All historical figures, heroes and villains are imperfect. Some are deified and demonized disproportionately by writers, political parties, nations and communities to achieve some ideological or political goals in the present. Ideally, we should avoid excessive deification or demonisation of any historical figure. It is always a good idea to accept facts and question myths that are propagated in the mainstream discourse.
Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor has been projected as a villain in modern Indian history by a large majority of historians and writers (including Jawaharlal Nehru). To counter such an opinion, one has to be a genius or a fool or a healthy combination of both. So, I was curious to read a contrarian opinion on the emperor.
So, I picked up the book on Aurangzeb by an American researcher named Audrey Truschke. I got to know about the author through her vocal and provocative Twitter profile before I came across her book. It is a concise and well written book ( in terms of language and readability). I managed to finish it in a couple of days.
I did learn new things about Aurangzeb from Truschke. The fact that he is not buried in a grand tomb like his predecessors is supposed to be a sign of humility and piety of Aurangzeb. I found myself agreeing with Truschke on this point. The fact that he employed many Hindus and Shia Muslims in his nobility indicates that he might not have been a mad bigot.
In the initial years of his reign, Aurangzeb followed many of the practices started by Akbar. However, he opted for a puritanical approach in the later years of his reign. Many modern narratives tend to ignore the saner aspects emperor’s rule. But, when I finished the book, I felt as though I had encountered an expert in whitewashing history. Why do I say this?
The aim of the book is well established in its first chapter — to humanise the Mughal emperor. Ideologically motivated projects like this often end up in tricky positions. The book insists on ranting against present-day politicians rather than investigate the life of the controversial Mughal emperor. Of course, the debate on Aurangzeb in today’s India needs to be dealt in a book about him. But that should not become a writer’s obsession.
Truschke is particularly concerned (or even pained) about renaming a Aurangzeb road in New Delhi. Thereafter, the author goes on to find all facts that suit her narrative and drills her subjective opinions into the minds of the reader.
The author has acquired a naive and blatantly biased routine while analysing historical sources. Whenever the historical source confirms to her narrative, she does not question its authenticity. However, when the source contains any material that jeopardises her narrative, she obscures its contents and discredits them without giving strong reasons.
This bias comes out very blatantly when she tries to set the record straight on temple desecration under Aurangzeb’s rule. This exercise in verbal jugglery leads to a set of contradictory statements in a span of just two pages. I list these contradictory statements below:
(1) Of tens the tens of thousands of Hindu and Jain temples located within Mughal domains, most, although not all, still stood at the end of Aurangzeb’s reign
(2) Nobody knows the exact number of temples demolished or pillaged on Aurangzeb’s orders, and we never will.
(3) The maasir-i-alamgiri, overall presented Aurangzeb’s reign through the eyes of Islamic conquest sometimes changing facts to suit the author’s tastes
(4) The maasir-i-alamgiri has a noted tendency to exaggerate the number of temples demolished by Aurangzeb, which adds credence to its acknowledgement here that such events were unusual and unexpected”
(5) We stand on firmer ground in reconstructing the reasons that prompted Aurangzeb to target specific Hindu temples while leaving the vast majority untouched
Statement (3) is not substantiated with any facts or valid reason and its motive is exposed by the statement (4). The fact that the maasir-i-alamgirihad data on temple destruction destroys the credibility of the statement (2). Statements (1) and (5) are nothing but a crooked way of telling the reader to ignore the temples destroyed by Aurangzeb because he spared a large number of temples. This is hilarious and tragic at the same time. Truschke intends to preserve her scholarship while trying to be an Aurangzeb fangirl.
The narrative gets even wilder as she goes on to rationalise temple desecration. This quote blew my mind.
“ Akbar took Brahmins to task for misrepresenting Hindu texts to lower castes and hoped that translating Sanskrit texts into Persian would prompt these arrogant leaders to reform their ways. […]
How can arrogant leaders be forced to mend their ways by translating Sanskrit texts to Persian? Correct me if I am being a dumb-ass here. If I was an arrogant leader, I would not give a damn about the translation of Sanskrit texts into Persian. She goes on to give another bizarre reason for temple desecration. It is wilder than fiction.
Aurangzeb similarly evinced concern with elite Brahmins deceiving common Hindus about their own religion and was perhaps especially alarmed that Muslims were falling prey to charlatans. Brahmins may even have profited financially from such ventures.
The French traveller Jean de Thevenot opined that Brahmins were numerous in Benares and ‘find their profit’ in lavish festivals that drew large crowds. In such cases, Mughal royal obligations demanded strong interventions to prevent their subjects from being hoodwinked
For most temples in Benares and elsewhere, Aurangzeb ordered Mughal officials to investigate alleged dubious practices. But in the case of certain institutions, including the Vishwanath and Keshava Deva Temples, he deemed demolition appropriate.
This is a bizarre interpretation of facts which is based on conjectures. The phrases that have been used by author are revealing. ‘May even have profited’, ‘alleged dubious practices’ show that the author does not have strong evidence to back up her claims. Based on this unstable foundation she goes on to define the appropriate royal behaviour in those hypothetical circumstances.
There are several instances where the author shows similar tendencies. The reader can either see through the narrative or consciously choose to ignore it while reading.
By the time a reader reaches the end of the book he or she is either convinced about Truschke’s ‘scholarship’ or the lack of it. I doubt if any serious reader can come up with a third opinion.