Aurangzeb came to the throne after a bloody civil war, killing his brothers and imprisoning his father. He was a fine soldier and strategist, an expanionist who pushed the borders of the Mughal empire in his 49-year reign. There are several tales of his bravery — of him standing in the midst of an elephant charge as a 14-year-old, of his rolling out his prayer mat in the midst of a raging battle in Central Asia, etc. Even with likely embellishment, the stories make a point.
“He is not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly not mine,” says Irfan Habib, possibly the greatest living authority on the history of the Mughals. “But it’s a mixed picture. We must remember the Mughal Empire attained its largest extent under Aurangzeb, the whole of pre-1947 India, except for Kerala and parts of the Northeast. This strengthened the popular consciousness of India as a country, since political unity was now added to the pre-existing cultural unity — a consciousness so strongly displayed in 1857. Also, if you begin examining such things (as cruelty), who will escape? All our ancient rulers believed in the caste system. And if you look at Buddhist tradition, Ashoka is said to have murdered his brothers too,” says Habib.
In history’s annals, Akbar was the liberal, large-hearted builder of alliances, Jahangir continued most of his good work, and Shah Jahan was the great builder whose memory lives on in the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb, it would seem, has only his cruelty to remember him by.
“To modern eyes, he is perhaps not a pleasant personality, but there was no particularly cruel streak in him. His executions were calculated measures. On the other hand, he was too lenient in respect of nobles, including Rajputs,” says historian Shireen Moosvi.
The reimposition of jiziya, or tax on non-Muslims, which had been abolished by Akbar, has been the indelible black mark against Aurangzeb. In his exhaustive work, Sir Jadunath Sarkar argued that the Emperor’s motive was to force Hindus to convert, and establish a truly Islamic state in India.
Not everyone agrees. In Reassessing Aurangzeb, an essay published in Seminar magazine in 1989, historian Satish Chandra wrote that the reimposition of jiziya was both a political and an ideological move.
“It was ideological in the sense that it marked out Aurangzeb as an orthodox Muslim king. It rallied the clergy to his side by providing them jobs as amins (collectors) of jizyah… Politically, Aurangzeb hoped that this would help in rallying Muslim opinion behind him, not only in his conflicts with the Rajputs and Marathas, but even more in his looming conflict with the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan.”
Aurangzeb levied jiziya in 1679, a good two decades after he came to power. There is an argument that he was forced by a financial squeeze the sprawling empire was facing.
“Manucci, the Italian traveller, held the view that the motive to impose jiziya was to replenish the imperial treasury. In spite of the tax being very regressive in nature there is no evidence of its imposition leading to conversions. Aurangzeb no doubt departed from the policies of preceeding Mughal rulers and, in regard to imposition of the jiziya, there was a serious protest at the court led by no less than Jahan Ara, Aurangzeb’s eldest sister, and many nobles. Incidentally, in case of the heaviest tax, the land tax, no distinction was made between Hindus and Muslims,” says Moosvi.
Aurangzeb is also said to have destroyed and desecrated temples — the protests over the Gyanvapi mosque that is said to have been built on the site of a temple that he destroyed, is just one example. In his essay Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States, Richard Eaton wrote: “Apart from his prohibition on building new temples in Benares, Aurangzeb’s policies respecting temples within imperial domains generally followed those of his predecessors. Viewing temples within their domain as state property, Aurangzeb and Indo-Muslim rulers in general punished disloyal Hindu officers in their service by desecrating temples with which they were associated.”
But Aurangzeb continued the Mughal tradition of giving grants to temples. “There is no doubt over Aurangzeb having destroyed some temples, like the Keshav Rai temple at Mathura. But on the other hand, the extensive grants to Vrindavan temples were maintained; orders for many grants to temples during his reign have been published,” says Habib.
Aurangzeb also had the support of many Rajput nobles, and many Hindus worked for the Empire. “Major figures in the Rajput nobility aligned with Aurangzeb and not with the liberal Dara Shikoh. Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Jaswant Singh were the most trusted, highest-ranking nobles. Prof Athar Ali’s study reveals that non-Muslims in the nobility, in absolute numbers as well as in terms of proportion, instead of declining, rose from about 22 per cent in 1658-78 to 31.6 per cent during 1679-1701,” says Moosvi.
The austere and pious Aurangzeb frowned upon music and merrymaking. But he did have his artistic interests.
“He was a calligrapher. He was interested in the proper transcription of Hindi words in Persian, according to actual pronounciation. So, official spellings of Malwa, Bengal, etc. were changed. In late years of his reign, a Persian account of Indian music, Braj glossary and grammar, called Tuhfatu’l Hind, under the patronage of Jahandar, his grandson, came to be compiled,” says Habib.
In Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, Om Puri played the ambitious but vulnerable prince who felt slighted by his father’s love for his elder brother Dara Shikoh.
“There are one or two movies on him but you can’t see him as a hero. In the time of Akbar or Jahangir, you can see that India had become very secular, but he tipped the scale. In Bharat Ek Khoj, Om Puri gave the right kind of nuance to bring out his flaws and frailties. The fact is that he was an able administrator but also one who contributed to creating schisms. He was the last great Mughal, but not necessarily the best,” says Benegal.
He was also a leader whose frailties find reflection in every age, in every country. As historian Satish Chandra wrote, he was “neither a hero nor a villain, but a somewhat unimaginative politician who failed to understand the societal problems at work in the country, and often took recourse to religious slogans in order to meet complex socio-economic and political problems”.