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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Aurangzeb Alamgir

¤ The Death of Shah Jhan

Now the great emperor was in the custody of his son Alamgir Aurangzeb. At the end of his life, Shah Jahan found himself right in the middle of one of the messiest battles for succession in Indian history and certainly the worst in Mughal history. It all began on September 1657 when Shah Jahan fell ill. The prognosis was not very optimistic and things deteriorated at such speed that the emperor felt compelled to make his will and testament. The air was rife with rumours; everyone had a different version about the emperor’s health. and then came the day when they started whispering that Shah Jahan was dead. All the four claimants to Shah Jahan’s throne were the children of the same mother – although one would never have guessed it from their temperaments and their determination to make it to the throne.

¤ The Four Competitor To The Throne

In 1657, Dara Shikoh was 43, Shah Shuja 41, Aurangzeb 39 and Murad 33. All of them were governors of various provinces: Dara was the governor of Punjab, Murad of Gujarat, Aurangzeb of the Deccan and Shah Shuja of Bengal. Two of them emerged as clear frontrunners in the race: Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb.

¤ Dara, The Eldest Son

Dara, the eldest and most famous of them all, was a celebrated and popular scholar. Manucci tells us that he was handsome man of ‘…dignified manners… joyous and polite in conversation, ready and gracious speech of most extraordinary liberty.’ Dara’s spiritual quest led him to both Sufis and Vedantists. He had the Upanishads translated into Persian and took active part in religious debate – a fact that made orthodox Muslim clerics denounce him as a heretic. The major problem with Dara was that he was of uncertain disposition. His temper was violent and his general manner with people was haughty and supercilious. Dara’s track record in battle however did not match up with his intellectual prowess. He wasn’t much of a statesman either. The only sound he liked to hear was ‘Yes’. But what mattered, however, was that Dara was his father’s favorite.

¤ Aurangzeb-The Ablest of Shah Jahan;s Sons

Aurangzeb was without doubt the ablest of Shah Jahan’s sons. His credentials both in battle and administration were impeccable. Time and again he had demonstrated that he could keep a cool head under crisis. In matters of planning he believed in keeping secrets from even his best friends. He was also an orthodox Muslim - of the oldest school possible - which made him a hot favorite with the clergy. However like most over-competent supermen, Aurangzeb seemed to suffer from a lack of sense of humour and took himself entirely too seriously. According to one contemporary observer, his life was, ‘…austere and laborious and he never seems to have indulged in a holiday.’

¤ Shah Shuja and Murad Not Serious Contenders

The other brothers, Shah Shuja and Murad, were never serious contenders to the throne. Shah Shuja has been likened to Dara Shikoh. Minus the haughtiness and plus the single-mindedness of purpose. Unfortunately, that single-mindedness often manifested itself in the pursuit of wine and women. Shuja further weakened his case by converting to Shiaism. Murad, though a fearless and doughty warrior, was far from intelligent.

¤ Aurangzeb's Move Towards The Throne

As stated earlier, the actual events that unfolded around Shah Jahan’s illness were confused. Aiding and abetting the confusion with every word and gesture was the favorite son Dara Shikoh, who had his own axe to grind. The news, as Aurangzeb got it, was that the old emperor was dead and that Dara was acting with great speed to ensure that he ascended the throne. Aurangzeb moved with his customary caution and secrecy towards the capital. He, along with Murad, were met in battle twice by the Mughal armies, acting on Dara Shikoh’s behalf. He beat them each time while moving on relentlessly towards Agra where Shah Jahan was convalescing.

When Shah Jahan heard of Aurangzeb’s advance, he expressed a wish to meet Aurangzeb and talk to him. It was the emperor’s belief that upon seeing him alive, his son would turn back. Clearly the old king had been ailing only in body and not in mind, for certainly the appearance of Shah Jahan himself would have laid to rest the whole issue of succession. Even the most ardent of Aurangzeb’s supporters would have had second thoughts about openly defying the great Mughal’s authority.

However Dara Shikoh did not share his father’s belief. He was not so sure that Aurangzeb would meekly go back once the king had reassured him. In panic he let on that he was the heir apparent. Within a year Aurangzeb had all his brothers out of the way, his father permanently in custody at the Agra Fort (Shah Jahan hung on for eight years before dying in 1666) and was firmly entrenched on the Mughal throne.

¤ Scholars Write About Aurangzeb

If Shah Jahan has been over-romanticized by scholars, his son and successor Aurangzeb has been unduly denigrated. Aurangzeb, it seems, could do nothing right. Later writers were to contrast his bigotry with Akbar’s tolerance, his failure against the Marathas with Akbar’s success against the Rajputs - in fact he has been set up as the polar opposite of everything that earned one the Akbarian medal of genius. One writer has said about him, ‘His life would have been a blameless one, if he had no father to depose, no brothers to murder and no Hindu subjects to oppress.’

¤ Aurangzeb-A Ruler of Single Largest State In India

This picture of him has left such an impact on popular imagination that even today he is regarded as the bad guy, the evil king of the Mughal regime who slayed all Hindus and Sikhs. Hardly anyone remembers that he governed India for nearly as long as Akbar did (over 48 years) and that he left the empire larger than he found it. In fact Aurangzeb ruled the single largest state ever in Indian history, with the exception of British India.

¤ An Efficent Ruler of Statecraft

Aurangzeb’s rise to power has been criticized as being ruthless. However it was no more so than that of others of his family. His brothers wouldn’t have spared him if he had spared them. He succeeded not because he was crueler but because he was more efficient and more skilled in the game of statecraft and dissimulation.

Once established he showed himself a firm and capable administrator who retained his grip on power till his death at the age of 88. True, he lacked the magnetism of his father and great-grandfather, but he commanded an awe of his own. In sharp contrast to the rest of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb was simple and even austere in private life. He was an orthodox Sunni Muslim who thought himself a model Muslim ruler.

¤ Two Major Era's of His Rule

Aurangzeb’s reign can be divided into two almost equal portions. The first 23 years were largely a continuation of Shah Jahan’s administration with an added footnote of austerity. Marathas, Jats, tribesmen in the far northwest were all kept firmly in check. The emperor sat in pomp in Delhi or progressed in state to Kashmir for the summer. From 1681 he virtually transferred his capital to the Deccan where he spent the rest of his life in camp, superintending the overthrow of the two remaining Deccan kingdoms in 1686-7 and trying fruitlessly to crush the Maratha rebellion. The assured administrator of the first period became the embattled, embittered old man of the second. Along with the change of occupation came a dramatic metamorphosis of character. The scheming and subtle politician became an ascetic, spending long hours in prayer, fasting and copying the Quran, and pouring out his soul in tortured letters. Yet he remained very much the grand Mughal and never lost his grip on power. It was said that his eldest surviving son in Kabul never received a letter from his father without trembling. The Mughal ogre of popular historians was in fact both an able statesman and a subtle and highly complex character.

It was in the second or the Deccan phase of his career that Aurangzeb began to drift towards complete intolerance of Hindus. Earlier his devotion to Islam had very rarely taken the form of religious bigotry. He had done things like sending and receiving emissaries from far flung Muslim countries and dignitaries and prohibiting the use of the kalima (sacred verse) on coins (so that non-Muslims may not touch it). Aurangzeb discontinued the practise of jharokha darshan (lit. window view; the emperor used to present himself at a window from where he would listen to his subjects who could address their grievances directly to him) which Akbar had started because he thought that it promoted human worship. But so far there was nothing that actively harmed the Hindus.

¤ Aurangzeb Developed A Complete Intolerance To Hindus.

The Deccan, however, took its toll on him and he seemed to have permanently lost his temper there. Aurangzeb actively started adopting measures to oppress Hindus. It was now that he began having Hindu temples destroyed. This was a very different king from the one who had ordered in February 1659: ‘It has been decided according to our cannon law that long standing temples should not be demolished… our Royal Command is that you should direct that in future no person shall in unlawful ways interfere with or disturb the Brahmins and other Hindu residents in those places.’

¤ Hindu's Started Concerting Themselves Into Muslims

Sometimes the fanaticism took absurd forms. For instance, a diktat was issued that no Hindu, except Rajputs and Marathas, could ride an Iraqi or Turani horse. However in the end it was re-imposition of the infamous jaziya (tax on infidels) that hurt the Hindu and Sikh subjects of Aurangzeb the most. The idea was to hurt the so-called infidels enough to make them convert to Islam. Those who did convert were welcomed to the Mughal fold and rewarded with high offices. In fact a sizeable chunk of Hindus in the government converted. They did so not only because their jobs were in danger (Aurangzeb, to break the Hindu monopoly over the revenue and other departments, banned hiring of Hindus), but also to escape various taxes levied on non-Muslims, especially the jaziya. In the latter half of Aurangzeb’s reign there were few Hindus in high offices.

¤ Aurangzeb Developed Enemies For Himself.

In his misguided zeal to promote Islam, Aurangzeb made many fatal blunders and needless enemies. He alienated the Rajputs - whose valuable and trusted loyalty had been won so hard by his predecessors - to such an extent that they revolted against him. Eventually he managed to make peace with them but he could never be easy in his mind about Rajputana again, a fact that hampered his Deccan conquest severely. Next he made bitter enemies with the Sikhs and the Marathas. Things came to such a head that Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru of the Sikhs, was first tortured and then executed by Aurangzeb for not accepting Islam; a martyrdom which is mourned to this day by the Sikh community. The 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Govind Singh, then raised an open banner of revolt against Aurangzeb.

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