Once upon a time in New Delhi, Dalhousie Road branched off from Willingdon Crescent, named after a British governor general with a penchant for locking up Congress leaders, and joined up with Great Place, a grand intersection of avenues meant to conjure up the Champs Elysees and the boulevards of Paris.

After Independence, Great Place became Vijay Chowk, or Victory Square, tattooed by hundreds of military boots on Beating the Retreat every year. And Willingdon was wiped off the map to make way for Mother Teresa, certified saint. Lord Dalhousie, governor general of India from 1848 to 1856, whose bullish policies are often credited with bringing on the rebellion of 1857, began to look a bit out of place.

The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has now taken care of it, replacing Dalhousie with Dara Shikoh, secular Mughal prince who got done out of his empire by the bigoted Aurangzeb, or so the official story goes. This latest administrative inspiration is a sequel to the renaming of Aurangzeb Road in August 2015, where the Mughal ruler was swapped for former President APJ Abdul Kalam.

A history of examples

Once again, state authorities have taken a correction pen through history, excising that which is considered unsalutary, leaving only that which can be marshalled for the public good. In doing so, they prod the public imagination into the shadowless world of “monumental history” that Nietzsche spoke of in the essay, “On the Use and Abuse of History”.

It is a history of examples, meant to hector the “contemporary man” into bettering himself: “He derives from that the fact that the greatness which was once there at all events once was possible and therefore will really be possible once again.” It is a history which generalises, stripping the past of its “individuality”, breaking off its “sharp corners and angles”.

In this reading of history, the past is processed before it is put out for public consumption:

“It will always tone down the difference in motives and events, in order to set down the monumental effectus [effect], that is, the exemplary effect worthy of imitation, at the cost of the causae [cause]... What is celebrated in folk festivals and in religious or military remembrance days is basically such an ‘effect in itself.’”

So the names of colonial governors have no place in the bright sun of Independence, and the project of secularism has neatly labelled its Mughals: Dara Shikoh good, Aurangzeb bad.

Death of Dara Shikoh

Over the last few days, it has been said that the valorisation of Dara Shikoh suits the Hindu nationalist agenda. A prince who had the Upanishads translated into Persian must be far more palatable than one who is said to have gone to war in the name of religion. But the particular histories that would freeze the brothers into their respective roles started much earlier, at the moment of Dara’s death. It is described in detail by contemporary Western travellers.

Francois Bernier, the French traveller who was briefly physician to Dara Shikoh, painted a quixotic figure. Dara, the eldest son, the one marked for greatness, had been groomed by his father to take over the Mughal empire. But when Shah Jahan neared his end and a war of succession broke out among his four sons, the scholarly prince found himself unversed in the harsh arts of war.

With Aurangzeb’s armies advancing on him, the valiant prince fought against the moment of his doom by devising a number of rash plans. All of these seemed to stem from Dara’s good faith in men. He resolved to go ask the Pathan chieftain Javan Khan (also known as Junaid Khan Barozai) for help. In happier times, Dara had saved his life when Shah Jahan had condemned him to be trampled to death by elephants.

His wife and son had tried to persuade Dara against the plan, Bernier wrote, but “he did not believe it possible he should be betrayed by a man bound to him by such strong ties of gratitude”. Of course, he was wrong. The “traitor” Javan Khan gave him up to Aurangzeb.

Bernier went on to describe the captive Dara Shikoh being paraded through the city of Delhi, dressed in rags and tied to a filthy elephant instead of perched on a gilded howdah. He wrote of public indignation, of crowds wailing in sorrow and appalled by the “unnatural conduct” of Aurangzeb, who had lately imprisoned his father and his other brothers. Dara, in this account, was the people’s favourite and his plight brought on the danger of insurrection.

He was to die swiftly and “the charge of this atrocious murder was intrusted to a slave of the name of Nazir”, who had once been mistreated by the prince. The reference to this murky past was couched in careful passive voice – Nazir had “experienced some ill-treatment from Dara” – and Bernier glossed over the details.

The scene of Dara’s death was also taken up by another French traveller, the gem merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier. In his version, the party of assassins was led by Saif Khan, who had once worked for Dara. The prince, with the misplaced good faith that seemed to have become a habit, rose joyously to welcome him. He was then informed that Saif Khan had been sent to kill him.

Then Dara turned into dignified martyr. “Am I to die, then?” he asked. On being answered in the affirmative, he feebly tried to resist, then said his last prayers.

The murdered prince’s head was presented to Aurangzeb, and Bernier mentions that the blood was washed off so that the would-be emperor could make sure it was his brother. Both Frenchmen’s accounts are steeped in the sense that Dara was wronged by history. The hope of what his reign would bring lingers long after his death, a wistful what if.

Tavernier goes on to speak of Aurangzeb’s machinations after “his eldest brother’s cruel execution, to whom by right the Empire belonged”. The Grand Kazi, or chief officer of the law, who was to declare Aurangzeb emperor, had doubts about his claims to the throne. So Aurangzeb gathered assorted “doctors of the Law” and explained to them that Dara had been put to death because he “was not zealous in obeying the Law; he drank wine and favoured infidels”. The “Council of Conscience” was unconvinced, leaving Aurangzeb with no option but to replace the Grand Kazi.

In the centuries that followed, these early accounts of the emperor would have fit in perfectly with colonial notions of the Oriental tyrant – ruthless, fanatic, ruling by whim rather than law. So far as Western historians were concerned, Aurangzeb’s fate was sealed.

Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh
Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh

Shadows of history

But there is another strand of writing, often by Indian authors and possibly in reaction to Western depictions, that is more sympathetic to Aurangzeb.

Hur Chunder Dutt’s poem, “Aurangzeb at His Father’s Bier”, written in the 19th century and taught in schools more than 100 years later, attempted to give him a redeeming postscript. The rebellious son was pictured next to the body of Shah Jahan, wracked with remorse and haunted by the thought that “even kings will die”.

A few decades later, historian Jadunath Sarkar made the maligned emperor the subject of his magnum opus, A History of Aurangzib, based on Original Sources, written between 1912 and 1924. In this history, Dara Shikoh was “a loving husband, a doting father, and a devoted son; but as a ruler of men in troubled times, he must have been a failure.”

He was also the cosseted, arrogant child of his father, favoured far above his brothers, laden with riches and titles. “The darling of the court”, he was enervated by long years of prosperity, a negative quality for a ruler, in Sarkar’s book. When Shah Jahan took ill, the eldest prince closeted himself in with the emperor, issuing orders in his name, refusing others access to the imperial chamber.

Sarkar speaks of stratagems on both sides, of imperial armies being sent out against the rebel princes and of rumours swirling around about Shah Jahan’s health and possible death. Aurangzeb forged a shaky alliance with his brothers, but stalled against advancing on Agra where Shah Jahan was. And if Dara had the people’s sympathy, going by Bernier’s account, Aurangzeb, according to Sarkar, had the fealty of generals and noblemen.

The “motives” and “causes” of a historical moment briefly flicker into view in Sarkar’s treatise. Aurangzeb was animated by more than a bladelike fanaticism. He was a character of complicated intentions, as was Dara.

Unfortunately for Aurangzeb, Sarkar also drew a straight line between the syncretic traditions fostered by their great-grandfather, Akbar, and Dara’s “natural inclinations”. The eldest prince, in his “thirst for pantheistic philosophy”, was learned in the Talmud and the New Testament, the Vedanta and Sufi writings. He commissioned works that attempted to find a meeting point between Hinduism and Islam, but was no apostate, Sarkar was at pains to prove.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh, about 1654 - 1656, Brown ink and gray wash with scratchwork 21.3 × 17.8 cm (8 3/8 × 7 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh, about 1654 - 1656, Brown ink and gray wash with scratchwork 21.3 × 17.8 cm (8 3/8 × 7 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Syncretic prince

To the historians of a freshly minted, secular India, it was this tradition that appealed the most. RC Majumdar, in his magisterial An Advanced History of India (1960), allowed Aurangzeb “sterling qualities” as a politician and a soldier. But “he was not a political genius such as Akbar alone among the Mughals had been, who could initiate a policy and enact laws to mould the life and thought of his contemporaries or a future generation.”

Aurangzeb presided over the decay of the Mughal empire. “The reign of the puritan emperor was a great tragedy,” Majumdar concluded. Once again, Dara’s unfulfilled reign becomes the what if of history.

Later works such as Romila Thapar and Percival Spear’s History of India called into question the consensus about Aurangzeb’s bigotry. In a paragraph that has been the subject of much outrage from the Hindu right, the authors said, “He differed from Akbar in consciously tolerating Hindus rather than treating them as equals, but his supposed intolerance is little more than a hostile legend based on isolated facts.”

But here, too, Dara Shikoh was the torchbearer of the intellectual movement started by Akbar while Aurangzeb was reactionary. And in the transition from academic to public history, the subtleties do not survive. Syncretic Dara has long been preferred to orthodox Aurangzeb. In the mythology of Hindu nationalism, Dara even beats Aurangzeb, aided by his knowledge of Hindu scriptures.

Some detritus from the unconsecrated past did survive in our monumental history, in colonial names and names of “Muslim tyrants”. But the urge to set an example has proved too strong, so history must leap from victory parades to syncretic princes to saints. That which went in between has been chipped away, leaving “only a few embellished facts”, which “raise themselves up above like islands”. Not much is lost, except the past.