Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Aurangzeb and his contribution to India

He was a handsome man!
There has been a lot of talk over a plan to change the name of Aurangzeb road to Abdul Kalam Road. To many this is another example of Indian history being rewritten by rightists.

Sometimes history needs to be rewritten. We need the honesty and the courage to look back in time through our current lenses and decide if the nation needs to honor someone anymore. And what do we see when we look back?

Aurangzeb was the sixth Mogul emperor in Hindustan, the land beyond the Indus as we have been characterized through history. He was the third son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Begum Mumtaz Mahal (of Taj Mahal fame). He was personable and brave. The education of a Mughal prince of the first blood could not have been complete without a good understanding of the rules of poetry, of music, of art and calligraphy.  Aurangzeb moreover was a seasoned general, a good leader of his men and a moral man.

He was brave (facing a must elephant as a teenager).
And so were they all. That was part of the Mughal allure. This dynasty produced six men who were not just competent rulers managing to keep a diverse country together – that is what a dynasty does – it consistently produced men who were personally talented, brave, intelligent and refined.

And so Aurangzeb was not alone in having “princely” traits. He had tough competition from his three full-brothers – Dara Shukoh and Shah Shuja who were older than him, and Murad Bakhsh who was the baby of the family. They were all courageous, intelligent, talented and good-looking, extremely well educated and bred to be Kings. Shuja and Murad were reputed to be cleverer generals, while the crown prince Dara was the liberal intellectual. Aurangzeb for his part brought in a certain resoluteness. And they all jostled for power.

By anointing his oldest son Dara the heir apparent, Shah Jahan perhaps provided a focal point for the ambitions of his three other sons, who revolted. When the dust settled, Shah Jahan and Murad were in prison, Shuja had been driven into exile and Dara had been captured. The man who had declared all along that kingship was not his aim, Aurangzeb or “hazrat ji” as he was called by his brothers-in-arms, had triumphed.

But so what if Aurangzeb had been treacherous — overthrowing his father and betraying at least one brother? Regular history stuff, we could say. ‘Price of power’, ‘win some, lose some,’ ‘live by the sword’ and all that. But I am not dealing in aphorisms here, I am not here to say, ‘Look at this man, he killed his brother!’ Indeed worse things have gone on in this world. Instead let me point to how Aurangzeb rationalized his actions. You see Aurangzeb was a moral man — deposing his father and eliminating his brothers required carefully thought out explanations.

He had not coveted power, he claimed. Whatever he did he had done for the righteous cause. Let us hear in his words, what that cause was:

(Extract from Aurangzeb’s Letter 1 to Shah Jahan from Adab e Alamgiri)

As, during the extreme illness of your majesty, the reins of power had dropped from your hands, and the eldest prince, who had not even the resemblance of a mussulmaun, having obtained arbitrary rule and authority, exercised unlimited controul, and revived the customs of infidelity and atheism throughout the empire; thinking it lawful, politic, and just to overthrow his designs, I advanced to these parts. My first battle was with wicked infidels, who had destroyed mosques, and erected on their sites temples to their idols. The second engage­ment was against the evil-acting atheists; and, as my intention was virtuous, in each, with an inferior force, I became successful, and preserved without a wound.”

And so a charge of apostasy was brought against Dara and he was executed.

Prince Dara was inclined towards Sufism and his religious propensities and obvious intellectualism might have alienated him in court but he had been as generous and liberal a prince as could be wished for, and greatly loved by the people. They rioted when they saw him in chains and they surely realised when events panned out as they did, that they had probably written his death warrant by showing their support for him.

In a land where Akbar had stated that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion’, the first prince of the land, an intellectual and an aesthete, a man popular by all accounts was put to death for heresy. Imagine what this could do to the psyche of a nation. When events play out on the public stage, who wins and who loses becomes important. Aurangzeb came to power in outrageous fashion like King Richard III of England. Unlike Richard III he got away with it, but I cannot believe he did not damage India when he did.

Aurangzeb ordered Dara’s headless body to be paraded through the bazaars. I suppose people used apathy to cope with the depression that undoubtedly loomed over them. These are the kind of things that can bring a country down, sway it from the free and joyous path of curious inquiry and set it on a self serving, disengaged course. You distance yourself from the power centre because you do not believe you can influence it, and you understand that it does not care for you.

As Abraham Eraly, the noted historian says, “Dara’s promise was of a humane progressive future. When he was executed what was involved was not just the death of a prince but the death of a future.”

Having become King, Aurangzeb used the state machinery to decimate his opponents. A charge of murder was made against Prince Murad and the Kazi was instructed that the  Shariah law of blood for blood should be enforced. Murad refused to plead his cause— it was lost already — and he was executed.

And it did not stop there. Aurangzeb had come to power on a religious agenda, and he strove to prove all his life that he was the upholder of the faith. He gradually adopted an ascetic lifestyle, shunned ostentation, and moved away from proscribed matters. He disdained Paan chewing, disapproved of drinking and advised women not to wear tight trousers like men. Which was a departure from the tone set by his liberal ancestors, but he also differed from his forbears in the matter of managing his Hindu subjects. He reimposed Jizya, the tax on non Muslims in the face of almost universal opposition from his people and against the specific advice of his ministers. This was not realpolitick or statecraft but the result of  Aurangzeb’s single minded attachment to his agenda. Of course he destroyed temples too. Only unlike his predecessors he did this in a systematic manner, as an instrument of state policy. Thousands of frankly incendiary remarks and actions are directly attributed to him and the reason I will not sit and quote from his letters or give instances of his actions is because I do not want to set up a Hindu vs. Moslem dialogue. There are enough sites which do so but if you are a student of history look no further than persian.packhum.org. Check out Akham I Alamgiri and the Adab E Alamgiri.

Aurangzeb was a bigot, who applied his bigotry as state policy. He was also soft spoken and gentle, thoughtful in many ways and humble but that is not the point. Aurangzeb felt no kinship with the majority of his people and he tried his hardest to radicalise his country. Enough said. Regarding some of the other points made by his apologists:

  • That the Marathas plundered Bengal in 1740 – Agreed. Does that make Aurangzeb a great King?

  • That Aurangzeb destroyed less temples than other Mughal rulers. I could not find any credible references for this assertion and the even more outre one that he had actually built temples in Bengal. Aurangzeb followed a rigorous policy of allowing old structures to stand but not allow any new temples to come up. Aurangzeb’s letters suggest a sort of temple thirst that I have not seen in Akbar or Jahangir but who knows.

  • That music flourished in his time. Yes music flourished but that was despite, not because of Aurangzeb. Patronage for the arts gradually shifted to the provinces – to Oudh Kangra Mysore and Hyderabad, away from the Mughal capital and this shift in focus created additional faultlines along which the empire imploded.

  • That Aurangzeb employed more Hindus than other Mughal Kings. Well he should have, as the empire was more entrenched in India by his time. Besides, sources of Uzbeg and Iranian talent had dried up because of Shah Jahan’s ill advised war in the Balkh. Aurangzeb was unable to regain Kandahar and feared an Iranian invasion. His land hunger turned inwards  and he expanded his empire within the subcontinent – of course he employed more Hindus – he could follow no other course. But even in this matter it is his attitude which is important. He chafed in the circumstances and managed to offend most Hindu groups, in particular the Rajputs like in the case of the famous Ajit Singh-Durgadas incident. As the Rathods and the Sisodias became disaffected, his reliance on the Marathas increased which came with its own set of problems. The following should give you an insight into his mind,

“To employ a Hindu when you can a Musalman is a sin.” (Aurangzeb in a letter to his son)

“Do not allow the despicable infidels to repair their old temples”

Daily News of 11/1/1705 “The Emperor…ordered…to demolish the temple of Pandharpur, and to take the butchers of the camp there and slaughter cows in the temple…It was done.”

In 1671 Aurangzeb ordered that revenue officers of crown lands could only be Muslims. Because he was unable to fill the positions, he modified the rules to allow half of them to be Hindu.

I cite these instances not to demonise Aurangzeb as partisan - he was a product of his beliefs and of a time where his beliefs had legitimacy. I am trying to counter a rather silly point made by his apologists - that he employed more Hindus than his predecessors. I am merely pointing out that Aurangzeb was not very proud of having a record number of Hindus in his employment. But let us get back to the other arguments on his behalf:

  • That Aurangzeb was Hindi. Whatever. When he came to power, his family had been in India for more than hundred years, and he had a rightful claim to Hindidom. But he did not stake that right. To be Hindi was to think of all Hindustan as one’s own – regardless of sect. It was not the Indian nation Aurangzeb thought of – like Akbar did when he revoked Jizya, Jahangir does when he writes with such interest and curiosity of Hindu customs. Aurangzeb focused on a narrow Islamic-centric definition of what a Sultan should be, which left him little scope to be “Hindi”.

  • That the jizya was not discriminatory for its time. Nonsense. It was reinstated one hundred years after it had been abolished by Akbar. The highest of Mughal amirs opposed Aurangzeb on this matter. Soon after the decree there was an earthquake and the amirs who felt it was an omen, again entreated with Aurangzeb. So did Jahanara, his own sister. From time to time there were requests from his officers for exemptions, requests that were routinely rejected by the emperor himself.

  • That Brahmins were exempt from jizya. No they were not, the other Hindu castes volunteered to pay jizya for them when Aurangzeb refused to accede to their demand for exemption!

  • That the zakat tax on Moslems makes jizya alright. I find the whole argument infuriating. It is like making non Jains go veggie during Paryushan.

  • That he was alright for his time. For that time? What are we talking about here? This was fifty years before the Industrial revolution started in earnest and a good four hundred years after the European Renaissance, before the emergence of Nation states in Europe. Aurangzeb was situated at an admirable time where he could have led India forward. Instead of a unifying figure, he turned out to be one of the most divisive sovereigns to have sat on the throne at Delhi.

  • That caste Hindus committed atrocities too. Agreed. Is that the only defence for Aurangzeb - that the Hindus deserved it?

Many of my friends do not think about Aurangzeb at all but about the principle of it… They say, enough already, let us move on. Why change Poona to Pune and Madras to Chennai, why say Mumbai when Bombay falls easier from my lips, they ask. It is sometimes wiser to let sleeping dogs lie. I should not bring up Khilji’s conquest of Gujarat, or the execution of the Mughal princes at the Khooni Darwarza. Then again, if something long buried has been raked up, it is probably time for an inquest, to set matters right as we see it, here, now.

Some References

The Great Mughals by Abraham Eraly
Alberuni’s India
Akbar Namah – Abul Fazal
Muntaḫab al-tavārīḫ by Badayuni
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Websites that I use

Wikipedia, www.persian.packhum.org


Sam said...

Really interesting read! I completely agree with the point you're trying to make. People need intellectual honesty to confront these demons from the past and set things right. I think in this day and age , intellectuals are more worried about being politically correct rather than being honest. Let's all face it - Aurangzeb was a despot and it's time we accepted what he was and stopped glorifying him. A secular country like India doesn't need a road named after a fanatic.

K said...

Hi Sam - thank you for your comments. Something wrong with my blog settings - I do not get updated when I get a comment. Should Check on that.
Normally I like to let arguments pass me by but I was asked by a friend to read a pro Aurangzeb article - she was very excited and I was like - I know what it will say, don't want to go there. And she sort of implied I was either being lazy or I was unsure of my position. So I put on my specs and read and wrote my rebuttal.
Agree with what you have said. They were all despots and in that sense products of their time, but Aurangzeb broke the mold for bigotry and he need not be honored for that I believe.