Untangling myth from fiction: Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s Reign of Power

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In a polarized world that we live in (which is, sadly, getting ever more polarized now by every minute and hour), we have often assumed that what is good for “our” people had to be bad for the “other” people. A glaring example is the personality of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled India for 50 years. Of all the Muslim rulers who ruled vast territories of India from 712 to 1857 C.E., probably no one generates as much controversy as Aurangzeb. He has been hailed as anyone from a “Saintly or Pauper Emperor” to one who “tried hard to convert Hindus into Muslims.” Depending on one’s religious rearing, one will favor one view over the other. For example, most Hindus castigate Aurangzeb as a religious Muslim, who was anti-Hindu, who taxed them, who tried to convert them, who discriminated them away from high administrative positions, who interfered in their religious matters. On the other hand, Muslims consider him to be one of the best rulers who was a pious, scholarly, saintly, un-biased, liberal, magnanimous, tolerant, competent and far-sighted ruler. To prove the view of the former group, a close scrutiny of the Government-approved text books in schools and colleges across post-partition India (i.e., after 1947) is sufficient.[1] The second group depends mostly on pre-colonial (and some pre-partition) history, land-grant deeds and other available records.

It is difficult to untangle this historical mess without scrutinizing the accusations against Aurangzeb rationally. Fortunately, in recent years quite a few Hindu historians have come out in the open disputing those allegations. For example, historian Babu Nagendranath Banerjee [2] rejected the accusation of forced conversion of Hindus by Muslim rulers by stating that if that was their intention then in India today there would not be nearly four times as many Hindus compared to Muslims, despite the fact that Muslims had ruled for nearly a thousand years. Banerjee challenged the Hindu hypothesis that Aurangzeb was anti-Hindu by reasoning that if the latter were truly guilty of such bigotry, how could he appoint a Hindu as his military commander-in-chief? Surely, he could have afforded to appoint a competent Muslim general in that position. Banerjee further stated: “No one should accuse Aurangzeb of being communal minded. In his administration, the state policy was formulated by Hindus. Two Hindus held the highest position in the State Treasury. Some prejudiced Muslims even questioned the merit of his decision to appoint non-Muslims to such high offices. The Emperor refuted that by stating that he had been following the dictates of the Shariah (Islamic Law) which demands appointing right persons in right positions.” During Aurangzeb’s long reign of 50 years, many Hindus, notably Jaswant Singh, Raja Rajrup, Kabir Singh, Arghanath Singh, Prem Dev Singh, Dilip Roy, and Rasik Lal Crory, held very high administrative positions.

Two of the highest ranked generals, Jaswant Singh and Jaya Singh, in Aurangzeb’s administration were Hindus. Other notable Hindu generals who commanded a garrison of two to five thousand soldiers were Raja Vim Singh of Udaypur, Indra Singh, Achalaji and Arjuji. One wonders if Aurangzeb was hostile to Hindus, why would he position all these Hindus to high positions of authority, especially, in the military, who could have mutinied against him and removed him from his throne?

Most Hindus like Akbar over Aurangzeb for his multi-ethnic court where Hindus were favored. Historian Shri Sharma states that while Emperor Akbar had 14 Hindu Mansabdars (high officials) in his court, Aurangzeb actually had 148 Hindu high officials in his court. (Ref: Mughal Government) But this fact is somewhat less known. It does not require much intelligence to understand the difference between 14 and 148. But when truth is hostage to bigotry, facts are substituted for fiction, 148 may appear to be smaller than 14 to disingenuous historians, and that is an unfortunate reality we face.

Some of the Hindu historians have accused Aurangzeb of demolishing Hindu Temples. How factual is this accusation against a man, who has been known to be a saintly man, a strict adherent of Islam? The Qur’an prohibits any Muslim to impose his will on a non-Muslim by stating that “There is no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an: Surah al-Baqarah). The Surah al-Kafiroon (The Unbelievers) clearly states: “To you is your religion and to me is mine.” It would be totally unbecoming of a learned scholar of Islam of his caliber, as Aurangzeb was known to be, to do things which are contrary to the dictates of the Qur’an.

Interestingly, the 1946 edition of history text book, Etihash Parichaya (Introduction to History), used in Bengal, published by the Hindustan Press, 10 Ramesh Dutta Street, Calcutta, for the 5th and 6th graders states: “If Aurangzeb had the intention of demolishing temples to make way for mosques, there would not have been a single temple standing erect in India. On the contrary, Aurangzeb donated huge estates for use as Temple sites and support thereof in Benares, Kashmir and elsewhere. The official documentations for these land grants are still extant.”

A stone inscription in the historic Balaji or Vishnu Temple, located north of Chitrakut Balaghat, still shows that it was commissioned by the Emperor himself. The proof of Aurangzeb’s land grant for famous Hindu religious sites in Kasi, Varanasi can easily be verified from the deed records extant at those sites. The same text book reads: “During the 50-year reign of Aurangzeb, not a single Hindu was forced to embrace Islam. He did not interfere with any Hindu religious activities.” (p. 138) Alexander Hamilton, a British historian, toured India towards the end of Aurangzeb’s 50-year reign and observed that every one was free to serve and worship God in his own way.

These above references clearly show that accusations of forced conversion and religious intolerance are false. It is also evident that since the independence of India in 1947, there has been an overt attempt by revisionist, bigoted Hindu historians in India to malign the Muslim history.

Now let us deal with Aurangzeb’s imposition of Jizya tax which had drawn severe criticism from many Hindu historians. It is true that Jizya was lifted during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir and that Aurangzeb later reinstated this. Before I delve into the subject of Aurangzeb’s Jizya tax, or taxing the non-Muslims, it is worthwhile to point out that Jizya is nothing more than a war tax which was collected only from able-bodied young non-Muslim male citizens living in a Muslim country who did not want to volunteer for the defense of the country. That is, no such tax was collected from non-Muslims who volunteered to defend the country. This tax was not collected from women, and neither from immature males nor from disabled or old male citizens. For payment of such taxes, it became incumbent upon the Muslim government to protect the life, property and wealth of its non-Muslim citizens. If for any reason the government failed to protect its citizens, especially during a war, the taxable amount was returned.

It should be pointed out here that while Jizya tax was collected from able-bodied non-Muslim adult males who did not volunteer to join war efforts in a Muslim-administered country, a similar form of war tax was also collected from able-bodied Muslim adult males who refused to join war efforts to defend the country. There was, therefore, no discrimination between able-bodied Muslim males and able-bodied non-Muslim males when it came to the payment of war-tax, as long as the person in question would not volunteer in war-efforts for defense of the Muslim-administered state. Zakat (2.5% of savings) and ‘Ushr (10% of agricultural products) were collected from all Muslims, who owned some wealth (beyond a certain minimum, called Nisab). They also had to pay sadaqah, fitrah and Khums. None of these taxes were collected from any non-Muslim. As a matter of fact, the per capita tax collection from Muslims was several fold that of non-Muslims.

I would also like to state here that before the advent of Islam in India, Rajputs living in western India used to collect a similar form of Jizya or war tax which they called “Fix” tax. (Ref: Early History of India by Vincent Smith) War tax was not a sole monopoly among the Indian or Muslim rulers. Historian Dr. Tripathy mentions a number of countries in Europe where war-tax was practiced. (Ref: Some Aspects of Muslim Administration by Sri Tripathy)

Let us now return to Aurangzeb. In his book “Mughal Administration,” Sir Jadunath Sarkar, [3] foremost historian on the Mughal dynasty, mentions that during Aurangzeb’s reign in power, nearly 65 types of taxes were abolished, which resulted in a yearly revenue loss of 50 million Rupees from the state treasury. It is also worth mentioning here that Aurangzeb did not impose Jizya in the beginning of his reign but introduced it after 16 years during which 80 types of taxes were abolished. Other historians stated that when Aurangzeb abolished eighty taxes no one thanked him for his generosity. But when he imposed only one, and not heavy at all, people began to show their displeasure. (Ref: Vindication of Aurangzeb)

I could see how even fair-minded individuals like Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen may have been deceived by the deadly venoms of dishonest, prejudiced historians whose sole aim has been to smear Muslim history. Such intellectual dishonesty by historians is dangerous – more explosive and more damaging than nuclear bombs. We have already seen its hideous effect with the destruction of Muslim historic sites (including the Babri Mosque) and recent riots in India that killed thousands of Muslims. Let us not fall into the trap set by those who want to “neatly divide our world.” Let truth vanquish falsehood.

Notes:

[1]. For example, see Shri Binoy Ghosh’s Bharatjaner Etihash (Bengali for: History of Indian People), Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

[2]. Quoted in Chepe Rakha Itihash (The History –” Hushed Up) by G. A. Murtaza, Barddhaman, India.

[3]. He demonstrated his vast knowledge of Persian-language (the official language during the Mughal period) sources. However, he was a Euro-centric historian and thus, not flawless in historical accounts. He served as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta (1926-28).

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