By Fahad Hashmi
Title: Aurangzeb: The Man And the Myth
Author: Audrey Truschke
Publisher: Penguin/Viking, 2017
Of all the Mughal kings, from Ẓahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur to Bahadur Shah II, the life of Aurangzeb appears to be ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. A debate on this Mughal king often blurs the line between truth and fiction. As a result, one never gets a clear overall picture. But there is a key to unravelling the enigma that is Aurangzeb. And that key is Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth. The book has stirred people’s sensibilities in India and abroad.
The discourse that keeps moving in the public sphere on Mughal history informs a general reader that people have their own heroes as well as anti-heroes. While one eulogises a hero, the anti-hero lurks in the shadows and surreptitiously makes it to the scene. In fact, this dipole of ‘hero-anti-hero’ is an important constitutive element of binarism, which compels and pushes a person to box herself/himself in either of the two compartments. Mughal history has got two axes, that is, Akbar and his great grandson Aurangzeb who have occupied people’s imagination. A specific pattern that emerges out of the debates on Mughal rulers is that people who admire Akbar are putatively antagonistic towards his great grandson. This gets reversed in another constituency, which hails Aurangzeb as the hero and criticises the public policies and personal choices of Akbar. On several occasions, this duo of ‘hero-villain’ gets replaced by another pair. Babar substitutes Aurangzeb, while Dara Shukoh gets replaced by the third Mughal king, Akbar.
Proponents of Hindu supremacy, who have entrenched themselves in opposition to almost everything Muslim in India, have regularly been trying to construct militant masculinity with a view to subduing Muslims. They press into service selective, distorted, and exaggerated slices of history in order to achieve this goal. The narrativization of Mughal history in terms of conquest, which is of course a colonial legacy, makes Babar and Aurangzeb invaders, and thus enemies of Hindu. The perceived ‘wrongs’ of medieval history is being ‘corrected’ by desecrating and destroying mosques and shrines, killing Muslims, raping women, torching houses, and scores of other heinous crimes in the twenty-first century. Faith-based understanding and interpretation of history helps the advocates of Hindutva to advance their political agenda and ‘othering’ of the Indian Muslims.
In other constituency, Aurangzeb is much appreciated and respected for his piety, implementing jizya, stamping out elements of Hindu trappings from Mughal tradition, and a host of other things. And the man’s legacies are used to foster a false sense of triumphalism as well as bravado. Therefore, his name always bears Rahmatullah Aleh (May God bestow his mercy), which hardly gets used with the names of other Mughal kings. One finds hagiographies, where this Mughal king is held in high regard for his varied works. Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, a compilation of Islamic law which was commissioned and supervised by Aurangzeb, is perceived as an important contribution to Sunni Islam. In a nutshell, puritan movements within the Muslim community living on the Indian subcontinent have sanitised Aurangzeb and heightened his appearance.
Besides other stalwarts, Muhammad Iqbal, the Poet of the East, has used a binary where Akbar and Dara have been pitted against Aurangzeb. In his Hikayat-e-Sher-O-Shehanshah Alamgeer,1 which is a part of Rumuz-e-Bekhudi, the poet has praised him in these words:
He the last arrow to our quiver left
In the affray of Faith with Unbelief
In the same poem, a bit further, Iqbal says:
When that the impious seed of heresy,
By Akbar nourished, sprang and sprouted fresh
In Dara’s soul, the candle of the heart
Was dimmed in every breast, no more secure
Against corruption our Community
Continued; then God chose from India
That humble-minded warrior, Alamgir,
Religion to revive, faith to renew.
The poet has elevated the emperor to the height of Abraham, the common patriarch of the Semitic religions, saying:
An Abraham in India’s idol-house
Sir Jadunath Sarkar, a leading historian of twentieth century, who has penned tomes on Aurangzeb, too, has indicted him for his religiosity. Even for Pandit Nehru, the Mughal king was ‘a bigot and an austere puritan’. Truschke cites from Nehru’s The Discovery of India:
The last of the so-called ‘Grand Mughals,’ Aurangzeb, tried to put back the clock, and in this attempt stopped it and broke it up.
The charge-sheet against Aurangzeb is a long one. People have tirelessly maligned him for killing Hindus, demolishing Temples, imposing jizya, and fratricide − so much so that all these accusations have become part of ‘common sense’.
The book under review is an effort to think through and move beyond tired tropes and reductive reading of the last great Mughal king. Truschke has steered clear of the binarism that undergirds a particular understanding of Mughal history. Moreover, there is no love-hate relationship with Aurangzeb in her scholarship. Here is an effort to read the king on its own terms by which the author means the man as “a product of his age and an emperor who shaped the times in which he lived” (p. 6).
One comes to learn that there was no primogeniture in Mughal dynasty. The path to political power was open to all male family members. Thus, the ensuing scramble for political power and sibling rivalry was not unusual. It was a central Asian feature of kingdoms. Seeing from this vantage point, the fratricide committed by Aurangzeb doesn’t seem to be an exception at the time. Before him, Jehangir got his brother Danyal killed. Shah Jahan had his two full brothers, two cousins, and two nephews murdered.
The particular aim of putting the two brothers in the same breath is often meant for bringing forth a particular version of Aurangzeb – orthodox, bigot and puritan who ordered the execution of Dara – syncretist, cosmopolitan, and tolerant. According to Truschke, this fraternal rivalry was present among Aurangzeb’s full-brothers since childhood. Shah Jahan admired Dara a lot, and all brothers were suspicious of their elder brother’s intent of capturing the throne. Dara was ‘a wolf, thirsty for the blood of his brothers’, recounts a Persian account (p. 31). And he would have done the same had he been ruling the roost. On being asked for an answer about the reversal of roles by the emperor after being caught up, the author writes, ‘Dara sneered that he would have Aurangzeb’s body quartered and displayed on Delhi’s four main gates’ (p. 41). Aurangzeb had outsmarted and outmanoeuvred all of them.
There are aspects of Aurangzeb that never make a mention in the public. For instance, we never come across this Mughal king’s ‘whirlwind romance’ with Hirabai Zainabadi at his aunt’s house in Burhanpur. Keeping aside the animosity with the elder brother, the king got his daughter married to Sipihr Shukoh, Dara’s youngest son, as well as his son Prince Akbar to the daughter of Sulayman Shukoh, Dara’s elder son. He also paid the debt that Murad owed to Shanti Das, a Jain merchant.
When it came to crushing rebellion as well as rooting out corruption, however, Aurangzeb’s anger knew no bounds. On such occasions there was no space for reaching a compromise even with Mughal princes, let alone Marathas, Rajputs, and others. When Prince Akbar, Aurangzeb’s son, declared himself the emperor in 1681, he was chased out of India; he had to take shelter in Iran. The book makes it very clear that the king was used to taking recourse to brutal violence as and when needed.
The particular section that enthusiastically praises Aurangzeb never mentions that the chief qazi of the Mughal Empire had denied endorsing his ascension to power. Even the sharif of Mecca didn’t recognise him ‘the proper ruler of Hindustan’ and refused to accept gifts from him for years. Moreover, the Safavid king mocked him for not being alam-giri (‘seizure of the world’) rather pidar-giri (‘someone who has seized his father’). It was fine for Mughal brothers to fight for the throne, however, Truschke writes, ‘overthrowing one’s reigning father was considered abhorrent’. Shaykh al-Islam who was a qazi had also refused to approve the emperor’s attack on Bijapur and Golconda, the two Islamic kingdoms. This Mughal king had also ordered a ban on some of Ahmad Sirhindi’s religious tracts, despite the fact that Sirhindi was considered a mujaddid (one who worked for the revival of religious thoughts). The king is also criticised and in some quarters praised for banning music; however, there’s no truth to the accusation. Citing Katherine Schofield, Truschke writes, ‘authors produced more Indo-Persian treatises on music during Aurangzeb’s rule than in the prior 500 years of Indian history’ (p. 56).
The whole business of attaching Indian Muslims to the Mughals is problematic. Still, the question that seeks an answer is: Why do Muslims get tied to Babar and Aurangzeb, not Akbar and Dara Shukoh? The right-wing politics always requires an enemy. And if there is none, it invents one in order to thrive.
The presence of enemies in any society has its own function. An enemy, in the word of Umberto Eco, helps in providing ‘an obstacle against which it measure its values, devise plans to subdue it, and demonstrate its worth’.
The book would certainly make an important read for scholars, students and history buffs who are receptive to new insights and ‘fresh narratives’.
1. The author has also mentioned the poem. The translation is A.J. Arberry’s.
Fahad Hashmi holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and on other issues of political and social concerns.
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