What sort of leader can be called great? “I have no objection in calling Akbar as ‘The Great’ but what objection can be there to accept Maharana Pratap as the ‘Great of Greats’ is beyond my comprehension," the Union home minister Rajnath Singh said recently in Uttar Pradesh, adding: “I feel Maharana’s true valuation has not been done in the history the way it should have been."

All right, let’s give it a shot, then.

History is written by victors who would be free to refer to themselves in any way they wanted. I would say one test of greatness in military leaders is to be called that by the enemy. How did Alexander become “the Great"? Not because of his character but because he knocked over Darius the Great, and the Persians accepted him. The ancient Athenians always referred to all Persian kings as “great" (megas) in their literature, because their empires were enormous and their influence over the Greek cities that are today Turkey was total.

Darius’ “greatness" passed to Alexander and no other figure from that era is given the title. This includes his father Philip II of Macedon, a superb tactician (whom Alexander probably had assassinated), whose achievement was to subdue the Greek city-states, bringing the glittering age of Athens to an end.

What about Akbar’s greatness? Akbar, an Arabic word meaning greatest, was not the king’s title. John F. Richards in The New Cambridge History Of India series on the Mughals says Akbar was his given name and Abu’l Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar his title on ascension. This is also referred to in Humayun’s sister Gulbadan’s book on her family. If he had been referred to in his court as great, a Perso-Arabic word would have been used: azam. If Akbar was a title, as will be obvious, Akbar-e-Azam then becomes a tautology (Greater the Great) even if in two languages.

In his official biography, Akbarnama, written by Abu’l-Fazl Allami, Akbar is referred to as shahenshah, not as azam. When did he become great? My guess is probably with the European Indologists, who also made Ashoka “great", and rightly too.

Let’s turn to Rana Pratap. In one sense, he is already called great and that is through maha in the title Maharana that the Rajputs gave him. However, rana was the hereditary king only of the Sisodias. The Kachwaha and Rathore rulers styled themselves raja. And so even if the other two major Rajput clans accept the maha aspect to Rana Pratap, it is not a universal concession but one limited to his greatness as the leader of the Sisodias. This is expected because the Rajputs were all petty and jealous (those magnificent forts were built to keep one another out, not some mythical foreign enemy).

Akbar himself never fought Rana Pratap, and it was left to his courtier, the Kachwaha king Man Singh I to fight at the battle of Haldighati, most likely on 18 June 1576. Abu’l-Fazl writes that Rana Pratap “had not the head for arranging his forces in battle-array" but he “displayed alacrity", which the dictionary tells me means cheerful readiness.

This epic clash was apparently just a skirmish, according to the Mughals, though they won and therefore were likely to make much of it. Abu’l-Fazl writes that the empire lost 150 men, while Rana Pratap lost 500, not the sort of numbers one expects, given how stirring the word “Haldighati" is for many of us. The other thing that will disappoint Rajnath Singh is that on both sides, the dead were mainly Rajputs: The kingdoms of Marwar, Amber, Bikaner, and Bundi, etc., fought for the Mughals. Even Rana Pratap’s brother Sagarji was a Mughal ally.

The importance that Rana Pratap occupies in our nationalism is thus not reflected in the Mughal texts. In fact, according to the German orientalist H.F. Blochmann, the Akbarnama even gets his name wrong and refers to him as Rana Kika. The last entry on him reads that “on Wednesday the 7th, Rana Kika died. Apparently Umra, his wicked son, poisoned his food. He had also hurt himself in bending a stiff bow."

Rana Pratap would not pass that test of greatness I have laid out. His enemies do not see him as significant. His military achievements are not many. His allies in history, and Colonel James Tod, who was sympathetic to the Rajputs he wrote about, feel differently. Tod compiled the bardic lore of Rajputana and his three-volume work, Annals And Antiquities Of Rajasthan, is the source of much of the story of Rana Pratap as we know it: full of colour and defiance, telling us of the noble Chetak, the Hindu-Muslim angle and so on. Tod’s sources say 14,000 Rajputs fell at Haldighati, an unusual instance of a loser amplifying the magnitude of his defeat while the winner plays down his victory.

After the Mughals withdrew, Rana Pratap retook most of his possessions, much of this without fighting. Tod himself writes that “Udaipur was also regained; though this acquisition was so unimportant as scarcely to merit remark. In all likelihood it was abandoned from the difficulty of defending it, when all around had submitted to Pratap."

Tod is all praise for Rana Pratap’s defiance of the Mughals when other Rajput kingdoms pragmatically submitted.

It is this defiance of “Muslims", rather than any solid achievement, that likely earns him Rajnath Singh’s admiration. Many of us in the Anglicized middle-class also feel this, which comes to us from Amar Chitra Katha, a series that has coloured the minds of two generations with the idea of noble “Hindu" resistance to invading “Muslims", even when in many battles the majority of fighters were of the same faith.

That is not to say that none of those who defied the Mughals were great. I would say without doubt that Shivaji, a terrific warrior, was great because of his generalship and his achievements, not just empty defiance. Also because—consider this the Gujarati view of greatness—of his competence at managing cash flow. He was the only one of his contemporaries to leave behind a surplus in the treasury, astonishing for a man constantly at war. Aurangzeb died with the Mughal army’s salaries 30 months in arrears.

If in Rajnath Singh’s view, Rana Pratap is not seen with sufficient greatness, it is not because of ignorance. I will, however, accept the fact that often in history, achievement of the highest order still doesn’t result in historical greatness.

Joseph Stalin was certainly great, winning an apocalyptic war the West could not have won, at great cost to his nation (by some accounts, 95% of all World War II victims, 27 million dead, were Russians) and inflicting great damage on his enemy (90% of all German soldiers killed died fighting Stalin on the Eastern Front, not Franklin D. Roosevelt or that insufferable windbag Winston Churchill).

And yet Stalin is denied greatness. A strange case of history not acknowledging the victor, because it was written in English.

Also Read: Aakar’s previous Lounge columns