Revisiting Aurangzeb

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Portrait of Aurangzeb from an exhibition titled “The Saga of Shahjahanabad”. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath unveiling the controversial book “Ankaha Lucknow” written by BJP MP Lalji Tandon (left) on May 26. In the book, Tandon claims that the famous Teelewali Masjid of the Sunni sect was built over Laxman Teela, by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A careful reading of history shows that Aurangzeb was not a bigot, although he used religion to further his political ends, and that the interests of the Mughals and the Rajputs were, in fact, identical.

WAS Aurangzeb a bigot, a religious fanatic who tried to propagate Islam and suppress Hinduism and other religions, or did he use religion for his politics? Colonial historians from Joseph Davey Cunningham to Sir Jadunath Sarkar and from S.R. Sharma to M. Athar Ali have raised this question and in recent times, the modern historian Audrey Truschke’s work in this regard has become quite popular.

Recently, the debate has been taken to another level by the utterances of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who, along with many others amongst the Hindutva forces, have tried to portray Aurangzeb as the devil incarnate.

A holistic reading of the primary sources does not totally absolve Aurangzeb of this charge. A more calibrated research, however, shows that Aurangzeb, though not a bigot, used religion to further his political ends. If, on the one hand, he issued a letter (nishan) to the Maharana of Mewar, Rana Raj Singh, promising to follow the same policy as that of Akbar, on coming to the throne he had to take steps that were just the opposite. He ascended the throne after a bitter and bloody contest, and for the first 10 years, he had to contend with a jailed father who was a constant threat to his position.

The war of succession was not fought on communal considerations or on the basis of the ideological clash between the tolerant policies of Dara Shukoh and the so called anti-Hindu policy of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb never made a claim that he was going to defend Islam and at no stage did he feel that Islam was being threatened either by Shah Jahan or by Dara Shukoh. So, just after the accession, we find that there was no discrimination either against the Hindus or against the Rajputs.

Soon after taking over the throne, Aurangzeb appointed Raja Raghunath Singh, a Khatri, as the Diwan of the empire. One will recall, after the death of Raja Todarmal, no non-Muslim was appointed as the Diwan of the empire. After the recall of Man Singh in 1606 by Jahangir, no non-Muslim was appointed as the subahdar (governor) of any important province of the empire either during the reign of Jahangir or during the reign of Shah Jahan.

Aurangzeb appointed two non-Muslims: Maharaja Jaswant Singh and Mirza Raja Jai Singh. Jaswant Singh was appointed subahdar of Gujarat in spite of his opposition to Aurangzeb at the Battle of Dharmat and his act of treachery against Aurangzeb at the Battle of Khajua. Gujarat was the nerve centre of the Mughal economy. Mirza Raja Jai Singh was appointed as the viceroy of the Deccan, an office to which only princes of royal blood were entrusted. So if it was indispensable to use the term “discrimination” , it was used in favour of the Rajputs and not against them during the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign.

Thus Rajputs like Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Raja Jaswant Singh, along with a host of others, were elevated to the highest ranks and also appointed to the most important and prestigious provinces like Gujarat, Bengal and Bihar, and a Hindu was appointed as Diwan of the empire.

Under Aurangzeb, the Marathas were recruited on a large scale, as were the Deccani Afghans. These new entrants to the Mughal aristocracy were recruited obviously at the cost of the Turanis and the Rajputs. Both groups resented this inclusion as they considered the Mughal empire their preserve.

The tremendous increase in the numerical strength of the Marathas and the Afghans led to an increase in the strength of the Mughal bureaucracy. Under Aurangzeb, as the empirical works of Professor M. Athar Ali conclusively demonstrate, there were around 31 per cent non-Muslims, while under Akbar there had been only 22 per cent.

At the same time, the inclusion of the Marathas in the second half of Aurangzeb’s reign must not be understood as his following a secular or a more tolerant policy than Akbar. It was an administrative necessity required to annex and consolidate the Deccan. The primary factor governing the policy of a Mughal emperor was his political necessity.

We should also remember and highlight that Aurangzeb gave more grants to Hindu temples than any other emperor before him. In fact, the Vrindavan temples are an example of the grants that he gave for temple upkeep.

To prove that he deserved the throne more than his father, Aurangzeb initiated a policy of conquest. Unfortunately, most of these military expeditions failed. Mir Jumla died fighting in Assam; Shaista Khan was attacked in his bedchamber in the Deccan by Shivaji; Mirza Raja Jai Singh succeeded in clinching the treaty of Purandhara in 1665 but the fruits of the treaty were taken away when Shivaji fled from Agra.

When the military expeditions failed, a chain reaction set in. What followed were the Jat rebellion of 1669, the Satnami uprising of 1672, the Yusufzai revolt in 1667, and the Afridi revolt in 1674. In the meantime, Shivaji crowned himself king in 1675. So, on the political front, too, Aurangzeb was not a success, to say the least.

Aurangzeb was convinced that the position of the institution of monarchy had been compromised by his actions. Strength had to be provided from some other quarter when there was a failure on the political front. So to compensate for the weakening, and to provide against his political failure, Aurangzeb emphasised the Shariat law.

Shariat law

Aurangzeb began to use religion to further his political interests and nullify his failures. The year Shivaji crowned himself ruler of the Deccan, a problem arose in the Kashmir and Punjab region. Guru Tegh Bahadur encouraged the people against Aurangzeb as he was totally opposed to the attempt by certain officials of Aurangzeb in Kashmir to force non-Muslims to accept Islam. Guru Tegh Bahadur acted against those who were involved in these forcible acts and came out in rebellion against Aurangzeb. In retaliation, Guru Tegh Bahadur was arrested and ultimately executed in 1675.

According to J.D. Cunningham, in order to understand the political motive behind the event, one needs to take into account the historical framework under which Tegh Bahadur was appointed a Sikh guru. Earlier bypassed by his father, Guru Hargobind, Tegh Bahadur was appointed head of the Sikh community after the death of seven-year-old Guru Har Krishan.

During the period of Guru Har Krishan, his elder brother Ram Rai, who wanted the guruhood for himself, plotted incessantly against him, lobbying with a few prominent Sikh leaders and trying to convince the peasant community that he was, in fact, the rightful spiritual descendant of Guru Nanak’s creed. Before he died, Guru Har Krishan gave the impression that Guru Tegh Bahadur was the next guru. Immediately taking charge of the situation, Guru Tegh Bahadur set out to form new political alliances and to increase his revenue base so that he could compete with the contesting claims to guruhood. According to Cunningham, the guru and his disciples “subsisted by plunder between the wastes of Hansi and Sutlej rendering them unpopular with the peasantry”. He also “leagued with a Muslim zealot, Adam Hafiz, and levied contributions upon rich Hindus and Muslims”.

Cunningham further noted that the guru gave asylum to fugitives. Another complaint against him that reached the ear of the emperor was made by Ram Rai. Like Guru Har Krishan before him, Guru Tegh Bahadur was accused of being a “pretender to power”. The execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, without doubt, had religious overtones to the extent that the guru was against the policy of forcible conversion.

We know that the institution of monarchy had been weakened by the manner in which Aurangzeb ascended the throne. New prestige had to be added to the institution if the same process was to be avoided, and that is why Aurangzeb made a deliberate attempt to attach religious sanctity to the institution of monarchy.

That is why Aurangzeb chose to be known as Alamgir (conqueror of the world) and zinda pir (living saint). He made a determined and deliberate attempt to prove his vigour by sanctioning military expeditions. He failed, as natural geographical barriers had been reached during the reign of Shah Jahan. And when he failed on the political front and a chain reaction started, he tried to conceal his failures behind the shield of emphasising the Shariat. Ultimately, the die was cast and the day of all precautionary measures dawned in 1679, when his youngest son Prince Akbar revolted and wrote a strongly worded letter to his father in which he pointed out that “you are responsible for the death of Shah Shuja, Dara and so on, and now it is you who are teaching morality…”. But the rebellion of Akbar ended in a fiasco with his flight to Persia—conclusive evidence that Aurangzeb had succeeded in binding the Muslim aristocracy behind the Mughal throne by emphasising the Shariat laws.

It was in the same year that the jizya tax was imposed. Why did Aurangzeb not impose the jizya from 1658 to 1679? What was the sudden need now?

Jizya was a discriminatory tax alright, but the Rajputs, the Brahmins and all those in the Mughal service were exempted. In terms of collection, the jizya was graded: the richest man was to pay Rs.12 per annum, while the less prosperous were supposed to pay Rs.8 per annum. According to Jadunath Sarkar, it was Rs.3 ¼, Rs.6 2/3 and Rs.3 1/3 per annum for the three classes. The harshest aspect of the jizya was that it was a tax on the poor, who had to pay an average of one month’s salary as tax.

Destruction of temples

It was, again in 1679, that orders for the destruction of temples were given. Probably these orders were partly in retaliation for the Rathore rebellion, for a number of temples were demolished in Jodhpur. Some of the most famous shrines demolished were the Somnath (Gujarat), the Vishvanath (Varanasi) and the Keshava Rai (Mathura). In January 1680, Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of three temples standing on the shores of Lake Udai Sagar. If we believe S.R. Sharma, 172 temples were broken at Udaipur. In Chittor the number stood at 63.

While jizya and temple destruction were both discriminatory policies, we have evidence of grants to temples as well. A number of surviving documents mention a large number of maintenance grants given by Aurangzeb to Hindu temples and their priests. These documents testify to a number of villages being sanctioned for the upkeep of the temples. A case in point could be the extensive grants made by Aurangzeb to the Vrindavan temples and their priests, still preserved by the mahants of the Vrindavan temples of the Chaitanya sect. They were brought to light decades ago by the historians Tarapad Mukherjee and Irfan Habib. Similarly, there is evidence of grants made to the Nonidhara Temple at Bahraich.

What was the ultimate result of all this? Did the relations between the Rajputs, who were Hindus, sour? On the contrary, we find that the Rajputs understood that what was happening was political. Thus, the Rajputs continued to serve Aurangzeb until the last days of the empire. Interestingly, in the last 10 years (1698–1707), there were only three generals, Ram Singh Hada, Dalpat Bundela and Jai Singh Sawai, who conducted military operations with their full contingents against the Marathas. These three nobles served the emperor with their full contingents as they had separate incomes from their watan jagirs (regions or provinces).

Once, the doli (palanquin) of Princess Nadira Begum, wife of Prince Azam, was on its way from Islampuri (where Aurangzeb was at that time) to Gilgit, escorted by Ram Singh Hada and 750 of his soldiers, when the Marathas surrounded it. The Marathas were around 10,000 in number and wanted to kidnap the princess so as to dictate terms to Aurangzeb. The Hada contingent was following the doli on foot and was at a distance as the princess observed purdah. Nadira Begum summoned Ram Singh and told him: “asmat-i Rajputiya wa Chaghtaiya yak ast” (“the honour of the Chaghtais is identical to that of the Rajputs.”) “agar īn roz asmat-i Chaghtai raft, ba māra be asmat-i Rajputiya raft!” Ram Singh could understand but could not speak Persian. So, he replied in broken Persian: “The malichhas [the unclean, i.e. the Marathas] will not be permitted even to look at the doli and there is no question of their even coming near it.”

Throughout the 17th century, the Marathas never faced the kind of stiff resistance that Ram Singh and his Hada contingents offered against heavy odds. Ram Singh ultimately succeeded; around 300 Rajputs and three or four of Ram Singh’s sons lost their lives, and true to his word, the malichhas could not have even a look at Nadira Begum’s doli. Such was the trust between the Rajputs and the Mughals—that in a moment of crisis a Mughal princess could appeal to a Rajput as to a Mughal!

The above-mentioned incident took place in 1699. So it would be incorrect to say that Aurangzeb lost the Rajputs because of the Rathore rebellion or owing to his policies.

Apart from the matrimonial alliances and sentimental attachments, the natural interests of the Mughals and the Rajputs were also identical. So long as the Mughals expanded or continued to expand, the Rajput states flourished and remained prosperous. When the Mughal empire declined in the 18th century, the grand houses of Rajputana were plundered by the Marathas. So practically, throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Mughals and the Rajputs swam together and sank together.

Prof. Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi is Chairman and Coordinator, Centre of Advanced Study, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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