“He Was Not A Hero, Nor Was He A Villain”: The Other Side To Mughal King Aurangzeb

Posted on September 2, 2015 in Politics, Staff Picks

By Lubna Irfan:

Amidst the chatter about the changing of the name of Aurangzeb Road to that of Abdul Kalam two types of arguments about the 6th Mughal Emperor are propping up, and as a student of medieval Indian History both arguments not only infuriate me but also sadden me about how we have still not moved ahead from the naïve acts of Herofication and vilification of historical Characters.

One set of the argument portrays Aurangzeb as a devout, pious, religious ‘muslim’ who was the only sensible Mughal, working for the cause of Islam. Another set tries to project him as a devout ‘muslim’ too, but as an iconoclast who was the destroyer of temples. Ironically both these extremes sound strikingly similar and serve the same purpose- communalizing the present.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

History: Breeding Ground for Communalists

Indian history, especially Indian medieval history has been the breeding ground of communalists. As much as I hate to refer to people as merely ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, when talking about the present scenario I still have to because I am helpless before this divide constructed very subtly by our long gone colonial masters. While the Muslim communalists bank on the return of ‘past glories’ as the means of mobilizing masses, they also have the ‘fear’ of complete domination by so called ‘Hindu majority’, to bank on. On the other hand Hindu communalists have no such ‘fear’ to propagate as they are already in majority but they invoke the past injustices of Muslim monarchs, mobilizing the masses to ‘correct’ the wrongs of the past. Here is where humanity and history lose, and short term political ends win.

And the easiest target, for such parasites of hatred, is Aurangzeb. However what these people tend to forget is that in those times (like in our times), actions were motivated mostly by political and economic ends, and much like the present day politics, they were enveloped in the cloak of religion.

Religion: Not so much in the mind of a Politician

The evidence I assembled did not in any sense exonerate Aurangzeb, but I think it did set different limits within which the Emperor’s personal preferences and decisions had impact: and it suggested a number of other factors, besides the one of religious bias…“, says Athar Ali in his book The Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb, where he tried to give a new perspective to the actions of Aurangzeb.

Certain examples from the past may help in clarifying things.

Aurangzeb during the war of succession, issued a nishan (royal order issued by a prince), which is found in Udaipuri records, to Rana Raj Singh, which from the perspective of modern historians sounds like the preamble of independent India, where he proclaimed about equality of all people, irrespective of their caste and faith. He even asserted the legacy of his enlightened great grandfather Akbar in this document to forge political alliance with the Rajputs, thus it becomes clear that the cause of propagation of religion was hardly in his mind.

Another very interesting fact that people tend to overlook is that most of the temple demolition took place where there were political disturbances, rebellions or potential threats to the authority of the monarch. One such instance recorded by the Waqa-i-Ajmer (reports by news-writers of Ajmer covering the period of Rathor rebellion of 1679-80) would bring a whole new perspective to Aurangzeb’s iconoclastic tendencies. The rebellion broke out mainly on the issue of succession to the throne of Marwar and Aurangzeb’s involvement in it, and Rani Hadi, one of the leading queens of the deceased ruler offered to destroy all the temples of Jodhpur and erect mosques if her claimant was made successor. However, this ‘tempting’ proposal was rejected by the Emperor without a second thought.

Religious justifications to Political actions

In medieval times, unlike in present, religion and politics were not segregated. Ideals of secularism dawned upon the world only with the coming of Reformation and became popular only with the rise of liberalism. The entwined nature of religion and politics can be understood by studying Akbar’s theory of kingship, where the king was the representative of God on earth, and it was his duty to establish God’s justice. Thus, the legitimacy to political rule came through religion; to assert political authority one had to assert religious authority too. Destruction of temples was a means to strike fear and awe in the hearts of the vassals and rebels.

Contemporary historians who read Aurangzeb, in order to attach a sense of glory and legitimacy to the emperor, tend to quote religion as the reason of his acts but accepting all these sources without critical analysis would only create a distorted and biased picture of the past that would haunt the present.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Asserting religion to cope up with political troubles

Aurangzeb, by imprisoning his father and by murdering his brothers, destroyed the aura and authority attached to the Mughal throne, and he too had to give justifications for his coup of 1657-58. First he tried to give military successes as the justification for the coup but by 1666 this attempt had failed, and whatever gains Aurangzeb made were soon lost. It was then that the need of invoking religion as a legitimizing force came up. Aurangzeb, also, couldn’t afford to displease any section of the nobility, especially not the ones who exercised great influence amongst the masses, and played key role in the act of king making- the Ulema. It might have been to please this section that jizya was re-imposed.

The call for the protection of religion and jihad were often uttered when a military campaign was to take place, in order to rally the troops behind the monarch. Aurangzeb even tried to call the campaign against the Muslim kingdoms of Deccan as jihad, by highlighting their vicious un-Islamic practices, and portraying himself and his state as the ideal one. He did not hesitate to play with the superstitions of his people during Satnami rebellion when the rumour about Satnamis possessing supernatural power had demoralized his army. He claimed to be a Zinda-Pir in order raise the morale of the soldiers and was called ‘Alamgir Zinda-Pir’. Thus it becomes evident that military and territorial gains motivated the 6th Mughal Emperor much more than religion.

Economically speaking Aurangzeb’s were hard times, with the unending campaigns in Deccan and continuous rebellions in the empire, some of his acts like that of banning music and discontinuing official history writing were due to economic considerations, and religion was merely a front used to explain them.

Aurangzeb: A despot with shortcomings

Aurangzeb was a despot, a politician and an imperialist who tried his best to maintain the proper functioning of his empire. It is true that some of his policies might have conveyed a sense of discrimination to ‘non-muslims’, but there was no great consequence of it. This becomes clear from the Rajput’s support to Aurangzeb during the Rathor rebellion, and also from the significant number of Marathas and Rajputs in his nobility.

He was not a hero, nor was he a villain. He had blood on his hands, even of his own brothers, but so did numerous other despots of this dynasty and of dynasties before it. He might have stitched caps but he also led campaigns to gain territory and treasure. One thing that nobody can deny is that he had to encounter innumerable difficulties which were not so significant during times of his predecessors. There were rebellions (Jats, Satnamis, Sikhs, Afghans), there was be-jagiri, where the state had shortage of land grants to give to its servants, and on the top of it there was the Deccan Ulcer. Thus there is much more to this monarch than destruction of temples.

Names, identities and Politics

It is easy to blame things on a dead man and even easier to divert popular attention to artificially constructed issues. Aurangzeb is dead, so is Abdul Kalam, and they both contributed to history in their own capacity. That’s what they should be remembered for, not because they were ‘muslims’, good or bad. We need to get over this false belief that religion motivates all actions of human beings. While it might at times, mostly it is used as a cover up for pure political or economic ends.

While this chatter about changing the road’s name goes on, have we stopped for a moment and thought how much the name of a road matters to a child starving to death there?