Zoya Ansari describes a recurring controversy
Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir was the last of the greatest Mughals who ruled over the subcontinent for half a century and was recognized for his piety and simple life. Aurangzeb is currently the wrath of the Indian ultra-rightist segment of the population that is widely known to be strongly supported by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by PM Narendra Modi. In actual fact, Aurangzeb was never the favorite of historians including the British and Indian who rated him to be a narrow-minded bigot who completely turned the wheels of tolerant Muslim rule that was laid out by their favorite emperor Akbar who is still praised as an eclectic ruler who tried to treat the majority Hindu community on an equal footing with the majority Muslim rule.
The sentiments of the ultra-right Hindu circles in India have turned almost violently against the Muslim rule and their obvious target is Aurangzeb whom they declare as harboring anti-Hindu feelings and was so overwhelmed by them that he consistently persecuted the Hindus throughout his long and tedious stay on the Mughal throne. A Mughal emperor who died more than 300 years ago has become a hot topic of debate in India in recent months. He is widely reported to be a religious zealot often described as a ruthless tyrant who was an expansionist, imposed tough Sharia laws, and brought back the discriminatory jizya tax that Hindu residents had to pay in return for protection. He was also described as someone who hated music and other fine arts and ordered the destruction of several temples.
Though there is hardly any doubt that Aurangzeb came to the throne after a bloody succession struggle during which he eliminated his three contending brothers and imprisoned his father, emperor Shahjahan, in Agra Fort for almost eight years where he lived like a prisoner and died a pitiable death but then these events should be viewed in their proper perspective as this was a tradition the Mughal Empire was repeatedly subjected to and considering it to be a faithful adherence to their ancestral ritual never deviated from practicing it.
To begin with, Aurangzeb had no option but to follow the family tradition and even if he tried to avoid doing so he faced the prospects of elimination at the hands of his equally ambitious brothers. Also if he failed in going all the way when the two sons of Shahjahan declared rebellion with Aurangzeb joining them reluctantly, he would have been subjected to imperial vengeance, and as he was the least favorite of his father, he faced certain elimination. So the role he played in the succession struggle was basically a battle of survival for Aurangzeb and he was condemned to fight it.
Along with the ire displayed about the way he won the throne his current Indian detractors roundly denounce him for his staunch anti-Hindu policy. Unfortunately, this hate campaign against him is led by Modi who viciously blamed Aurangzeb for his atrocities during a meeting at the Hindu religious city Varanasi. Modi added that Aurangzeb tried to change civilization by the sword by doing everything in his power to crush culture with fanaticism. Modi did not stop at it and on the occasion of the 400th birth anniversary of Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur who was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam, he again castigated Aurangzeb by saying that even though Aurangzeb severed many heads, he could not shake the Hindu faith.
The current campaign against Aurangzeb began with the dispute over the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi that is reported to have been built on the ruins of the Vishwanath temple, a grand 16th Century Hindu shrine destroyed in 1669 on Aurangzeb’s orders. Now, his name is trending on social media with thousands of disparaging references that can be found in court files and has been invoked by India’s present-day Hindu nationalist rulers. The negativity in the revisionist history has badly distorted the relations between the Hindu majority of India and its Muslim minority which constitutes about one-quarter of the population of India. The persecution is quite widespread as it is visibly supported by the incumbent government.
This hate campaign has surprised many foreign observers who feel that it is ridiculous to launch such a campaign in this modern era. Aurangzeb ruled in completely different circumstances and even then it is unfair to apportion the blame of religious persecution on him as history clearly states that the share of Rajput mansabdars or office holders of the Mughal Empire rose to its highest. It is also stated by many contemporary historians that Aurangzeb allocated more money to Hindu religious sites than any of his predecessors including Akbar. He is also described as the most tolerant of the Mughal rulers who abhorred taking decisions that were based upon the improper judicial process. He was known to avoid sanctioning corporal punishment and was known for taking a humanistic view of most situations.
Unfortunately, despite many facts to the contrary, the mayor of Agra city labeled Aurangzeb as a butcher demanding that all traces of him should be removed from public places. On Twitter, the Mughal emperor was called an invader who wanted to wipe out Hindus and one user suggested that all monuments and buildings by Mughals built over Hindu places of worship should be bulldozed. Aurangzeb’s tomb in the western state of Maharashtra was shut to visitors after a regional politician questioned the need for its existence and called for its destruction. This hateful campaign is continuing despite the fact that Aurangzeb was the ruler of the Mughal dynasty that was fully recognized to have Indianised itself and its potent proof was that the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was made the focus of the nationalist mutiny that raged in the subcontinent in 1857.
The stymied views of the ultra-rightist Hindu activists are stoutly challenged by many historians including western scholars. They decry the campaign to demonize Indian Muslims in the name of Aurangzeb although the hatred is actually xenophobic in nature. Many historians do admit that Aurangzeb did demolish a number of Hindu temples and imposed a discriminatory tax on Hindus, but he was a complicated figure, and not completely evil which could be borne out by the fact that he gave the highest number of grants for maintaining Hindu temples. The historians point out that Aurangzeb was two-thirds Hindu by blood because Akbar, his great-grandfather, had married a Rajput princess with his grandfather and father having Hindu mothers.
It is also pointed out that Aurangzeb was a connoisseur of music and was known to be an expert in playing veena- an instrument favored by Hindu goddesses – and more music books were written under him than any other Mughal. Many historians are of the view that Aurangzeb invoked religion to cover up his political failures and strengthen his authority and this policy is precisely in line with the policies pursued by the current rulers of India led by Narendra Modi. They also emphasize that invoking Aurangzeb’s name to corner Muslims of India in the so-called enlightened political entity India calls itself is a classic example of hypocrisy. On one hand, the Indian democracy prides itself in constitutional rule, and on the other is bent upon undoing the so-called atrocities perpetrated by Aurangzeb through the very methods they are protesting against. TW