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NON-FICTION: CONTEXTUALISING THE LAST GREAT MUGHAL

September 24, 2017
The Red Fort in Delhi, built by the Mughal emperors, is the site of the Indian premier’s annual independence day address to the nation, a practice in place since 1947 | Reuters
The Red Fort in Delhi, built by the Mughal emperors, is the site of the Indian premier’s annual independence day address to the nation, a practice in place since 1947 | Reuters

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. And yet we spurn L.P. Hartley’s advice and yield to the temptation to judge historical figures and events with 21st century notions. Then there is the more sinister collective amnesia brought on by a systematic, state-sponsored agenda of sweeping the truth under the rug. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and even liberal democracies have been complicit in such propagandas in the past. In present times, India is following the sad example of a self-induced amnesia about its own glorious past.

It takes a leap of imagination to reduce the Mughals to merely ‘invaders’ as Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh recently did. It’s an offence to a nation’s own proud lineage if traces of the mighty Mughals are wiped away from history textbooks because of religious prejudice. Above all, it’s a travesty of justice if a statue reportedly costing $530 million is to be erected of the Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji, whom Emperor Aurangzeb dismissed as a ‘mountain rat’, while the Mughal king himself rests in an obscure grave in India.

In the politically charged climate of present-day India, the quotidian task of telling history with the integrity and honesty that the discipline deserves has become an act of extraordinary defiance. The struggle is nowhere more apparent than with the storm of controversy generated by the recent book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke. On any given day one could see her battling the troll brigades on her Twitter account. To her credit, she responds in a calm, objective manner to all the vitriol directed towards her. For better or worse, her biography of Aurangzeb has struck a deep chord with the audiences.

Far from a hagiography, an American historian’s latest book on Emperor Aurangzeb explodes widely held myths about him built up both by his detractors and his admirers

Aurangzeb, even among the Mughals, stands out as the most polemical of the lot. He is imagined by his detractors as the demon Kumbhakarna from Ramayana, reducing temples to rubble wherever he went. On the other hand, sympathisers lionise him as the pious Mughal king who best exemplified Islamic principles in the grandest dynasty India has ever seen. But the thing about the truth is, it’s never simple and has an annoying tendency to always fall between extremes. Truschke’s book is a laudable attempt to rehabilitate a much misunderstood monarch and present him in light of the unvarnished facts of his life and reign.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth is a short book well under 200 pages. The first section comprises his brutal ascension to the Peacock Throne. His burning ambitions and lust for power come in full view by way of the horrific manner in which he eliminated Dara Shikoh — his eldest brother and Shah Jahan’s heir apparent — as well his remaining brothers. The newly crowned king would soon be dragged into the many rebellions festering across the Sultanate like open wounds.

Whether it was the Sikhs, the Rajputs, the Yusufzai Pathans or the Maratha confederacy in the south, the violent manner in which all these insurrections were crushed would have far-reaching repercussions in the future. In fact, the reverberations are felt to this present day. The execution of Tegh Bahadur, ninth Guru of the Sikhs, would poison Muslim-Sikh relations for centuries onwards and play no small part in the carnage of the Punjab riots during Partition. But, as Truschke contends, all of these conflicts had a political dimension first and foremost rather than a religious or ethnic one. The Yusufzai Pathans were Aurangzeb’s fellow Muslims, yet he showed no restraint in dealing with them. Many commanders and sepoys of Aurangzeb’s legions in these trying times were Hindus. She argues that reducing these conflicts solely as rooted in religion doesn’t tell the whole story.

The next section deals with an explanation of the many charges levelled against Aurangzeb that portray him as a religious fanatic. The author does not absolve him of all responsibility; rather, she places those unfortunate events in their proper historical context.

To begin with, Truschke puts paid to the false claim that Aurangzeb persecuted the non-Muslims of his empire when a third of his bureaucracy was Hindu. Some of his most important officials — his trusted diwan (the chief finance minister of the empire) and dependable generals such as the Rajput Jai Singh whom he sent to counter the menace of Shivaji — were Hindus. His devotion to Hira Bai, a non-Muslim woman he fell in love with, demands a separate book in itself. Even as he reimposed the jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects, the Maratha and Rajput aristocracy in the Mughal ranks and the Brahmin clergy were exempt from it. There are numerous other instances where his portrayal as a Muslim zealot is challenged in light of archival evidence.

Even the temples that were demolished — a dozen or so among the many thousands left standing — were done so on superstitious pretexts or on political grounds rather than jihad on Aurangzeb’s part. However, new temple construction was discouraged during his reign. Truschke also slips in the inconvenient fact that many Hindu kings also destroyed the temples of their adversaries in times of conflict.

The last section of the book details the disastrous campaigns of conquest in the Deccan that consumed the later years of Aurangzeb’s rule. Trading the opulence of the darbar for battle tents in the Deccani battlefields, we witness an ageing warrior-monarch charge forth in blind pursuit of land and glory. He did eventually conquer Bijapur and Golconda and pacified the Marathas temporarily, but at a terrible cost. All those years of bitter conflict rattled the mansabdaari system — the aristocratic pecking order of the Mughals — and their confidence in the Sultanate.

The only drawback to this otherwise well-written and accessible book is its rather concise length. The compelling narrative and the many conflicting aspects might make the reader want to learn more about Aurangzeb’s enigmatic personality. The Maratha rebellion led by his commander Shivaji and the Deccan campaigns, both of which were definitive conflicts of his reign, are glossed over rather than detailed in the manner they merit. Perhaps for a more thorough account of the Mughal dynasty the book would be best paired with Abraham Eraly’s Emperors Of The Peacock Throne — another classic in Mughal history.

By no means is this book a hagiography. Aurangzeb is not beatified as the unrecognised saint some paint him to be. Rather, he is humanised, taking into account the many failings that come with being human. Instead of exonerating him of all his sins — real or perceived — the prime takeaway lesson that can be gleaned here is that the truth is never simple. Individuals that altered the course of history could never fit neatly in sanitised categories of right or wrong and our present day ‘isms’. That is why a more nuanced understanding of history is required. Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth is a bold attempt in doing just that.

Try as revisionists might to remove all traces of the mighty Mughals, when India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, ascends the steps of the Red Fort — a structure made by Shah Jahan and later augmented by Aurangzeb — for his independence day address, one can take heart in the adage that history doesn’t need defenders; history is its own revenge.

The reviewer has worked as a producer in news media and an analyst in the NGO sector

Aurangzeb: The Man
and the Myth
By Audrey Truschke
Oxford University
Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405558
154pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2017