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Aurangzeb, Akbar, and the Communalization of History

[see also Aurangzeb: A Political History; Aurangzeb: Religious Policies;
Mughal Empire
]

In Indian history, the syncretistic and communalist viewpoints have conventionally been represented, to take one case in point, by offering a contrast between the lives of the two emperors under whom the Mughal Empire was at its zenith, Akbar (reigned 1556-1605) and Aurangzeb (reigned 1658-1707). Akbar is often adduced as an example of the tolerant ruler, whose policies demonstrate that though he himself was a Muslim, the state was not Islamic. Some have even pointed to him as a 'secular' ruler, when scarcely any monarch in Europe was such, and his advocacy of a new faith, the Din-i-ilahi, which combined elements from various religions, exemplifies the ecumenism with which he is associated. "He looked upon all religions alike", writes Tara Chand, "and regarded it his duty to make no difference between his subjects on the basis of religion. He threw upon the highest appointments to non-Muslims." [1] Though it is admitted that he may have forged political and military alliances with Hindu rulers from considerations of expediency, other historians allude to more enduring signs of his real commitment to religious harmony and interest in different faiths, such as his marriage to Rajput women, his scholarly interest in epics such as the Ramayana, and his zeal in promoting Hindu learning. Historians point to Akbar's elimination of the jizya (poll-tax) usually levied on non-Muslims and his assumption of final authority on religious questions on which there might have been conflict of opinion among Muslim theologians, thereby undermining the authority of the ulama (Muslim clergy). Describing Akbar's success as "astonishing", Jawaharlal Nehru gave it as his opinion, in a work that places him among the ranks of historians, that Akbar "created a sense of oneness among the diverse elements of north and central India." [2]

The commonplace view of Aurangzeb, on the other hand, is that he repudiated Akbar's policies of religious toleration, and by alienating Hindus he undermined the very empire whose tremendous expansion he masterminded. Nehru maintained that Aurangzeb had "put the clock back", undoing what his predecessors had achieved by working against the "genius of the nation" and ignoring the common culture that had been forged among the different elements of the Indian population. "When Aurangzeb began to oppose this movement [of synthesis] and suppress it and to function more as a Moslem than an Indian ruler," Nehru argued, "the Mughal Empire began to break up." But where Nehru saw Aurangzeb as a "bigot and an austere puritan" whose policies were instrumental in creating unease and dissent, and Tara Chand deplored his "misdirected efforts" which caused "irreparable damage" to the "great edifice of the empire", [3] many Indian historians have been inclined to take a much harsher view of Aurangzeb's conduct. In this they were to follow the lead supplied by Jadunath Sarkar, whose 1928 biography of Aurangzeb in four volumes bequeathed the view of Aurangzeb that still predominates in the popular imagination. Sarkar suggested that Aurangzeb intended nothing less than to establish an Islamic state in India, an objective that could not be fulfilled without "the conversion of the entire population to Islam and the extinction of every form of dissent"; and to render this scenario more complete, he proposed that the jizya (poll-tax) on non-Muslims, which Aurangzeb had re-instituted in 1679, was aimed at forcibly converting Hindus to Islam, though he was unable to marshal evidence to substantiate this view. [4]

If Aurangzeb was so ferocious a communalist, why is it, some historians have asked, that the number of Hindus employed in positions of eminence under Aurangzeb's reign rose from 24.5% in the time of his father Shah Jahan to 33% in the fourth decade of his own rule? They suggest, moreover, that Aurangzeb did not indiscriminately destroy Hindu temples, as he is commonly believed to have done so, and that he directed the destruction of temples only when faced with insurgency. This was almost certainly the case with the Keshava Rai temple in the Mathura region, where the Jats rose in rebellion; and yet even this policy of reprisal may have been modified, as Hindu temples in the Deccan were seldom destroyed. The image of Aurangzeb as an idol-breaker may not withstand scrutiny, since there is evidence to show that, like his predecessors, he continued to confer land grants (jagirs) upon Hindu temples, such as the Someshwar Nath Mahadev temple in Allahabad, Jangum Badi Shiva temple in Banaras, Umanand temple in Gauhati, and numerous others. [5] On the other hand, one might argue, if Akbar was so dedicated to the principle of religious harmony, why is it that none of the Mughal princesses were ever allowed to marry into Rajput households? And while he may have propagated a new syncretistic faith, how was it received by ordinary Muslims? Moreover, do not both the supporters of Akbar and critics of Aurangzeb presume that relations between Hindus and Muslims are to be inferred by studying the lives of rulers, or at best members of the ruling class? What, in any case, is really conceded when it is admitted that Akbar was tolerant towards other faiths to the same extent that Aurangzeb was only solicitous of the welfare of his Muslim subjects? As the historian Harbans Mukhia has argued, "Once one accepts that the liberal religious policy of Akbar was only the reflection of his own liberal outlook, the conclusion becomes inescapable, for instance, that the fanatic religious policy of Aurangzeb flowed from his fanatic disposition." [6] If Aurangzeb sought to convert members of important Hindu families to Islam, all the more to ensure the preservation of his empire, why should that serve as a basis for the presumption that a wholesale conversion of Hindus was a matter of state policy? By what method of transference is it possible to construe that conflicts among the ruling elite are conflicts at the broader social level? In the debate over the nature of the Indian past, then, particularly with respect to Hindu-Muslim relations, Akbar and Aurangzeb were to become, as they still are, iconic figures.

Notes:

[1] Tara Chand, History of the Freedom Movement, 4 vols (New Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division, 1961-72), 1:111-12.

[2] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Calcutta: Signet Press, 1946; reprint ed., Delhi: Oxford University Press/Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1981), p. 270.

[3] Ibid., p. 265, 271; Tara Chand, History of the Freedom Movement, 1:112.

[4] J. Sarkar, History of Aurangzeb, 4 vols. (Calcutta, 1928), 3:249-50, cited by Satish Chandra, "Reassessing Aurangzeb", Seminar, no. 364: Mythifying History (December 1989), p. 35.

[5] This paragraph draws upon M. Athar Ali, The Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1968), pp. 30-32; Chandra, "Reassessing Aurangzeb", pp. 35-38; and B. N. Pandey's comments in Parliamentary Debates, Rajya Sabha, Vol. 102 (29 July 1977), col. 127. See also Sita Ram Goel, "Some historical questions", Indian Express (16 April 1989), p. 8.

[6] Harbans Mukhia, "Medieval Indian History and the Communal Approach", in Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, and Bipan Chandra, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1969), p. 29.

 

 

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