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Was Aurangzeb the most evil ruler India has ever had?

Probably not. And here are five reasons why.

As has been happening ever so often since Narendra Modi took power, history has burst out into modern-day politics. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has proposed renaming “Aurangzeb Road” in Lutyen’s Delhi to “APJ Abdul Kalam Road”. The move had wide support and both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Admi Party seem to have pitched for it, even as the Congress has maintained a studied silence. This also revived the long-standing Shiv Sena demand to rechristen Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Once the Mughal capital in the Deccan and founded by the Prime Minister (Peshwa) of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, Malik Ambar, the city could be renamed Sambhaji Nagar, after Shivaji’s son, if Hindutva activists have their way.

Many people assume that history is an impersonal record of past events; a dull roll call of facts, events and figures. While raw data is certainly a component in the writing of history, there’s more to it in the way of how the historian interprets that data. In the words of EH Carr:
“History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”

The final meal, then, depends not only on the fish available with the fishmonger, but also what the chef selects to cook and how he wants to cook it.

Most Indian state-written histories, for example, choose to elide the devastating invasion of the Marathas into western Bengal in the 1740s. A majority of Indian narratives look at the Marathas as a “national” force and ignore the fact that (like any medieval army) they had no concept of nationalism and were mostly interested in loot. In a mirror image, Pakistan has named its missiles after Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazni, deliberately choosing to forget that the man made his fortune by mostly plundering what is current-day Pakistan.

This is not to say that a history of Bengal that does not include the Maratha invasion is per se false. After all, any history of Bengal has to leave out something or the other in order to tell a cogent story. This example is just to introduce the concept of a narrative and its power in shaping our concept of history.

With Aurangzeb, therefore, at least in the popular realm, a narrative has taken root which paints him as a Mughal Voldemort, so dreadful and tyrannical that even his name on a single road in the entire country could endanger the republic.

Of course, it is impossible to disprove (or prove) such a narrative in an article. Nevertheless, here are five facts that at least don’t fit into it.

1. Aurangzeb built more temples than he destroyed
The issue of temple destruction has taken on a particular hysteria after the violent mass movement in the 1980s and 1990s led by the Bharatiya Janata Party to destroy the Babri Masjid, based on the belief that the spot once housed a temple to the god Ram.

Ironically, there are almost no complaints of temple destruction by Mughal Hindu citizens in the medieval period itself, when these acts were actually supposed to have been carried out. Or even after Mughal power had waned in the 18th century (in case one would want to argue some sort of Mughal censorship). As the historian Richard Eaton has shown, destruction of temples by Muslim rulers in India was exceedingly rare and even when it did happen, it was a political act meant to chasten recalcitrant rulers and not a theological move.

In spite of his terrible reputation, Aurangzeb sticks to this template. Temples are rarely destroyed (Eaton puts the number of instances at 15 for Aurangzeb) and, if they are, the reason is political. For example, Aurangzeb almost never targetted temples in the Deccan, although that is where his massive army was camped for most of his reign. In the north, he did attack temples, for example the Keshava Rai Temple in Mathura. But the reason was political: the Jats of the Mathura region had revolted against the empire.

For these same reasons of statecraft, Aurangzeb also patronised temples, since Hindus who remained loyal to the state were rewarded. In fact, as Katherine Butler Schofield from King's College London points out, “Aurangzeb built far more temples than he destroyed." Scholars such as Catherine Asher, M Ather Ali and Jalaluddinhave pointed to numerous tax-free grants bestowed on Hindu temples, notably those of the Jangam Bari Math at Benares, Balaji's temple at Chitrakoot, the Someshwar Nath Mahadev temple at Allahabad, the Umanand temple at Gauhati, and numerous others.

Also, temple destruction was a common part of Indian politics at the time and was not restricted to Muslims. In 1791, for example, the Maratha army raided and damaged the Shankaracharya’s temple in Sringeri because it was being patronised by Tipu Sultan, their enemy. Later on, Tipu renovated the temple and had the idol reinstalled.

2. Music flourished in India during Aurangzeb’s reign
A crucial part of the entire narrative of Aurangzeb as a tyrant is the parable that he banned music. It is a powerful tale and one that could really clinch the case. The only problem? It’s not true.

Far from being banned throughout India, as Katherine Butler Schofield comprehensively establishes, music wasn’t proscribed even in Aurangzeb’s court. The Emperor’s own coronation anniversaries were marked by both musicians and dancers. Not only that, his patronsiation of music meant that a number of dhrupads were composed in his name. Even further, he also seemed to be quite knowledgeable about it himself. In the Mirat-e-Alam, Bahktawar Khan wrote of the Emperor having a “perfect expert's knowledge” of music. The Rag Darpan, a musical treatise by Mughal noble Faqirullah lists out Aurangzeb’s favourite singers and instrumentalists by name. Aurangzeb’s dearest son, Azam Shah went one step further and, during the lifetime of his father, became an accomplished musician.

In fact, it could even be said that music flourished under Aurangzeb’s. Schofield writes: “More musical treatises in Persian were written during Aurangzeb's reign than in the previous 500 years of Muslim rule in India, and all of them make significant references to current music making."

In spite of his own love for it, later on in life, as Aurangzeb got more religious, he did stop listening to music himself. However, given the evidence, the assumption that this personal preference of Aurangzeb’s fashioned Mughal state policy seems incorrect.

3. Aurangzeb employed more Hindus (including Shivaji) than any other Mughal
It is a well-established fact that the number of Hindus employed by the Emperor’s administration was the highest ever in Mughal history up till then. In fact, the number of Hindu bureaucrats rose significantly during Aurangzeb’s rule, a statistic that, in the words of M Ather Ali, provides a “fine lawyer’s answer to any charge that Aurangzeb discriminated against Hindu mansabdars”.

The proportion of commanders, senior court officials and provincial administrators who were Hindu rose from 24% under Aurangzeb’s father, Shahjahan to 33% in the fourth decade of the Aurangzeb’s own rule.

This trend actually becomes sharper as you move up the administration. A remarkably large number of Aurangzeb’s top generals were Hindu Rajputs. In fact, when Aurangzeb’s campaign against the Marathas or Sikhs is presented in a communal light, it is often forgotten that the actual Mughal army in the field was almost always led by a Rajput general.  Shivaji, himself, in fact, served in Aurangzeb’s army as a mid-level commander (mansabdar) at one time and, writes Jadunath Sarkar, even expected to be made the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, but was refused by Aurangzeb, who could not gauge his military genius.

4. Aurangzeb’s mother tongue was Hindi
Being unIndian is a charge levied not only at Aurangzeb but at almost any ruler who happens to be Muslim in medieval India. At one level, it is a puerile and, in fact, absurd test, given that there simply was no concept of “nationalism” in 17th century India (or almost anywhere else).

Nevertheless, almost by any standards, Aurangzeb was a pukka upper-class Hindustani (a somewhat obvious point, since he was born and raised upper-class Hindustani). Patronising Braj Bhasha, a North Indian literary language for poetry and song, had been a long-standing Mughal tradition which continued into Aurangzeb’s rule. The patronage climate for Braj in Aurangzeb's court was a “lively and encouraging one”, says historian Allison Busch. Azam Shah, his son, was keenly interested in Braj poetry and patronised some of the biggest names in the language such as Mahakavi Dev. Vrind was another giant of Braj who was employed by Aurangzeb’s administration.

Moreover – again, this is obvious – the mother tongue of Aurangzeb and the other Mughals by then had become an early form of modern Hindi-Urdu. In a fascinating letter, written by Aurangzeb to his 47-year old son, Azam Shah, the Emperor gifts him a fort and orders that drums be beaten in his name. He then reminisces about Azam’s childhood, reminding him that he loved drums as a toddler and would often exclaim, “Babaji, dhun dhun!” to Aurangzeb in Hindi when he heard them.

Of course, the Mughals still mostly wrote in Persian, which was the official language of the day. However, since you’re reading this in English, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

5. The jizya tax wasn’t unusually discriminatory for its time
Controversial point, this, but let’s see it through.

Abolished by Akbar and reintroduced by Aurangzeb, the jizya was a tax levied on non-Muslims in the realm over and above all other duties. It functioned in three slabs depending on income and its rate ranged from 0.5% to 6%. It also had a number of exceptions built in and the poor, unemployed and disabled were not expected to pay. Moreover, Brahmans “as the spiritual leaders of the Hindu community” were also exempt, as were bureaucrats.

The Muslim counterpart to the religious tax of jizya was the zakat, or alms tax, also to be paid over and above normal taxes. Aurangzeb, however, abolished the zakat.

From the modern point of view, this is clearly discriminatory and modern nations do not (with minor exceptions such as the Hindu Undivided Family provision in India) impose taxes on groups based on identity.

Judging people in the 17th century with today’s morals, though, would result in an absurd situation: everyone would come out looking terrible. Taxation based on identity is an anachronism today but was not that much in Aurangzeb’s time. The Marathas, who went on to replace the Mughals in large parts of the Deccan, had a discriminatory taxation policy as well; a mirror image of Aurangzeb’s, in fact. They collected zakat from Muslims with no corresponding tax from Hindus.

However, in many ways, both the Maratha zakat and Mughal jizya were, for their time, only mildly discriminatory, involving minor sums and a tiny percentage of the population (modern India’s income tax base is less than 3% of the population, so you can imagine how small it was for Mughal India). Unlike today, the main axis of India’s society at the time did not revolve around "Hindu" and "Muslim". To see real 17th century discrimination, one needs to go to caste.

The Maharashtrian Mahar Dalit caste under the Peshwa rule, for example, had to hang a broom from their backs, which swept away their footsteps as they walked so as to not “pollute” the path, in case an upper caste person should happen to use it later. A pot had to be hung below their neck, to collect any saliva that should inadvertently fall out from their mouths, also to prevent “pollution”. Arms and education were, of course, banned and any Mahar breaking these caste laws was summarily put to death.

So degrading was the condition of the Mahars under Peshwa rule that BR Ambedkar, also a Mahar, celebrated the victory of the British in the Anglo-Maratha wars ­– a practice that continues till today with the Mahars.

Of course, our evaluation of tyranny in the past is not based on any objective reading of history (if such a thing were possible at all) but rests mostly on our modern prejudices and politics. This is why Aurangzeb’s jizya is discussed threadbare but the Maratha zakat or policy on caste is mostly swept under the carpet. And this is why Delhi's Aurangzeb Road may soon be renamed.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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