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The peasant rebels of the Satnami Rebellion

'Fear of Lions' is a fictional retelling of the Satnami revolt against Aurangzeb, and underlines the importance of rebellion in times of oppression

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 15 October 2019

IN THE history of revolts and rebellions, 1672 holds a special significance. In that year, the Satnamis — a sect comprising peasants, artisans and untouchables — rebelled against the mighty Mughal Empire. It all began with a small quarrel. A Satnami youth, cultivating his field, got into a fight with a party of Mughal nobles, which resulted in his slaying by a Mughal pyada or a foot soldier. In retaliation, the foot soldier was killed by the Satnami community. This happened in what is today’s Mahendragarh district in Haryana. Following the two murders, the local Mughal official sent a troop of soldiers to arrest those who had killed the foot soldier. But the community drove them away. Emboldened, the Satnamis attacked Narnaul, the main township in the area and destroyed the Mughal garrison. They even set up their own administration.

Their next move shocked many. The Satnamis marched towards Shahjahanabad (old Delhi), armed with the latest European-designed muskets that their leader had taught them to make. As Delhi quaked with fear, the emperor Aurangzeb himself took to the field. The Satnamis took on the over 10,000-strong Mughal army on March 25, 1672. Though the Satnamis fought bravely, they lost the battle and 2,000 Satnamis were killed. The killing of the youth may have been the immediate trigger, the reasons for the revolt were to do with the growth of the Satnami sect. The entrenched caste structure of the era forced marginalised groups to join the fold and they protested against the high taxation policies. Their rise was seen as a threat by the supporters of the Mughal administration, the upper castes.

Illustration: Ritika Bohra

FEAR OF LIONS by Amita Kanekar traces the very beginning of Aurangzeb’s reign — the first 15 years, when he and his brothers were fighting for the throne — till 1672, when the first insurrection, of the Satnamis, took place. Historians have called the Satnamis a monotheistic sect who followed neither Hinduism nor Islam and whose scriptures emphasised leading a life based on good conduct rather than on rituals and dogma. Many may find this hard to believe but the Mughals were actually protective of the caste system. As a result, the high castes continued to inflict the worst atrocities on the peasants, artisans, untouchables and tribals.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way it depicts women. They were the “invisibles” in Mughal India. Whether Brahmin, Rajput or Muslim, they were forbidden to be seen by any man other than their own. In contrast, the Satnami women dressed up like men, worked in farms and also joined men to fight the Mughal soldiers. Though the Satnami rebellion was crushed, its memory endures to this day. That a group of marginalised people fought the systemic oppression in society, established a new community and defended it, is the most inspiring aspect of the book.

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