Interview: Audrey Truschke

‘They want to treat Aurangzeb as a political football’

Print edition : March 17, 2017

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Interview with Audrey Truschke, the author of “Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth”.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE, an assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has helped shape many a history student’s opinion one way or the other ever since her Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court was published in 2016. Her latest book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, has already started a fresh debate on one of the most hated figures of Indian history. Steering clear of the two sides, one that showers lavish praise on the Mughal emperor and the other that is highly critical of his reign, Audrey Truschke says Aurangzeb had some rare attributes that are often brushed aside in the zeal to paint him either in black or in white.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

When it comes to Mughals, Aurangzeb in particular, are we guilty of looking at the past through the prism of contemporary society and politics?

We are all situated in the 21st century, and so it is normal, as a starting point, to view history through the categories and concerns of the present day. Where many people go wrong is in failing to recognise that this presentist stance can be problematic and cause one to gravely misunderstand the past.

In Aurangzeb, I seek to move beyond the restricting concerns of our day, especially Hindu-Muslim conflict, and recapture the world of the sixth Mughal king, which operated according to quite different norms and ideas. Some people, however, do not share my interest in honestly reconstructing Mughal history. Instead, they want to treat Aurangzeb as a political football that can serve present-day interests, such as stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in India.

Was Aurangzeb actually the Hindu-hating tyrant he is projected to be? In your book you portray him as an overseer of Hindu communities, one who found divinity in the art of Ellora temples. Yet the myth persists.

The historical Aurangzeb fails to live up (or down) to his modern reputation as a Hindu-despising Islamist fanatic. Aurangzeb took actions that strike most modern people as abhorrent, such as destroying and desecrating select Hindu and Jain temples and reviving the jizya tax on most non-Muslims. But, alongside such actions, the king also protected most Hindu and Jain temples and increased the Hindu share in the Mughal nobility. Any historical legitimate explanation of Aurangzeb’s state activities must explain why he protected Hindu and Jain places of worship more frequently than he destroyed them. Communal hate does not get us very far in this project, and so I posit that other factors such as political reprisals and morality concerns were at play in Aurangzeb’s treatment of Hindu and Jain places of worship. Overall, Aurangzeb was far more driven by practical considerations of rule, the priorities of Mughal kingship, and a thirst for power, rather than hatred of Hindus.

Why is Aurangzeb’s use of Muslim clergy to suit his politics overlooked in historical accounts?

Aurangzeb’s relationship with the ulama has been noted by other historians. Perhaps, it filters into public awareness less because it’s not especially flashy.

In many ways, one feels Aurangzeb has been made into a villain to explain the hero’s status conferred on Akbar. It is like an early example of “the good Muslim and the bad Muslim”, something that is perpetuated to this day.

Aurangzeb is the opposite of Akbar in popular memory. Aurangzeb is also widely seen as the antithesis of Dara Shukoh, a binary recently embodied in modern Delhi with the erasure of Aurangzeb Road and the introduction of Dara Shukoh Road. Both Akbar and Dara Shukoh were more complicated than most people realise, a point that I raise in Aurangzeb (and also, concerning Akbar, in Culture of Encounters). But complicating the “good Muslim” rankles some people far less, it seems, than snatching away the cartoon bigot image of the “bad Muslim”. To my mind, ranking premodern kings according to their alleged piety and bigotry—categories that always seem to overlap in this worldview—is an impoverished way to think about the past.

Much before Aurangzeb stood accused of demolishing temples, there were Hindu rulers who ordered similar demolitions. Yet they have not come under the scanner. Please comment.

Historians are aware that Hindu rulers desecrated and destroyed one another’s temples before the advent of Indo-Islamic rule. But this idea disrupts the colonial-era narrative of Indian history, which is repeated to this day by many in India, that India had a golden age of Hindu rule that was disrupted by oppressive Muslim kings.

Many groups in India have invested a great deal in terms of modern politics and culture in this vision of India’s past and so are uninterested in revising their views.

It is argued that Aurangzeb suffers because of our bigotry. Do you agree?

I think that we suffer from failing to even attempt to understand Aurangzeb as a complex king who had a profound impact on the political landscape of 17th and 18th century India. Too many people seem to think that the point of studying Aurangzeb is to figure out whether we like him or not. That view is mistaken. The major goal of historical inquiry is to grasp something about Aurangzeb’s world and his role in shaping the Mughal empire during a crucial historical period. Such information helps us to make sense of the past and perhaps can even help us to make a better world going forward.

There is far more to say about Aurangzeb than what I have included in my short biography, and I look forward to more scholars joining the ongoing project of deepening our understanding of Aurangzeb Alamgir.

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