It is colonial history that we propagate today when we view Akbar and Aurangzeb as merely “good” or “bad” Muslims and not as rulers whose actions were guided by complex considerations

The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, built on the site of a temple demolished by Aurangzeb. Credit: Dr. AP Singh

On August 1, a first time MP from Delhi, Maheish Girri, petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to change the name of Aurangzeb Road in Lutyens’ Delhi to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road. Within weeks, the job is done, notwithstanding official rules against such renaming—the surest sign of decisive leadership we have seen so far!

What was wrong with Aurangzeb Road? Aurangzeb was—in Girri’s authoritative historical view—oppressive and cruel  and had inflicted so many atrocities that commemorating him would send a wrong message to posterity. Changing the name of the road to honour the memory of the benign Kalam would right a “wrong” of history. Just as was done on December 6, 1992 in Ayodhya, presumably.

As a professional historian of medieval India—having spent nearly six decades unraveling and understanding our complex history—I am unfamiliar with Girri’s authority to pronounce judgments on my discipline.

But then, history is everyone’s discipline.  Everyone is a born historian with equal entitlement to speak with full confidence. Especially if you have learnt the subject at an RSS shakha. So unlike any other discipline like physics or chemistry or even economics and sociology—where one has to devote to a lifetime to master it.

Colonial prism

James Mill was the first great colonial historian who taught us to study Indian history in terms of the religious identity of its rulers in any epoch prior to British rule; hence his division of this land’s past into Hindu, Muslim and British periods in his influential work, The History of British Rule in India, published in 1817-18.

Mill had contempt for both Hinduism and Islam – a little more for the former – which had apparently kept India in the age of darkness vis-à-vis the march of progress that modern colonial rule had brought. This was indeed the predominant view of India, with some important variations, among front-ranking European thinkers—from Montesquieu to Hegel and Marx during the 18th and 19th centuries.

This image of India’s past was substantially modified post-Independence by leading Indian historians who began to look at history in terms of several variables, of which which religious identity was only one. This was a marked departure from the colonialist historiographical legacy. In this departure, the notion of class—and conflicts arising in society on account of it—played a significant role. From the 1980s onwards, even more facets of the past have come to the fore, facets that the category of class had ignored: culture, family, gender, ecology, visions of time and space and habitat, the gender identity of polities, the history of the constructions of the past, history as it was imagined through the ages, and so forth. The world of history writing has changed in the past five or six decades like never before—in India, as elsewhere.

In the midst of this phenomenal metamorphosis, the popular image of history has remained unaltered—the product of of a great and organised effort to keep it tied to the singular pole of religion. History at this level is simplicity itself, the kind mouthed by Girri or by TV experts who are otherwise surgeons or dentists by profession. Or by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, who publicly declared that Alexander was defeated in Bihar and that the great Taxila University was located in Bihar, probably as he was unable to distinguish between Taxila and Nalanda.

Changing exigencies

Emperor Aurangzeb at the siege of Golconda. Credit:   Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

At this level of simplicity, history evolves as something shaped by rulers or great men (rarely women)—a notion not even considered by professional historians any more—and that the religion of the ruler is the single determinant of his political actions, a notion historians discarded decades ago. An equally strong assumption underlying this simplistic understanding is that a ruler’s “policies” remain the same from the beginning of his rule to the end, something demonstrated as untenable many times over. Let us take two examples for illustration: Akbar and Aurangzeb.

The popular image of the two rulers is of Akbar being liberal and Aurangzeb being dogmatic in their “religious policy” (itself a very dubious term). That’s about all that is known about them. As long ago as the 1960s, two “Marxist”, i.e. non-BJP, historians Iqtidar Alam Khan and M Athar Ali, demonstrated that the religious stance of each was guided by—and fluctuated with—the changing demands of political events during their 50-year-long reigns, and that there were “phases” in which each became “liberal” or “orthodox” depending on which crisis they were confronting. This means the religious stance of a ruler was not an independent and unchanging variable but a political resource to be drawn upon as and when required. His personal religious predilections played a role, but were greatly circumscribed by the demands of the situation.

It is thus that Aurangzeb, both as an aspirant to the throne and as Emperor, abandoned any dreams he had of making puritanical Islam the centrepiece of his rule—even as his heart lay in it.  In his 1966 book, Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb, Athar Ali had tabulated the number of nobles from different groups who sided with the “liberal” Dara Shukoh and the “dogmatic” Aurangzeb (and the two other brothers) during the War of Succession in 1658-59. It turns out 24 Hindus were on Dara’s side and 21 on Aurangzeb’s, including the two highest-ranked Rajputs, Mirza Raja Jai Singh Kachhwaha of Amber and Raja Jaswant Singh Rathore of Jodhpur, who stayed with him till their end. It was Raja Jai Singh who defeated Shivaji and brought him to Aurangzeb’s court seeking peace. It was in 1679, 21 years after his accession to the throne, that Aurangzeb reimposed the jaziya tax on Hindus that Akbar had abolished in 1562—and he did this after the death of Jaswant Singh, when tension began with the Rathores.

Aurangzeb demolished some 15-odd temples—including ones at Mathura and Kashi, where he built mosques. Paradoxically, at the same time he also gave land and cash grants to Hindu temples and maths, including at Kashi, and these are all well documented.

What explains the paradox?

The same paradox that led a democratically elected leader in late 20th century India, Rajiv Gandhi, to mobilise religious support as a political resource when he had the gates of the disputed Ayodhya structure opened even as he succumbed to the outrageous demands of the Muslim clergy to upturn the Supreme Court judgment on Shah Bano. Rajiv Gandhi imagined he would be able to please both; in fact, he lost out on both fronts. Just like Aurangzeb, who spent the second half of his reign fighting on numerous fronts, both Hindu and Muslim.

James Mill had taught us to treat the rulers of the “Hindu” and the “Muslim” periods not as rulers whose actions are guided by complex considerations but simply by their religious affiliation. It is this colonial lesson that we propagate today when we view Akbar and Aurangzeb (and everyone else) as merely a “good” Muslim or a “bad” Muslim. Of course, all Hindu rulers are invariably “good”, no questions asked. One wonders whether Kalam, the great scientist and even greater human being and nationalist, would have felt honoured to be evaluated through this colonial prism and treated as a “good” Muslim whose claim to a road—that too from some Muslim ‘quota’—comes only as a counterpoint to the “bad” Aurangzeb and not as a product of his enormous accomplishments.