I really like Indian Leftist historians, some of them are my role models like Irfan Habib (not the bearded one, but the clean shaven one, although the bearded one is cool too), but sadly they have made a big mess while trying to explain Alauddin Khilji’s supposed “anti-Hindu” policies.
What could have been a simple explanation was turned into something very complicated and hence inaccessible to people not familiar with history, which resulted in Alauddin Khilji’s unnecessarily demonization and politicization. Below, I have tried to make it clear why we need to change the way we look at Alauddin Khilji.
Alauddin Khilji’s Personality
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that if Alauddin Khilji saw the heading of this article he would have the same reaction as you- something akin to “No way in hell!”. He had no love for Hinduism, by all accounts he was a devout Muslim, but he was a realist too.
Many contemporary heavy weights condemned Alauddin Khilji for not implementing Sharia throughout his kingdom and for not basing his state laws on sharia which is why they called Alauddin Khilji’s kingdom- “jahandari” or based on laws of the world, in other words – not based on the laws that Allah wanted people to have in the world – or sharia.
How did Khilji Save Hinduism?
While facing the Mongol onslaught Alauddin Khilji found himself defending his kingdom of Hindustan where most of the people were Hindus. We have to remember that during the time of Khilji although there were substantial Hindu populations in the Malay Islands and in Indo-China, but they were eventually eclipsed by either Buddhism or Islam, so the Indian subcontinent was basically the last stronghold of the Hindus.
The Mongols led two massive attacks against India during Alauddin Khilji’s time. The first one was in 1297 AD when the invasion force was 200,000 men strong and the second one was in 1303 when it was 120,000 strong.
But both these invasions were not only stopped but also definitively repulsed by Khilji’s forces. From a military history point of view this victory was very significant because the main strength of the Indian forces were their cavalry and the Mongols had possibly the best cavalry force in the history of mankind. Defeating such large Mongol cavalry forces not once but twice is almost unheard of in history.
But what would have happened if Alauddin Khilji had failed to defend his kingdom?
To answer this question we have to look at the geographies of India and China.
Both demographically and geographically the Indo-Gangetic plains dominate India. Then as it is now, most of India’s population resided there. Since economically and demographically important cities of India like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore did not exist, the Great Indian Plains assumed much more importance during Khilji’s reign.
Compare this to China – there are different plain areas in China like the Central Plains or Zhongyuan, but they do not geographically dominate the Chinese landscape like the Great Indian Plains. Moreover, the geographical barriers for an advancing army while trying to reach the East and the South East which were the traditional power centres in China and their economic engines were numerous.
This meant that the even after the Mongols broke through the Northern and North Western defences of China they had a hard and long fight ahead of them.
But this has historically not been true in India. Once invading armies break through the Western and the North Western barriers they are free to exploit the most important political and economic centres of India located in the Gangetic plains.