“History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there”. Although this statement by George Santayana is severe, it certainly applies to the distorted agenda-driven versions of “history” people are being taught regarding Aurangzeb Alamgir, the 6th Mughal Emperor, who ruled whilst the Mughal Empire was at its zenith. On one side of the spectrum, he is depicted as a saint. Which proves to be an imprudent conjecture when objectively analysing him. And on the other end, he is accused of a myriad of abhorrent deeds. The most prominent being: the desecration of thousands of temples, mass forced conversions and the persecution of millions of Sikhs and Hindus. The blatant propagation of misinformation and gratuitous allegations against Aurangzeb is an attempt to defame his character and blight his legacy as a ruler so that he becomes an allegory for the “tyrannical” Mughal rule over the Indian subcontinent.
Fabrication of Mughal History:
The fabrication of Mughal history was a political strategy initially adopted by the British to justify their occupation of India and act as “arbitrators”. Colonial historians such as James Mill and Vincent Arthur Smith wrote a version of Indian history which was separated into three main stages: Hindu India, Muslim India and British India. The most conspicuous aspect of this version of history is the deviation of the third stage from the established paradigm. The use of the term British over “Christian” was to accentuate the intellectual superiority of the British over the Indians. Whilst the Indians were uncivilized and compelled by religion, the British were depicted as sophisticated and secular. This account of history peddles a narrative which stigmatizes the Mughal rule as a “dark age” and has subsequently been internalised by Indian historians.
The regurgitation of this fictitious depiction of Aurangzeb as a zealous bigot immersed in religious fanaticism is unfounded when there is no evidence to prove so. The primary reason that Aurangzeb is demonised beyond historical narratives is because he is widely considered as a puritanical Muslim king. However, Aurangzeb is far more nuanced than the mythical manifestation of his character. Historians have managed to achieve creating apocryphal versions of Aurangzeb by conveniently omitting the context of his actions and riddling this account of his character with countless inaccuracies and exaggerations of his actions to better suit political sentiment. With the vast amount of misinformation regarding Aurangzeb, it becomes an arduous task to discern between falsehoods and the truth.
The execution of his brothers Dara Shikoh and Murad Baksh upon his orders is without a doubt the most compelling piece of evidence that corroborates with the notion of Aurangzeb being a merciless tyrant. Yet, throughout Mughal history, wars of succession were a recurring phenomenon which often culminated with fratricide. The Mughal princes believed in the Persian saying, “ya takht ya tabut”, which translates to “either the throne or the coffin”. As deplorable as this may seem, according to historian Audrey Truschke, despite the ethics this war of succession “allowed the best and most able man to rise”.
What makes this war of succession unique is that Shah Jahan (the current emperor) was alive when it began. His absence from the public eye due to his illness permeated the rumour of his death. After that, it was every man for himself. No one was innocent in this scenario. The best way to describe this predicament is that it was an imperial gladiator match for the ‘peacock throne’. You either kill or be killed.
Destruction of Temples:
Arguably the most prominent accusation levied against Aurangzeb is the desecration of thousands of temples. However, proper historical analysis puts the real figure somewhere around sixteen. Despite the modern narrative of religious zeal, the motivation behind the destruction of these temples was predominantly political. After suppressing a rebellion Aurangzeb thought it was inadmissible to allow sites of patronage associated with traitors to remain, so because temples were symbols of their involvement in society they were torn down.
If Aurangzeb was truly a religious fanatic then one would expect to see the uniform destruction of temples. However, this is not the case as the majority of temples destroyed during Aurangzeb’s reign are concentrated in historic Rajasthan. The frequent rebellions by Rajput leaders, caused by the relative autonomy the state enjoyed, resulted in persistent political conflict. Therefore, sites associated with imperial enemies were torn down. Though it is not my intent to justify Aurangzeb’s “iconoclasm”, the reader must understand the circumstances of Aurangzeb’s actions. Rajput leaders had destroyed hundreds of mosques and Aurangzeb’s actions could be considered as reprisal. Furthermore, Katherine Butler Schofield from King’s College London pointed out that “Aurangzeb built far more temples than he destroyed”. Other scholars such as Catherine Asher and Jalaluddin have also highlighted that during his reign Aurangzeb bestowed multiple tax-free grants to temples. Therefore, religious fanaticism was not the motivating factor behind the destruction of temples.
Persecution of Hindus:
One of the most promulgated allegations concerning Aurangzeb is his persecution of Hindus. The basis on which critics justify these claims is the lack of Hindus present in nobility and governmental positions. The justification for this accusation is dubious because under Aurangzeb’s rule the proportion of Hindus within the government and other imperial positions of power rose from 24.5% to 33%, which was the highest it had ever been in Mughal history. Though this increase can be partially attributed to the increase in the lands under Mughal jurisdiction as a result of Aurangzeb’s expansionary policies. If Aurangzeb had discriminated against Hindus then the proportion of Hindus working in the government and other imperial positions of power would have most likely decreased. This statistic, according to the words of M Ather Ali, provides a “fine lawyer’s answer to any charge that Aurangzeb discriminated against Hindu mansabdars”.
The Reimposition of Jizya:
The imposition of jizya is perhaps the most notable piece of evidence given to validate the idea that Aurangzeb mercilessly persecuted Hindus and Sikhs. By modern egalitarian standards, such a tax would be considered unethical, however, everything would be an anachronism if looked at through the lens of modern societal standards. Jizya was originally a tax paid by non-Muslims for protection as they were not allowed to join the army and was paid in a collective sum. Aurangzeb reimposed jizya in the form of a poll tax and the rate varied from 0.5% to 6.3%. However his army consisted of men from different religions, so it begs the question: why would he reimpose jizya?
Aurangzeb had just abolished 80 different taxes, of which a significant amount were discriminatory against Hindus. Such as taxes on pilgrimage and the spreading of ashes in the Ganges river. The abolition of these taxes significantly decreased state revenue and Aurangzeb’s expansionary policies put a substantial strain on the treasury as well. Therefore, the reimposition of jizya could be argued to be fiscal policy as much as it could be argued to be a religious policy, especially when considering that it was suggested by one of his financial administrators rather than a theologian. Contrary to popular belief Aurangzeb did not mercilessly enforce jizya. Various religious leaders, those living in poverty and servants of the State were exempted from paying jizya.
Furthermore, Jizya was not an uncommonly discriminatory tax for its time. The Marathas collected zakat from Muslims but no corresponding tax was imposed on Hindus. Leibzoll was a tax imposed in Europe exclusively on Jews for their safety within different principalities. This was used to control the number of Jews in an area and was a huge financial burden as it could be imposed multiple times within the same provincial unit.
Another accusation against Aurangzeb is the forced conversions of Hindus. Credulity will not countenance the idea that Aurangzeb enforced mass forced conversions. If this was the case then Muslims would not be awarded the National Minority status in India today as Aurangzeb was arguably the most powerful and wealthiest ruler in the 17th century as the Mughal Empire accounted for 24% of the world’s GDP and its military power was at its peak. During his reign, the Mughal Empire encompassed the majority of the Indian Subcontinent and its population outstripped all of Europe. Had he truly been a fanatic and bigot he could have easily leveraged his influence and power to convert a significant percentage of his subjects to Islam. However, there is no evidence to back up this allegation nor does it make any sense to the rational mind as the ramifications of such dire actions would result in a vastly different demographic in modern India.
The main problem arises with the two vastly different conflicting historical narratives regarding Aurangzeb. In Pakistan, he is portrayed as a saint who justly ruled his subjects, a stark contrast to the Indian narrative. While Aurangzeb wasn’t a merciless bigot he was not a saint either. Saying that he was a saint is a disservice to Muslims because his failures as a ruler have been attributed to the “inherent defects” in Islam, it has also enabled the extensive propagation of false information regarding Islam which has resulted in an increase in Islamophobia within the Indian subcontinent. This narrative has misled people into believing that the destruction of sacred places belonging to Non-Muslims is one of the tenets of Islam. Which has subsequently been exploited to further the polarity and existing tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India for political gain.
It is important to understand Aurangzeb because his rule has played a huge role in shaping the contemporary Indian subcontinent. The misconstrued versions of his character are being used as a political football by both India and Pakistan and the public has fallen prey to these black and white narratives. It does not do justice to paint such a rich and nuanced history with such sweeping generalisations. Without a doubt, Aurangzeb possessed great military prowess and was a very influential figure during his time. However, the root of the controversy lies in how his character is presented and it is up to the reader to read between the lines and form their own interpretations.
At first, I had set out with the intention to write an abridged history of Aurangzeb. However, I quickly realised that his character and story was so rich and nuanced that any attempt to do so would prove futile. Instead, this is an attempt to make the reader look beyond public sentiment and conventional narratives, so that they may seek the truth out for themselves. As George Orwell put it, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”