Nostalgia, Lahore, and the Ghost of Aurangzeb

Taymiya R. Zaman, Associate Professor of History, explores conflicting pasts and her process in writing about Aurangzeb through the personal memoir of one man, Bhimsen Saxena.
Portrait of Aurangzeb
Portrait of Aurangzeb. Artist Unknown. Reprinted with permission from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

How do historians address troubling pasts? Recently, because of public pressure, “Aurangzeb Road” in India was renamed “Dr. A. P. J Abdul Kalam Road.” This is because Aurangzeb (d. 1707) is seen by many as a fanatical Mughal king who persecuted Hindus, and whose strict adherence to Islam was to the detriment of all non-Muslim communities. A number of historians opposed the renaming, because historical evidence does not support this image of Aurangzeb and because we are attuned to the ethical dilemmas that arise when a figure from the past is tried and found guilty based on standards of the present. A guilty verdict supports the erasure of history quite literally, as was the case with the destruction of the sixteenth century Babri Mosque in India in 1992 on the grounds that Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, who commissioned the building of the mosque, was also a Muslim invader.

My recent article, “Nostalgia, Lahore, and the Ghost of Aurangzeb” addresses the conflicting pasts that play a role in shaping political discourse in present-day India and Pakistan. The article traces how the image of Aurangzeb as a fanatical Muslim was created by 19th century British colonial historiography, and how the ghost of Aurangzeb surfaces in Lahore, Pakistan in response to pain caused by the political upheaval of the present. While some blame Aurangzeb for the sectarian violence that rages in Pakistan, others uphold him as a hero who stood up for Islam during a time when the political power of Muslims in India was starting to fade. Despite being at odds with one another politically, these two positions rely on an image of Aurangzeb created by the historiography of the colonial period rather than by Mughal sources.

Instead of drawing upon multiple primary sources to reconstruct Aurangzeb (which has already been done by others in deft and interesting ways), I choose to resurrect Aurangzeb through the personal memoir of one man, Bhimsen Saxena, who was a Hindu soldier whose family had served the Mughals for generations. My goal in using Bhimsen’s memoir is to create, in modern subjects, empathy for a historical actor whose ability to hold ambivalence towards the king provides an intervention into heated present-day debates that are framed around binaries of good and evil. Bhimsen is at times furious with Aurangzeb, who he sees as a terrible administrator, and at times filled with reverence towards the king, because in his eyes, even a flawed king is a sacred being who can perform miracles and whose presence is necessary for the protection of the land. Aurangzeb is both the hero and villain of Bhimsen’s world, but he is not—as is the case today—hero to some and a villain to others, where the former see his ascetic adherence to Islam as desirable and the latter as abhorrent.

Finally, this article argues that the figure of the king—sacred to multiple religious communities— was central to mediating religious sentiment in pre-colonial India. In the absence of a king, this sentiment attaches itself to sites of injury, such as monuments or the names of roads, which are perceived as evidence of the threat one community poses to another. But even kings such as Aurangzeb, who had their critics in their own times, constituted the beating heart of a world sustained by the sacred symbol of kingship, in which communal violence of the kind that exists in modern South Asia was absent. Viewing a king through the eyes of one of his subjects opens both historians and their audiences to the imaginative possibilities of the past; we cannot erase national boundaries, but we can rebuild an older order of being within ourselves to help us make peace with pasts that trouble us.