NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi rose from his chair and marched briskly to the podium to deliver another nightly address to the nation. The speech was expected to include a rare message of interfaith harmony in the country where religious tensions have risen under his rule.
India’s prime minister was speaking from the historic Mughal-era Red Fort in New Delhi, and the event marked celebrations for the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru who is remembered for having defended religious freedoms for all.
The occasion and place, in many ways, were appropriate.
Instead, Modi chose the April event to turn back time and remind people of India’s most despised Muslim leader, who has been dead for over 300 years.
“Aurangzeb cut off many heads, but he could not shake our faith,” Modi said during his speech.
His invocation of the 17th Century Mughal Emperor was no mere blip.
Aurangzeb Alamgir has remained deeply buried in the annals of India’s complex history. The country’s modern rulers are now resurrecting him as a brutal oppressor of Hindus and a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists who believe that India must be saved from the taint of so-called Muslim invaders.
As tensions between Hindus and Muslims rose, contempt for Aurangzeb grew and Indian right-wing politicians invoked him like never before. It often comes with a warning that Indian Muslims should disassociate themselves from him in retaliation for his alleged crimes.
“For Hindu nationalists today, Aurangzeb is a whistle to hate all Indian Muslims,” said Audrey Truschke, historian and author of the book “Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth.”
Hating and denigrating Muslim rulers, especially the Mughals, is the hallmark of India’s Hindu nationalists, who for decades strove to recreate officially secular India as a Hindu nation.
They argue that Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb destroyed Hindu culture, forced religious conversions, desecrated temples and imposed harsh taxes on non-Muslims, though some historians say such stories are exaggerated. Popular thinking among nationalists traces the origin of Hindu-Muslim tensions to medieval times, when seven successive Muslim dynasties took up residence in India, until each was swept away over time.
This belief had led them on a quest to redeem India’s Hindu past, to right the perceived wrongs suffered over the centuries. And Aurangzeb is at the heart of this feeling.
Aurangzeb was the last powerful Mughal emperor to ascend the throne in the mid-17th century after imprisoning his father and having his older brother killed. Unlike other Mughals, who ruled a vast empire in South Asia for over 300 years and enjoyed a relatively undisputed heritage, Aurangzeb is, almost without a doubt, one of the most hated men in history. Indian.
Richard Eaton, a University of Arizona professor who is widely considered an authority on pre-modern India, said that while Aurangzeb destroyed temples, available records show there was one. little more than a dozen and not thousands, as has been the case. widely believed. This was done for political, not religious reasons, Eaton said, adding that the Muslim emperor also extended safety and security to people of all religions.
“In a nutshell, he was a man of his time, not ours,” Eaton said, adding that the Mughal emperor had been reduced to “a comic book villain.”
But for Aurangzeb’s detractors, he was the embodiment of evil and nothing but a religious fanatic.
Right-wing historian Makkhan Lal, whose books on Indian history have been read by millions of high school students, said attributing political motives solely to Aurangzeb’s actions is akin to “betrayal of India’s glorious past”.
That’s a claim made by many historians who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, also known as the BJP, or its ideological mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a radical Hindu movement that has been widely accused of stoking religious hatred with aggressively anti-Muslim views. . They say India’s history has been systematically whitewashed by far-left distortionists, primarily to cut off Indians – mostly Hindus – from their civilizational past.
“Aurangzeb has razed temples and that only shows his hatred for Hindus and Hinduism,” Lal said.
The debate has spread from academia to angry social media posts and raucous TV shows, where India’s modern Muslims have often been insulted and branded as “the offspring of Aurangzeb”.
Last month, when a Muslim lawmaker visited Aurangzeb’s grave to offer prayers, a senior Modi party leader questioned his parentage.
“Why would you want to visit the tomb of Aurangzeb who destroyed this country,” thundered Hemanta Biswa Sarma, the top elected official in the northeast state of Assam, in a television interview. Referring to the lawmaker, he said: “If Aurangzeb is your father, then I won no objection.
The insults have sparked further anxiety among the country’s large Muslim minority who in recent years have been the target of violence from Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has remained silent on such attacks since his first election in 2014.
Modi’s party denies using the Mughal emperor’s name to denigrate Muslims. He also says he’s just trying to find out the truth.
“India’s history has been manipulated and twisted to appease minorities. We are dismantling this ecosystem of lies,” BJP spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said.
The dislike for Aurangzeb extends far beyond Hindu nationalists. Many Sikhs remember him as the man who ordered the execution of their ninth guru in 1675. The widespread belief is that the religious leader was executed for not converting to Islam.
Some argue that Modi’s invocation of Aurangzeb’s name on the Sikh guru’s April birthday serves only one purpose: to further broaden anti-Muslim sentiments.
“In doing so, the Hindu right advances one of its main goals, which is to slander India’s Muslim minority population in an attempt to justify majority oppression and violence against them,” Truschke said, the historian.
Although they regularly refer to Aurangzeb, Hindu nationalists have simultaneously attempted to erase him from the public sphere.
In 2015, New Delhi’s famous Aurangzeb Road was renamed after protests from Modi’s party leaders. Since then, some Indian state governments have rewritten textbooks to devalue it. Last month, the mayor of the northern city of Agra called Aurangzeb a “terrorist”, whose traces should be erased from all public places. A politician called for his grave to be razed, prompting authorities to close it to the public.
A senior administration official, who did not want to be named due to government policy, compared efforts to clear Aurangzeb’s name to the removal of Confederate symbols and statues – seen as racist relics – in the states. -United.
“What’s wrong if people want to talk about the past and right historical wrongs? In fact, why should there be places named after a fanatic who left behind a bitter legacy? asked the official.
This sentiment, which is rapidly resonating across India, has already struck a chord.
A 17th-century mosque in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, has become the latest hot spot between Hindus and Muslims. A court case will decide whether the site will be given to Hindus, who claim it was built over a temple destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders.
For decades, Hindu nationalists have claimed several famous mosques, arguing that they are built on the ruins of important temples. Many such cases are pending before the courts.
Critics say it could lead to long legal battles, like that of the Babri Mosque, which was torn down by Hindu mobs with shovels, crowbars and bare hands in 1992. The demolition sparked massive violence across India and left over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. In 2019, the Supreme Court of India gave the site of the mosque to Hindus.
Such concerns are also felt by historians like Truschke.
She said the “demonization” of Aurangzeb and India’s Muslim kings is “disingenuous” and promotes “historical revisionism”, which is often backed by threats and violence.
“Hindu nationalists don’t think about the real historical Aurangzeb,” Truschke said. “On the contrary, they invent the villain they want to hate.”