If I ask many well-educated Indians, “Who was Hemu?” I am sure to get a blank look on their faces. Unfortunately, he has not been the darling of the historians too. Was it because he had a lowly parentage or because he didn’t belong to one of the higher castes? Was it because of his disadvantages of a wretchedly puny physique to rise from being a saltpeter pedlar in a provincial bazzar to chief minister to one of the principal Sur claimants, after Sher Shah Suri? YK Singh, my neighbour and advocate friend vested last evening, and as usual, knowing my interest in Indian history, asked me about Hemu and expressed his amazement that even traders backed governments of India never tried to honour this great son of India.
Shershah’s short but illustrious reign was over because of his sudden demise in Kalinjhar. On January 24, 1556 Mughal ruler Humayun slipped while climbing down the steps of his library and fell to his death. On February 14, 1556, in a garden at Kalanaur, Akbar was enthroned as emperor. He was in teens at that time. The other rivals for the throne of Delhi were the three Afghan princes of Sher Shah. However the main threat to Akbar’s future came not from the Afghan princes but from a Hindu, Hemu. I wished to find out what John Keay in his ‘India-A History’ writes about Hemu.
“Yet more surprisingly for one who could not even ride a horse, he had acquired a reputation for inspired generalship. Twenty-two consecutive battles is Hemu said to have won against assorted adversaries. To this tally, he added a twenty-third when, soon after Humayun’s death, he stormed Delhi and put its Mughal garrison to flight. Not surprisingly even his mainly Afgan, and so Muslim, troops regarded their ‘Shah h Hemu’ as an inspirational commander.” After the capture of Delhi, Hemu set up himself as an independent ruler under the Hindu title of ‘Raja Vikramaditya’. How many of us know that Hemu, the ruler of Delhi?
At Panipat, on November 1556 Hemu faced Bayaram Khan, Akbar’s guardian. According to Abu’l-Fazal, the enemy had assembled a corps of fifteen hundred of the largest and most athletic beasts ever seen-elephants. For once victory looked to be going the way of the elephants. Hemu, to whose abilities even Abu’l Fazal bears grudging testimony, commanded operations from a gigantic beast called ‘Hawai’ (‘Windy’, or possibly ‘Rocket’). ‘he made powerful onsets and performed many valarious acts.’ Indeed the Mughals were wavering when ‘suddenly an arrow from the bended bow of divine wrath reached Hemu’s eye and, piercing the socket, came out at the back of his head.’ Seeing Hemu collapse into his howdah, his troops lost heart. It was now the sublime army, swords flashing and epithets flying, which closed for the kill. Hawai was captured; Hemu extracted from his howdah and dragged before the young victor (Akbar), was quickly beheaded. Mughals were third time lucky.
And a great hero vanished.
As per one another account,
“Shah Quli Khan captured the Hawai elephant with its prize occupant, and took it directly to Akbar. Hemu was brought unconscious before Akbar and Bairam. Bairam pleaded Akbar to perform the holy duty of slaying the infidel and earn the Islamic holy title of ‘Ghazi’. Among much self-congratulation AKBAR THEN SEVERED THE HEAD OF UNCONSCIOUS HEMU WITH HIS SABER (2,3,4). Some historians claim that Akbar did not kill Hemu himself, but just touched the infidel’s head with his sword and his associates finished the gory ‘holy’ work. However the latter version seems inconsistent with the events that followed. After the battle Hemu’s head was sent to Kabul as a sign of victory to the ladies of Humayun’s harem, and Hemu’s torso was sent to Delhi for exposure on a gibbet.”
One does not wonder if the court historians of Mughals didn’t write much about Hemu. But why have our historians even after independence not done justice by giving Hemu his right place? Is it because we wish to keep our secular image in tact. Don’t the people of India expect a well-done research about Hemu (an aam aadami) who could become the emperor of India just by his unique leadership qualities?