Prince Aurangzeb, 1653-1655, gouache with gold on paper. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
The great king Aurangzeb is among the most hated men in Indian history. A historian claims he’s been unjustly demonised
Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire, is the most hated king in Indian history. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, the last great imperial power in India before British colonialism. According to many, he destroyed India politically, socially and culturally.
Aurangzeb’s list of alleged crimes is long and grave. He is charged with fighting protracted, pointless wars in central and southern India and thereby fatally weakening the Mughal state. He is envisioned as a cruel despot who brutally murdered enemies, including his own brothers. He is regarded as a cultural dolt, uninterested in the extraordinary arts of south Asia, even hostile to them.
Above all, many modern Indians see Aurangzeb as a brutal oppressor of Hindus. He was a pious Muslim, and it is widely believed that he spent his long reign, nearly half a century, rampaging against Hindus and Hinduism. The popular story goes that Aurangzeb tried to convert all Hindus to Islam, and when that project failed he supposedly slaughtered millions of Hindus. People claim that Aurangzeb systematically destroyed Hindu cultural institutions, levelling thousands of Hindu temples. Some have even said that the reason why north India lacks the tall, elaborate temples that one finds in south India is because Aurangzeb smashed them all to pieces.
In 2015, a successful petition to rename Aurangzeb Road in Delhi summarised this despised ruler as ‘one of the most tyrannical tormentor perpetrator of Intolerant Inhuman Barbaric crimes in India [sic]’. However, these views of Aurangzeb owe more to myth than reality. Worse, the modern attacks on Aurangzeb are themselves rooted in dark motives.
Over the centuries, many groups have found Aurangzeb a convenient villain, for reasons more to do with their agendas than with Aurangzeb’s reign. The British, for example, disseminated great calumnies against him, as well as against other premodern Indian Muslim kings, because a barbaric Aurangzeb made British colonial rule look civilised by comparison. The British fostered their portrayal of Aurangzeb as a cartoonish bigot with misleading scholarly work, including selective and sometimes blatantly wrong translations of Mughal histories designed to highlight Aurangzeb’s alleged loathing for Hindus.
British colonialism ended in India 70 years ago, but their misrepresentations of the Mughals and other Indo-Muslim rulers have had a long and poisonous afterlife. In India, many still cite biased colonial-era British translations of Mughal texts as evidence of supposed Muslim wrongdoings. At least some of this reliance on questionable scholarship and translations is relatively innocent, but not all of it. Several notable groups in independent India have found maligning Aurangzeb to be useful for other, more sinister purposes, especially attempts to discredit modern Indian Muslims.
Today, Hindu nationalist groups lead the charge in creating a popular image of ‘Aurangzeb the bigot’. For Hindu nationalists, Muslims are a threat to India’s alleged identity as a fundamentally Hindu nation. Through most of the 20th century, Hindu nationalism was not a mainstream view. Especially after a Hindu nationalist assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, India’s beloved independence leader, in 1948, many Indians recoiled from the idea that India was or should be a Hindu nation. Instead, they embraced a view of India as a secular state, and a pluralistic one with equal room for followers of all religions. But, in the past decade, Hindu nationalism has surged in popularity, and in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu Right-wing political party, swept to power. More recently, in March of 2017, the BJP dominated legislative elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
Despite its recent popularity, Hindu nationalism is an ideology with little, if any, grounding in Indian history. For most of its past, India was neither Hindu nor a nation, in the sense that Hindu nationalists typically use these terms. Mughal rule, a period in which a Muslim minority ruled over a Hindu majority in South Asia, embarrasses Hindu nationalists. If, as Hindu nationalists aver, India has long been a Hindu nation, why was it for a long time ruled by Muslims? Even more troubling to the claims of Hindu nationalism, why was Mughal India characterised by fruitful Hindu-Muslim relations in many areas, including state administration, literature, painting, music, and even religion and spirituality? Instead of admitting the complexity of the past, Hindu nationalists insist that religious oppression must have been the signature trait of Mughal rule. Aurangzeb’s reign in particular has become a focal point for this distortion…