The truth about Aurangzeb
Author: Francois Gautier
Date: February 16, 2007
Fact, the Trust which I head, is holding an exhibition on ‘Aurangzeb as he was according to Mughal documents’, from February 16 to 20 at New Delhi’s Habitat Center, the Palm Court Gallery, from 10 am to 9 pm.
Why an exhibition on Aurangzeb, some may ask. Firstly, I have been a close student of Indian history, and one of its most controversial figures has been Aurangzeb (1658-1707). It is true that under him the Mughal empire reached its zenith, but Aurangzeb was also a very cruel ruler some might even say monstrous.
What are the facts? Aurangzeb did not just build an isolated mosque on a destroyed temple, he ordered all temples destroyed, among them the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the most sacred places of Hinduism, and had mosques built on a number of cleared temple sites. Other Hindu sacred places within his reach equally suffered destruction, with mosques built on them. A few examples: Krishna’s birth temple in Mathura; the rebuilt Somnath temple on the coast of Gujarat; the Vishnu temple replaced with the Alamgir mosque now overlooking Benares; and the Treta-ka-Thakur temple in Ayodhya. The number of temples destroyed by Aurangzeb is counted in four, if not five figures. Aurangzeb did not stop at destroying temples, their users were also wiped out; even his own brother Dara Shikoh was executed for taking an interest in Hindu religion; Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded because he objected to Aurangzeb’s forced conversions.
Yet, Percival Spear, co-author with Romila Thapar of the prestigious A History of India (Penguin), writes: ‘Aurangzeb’s supposed intolerance is little more than a hostile legend based on isolated acts such as the erection of a mosque on a temple site in Benares.’ L’histoire de l’Inde moderne (Fayard), the French equivalent of Percival Spear’s history of India, praises Aurangzeb and says, ‘He has been maligned by Hindu fundamentalists’. Even Indian politicians are ignorant of Aurangzeb’s evil deeds. Nehru might have known about them, but for his own reasons he chose to keep quiet and instructed his historians to downplay Aurangzeb’s destructive drive and instead praise him as a benefactor of arts.
Since then six generations of Marxist historians have done the same and betrayed their allegiance to truth. Very few people know for instance that Aurangzeb banned any kind of music and that painters had to flee his wrath and take refuge with some of Rajasthan’s friendly maharajahs.
Thus, we thought we should get at the root of the matter. History (like journalism) is about documentation and first-hand experience. We decided to show Aurangzeb according to his own documents. There are an incredible number of farhans, original edicts of Aurangzeb hand-written in Persian, in India’s museums, particularly in Rajasthan, such as the Bikaner archives. It was not always easy to scan them, we encountered resistance, sometimes downright hostility and we had to go once to the chief minister to get permission. Indeed, the director of Bikaner archives told us that in 50 years we were the first ones asking for the farhans dealing with Aurangzeb’s destructive deeds. Then we asked painters from Rajasthan to reproduce in the ancient Mughal style some of the edicts: the destruction of Somnath temple; the trampling of Hindus protesting jaziya tax by Aurangzeb’s elephants; or the order from Aurangzeb prohibiting Hindus to ride horses and palanquins; or the beheading of Teg Bahadur and Dara Shikoh.
People might say: ‘OK, this is all true, Aurangzeb was indeed a monster, but why rake up the past, when we have tensions between Muslims and Hindus today?’ There are two reasons for this exhibition. The first is that no nation can move forward unless its children are taught to look squarely at their own history, the good and the bad, the evil and the pure. The French, for instance, have many dark periods in their history, more recently some of the deeds they did during colonisation in North Africa or how they collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War and handed over French Jews who died in concentration camps (the French are only now coming to terms with it).
The argument that looking at one’s history will pit a community against the other does not hold either: French Catholics and Protestants, who share a very similar religion, fought each other bitterly. Catholics brutally murdered thousands of Protestants in the 18th century; yet today they live peacefully next to each other. France fought three wars with Germany in the last 150 years, yet they are great friends today.
Let Hindus and Muslims then come to terms with what happened under Aurangzeb, because Muslims suffered as much as Hindus. It was not only Shah Jahan or Dara Shikoh who were murdered, but also the forefathers of today’s Indian Muslims who have been converted at 90 per cent. Aurangzeb was the Hitler, the asura of medieval India. No street is named after Hitler in the West, yet in New Delhi we have Aurangzeb Road, a constant reminder of the horrors Aurangzeb perpetrated against Indians, including his own people.
Finally, Aurangzeb is very relevant today because he thought that Sunni Islam was the purest form of his religion and he sought to impose it with ruthless efficiency — even against those of his own faith, such as his brother. Aurangzeb clamped down on the more syncretic, more tolerant Islam, of the Sufi kind, which then existed in India. But he did not fully succeed. Four centuries later, is he going to have the last word? I remember, when I started covering Kashmir in the late ’70s, that Islam had a much more open face. The Kashmir Muslim, who is also a descendant of converted Hindus, might have thought that Allah was the only true God, but he accepted his Kashmiri Pandit neighbour, went to his or her marriage, ate in his or her house and the Hindu in turn went to the mosque. Women used to walk with open faces, watch TV, films.
Then the shadow of Aurangzeb fell on Kashmir and the hardline Sunnis came from Pakistan and Afghanistan: cinemas were banned, the burqa imposed, 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits were chased out of Kashmir through violence and became refugees in their own land and the last Sufi shrine of Sharar-e-Sharif was burnt to the ground (I was there). Today the Shariat has been voted in Kashmir, a state of democratic, secular India, UP’s Muslims have applauded, and the entire Indian media which went up in flames when the government wanted Vande Mataram to be sung, kept quiet. The spirit of Aurangzeb seems to triumph.
But what we need today in India — and indeed in the world — is a Dara Shikoh, who reintroduces an Islam which, while believing in the supremacy of its Prophet, not only accepts other faiths, but is also able to see the good in each religion, study them, maybe create a synthesis. Islam needs to adapt its scriptures which were created nearly 15 centuries ago for the people and customs of these times, but which are not necessarily relevant in some of their injunctions today. Kabir, Dara Shikoh and some of the Sufi saints attempted this task, but failed. Aurangzeb knew what he was doing when he had his own brother beheaded. And we know what we are saying when we say that this exhibition is very relevant to today’s India.
May the Spirit of Dara Shikoh come back to India and bring back Islam to a more tolerant human face.