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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

Modi-bin-Tughluq - Narendra Damodardas’s second term as the Sultan

Saturday 20 June 2020, by Sumanta Banerjee


Attempts to draw historical parallels from the past do not always work accurately for understanding present situations that may resemble old events. But the record of six years of rule by Narendra Modi (covering his first term from 2014-19, and the present year) recalls an unsavoury phase of our past history, in a rather peculiar way. Narendra Modi seems to be repeating (and compressing within a brief spell of time), the eccentric policies and inhuman brutalities that marked the regime of a Sultan who preceded him in India some seven hundred years ago.

Muhammad-bin-Tughluq ruled as the Sultan of India from 1325 to 1351. During his reign, he imposed a series of measures - which he propagated as beneficial for his subjects - that were to devastate economy and society in north India for the next few decades. The policies that he initiated in financial matters, domestic territorial reconstruction, and foreign territorial relations - all ended in disasters. Today, Narendra Modi, as the prime minister, seems to have re-incarnated himself as a Sultan of India, and is following in an uncanny way, the same footsteps of Muhammad- bin- Tughlaq.

Tughluq as Modi’s precursor, or Modi as his successor ?

Historically, both conflate with each other as they have led to the formation of a system which is marked by an authoritarian rule based on a personality cult. To understand the phenomenon, let us take a brief look at some of the momentous decisions taken by Muhammad- bin-Tughluq during his reign, and their disastrous results.

In 1327, Tughluq ordered the shifting of his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad (in present day Maharashtra), in a public display to demonstrate his power over the vast Deccan plateau. This led to a massive migration of working people to the new capital. In the course of their tortuous journey by foot over miles, thousands including women and children died. But some eight years later, Tughluq had to reverse his decision. Having failed to suppress the growing rebellions in different parts of India, from his capital in Daulatabad, he was forced to shift the capital back to the safer environs of Delhi, where he thought he could protect himself. He therefore ordered a massive reverse migration from Daulatabad to Delhi in 1335 - again entailing deaths of thousands along the roads.

Forced migration - brought about by official policies - is a phenomenon shared in common by both the regimes of Muhammad-bin-Tughluq and Narendra Modi, although separated by seven hundred years. Tughluq’s policy to shift the capital to Deccan to demonstrate his ambition of extending his rule, compelled the labouring poor to migrate to a new capital in search of jobs, and then again after a few years, to migrate back to their homes - when Tughluq decided to shift back to Delhi. We are witnessing today the same phenomenon of migration and reverse-migration of labourers from one place to another, resulting in deaths on roads. The catastrophe has been caused by an irresponsible decision by the present prime minister Narendra Modi, who in a Tughlaqi arbitrary fashion, imposed a lock-down on the country in the name of fighting Coronavirus. This he did without caring to take adequate measures to protect the migrant labourers from the loss of jobs that they faced as a consequence of the sudden closure of small and middle scale manufacturing units, stoppage of construction activities in the informal sector, and ban on operations by pavement vendors and street corner stalls. The much hyped image of the `chai-wala-turned prime minister,’ has suffered a dent as the present generation of `chai-wala’s who are deprived of their workplaces in pavements and street corners, feel betrayed by their one-time co-worker.

Monetory policies of Tughluq and Modi

Again in an uncanny coincidence, we find a parallel between a pecuniary decision (relating to currency) made by Tughluq in 1333 , and a decision on similar lines taken by Modi seven hundred years later , when he ordered demonetization of currency. While Tughluq’s decision led to a temporary disruption of trade, Modi’s decision of demonetization has ended up in a long-standing economic crisis.

Tughluq , when reigning from his new-found capital in Daulatabad, conceived the idea of minting and introducing a token copper currency. The coins were to depict Daulatabad as the second capital. But without realizing the long term implications of such a policy, he failed to take the necessary precautions against private minting of copper coins. This resulted in the flooding of the market with spurious coins. Due to confusion over the use of different types of coins, some traditionally made of brass and some copper, their value decreased in markets. Tughluq’s coins became as “worthless as stones” - as described by the modern historian Satish Chandra in his ‘A History of Medieval India’. The experimentation by Tughluq disrupted trade and commerce in India. The copper coins had to be withdrawn finally in exchange for gold and silver coins.

 Narendra Modi’s experimentation with demonetization led to a similar disorder in our economy . While thousands of common citizens were left bankrupt without adequate facilities to convert their old currency into the new denomination, Modi’s cronies in industry and followers in his party, who were cautioned well before, made use of the corrupt banking system to fill their coffers. Modi’s claim that demonetization would bring back black money turned out to be false, and instead it led to an economic disaster, as exemplified from findings by economists and industrialists from both India and abroad.

Extra-territorial adventures - the China connection

To go back to another adventure of Tughluq’s, in 1333 he decided to cross the Himalayas and invade China. This involved the march of his soldiers through the hills of north India - the terrain that constitutes modern Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The local people of the hills put up a stiff resistance against the soldiers whom they regarded as invaders. Unable to fight in the unfamiliar and difficult mountainous terrain, Tughlaq’s soldiers perished. (Re: Salma Ahmed Farooqui - `A Comprehensive History of Medieval India, From the Twelfth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century.’ 2011).

Although the present circumstances around the conflict with China may be different, and their causes controversial, one finds a peculiar parallel between the consequences of the policies pursued by Tughluq and Narendra Modi in dealing with China. Like Tughluq, Modi has dragged the country into an unnecessary military adventure directed against China. In Tughluq’s time, the Indian hill people frustrated his extra-territorial ambitions. Unlike Tughluq, Modi today seems to enjoy public support in his militarist confrontation with China - first over its road building project in Doklam, and now over the dispute around its territorial occupation of parts of Ladakh. But to come down to the ground reality, how long can such sabre-rattling rhetoric to pump pulp patriotism through servile media channels sustain an ill-equipped Indian military ?

Past experiences have shown that such confrontations with China have always proved disastrous for India - starting from Tughluq’s misadventure in the fourteenth century to the 1962 war in the twentieth, which led to India’s humiliating defeat. This is not to valorize China’s superior military might. China is a totalitarian and repressive state run by a national chauvinist party masquerading under the name of the Communist Party of China (the term `Communist’ having nothing to do with Communism). But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that India, militarily is not capable of taking on China.

Real-politic should have dictated Modi to be cautious in dealing with China. Instead, he messed up by changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir - a decision that not only alienated the Kashmiri people, but also provided China with yet another excuse to fish in the troubled waters of Ladakh of the conflict-ridden territory. Modi’s combative posture against China’s building a road in Doklam in 2017, and his claim that he has stopped it, does not carry any weight, as there are reports that suggest that the Chinese are still present there with their road-building equipment. The current confrontation in Ladakh - despite all the chest-thumping by Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh and the BJP leaders - is also likely to end up in a status-quo of sorts, with the Chinese soldiers retaining their positions in the territories that they occupy, and withdrawing from some other spots which they may find inconsequential for their current strategic needs.

The recent talks between the Indian and Chinese military top brass to end the stand-off have ended up in the usual exchanges of diplomatic rhetoric about `peaceful solution.’ They have not led to any change in the ground situation. There is no indication of China’s rolling back its latest deployment of forces along the LAC. We may see a repetition of the settlement following the 1962 war, when the Chinese troops voluntarily withdrew from some of the Indian territories which they had invaded and occupied (in the north-east), but retained their control over other parts like Aksai Chin.

Tughluq-Modi link - through the pandemic

What is less known is the other connection between the two Sultans - Tughluq and Modi. During 1334-35, a bubonic plague broke out in Bidar, which at that time was ruled by Tughluq. He himself caught the infection, suffered for sometime, but survived. However, his army was depleted by the death of many of his soldiers due to the plague.

Does the present Coronavirus pandemic (which, according to reports, has started infecting even our well-protected soldiers and para-military forces, who form the backbone of India’s security infrastructure) send a warning message to Narendra Modi - reminding him of the political fate of his predecessor, Muhammad-bin-Tughluq ?

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