Top critical review
Poorly written inaccurate narrative
Reviewed in India on 23 January 2020
One of the most enthralling history books I ever read is Howard Zinn’s “A People's History of the United States”. In it, Professor Zinn writes about the genocide of Cristopher Columbus’s genocide in America.
“My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that. It would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality”
In her brief treatise on Aurangzeb, Audrey Truschke expresses similar sentiments.
“Historians seek to comprehend people on their own terms, as products of particular times and places, and explain their actions and impacts.” In my humble opinion, while the “comprehending” part may be interesting, the “actions and impacts” part is more important. From history we learn our past, so that we can shape our future from that learning. Towards that it is important to understand past policies and actions and their impact, so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.
In case of Aurangzeb, I think two questions are very important to find answers for.
1) Was Aurangzeb’s policies intolerant and repressive for people belonging to faiths other than Sunni Muslim.
2) Did this lead to a quick unraveling of the Mughal empire.
Both the questions has been so clearly settled in the positive by past scholars, that it is surprising that there are still fundamental questions being raised on this topic and more fascinating is that they are becoming so popular. There is nothing new historical elements to this popularity, but plenty of political and ideological one.
Contrary to irritatingly repeated claim by the author, Aurangzeb’s life is anything but a mistry. His life is one of the most well documented periods of Indian history, not just in the imperial court records and his official biography, numerous correspondences with other courts, records in other courts not only documents his reign in detail, but they corroborate each other fitting like a jigsaw puzzle, so that it leaves little doubt about any event or action that took place during his reign.
Surely the writer can fancy that his character was an enigma. But his character can be of prime interest to a novelist, but is of little interest to a historian. To a historian, his words and actions matter, not his thoughts.
Even after such wealth of information being available, if an author claim that the period of Aurangzeb’s reign is a mystery, it seems that the author must have a presupposition about his reign, that she is trying to fit history into that fictitious description, rather than trying to uncover historical truths. This is why the writer chooses to ignore the vast scholarly works of her predecessors and cites obscure sources of questionable authenticity and anecdotes with no historical backing. And her presupposition is not based on any historical background, but rather it is based on so called liberal ideology, that tries to gloss over fundamental islamic characters from history to promote multiculturalism at present time. Well meaning it may be, but it is flawed and dangerous.
I have not read the book in full. I found it, dull, repetitive and factually incorrect. So I skipped parts of it. But I will try to deconstruct the writers hypothesis from the prats that I read.
Temple destruction: The author claims, citing Richard Eaton that Aurangzeb destroyed little over a dozen temples. But the recorded history shows that he destroyed hundreds of temples. He issues farmans for the destruction of over one hundred temples. In Jodhpur alone, dozens of temples were destroyed as per the imperial records. And these are meticulously documented by Jadunath Sarkar in his acclaimed research on the topic. The author claims, without much proof that his orders may not be carried out in call cases. It is possible that in a few cases, facing sharp resistance, the local authorities may have dithered from carrying out such orders. But there is no proof that this was the norm. Rather there is proof to the contrary to show that Aurangzeb’s authority was so supreme, that his orders were rarely ignored. Even if it were true, it does not negate the fact that the state policy was to destroy the places of worship for idolaters.
Then the author makes an argument that the Temple of Keshav Rai at Mathura was destroyed because the trustees there supported his Dara Shuko rival during the war of succession. This is an absurd argument. All non-sunnis supported Dara Suko. It was obvious. If Aurangzeb wanted to exact revenge for this, he had to kill every non-sunni person in his realm. Also the war of succession was in 1658. Why did he wait 12 long years to exact his revenge?
Similar argument is put forward for the destruction of other famous temples like the Viswanath temple and Somnath temple.
The author surmises that Aurangzeb’s temple destruction has less to do with religion and more to do with state policy of deterring rebellion against the empire by setting an example. This is again a curious argument. A deterrence has little effect unless the deterrer loudly announced it. In none of the temple destruction farman’s the reason was cited as a punishment for rebellion. Even in court records and in correspondence and in his biography, he did give reprisal as the reason for destruction. In call occation he clearly declared that he is destroying the places of warship for idolators as it is agist the tenets of Islam.
Had the main reason of temple destruction was political, he would destroy temples in Deccan and in Maratha land, where he faced most rebellion rather than the most holy temples of Hindus.
Giving state policy more pririty over the teachings of Islam: Aurangzeb’s state policies was so orthodox there there were hardly any dispute betweent the two. The three anecdotal incidents that the author cites to prove that he gave precedence to the state policy over Islam, does not stand the scrutiny.
The first instance is that Aurangzeb overrode a quazi’s ruling that among the seven rebels, four Hindus will be converted to Islam or put to death, while the three Muslim rebels were sent prison for three years, to all of them executed by sundown. I did not understand how this give more precedence to state policy to Islam. Surely Islam does not forbid giving capital punishment to rebels.
In the second instance, the author cites another anecdote that he ignored the pleas of the ulema not to wage war against the Adil Shahis of Bijapur. Not sure if Islam forbids war between Muslims. But Muslims are fighting a war against each other since the death of Mahammad until yesterday. So this cannot be a big deal. Besides the Adil Shahis were Shia. Aurangzeb did not consider them as Muslims.
The third - I forgot :)
His legacy: Mughal empire crumbled in 32 years after his death. There is no way to explain this other than the policies adopted by him. The author herself describes how Bahadur Shah struggled in the face of rebellion by the Marathas, Shikhs, Rajputs and Jats less than 4 years of Aurangzeb’s death. Note that they are all non-believers! Muslims did not rebel against Bahadur Shah. This clearly expose the faultline that he created.
Ever since Akbar, most Mughal expeditions were secured by the strengths of Rajputs and Jats. By the time Nadir Shah attacked, there was no Hindu general in Mahammd Shah’s army! The isolation is complete.
Overall the book is poorly written, repetitive and casual. It lacks the depth of scholarly work. What it has in plenty is opinion. It is obvious that the author spent a lot of time in the left liberal intellectuals circles of Delhi and got influenced by their opinion. What the author ignored is that those historians are on Government payroll, who distort history at the government’s behest for a quid pro quo. It is apparent from her not so concealed disdain for “colonial era” historians. Those colonial era historians were, hard working, fearless and were not lapdogs of the establishment. They fact checked and verified every source and every information and uncovered a history that is true. I will take their history any day over the JNU puppets.
I demand my money back from Amazon. Who will refund the wasted time?