Babur: A carefully constructed villain who replaced Ravan in Hindu nationalists’ mind

Controversial past?
Controversial past?
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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Babur ki aulad” is a pejorative Hindu nationalists often use for Indian Muslims. It translates to “Babur’s progeny.”

This phrase condenses hatred and xenophobia into a potent mix to be used to provocate Muslims or put them down. On the other hand, it is also used to exhort other Hindu nationalists into action.

That’s the level of animus Babur evokes among sections of Indians.

Yet, Babur’s villainous status in contemporary Indian politics is a curious chicken-and-egg story.

The descendant of Genghiz Khan founded and ruled the Mughal empire in India for roughly four years. Centuries after his death in 1530, he is the villain of a Hindu epic that putatively predates his birth in 1483 by millennia.

To many modern Hindus, he was the Muslim tyrant who demolished the Ram temple at Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to build a mosque in its stead. This temple, it is believed by Hindu nationalists, originally marked the birthplace of their god Ram. In 1992, Hindu right-wing groups demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to “avenge” the years of “injustice.”

And this elevation of Babur’s status to an arch-rival was no accident.

Babur versus Ram

The Babri Masjid-Ram Temple dispute in Ayodhya is about 150 years old. The first recorded instance of communal violence dates back to 1853, when Hindus stepped forward to claim the right to worship at the site of the mosque. India was still under the British rule, but the British empire’s “divide and rule” policies were altering the religious fabric of India. This eventually culminated in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, crystallising the Hindu-Muslim rivalry and, in turn, demonising historical Islamic rule in India.

When idols of Ram mysteriously appeared inside the Babri Masjid precinct in 1949, Babur was already fighting a losing battle against a Hindu god who had mass following in India. The first court case in this dispute under independent India was filed in 1950, where Hindus and Muslims both claimed ownership over the land parcel in question.

The Ramjanmabhoomi movement, which began in the 1980s, also needed an “evil” that the good of the Ramayan could defeat. In essence, at the heart of the Ramayan epic lies this moral and physical victory over “demonic” forces. Ram, the good king, a true statesman, was pitted against Ravan, the “evil” king. In modern politics, Babur replaces Ravan, symbolising all the Muslims invaders who “destroyed” Hindu religious sites and strengthened the foundation for Islamic rule in the country.

Rich legacy

Unlike Mughal emperor Akbar, who was seen as a moderate king, respecting all religions, or Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his queen, Babur simply became the man who desecrated a site of religious importance. Despite a short four years at the helm, he is right up there with Aurangzeb, classified as a despot.

The fact that he was a poet rarely ever comes up. Nor does his memoir, Baburnama, where he ponders over questions of family loyalty, and—as if presciently—of good and evil.

“The closest Babur comes to expressing a credo is in a passage from the year 1507. Having listed betrayals he has encountered from family members, he justifies himself: ‘I have not written all this to complain: I have simply written the truth. I do not intend, by what I have written, to compliment myself: I have simply set down exactly what happened. Since I have made it a point in this history to write the truth of every matter and to set down no more than the reality of every event, as a consequence I have reported every good and evil I have seen of father and brother and set down the actuality of every fault and virtue of relative and stranger. May the reader excuse me; may the listener not take me to task,’” wrote Girish Shahane in

Babur’s symmetrical gardens, for instance, do not feature in the trope of his role in the Ayodhya controversy. Instead, a mosque that bears his name—Babri Masjid was in reality built by one of Babur’s generals and not Babur himself—has etched him in the Hindu nationalist’s mind simply as an evil force to be defeated.