Today I’m taking a break from the more serious, intellectual type of thing I normally do. How about we explore some alternative histories which have struck my fancy as of late?
I’ll start this off with the most interesting, thorough, and beautiful alternative history scenario I’ve ever read:
Gurkani Alam (by Tony Jones) is premised on the historical theory that Aurangzeb’s incompetent reign was the turning point in Mughal history, which led to it’s decline and the ease of British domination starting in the 18th century. In some ways, the reality is more surprising than the alternative history. Aurangzeb was not Shah Jahan‘s chosen successor, and had to pull off a protracted coup d’etat in order to become ruler. His older brother, Dara Shikoh (who was killed at the conclusion of the coup), was extremely religiously tolerant. Shikoh had fostered a close relationship with the Sikh community, had 50 Upanishads translated into Persian under the title “Sirr-e-Akbar” or “The Greatest Mysteries” the “Kitab al-maknun” or “hidden book” referred to in the Koran, and authored a title called “Majma-ul-Bahrain” or “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” which is an exploration of Sufi and Vedanta mysticism. In my estimation, Dara Shikoh’s religious pluralism outshines even that of Akbar.
To contrast, Aurangzeb’s leadership style diverged tremendously from prior rulers, especially in regards to religion. Akbar had established a set of policies designed to foster religious liberalism. He revoked the jizya tax on non-muslims, intermarried with Hindu kingdoms, and appointed non-Muslims to high administrative posts. Either out of the practical realities of ruling a mostly non-muslim population, or out of ideological sympathy, religious liberalism was largely retained by Jahangir and Shah Jahan (with the notable exception of anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the former.) These policies were scrapped by Aurangzeb in favor of a cartoonishly evil theocratic Islamic approach. This combined with his overly rapid (and very expensive) conquest, undermined the stability of Mughal rule. The empire became a soft target for Sikh, Pashtun, Rajput, and Bengali revolts, as well as Maratha, and eventually British incursions.
Gurkani Alam departs from reality in 1644, with the unexpected death of Aurangzeb in battle. Dara Shikoh becomes emperor, and continues in the old liberal Mughal tradition, while not weakening the empire with reckless expansion. The more stable outcome is a long lasting Mughal state in the north, in which Sikhism plays a much larger role, an independent South Indian federation, and a subcontinent which, while highly prosperous is not particularly permeable to Western imperialism.
I won’t spoil the details of the universe for you, but check out the concluding world map:
Ok, so when I said “alternate history” at the start of this post I was using the term perhaps too loosely. Mughalstan is more of an alternate future for the Indian subcontinent dreamed up by Islamic nationalists, possibly in cooperation with Dalit nationalists. It is amusing for two reasons:
1) Purely as a hypothetical timeline: Its interesting to imagine what bizarre series of events would lead to this occurring. Heres the most plausible story I can come up with: The U.S. declines and is unable to maintain Afghanistan as a client state. A Taliban-esque regime comes to dominate Pakistan, and southern Afghanistan. Bangladesh accelerates its current trajectory, and becomes an Islamic state. Muslim Bengalis also continue to illegally immigrate into Assam and West Bengal, flipping those states demographically. Then, some wealthy power which is interested in dismantling India (perhaps China? though the map also shows China as fragmented) funnels money through Bangladesh and Paki/Afghanistan, into radical Islamic/secessionist groups within India. Finally, (and here is where it gets implausible) they all somehow unite under one banner, succeed in armed conflict with India (with the help of an ally), and partition the subcontinent into proxy states.
While its interesting to think about, the map is an obviously absurd fantasy for reasons which should be obvious, but which I’ll discuss after the paragraph after next.
2) As a sociological event: The responses to this map from the Hindu community have been hilariously out of proportion. This map first occurred on a series of blogspot and angelfire websites which no longer exist. Currently, it appears either on Hindu websites where it is accompanied by shock and indignation, on Islamic/Dalit nationalist websites which are hosted by free services and look like they haven’t been updated since 1995, or on forums. On the face of it, the Mughalstan project poses no threat to anyone, yet the hysteria surrounding it grew so large that at one point Rajiv Malhotra used to as the cover art for one of his books:
Even if this was a political program with any money or influence behind it, the plan is impractical and ridiculous for numerous reasons. Bengal will never (again) give up it’s sovereignty to an Urdu speaking state. Without Gujarat, Maharashtra, or the South, Mughalstan would also be gaining some of India’s poorest and least productive territory, as well as territory already contested by Naxalites. Furthermore, Sikhs are not Muslims, as the map’s creators assert, so there is no reason to believe that Khalistan would integrate into Mughalstan. In fact most of the new regions comprising Mughalstan would have non-Muslim majorities, which would make them highly unstable. Finally, The Dalit population is dispersed all throughout India, so granting them a “Dalitstan” with arbitrary borders is problematic for many reasons.
The Hindus might be overreacting, but they aren’t totally unjustified in their angst. Though the Mughalstan map hasn’t been posted by Lashkar-e-Taiba (or, to my knowledge, any similar organization) they do make mission statements about “liberating South Asian muslims” which come close. Plus, it incorporates Dalit nationalism, anti-Brahmanism, and Dravidian secessionism. For an Indian or Hindu nationalist, this is the blackest nightmare imaginable. It is the vague statements of Islamic radicals, dissatisfied Dalits, and Dravdians concretized and illustrated in detail. Plus it conjures up horrible memories of partition. The only thing which could make it more terrifying is if there was a Naxalstan included.
River of Gods
River of Gods (by Ian McDonald) is a full length science fiction novel (again, not quite alternate history, but it will be eventually.) It has received mixed but generally positive reviews, and I can see why. Its vision of India is beautifully dystopic, and believable. However the intricate plot is a little difficult to follow due to constantly shifting perspective and abrupt writing style. But this is not a book review, I’m just concerned with the alternative universe.
Lots of westerners who vacation in India report feeling like the country has one foot in the year 900 and another foot in the year 2014. Well, this book portrays an India with one foot in the year 0 and another in 2048. There is communal violence, religious fanaticism, caste and gender conflict, and grinding poverty alongside robot warfare, artificial intelligence, water panics, sanskritized elite urban centers, and space missions. Sometimes his handling of religion seems a bit orientalist, but it does little to diminish the overall believability of the universe— with one exception: Hindutvadis were very well represented, but there was no sign of Islamism at all. Very unbelievable.
As to what the actual map of South Asia looks like, its hard to say. Here is an extremely tentative map (send me your corrections):
We know that it has divided into 12 nations, but only 3 of them are discussed in any detail, as the book primarily takes place in the Gangetic valley. The three states discussed are:
The Republic of Awadh (white): This is centered around Utter Pradesh. It is an American aligned power which is building a dam on the Ganges river. This is a problem for Bharat and Bengal, especially due to the increasing scarcity of water.
Bharat (orange): We aren’t given clear borders, but it probably consists of most of northern India, minus Maharsashtra, much of Uttar Pradesh, and most of the Magadhan linguistic zone (Bengal and related areas.) Bharat is poised to go to war with Awadh over the Ganges dam. It has an influential Hindutva political minority.
The States of Bengal (teal): A wealthy, technologically advanced nation. They plan to solve the water crisis for themselves by dragging up a massive iceberg from Antarctica and melting it in a controlled fashion.
Maratha, Nepal, Lanka, Kerala and Karnataka are also independent, but its hard to gather much information about them. Things seem comparatively calm in the south, while Mumbai is a cyberpunk swarga/nakara depending on your level of wealth.
(Contact me privately if you are interested in an electronic copy of this book)
Soondesh (by the Lost Cartographer) isn’t “India” per se. The author is careful to never use the words “India” “Hindism” or “Islam,” but the intention is clear. Soondesh looks like the Gangetic delta, although the scale is a bit weird. The English version reads like a love letter to religious toleration and pluralism. This is an alternative version of Bengal in which partition is unthinkable. I like that the two largest cities are Svarga and Jannat which mean “Heaven” in Sanskrit and (indianized) Arabic respectively. The pseudo-Indic and Urdu scripts are a nice touch, and if you bother to check them you’ll see that they are internally consistent. Also notice the little icons on the bottom edge of the map representing the various religious denominations of Soondesh.
The Japanese Raj
The full title is The Japanese Raj: The Conquest of India by David C. Isby. It appears in the volume Rising Sun Victorious: The Alternate History of How the Japanese Won the Pacific War (Google Books only has an excerpt.) If you don’t mind the formal writing, this essay is terrific alternate history. I reads like a fully “in timeline” journal article by a military historian until the very last section.
The premise, if it isn’t obvious by now, is that the Japanese were able to successfully invade and occupy India during World War 2. But Isby isn’t too generous to the Japanese. He has them lose the war anyway, and has the allies retake India from Japan. Heres how it all goes down:
In April of 1942, the Japanese send a large naval contingent originally designed for homeland defense into the Bay of Bengal. Most of the British Navy is still in the west at this point, so they don’t have too much trouble clearing the ocean between Ceylon and Sumatra for an invasion convoy. The convoy makes separate landings at Balasore Orissa, and Chittagong East Bengal. In Bengal, carriers maintain a presence to establish air superiority over the region. Another wing of the fleet moves south, and establishes air superiority over Ceylon.
(In reality, none of this happened. The Japanese never adequately used their intelligence networks or German intelligence resources to discover that this was the invasion strategy which the British were least prepared for. Instead, they kept their fleet resources in the east, and attempted an overland invasion into Assam via Burma.)
The British did not have the time to shift troops from the Northwest Frontier to the east, and had spent most of their energy reinforcing Ceylon in antiquation of a ground invasion. They were unable to push the Japanese off their initial beachheads.
Japanese bombers from Rangoon and Mandalay bomb Calcutta ineffectively, but in terrifyingly. The British end up abandoning the city. After establishing themselves in Bengal and Orissa, the Japanese take advantage of the mid May monsoons to make a drive up the Gangetic plain towards Delhi, and across the Deccan towards Mumbai. British forces are unable to effectively respond due to a combination of social unrest slowing down troop movements, and monsoon conditions.
As the Japanese move through India, they face little resistance from British Indian units, or the local population. British forces suffer from low morale due to the hostile local population, and a sense of overall pessimism and defeat. As a result, British rule in India disintegrates in all territories except Ceylon, Sind, Balochistan, Punjab, and the Northwest Frontier. Karachi becomes the new seat of government, and the landing point for American reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the Japanese are having a tough time governing the empire. The Bengal famine of 1943 hits the population extremely hard, because the Japanese rely disproportionately on local food supplies, transport, and conscript labor. In addition, any resistance to food seizures or conscription is met with swift execution. The Japanese become known for their mass killings, torture, and imprisonment. All Indian independence leaders who the British imprisoned remain in jail. Mahatma Gandhi starves himself to death in a futile gesture.
As most of the territory now controlled by the British is Muslim, the British have to give the Pakistan proposal more weight. In 1943 the British grant dominion status to their remaining territory as “The Dominion of Pakistan,” which includes an opt-out provision for Sikh Punjab. Simultaneously they establish the “Dominion of India” as a government in exile.
With American reinforcements, by 1944 allied bombers are hitting targets in Mumbai and Delhi. The Japanese lose control over the Indian Ocean, and bombers from Ceylon cut off their already minimal supply chain. Japanese rule over the subcontinent disintegrates even more quickly than the British did, under the weight of American forces.
The new Indian government is a creation of the British. It draws nothing from the surviving members of the Congress party, and is instead comprised of military leaders (coming from martial races), Punjabi zamindars, and princes. It is pragmatic, conservative, militant, and strongly aligned with the west in the cold-war. Since partition happened quite differently, hostile relations between India and Pakistan do not exist.
The campaign has exhausted the allies, who end up making peace with the Japanese much earlier, leaving them to deal with Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong on their own.
(The author seems like a great military historian, but it doesn’t seem like he knows much about Indian history. For instance, he refers to Congress as a Hindu Nationalist party. As a result, I think he doesn’t give proper accord to the role which Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army would have played in this scenario. Also, the fact that Sindh, Balochistan, and NWFP were not pro-Pakistan doesn’t seem to factor into the story. Still a cool yarn though, don’t you reckon?)
The Last Article
Last but not least, is The Last Article, a short story by world champion of alternative history, Harry Turtledove. Since this one is available online I won’t attempt to summarize it. I’d really rather have you read the whole thing yourself (its only 21 pages.)
The premise here is that the United States never joined in the war, leading to an eventual German victory over Britain and it’s colonies. In India, Gandhi and Nehru try to continue the Satyagraha effort against the Germans. This whole story is really just an excuse to pit the most nonviolent and most murderous ideologies of the 20th century up against one another. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that its a bleak take on things. Like the prior piece, Turtledove seems to think that Gandhian pacifism is only an effective political strategy if your opponent has a soul (metaphorically speaking.) I tend to agree.
Turtledove’s portrayals of Gandhi and Nehru are spot on. Nehru is more grounded in reality, which makes him more terrified by the Germans, but also makes him appear like a weak weasel. Especially since he cannot act on this fear and adjust strategy due to loyalty to Gandhi. Gandhi is portrayed as honorable and emotionally strong, but so caught up in his ideology that he is incapable of seeing the reality of the situation.
So what did we learn from this whole exercise? Well we learned that alternate World War 2, and Mughal Empire scenarios are really popular. One thing I’ve been looking for to no avail is a scifi/alternate history story in which an actual Hindu Nationalist regime takes power. You’d think that such a dystopia would be more curiosity piquing, especially considering the disproportionate paranoia surrounding “saffron terror.” Other scenarios I’d like to read about: What if…
-Partition had happened differently? (examples: Balochistan secedes, Khalistan is formed in 1947, all of Punjab and/or Kashmir go to Pakistan, India gets divided into state governments, etc.)
-Subhash Chandra Bose had been more than nominally successful?
-What if Buddhism remained dominant, and/or had successfully proselytized the West?
-What if South India maintained strong linkages to Indonesia following the Chola period?
And many more… If anyone else has read an interesting alternative history of India or has a cool idea for one, post it in the comments.