When the British were planning Lutyen's Delhi, the last known descendants of Mughal dynasty were either resting in their graves or pulling rickshaws in the streets of Calcutta.
After the failed mutiny of 1857 and the subsequent death of Bahadur Shah Zafar, some of them were executed by the British. Those who survived, disappeared from Delhi to live in obscurity and penury, mostly out of fear of being caught and killed.
Zafar's last known relative, his great grandson Prince Mirza Bedar Bukht, died in 1980. His wife and six children live off a paltry pension in the slums of Howrah. Their predecessors Jamshid Bakht and Jawan Bakht didn't do spectacularly well either; their greatest achievement being the successful transition from Lal Quila to the streets of Calcutta.
Between 1911 and 1931, when the British planned and inaugurated New Delhi, they were obviously not under pressure from members of the Mughal dynasty to honour their ancestors. Neither was there any pressure to strike some opportunistic alliance with a powerful family and its supporters.
Yet, the British named the roads and parks of the new city after rulers from the Mughal dynasty. What was the reason? It is clear from the names the British chose for roads, lanes, squares and gardens, they wanted the new city to reflect the history of Delhi. The names were an ode to the various rulers who contributed to Delhi's history, geography, art and culture. So, without getting into the politics, region and religion of the rulers, the British chose Lodis, Tughlaqs, Mughals, and Hindus; Mongols, Pashtuns, Pathans and Rajputs — almost everybody from our history — to give identity to Delhi's landmarks.
That the British chose without differentiating between region and religion becomes evident when you circle India Gate. Roads named after Prithviraj Chouhan, Ashoka, Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan and Sher Shah merge into an amazing kaleidoscope of centuries of history.
The British were clearly broadminded in their approach. Though they had no love lost for the Mughals — don't forget they virtually ended the dynasty; killed Zafar's son, exiled him to Burma and fought bitter wars with Aurangzeb that almost drove them out of India — they did not let politics come in the way of the plan for the new capital.
Those who are ecstatic that Aurangzeb has now been replaced by APJ Abdul Kalam on one of New Delhi's main roads have, obviously, missed the point: New Delhi's geography was inspired by history, not politics and bigotry.
If the arguments that have been put forward to defend the renaming of Aurangzeb Road — "bad Muslim, bigot, destroyer of temples"— become the basis for revisiting our roads, cities and monuments, nothing would remain sacrosanct.
Lodi Garden — Did Ibrahim Lodi not deny the great Hindu ruler Rana Sanga the throne of Delhi even after being defeated at the Battle of Khatoli (1517)? Tughlaq Road — Did Ulugh Juna Khan (Muhammed bin Tughlaq) not destroy Hindu kingdoms and, like Aurangzeb, not kill his father Ghiyasuddin to usurp the throne? Did he not raise taxes through Tughlaqi firmans to levels so high that people revolted? Did he not, as his court historian Ziauddin Barni wrote, execute Hindus, Muslims, Shias, Sufis, poets, heretics, rivals with disdainful cruelty?
And the Taj Mahal, the monument that defines India? Is it not a symbol of criminal wastage of money collected through exorbitant taxes? Does it not remind us of the apocryphal tales of Shah Jahan's cruel acts of blinding its architects, chopping off the hands of the artisans of its masons and designers?
Oh yes, Aurangzeb had demolished several temples. But, would historians of a later age compare Rajasthan's chief minister Vasundhara Raje with the Mughal ruler because of her ongoing tussle with the RSS, which recently shut down Jaipur to protest demolition of temples by her government for the metro rail project?
Frankly, it is impossible to pass a judgment on Aurangzeb. He was not a fleeting phenomenon defined by a single event. He lived and shaped Indian history for nearly 70 years — first as Shah Jahan's son and his viceroy in the Deccan and then as India's ruler.
He could have been a bigot who penalised Hindus, destroyed temples, put restrictions on Diwali celebrations, buried idols of deities under stairs so that he could walk over them, re-imposed jaziya, encouraged conversion through inducement and enforced Sharia on the majority. He may have been extremely cruel and ruthlessly ambitious for killing his siblings, imprisoning his father and sister and executing Guru Teghbahadur and Shivaji's son Shambhaji.
There may also be some merit in the counter arguments: that he financed temples, was secular in his early years but turned to Islam later for political reasons; that he imprisoned his father to stop him from imposing more taxes to finance a replica of Taj Mahal made of black marble as his (Shah Jahan's mausoleum). That he killed to suppress rivals, not because of his religious beliefs; and destroyed temples either for hidden treasures or to discourage their use for planning rebellion.
Well-known scholar Harbans Mukhia argues, history has undergone phenomenal metamorphosis and post-Independence there have been attempts to look at it in terms of several invariables, of which religious identity was only one. In this departure, the notion of class--and conflicts arsing in society on account of it--played a significant role.
History is complex, and so are those who shape it. One man's fanatic can always be other person's Alamgir. Aurangzeb Road could just have been a chapter in history, a reminder of its complexities; instead of being turned into a symbol of the right-wing's desire to pass partisan judgments on those who shaped it through the prism of religion.
In 2002, during a visit to Berlin, I was surprised by the sight of the badly-damaged 'Hollow Tooth'— the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church at Kurfurstendamm. The church was destroyed in British air raids in 1943. But, the Germans refused to repair it in spite of rebuilding entire Berlin. They retained the damaged spire of the church as a reminder of Germany's past and the horrors of the war unleashed by Hitler.
If nothing else, Aurangzeb Road could have been India's Hollow Tooth. It would have reminded many who drive through Delhi's roads of the perils of a government inspired by ruthless ambition, violence, bigotry and a communal agenda.
Updated Date: Sep 02, 2015 07:48 AM