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A new book on Mughal em­peror Au­rangzeb ex­am­ines him in con­text of the rulers of the time and finds that not all his ac­tions de­serve the rep­u­ta­tion he came to ac­quire in his­tor­i­cal record

Au­rangzeb’s name has re­peat­edly been ef­faced from road signs and school books, but the leg­end of his cru­elty and in­tol­er­ance en­dures. Even in his own day, he must have had a se­ri­ous PR prob­lem, and his­tory can be un­kind to fa­ther-usurp­ing frat­ri­cides. But is the re­ceived view of the Mughal ev­ery­one loves to hate his­tor­i­cally in­formed or a car­i­ca­ture formed by the prej­u­dices of our own times? Rut­gers’ his­to­rian AU­DREY TRUSCHKE’s new book Au­rangzeb: The Man and the Myth re­vis­its the his­tor­i­cal record and con­text to up­turn many pre­sump­tions and re­veal a com­plex fig­ure, ruth­less and re­strained by turns. A po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal whose sim­i­lar­i­ties with the pow­er­ful, whether of the 17th or 21st cen­turies, are as fas­ci­nat­ing as they are dis­turb­ing. Ex­cerpts

Au­rangzeb holds a spe­cial, un­cov­eted place among In­dia’s re­viled kings. Com­mon opin­ion, even among those who do not share the sen­ti­ments of the BJP and like-minded Hindu na­tion­al­ist groups, pil­lo­ries Au­rangzeb as a cal­lous Is­lamist op­pres­sor who de­spised ev­ery­thing about In­dia, es­pe­cially Hin­dus. Across the bor­der in Pak­istan too, many en­dorse the vi­sion of an evil Au­rangzeb, even re­spon­si­ble for South Asia’s mod­ern woes. As Shahid Nadeem, a Pak­istani play­wright, re­cently put it: “Seeds of Par­ti­tion were sown when Au­rangzeb tri­umphed over [his brother] Dara Shikoh.” Such far-fetched sug­ges­tions would be far­ci­cal if so many did not en­dorse them. The Pak­istani play­wright’s view has a prece­dent in the writ­ings of Jawa­har­lal Nehru, a found­ing fa­ther of mod­ern In­dia, who was no fan of Au­rangzeb. In his Dis­cov­ery of In­dia, first pub­lished in 1946, Nehru listed Au­rangzeb’s pur­ported faults at length, re­buk­ing him as “a bigot and an aus­tere pu­ri­tan”. He ex­co­ri­ated the sixth Mughal king as a dan­ger­ous throw­back who “put back the clock” and ended up de­stroy­ing the Mughal em­pire. Per­haps Nehru’s most damn­ing blow was to pro­nounce Au­rangzeb too Mus­lim to be a suc­cess­ful In­dian king: “When Au­rungzeb be­gan to op­pose [the syn­cretism of ear­lier Mughal rulers] and sup­press it and to func­tion more as a Moslem than an In­dian ruler, the Mughal Em­pire be­gan to break up.” For Nehru, Au­rangzeb’s ad­her­ence to Is­lam crip­pled his abil­ity to rule In­dia. Nehru was hardly orig­i­nal in his cen­sure of Au­rangzeb as dan­ger­ously pi­ous and there­fore a bad em­peror. Such views were es­poused by many of Nehru’s con­tem­po­raries, in­clud­ing Jadunath Sarkar, the fore­most 20th-cen­tury his­to­rian of Au­rangzeb. Bri­tish colo­nial thinkers had long im­pugned the Mughals on a range of charges, in­clud­ing that they were ef­fem­i­nate, op­pres­sive, and Mus­lims. As early as 1772, Alexan­der Dow re­marked in a dis­cus­sion about Mughal gover­nance that “the faith of Ma­hommed is pe­cu­liarly cal­cu­lated for despo­tism; and it is one of the great­est causes which must fix for ever the du­ra­tion of that species of gov­ern­ment in the East”. For the Bri­tish, the so­lu­tion to such an en­trenched prob­lem was clear: Bri­tish rule over In­dia. While In­dian in­de­pen­dence lead­ers re­jected this fi­nal step of colo­nial logic, many swal­lowed the ear­lier parts whole­sale. Such ideas fil­tered to so­ci­ety at large via text­books and mass me­dia, and sev­eral gen­er­a­tions have con­tin­ued to eat up and re­gur­gi­tate the colo­nial no­tion that Au­rangzeb was a tyrant driven by re­li­gious fa­nati­cism. Over the cen­turies, many com­men­ta­tors have spread the myth of the evil, big­oted Au­rangzeb on the ba­sis of shock­ingly thin ev­i­dence. Many false ideas still mar the pop­u­lar mem­ory

Au­rangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Au­drey Truschke Pen­guin Ran­dom House Price: Rs 399 (Hard­back) Pages: 216

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