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. 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.
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.
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's legacy, in the popular imagination, is one of unmitigated tyranny
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.
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.
Debunking The Myths
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.
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.
Aurangzeb's life, widely misrepresented by the Hindutva brigade as that of a cardboard despot's, was far more complex
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.)
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.
To impose on Aurangzeb the standards of the modern world is to thus make a grave historical error
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.
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.
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 in the hands of one of his brothers.
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.
Aurangzeb merely acted in line with the hallowed Mughal tradition of in-fighting
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.
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.
In spite of grounding her narrative in historical facts, Truschke brings to life Aurangzeb the emperor in all his flaws and splendour. 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.
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