Why does Panipat the movie make Afghans see red? It’s simply history

Columnist  | Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Opinion, Oped

It was reported that “there are perceptions that the movie insulted Ahmad Shah Abdali, prompting sharp reactions from many Afghan citizens”.

The Third Battle of Panipat was fought on Indian soil, on the banks of the Yamuna, on Wednesday, January 14, 1761 between two belligerents from Afghanistan and India.

A news item that “Afghanistan raises alarm over reel on Third Battle of Panipat” appeared puzzling to this writer. What is the reason behind Afghan “sensitivities surrounding the upcoming Indian movie Panipat that focuses on emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali”, or the “perceived insult to an Afghan king” be dealt with by the state? It was certainly avoidable.

It was reported that “there are perceptions that the movie insulted Ahmad Shah Abdali, prompting sharp reactions from many Afghan citizens”. But as a student of world affairs, one can say with conviction that Afghanistan need not be extra-sensitive on a movie based on a real battle fought on Indian soil 258 years ago. A bloody battle with far-reaching consequences on the course of Indian history and psyche of people, which cannot be ignored or wished away. In reality, the sensitivities of Indians far outweigh the Afghan admiration for Ahmad Shah Abdali, the multiple foreign invader of India. It would be best if eminent Afghans don’t make an issue of mid-18th century history in the 21st century. Let the filmmakers depict history, and let not the 258-year-old confrontation between two characters not be turned into a diplomatic wrangle between the peoples of two friendly nations.

Let’s rewind the clock of Indian history to revisit the facts. The Third Battle of Panipat was fought on Indian soil, on the banks of the Yamuna, on Wednesday, January 14, 1761 between two belligerents from Afghanistan and India. Factually, the Afghans were indisputably invaders of a foreign territory and the Marathas were trying to establish their rule over the tottering Mughals of a shrinking Delhi durbar. Hence, if history, real or reel, castigates an invader, one should take it in one’s stride and not make a huge issue out of it.

The British directly ruled over India for 89 years; from 1858 to 1947. Indians have castigated several members of the British ruling class, which has been adequately documented. Should the British take offence? There is no ground for that, as they know they came to India, from 8,000 km away, to rule by force. They had no business to be here to oppress and suppress Indians, taking advantage of internal squabbles of various shades.

In Europe, Hitler remains a hated and reviled character, and all signs and symbols connected with the Nazis are abhorred and eschewed. Non-Germans who suffered at Hitler’s hands have nasty words to say about Hitler’s Germany and its brute force. Do Germans feel humiliated or make issue with non-Germans? No. Far from it. In fact, they too join in disowning Hitler and his henchmen. So much so, virtually every German feels unabashedly apologetic about the incalculable harm Hitler caused to the whole of Europe, resulting in the psyche of a “collective guilt complex”.

The point is that no foreign invader is praised as hero by those who fall victim in their own land. Any foreign invader will be portrayed as a villain, and (in)appropriate adjectives will be used. If one turns the pages of history, India stands out as one of the worst sufferers. It has faced at least 40 major foreign invasions in the past 1,000 years alone; making it one in every 25 years. No sooner was independent India born on August 15, 1947, within 69 days took place an invasion through the northwest by Pakistan-organised Pashtuns, Waziris, Afridis and other tribals. The invasion of India by the Pakistani Army-ISI duo continues till date. Can Indians ever portray these invaders as heroes? Should diplomatic niceties be breached for making a statement of fact?

Chinese dictator Mao Zedong had invaded India in 1962, without any provocation, and over 10,000 Indian soldiers died in the high Himalayas. Mao may be a hero to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but he is a villain to me.

Seen in juxtaposition; if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of Kathiawad had, on back of his (Chetak-type) favourite horse, personally led an army of two lakh soldiers to invade Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif eight times, between 1920 and 1939, and killed thousands of Afghans aged five to 105 years, looted, destroyed and come back to India with 50,000 women and children as slaves, as a victory trophy, and died in 1948, how would he be judged by the Afghan successors of those massacred by the Gandhi regiment? Hero or villain? That says it all! So let’s go through Ahmad Shah Abdali’s list of invasions, beyond Afghanistan, east of the Indus river, spanning Punjab and India’s capital, New Delhi.

Ahmad Shah Abdali first invaded India as Nadir Shah’s junior commander in 1739 and participated in mass murder in Delhi. He detected “the weakness of the Mughal Empire, and the imbecility of the Emperor”. After Nadir Shah’s death, Ahmad Shah Abdali revived Afghan power, conquering Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar and then invaded India in 1748. However, he was defeated at the battle of Manpur. Abdali invaded Punjab a second time, in 1750, and won. In the third invasion, 1751, he captured Kashmir and forced Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah to cede territory around Sirhind.

Abdali’s fourth invasion, in November 1756, brought him to the gates of Delhi: “the imperial city was plundered and its unhappy people again subjected to pillage”. He also plundered “Jat country, south of Delhi, and retired April 1757”. Abdali’s fifth invasion, in October 1759, resulted in the conquest of the whole of Punjab; and this constituted a virtual ultimatum to the Marathas, who were planning post-Mughal political supremacy over Hindustan. Understandably, this led to the sixth invasion of India by the Afghan Abdali of Kandahar, resulting in the Third Battle of Panipat on January 14, 1761, with the indigenous Maratha regiment under the Peshwa.

Indisputably, in one of the bloodiest single-day battles on Indian soil, the Marathas were battered. They were never the same again. Afghan Abdali power too was gone, notwithstanding his two further invasions of India, in 1764 and 1767. It was a pyrrhic defeat for Indians and an equally pyrrhic “victory” for the invading Afghans on the soil of Hindustan.

In this background, if Indians portray the Kandahari Abdali as a bloodthirsty foreign invader who repeatedly resorted to invasions and inflicted immense misery on the people of India, one doesn’t see any reason for anyone to feel bad, humiliated or insulted. Reality speaks and bites. Invaders like Hitler, Mussolini, Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali, Taimur Lang and Kublai Khan will always be reviled; and no successor, in light of mass murder of predecessors, can be expected to praise foreign invader(s). Thus, foreign invaders will always have a dual place in history; one as a hero in his native place and another as a villain abroad, where he had carried out his acts of violence and misery.