Aurangzeb as a ‘tolerant tyrant’: the case against ‘secular’ historiography

Aurangzeb as a ‘tolerant tyrant’: the case against ‘secular’ historiography

Aurangzeb was the last of the ‘great’ Mughals whose policies set into motion those forces, which would pave the way for the disintegration of the empire. Until the mid-20th century, there was scholarly consensus that Aurangzeb’s religious policy animated by his zeal for application of orthodox and fundamentalist Islamic law gravely undermined the logic of the Mughal state, which under Akbar while retaining its overarching Islamic character compromised by permitting the peaceful albeit subjugated co-existence for its majority Hindu subjects. Jadunath Sarkar who was arguably the greatest historian in colonial India in his meticulously researched five volume biography of the emperor made the dismal observation that “Schools of Hindu learning were broken up by him, Hindu places of worship were demolished, Hindu fairs were forbidden, the Hindu population was subjected to special fiscal burdens in additional to being made to bear a public badge of inferiority; and the services of the state were closed to them…the effect of Aurangzeb’s reign was not only good to goad the Hindus into constant revolt and disturbances, but also to make them deteriorate in intellect, organization and economic resources.”

Post-independence, the Nehruvian state apparatus understood historical interpretation as a mechanism for, among other things, creating a ‘secular’ society in which religious persecution of Hindus in medieval India were problematic facts incompatible with their ‘idea of India’ in which ‘communal’ historical consciousness had to be eradicated in order to legitimize the present and crush the emergence of alternative ‘Hindu majoritarian’ ‘right wing’ movements, which could potentially upset the hegemony of the Congress and its dominant narrative. The ‘secular’ state thus sponsored this pious act of historical revisionism by patronizing historians of a decisive Marxist or “secularist” persuasion with an implicit understanding for creating new narratives of ‘magnificent’, ‘progressive’ and ‘tolerant’ Mughal ages with minimal emphasis on the excesses against its Hindu subjects and institutions. Hence, the ultimate objective of this new historiography was to overturn the historical conviction of Aurangzeb as the fundamentalist tyrant and persecutor of Hindus, who conducted large scaled destruction of Hindu temples and institutions of learning despite the overwhelming academic evidence. The eminent historian R C Majumdar in the preface (Vol VII: The Mughal Empire) to his monumental ‘History and Culture of Indian people’ published in the decade of the 60s expressed his anguish at this new phenomenon, which he found ‘painful to mention, though impossible to ignore, the fact that there is a distinct and conscious effort to rewrite the whole chapter of the bigotry and intolerance of the Muslim rulers towards the Hindu religion…. several writers in India have come forward to defend Aurangzeb against Jadunath Sarkar’s charge of religious intolerance. Alas for poor Jadunath Sarkar, who must have turned in his grave if he were buried! For, after reading his History of Aurangzib, one would be tempted to ask, if the temple breaking policy of Aurangzib is a disputed point, is there a single fact in the whole recorded history of mankind which may be taken as undisputed?’ The right wing intellectual Arun Shourie in his book ‘A Secular Agenda: for saving our country, for welding it’ published in 1997 summed up the contemporary situation where ‘The litmus test of whether you are committed to secular history writing is whether you are prepared to stand up for Aurangzeb.’ Such revisionist historiography was further emboldened in the early 90s by the tacit support it received from some Western historians in the aftermath of the Ayodhya movement ostensibly for preventing the advancement of Hindu nationalist views of Indian History.

The intellectual defense of Aurangzeb in ‘secular’ revisionist historiography is constructed using the following arguments.

  • Aurangzeb was not an Islamic fundamentalist, but his actions suggesting the same including imposition of the poll tax or ‘jizya’ on Hindus were an outcome of severe financial and political crisis and not derived from any religious motivations.
  • The destruction of temples by Aurangzeb based on his court chronicles is hugely exaggerated. Temple destruction by Aurangzeb was usually prompted by political rebellions from Hindu chieftains and ‘not adequately explained by religious bigotry’. There was little temple destruction in the Deccan. Aurangzeb also provided some land grants to existing temples.
  • There is no contemporary historical evidence to suggest that Aurangzeb promoted large scale conversion of Hindus.
  • Aurangzeb had the highest percentage of Hindus in his imperial administration, which cannot be reconciled with his status of a ‘religious bigot’.

According to Sarkar, Aurangzeb during his lifetime went “ostentatiously through all the observances of his religion. He thus became an ideal character to the Muslim portions of his subjects. They believed him to be a miracle-working saint (alamgir zinda pir!) and he himself favoured this idea by his acts”. His sacred industry is exemplified in his perfect memorization of the Quran and its replication through several personally inscribed copies. He was also an expert in Islamic law and during his lifetime the compendium of law known as the Fatawa-e-Alamgiri was developed at his behest. At the beginning of his reign, muhtasaibs, or censors of public morals were appointed by him from the ulema (Clergy) in order to check practices forbidden in Islam like drinking and gambling even as singing, dancing and the fine arts were banished from his courts. However, such measures failed to curb the licentiousness amongst the nobles who were largely addicted to their good life and were disinclined towards administration. Aurangzeb even discontinued the practice of issuing the kalima on coins as he was wary of the Hindus defiling it.  Furthermore, he forbade garments of gold in the twelfth year of his reign while the length of trousers was regulated in the twenty first year. Given his progressive commitment to Islamic puritanism, it is difficult to explain the act of imposition on the humiliating jizyah or poll tax upon the Hindus (which Akbar had abolished) as an economic measure to restore the imperial treasury. Instead, the contemporary evidence of the chronicler Bhim Sen suggests that little of the money collected as Jizyah reached the imperial treasury. Hindu merchants fled from the Deccan in order to escape the levying of Jizyah and this caused ‘scarcity of grain in the camp of the imperial army, (nevertheless) Aurangzeb vetoed his general’s proposal to suspend the Jizyah in that locality’. This suggests that it was religious inclination as opposed to political expediency, which dominated Aurangzeb’s economic decisions. Contemporary Muslim chronicles also espouse his actions as an act of upholding sharia (Islamic law) with the unprecedented degradation of the Hindus. The chronicler Khafi Khan reported that Hindus protesting against the unjust taxation at the gates of the Jama Masjid were mercilessly trampled upon by Aurangzeb’s elephants. Similarly, the Maasir-I’-Alamgiri (M-I’-A) reports an excess trade duty of 5% imposed over Hindu traders in order to entice them towards Islam [1]. Despite the precarious economic condition, Aurangzeb ordered ‘the repair of mosques throughout the empire carried out at the expense of his Government’ along with appointment of religious staff for which ‘a huge amount of money was spent’ (M-I’-A). His policy of favoring his Muslim subjects also involved abolition of certain cesses.

Aurangzeb’s vain and incessant warfare in mastering the Deccan, which emptied the imperial treasury, starved the army and generated an agrarian crisis, can also be viewed as motivated by religious fanaticism. The Deccan state of Golconda was a Shia kingdom, which was effectively governed by two Brahmin administrators, Akkana and Maddana, an arrangement which Aurangzeb found intolerable. Aurangzeb in his letter to the Golconda envoy justified his invasion of the city thus, “Qutb Shah has given supreme power in his state to a kafir and made Sayyids, Sheikhs and scholars subject to that man…he fails to distinguish between Islam and infidelity…by paying one lac Hun to the kafir Shambhu, he made himself accursed before God and man.

In his war of succession against his brother Dara Shikoh, who was a learned mystic, who translated the Upanishads into Persian and was probably the most liberal Muslim of his time was denounced by Aurangzeb as an ‘infidel’. In an admonishing letter to his imprisoned father Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb justified the necessity of his actions saying “Dara usurped all power, girt his loins to promote Hinduism and destroy Islam, and acted as a king totally set you (Shah jahan) aside. If god forbid, the aim of the infidel had succeeded, it would have been hard for us to answer him (god) on the last day (of judgment” [2].

The tyranny of Aurangzeb towards his political opponents involved a predictable pattern, which denigrated the latter as ‘infidels’ and subsequently subjected them to blood curdling violence with public exhibition of their dismembered bodies in order to strike fear at the heart of his antagonists. For example, Dara Shikoh and Sambhuji Bhosle, the son of Shivaji were both decapitated and their heads put on public display for several days.

With regards to temple destruction, Aurangzeb who was himself a renowned expert in Islamic law accurately assessed the injunctions as per the Hanafi School, which ironically is the most liberal among all of the other Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Aurangzeb’s Benares Ferman in the first year of his reign thereby stated ‘no long standing temple should be demolished nor any new one allowed to be built’ [3]. The toleration extended to old temples was an uneasy compromise with the infidels, who although politically subjugated were still numerically formidable and capable of inflicting unacceptable damage in event of a combined uprising.  Moreover, the working of such a ‘tolerant’ law assured the eventual peaceful disappearance of all Hindu places of worship and with it their religion.

Interestingly, Aurangzeb’s iconoclastic fury predated his reign. Sarkar informs us that during his “viceroyalty of Gujarat, Aurangzeb had desecrated the recently build Hindu temple of Chintaman in Ahmedabad by slaughtering a cow in it and then turned the building into a mosque. He had at that time also demolished many other Hindu temples in his province (which) were probably new constructions.”

In this regard, Sarkar refers to a preserved Aurangzeb edict, which captures the true essence of his religious bigotry directed against Hindu places of worship. Aurangzeb in the early years of his reign instructed “his local officers in every town and village of Orissa from Katak to Medinipur (were) called upon to pull down all temples including even clay huts, built during the last 10-12 years, and to allow no old temple to be repaired”.

In the 12th year of his reign, Aurangzeb issued the infamous edict for general destruction of all schools and temples of the infidels. In Sarkar’s words, “his destroying hand now fell upon the temples that commanded the veneration of the Hindus all over India like the Somnath temple in Gujarat…the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Benares…the Keshav Rai temple in Mathura…

Sarkar correctly infers that the imperial orders were strictly enforced since “even in remote regions of East Bengal and Orissa, the local officers sent their men round to pull down all the temples and smash all the images within their jurisdiction”. Seal of qazis and attestation by pious Shaikhs accompanied reports of the destruction of temples sent to the emperor.

Moreover, neither “age nor experience of life softened Aurangzeb’s bigotry”. Thus, Sarkar points out the fanaticism of the old bigot in the last decade of his reign ‘inquiring whether the Hindu worship, which he had put down in Somnath early in his reign, had been revived through the slackness of the local governor’.  Aurangzeb in his letter to the governor ordered a thorough inquiry and provided clear instructions that ‘if the idolaters have again taken to the worship of the images at the place, then destroy the temple in such a way that no trace of the building may be left, and also expel them (the worshippers) from the place’. The Italian traveler Manucci reported that Aurangzeb in 1687 refrained from the destruction of the temple at Tirupati fearing popular rebellion. Nevertheless, Aurangzeb consoled his upset commander that it did not mean much since the ‘temple had no legs to walk upon’.

Another historical anecdote involving the famous Hindu temple of Jagannath at Puri affirms the lifelong commitment of Aurangzeb against Hindu places of worship. The historian Hermann Kulke narrates as to how Aurangzeb in 1692 by a new decree ordered explicitly the destruction of the Jagannath temple. “But the Raja of Khurda met the Subhadar at Cuttack and apparently it was agreed upon to arrange a pretended destruction under their joint supervision…a faked image of Jagannatha was sent to Aurangzeb and gate of the temple closed. But the daily rituals of the cult were continued by priests, who entered the temple through a secret side door. The situation however could not be concealed from Aurangzeb for a long time. He recalled the Subahdar and sent a high officer…but he was also bribed with a gift of 30,000 rupees. Till the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 A.D, the temple of Jagannatha remained officially closed [4]. There were several such instances of ‘economic toleration’ where rich Hindu merchants bribed the local governors in disregarding the emperor’s orders towards destruction of their local temples.

In such light, it is pathetic when emerging ‘secular’ scholars and budding Aurangzeb apologists like Audrey Truschke indulge in righteous indignation in their passionate defense of a “misunderstood” historical figure [5]. Truschke even has the temerity to advance the historically untenable claim that “he ordered the destruction of select Hindu temples (perhaps a few dozen, at most, over his 49-year reign)” when the actual figure based on a conservative count by the brilliant Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst is in four, if not in five figures.  Following a ‘general order’ for destruction in Aurangzeb’s reign, Elst refers to the official court chronicle documenting instances of large scale temple destruction – “Hasan Ali Khan came and said that 172 temples in the area had been destroyed… His majesty went to Chittor, and 63 temples were destroyed… Abu Tarab, appointed to destroy the idol-temples of Amber, reported that 66 temples had been razed to the ground” [6]. The Akhbharat of Aurangzeb records temple destruction of enormous proportions post 1679. For instance, the entry for January-February 1680 reads; “The grand temple in front of Maharana’s mansion at Udaipur, one of the most wonderful buildings of the age, which had cost the infidels much money was destroyed and its images broken’. Not unexpectedly, several communal riots correlated with Aurangzeb’s reign [7].

Furthermore, it is impossible for the modern historian to estimate the tens and thousands of small temples like the ‘clay huts’, which the armies of Aurangzeb uprooted across India and which were not recorded in Muslim chronicles because of their insignificant theological esteem amongst temple destroyers. An actual count of temples destroyed should also counterfactually take into account the tens of thousands of temples which could never see the light of the day due to Aurangzeb’s Islamist policies.

The American historian, Richard Eaton provided a provocative hypothesis which rationalized temple destruction in medieval India as derived from pre Islamic (Hindu) practices of the temple being an active site of ‘contestation of kingly authority’, which was uncritically appropriated by ‘secularists’ and ‘Marxist’ historians keen to separate the religious dimensions of Hindu-Muslim conflict in medieval India [8]. Nevertheless, a conscientious scrutiny of Eaton’s evidence suggests that the so called Hindu iconoclasm rarely (two instances) involved uprooting existing modes of worship and instead ‘respectfully restored’ the stolen images in their own kingdoms – ‘so the worship continued albeit in new locations’, which is a radically different proposition than one in which a temple and its images are destroyed and replaced with mosques [9]. In case of the latter, 2000 such instances have been recorded from epigraphic, archaeological and literary history by the historian Sita Ram Goel in his monumental ‘Hindu Temples: What Happened to them’.

Eaton also indulged in providing a conservative estimate of Hindu temples, which underwent destruction at the hands of Islamists in medieval India. He arrived at a count of 80 instances, which was latched upon as proof of a mere 80 temples destroyed by most ‘secularists’, including Romila Thapar, renowned ‘secular’ (? Marxist) historian and a Kluge prize winner. In an incredible misreading of the evidence, an ‘instance’ was deliberately misinterpreted as a solitary temple destroyed when in reality an ‘instance’ was a complete iconoclastic expedition such as ‘in Benares (where) the Ghurid royal army destroyed nearly one thousand temples, and raised mosques on their foundation’.

Additionally, ‘Secularist’ explanations for Aurangzeb’s destructions of Hindu temples at Banaras including the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple are patently untrue and with a blatant disregard for historical methods. One such popular ‘secularist’ interpretation, which is beyond the realms of possibility, based on hearsay and devoid of any credible primary or even secondary source claims the temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb in ‘retaliation for molestation of a princess by the temple priests’.

The chronicle of M-I’-A lucidly explains that Aurangzeb “learnt that in the provinces of Tatta, Multan and especially at Benares, the Brahman misbelievers used to teach their false books in their established schools, and that admirers and students both Hindu and Muslim, used to come from great distances to these misguided men in order to acquire this vile learning. His Majesty, eager to establish Islam, issued orders to the governors of all the provinces to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels and with the utmost urgency put down the teaching and the public practice of the religion of these misbelievers”. The dissatisfaction with such a clear explanation could only stem from the manifest need to exonerate Aurangzeb’s actions from the charge of religious motivation. Hence, Eaton, feigns ignorance as to what constitutes these ‘false books’ and finds it ‘intriguing’, a baneful assertion since by the standards of orthodox Islamic theology, all Hindu religions teachings are false and forbidden.  What is intriguing is why did Aurangzeb destroy the temples when as argued by S R Sharma “if any party was guilty of the violation of any Muslim injunction or secular Mughal law, at worst they were the teachers concerned in those reprehensible practices’’.

There is a wealth of historical evidence which substantiates Aurangzeb’s lifelong exertions in large scale conversion of unbelievers (Hindus) into Islam. This was to an extent a departure from the established practice of Islamic rule in India (with exceptions like in the time of Firuz Tughlaq). Aurangzeb inculcated a grand design of transforming important Hindu kingdoms like Marwar into ‘quiescent dependency’s’, which would facilitate religious conversion of their subjects. The death of the towering Rajput leader, Jaswant Singh in 1678 accorded such an opportunity. Aurangzeb annexed the kingdom as a Khalisa by refusing to accept the newborn infants as the kingdom’s rightful heirs, imposed Jizyah on Marwar after a hiatus of almost a century and then unleashed his iconoclastic fury on the numerous Hindu temples of the region. The ‘secular’ historian Satish Chandra indulges in certain specious legalistic defense of Aurangzeb’s intentions as being borne out of purely political motives. He relies on an obscure work – the Waqt I Ajmer to suggest that the royal queen was willing to destroy all the temples in her kingdom in exchange for recognition of her son as the kingdom’s heir without explaining how could she lacking any viable agency could have possibly elicited the support of the Rathore chieftains, who fought till the death in defense of the temples like the one at Varaha.  Instead, as the historian John F Richard concurs it was “Aurangzeb’s new emphasis on Islam as a major strand in the political relations that strained the Rajput-Mughal relationship” [10].

Now, coming to the issue of conversion, it is a popular perception that Sufis involved in conversion. Though, this is true in certain cases, generally it appears that they were not interested in converting the Hindu subaltern as such, and instead their theological ire was directed against jogis and pandits, who they regarded as their actual religious adversaries. Aurangzeb supported the practice of converting influential and respected Hindus along with their families. To instantiate, Aurangzeb ordered ‘the hacking off limbs one after the other’ of Gokula of Mathura, who had rebelled against the emperor’s bigotry. Gokula’s son and daughter were then forcibly converted to Islam. To humiliate him eternally in death, Gokula’s daughter was then married to one of Aurangzeb’s Muslim slaves. Rajputs were accorded relatively more dignity. The daughter of Raja Rup Singh, who had been converted to Islam and brought up in the imperial harem, was married to Prince Muhammad.

Occasionally, there were those who refused to convert. One famous instance is that of the Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur who was beheaded by Aurangzeb because he objected to the forcible conversion of Kashmiri Hindus and also for refusing to accept Islam. The chronicle of Khafi Khan further reports that Aurangzeb drove out the Sikh deputies from all the Gurudwaras, since they were strengthening the Sikh faith. An incident reported in the Makhiz-I-Tawarikh-I-Sikhan hints at Aurangzeb’s further confrontation with Sikhism; “In the town called Buriya in the sarkar of Sarhind, the Sikh temple was demolished by a local administrator with the imperial orders, and a mosque built in its place. The mosque in turn was demolished by the Sikhs, and Aurangzeb felt very annoyed.

Aurangzeb as a Sunni fundamentalist also abhorred those minor Islamic religious sects, which differed from his orthodox interpretation of Islam.  He persecuted the Ismailia sect whose “spiritual guide Qutb had been put to death by order of Aurangzeb early in his reign and the sect was driven into secret ways of practicing their faith. Leading men were arrested and kept in prison on charge of teaching heresy….At the same time orthodox teachers were appointed by the state to educate the children and illiterate people of the Bohras in every village and city in Sunni doctrines and practices. Their mosques had been converted to Sunni usage earlier in the reign”. The Khojas, another Islamic sect were similarly persecuted. Their leader Saiyyid Shahji was arrested on orders of Aurangzeb, but he poisoned himself in the way. His despondent followers rebelled and were ruthlessly crushed and ‘butchered’ by the might of the Mughal Empire.

Aurangzeb’s application of a discriminatory economic policy with ‘granting of rewards to converts and the offering of posts in the public service on condition of turning Muslim…Infidels were bribed into accepting the royal faith by the offer of money allowances, robes of honor, posts, liberation from prison, or succession to disputed property’ was conceived with the sole objective of converting infidels into Islam. The historian, Sri Ram Sharma narrates several such incidents including one where “A Hindu clerk killed the Muslim seducer of his sister. He was compelled to become Muslim”. An official order from 1681 proclaimed liberty for all prisoners, who embraced Islam. The French traveler Tavernier noted that “Under the cover of the fact that the rulers are Muslims, they persecute these poor idolaters to the utmost and if any of the latter becomes Muslims it is in order not to work anymore”.

Aurangzeb anticipated the modern concept of communal reservation, by progressively reserving the posts of the revenue department for Muslims, while existing Hindu head clerks (peshkars) were dismissed from service. (By one stroke of the pen, the Hindu clerks were dismissed from the public employment: MI’A). Since there were not sufficiently qualified Muslims to replace the Hindus in service, the efficiency of the administration diminished, which contributed further to the erosion of the royal treasury and the Mughal economy.

Hindus were also subject to other disabilities by diminishing their self-worth. They were prevented from travelling in Palkis with the exception of the Rajputs. (An adaptation from Islamic law where dhimmis or the “protected” people paying jizyah were not permitted to ride horses). By the time of Shah Jahan apostasy from Islam had been deemed to be met with capital punishment. Aurangzeb banned Hindu fairs in 1668 although the revenue collected through them was substantial.  Even the Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi were curtailed and “ordered to be held outside the bazaars”. Interestingly, “fireworks of all kinds were complete prohibited”.

Around 32% of Mansabdars were Hindus under Aurangzeb, a larger proportion than any other Mughal emperor and this fact has been frequently advanced by Aurangzeb’s apologists as symbolizing his innate ‘tolerance’. For instance, Truschke remonstrates against the modern ‘maligning’ of Aurangzeb, who “incorporated more Hindus into his imperial administration than any Mughal ruler before him by a fair margin”. Unfortunately, such an assertion does not redeem Aurangzeb of the charge of religious bigotry. The historian Sri Ram Sharma in his splendid monograph on the ‘Religious policy of the Mughal emperors’ after a careful scrutiny of the historical evidence concludes that “towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign there was a smaller number of Hindus occupying the mansabs of 1000 and above, than the number of similar mansabdars towards the end of Shah Jahan’s reign”. In effect, Aurangzeb “followed a threshold policy with regards to the high mansabdars. There was a general reduction in the number of Hindus holding high mansabs”. Furthermore, ‘towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign we do not find a single Hindu provincial governor’ which was a corollary of the imperial order prohibiting employment of Rajputs for the same posts. Premier Hindu nobles like Man Singh, Todar Mal of Akbar’s time or Raja Raghu Nath (finance minister) under Shah Jahan were conspicuous by their absence in Aurangzeb’s time.

What was daily life like for ordinary Hindus in Aurangzeb’s India? Again, Truschke would want us to believe that “Aurangzeb also issued numerous orders protecting Hindu temples and communities from harassment” and that we should “refrain from judging the past by the standards of the present”. Yet, Aurangzeb’s conduct when judging on Hindu-Muslim disputes only reinforces his image of an Islamist bigot. Sarkar reproduces this anecdote from contemporary records:

“The Prime Minister’s Mirza Tafakhkhur used to sally forth from his mansion in Delhi with his ruffians, plunder the shops in the bazaar, kidnap Hindu women passing through the public streets in litters or going to the river; and dishonor them; and yet there was no judge to punish them, no police to prevent such crimes. Everytime such an occurrence was brought to the Emperor’s notice by the news-letters or the official reports, he referred it to the Prime Minister and did nothing more. At last after a Hindu artilleryman’s wife had been forcibly abducted and his comrades threatened to mutiny, Aurangzeb merely prevented the licentious youth from coming out of their mansion”.

The reliance on allegedly barbaric medieval standards to exonerate Aurangzeb will do us no good either. Modern Islamists like those of the Taliban and Daesh (ISIS) emerged in the modern world, some of their adherents within the heart of Western civilization. In contrast, ideas of tolerance, respect and freedom of religion were the established norm in Ancient India. Even in the medieval age, the Hindu king Shivaji, who was the arch rival of Aurangzeb is known to have returned captured Muslim women and copies of the Quran unmolested, which earned him appreciation from his otherwise virulent critics like Khafi Khan.

Aurangzeb himself recognized that his “long reign of nearly half a century had been a colossal failure”. The consequences of his endless war in the Deccan in Sarkar’s fine assessment “exhausted his treasury, the Government turned bankrupt, the soldiers starving from arrears of pay mutinied… Mughal peace – the sole justification for Mughal rule no longer existed in India at the time of Aurangzeb”.  Aurangzeb despite the vast resources in his command showed little interest in improving the material conditions of the people. In his last letter to his son Azam, he candidly confessed that he had “not done any true government of the realm or cherishing of the peasantry”.

Like his predecessors, there were no indigenous innovations in science and technology. Despite a stream of foreign visitors to his kingdom including European traders, Aurangzeb limited to his regressive worldview showed little inclination for Western innovations, including the printing press. Until the end his overwhelming concern was for his co-religionists as testified in his letter to his son Kam Baksh, where he warned his son that “…Musalmans may not be slain, lest punishment should descend on me”.

The colonial historian Vincent Smith in his classic ‘Oxford History of India’ (p. 418) argues that ‘Aurangzeb was far too intelligent to be blind to the political consequences of his actions. He deliberately threw away the confidence and support of the rajas in order to carry out his religious policy, thinking the spiritual gain to outweigh the material loss’. Jadunath Sarkar found this theory of personal idiosyncrasy inadequate for explaining the decline of the Mughal empire within a grand narrative and considered the problematic nature of Islamic theocracy ‘Under (which), there can be only faith, one people and one all overriding authority. The state is a religious trust, administered solely by the faithful, action in obedience to the commander of the faithful, who was in theory, and very often in practice too, the supreme general of the army of militant Islam’. For Sarkar, this dichotomy of the medieval Muslim monarch in a Hindu dominated land, both revered as ‘saint’ and rejected as ‘tyrant’ stem from such a fundamental supremacist interpretation of political authority.

Modern Marxist and ‘secular’ historians, who explain Hindu temple iconoclasm by Islamic invaders and/or rulers as economic and politically mediated efforts at controlling uprisings tend to be too clever by half. The nonconformist historian, Meenakshi Jain makes the critical observation that “be it financing expansionist programmes, consolidating political authority, punishing formerly loyal Hindu princes, Muslim rulers without exception responded with one standard solution — temple destruction” [11].  For Marxism, which believes in ‘religion as the opium of the masses’ there are no methodological tools available to distinguish and identify the hidden economic, political or religious rationales underpinning obvious religious bigotry.

It becomes apparent that this religious-political dichotomy is a mere smokescreen to obscure the facts relating to religious dimensions of Hindu persecution by Islamists in medieval India especially since Islam does not afford this easy distinction between religion and politics. Maulana Azad, the great scholar of Islam and prominent nationalist in the Congress party explained that “We (Muslims) have learned even our political thoughts from religion. They are not just coloured by religion. They are born of religion. How can we separate them from religion? In our faith, every thought which comes from any teaching other than the Quran is clearly kuft. Politics is included in this” [12].

Ultimately, irrespective of the degree of puritanism informing Aurangzeb’s actions, one cannot overlook the consequences of his actions, which destroyed every prospect of Hindu Muslim reconciliation and the development of a genuine composite culture built on mutual trust and respect, something which was not an impossibility by the end of Akbar’s reign. The clash fueled by fundamentalist ideologies in the modern world is precisely the reason why an honest assessment of Aurangzeb should be a necessary inclusion in Indian history textbooks and why we need heightened vigilance against ideologies, which not only create schisms between humankind but further dehumanizes the ‘other’ for pursuing ‘false’ religious practices while legitimizes brutal violence on them for both, their lack of ‘reason’ and willful participation in acts of ‘divine transgression’.


* Other references in quotes are from Jadunath Sarkar’s ‘History of Aurangzeb’

  1. ‘Massir-i-‘Alamgiri; Introduction by Jadunath Sarkar. ‘After his death (in 1707), his last secretary and favourite disciple in State policy and religiosity, I’nayetullah Khan Kashmiri, urged Saqi Musta’d Khan to complete the history of such a model  sovereign. In order to help him in this work, the State archives were thrown open to him and he made extracts of the necessary materials to be used in his book, which was completed in 1710 and entitled Maasir-i-‘Alamgiri’.
  2. Cited by Abraham Eraly in Last Spring: The life and times of the great Mughals
  3. Shah Jehan, the mild Islamic fundamentalist and father of Aurangzeb destroyed over sixty temples in Benares based on a similar application of the law. (The Mughal Empire, History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume VII)
  4. Hermann Kulke, Jagannatha under Muslim Rule in Kings and Cults, State formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia, (Manohar, 1993), p.46
  5. Audrey Truschkey, The Wire, 9.1.2016
  6. Koenraad Elst, Negationism in India, Chapter 2, Voice of India
  7. C A Bayly, the Pre History of communalism in India. (Bayly is reluctant to attribute the riots to Aurangzeb’s religious policy)
  8. Richard Eaton, Temple desecration and Indo-Muslim states, Essays on Islam and Indian History, Oxford University Press
  9. Koenraad Elst, Ayodhya: the case against the temple, Chapter 6, Voice of India
  10. John F Richards, The New Cambridge History of Islam, Cambridge University Press
  11. Meenakshi Jain: Sanitizing temple destruction
  12. Ian Henderson Douglas, Abul Kalam Azad: An intellectual and Religious Biography, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 158

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