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December 1, 2018

Fighting phantoms in India


December 1, 2018

Aijaz Zaka Syed

Children break toys they get bored with. Adults invent more ingenious ways of venting their ennui. Like those who are blowing up prized heritage in the Middle East. Can you undo the past with such actions though? If it were that simple, the world would be a different place.

By destroying the past and rewriting history according to their worldview, if some think they can change the present, they’ve got another think coming. You cannot alter the past by demolishing a mosque or temple. Nor can you change the course of history by renaming streets or cities.

Beginning from the renaming of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road to renaming historical city after city, there is now a feeding frenzy in India’s saffron brigade as the 2019 general elections loom. Anything and everything to raise communal temperatures and polarise voters is fair game and welcome.

It’s a no-brainer that while the Mughal emperor is despised for his “anti-Hindu” policies and actions like the imposition of jizya and the numerous wars he fought against various Hindu rulers, the humble fisherman’s son who went on to become the president of the republic is loved for building the successful Indian missile programme and scripting India’s leap into the elite nuclear club.

Some of them have been abusing poor Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister who, in accordance with the changed order, is held responsible for most of independent India’s woes – for naming the popular street in Lutyens’ Delhi after the Mughal emperor. It wasn’t Nehru but the British who had named the leafy boulevard after Aurangzeb.

Indeed, as Professor Ravindran of Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture suggests, Aurangzeb Road wasn’t named in isolation. It is part of a cluster of roads named after Mughal emperors, from Akbar to Shah Jahan.

The British had inherited power from the Mughals. They had understandably no love lost for their predecessors. The British were nearly wiped out when they first challenged the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb, in what is known as the Child’s War.

Yet while laying the foundations of a new capital in New Delhi, the British couldn’t ignore the influence of the Mughal rule in shaping modern India. This is how the most iconic roads and landmarks of the British Indian capital got named after Mughal rulers. All that must change, now that India has decisively turned Right.

The sixth Mughal emperor is said to have seldom lost a battle. But in the new war of perceptions and distorted realities, he stands no chance. In any case, he has been so systematically vilified and demonised over the past century or more in official narratives and popular discourse.

It hardly matters if the accusations and slurs thrown repeatedly at the man who ruled India for more than 50 years and who united the Subcontinent – from Afghanistan to Bengal and from Kashmir to the Indian Ocean – stand independent, objective scrutiny. Aurangzeb’s was the largest empire India ever saw. He was, of course, no saint. He was as complex as his realm. He may have committed many excesses in the course of ruling a vast empire.

Many of his actions, such as the targeting of Sikh gurus and Bohra spiritual leaders, were unfortunate and indefensible. But there are many such actions by many rulers of yore that are unfortunate and indefensible. Everything was apparently fair to enforce order and perpetuate their reign. It is, therefore, wrong to view their actions through a religious prism.

But was Aurangzeb indeed a villain and Hindu-hating bigot? He couldn’t have survived 50 years in power by targeting his own people, 90 percent of whom were Hindus. Doubtless, he fought long and pitched battles with Hindu chieftains. But he also fought similar battles with Muslims. Who can forget his long siege of Golconda and the wars with other Deccan sultanates?

He is famously accused of demolishing a part of Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi. It is seldom explained why. According to historian and former Orissa governor B N Pande, an enraged emperor got part of the temple razed when he learned that the wife of a Hindu raja, who was part of the emperor’s convoy, was dishonored in a temple cellar.

By the way, he also had a beautiful mosque in Deccan demolished, apparently suspecting it to horde the sultan’s riches. Responding to the accusations of bias against Aurangzeb, historian B N. Banerjee writes: “No one should accuse Aurangzeb of being communal-minded. In his administration, Hindus formulated the state policy. A number of non-Muslims, including Hindus, Sikhs, Marathas and Jats, were employed by him in his court”.

Banerjee also rejects the charge of the forced conversion of Hindus by Muslim rulers by arguing that if that were the case, there wouldn’t be nearly five times as many Hindus in India today as compared to Muslims despite the fact that Muslims ruled the country for nearly a thousand years. As for the much-reviled jizya, there’s a simple explanation. If the state collected jizya from non-Muslims, it also collected a similar amount from Muslims in the form of 2.5 percent zakat. Indeed, Muslims paid more in the form of ashr to the state – 10 percent of their crop revenues.

All this, of course, wouldn’t make sense to those who are inseparable from their tinted blinkers. The renaming of Allahabad, founded by Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great at the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, to celebrate his syncretic worldview of Hindu-Muslim unity, is not just unfair to someone who united India, but it is also an affront to the idea of a united India.

But the move has little to do with the saffron reverence for Prayag Raj and more to do with the BJP’s cynical politics of expediency. Pursuing its extremist agenda, it is bent upon wiping out all signs of Islamic heritage from India as well as the country’s much-celebrated cultural and religious pluralism. From renaming cities to getting involved in Ayodhya, everything is nicely-timed, with the ongoing state elections and the general elections which are less than six months away. No price is too great for power.

The writer is an award-winning journalist and editor.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AijazZaka

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