Salvaging Aurangzeb’s reputation; Review of Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke | books$reviews | Hindustan Times
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Salvaging Aurangzeb’s reputation; Review of Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke

According to a new book, the sixth Mughal wasn’t as bad as he’s made out to be

books Updated: Apr 21, 2017 19:48 IST
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
The Agra Fort where Aurangzeb imprisoned his father Shah Jahan.
The Agra Fort where Aurangzeb imprisoned his father Shah Jahan.(UIG via Getty Images)

Audrey Truschke’s research will radically change your view of Aurangzeb(1618-1707), who is invariably presented as the most despotic medieval ruler of all time whether in the accounts of official tour guides at Agra Fort, or of historians across the political spectrum. Employing various historical sources, the author has argued that Aurangzeb was a tolerant emperor who argued for religious freedom, and to an extent even advocated secular policy in matters of governance. Indeed, he did few extreme things during his long rule. In Truschke’s words, Aurangzeb was man of his time. To single him out as a despot label him a bigot is a gross misrepresentation. We can only do justice to his life if things are viewed in context.

Unfortunately, the practice of looking at history in context is either selectively used or completely ignored in Indian historiography. Some of the heroes of Indian history, including Shivaji and Rana Pratap, are often viewed as heroic simply because they fought the Mughals. How would they appear if we examined their position with regard to untouchability or the system of sati? In our passion for hero worship, we choose not to raise uncomfortable questions. Such extreme representations of Mughal rule was, according to Truschke, the handiwork of colonial scholarship in which Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan have been the worst victims. Sadly, the Hindu Right has chosen to treat these ideas like they are the gospel. Apparently, Aurangzeb met Shivaji only once and finding him quite uncivilized in his manners, asked him to leave his court.

During Aurangzeb’s era, we learn Hindu participation rose by nearly 50 percent at the elite levels of the Mughal state. Hindus comprised 31.6% of the Mughal nobility – an almost unprecedented percentage during the entire Mughal era. This dramatic increase was a result of the substantial influx of Marathas, who executed Aurangzeb’s ambition to expand Mughal rule in the south. Aurangzeb did not pursue a particularly anti-Hindu agenda as is generally believed, and his decision to impose jiziya was actually driven by the demands of statecraft. In those days, “Hindus” were known by their regional, sectarian and caste identities (for example, Rajput, Maratha, brahmin, Vaishnava). In 1691, he donated land for the Balaji temple. In 1698, he gifted rent-free land to Rang Bhatt, a brahmin, in central India. He came out with a farman not to harass brahmins in Benaras so they could pray for the longevity of Mughal rule. In the late 1650s, he granted land at Shatrunjaya, Girnar and Mount Abu, all Jain pilgrimage destinations in Gujarat.

Documents also indicate he was quite secular in his orders for the limited public observance of religious holidays. They applied to all major religions, and were driven by public safety and decency. He constrained festivities on Nauruz, the Persian New Year, and the major Muslim holidays of Eid-Al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. He also curbed the revelry associated with the Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali apart from various Muslim celebrations. Theft and other crimes marred religious ceremonies in Mughal India, such as the penchant of Holi revellers in Gujarat to steal wood to make large fires. He cracked down on this practice in the mid- 1660s along with the use of “obscene language” during both Holi and Diwali. However, as numerous European travellers and Hindu writers as late as the 1690s mentioned, he allowed the festivals themselves to be observed.

Audrey Truschke (Courtesy Penguin Random House)

There is also no evidence of his government pursuing a policy of the widespread conversion of Hindus or other non-Muslims. Relatively few Hindus converted to Islam in Aurangzeb’s India, according to the regular news bulletins that arrived at the royal court. Aurangzeb also did not prohibit satirical poetry.

In the popular consciousness, Aurangzeb is the destroyer of many temples. According to Truschke, more often, he protected Hindu temples and passed orders for their safety and good maintenance. He did destroy a few dozen but this, apparently, was not because of his hatred for Hinduism, but owing to issues of statecraft. Like his predecessors, he followed Islamic law in granting protections to non-Muslim religious leaders and institutions because, since the eighth century, Muslim rulers counted Hindus as dhimmis, a protected class under Islamic law, who were entitled to certain rights and state defences. Truschke writes that Mughal rulers gave their subjects great leeway, compared to the draconian measures followed by European sovereigns of the time.

Mughal princes, including the young Aurangzeb, studied the Quran and other Islamic religious texts, religious biographies, Turkish literature, the art of calligraphy and Persian classics. These Persian works shaped the ethics and values of Mughal princes, especially their ideas about justice, adab, akhlaq and kingship. Aurangzeb may well have been exposed to Persian translations of Sanskrit texts, such as the Mahabharat and Ramayana, whose translations were sponsored by Akbar. In addition, like other Mughal princes, he learnt practical instruction in swords, daggers, muskets, military strategy, and administrative skills.

Read more: Aurangzeb and the battles of the present

We also learn that his elder brother Dara Shukoh was always ahead of him in intellectual and philosophical pursuits. But Aurangzeb spent his twenties and thirties proving himself on the battlefield, acquiring administrative abilities and gaining a formidable reputation, which helped him to conquer the throne. Dara Shukoh is the big “What if?” of Indian history: What if liberal Dara had become the sixth Mughal king? Could Dara have pre-emptively averted India’s brutal Partition in 1947? The author seems to be less optimistic. The fact remains that Dara Shukoh was ill-prepared to counter Aurangzeb’s alliances, tactical skills, and political acumen, and was not competent enough to govern or preserve the Mughal kingdom, which eventually collapsed owing to the superior abilities of the emerging colonial power.

In this age of the uncritical reading of history, Audrey Truschke’s work is of great value to those who aspire to be objective in their understanding of history and historical figures.

Dr Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He is the editor of the forthcoming volume, Rise of Saffron Power( Routledge)