In yet another move to rewrite history, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) on Monday renamed Dalhousie Road located close to Rashtrapati Bhawan as Dara Shikoh Road. The government’s decision to remove the name of Lord Dalhousie, who was the British governor general of India between 1848 and 1856, and replace it with Mughal prince and Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh’s is quite a political statement since very rarely have historical personalities representing non-Hindu identities been patronised by the present government. In fact, a couple of years back the same government had firmly decided to do away with the name of Mughal prince Aurangzeb from a prominent Delhi roads. Incidentally, Dara Shikoh was the brother of Aurangazeb and was killed by the latter.
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The differing treatments to the two Mughal characters, is quite revealing of the stereotypes formed in popular historical understanding. Very often it is the flawed historical perceptions that serves as ideal meat for modern day politician to cash in upon. Aurangzeb is popularly perceived to be a staunch Sunni Muslim and a religious orthodox who alienated the Hindus of Mughal India. Dara Shikoh on the other hand has been over and again upheld by historians as one who believed in secularism, bringing together the two religions of Islam and Hinduism. The fact that Aurangzeb defeated and killed Dara Shikoh in the battle of succession to the Mughal throne is what makes the latter a particularly likeable personality for Hindu right wing to uphold as the exemplification of tolerance towards Hinduism being destroyed by Islam. Dara Shikoh came to signify exactly the kind of Muslim that is acceptable to a Hindu nationalist.
What one conveniently misses out is that the practise of history writing is perhaps just as politically motivated as that of rewriting history. The popular perceptions associated with Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh have to do with the way popular history has characterised them over the years. A closer examination would reveal that neither Aurangzeb, a religious bigot who was harsh towards Hindus, nor Dara Shikoh declined due to their religious affinities. Rather, it were the political realities of the time that were to determine their fate.
How history favours Dara Shikoh
The eldest son of emperor Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh was the heir apparent to the Mughal throne, favoured by his father. It is the religious insight of the Mughal prince that marks him out from most other Mughal rulers. He was seen as inheriting the qualities of his ancestor Akbar, in that he promoted religious pluralism and syncretism. Dara Shikoh leaned towards the Chishti order of Sufism that is known to have promoted tolerance. He is renowned to have been a highly erudite and enlightened personality, who drew inspiration from not just Islamic texts, but also writings of other religious authorities.
His interest in Hindu religious treatise is particularly noted by all. Having realised the philosophical depth in the Hindu scriptures, he is said to have commissioned the translation of all the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian for Muslim scholars to read. Elaborating upon the syncretism between Sufism and Vedic philosophies, he wrote the Majma-ul-Bahrain (The confluence of two seas). He was of the belief that India too had its own prophet and that the essential attributes of both Islam and Hinduism were identical. Dara Shikoh’s emphasis on secularism was the source of discomfort for Islamic scholars who condemned him.
While Dara Shikoh was the favoured heir of Shah Jahan, he was unable to reign on the throne since he was defeated in the battle of Samugarh by his younger brother Aurangzeb, who went on to rule the Mughal empire. The battle of Samugarh is often seen as a tipping point in the history of the Mughal empire. Writing about the conflict between the two Mughal princes, historian Abraham Eraly says that, “”India was at a crossroads in the mid-seventeenth century; it had the potential of moving forward with Dara Shikoh, or of turning back to medievalism with Aurangzeb.”
Historians have characterised the battle of Samugarh in several ways. Some refer to it as the moment that pushed the Mughal empire towards its decline due to the orthodox policies of Aurangzeb. Others call it a conflict between Islamic and Hindu forces, Hinduism being represented by Dara Shikoh while Aurangzeb represented Islam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Dara Shikoh gained the sympathy and favour of modern day Hindutva right wing, who saw in him an effort to save Hinduism from the religious fanaticism of Aurangzeb.
However, as explained by professor Munis D. Farooqui, the condemnation faced by Dara Shikoh by Islamic authorities and his inability to defeat Aurangzeb need to be located in the former’s lack of capacity in political maneuvering and warcraft. Further, during Dara Shikoh’s time, the Chishti order of Sufism had ceased to have a powerful impact on the Mughal court, implicating that Dara Shikoh was really fighting a losing battle. Farooqui also goes on to explain that contrary to what is firmly believed by Dara Shikoh, he was in fact a staunch believer and practitioner of Sufism, and had referred to his love for Islam in his dying moments as well.
How history disfavours Aurangzeb
The Hindutva right wing’s liking for Dara Shikoh essentially stems from the contradiction he presented to his brother and killer Aurangzeb. The religious pluralism championed by Dara Shikoh was in stark contrast to the Islamic orthodoxy upheld by Aurangzeb. However, recent scholarship has shown that the characterisation of Aurangzeb as a bigot is flawed and stems from nationalistic interests.
Aurangzeb’s conflict with Hindu rulers, particularly Shivaji, need to be understood in political terms rather than in the form of a religious conflict. As explained by historian Audrey Truschke in an interview to the Hindu, Mughals acted violently towards all religious opponents, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh alike. The violence was rarely ever motivated by religious motivations. Other historians have pointed to documentary evidence to show that Aurangzeb was in all probability a pragmatic ruler, if not a tolerant one.
When a right leaning government decides to impose the name of Dara Shikoh on one road and erase the name of Aurangzeb from another, the complexities of history and history writing get completely overlooked.