Understanding much-maligned Aurangzeb minus Hindutva blinkers

Sourish Bhattacharyya
Sourish BhattacharyyaAug 29, 2015 | 14:32

Understanding much-maligned Aurangzeb minus Hindutva blinkers

No one deserved a road named after him in the heart of New Delhi more than APJ Abdul Kalam, but did it have to be at the expense of Aurangzeb Road? The move not only mirrors the saffron brotherhood’s "good Muslim, bad Muslim" view of the country’s most prominent minority, inspired by none other than the British imperial historians, but also sends out a historically inaccurate message to the world.


Aurangzeb, like the late president, was a ruler who embraced simplicity, making a living out of stitching skull caps and copying the Quran, although he presided over the largest empire in Indian history, stretching across 3.2 million square kilometers, its revenue earnings, according to Wikipedia, swelling up to £38,624,680 in 1690 (the highest in the world at that time). He died in the Deccan and went down in history as the only imperial ruler who did not have a grand mausoleum built to perpetuate his memory. He was, as he had decreed in his lifetime, buried under a wooden slab covered by a holy cloth and flowers — that was all that could be afforded with the 14 rupees and 12 annas he had saved in his lifetime by stitching skull caps (his savings from the reproductions of the Quran added up to Rs 350).

By removing Aurangzeb from the pantheon of historical figures after whom roads are named in New Delhi, the Hindutva cohorts will not be able to blank out his name from the country’s history. After all, he presided over India’s destiny for 49 years; he was the first ruler to abolish the barbaric practice of Sati in 1666; his rule saw the textile flourish like never before with royal patronage; and he had more Hindu mansabdars reporting to him than under any other Mughal emperor. Two of them, Maharaja Jaswant Singh and Mirza Raja Jai Singh, became his key aides — one was made the governor of the strategic province of Gujarat and the other led Aurangzeb’s Deccan campaigns. The Deccani wars bled the state exchequer and it was to raise finances for this financially unsustainable campaign that Aurangzeb re-imposed the jizia, the hated tax which had been abolished by Akbar, on non-Muslims in the second half of his reign.


The emperor’s actions such as the re-imposition of jizia, the destruction of Hindu temples (notably the ones in Varanasi, Somnath and Vrindavan), his wars against Shivaji, and the execution of the Maratha leader’s son, Sambhaji, and the Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, were grist for the British imperial history mill. By demonising Aurangzeb, Britain’s official historians were able to project their Raj as a deliverance from "Muslim" misrule. In their enterprise, they were ably assisted by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, whose love for the Raj perhaps equalled only his hatred for the last of the great Mughals.

Aurangzeb can be accused of being an authoritarian ruler with a medieval mindset whose insatiable hunger for new territories weakened the empire and spawned a flurry of rebellions by local potentates. He was a pious Muslim, but he was not a fanatical zealot. It was entirely for political reasons that he executed Sambhaji and Guru Tegh Bahadur. He meted out the same treatment to his brothers Dara Shikoh and Murad Baksh. In short, Aurangzeb behaved like any other ruler of his age.

Even his policy on demolition of temples has been blown out of proportion — as the American historian Richard Eaton, who had the advantage of distance from the political winds that have determined the directions of Indian historiography, showed in his magisterial analysis of all recorded instances (80 of them) of the demolition of Hindu temples between 1192 and 1790, only 15 can be attributed to Aurangzeb. Ironically, seven of 80 took place in the reign of Akbar!


Aurangzeb baiters may find it even more unpalatable to acknowledge the fact that the emperor, besieged by rebellions in the latter half of his reign, was just as ruthless in his actions against temples he viewed as centres of political opposition to his rule, as he was generous in his support, as recorded by the Hindutva critic Ram Puniyani, to Hindu temples such as Mahakaleshwar of Ujjain, Balaji of Chitrakoot and Umananda Temple of Guwahati, and the Shatrunjaya Jain temples in Gujarat.

Like all rulers, Aurangzeb was a bundle of contradictions. It is the job of historians of unbundle the truth from the fantasies of political propagandists. Sadly, our historians have maintained a defeaning silence on this desecration of our composite history.

P.S. Can anyone explain why we have a road called Windsor Place, named after the Duke of Windsor, a k a Edward VII, a k a the British royal who abdicated for the American socialite Wallis Simpson? The Nazi sympathiser’s only connection with India was his visit as Prince of Wales in 1921, when he was greeted with protests across the country.

Last updated: August 29, 2015 | 21:01
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