25 May 2017
In 1700, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was
arguably the richest, most powerful man in the world. He ruled for nearly 50
years, from 1658 until 1707, over a vast empire in South Asia that boasted a
population exceeding the entirety of contemporary Europe. Today, he has been
forgotten in the West.
In modern-day India, however, Aurangzeb is
alive in public debates, national politics, and people’s imaginations. From
Mumbai to Delhi to Hyderabad, Indians debate his legacy and, overwhelmingly,
condemn him as the cruellest king in Indian history. The list of charges
against Aurangzeb is severe and, if they were all true, shocking. Aurangzeb, a
Muslim, is widely thought to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced
millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. As I
am reminded daily on Twitter, many Indians sincerely believe that Aurangzeb was
Hitler and ISIS rolled into one with a single objective: To eradicate Hindus
narrative of Aurangzeb in Aurangzeb: The Life and
Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King – based on extensive research and
relying on primary source documents – does not match his current reputation.
Accordingly, much of the response to Aurangzeb in India, published in February
under the title Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth, has been fierce. I am the
target of daily, sometimes hourly, hate speech on social media. I am regularly
attacked on the basis of my gender, nationality, race, and perceived religion.
I have even faced (so far, limited) calls to ban Aurangzeb and even to ban me
In this blog post, I explore the roots of
the controversy over Aurangzeb, my role therein as a historian, and the harsh
realities of producing historical analysis in a world where many privilege
politically expedient falsehoods.
as a Lightning Rod for Controversy
Aurangzeb is controversial not so much
because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present.
Twenty-first-century India is plagued by religious-based conflict, especially
between Hindus and Muslims, India’s religious majority and its largest
religious minority, respectively. As the minority, Indian Muslim communities
are in the weaker position. They are often demonised as anti-national, less
Indian than Hindus, and tend to bear the brunt of religious-based clashes in
terms of the loss of human life and livelihood.
Among the charges levelled against
modern-day Indian Muslims are that they are literal and figurative descendants
of people like Aurangzeb, who allegedly destroyed India and crushed Hindus.
Such ideas rest heavy on VS Naipaul’s idea of a “wounded civilisation”, the
theory that India was subjected to repeated defeats over the centuries,
including by generations of Muslim conquerors that enfeebled the people and
their land. The belief – shared by many in India – that, Muslim invaders
destroyed their culture, religion, and homeland is neither a continuous
historical memory nor is it based on accurate records of the past. But, for
those who subscribe to this view, it is laden with real emotional investment.
Many in India feel injured by the Indo-Muslim past, and their sentiments –
often undergirded by modern anti-Muslim sentiments – drive the current
controversy surrounding Aurangzeb.
Historian’s Role in India’s Culture Wars
As a historian, I strive to accurately
reconstruct and understand the past. This agenda puts me at odds with
Aurangzeb’s modern detractors on several counts. For starters, I ask different
questions. I want to understand Aurangzeb as a product and shaper of his times.
Accordingly, I ask about historical causality instead of, say, whether
Aurangzeb’s reign was good or bad according to modern, egalitarian, democratic
norms. Moreover, I seek explanations for Aurangzeb’s behaviour grounded in the
terms of his day, not ours.
Part of a historian’s job is to set the
record straight, and here I enrage many. As I explore in my book some of the
most serious charges against Aurangzeb have been exaggerated or misconstrued from
the historical record. For instance, evidence suggests that he destroyed a few
dozen Hindu temples at most (not thousands) and largely for political reasons.
Moreover, he was wary of conversions, and relatively few Hindus adopted Islam
in Aurangzeb’s empire. The small number of conversions is indicated, for
example, by contemporary news bulletins that listed individual converts, often
Aurangzeb warred a lot and so killed many.
However, he attacked Hindus and Muslims alike (to the great chagrin of other
Muslim polities in India) and did not try to exterminate Hindus. But many who
condemn Aurangzeb cannot be convinced on such matters because they base their
ideas on an ideology of India as a Hindu nation, in which Muslim rulers are
inherently destructive and illegitimate, rather than on documented historical
facts. I cannot convince those who espouse faith in a vision of the past that
is not open to interrogation.
As a historian, I critically read pre-modern
sources, and here I infuriate some people and confuse others. Many contemporary
readers think that if somebody alive during Aurangzeb’s reign or shortly
thereafter wrote that a particular event happened then it must be true. In
reality, Mughal sources frequently present what we might now term “alternative
facts”. For example, some Mughal texts brag about temple destructions,
including temple destructions that were not carried out. Aurangzeb’s modern
detractors cite such sources at face value because these narratives feed into
their image of a bigoted, Islamist fanatic; they ignore sources – sometimes the
same sources – that talk about Aurangzeb’s patronage to Hindu and Jain temples.
In contrast, I read pre-modern sources holistically and in context, embracing
Aurangzeb’s complexity and sifting state mythology from historical reality
I also analyse the modern politics of
Aurangzeb. My biography of the king opens with the erasure of his name from a
well-known road in Delhi in 2015. I argue that the narrative of Aurangzeb the
Bigot, which crops up largely in polarising debates about Indian national
identity, has more to do with modern politics than pre-modern history and is a
by-product and catalyst of growing intolerance in India.
Perils of Publishing on Pre-modern Indian History
India lacks the freedom of speech
protections of the United States. The Indian government bans books, on both
federal and state levels. In addition, in the last few decades, American
scholars have been subjected to lawsuits on the basis of their academic work
and vigilante campaigns of violence. A chief concern, legally, is section
295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises insults to religious
feelings done with deliberate and malicious intent. As Wendy Doniger, a leading
scholar of Hinduism, has pointed out, this law, in theory, criminalises even
accurate statements about Indian history if such sentiments offend any
religious community in India, a diverse country of over 1.3 billion people.
Both authors and publishers are rightly
wary of running afoul of Indian laws, and so some Indian publishers perform
legal reads of potentially controversial books such as Aurangzeb. The goal of a
legal read, conducted by an Indian attorney, is to identify passages that could
– in good or bad faith – be used as the basis for a costly lawsuit.
For Aurangzeb, the legal read flagged
several passages concerning Shivaji, a military opponent of Aurangzeb who is
lauded today, ahistorically, as a champion of Hinduism who fought against big
bad Muslim despots. In accordance with legal advice, I censored parts of the
Shivaji chapter in the Indian edition of Aurangzeb.
Beyond the legal restrictions on publishing
in India, there is the hate mail. Most of the vitriolic messages and trolling
are forgettable, but some of it is chilling. I still remember the first time
somebody wished for my death on Twitter: The individual tweeted a picture of
piled-up Holocaust victims at me along with the hope that another Hitler comes
back and does the same to me. I am wearied, too, by the sexist language. I have
been called a b***h, whore, and c**t more times than I can recall, because I
dare to write on Aurangzeb, a 17-century Indian king.
As unpleasant as personal insults can be,
this abysmal level of discourse attests to how vital historians are today. One
point on which I agree with my detractors is this: Aurangzeb matters in the
modern world. My biography of India’s most despised king seeks to enliven the
historical emperor – in all of his complexities and contradictions – and
thereby enrich our grasp of the past and our ability to live in the present.
Truschke is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the
author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court and, most
recently, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King.