Aurangzeb's tyranny and bigotry cannot be whitewashed: A counter-view

Editor's note: Historian Audrey Truschke's book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, has triggered quite the social media backlash by those who disagree with her findings. Truschke addressed the row in an interview with Firstpost — you can read it here. The following article was a blog post, written in response to a Huffington Post piece based on Truschke's book. A shorter version of the original post is reproduced here.

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A recent article on ‘Why Aurangzeb’s Reputation As A Tyrant And Bigot Doesn’t Stand The Test Of History’ drove us to undertake a thorough examination of the claim. After reading through primary and secondary sources, we (the writer of this post and associates) prepared a 10,000-word long rebuttal for, unless responded to, such research, considered as fringe half a century ago, might end up becoming mainstream and that would be a grave injustice to India — the land and its people.

This post is an abridged version of the same where, for reader convenience, the original article (which appeared on Huffington Post) has been italicised, and our response follows below:

It’s no big news that contemporary India is brazenly partisan about its national heroes, especially the ones who tower over the subcontinent’s history.

Every country in the world is proud to the extent of being brazenly partisan about its national heroes. It is surprising that the article would fault contemporary India for the same.

But few figures have elicited as much contempt from a section of the public as well as the political class as the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

Even in the pre-colonial period, Aurangzeb was viewed as a bigot, who persecuted those he considered as not belonging to his faith, by various sections of people including Hindus, Pranamis, Shias and Sikhs.

Gyanvapi Mosque built in 1669 CE by Aurangzeb on top of the great Vishveshwar temple

Gyanvapi Mosque built in 1669 CE by Aurangzeb on top of the great Vishveshwar temple

Aurangzeb’s legacy, in the popular imagination, is one of unmitigated tyranny — reviled as the destroyer of Hindu temples, executioner of Sikh guru Teg Bahadur, and an austere Muslim ruler, who imposed unpopular taxes and curbed expressions of liberal Islam.

A Pew research report based on Manucci’s account of his reign has found him to be responsible for the genocide of 4.6 million Indians. Adolf Hitler is looked down upon with contempt and rightly so; why should Aurangzeb be excused?

In 2015, amid a raging controversy, the ruling government acceded to an extraordinary request from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to have the name of Aurangzeb Road in the national capital changed to APJ Abdul Kalam Road. The idea was to remove the association of evil, represented by Aurangzeb, from the name of the street and replace it with the name of the former president of India, who, presumably, embodied goodness.

Aurangzeb changed the name of many sacred places of Hindus. Mathura and Chittagong both became Islamabad, Varanasi were renamed as Mohammadabad and Khirki was changed to Aurangabad, among others.

While the article finds no substantiation for Dr Kalam’s ‘goodness’, despite his life and work being well documented and not so far back in the past, it uses unsubstantiated rhetoric to claim that Aurangzeb was not a tyrant and a bigot that his actions, recorded in documents from the past, clearly reveal him to be.

The hatred for Aurangzeb also comes through in his denunciation by the Shiv Sena and other groups that admire his arch-rival, the Maratha warrior, Shivaji. In 2004, a biography of Shivaji by James Laine was banned in Maharashtra because it had dared to raise questions deemed unseemly by his fans. In 2015, a Shiv Sena MP abused an officer on duty on camera by calling him “Aurangzeb ki aulad” (a descendant of Aurangzeb), after he razed some temples during a demolition drive sanctioned by the district collector in Aurangabad, based on high court orders.

The reasons for the hatred for Aurangzeb are rooted and documented in the past. And admiration for Shivaji is not a recent 21st century phenomenon!

Historian Audrey Truschke took it upon herself to write a biography of Aurangzeb for the common reader to disabuse them of the many misconceptions around the Mughal king. At a little over 100 pages, without the paraphernalia of footnotes, it is as accessible as a complex historical narrative can get, without losing its essential core of erudition.

All the sources cited in the book have been known for years and there is not a single new source used therein. It simply reinterprets existing sources in a contrarian manner, to fit the false narrative where Aurangzeb is just a mango loving, cap selling devout Muslim instead of the perpetrator of the genocide of Indians!

As Truschke says in the Preface, the idea for the book, fittingly, came to her in an exchange on Twitter, a minefield for peddling divisive political agenda by interested groups and individuals. The spirit of the book, with its crisp prose and controlled polemics, hits out at the easy generalisations of social media.

Dr Koenraad Elst, a historian and scholar of repute, has written about academia being dominated with scholars who label anyone not agreeing with their left-leaning ideology as ‘having some agenda’. Therefore, we choose to ignore what seems to resemble left liberal SJW’s complaint about the equal freedom of speech that social media offers to everyone without fear or favour.

Aurangzeb’s life, widely misrepresented by the Hindutva brigade as that of a cardboard despot’s, was far more complex, as anyone with common sense would expect, as well as riddled with many contradictions. Those who are familiar with politics should not be surprised by the persistence of the latter either.

The last of the so-called ‘Grand Mughals,’ Aurungzeb, tried to put back the clock, and in this attempt stopped it and broke it up: Jawaharlal Nehru

Seeds of Partition were sown when Aurangzeb triumphed over [his brother] Dara Shikoh: Shahid Nadeem, Pakistani playwright

Aurangzeb presided over a conquest state where Hindus had to submit to his rule most unwillingly: Muhammad Ali Jinnah

None of these individuals quoted above are from the Hindutva brigade.

A successful statesman must act expediently, even though their actions may not always square with their professed political ideologies. (Consider the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stance on beef, for instance, which seems to keep changing according to populist demands in different parts of the country.)

We are unsure as to why a piece on Medieval History would include a comment on a political organisation.

Aurangzeb, who took on the title of Alamgir (“the seizer of the world”), was no exception. His actions were in accordance with what he imagined to be that of an effective and equitable ruler’s. His understanding of justice was never meant to live up to postmodern notions of human rights. To impose on him the standards of the modern world is to thus make a grave historical error. He remained a truly Machiavellian ruler in the classic sense of the term, drawing on The Prince, a treatise by the Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli who advised rulers to imbibe cunning in their personal conduct and art of statecraft.

Aurangzeb’s actions were completely aligned with his idea of a true Muslim. His standards of justice took a complete break from his predecessors such as Akbar who implemented Sulh-e-Kul. Even his son Prince Akbar fares better than him, and is supposed to have written to his father:

On the Hindu community [firqa] two calamities have descended, the exaction of jiziya in the towns and the oppression of the enemy in the country.

Here is a snapshot comparing him with his contemporary Shivaji:

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Common sense and basic humanity suggests that killing 4.6 million people is macabre and not Machiavellian.

Just as it is true that Aurangzeb imposed the oppressive jizya tax on non-Muslims (in spite of opposition from within the court and the royal family), he also elevated Hindu officials to positions of eminence in his court. While he did destroy temples during his reign, the number was probably no more than a dozen.

Aurangzeb levied jizya, one of the most humiliating acts against the human spirit, for, he believed that it was prescribed in Islam. His biographer Khafi Khan wrote this some time after Aurangzeb’s reign had ended:

the imposition of the tax was done, “with a view to suppress the infidels, and make clear the distinction between the dar ul-harb en de muti‘ ul-Islam,” that is between the rebellious areas and the areas that were muti‘, obedient or submissive, to Islam.

The number of Hindu mansabdars grew, apparently, on account of the rise of Hindu scribal groups and the need to include locals, familiar with the lay of the land. It was resented by orthodox Muslims and  there also existed a clear “glass ceiling”.

Here is what John Ovington, the British traveller and a contemporary of Aurangzeb, commented:

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The article admits to destruction of temples by Aurangzeb but restricts it to no more than a dozen even when there are imperial records and historiographies to show that his iconoclastic frenzy led to the destruction of thousands of temples (ref: table below). Only a few temples have survived Aurangzeb’s reign and most of north India was deprived of large temples.

YearLocationAurangzeb’s Exploits
1645Ahmedabad, GujaratAurangzeb destroyed Chintamani Parshvanath Jain temple and slaughtered a cow inside its premises. He later converted it into a mosque. 12 temples destroyed and some converted into mosques
1655Bodhan, TelanganaAurangzeb destroyed temple and built a mosque
Early 17thcenturySatara, MaharastraAurangzeb destroyed Khandoba temple
1661Palamu (Conquest)Temples destroyed
Cooch Behar (Conquest)Temples destroyed and some converted into mosques
OrissaTemple of Baladeva in Orissa destroyed
1663OrissaKedarpur Temple destroyed
1664Gwalior,Madhya PradeshTemple of Siddha Gwali destroyed and converted to a mosque
1665GujaratSomnath and other temples destroyed and converted into mosques
1666Pinjore, HaryanaBhima Devi temple destroyed and converted to Mughal Gardens
1667DelhiKalka Devi temple sacked
Akot, MaharastraTemple destroyed and mosque built on its ruins
1669All IndiaGeneral orders of destruction of all temples issued
OrissaAll new temples in Orissa destroyed
RanathamboreMalarna temple destroyed
BenarasVishveshwara temple destroyed and converted to a Gyanvapi mosque. Bindu Madhava temple destroyed and converted to Alamgiri Mosque. Krittivasa temple destroyed and converted to Mosque.Lat Bhairav temple destoyed and converted to a mosque. Lat Bhairav pillar spared. Kedara temple partly destroyed. 500 temples destroyed
1670MathuraKeshai Rai temple destroyed and converted to mosque.
VrindavanGobind Dev temple destoyed and converted to Idgah
UjjainTemples demolished
1672Dacca, BangladeshMany temples destroyed
1675Hubli, Karnataka17 Mosques built on temple sites
1678MarwarMany temples destroyed
Chand khedi temple desecrated
1679RajasthanMany temples destroyed in Mewar, Marwar, Ajmer, Jodhpur, Khandela and Sanula. Harshnath temple demolished.Gaurishankar temple partly demolished
1680Rajasthan172 temples destroyed in Udaipur, 63 in Chitor, 66 in Jaipur. Mandal temple destroyed and a mosque built in Mewar. Someshwara temple in Mewar destroyed.
1680PunjabTemples destroyed
KarnatakaTemples destroyed
HaryanaTemples destroyed
1681MathuraTemples destroyed
AjmerTemples destroyed
MaharashtraAlora temple destroyed
BundelkhandTemples converted to Mosque at Irach and Udaypur
1682Charcika temple, Madhya PradeshConverted into Bijamandal Mosque
1685GwaliorAll temples destroyed
Late 17thcenturyJabalpurAurangzeb destroyed Chausath Yogini temple
Udaypur, MPMosque built using temple materials
Ayodhya,UPMosues built on Swagadwara and Treta Ka Thakur temples
Ramtek, MaharastraMosque built on destroyed temple site
Amaravati, MaharastraMosque built on destroyed temple site
Late 17thcenturyMaharastraTemples destoyed at Jejuri and Bhuleshwar
Uttar pradeshSitaramji temple and Devipatan temple destroyed
1687HyderabadLarge number of temples destroyed. Maisaram Masjid built by demolishing 200 temples and using its materials. Akkanna Madanna temple destroyed
1687MachlipatnamLarge number of temples destroyed
1692MathuraRasulpur temple destroyed
1693GujaratHatkeshwar temple(vadnagar) destroyed
1694AjmerTemple destroyed
1695Tadapatri,Andhra PradeshTemple demolished and mosque built on its ruins
1696GujaratTemples destroyed in Surat
KarnatakaRanganatha Swamy temple destroyed
1705MaharashtraPandarpur temple destroyed

Ruins of Chausath Yogini temple destroyed by Aurangzeb

Ruins of Chausath Yogini temple destroyed by Aurangzeb

Until 1669, Aurangzeb was only upholding Hanafi law prevalent even in  Shah Jahan’s reign. In 1669, he issued orders for general demolition of all temples, including the holiest ones such as Vishvanath in Varanasi, Somanath in Prabhasa and Keshav Rai in Mathura. When Aurangzeb invaded Orissa, he demolished all other temples but left Puri Jagannath intact as it was a source of great revenue for the Mughals. Similarly, Tirupati was spared.

Mosque built by Aurangzeb on top of Gobind Dev temple, Vrindavan. Sketch by James Fergusson

Mosque built by Aurangzeb on top of Gobind Dev temple, Vrindavan. Sketch by James Fergusson

Alamgiri Mosque built by Aurangzeb after destroying Hanumangarhi temple of Ayodhya

Alamgiri Mosque built by Aurangzeb after destroying Hanumangarhi temple of Ayodhya

The above facts clearly display that the statement, "Aurangzeb destroyed a dozen temples”, is myth-ifying truth itself!

In most instances, he ordered the razing of religious sites or their desecration with the aim of teaching his subjects a lesson for transgression or inciting revolts. Any monarch, who wanted to ensure the continuance of his reign, was unlikely to have acted differently under the circumstances.

Perhaps, there will be similar research to explain away Hitler and the Holocaust!

Aurangzeb himself cited Islamic precedents for iconoclasm and sincerely believed that it was his duty as a pious Muslim to destroy idols. When demolishing Hindu Idol temples, Aurangzeb quoted “has the truth not come, has the falsehood not vanished”? (Quran 17.81).

That 28 mosques were built in the imperial capital between 1637 and 1739, and not a single temple, as shown below, says a lot!

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Aurangzeb merely acted in line with the hallowed Mughal tradition of in-fighting, where brother didn’t hesitate killing brother in battles of succession, to come to power. In his case, he drove away one of his brothers from the empire, killed the other two, and kept his aged father, Shah Jahan, in house arrest. Had Aurangzeb not secured the kingdom for himself by such violent means, he’d have lost face among his contemporaries, and most probably his life at the hands of one of his brothers.

Aurangzeb took the tradition of fratricidal infighting to glorious heights by imprisoning his father.

When read in the context of Mughal history, much of the aura of a “cartoon bigot” that social media trolls and right-wing politicians have imposed on Aurangzeb seems to fade away, leaving behind the impression of a king who was as human and fallible as any other.

The aura of Aurangzeb is not something concocted by social media trolls and right wing politicians. It is a result of authentic findings from contemporary and later, primary sources.

There are peculiarly contemporary resonances with his reign. Aurangzeb, too, for instance, tried to impose prohibition, which proved to be a disastrous policy. An admirer of music in his early years, he turned into a strictly religious man in his tastes later in life. He never lost his appetite for satirical verse though, letting his court poets compose lines that dared to lampoon him.

It is strange that the author would find contemporary resonances with Aurangzeb’s reign, for there is quite a lot that he prohibited or put an end to, in addition to the lives of countless non-Muslims, that is!

Although he diminished the presence of Sanskrit scholars at the Mughal court, he also wanted Brahmins to pray for the safety and continuation of the empire. The Hindus were too diverse anyway (a composite of the Brahmins, Marathas, Rajputs and other castes) to bear down on him with a united hostility.

When Aurangzeb attacked the temple of Jwala Mukhi, he tried to wall the flames worshiped therein with metal plates. This plating led to fire breaking out with full force, elsewhere. The frightened emperor made offerings to the Brahmins and hurried away. If such examples are used by scholars to show that Aurangzeb was tolerant and secular, it is neither fair nor honest.

In spite of grounding her narrative in historical facts, Truschke brings to life Aurangzeb the emperor in all his flaws and splendour.

The evidence shared above does not corroborate this.

At 88, as he lay dying, he was consumed by a longing for mangoes, she writes — a detail that stands out with an overwhelming sense of pathos and makes this re-telling of the emperor’s life richly rewarding.

The book is devoid of complete historical evidence and tries to obfuscate facts and paints outright religious bigotry as a political compulsion.

We do not need to re-interpret Aurangzeb, for, revulsion for his conduct in the past cannot be misinterpreted as revulsion for people of his own faith in the present. This myth-ification of Aurangzeb, under the ironic guise of debunking the myths related to the man needs calling out and this article is an attempt in that direction.

For references, refer the original post

Follow the author on @TrueIndology and @dimple_kaul. @TrueIndology is an anonymous Twitter handle


Published Date: May 06, 2017 10:06 am | Updated Date: May 06, 2017 04:47 pm