Aurangzeb: Why is a Mughal emperor who died 300 years ago being debated on social media?

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

  • Published
Portrait of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb known as Alamgir I (1618-1707), ruler of India from 1658 to 1707, 18th century Indian miniature.Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb

A Mughal emperor who died more than 300 years ago has become a hot topic of debate in India in recent months.

Aurangzeb, often described as the "last effective Mughal emperor" ruled India for nearly 50 years from 1658 to 1707 - but he was never a favourite in the eyes of historians.

For a start - he came to the throne after imprisoning his father and having his older brother killed.

And in comparison with other Mughal rulers, he fared badly - his great-grandfather Akbar was described as the benign secular ruler, grandfather Jahangir was known for his love for art and architecture and father Shah Jahan was the great romantic who built the Taj Mahal.

But Aurangzeb, the sixth emperor and a devout Muslim, was often described as a ruthless tyrant who was an expansionist, imposed tough Sharia laws and brought back the discriminatory jizya tax that Hindu residents had to pay in return for protection.

He was also described as someone who hated music and other fine arts, and ordered the destruction of several temples.

All that happened hundreds of years ago - but the hate he's been getting recently has been unprecedented.

It started when the dispute over the Gyanvapi mosque began bubbling in the holy city of Varanasi - the mosque is built on the ruins of the Vishwanath temple, a grand 16th Century Hindu shrine destroyed in 1669 on Aurangzeb's orders. Now, his name is trending on social media with thousands of disparaging references, can be found in court files and has been invoked by India's present-day Hindu nationalist rulers.

In December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about "Aurangzeb's atrocities, his terror" at an event in Varanasi. "He tried to change civilisation by the sword. He tried to crush culture with fanaticism," Mr Modi said.

He mentioned the Mughal ruler's name again last month - speaking on the occasion of the 400th birth anniversary of Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur who was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.

"Even though Aurangzeb severed many heads, he could not shake our faith", Mr Modi said.

His comments seemed to baffle a Canadian-American journalist who asked on Twitter why the Indian Prime Minister was "giving a long speech attacking a Mughal emperor who died 300+ years ago"?

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

In a series of tweets, historian Audrey Truschke responded that Hindu nationalists believed that "Muslims oppressed Hindus for hundreds of years so they deserve to be oppressed today, as retribution for the past".

She said Aurangzeb's name was being used as "a dog whistle to signal that it is acceptable to hate and use violence against present-day Muslims".

In the days since this Twitter discussion, much more hate has been heaped on Aurangzeb.

Describing him as a "butcher", the mayor of the city of Agra said all traces of him should be removed from public places. On Twitter, the Mughal emperor was called "an invader" who wanted to wipe out Hindus and one user suggested that all monuments and buildings by Mughals built over Hindu places of worship should be bulldozed.

On Thursday, his tomb in the western state of Maharashtra was shut to visitors after a regional politician questioned "the need for its existence" and called for its destruction.

Historian Nadeem Rezavi, author and professor of medieval history at Aligarh Muslim University, says Aurangzeb is "a very convenient name" to bring up to demonise India's Muslim minorities who, in recent years, have been at the receiving end of violence from Hindu mobs.

Prof Rezavi says the Mughal emperor did demolish a number of Hindu temples and imposed the discriminatory tax on Hindus, but he was a complicated figure, and not completely evil.

"He gave the highest number of grants for maintaining Hindu temples, he himself was two-thirds Hindu by blood because Akbar, his great-grandfather, had married a Rajput [a warrior Hindu caste], and there were more Rajputs in higher echelons during his rule than that of any other Mughal."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The tomb of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in Maharashtra has been shut to visitors after threats

Despite popular perception, Prof Rezavi says Aurangzeb was not a fundamentalist in his personal life and that he "enjoyed wine, played the veena - an instrument favoured by Hindu goddesses - and more music books were written under him than any other Mughal".

But, he adds that Aurangzeb "invoked religion to cover up for his political failures and strengthen his authority - much like India's present-day leaders.

"But the question to ask is that even if Aurangzeb was all dark and evil, a sectarian and fundamentalist, who destroyed temples, should we be emulating him today?" Prof Rezavi asks.

"He was a tyrant and an emperor who lived 300 years ago. At the time there was no modern democracy, there was no constitution to guide him. But today we are guided by the Indian constitution and laws of parliament, so how can you duplicate the deeds that were done in the 16th and 17th Century?

"So if someone is indulging in the politics of 17th Century, they are committing a far greater crime than Aurangzeb did in the 17th Century," he adds.

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