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Aurangzeb and the Denial of Bigotry

Raman Khanna is a member of the National Leadership Council of the Hindu American Foundation. The opinions expressed below are his own
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Is Aurangzeb really a hero to be commemorated with a road?

...(Robert E.) Lee once asserted in a letter that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” But in that same letter, he argued that there was no sense protesting the peculiar institution and that its demise should be left to “a wise Merciful Providence.” In the meantime, Lee was happy to continue, in Lincoln’s words, wringing his “bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” -- Ta Nehisi Coates, Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?

Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, a largely sympathetic portrayal of the 6th Mughal Emperor, pushes back forcefully against the conventional wisdom (among both Aurangzeb’s admirers and critics) that he was a zealot who soaked India in blood. Aurangzeb has long served as a foil to his pluralistic great grandfather Akbar, a bit of received wisdom Truschke sets out to overturn:

Moreover, grounded historical claims can temper the passions of the present that so often present Aurangzeb as something he never was. That my suggested intervention in current distortions of Aurangzeb is based on serious history is especially germane. --Truschke, Audrey. Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King (Kindle Locations 212-214). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The book makes for depressing, infuriating reading, but not for its “serious history”. In fact, in her approach, Truschke ends up betraying her liberal instincts and ultimately embracing the tactics of American historians and artists like Dunning, Mitchell, Griffith, and others who denied -- who continue to deny -- that the US Civil War as about anything other than slavery, and American racial disparities are about anything but racism.

The accusations of bigotry against Aurangzeb and his court, likes those against the American South, are profound and disturbing. Jadunath Sarkar, a historian in Raj India and a 20th century authority on the emperor, tersely enumerated the following in the early 20th century in an introduction to The Anecdotes of Aurangzib (pp. 11-12 of the PDF, emphasis mine):

Meantime Aurangzib had begun to give free play to his religious bigotry. In April, 1669 he ordered the provincial governors to “destroy all the temples and schools of the infidels and to utterly put down their teachings and religious practices.” The wandering Hindu saint Uddhav Bairagi was confined in the police lockup. The Vishwanath temple at Benares was pulled down in August 1669. The grandest shrine of Mathura, Kesav Raiʹs temple, built at a cost of 33 lakhs of Rupees by the Bundela Rajah Birsingh Dev, was razed to the ground in January, 1670, and a mosque built on its site. “The idols of this temple were brought to Agra and buried under the steps of Jahanaraʹs mosque that they might be constantly trodden on” by the Muslims going in to pray. About this time the temple of Somnath on the south coast of the Kathiawar peninsula was demolished, and the offering of worship there ordered to be stopped. The smaller religious buildings that suffered havoc were beyond count. The Rajput War of 167980 was accompanied by the destruction of 240 temples in Mewar alone, including the famous one of Someshwar and three grand ones at Udaipur. In the loyal State of Jaipur 67 temples were demolished. On 2nd April, 1679, the jazia or polltax on nonMuslims was revived. The poor people who appealed to the Emperor and blocked a road abjectly crying for its remission, were trampled down by elephants at his order and dispersed. By another ordinance (March, 1695), “all Hindus except Rajputs were forbidden to carry arms or ride elephants, palkis, or Arab and Persian horses.” “With one stroke of his pen he dismissed all the Hindu clerks from office.” Custom duties were abolished on the Muslims and doubled on the Hindus.

Truschke has criticized Sarkar (Kindle Locations 1395-1397) for misdating a manuscript from 1730 to 1700 (Kindle Location 1502) and for errors in translation (1514-1516). But the charges themselves she largely leaves to stand. As she herself acknowledges:

Aurangzeb also oversaw temple desecrations. For example, in 1645 he ordered mihrabs (prayer niches, typically located in mosques) erected in Ahmedabad’s Chintamani Parshvanath Temple, built by the Jain merchant Shantidas. (Kindle Locations 1151-1152).

And also his levying of the religious tax (Kindle Locations 969-972) and his persecution of heterodox Muslims (1052-1055).

In Jamelle Bouie’s and Rebecca Onion’s assessment of common “slavery wasn’t so bad” tropes, I was struck by this line (emphasis mine):

While working on our Slate Academy podcast, The History of American Slavery, we encountered many types of slavery denial — frequently disguised as historical correctives and advanced by those who want to change (or end) conversation about the deep impact of slavery on American history.

Truschke also works mightily, in the guise of a historical corrective, to change or end the conversation. Thus, if Aurangzeb destroyed temples, Truschke blames the victims (emphasis mine):

On the contrary, temples were widely understood— by both Hindus and Muslims— as linked with political action. The Sanskrit Brihatsamhita, written perhaps in the sixth century, warns, “If a Shiva linga, image, or temple breaks apart, moves, sweats, cries, speaks, or otherwise acts with no apparent cause, this warns of the destruction of the king and his territory.” … Some Hindu kings even commissioned Sanskrit poetry to celebrate and memorialize such actions. Indo-Muslim rulers, such as Aurangzeb, followed suit in considering Hindu temples legitimate targets of punitive state action. (Kindle Locations 1169-1175)

Slavery denialists do much the same, insisting (as quoted by Bouie and Onion), “Slavery was common throughout Africa, with entire tribes becoming enslaved after losing battles. Tribal chieftains often sold their defeated foes to white slave-traders.” Or, “An estimated 3,000 blacks owned a total of 20,000 black slaves in the year 1860. One study concluded that 28 per cent of free blacks owned slaves, which is a far higher percentage than that of free Whites who owned slaves.”

Or, when Truschke argues that the glaring bigotry of an order is blunted by incomplete adherence (emphasis mine):

In 1672 Aurangzeb issued an order recalling all endowed lands given to Hindus and reserving all such future land grants for Muslims, possibly as a concession to the ulama. If strictly enforced, this move would have been a significant blow to Hindu and Jain religious communities, but historical evidence suggests otherwise. (Kindle Locations 1129-1131).

Other scholars have pointed out additional temple demolitions not counted by Eaton, such as two orders to destroy the Somanatha Temple in 1659 and 1706 (the existence of a second order suggests that the first was never carried out). (Kindle Locations 1149-1151)

She is merely reconstituting the myth of the kindly, rational slave owner who never fully exercised the awful prerogatives to which she/he was entitled:  “Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.”

Elsewhere Truschke applies alternative motivations from religious bigotry for temple destructions (emphasis mine):

For example, Aurangzeb ordered Benares’s Vishvanatha Temple demolished in 1669 and Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple brought down in 1670. In both instances Aurangzeb sought to punish political missteps by temple associates and ensure future submission to the Mughal state. (Kindle Locations 1165-1167).

Anyone familiar with American history will see the parallel to the “States Rights” argument which elevates more sympathetic motivations over the obvious, less sympathetic ones.

Truschke also argues that since Aurangzeb employed more Hindus than his ancestor, this somehow complicates the intolerance of his temple destructions:

But between 1679 and 1707 Aurangzeb increased Hindu participation at the elite levels of the Mughal state by nearly 50 per cent. Hindus rose to 31.6 per cent of the Mughal nobility. This dramatic rise featured a substantial influx of Marathas as a strategic aspect of expanding Mughal sovereignty across the Deccan… For Aurangzeb, Raghunatha’s religious identity was irrelevant to his memorialized status as a great officer of the Mughal Empire. (Kindle Locations 788-808).

This argument closely tracks the I can’t be racist, I have black friends line.

Truschke’s attempts to spin Aurangzeb’s actions as motivated by something – anything, other than bigotry also lead her, like American denialists, to create a tragic hero halo around her protagonist such that we might better identify with and excuse him. Truschke acknowledges his austere, tormented piety and how it led him to abstain from and ban alcohol and opium, sew prayer caps, and memorize the Quran (e.g. Kindle Locations 915-919, 932). But this piety was apparently not the motivation for his institution of a religious tax, destruction of (“at most a few dozen”) temples, and his writs banning Hindus from receiving new endowed land grants -- instead these were opportunistic attempts to satiate the ulema (e.g. Kindle Locations 969-970). The tragic hero halo around Aurangzeb, like the one constructed around men like Robert E. Lee who (like Aurangzeb) “warred a lot and so killed many”, does not in this case lead us to recognize our own bigotry, but to obscure bigotry itself.

Spinning Aurangzeb’s actions and motivations, and turning him into a tragic hero, ultimately lead Truschke to copy American denialists in a third way -- ignoring the milieu of institutionalized bigotry that helps creates such men (and that they go on to perpetuate). Truschke’s entreaty to judge Aurangzeb as “a man of his times, not ours” (Kindle Location 1443), curiously does not further explore “his times” in terms of historical forces, the perspectives of the subaltern, or institutions.

If Aurangzeb merely used religious motivations to mask his politically motivated actions, what made him think religious motivations were the important ones to state, and for what audiences? If Aurangzeb’s biographers invented thousands of examples of temple destructions to flatter their patron, why did they choose to exaggerate such atrocities rather than play them down? If Aurangzeb employed increasing numbers of Hindus, was this a sign of open-mindedness or merely bowing to the realities of administering an unwieldy empire, and did any Muslim courtiers actually lose out as a result? If multiple Hindu and Sikh leaders rebelled against him, why did they risk so much against such a fierce enemy? Though she hardly lacked for space (her book is 152 page including notes) I waited in vain for Truschke to explore these questions as US historians have done in asking why it was so difficult for Thomas Jefferson to free his slaves or for Robert E. Lee to retire rather than fight for the slave power.

Against all probability, in America, we are finally at a point where denialists are receiving forceful pushback in both academic and popular circles. General Robert E. Lee himself is acknowledged (by liberals) as a villain or (by conservatives) as a villain deserving some sympathy. Lee’s statue’s removal from New Orleans, was movingly described by its mayor:

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl's eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story?...

This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. …

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed.  It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

All of these statements surely apply to Aurangzeb. He was either an exceptional bigot, an average-for-his-time bigot or a cynical tyrant who found it expedient to pose as a bigot for a bigoted audience of advisors, religious scholars, nobles, and commoners. None of these options cover him in glory and none can really be explained any better to a Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or for that matter Shiite Muslim student in India’s capital than could Lee’s traitorous generalship in service of slavery and White supremacy to a black student in New Orleans.

Truschke has implied in her various tweets and interviews that the renaming of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi is misguided at best. Which makes me wonder: did Truschke oppose the removal of Lee’s statue from New Orleans given he, too, was merely a man of his times? And if she supported the removal of his statue, as I think most liberals -- myself included -- did, what exactly is so different about renaming a road in India? Is Aurangzeb really a hero to be commemorated with a road?

As Adam Serwer notes, again about Lee:

We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time.  We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Can Truschke really argue the opposite of her protagonist?