Aurangzeb is Somebody’s Hero

10 Mar

Hey, remember Aurangzeb? You know – that jolly old Mughal fellow who imprisoned various family members including his dad and his son, killed his brothers and generally went about making himself pleasant to his populace through the means of banning things like music on religious grounds and killing Sikh gurus? Yeah, that one. Turns out, according to his own records, he wasn’t a nice person to know. Shocking, isn’t it?

You know what’s even more shocking? If you mention his dastardly nature (oh, come on! Even Stalin laid off his family!) in Tamil Nadu, the police will come and take you away.

Hold on! Rewind! What?

To be honest, I’ve never heard of Francois Gautier before today (for some reason – like a lack of French – I don’t read Le Figaro or pretty much any of the publications he’s written for apparently) but he’s an Indophile French journalist who founded this organization called the Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism. According to its website, “FACT seeks to bring attention to forgotten or neglected crises and to pressure governments and international organizations to help and protect refugees, displaced people and other victims of terror based conflicts.” Currently, it seems to be concentrating its efforts on Kashmiri Pandit refugees and the minority Hindus, Christians and Buddhists in Bangladesh.

FACT also holds exhibitions and other events around the world to highlight its work. For its latest exhibition, FACT came to the conclusion that the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who died in 1707, was pretty much the poster boy of Islamic terror as we know it today because he was a Sunni fundamentalist whose favorite hobby was temple demolition.

Personally, I think that’s a simplistic view of a fascinating character whose psychosis has never been adequately explored to my satisfaction… but that’s not the point here. FACT claims they dug through official Government archives, most notably in Rajasthan, and came up with original court documents including imperial edicts that beautifully illustrated just what it was like to live under the crazy eyes of an fanatically religious, all-powerful Emperor. They then commissioned miniature painters from Rajasthan to translate those events into watercolor works and drawings in the Mughal style. The result of all this was an exhibit titled “Aurangzeb, as he was, according to Moghul records” which premiered in Delhi in February of this year.

Whatever my opinion of the tenor of some of Gautier’s writings, not to mention his naivete in imagining that Indo-Muslim relations on the subcontinent is comparable to Franco-German relations after the Second World War, I think this is a fascinating concept. I’m all for the marriage of art, history and politics. An intellectual menage a trois! But not everybody would agree with me – take the Nawab of Arcot, for instance, in Gautier’s words:

[He] visited the exhibition and lashed out at FACT volunteers accusing them of “misrepresenting facts.” He was particularly enraged by two miniatures — the first depicted Aurangzeb’s army destroying the Somnath temple and the second showed the destruction of the Kesava Rai temple in Mathura. We are told that he has direct access to the CM’s office and that orders to the police to clamp down on exhibition came down from there. Otherwise, Mr Murali [ed note: Asst. Commissioner of Police] would not have dared to go so far, so brazenly.

Soon, the nawab sent a group of goons, allegedly from TMMK (Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam) and MNP (Manitha Neethi Paasarai) to pick up arguments with the volunteers, most of them elderly women from decent family backgrounds.

They came back again on 7th afternoon when I was there, screaming on, top of their voices in Tamil and in English that this exhibition was absolutely false and that unless it was closed immediately they would come back in force the next day (Friday) to break it down.

I didn’t even know Arcot had a Nawab or that he was such an authority on history and a vociferous art critic. As it turns out, there’s not only a Nawab of Arcot but his feelings for Aurangzeb might well be personal:

More than 300 years ago, his ancestor Zulfikar Ali Khan was summoned from Mecca by Emperor Aurangazeb in order to fight against the Marathas. In the 17th Century when the Marathas were holding sway in the Southern Carnatic from their stronghold at Gingee, Zulfikar Ali Khan came down and inflicted a crushing defeat on the ruler Rajaram.

The delighted Mughal emperor made him the Nawab of the Carnatic under the suzerainty of the Nizam of Hyderabad and thus were sown the beginnings of the House of Arcot. Later holders of the title identified closely with their area of domicile. The cordial interaction between the Nawabs of Arcot and the Hindu inhabitants of the Tamil country generated a climate of mutual tolerance and secularism that is proudly being carried on to this day.

Hmmm, I guess that does present a problem. But what, precisely, has the Nawab achieved through his actions? He’s pulled his strings and played his cards to such remarkable effect that an art exhibition that apparently only appealed to the grandmas of Chennai suddenly turned majorly controversial. And he has managed to gain a reputation far removed from all that “tolerance and secularism” discussed in that article. Well done, sir.

It’s a cliche but tolerance is an easy virtue to preach when it’s somebody else’s problem. It becomes a lot harder when you’re the one that has to do the tolerating.

I frequently come across people who think Aurangzeb’s misdeeds are some sort of dark secret that secular India refuses to acknowledge. As I attended school in India (not that long ago either) and distinctly remember a litany of crimes set down next to Aurangzeb’s name in my government-approved history textbook, I honestly had no clue what these people were talking about. Maybe they went to school and slept through seventh grade history (or was it eighth?) but I was wide awake and taking it all in. Now I wonder if they were perhaps talking about people like the Nawab who apparently live in their own state of denial.

Pssst… Nawab sahib! Guess what? The secret’s out! We know all about ol’ Grandpappy Aurangzeb.

What I really want to know is when on earth do we stop obsessing about things that happened centuries ago and start obsessing even half as much about present day India? I love history but I can make a distinction between past and present – why is it that so many people refuse to do the same? Talking to some folks, it’s as if Mahmud of Ghazni marched through their homes just yesterday or that he was their BFF. What’s the deal here? Do you have something against reality in general or do you feel your life lacks drama? Because, you know, there is no dearth of things to get upset/upbeat about in the present.

Gautier talks about sparking “a healthy debate among the right thinking people” – it seems to me the right thinking people in India never get a chance to debate anything because all the wrong thinking people jump in feet first with fists flying. I really need some lessons in how to talk “Crazy” coz it’s the one language that never seems to go out of style.


Posted by on March 10, 2008 in Entertainment, Life, News, Newsmakers, Politics


10 responses to “Aurangzeb is Somebody’s Hero

  1. M

    March 10, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    For some reason, there seems to be a strong sense of victimization among many, many Hindus in India – even among well-educated folks (or even more among well educated folks) – I haven’t lived in India for 15 years now, but have heard this POV espoused by so many people on trips back…things like Waqf boards not being subject to the same rules as Hindu institutions cause much frothing at the mouth…it’s almost as if they are all looking for someone to blame for the present-day chaos, and muslims offer a convenient target….


  2. sidekick

    March 10, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Amrita, that was both riveting and disturbing at the same time. I did know of the Nawab of Arcot but the connection to Aurangazeb and the bizarre loyalty to that connection is fascinating. I didn’t realize that the Nawab was so well connected politically….. I figured ike the Nawab of Patuadi, this is a family of old wealth, largely irrelevant in today’s poltics. The family owns a lot of prime real estate in Madras. A useless bit of trivia – Nasser Hussain the ex captain of England’s cricket team is from that family and is said to visit often. I only know that coz my husband is a cricket fanatic!

    Whats disturbing is this complete intolerance of alternative viewpoints and the quick jump to violence frequently thru hired goons? Someone’s sentiments always seem to be hurt enough to bash the offender’s brains in! Tamil Nadu seems one of the worst states on the issue of cultural fascism. There’s the director who slapped his lead actress on set or actress Shriya who was forced to apologize for her short western dress at a public event that was “untamilian” or actress Khusboo who was victimized for having the temerity to suggest that some tamil women have pre-marital sex (what a shocker!) . In Khusboo’s case, Suhasini Manirathnam who jumped to her defense was forced to backtrack thanks to the politicians baying for blood.
    The list seems endless…. and the thugs and goons continue to beat people literally into submission.

  3. dipali

    March 11, 2008 at 12:51 am

    Mobocrazy rules. How do we dethrone it? Any ideas?
    Our poor old Constitution is being ignored so thoroughly- what to do? I’m still wringing my hands in despair.

  4. desigirl

    March 11, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Them crazies out there need fodder to start frothing at the mouth – and that was all this exhibition was. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam indeed! Tell me something that doesn’t have a Munnetra kazhagam. Despite that, the state isn’t majorly munnerified on anything, is it?

    The Nawab prolly was feeling sad and neglected and needed his 15 seconds before he popped it. Who knows?

  5. harini calamur

    March 11, 2008 at 7:28 am

    i come from Arcot originally (north arcot to be precise) – and yes there is indeed a Nawab or Arcot (not even a titular nawab, since India is a Republic and there are no royal ranks).

    If you have to encapsulate Auragazeb .. here is my own take…
    Aurangazeb was a nasty emperor …. ruling over a country that his father and grand father had made bankrupt…… he did his best to run it… and his best was a pretty much disaster…. He was a ruler without a vision, a purpose or a sense of strategy … (imagine crossing the Vindhya’s with an army of elephants to crush an insurrection) ……

    He was driven pretty much by his own personal sense of God & religion … and like all fanatics despots interpreted his texts to lead his empire into oblivion (just look at the Christian Emperor of America, George Bush .. and there are interesting parallels ) ..:) Aurangazeb was to India what Bush is to America … he oversaw the death of glory and nobility and ultimately political, economic and military power……leading to a power vacuum and the British stepping in…..

    Those who fail to understand and appreciate history and doomed to repeat its failures….. 🙂

    The disturbance in TN, is quite something else….
    every little nutcase outfit in India, gets ample press time from 24 hour TV channels with nothing to air…… And suddenly something that would have existed as a mole hill is suddenly a mountain….

    I have encountered Mr.Gautier’s writings before — he used to write for Rediff…. he struck me as being slightly right of L.K.Advani…!
    check him out here

  6. Ahmad

    March 11, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Love it or hate it, Aurangzeb was ruler of India and the empire was largest under him.His rule was perhaps much more benign than Narendra Modi considering the times he lived and the rules of engagement.
    Needless to say in those times there was no United Nations and no signatories to the universal declarations of the human rights and the like. Since religion was the biggest denominator, political power was often exhibited on actions like destroying and converting places of worship, there was no sense of nationhood in those times – if you read history you will know that the rise of nationalism took place in the west in the 19th century – so India probably did not have that sense of Hindutva that you see now and the caste was perhaps the main denominator of Hindu life while religion was the same to Muslims…Some political commentators try to oversimplify things and project things without explaining the proper context – and those who believe that make the biggest blunder.

  7. Aspi

    March 11, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Is it a surprise that the people who use goon power are lionizing figures in history who used violent force to gain power? And there in itself is the only lesson you need to learn from history – so we are forced not to repeat it.

    Aurangazeb probably disappointed so many people that he ran out of someone who could write a sugar coated book about him or compose a few songs (well, the latter we know was impossible under his rule). But every great emperor we’ve had is guilty of rapacious plunder of some sort.

    Sure like Ahmad says context is everything. But I’d like a clear distinction being made between the ends and the means to achieve it. Even if you can justify the former, its important to understand the latter is something we should be squirming at.

  8. Amrita

    March 11, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    M – what boggles the mind is that they’re so vociferous about minority rights in nations where they themselves are a minority. I dont understand why that doesnt translate.

    Sidekick – I did not know that about Nasir Hussain! Totally agree on Tamil Nadu: cultural chauvinism is despicable no matter where it goes on or who does it out of what compulsion. The other day my mother reminded me of some of the political rhetoric that went on in the 80s – made me wonder what would happened if Rajiv Gandhi hadn’t been blown up when he was.

    Dipali – nope, all out 😦 the constitution needs work if its to have a chance. But everytime someone in power says they want to take it on (like Ram Jethmalani) they always find a way to stop it.

    DG – lol, thats true. we ought to have a munnetra kazhagam of our own.

    Harini – well, America has one advantage: it gets to decide who leads it. We have the same option here and… well, not much of an advantage I guess 😀 As far as TV news channels are concerned – I dont know about TV but I was actually surprised to see very little coverage of this incident in print. I’d have thought they’d be all over it. … So, was Arcot the symbol of Hindu Muslim harmony as the Hindu says?

    Ahmad – thats true @ the rules being different at the time he ruled. Which is why I’d love more representations of Aurangzeb in literature or see more biographies. Somebody did write a good biography a while back – I remember reading the review of it – but I have a feeling it got snowed under by the controversy surrounding it. I’d love to read an engaging historical novel or biography of his.

    Aspi – Nope, the irony is pretty impossible to miss 🙂 From the sounds of it, the only people in love with him to the end were the hardline clerics and for what it’s worth they converted him into a saint. (it’s true!) And this is the fundamental problem with Aurangzeb – unlike other emperors who pretty much did their own thing along with the usual brutality, Zebby seems to have had pretensions to piety which means if he’s to be a saint then he needs to be pretty much perfect as is. And if he’s to be a sinner then he can have no redeeming qualities. Which means no squirming at his means allowed because he was walking holy. This kind of simplistic characterization is to be expected of all historical figures to some extent but because Zebby cast himself so wholeheartedly into his role of defender of the faith, he positively encouraged (imo) this kind of simplistic thinking.

  9. harini calamur

    March 11, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Hindu Muslim relationship in the south is very different from the way it is in the north… is far less polarised … In that context i suppose one could say that he was a symbol for communal harmony ….
    my point on Bush was not so much on choice, as much as how a person who is religiously dogmatic and fundamentalist can screw up their country beyond measure ….. in the name of God and scriptures …

  10. Amrita

    March 15, 2008 at 12:27 am

    Harini – re: polarization and screwing up – very true.

%d bloggers like this: