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In India and Pakistan, religion makes one country’s hero the other’s villain

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Two sides to the story.
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At the entrance of the [Badshahi Masjid in Lahore] are some pictures from the colonial era. They show the mosque’s dilapidated condition after having served as a horse stable during the Sikh era.


The pictures narrate the story of the mosque, of the benevolence of the “just and fair” colonial empire that returned its control to the rightful inheritors—the Muslims of the city. It narrates the story of colonial historiography, the categorisation of history into Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and British eras, pitting epochs, communities, religions, and histories against one other, and in the process creating new classifications that might not have been there at the start. History is used as a political tool, an excuse, a justification for the imposition of colonial rule. The British were needed to rescue the Muslims from the Sikhs, the Hindus from the Muslims, the Dravidians from the Aryans, the Dalits from the Brahmins, the past from the present.

The Mughal rule became a symbol of the oppressive Muslim “colonialism” of India.

The narrative continues to unfold even today, throughout south Asia, as modern sensibilities are imposed on historical characters, making heroes out of them, of imagined communities. The Mughal rule, for example, in this narrative became a symbol of the oppressive Muslim “colonialism” of India, as foreign to the Indian subcontinent as British rule, while figures such as Chhatrapati Shivaji were representative of Hindu indigenous resistance. Just like the British, everything Muslim was deemed “foreign,” alien to the Indian subcontinent, a coercive historical anomaly that ruptured the Indian, read Hindu, civilization. In this narrative there was room for Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs within the fold of Hindu nationalism, but not for the Muslims, the successors of foreign occupation.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Muslims too looked back to a “glorious” past when this infidel land was ruled by one true force. This imagined memory became the basis of laying down future plans, with one group determined to uproot all vestiges of foreign influence, and the other wanting to take inspiration from the past to reclaim lost glory. The British, in the meantime, were more than eager to perpetuate this communalisation of history for it provided them with a justification to govern as arbitrators, as correctors of historical injustices.

In this communalisation of history, emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707) bears the dubious distinction of being blamed for the downfall of the mighty Mughal empire due to his intolerance, a product of his puritanical interpretation of religion. It is believed that during his long rule, which saw the expansion of the Mughal empire to its zenith, Aurangzeb isolated several of his key Hindu allies because of his religious policies. Ever since the time of Emperor Akbar, jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslim subjects in a Muslim empire for their protection, stood abolished. It was reintroduced by Aurangzeb, adding to the grievances of his Hindu subjects, including his Rajput allies, whose support to the Mughal throne had been crucial to its stability throughout Mughal history. Also, Aurangzeb’s protracted campaign in the Deccan was perceived as his vainglorious attempt to expand his autocratic rule, which put such a burden on the state that it quickly unravelled after his death.

As evidence of Aurangzeb’s intolerance, it is argued that he demolished several Hindu temples. Sikh history notes how he ordered the assassination of the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, for his sympathy to the Kashmiri Brahmins. The Mughal-Sikh conflict continued with Guru Tegh Bahadur’s son, Guru Gobind Singh, who waged several battles with the powerful Mughal army. The staunchest opposition to Aurangzeb came from the Marathas in the south, under the leadership of Shivaji.

Aurangzeb’s treatment of his father and brothers is also depicted as a testimony of his cruelty. After usurping the throne from his father, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb is believed to have imprisoned him in Agra, where he was rumoured to have been deprived of luxuries he had grown accustomed to, including music. It is cited that since Aurangzeb adhered to a puritanical interpretation of Islam, he was of the belief that music was not allowed, and had it banned throughout the empire. A much-narrated popular story has it that traditional musicians who had been part of the profession for generations were rendered unemployed and took out a funeral procession of their musical instruments. When Aurangzeb heard of it, he reportedly ordered that the instruments should be buried so deep that they may never be heard again.

In the Pakistani narrative, Aurangzeb is presented as a hero who expanded the frontiers of the Islamic empire.

The third of four brothers, Aurangzeb is accused of having had all his brothers murdered. He is also alleged to have sent his captive father the decapitated head of his eldest brother, Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s favourite son. Thus having forcefully snatched the crown from his father and his brother who had been appointed crown prince, Aurangzeb, in popular history, is depicted as a usurper who had no right to be at the head of the Mughal empire. The subsequent weakening of the empire is presented as proof of his unsuitability for the throne.

Just a little more than thirty years after his death, Delhi, the Mughal capital and the symbol of its authority, was ransacked by the Persian army of Nadir Shah. Between 1707 and 1719, the Mughal empire had lost most of its vitality after a series of weak emperors, wars of succession and machinations of members of the nobility. Aurangzeb was the last effective emperor of the Mughal empire.

In the Pakistani narrative, Aurangzeb is presented as a hero who fought and expanded the frontiers of the Islamic empire. He is depicted as a pious Muslim who reintroduced Islamic laws by banning music and levying jizya. While Akbar in the Indian discourse is depicted as a tolerant ruler who treated his Hindu subjects with respect, encouraged interfaith dialogue and also abolished jizya, in the Pakistani narrative, he is viewed with scepticism because of his experiments with different religious philosophies and his attempt to forge a religion of his own, Dini-Ilahi, which is considered a human’s attempt to intervene with the word of God.

In contrast, Aurangzeb is imagined to be a true believer who removed corrupt practices from religion and the court, and once again purified the empire. The Indian narrative abhors him for the same reason, for abandoning the syncretic, and even politically expedient, practices of his predecessors in favour of a more puritanical interpretation of Islam, eventually resulting in the disintegration of the empire.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House from Imagining Lahore by Haroon Khalid. We welcome your comments at

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