New perspectives on Aurangzeb

Academics and history writers are looking afresh at the regnal years of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to show him as being less tyrannical than he was thought to be while he continues to live in popular memory as a bigot who destroyed temples and imposed the jizya on non-Muslims.

Published : Mar 01, 2017 12:30 IST

A miniature painting depicting Aurangzeb.

A miniature painting depicting Aurangzeb.

“I CAME as a stranger, and I leave as a stranger,” wrote the sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in a letter to one of his sons sometime before his death. On his deathbed, he had lamented: “My precious life has passed in vain.” This coming from a man who ruled a vast empire, much larger in size and extent than any before and after him in Indian history and who had a huge treasury that included the famous Kohinoor diamond. Yet, all that he wanted was a peaceful death and to be buried in a simple tomb in contrast to the grand Taj Mahal in which his mother, Mumtaz Mahal, and father, Shah Jahan, lay entombed.

As the noted historian Audrey Truschke argues in her latest book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth : “Aurangzeb may have been content to be forgotten but the world is not ready to let him go. Aurangzeb lives as a vibrant figure in public memory in twenty-first century India and Pakistan.”

In recent times, Aurangzeb has been the focus of sociopolitical discourse and animated discussions in academic circles. Ranged on the one side are proponents of Hindutva who never tire of reminding Muslims about the destruction of thousands of Hindu and Jain temples on Aurangzeb’s orders. On the other are serious academics and writers who are looking afresh at his regnal years, away from the prism of bigotry and intolerance. Today, Aurangzeb is regarded as an emperor with great accomplishments and obvious flaws. Greys, rather than black and white, describe him better.

The attempt to show the “untold side” of Aurangzeb started in 2012 when the author-historian William Dalrymple sprang a surprise in his introduction to Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 , which he co-edited with Yuthika Sharma, by pointing out that Aurangzeb was “a pragmatic ruler who frequently patronised Hindu institutions”. Dalrymple told this correspondent that Aurangzeb deserved to be read anew, arguing that some of the measures introduced in his reign, such as the imposition of jizya (military tax on non-Muslims), should be looked at from the prism of exigencies of administration rather than religion. This view gained credence from the fact that no communal riots were reported during Aurangzeb’s time. Also, there were no mass conversions of Hindus by Aurangzeb’s warriors with a sword in one hand and the Quran in the other.

Although Dalrymple’s book was essentially about paintings and the arts, his essay showed that Aurangzeb’s rule was “less tyrannical than previously thought”. The book contained paintings from the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign in which he is shown holding talks with his courtiers, laying to rest all claims that he was opposed to the fine arts. The book also reminded one of a little known fact: Aurangzeb was a fine veena player. Suddenly, the convenient bigot of history was getting a new coat of paint.

In Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (2013), Rajmohan Gandhi brought out Aurangzeb’s political accomplishments and his gentle, human side. “Diligent in religious observance, Aurangzeb was a tenacious fighter as well. The empire under Aurangzeb’s long rule increased in area. New territories annexed included Little Tibet beyond Kashmir in the north, Chittagong beyond Dhaka in the east, and, in the south, the Muslim kingdoms of Golconda and Bijapur.” Rajmohan Gandhi also hailed Aurangzeb’s simplicity: “Of small stature, with a long nose, a round beard and an olive skin, Aurangzeb, usually wore plain white muslin” and “applied himself assiduously to business”.

Audrey Truschke, in Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, reasons that the use of Sanskrit declined because of the flowering of Hindi during the reign of Aurangzeb. She says Alamgir (Aurangzeb’s regnal title) in his early years had read the Quran and the Hadith as also Rumi and Saadi and was exposed to Persian translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Aurangzeb, she says, even composed in Braj Bhasha.

The publication of Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth has triggered a wide-ranging debate in academic, literary and social circles. On one hand, Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi has been renamed Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, and on the other, a road has been named after Dara Shikoh, the man he bested in the battle of succession after Shah Jahan’s reign in 1657.

Whichever way you look at it, Aurangzeb is very much a part of an ongoing debate. If in the 1980s and 1990s Muslims were derided as Babur ki aulad (Babur’s progeny), today a Shiv Sena leader calls Muslims Aurangzeb ki aulad . It seems Aurangzeb is the baggage from the past modern-day Muslims have to live with. “Well, one lesson we are constantly taught is that history is important because it shapes the present. In reality, it is the other way around: it is the demands and pressures arising out of the present which shape our image of the past especially at the popular level. Aurangzeb can be projected as more demonic than Babur, but anyone would do depending on whom you are addressing,” says Harbans Mukhia, an expert in medieval Indian history.

When it comes to Aurangzeb and indeed to Dara Shikoh, historians have been guilty of depicting convenient stereotypes. It has been argued that the war of succession between Aurangzeb and his brothers, including the widely popular Shikoh, was fought on the slogan of “Islam in danger”. Aurangzeb was not fighting for the throne but for purifying Islam from the heterodox views. Shikoh, on the other hand, was not only the chief of heretics; he had translated around 25 Upanishads, and argued that there was hardly any difference between the teachings of Islam and Hinduism and that Prophets had been sent to India as well. To Aurangzeb’s narrow-minded bigotry, he was an intellectual: a philosopher, a Sufi and a theoretician. Many have even wondered if India’s history would have been more inclusive had he won the battle for succession.

The reality though is different, although not always easily expressed beyond academic circles. Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a medieval India historian from Aligarh Muslim University, says: “The facts are a wee bit different from this simplistic interpretation forwarded by a majority of historians, both Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani. To name a few: Shibli Nomani, Ishtiyaq Husain Quraishi, Jadunath Sarkar and Ishwari Prasad also are proponents of this misconception.”

Rezavi’s contention is well founded. Empirical data point towards another direction: Aurangzeb, who was supposedly anti-Rajput, won the war of succession with the support he received from Hindus and Rajputs. Shikoh lost as he did not get the support of Rajputs. “This is brought to light by a letter written by Prince Akbar who rebelled against his father [Aurangzeb] and joined ranks with the Rathores, who had rebelled in 1679. [Prince] Akbar revolted in 1680, and when he and the Rathores lost to Aurangzeb he fled to the court of Sambhaji, the son and successor of [Chhatrapati] Shivaji. [Prince] Akbar, in a letter to his father in 1680, writes: ‘Have you forgotten why Dara lost and you gained the throne? Dara lost the support of the Rajputs who rallied around you.’”

Interestingly, when the battle for succession was warming up, Aurangzeb started from Deccan towards Agra and sent letters to many nobles seeking their support, much like what contemporary politicians do following elections. One such letter ( nishan ) was sent to Rana Raj Singh of Mewar. This letter survives in the famous Vir Vinod of Kaviraj Shyamaldas. “In this letter, Aurangzeb actually claims that kingship is nothing but a trust from God. The people are khalqullah , creation of God, as the king is Zillallah, the shadow of God. He should thus deal equally with them and not discriminate on basis of religion or sect. Kings are like pillars of God’s court, and if he bends on one side, the justice of God would fail.” That is not all. The man who is supposed to have put to death lakhs of Hindus, giving them the option of Islam or death, was no puritan. He was a lover of music and dance. The famous book on Indian music, Rag Darpan , was composed by Faqirullah who held a high mansab (administrative position) in Aurangzeb’s kingdom.

Shikoh, contrary to the image projected beyond academic circles, was no commander: he never had any practical experience as an administrator or as a general. “He had antagonised nobles such as Mirza Raja Jai Singh, whom he called Dakani bandar” (Deccani monkey). Contrary to popular perception, Mirza Raja Jai Singh, Jaswant Singh, Raghu Ram, Rana Raj Singh, and Rao Dalpat Bundela sided with and helped Aurangzeb directly or indirectly. Dalpat Bundela pointed out the ferry in which Aurangzeb crossed the Chambal river and emerged victorious at the Battle of Samugarh.

“Had he been what most historians paint him out to be, the majority of Rajputs would not have sided with him,” says Rezavi. Incidentally, for all of Aurangzeb’s bigotry, there were 31 per cent Rajputs in his administration, much better than around 22 per cent during Akbar’s reign.

Yet, Aurangzeb’s name is hurled at Muslims today, with some Hindutva proponents even demanding their apology for his alleged actions. Aurangzeb is the baggage from the past that Muslims have to live with. Rezavi says: “Unfortunately, over the past decade or so, with rising poverty, economic decline and paucity of resources, the communal relations between various communities have worsened. And as is the wont, the minorities have been held responsible for all the ills. If during the colonial era, Mahmud of Ghazni was held responsible, from the 1980s, Babur started emerging as the villain. After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, when the matter could not be flogged any further, Hindutva forces started concentrating on Aurangzeb. True, Aurangzeb did mix religion with politics, discriminated against certain sections, imposed the jizya tax, yet he was more a practical king than a proselytising preacher.” What is often forgotten is that he imposed the jizya 21 years after assuming power and at a time when he needed finances for his constant wars. What is also brushed aside in this zeal to paint Aurangzeb black is the fact that he was just a monarch who waged wars to extend his territory or to consolidate his empire, just as Shivaji fought for his territory. Neither of them fought for the nation as the concept of nation did not exist then.

Political exigencies

The common man may have been fed convenient stereotypes, but academics have been more reasonable. Mukhia says: “There is always a distinction between professional history and what may perhaps be wrongly termed as popular history. Professional history looks at historical events and historical figures in a complex web of intersecting personal-religious-political-factional-administrative, etc. Popular history looks at the ruler as the absolute maker of history during his reign and, in addition, looks at his religion as the primary motivation for his actions. James Mill and Elliot and Dowson had taught us to look at history in terms of the religious identity of the ruler, and while professional history has moved a long way off that sort of simplistic explanation, it still stays alive at the popular level. For the professional historian, Aurangzeb moved out of this demonic Islamic zealot frame long ago and was assessed as a ruler of a vast and complex empire where often contrary decisions were necessitated by immediate circumstances then as much as these are now. As far back as 1966, M. Athar Ali examined Aurangzeb’s reign in terms of political exigencies without ignoring his partiality for Islam in his book Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb . Audrey Truschke is taking the argument forward, though in much greater depth.” Where exactly can we place Aurangzeb in the annals of the Mughals?

Mukhia says: “This is exactly what I meant by contrary decisions. In fact, historians of his reign, even Hindu historians such as Bhimsen, did not look upon him as a dogmatic Muslim ruler; this image comes much later thanks to colonial historiography. But why go that far for locating contrary decisions? In our time, Rajiv Gandhi tried to manage the Hindu religious right by getting the gates of “Ram Janmabhoomi” opened even as he was trying to appease the Muslim right by passing the Shah Bano Bill in Parliament. And Narendra Modi, whose entire training is in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideology, still has to go to some Muslim events and lavish praises. That is how rulers seek to manage the affairs of a very complex society—sometimes they succeed; sometimes they do not. But to judge every ruler exclusively in terms of his religious dogma is to miss the point.”

Yet, the fact remains that after Akbar, Aurangzeb was the only Mughal who had a Hindu Diwan (Raja Raghu Raj). Highest mansab s were held by Rajputs. Governors of important provinces were Rajputs. Rezavi says: “If you look at Vrindavan documents, as Irfan Habib and Tarapad Mukherji have done, you will realise that there were more temple grants under Aurangzeb than under Akbar. Yes temples were broken but only in areas of recalcitrant nobles or areas of revolt. When Rani Hadi, the widow of Jaswant Singh Rathore, wrote to Aurangzeb during the Rathore rebellion of 1679 offering to demolish temples herself if he would bestow tika (formal recognition as ruler) on her, he refused! This information is contained in ‘Waqai Ajmer’…. Aurangzeb was just a shrewd politician. He did what suited him politically. When fighting Bijapur and Golconda, the Shia states in the Deccan, he was anti-Shia; afterwards he was not. Many Shia establishments date back to his period. He was not a bigot, but a shrewd manipulating king. He calculated each and every move of his for political dividends. He presided over the largest ever empire. And that was no mean achievement.”

Audrey Truschke writes: “From a divisive Hindu nationalist perspective, Babur and Aurangzeb are, to some degree, interchangeable as oppressive Muslim conquerors. It is not incidental that Aurangzeb is widely believed to have been the most pious of the Mughal kings. Aurangzeb thus typifies zealous Muslims overall —both past and present—who allegedly threaten Indian society by virtue of their religiosity. Many false ideas still mar the popular memory of Aurangzeb, including that he massacred millions of Hindus and destroyed thousands of temples. Neither of these commonly believed ‘facts’ is supported by historical evidence. Detractors trumpet that Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples without acknowledging that he also issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends and land to Brahmins.”

The debate rages on.


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