. But Akbar was mainly a consolidator of North India. He did not create history or change geographical divisions. 

First Great Man of the modern Indo-Afghan Continuum

This honor, in our opinion, goes to the man who created the modern Indo-Afghan continuum. He is  Ala-Ud-Din Khilji . The name Khilji is the Persian form of Ghilzai, the Pashtun clan in today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan.  

Let us be clear. Great does not mean noble. Akbar could legitimately be considered as noble. In contrast, there was not a shred of nobility in Ala-Ud-Din Khilji. He was the nephew and son-in-law of the previous ruler Jalal-Ud-Din. Ala-Ud-Din murdered Jalal-Ud-Din and blinded the two sons of Jalal. Ala-Ud-Din captured an effeminate man in a battle, fell in love with him, castrated him and converted him to Islam. This man, Malik Kafur , went on to become Khilji’s trusted confidante and greatest general.

We consider Ala-Ud-Din great because, during his rule between 1296-1316, he changed the face of the Indian subcontinent.

The first great achievement of Ala-Ud-Din was to massacre the Mongol invaders from the northwest. The word massacre appropriately describes how Ala-Ud-Din treated the Mongol prisoners of war. The tactic worked. After a couple of massacres, the Mongols gave up all attempts to invade India and surrendered Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar, the main cities of today’s Afghanistan. This was a major achievement of Ala-ud-Din Khilji.

The second great achievement proved to be of long-lasting consequence. Until Ala-Ud-Din Khilji,  no Muslim ruler from Delhi had made any serious attempt to send armies across the Vindhya mountains to attack South India.

At that time, South India boasted of extremely rich kingdoms which were content to battle each other.  By this time, North India had been attacked and Delhi had been seized by successive invaders from northwest. But the Kingdoms of South India remained utterly complacent. None of them took any steps to form military alliances or unite to face an eventual certain invasion from the north. Perhaps, they were comforted by the natural boundary of the Vindhya range.

This complacency was brutally shattered forever by the armies of Ala-Ud-Din Khilji and his general Malik Kafur. The rich kingdom of Devgiri in Mahaa-Raashtra, protected by the massive Devgiri fort, surrendered and later destroyed. The kingdom of Warangal was defeated and gave up the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond to Ala-Ud-Din (Koh-i-Noor is now held in London).  Malik Kafur is reputed to have returned from the southern expedition with immense wealth including 240 tons of gold.

Ala-Ud-Din was the first modern ruler to unite South India with the North-India-Afghan region under one rule. That is why he is, to us, the first great man of the modern Indo-Afghan Continuum.

Ala-Ud-Din is perhaps most famous for his war against the Rajput kingdom of Mewar. He went to war simply to seize Padmini, Queen of Mewar. Padmini was renowned all over India for her beauty. The megalo-mania of Ala-Ud-Din required that he possess Padmini. While the Rajputs of Mewar were extraordinarily brave, the army of Ala-Ud-Din was huge and Ala-Ud-Din was a brilliant general. When the fort ran out of food, Padmini and all the Rajput ladies climbed a raging pyre and burnt themselves rather than letting even a small of piece of their bodies fall into the hands of Khilji’s men. The remaining Rajputs then went into a final battle.

This relentless and almost primal pursuit of Padmini raised Khilji’s image in the Pashtun-Indian Muslim society. How else should an all-conquering emperor behave? In fact, some 200 years later, a Muslim poet composed a poem celebrating the “Ala-Ud-Din – Padmini” saga in the Awadhi langauge.

This celebration of Ala-Ud-Din stands in stark contrast to the way the second Great Man of the Indo-Afghan Continuum was treated by his society.

Second Great Man of the modern Indo-Afghan Continuum

This honor goes to Baji Rao Balaji Bhat . To explain why we call him so, we need to review the state of India for about 300 years from the days of Ala-Ud-Din Khilji. During this period, there were attempts both in North India and South India to establish Hindu kingdoms. But these attempts were for kingdoms of one royal family or another and their soldiers fought for money. None of these kingdoms could stand against the united front of Muslim sultanates of South India and Delhi.

That is until the rise of the Maratha kingdom under the great Shivaji. This was a man of social vision, political wisdom and military greatness far ahead of his time. Rather than building his own kingdom, Shivaji, a mere lad of 16, proclaimed the formation of Hindu-Pat-Padshahi or Kingdom of Hindus. Even at that age, the ambition was to eventually throw out the Afghan Muslim invaders out of all of India and to seize Delhi.

Shivaji succeeded perhaps beyond his dreams. In 1674, the head Scholar of Varanasi, India’s holiest temple, traveled from North India to Pune in Mahaa-Raashtra to coronate Shivaji as the Emperor, the first Hindu emperor in over 600 years. In response, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb then came down to the South with all his military might to destro
y the Maratha Kingdom. In a long, nearly 20 year conflict that has great lessons for America in Afghanistan, Aurangzeb died in Mahaa-Raashtra and the Mughal empire ended for all practical purposes.

India is India today because of the great Shivaji. As Bhushan, the great North Indian poet of that era, wrote, had Shivaji not been, all of India would have been subject to Sunta (or converted to Islam). Shivaji not only built a kingdom that later became an empire, but Shivaji changed the psychology of India. He ended India’s 600 year servility to Muslim Afghan invaders and lit the flame of Indian independence. Had North India gone from Muslim Rule to British Christian Rule without any independent self-rule in between, Social Historians believe that India might never have regained its own culture, its pride and its sense of independence.

The descendants of Shivaji were brave but not great. His grandson Shahu recognized his own limitations and in 1719 appointed Baji Rao, then a 20 year old young man, to succeed his father as Peshwa or Prime Minister.

At that time, young Baji Rao said to Emperor Shahu “Let us transcend the barren Deccan and conquer central India….The accumulated wealth of centuries in the vaults of the north, can be ours. It is time to drive from the holy land of Bharatvarsha the outcaste and the barbarian. Let us throw them back over the Himalayas, back to where they came from. The Maratha flag must fly from the Krishna to the Indus. Hindustan is ours”…Listen but to my counsel, and I shall plant the saffron flag on the walls of Attock”

Baji Rao walked the walk better than he talked. He conquered all of North India including Delhi. In his 20 year reign, he waged 41 battles and is reputed to have won them all. He revolutionized cavalry warfare. His armies were fast, mobile and traveled long distances. His precept was “Remember that night has nothing to do with sleep. It was created by God, to raid territory held by your enemy. The night is your shield, your screen against the cannons and swords of vastly superior enemy forces.”

For those who prefer British testimonials, Field Marshal Montgomery (of WWII fame) describes Baji Rao’s 1727-1728 battle of Palkhed as “a masterpiece of strategic mobility.”

            (Baji Rao Balaji Bhat)

Besides his own battles, Baji Rao expanded the Maratha empire by using the same tactic used by Emperor Shahu’s uncle Rajaram and later by the English. To his generals, he gave land titles in areas not under his control. These were not hereditary generals. Baji Rao chose brilliant young men to become generals regardless of their social background. Ranoji Shinde was the son of a small farmer and Malhar Rao Holkar was the son of a shepherd. These grants induced his generals to capture these lands as plenipotentiaries. This is how Ranoji Shinde’s family (or Scindia as the British called them) came to rule in today’s Gwalior in central India. This family that still rules to this day with a young Scindia as a minister in the Indian cabinet.

Baji Rao’s mission to plant the Maratha flag on Attock was realized by his sons. The Maratha forces under Raghunath Rao, a son of Baji Rao, attacked today’s Af-Pak area in 1758. His letter to his older brother, the Prime Minister, reads “We have already brought Lahore, Multan, Kashmir and other subahs on this side of Attock under our rule for the most part, and places which have not come under our rule we shall soon bring under us. Ahmad Khan Abdali’s son Taimur Sultan and Jahan Khan have been pursued by our troops, and their troops completely looted. Both of them have now reached Peshawar with a few broken troops…we have decided to extend our rule up to Kandahar.”

Under Baji Rao, the Indo-Afghan continuum was again re-established this time under Indian or Hindu rule. By his conquest of North India, Baji Rao reversed the conquest of Ala-ud-Din Khilji some 400+ years ago. He and his Maratha Empire established the Indo-Afghan continuum on Indian terms and under Indian flag. This is why we consider Baji Rao as the Second Great Man of the Indo-Afghan Continuum.

Baji Rao may have been a great conqueror in war but he could not conquer the cowardly, orthodox beliefs of his Hindu Society. Ala-Ud-Din invaded another kingdom to try to win the most beautiful woman of that time. But Mastaani, the most beautiful woman of Baji Rao’s time, came to him of her own free will. She married Baji Rao. Mastaani was the daughter of a Hindu King Chatrasaal from a Muslim wife.

The orthodox society of Pune, the capital of Baji Rao, refused to accept Mastaani as a wife of their Prime Minister. They refused to accept the son of Baji Rao and Mastaani as a Hindu. In the end, the social pressure from the Pune court including Chimaji Appa, Baji Rao’s younger brother, made Baji Rao leave his own city of Pune. Broken hearted by the rejection of his own people, Baji Rao left his capital. He spent the rest of his days with his troops. He died suddenly, presumably from a heat stroke, while inspecting his troops in 1740.

Baji Rao died at the young age of 40. Had Baji Rao lived for another 10 years as the ruling Prime Minister, the history of India could have been different.

The saga of Mastaani would create the greatest crisis in the Maratha Empire 20 years after his death. In fact, it can be argued that the saga of Mastaani opened the door of North India to the British. But that is for another article on another day.

In our opinion, the difference in the treatment of “Ala-ud-Din Khilji-Padmini” saga by Muslim elite of Delhi and the treatment of the “Baji Rao-Mastaani” relationship by the Hindu elite of Pune is a reflection of the losing psyche of Hindus and the winning psyche of Muslims in India for the past 1,000 years. 

This is not just an old lesson from history. The legacies of Ala-Ud-Din Khilji and Baji Rao are relevant to today’s India-Pakistan-Afghanistan region. They vividly describe the fluidity of the Indo-Afghan continuum over the past several centuries. They teach the need for the Indo-Afghan Continuum to be reestablished for any peace to come to the region.

Unfortunately, American foreign policy of today is based on segregating Afghanistan from the Indian subcontinent. This is a recipe for a long and debilitating quagmire

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  1. Undoubtedly,Bajirao was the true successor of Chhatrapati Shivaji and he almost realised the vow of Shivaji to liberate India from the tyranny of Mughals.Realising that the old generals had shifting loyalties,he created his own generals in the form of Shinde and Holkar.As rightly observed,had he not died at the young age of 40,the history of India would have been dramatically different.

  2. We must revive our real history and bring out facts,subdude by vested interest. It is unfortunate that a great son of the soil Bajirao was sacrificed by caste and religion. Why not rewrite history books to glorify the life of Baji Rao.

    Many thanks to Mr. Bhansali for reviving this lost Hero of India

  3. Really nice to know that great Maratha empire has it’s in Afghanistan and bajirao was rao’s brilliance in outsmarting Muslim invaders to leave india

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