history sheeter

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.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.