The disintegration of the Mughal Empire followed rapidly after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. During his long reign of 49 years, Aurangzeb had done much to extend the frontiers of the empire he had inherited from his father, Shah Jahan, but the extensive military campaigns he conducted, particularly in the Deccan, created a severe financial drain on his resources. The burden of oppressive taxation fell on the peasantry, and political feudatories who owed their positions to Aurangzeb were constantly breaking loose from the emperor’s control. But more often than not, it is the religious policies pursued by Aurangzeb that have been cited as one of the principal reasons for Aurangzeb’s undoing, and among many Hindus the name of Aurangzeb evokes the same passionate hatred as do the names of Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad of Ghori. With the ascent of the Hindu right to political power in India, a great many people have been emboldened to further attack Aurangzeb. A brief consideration of Aurangzeb’s policies, consequently, is in order, but not only to understand the nature of his reign, or the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in India over a period of time, important as are these questions; it is also imperative to ask questions about how our histories are written and how notions of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ get constructed and become part of the political vocabulary.

A year after he assumed power in 1658, Aurangzeb appointed muhtasaibs, or censors of public morals, from the ranks of the ulema or clergy in every large city. He was keen that the sharia or Islamic law be followed everywhere, and that practices abhorrent to Islam, such as the consumption of alcohol and gambling, be disallowed in public. But he was at the outset faced with one problem, namely that the treatment he had meted out to his own father, subjecting him to imprisonment, was scarcely consistent with the image he sought to present of himself as a true believer of the faith. Accordingly, Aurangzeb sought recognition of his ascent to the Mughal Emperor’s throne from the ruler of the holy places in the Hijaz, and he became a great patron of the Holy Places. He is reported as well to have spent seven years memorizing the Koran, and unlike his predecessors, his reign was marked by austerity. The monumental architecture that characterized the reigns of Akbar and Shah Jahan — the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal, Shahjahanabad, among others — held little interest for Aurangzeb, and similarly the musicians who had adorned the courts of his predecessors were dismissed.

From the standpoint of Aurangzeb’s Hindu subjects, the real impact of his policies may have started to have been felt in 1668-69. Hindu religious fairs were outlawed in 1668, and an edict of the following year prohibited construction of Hindu temples as well as the repair of old ones. Also in 1669, Aurangzeb discontinued the practice, which had been originated by Akbar, of appearing before his subjects and conferring darshan on them, or letting them receive his blessings as one might, in Hinduism, take the darshan of a deity and so receive its blessings. Though the duty (internal customs fees) paid on goods was 2.5%, double the amount was levied on Hindu merchants from 1665 onwards. In 1679, Aurangzeb went so far as to reimpose, contrary to the advice of many of his court nobles and theologians, the jiziya or graduated property tax on non-Hindus, and according to one historical source, elephants were deployed to crush the resistance in the area surrounding the Red Fort of Hindus who refused to submit to jiziya collectors. The historian John F. Richards opines, quite candidly, that “Aurangzeb’s ultimate aim was conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. Whenever possible the emperor gave out robes of honor, cash gifts, and promotions to converts. It quickly became known that conversion was a sure way to the emperor’s favor” (p. 177).

It can scarcely be doubted, once the historical evidence is weighed, that the religious policies of Aurangzeb were discriminatory towards Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslims. Nonetheless, numerous inferences have been drawn from the literature which are not warranted by the historical record. Though many historians have written of conversions of Hindus, surprisingly little, if any, evidence has been offered to suggest how far the conversion of Hindus took place, and whether there was any official policy beyond one of mere encouragement that led to the conversion of Hindus. Then, as now, conversion would have been more attractive to the vast number of Hindus living under the tyranny of caste oppression, and it isn’t clear at all how the kind of inducements that Aurangzeb offered — if indeed he did so for the purposes of conversion, as Richards maintains — are substantially different from the inducements that modern, purportedly secular, politicians offer to people in their electoral constituencies. And what of the popular representation of Aurangzeb as a ferocious destroyer of Hindu temples and idols? Hindu temples in the Deccan were seldom destroyed, notwithstanding Aurangzeb’s extensive military campaigns in that area. True, in north India, some Hindu temples were undoubtedly torn down, but much work needs to be done to establish the precise circumstances under which these acts of destruction took place. The famed Keshava Rai temple in Mathura was one such temple, but here Aurangzeb seems to have been motivated by a policy of reprisal, since the Jats in the region had risen in revolt. Like his predecessors, Aurangzeb continued to confer land grants (jagirs) upon Hindu temples, such as the Someshwar Nath Mahadev temple in Allahabad, Jangum Badi Shiva temple in Banaras, and Umanand temple in Gauhati, and if one put this down merely to expediency, then why cannot one view the destruction of temples as a matter of expediency as well, rather than as a matter of deliberate state policy? Moreover, recent historical work has shown that the number of Hindus employed as mansabdars, or as senior court officials and provincial administrators, under Aurangzeb’s reign rose from 24.5% in the time of his father Shah Jahan to 33% in the fourth decade of his own rule. One has the inescapable feeling that then, as now, the word ‘fanaticism’ comes rather too easily to one’s lips to characterize the actions of people acting, or claiming to act, under the name of Islam. It is also notable that as a firm Sunni, Aurangzeb dealt as firmly with the Shia kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda as he did with the Hindus or Muslims. One can safely assert that Aurangzeb acted to preserve and enhance the interests of his own Muslim community, and restored the privileges of the Sunni ulema, but his actions with respect to the Hindus, Shias, and others are more open to interpretation.

Suggested Reading:

Ali, M. Athar Ali. The Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1968.

Chandra, Satish. “Reassessing Aurangzeb”, Seminar, no. 364: Mythifying History (December 1989).

Mukhia, Harbans. “Medieval Indian History and the Communal Approach”, in Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, and Bipan Chandra, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969.

Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; Indian ed., Delhi: Foundation Books, 1995. New Cambridge History of India, I:5.