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Hindus, Muslims and colonial blinkers

At a time when Muslims find themselves under siege in India and are being hunted like animals on the benign watch of the BJP government, two brave new books by a Stanford University professor have revisited a time when the minority demonised today ruled the country.

Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony under Muslim rulers, including under the powerful Mughal dynasty that had ceded power to the British before India won independence, finds Audrey Truschke. She teaches religious studies at Stanford and is an authority on South Asia’s cultural and intellectual history.

In her fascinating book, ‘Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court’, Truschke argues that the heyday of Muslim rule in India – between the 16th century and the 18th century – had been one of “tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilisation and not religious or cultural conflict”.

Emphasising that the high-level interaction between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines, her research overturns the common perception that Muslim rulers had been hostile to traditional Indian learning. The Mughals extensively patronised and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas.

Much of the current religious conflict in India and the long-passed-down stereotypes about Muslims as mass murderers and destroyers of temples have been fuelled by ideological assumptions and distortions about the Mughal period, rather than an accurate rendering of history, notes Truschke.

And there are no prizes for guessing who started it all and contributed to the current climate of hate against Muslims. The divisive interpretation of the past began and developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947.

“The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviours who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay,” Truschke states. “While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the Hindu Right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict.”

She argues that the ideology underpinning such violence “erases Mughal history and writes religious conflict into Indian history where there was none, thereby fuelling and justifying modern religious intolerance”.

Early modern-era Muslims were in fact “deeply interested in traditional Indian learning, which is largely housed in Sanskrit”, says Truschke, who is a frequent visitor to South Asia and spent much time in India and Pakistan, scouring numerous archives and sources as part of her elaborate study of original manuscripts.

The Muslim impulse in India had never been aimed at dominating the Indian culture or Hinduism. Instead, the new rulers enthusiastically embraced the Indian values, customs and civilisational heritage. Truschke rejects the notion that the origin of the Hindu-Muslim conflict began in medieval times and is a result of Muslim invasions of the Subcontinent.

In her study of Sanskrit and Persian texts and authentic accounts of life under the Mughals, she provides the first detailed account of India’s religious scholars and intellectuals and their interaction with the Mughal elite.

No wonder she has invited the wrath of the saffron clan as her work flies in the face of Hindutva’s claims of the imagined oppression and persecution of Hindus under the Muslims. Still, the author hopes that her findings “will provide a solid historiographical basis for intervention in modern, political rewritings of the Indian past”.

The book on the culture of encounters was followed a year later by another groundbreaking tome on perhaps the most controversial figure of Indian history. ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth’ is yet another bold and brave attempt to understand the life and times of the last great Mughal emperor who ruled for nearly half a century and whose reign covered the length and breadth of India, including Afghanistan and parts of Burma. She clears the cobwebs and distortions that have always clouded Aurangzeb’s image.

“The Aurangzeb of popular memory bears only a faint resemblance to the historical emperor,” Truschke notes. She seeks to sift fact from fiction and the man from the myth that has grown around him in popular imagination over the centuries, thanks to the biased telling of history as part of the British colonial project.

Dismissing the popular myth that Aurangzeb had been driven by religious zeal and his rule was defined by the oppression of Hindus, she writes: “The multifaceted king had a complex relationship with Islam, but even so he is not reducible to his religion. In fact, little is simple about Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was an emperor devoted to power, his vision of justice, and expansion. He was an administrator with streaks of brilliance and scores of faults. He grew the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent and may also have positioned it to break apart. No single characteristic or action can encapsulate Aurangzeb Alamgir…”

She bridges the chasm between the real and mythical Aurangzeb – the man and the emperor. He had his share of flaws, like any other human being. But he was not the crass villain and fanatic jihadist who was out to spread Islam with his sword that he is made out to be.

That Aurangzeb was a Hindu-hating fanatic is a myth of recent origin. He wasn’t perceived as such by the chroniclers of his times, including historians like Bhim Sen and Ishwar Das. It was in the late 18th century and later – when the British arrived on the scene – that the emperor, who was known for his religiosity and puritanical lifestyle, began to be vilified as a zealot by colonial historiographers.

He was complex – like all rulers are. He may have been guilty of demolishing some temples – which is not justifiable by any means –including the one at Kanshi, ostensibly after the wife of one of his Rajput commanders was molested. But he is also known to have bestowed vast grants on a number of temples and monasteries. The number of Hindu nobles at the Mughal court was the largest under him. His army was led by Rajput commanders like Raja Jaisingh and Jaswant Singh.

During his confrontation with his brother Dara Shikoh, he had 21 Hindu nobles on his side while his brother had 24. If he is famous for his conflicts with Hindu chieftains, including the Marathas and Sikhs, he also fought his own brothers and Muslim sultanates. He was no saint and was only human. This is what Truschke’s book seeks to stress – and with great conviction.

As a result, the brickbats and even abuse that the scholar has been receiving from Hindutva devotees – with many bhakts perpetually trolling her on social media – hardly come as a surprise. However, she is far from daunted and is already on to her next book, which is a study of the Sanskrit histories of Muslim dynasties. The purpose again is to revisit the past and free it of all biases of colonial historians.

In the current environment of intolerance, it is immensely courageous of the young author to undertake such projects for the sake of truth and academic honesty – if nothing else. This is what more and more historians need to do.

History is a double-edged sword. It has been used widely and indiscriminately to deadly effect by everyone, poisoning young, impressionable minds and fuelling hate and enmity between communities.

It was the successful exploitation of history that, coupled with religious sentiments over Ayodhya, helped the BJP grow from an extremist fringe to the party of power in India.

It is thanks to all the poison taught in history books and the sudden sense of machismo that Modi’s ascent has provided to the Hindutva rank and file that Muslims are being lynched and brutalised day after day.

If historians were to free themselves of their blinkers, they would discover that Islam was not spread in South Asia at gunpoint but through to the simplicity and honesty of Arab traders and the love and humanity of sufis.

Rulers with Muslim names may have built some mosques and assumed lofty titles. But they neither represented Islam nor fought their wars for it. It was all for power. This is what needs to be recognised and established by objective chroniclers of history. This is why we need more honest scholars like Truschke: to call the bluff of the orientalists and the colonial project.

The writer is an award-winning journalist.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Hindus, Muslims and colonial blinkers," The News. 2017-08-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political value , Muslim rulers , Religious conflict , Culture , Violence , Extremist , Audrey Truschke , Aurangzeb , India , BJP