When black was no bar: How Africans shaped India’s history

Behind the high walls of a lost fortress in what is today south Delhi blossomed the love story of Delhi’s first woman ruler and her Abyssinian general. Historians are divided if it was love or just a strong bonding, but popular literature has forever paired Razia Sultan with Jamal-ud-din Yaqut. Yet it was this love or bonding that doomed both. The powerful Turkic nobles in Razia’s court loathed the meteoric rise of Yakut from being a slave to becoming Amir ul Umara(premier noble). We don’t know if he was hated for the colour of his skin, but the Turks did pejoratively refer to him as the “habshi” (someone from Al Habsh or Abyssinia, the modern-day Ethiopia) and considered him inferior to them. That bias has continued in Indian society and manifested itself in racial attacks in our times. But now, an exhibition aims to rediscover the role of Africans in India and bust centuries-old myths.
The exhibition is aptly called ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery’. It’s been put together by the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library and has been on at the IGNCA. It retraces the extraordinary achievements of Africans in India since the 1300s. Considering the recent spate of racial attacks on Africans in the capital, this exhibition seems very well-timed; but more than that, it offers a rare glimpse into the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Indian society that drew as a magnet people from across the globe, slaves and scholars alike.

A Mughal painting shows two Africans in a group sharing a light moment. It hints at a more open-minded Indian society.

“It’s a mere co-incidence that our exhibition has started off at a time when the media is abuzz with stories of racial attacks on Africans in Delhi. But we do hope because of it, people will understand that Indians and Africans have co-existed since time immemorial,” said Dipali Khanna, member secretary of IGNCA.

One of the many exhibits is a Mughal painting depicting a group of people sharing a light moment. Two of them are Africans. This painting hints at a more open-minded Indian society in the mediaeval period. “It amazes us to this day how Indian society was so remarkably open in the past. It didn’t distinguish between whites and blacks. The idea behind our exhibition was to showcase this multi-coloured picture of India and the contribution the Africans made towards completing it. We chose the title because the Indian masses today do not know much about the Afro-Indian community. Through these stories people would know that Africans did not come to India yesterday and will get an insight into the rich history of the Afro-Indians,” said Dr Sylviane A Diouf, one of the curators of the exhibition.

Emperor Jahangir takes a shot at Malik Ambar’s severed head, but only on canvas.
The journey of Africans to India was itself fascinating: captured by Arab slave traders, they were packed into hell ships that came to India via the Indian Ocean and its surrounding seas. They were bought by kings, princes, rich merchants and aristocrats and were referred to as habshis or sides. But not all remained slaves. Some like Yakut did make their own destiny. But while Yakut’s was perhaps a story that didn’t end too well, others set examples worth emulating.
Take Malik Kafur for instance. This transgender slave was bought by Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s general Nusrat Khan for a thousand dinars. Kafur caught the fancy of the sultan and rose through the ranks, becoming his deputy and entering the history books as Nawab Hazar Dinari. In his last days, an enfeebled Khilji was at the mercy of Kafur who effectively ruled Delhi and also played kingmaker after the sultan’s death.

The Nizam’s African troops walk beside him in a parade.
Elsewhere in the Deccan, Africans were making an impact on the political landscape. The splinter states of the Bahmani kingdom resisted the expansion of the Mughal Empire to the south. One of the architects of this resistance was Malik Ambar, the prime minister and general of Ahmadnagar state who was an African. Ambar is believed to be the father of guerrilla warfare in India since he used his Maratha cavalry to harass the Mughals with great effect. This had enraged Emperor Jahangir so much that he never missed an opportunity to heap his vitriol on Ambar. The exhibition has a painting showing Jahangir firing arrows at the severed head of Ambar—an unfulfilled dream of the emperor realized only on canvas.
The Bijapur state had a clique of habshi nobles led by Ikhlas Khan, a powerful general. The fact that he got the title ‘Khan (reserved only for people of high birth at that time) itself speaks volumes for the glass ceiling he and others of his ilk broke.
Some Africans also managed to set up independent kingdoms, like the Siddis of Janjira. The Siddis commanded Mughal navies and were respected by both Marathas and the European powers. The Janjira state and its successor state of Sachin survived until Independence.

An African begum of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Avadh seen with other begums.

“India has been a long time meritocracy. Whatever your background, you could move up the ranks. Nowhere else in the world have Africans been able to rule outside Africa except India,” said Dr Kenneth X Robins, the other curator.
Despite so many stories, so many layers and sub-layers of African contribution to India, Indians don’t seem to know much about it. “Well even DU students of African studies said they didn’t know so much about the African contribution until they came here. So you can imagine how much the common man knows. What we Indians basically need to do is revisit the past. The past will open our eyes to our present and future, and maybe we will find our famed tolerance and open-mindedness that we left behind somewhere back in time,” said an IGNCA official.
Source: Times of India|| By Manimugdha S Sharma
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