Historian EH Carr, while defining history over 50 years ago, famously called it “an unending dialogue between the present and the past”. He thus saw history to be relative, often influenced by when, how and for whom it has been written.
This explains the recent subversion of the past in a school textbook of Rajasthan, currently being ruled by the BJP, wherein Maharana Pratap defeated Mughal emperor Akbar in the battle of Haldighati!
If the Rajasthan textbook can be accused of distorting an event, here comes a book which attempts to completely remodel the life of a historical character. Audrey Truschke, in her latest book on Aurangzeb, argues that “Hindu hater, murderer and religious zealot are just a handful of the modern caricatures” of the Mughal emperor.
In her attempt to bring out his “untold side”, she emphasises how “detractors trumpet that Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples without acknowledging that he also issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends to Brahmins.
They denounce that he restricted the celebration of Holi without mentioning that he also clamped down on Muharram and Eid festivities. The other argument, to bolster her grandiose claim, is that more Hindus were employed in the Mughal bureaucracy during Aurangzeb’s time than any time before.
It’s a bold, audacious move on the author’s part to swim against the tide. But one wished she had done her home work more judiciously. In fact, one suspects she first decided to humanise and secularise Aurangzeb and then went about finding documents supporting it.
The result is a tome which appears exciting on the surface, but scratch a bit and the entire structure of arguments collapses like a pack of cards. For, history is never a linear journey. It repeatedly crisscrosses in opposing directions, often contradicting the man and his ideas.
Aurangzeb did not showcase his extreme fanaticism in the early years of his rule. But as he strengthened his position, his worldview turned rigid. All he needed was a provocation, which he got when Shivaji escaped from the Agra jail in 1666, and an opportunity, which he got after the death of Raja Jai Singh in 1667, whose presence in Aurangzeb’s court had sobered him.
|Raja Jai Singh of Amber fought Shivaji and forced him to surrender in 1665.|
In this backdrop, it was hardly a surprise when he issued orders in 1669 to “demolish all schools and temples of the infidels and put down their religious teachings and practices”. A decade later, on April 2, 1679, he made a public proclamation of jihad against Hindus with the objective of converting the land of infidels into Dar-ul-Islam.
With this objective in mind, in 1681, a year after the death of Shivaji, he shifted his base to south India and remained there till his death in 1707, trying to subjugate - quite unsuccessfully - the Marathas.
As for the large presence of Hindus in his bureaucracy, Aurangzeb’s move should not be seen as a tolerant policy. It was instead a policy of divide and rule, something which the British perfected a century later.
Aurangzeb used Hindu generals to either fight the Hindu enemies of the Mughals or to win over the empire’s most treacherous terrains. They were made to carry out the arduous assignments until they were totally exhausted.
Raja Jai Singh of Amber, for instance, fought Shivaji and forced him to surrender in 1665. He continued fighting on the Bijapur front to extirpate the Shia kingdom, till he was exhausted and recalled to the court in May 1667; he died a heart-broken man two months later.
Likewise, Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur was sent to fight the turbulent Pathans in the northwestern frontier with the hope that he might end his career there. He lost his two sons on the frontier, while the third, the heir-apparent Prithvi Singh, was allegedly poisoned by Aurangzeb. In 1678, Jaswant Singh, too, died grief-stricken in today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The book has gone wrong on a couple of other major points. The author, for instance, says on more than one occasion how Aurangzeb’s “religious ideals demanded that he dispense justice and protect his citizens”. What she doesn’t say is that the emperor’s concept of justice was confined to the happiness and welfare of Muslims alone.
He did his utmost to harm the economic interests of Hindus. Also, Truschke picks up some of the most discredited evidences on the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur. The Sikh leaders before Guru Govind Singh were hardly political. Truschke doesn’t think so, quite erroneously.
What, however, is most disturbing is the prevailing "liberal" preoccupation in finding "secular" traits among some of the most reviled fanatics - from Aurangzeb to Tipu Sultan.
But what’s even more disconcerting is that the same bunch of scholars questions those who would ideally have been the flagbearers of secular, liberal values today.
Dara Shikoh would definitely have been in this select group. But, in Truschke’s scheme of things, he appears undesirable at best - and villainous at worst.