History has its heroes and villains, and one of the arch villains of Indian history has been Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. We all love to hate him. He is blamed for and is representative of practically everything we hate about Mughal India or ‘Muslim rule’ as we popularly and incorrectly remember it. There is a long list of ‘good’ people he has killed: his elder brother, Dara Shukoh, who was a sufi and of creative mind, Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur, Maratha leader Sambhaji, Sufis like Sarmad; re-imposed the jaziya, demolished temples and forced Hindus to convert to Islam. He is considered a symbol of oppression and tyranny. So, what was so wrong about renaming Aurangzeb Road after the 'much-loved people’s President’, APJ Abdul Kalam?
Firstly, the commonly accepted notion that Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic who oppressed the Hindus is a myth. This idea is part of a larger notion of history, albeit an incorrect one - that with the coming of Mohammad Ghori ((Turkish invasions), began the ‘Muslim’ rule in Indian sub-continent. And that this rule was characterised by oppression of Hindus and destruction of temples. The rulers are believed to be driven by religious zeal and hatred for Hindus. There is little historical evidence to support such an argument, however, the fiction of Hindu oppression in medieval India continues to guide Hindu right wing politics. Such a notion of history divides the past into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods, based on the assumption that personalities and actions of individuals (great men) determined history. And the chief factor determining their personality was religion. This approach to history has long been discarded by scholarship as an inadequate way of understanding complex social processes. We now study Aurangzeb or any other historical personality, in their larger milieu, their actions being shaped by the context and vice versa. Moreover, when Muslim tyranny is invoked, we often forget that all monarchies are oppressive systems. Wars were regularly fought among competing powers through all times in history, and the leaders of these competing groups could often be of the same religion. Similarly, rulers of different religion (and indeed, ‘opposing’ religions, by today’s popular view) would often collaborate for political gains. This is most evident in the relations between Mughals and Marathas, and Mughals and Sikhs chiefs.
As far as temple destruction is concerned, noted historians, Richard Eaton and Richard Davis have pointed out that attacks on temples and temple deities which legitimized a rival ruler, were frequent part of medieval warfare and an accepted part of political behaviour. Eaton’s study of pattern of temple destruction by Turkish armies shows that only those temples which continued to be used by rival rulers to buttress their own authority, were attacked. Temples like those at Khajuraho, which appear to have been abandoned by Chandella rulers before the Turkish armies reach central India, were not destroyed. Another example, cited by Davis, is that of Pallava king Narsimhavarman, looting the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi, in 642 AD. Fifty years later, the armies of the same Chalukyas invaded north India and brought back images of Yamuna and Ganga, looted from the defeated powers there. In early 10th century, the Pratihara king Herambapala seized a solid golden image of Vishnu Vaikuntha when he defeated the Sahi king of Kangra. By the mid 10th century, the same image was seized from the Pratiharas by Chandella king Yasovarman and installed in Lakshmana Temple in Khajuraho. Temples were sites of contestation even before the coming of Mohd. Ghori, and, this pattern continued with the Turkish invasions of 12th century. Thus painting a picture of fanatical and tyrannical ‘Muslim’ rule has no basis in historical evidence. As far as Aurangzeb’s reign is concerned, there are several instances of him giving grants to temples. Those who claim he was anti-Hindu should chew on the fact that in the war of succession between ‘orthodox’ Aurangzeb and his ‘liberal’ brother Dara Shukoh, there were 21 Hindu generals on former’s side and 24 with the latter. Aurangzeb’s supporters included two of the most prominent of Rajputs, Mirza Raja Jai Singh Kachhwaha and Raja Jaswant Singh Rathore. And, Aurangzeb imposed the jaziya tax on Hindus, after the death of Jaswant Singh, when relations with Rathores deteriorated. Thus, political needs and demands of the situation, and not religion alone, determine rulers’ policies.
Further, renaming of Aurangzeb road is not merely an example of contesting interpretations of history. We must look at this issue from the point of view of its potential. What is the motivation for such renaming and what does one gain from it? Also, which group stands to gain? More than an academic dispute, such representation of history is a potent weapon for contemporary political gains. Identification of medieval period as ‘Muslim’ rule and particularly, as oppressive, has led to a popular, common sense understanding of Muslims as cruel and religious fanatics. This feeds into Islamophobia and only leads to further marginalisation of Muslims. Any attempt at affirmative action for the community is seen as Muslim appeasement. Muslims have come to be seen people who should be kept in check, lest they come to power and unleash the same violence again. And, this is to be achieved by assertion of the Hindu identity; which was humiliated with the coming of Muslims, and suffered oppression during the long centuries of ‘Muslim’ rule. Picking out historical characters, making villains out of them, and then seeking retribution by removing their trace, or replacing them with someone desirable; all of this goes towards mobilization of the Hindu population on a communal plank and is meant to make them feel avenged. The dangers of such a representation of history were manifest most obscenely in the demolition of Babri Masjid and the communal violence that followed.
Moreover, we should not mistake this act as a gesture of honouring Kalam. By this single stroke, the government has tried to show that it is not anti-Muslim, but only against ‘bad’ Muslims. Aurangzeb, the ‘bad’ Muslim is replaced by Kalam, the ‘good’ Muslim. Anyone who opposes removal of Aurangzeb’s name, ends up being labelled a dangerous fanatic, fit to be deported to Pakistan. As Gopalkrishna Gandhi argued, if the BJP government was truly serious about honouring the legacy of Kalam, then it could not have ignored Kalam’s opposition to death penalty. Commuting Yakub Memon’s death sentence would have been the most fitting tribute to the late President, as Gandhi argued. And that the Delhi government of AAP should have facilitated and celebrated this move of renaming, puts a question mark on its intent.
Removing Auragnzeb’s name from a particular road is not the end of the story. It was not too long ago when BPJ decided to celebrate the ‘Jat King’ Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh at Aligarh Muslim University insisting that he was not being given his due in a ‘Muslim’ university. The latest is Delhi BJP spokesperson, Ashwini Upadhyay’s demand that Shahjahan Road be renamed as the Emperor was the epitome of lust. This comes only a day after Union Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma pointed out that it was right to rename Aurangzeb road after APJ Abdul Kalam, as the latter was a humanist and a nationalist despite being a Muslim. Those who revel in correcting history and righting the injustices of the oppressive Muslim rule must ask themselves, what is more fanatical: a road named after Aurangzeb, or believing that all Muslims are anti-human and anti-national.