Why We Should Oppose the Aurangzebing of Aurangzeb

The despot is not in fact being executed by the act of renaming a road; he is being brought to life again.

Aurangzeb Dara Shukoh

Aurangzeb was a despot.

He not only imprisoned his ailing father, the Fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, but had all three of his brothers—the heir-apparent Dara Shukoh, Shah Shuja and Murad, murdered. ‘Murdered’ is to put it mildly.

Both confident and insecure, Aurangzeb then went on to ensure his hegemony as the Sixth Emperor by having Dara’s son Sulaiman, imprisoned and poisoned in a slow and tortuous procedure that made the future Crown Prince mad before death claimed him.

He also set an example to all dissenters by having the free-thinking mystic Sarmad beheaded at the Jama Masjid, Delhi, for blasphemy, the Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur executed for objecting to conversions and the leader of the Maratha Confederacy, Sambhaji, caught and killed for just being what he was.

Apart from what he did to those he felt were a threat to him, Aurangzeb presided over a Hindustan where Hindus and Sikhs were not just second class citizens but a scared and persecuted people.

Contemporary historians have tried to see Aurangzeb in a more nuanced light than those who documented his tyrannical rule in sharp terms. His later years, they say, were sublimated by a measure of self-pity and even remorse. And he remained personally austere. For his own personal expenses he is said to have sewn caps and calligraphed copies of the Quran.

Contrasting sharply from his father’s architectural marvel, the Taj Mahal, Aurangzeb’s own open-air grave is an austere affair, in a courtyard of the shrine of a sufi saint, in Khuldabad, near Aurangabad where he died. But no historian can explain away Aurangzeb’s sadistic 49 years’ rule.

That the British Raj wanted to feel and be seen as a successor of the Mughals as a royal genre, is clear. The Viceroy’s House , now Rashtrapati Bhavan, facing the Purana Qila, was intended to be a new Fort, grander even, than the Red Fort. That city-planners should have named roads in Lutyens’ New Delhi after the Mughal Emperors is no matter of surprise. With Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Shah Jahan (Jehangir having been skipped in absent-mindedness) Aurangzeb got a road to him as well, a long and leafy road that connected other such roads and led to many important houses, official and privately-owned including Number 10, that Mohammed Ali Jinnah owned.

Many have felt – and suggested – that Aurangzeb’s unfortunate but hugely inspirational brother, the heir-apparent Dara Shukoh, should have a road named after him in New Delhi. The syncretic prince who had the Upanishads translated into Persian and wrote the Majma-ul-Bahrain (“The Confluence of the Two Seas”) on the subject of mystical and pluralistic affinities between  Sufi and Vedantic speculation, fits seamlessly into the plural ethos of the Constitution of India. To have a road or public building named after him would be as natural in the capital of the Republic of India as naming roads after the Mughal Emperors was natural in Lutyens’ time.

But not even the most ardent of Dara scholars and enthusiasts, whose number rises all the time, ever thought of suggesting that Aurangzeb Road be re-named, much less that it be re-named Dara Shukoh Road. That would be a most un-Dara thing to suggest, apart from being puerile history and childish civic planning.

A proposal to re-name Aurangzeb Road into something , anything, else could have come from Jana Sangh or BJP controlled local bodies in New Delhi in past years. It could have come from the Vajpayee-led NDA government. It is a tribute to the maturity and balance of those administrations that they did not waste their time and complicate road users’ comfort levels by doing any such thing. In fact, it is inconceivable that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have permitted any such idea to proceed an inch.

The news that Aurangzeb Road is to be re-named now, is both a surprise and no surprise. Surprise because mature people are not expected to act immaturely. No surprise because mature people can act like they have never read history. Decaying dynasties used to see upstarts and putatives issue fresh coins with new insignia, unveil new heraldry, over-write their hollow names and styles on ancient rock, to smudge out the old, using the grand old surfaces to carry a new firman, a new edict. The shallower the claimant, the coarser the metal of the coin, the cruder the new scrawl over the old.

Re-naming roads is about the most immature and least convincing sign of authority. It is invariably the accoutrement of new power. For the first time since India became a Republic, an elected dispensation is being showcased by its smiling pickthank supporters as a Badshah Salamat, no less, a modern Company Bahadur, that is inaugurating not a new government but a new chapter, an era, an epoch.

A new font is being carved, if not a new script, for our nationhood. Dissenters must be on notice, historians on alert. Political scientists on a sabbatical, philosophers on furlough. The age of analysis is over, the age of adherence is come. To question is treason, to accept is wisdom.

Aurangzeb is to be seen as a ghoul not because he was a ghoul but because he was a ghoul on ‘that side’. That cannot, of course, be said too loud. Let us behead him post mortem now, the argument goes, and no one can fault us for he was such a be-header was he not, a murderer of the good and the great who were from….not too loudly…our side. And, really, there has to be a God above. Surely, a God with a sense of Breaking News. Just when we would have liked to do a de-capitation of that road-name, He comes, Praise be to Him, in the shape of a Tribute that we must pay to one from the other side, no doubt, but one who did and said all the right things. And the felicity! We don’t even have to paint the first letter in the name.

What a cleverness hides in that calculation !

The Muslims cannot object. How can they ? If they do they would be both un-faithful and un-patriotic. The Hindus will never object. And after a while all will be using A P J Abdul Kalam Marg as if the road has always been named after that honest son of Rameshwaram. How utterly clever!

But is it really ?

As one who despises everything that Aurangzeb did to his family and to his populace, I add my voice to that of those who oppose the Aurangzebing of Aurangzeb not because Aurangzeb was repugnant but because Aurangzebiyat is repugnant. He is not in fact being executed in this act; he is being brought to life again. Through the hidden but deep sympathies – completely misguided – that this will give rise to among Muslims in India for that bigot. Through the deep antipathies – completely un-called for – that this will occasion for India in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Through fear of a new Aurangzebean censorship that could turn to paint away or overpaint all signs and symbols of free expression that displeases Alamgiri.

In this painting of Sarmad by the Pakistani artist Sadequain, the medieval mystic holds up his head - severed at Aurangzeb's insistence - while continuing to defiantly be himself.

In this painting of Sarmad by the Pakistani artist Sadequain, the medieval mystic holds up his head – severed at Aurangzeb’s insistence – while continuing to defiantly be himself.

The re-naming of Aurangzeb Road has little to do with the veena-playing, vegetarian visionary A P J Abdul Kalam. It has everything to do with rites of purification, of shuddhi. This rite will be performed, if the new Divan-e-Khas so wishes, whenever and wherever it wishes, to posit a new code of citizenship, in which all identities are fluxed into a mantra of monochronism, like the kalma Aurangzeb’s ulema demanded Sarmad should repeat and on the mystic’s refusal, had his head chopped of. The mantra is ‘Comply, Conform, Carry On’. We cannot be too vigilant.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal and a former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, is now Distinguished Professor in History and Politics, Ashoka University