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History with a Difference

Meena Bhargava

By Sunil Kumar
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xv 422, Rs. 795.00


The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate is a voluminous work, considering that it covers only a phase i.e. 1192-1286 ad. It is a refreshing intervention and convincingly breaks the long-held opinion that the Delhi Sultanate was a monolithic, authoritarian, centralized state. Sunil Kumar draws on several evidences to argue that there were many centres of social and political power—politically ambitious military commanders, urban elites, religious ideologies and personal commitments—in early Delhi Sultanate that challenged almost all processes towards the creation of authoritarian centralization. So, if despite the varied challenges, the Delhi Sultanate survived, it was not because of the military and political abilities of the Sultans but the ideologies that considered and reinforced the Delhi Sultanate as a shelter for the Muslims especially during Mongol incursions.   Kumar has written the history of early Sultanate with a difference, investigating the existing historical interpretations and raising questions for instance on the ethnic and racial origins of the Sultans or can slaves be nobles or did the Sultanate have a bureaucracy or why do economic historians of the Delhi Sultanate hurriedly skip the thirteenth century and move into the fourteenth century? What makes his book more concrete is his study of the way the Persian chronicles and later historiography remember the past. In doing so, he also prepares the ground for questioning their narrative for a rational understanding of the politics of the thirteenth century. Sometimes, even if it is to explain the social contexts of elite politics, the kinship and ethnic details of individuals get tedious and overbearing, though the author tries to break the monotony by providing tables and charts.   Kumar while discussing the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate as a historical process during the thirteenth century uses the term ‘emergence’ to convey the impermanence and discontinuity of this period rather than the increasing power and influence of the Sultans as has been conventionally argued. The first century of Sultanate rule (that Kumar focuses upon) witnessed a brief spell of political stability and consolidation but also rebellion and resistances against any attempts at establishing authoritarianism by Sultans like Iltutmish and Balban. To bridge the gap between politics and society, induced by conventional histories, the author makes a radical shift from administrative and political history to study individuals and groups, in actuality, elites and notables and their involvement in the politics of the Sultanate during the thirteenth century. He ...

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