Putting the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and His Legacy into Perspective: A Historian Speaks

Putting the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and His Legacy into Perspective: A Historian Speaks
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By Suhail Ahmad Wani

Many people assume that history is an impersonal record of past events; a dull roll call of facts, events and figures. While raw data is certainly a component in the writing of history, there’s more to it in the way of how the historian interprets that data. In the words of E.H Carr: “History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”
The final meal then, depends not only on the fish available with the fishmonger, but also what the chef selects to cook and how he wants to cook it. British colonialism ended in India 70 years ago, but their misrepresentations of the Mughals and other Indo-Muslim rulers have had a long and poisonous afterlife. In India, many still cite biased colonial-era British translations of Mughal texts as evidence of supposed Muslim wrongdoings. Many Indians accept and repeat misinformed ideas about this king without realizing the troublesome politics behind such views. Historians, who object to such activities, both in India and abroad, risk becoming the target of intense harassment campaigns.
Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire, is the most hated king in Indian history. He ruled for nearly 49 years, from 1658 until 1707, the last great imperial power in India before British colonialism. According to many, he destroyed India politically, socially and culturally. Aurangzeb’s list of alleged crimes is long and grave. He is charged with fighting protracted, pointless wars in central and southern India and thereby fatally weakening the Mughal state. He is envisioned as a cruel despot who brutally murdered enemies, including his own brothers. He is regarded as a cultural dolt, uninterested in the extraordinary arts of south Asia, even hostile to them. Above all, many modern Indians see Aurangzeb as a brutal oppressor of Hindus.
The popular story goes that Aurangzeb tried to convert all Hindus to Islam, and when that project failed he supposedly slaughtered millions of Hindus. People claim that Aurangzeb systematically destroyed Hindu cultural institutions, leveling thousands of Hindu temples. Some have even said that the reason why north India lacks the tall, elaborate temples that one finds in south India is because Aurangzeb smashed them all to pieces. The Mughal state was having 29.2% of the world population under its flag (175 million out of 600 million in 1700 AD) & was one of the richest states the world had ever seen, with a world GDP of 24.5% ($ 90.8 billion out of $ 371 billion in 1700). Numerically and geographically, his empire was vast. At the height of his power, Aurangzeb ruled over 150 million people, more than the entire population of Europe at the time. Including the emperor’s sizeable conquests, the Mughal kingdom stretched across 3.2 million square kilometers, including parts of what are now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The imperial treasury boasted lavish collections of gems, diamonds and gold that likely made Aurangzeb the richest man of his day. In the eyes of most people in 17th-century Asia and Europe, Aurangzeb Alamgir truly lived up to his names: the throne-adorner (Aurang-zeb) and the world-seizer (Alam-gir).
Mughal India of the 17th century was a different time, and Aurangzeb’s Islam cannot be shunted into today’s notions of liberal versus conservative. Like many people, Aurangzeb grew more pious as he got older. It is possible that the experience of being judged, by other Muslims, as an illegitimate Muslim king while his father lived compelled certain changes in his religious life. For example, capital punishment for state enemies was sometimes preceded by torture. Rather than judging these acts by contemporary standards, however, a better way to understand him and 17th-century India is to grasp what he thought it meant to be a just, Muslim, Mughal king. One could kill one’s princely brothers in Mughal India – but not one’s father, which was considered heinous. That is why Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in the Red Fort in Agra, some sources say with a tormenting view of the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jahan had built as a glorious tomb for his favourite wife.
As the historian Richard Eaton has shown, destruction of temples by Muslim rulers in India was exceedingly rare and even when it did happen, it was a political act meant to chasten recalcitrant rulers and not a theological move. Aurangzeb almost never targeted temples in the Deccan, although that is where his massive army was camped for most of his reign. Temple destruction was a common part of Indian politics at the time and was not restricted to Muslims. In 1791, for example, the Maratha army raided and damaged the Shankaracharya’s temple in Sringeri because it was being patronized by Tipu Sultan, their enemy. Later on, Tipu renovated the Temple and had the idol reinstalled. For these same reasons of statecraft, Aurangzeb also patronized temples, since Hindus who remained loyal to the state were rewarded. In fact, as Katherine Butler Schofield from King’s College London points out, “Aurangzeb built far more Temples than he destroyed.” Scholars such as Catherine Asher, M. Ather Ali and Jalaluddin have pointed to numerous tax-free grants bestowed on Hindu temples, notably those of the Jangam Bari Math at Benares, Balaji’s temple at Chitrakoot, the Someshwar Nath Mahadev temple at Allahabad, the Umanand temple at Gauhati, and numerous others.
It is a well-established fact that the number of Hindus employed by the Emperor’s administration was the highest ever in Mughal history up till then. The proportion of commanders, senior court officials and provincial administrators who were Hindu rose from 24% under Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan to 33% in the fourth decade and 42% later of the Aurangzeb’s own rule. This trend actually becomes sharper as you move up the administration. A remarkably large number of Aurangzeb’s top generals were Hindu Rajputs. In fact, when Aurangzeb’s campaign against the Marathas or Sikhs is presented in a communal light, it is often forgotten that the actual Mughal army in the field was almost always led by a Rajput general.
Defining a person in history as a hero or a villain is very subjective. Different nations make different evaluations on people according to their contributions on each country’s development. When countries evaluate historic figures, they reflect their judgments in textbooks that are taught in schools, so that students can naturally absorb the nation’s view on history. Aurangzeb is a critical figure to understanding India’s past. Among scholars, Aurangzeb’s potential role in weakening the Mughal state remains a matter of vigorous debate. This debate thrives, in part, on the stunning contrasts that characterize his reign. Studying Aurangzeb also helps to challenge modern ignorance and hate by presenting us with a complicated man that we cannot explain by simple reference to modern categories and biases. Knowing more about Aurangzeb is important, both for India’s past and India’s present. Lastly as a concluding remark one should be aware of the following words of a famous historian of India Satish Chandra who remarked regarding Aurangzeb that “he was neither a hero nor a villain but a somewhat unimaginative politician who failed to understand the societal problems at work in the country, and often took recourse to religious slogans in order to meet complex socio-economic and political problems”.

The author is a PhD Research Scholar at the University of Indore. He can be reached at: wanisuhail51@gmail.com