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08.06.2018

We’ve been wanting to say this ever since we read Audrey Truschke’s bestselling, super-readable biography of Aurangzeb: The Man And The Myth last year in a single sitting: you in danger, girl.

Sure enough, it’s been over a year since her book came out and the troll-storm around her hasn’t let up. She’s gheraoed everyday on Twitter, often by scarily sexist and anti-Semitic commentators. Reader, we don’t mean to add to this dogpile at all. But since Truschke is still in the news, Mughal history is still a primary battleground for our high-pitched culture wars, and Aurangzeb’s 400th birthday comes up later this year, we want to ask: Why was Truschke’s Aurangzeb hyped?

The first thing to know about the book is that it’s short, breezy and argumentative. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most historians came to the conclusion that one way or another, Aurangzeb was The Worst Ever. Jawaharlal Nehru called him “a bigot.” Aurangzeb’s own brother, Dara Shikoh, mocked him as a “namazi,” the prayerful sort. (Aurangzeb had him paraded through Delhi in chains, then murdered.)

Truschke’s book is essentially an argument that in spite of all this, history has been unfair by interpreting Aurangzeb as uniquely awful, when in fact he was just a man of his time. Significant portions of the book are devoted to countering Hindu right-wing attacks on his reign, which tend to focus on events such as the destruction of Hindu temples and the reinstatement of the jaziya tax, imposed on all non-Muslims in the empire.

As a counter-attack against trolls foaming at the mouth, it’s a bold, bracing argument. It’s helped by the fact that Truschke’s writing is immensely readable and humanises Aurangzeb even as it sticks to historical records with practised rigour. (To be fair, have you seen some of those miniatures? What an #Aurangbabe.) What it doesn’t do, though, is erase his history as an authoritarian. It’s all very well to argue that the whole system of inherited kingship is an authoritarian act, and that it’s unfair to prop him up as some sort of special villain.

He kind of was, though. He was an expansionist under whom the Mughal empire grew to its largest and most unwieldy, on course for an economic decline from which it would never recover. He overturned centuries of Mughal tradition to make religious orthodoxy a way of life at court. To call this good governance would be an act of bold imagination. Then, the bigotry: Truschke says he only tore down a few dozen temples out of the hundreds under his reign. This essentially waves away the historical understanding of why this counted as a crime. To consider it an act of political pragmatism is a very modern way of bucking accountability, as we can now tell.

Without taking away from the book’s achievements, we have to say that the book was hyped because hype is the only way to win a battle against an unending army of trolls. Truschke is clearly invested in softening a communalised discourse and rescuing Indian history from its clumsy re-writers. But does a talented historian really have to write a book solely aimed at smacking down haters?

If we really do live in a time of growing tyranny ourselves, as the book seems to believe, then it stands to reason that the way out isn’t to rehabilitate and champion some tyrant of the past. It is, rather, to truly assess the tyrant clearly and fearlessly, the better to understand the scale of the tragedy that follows in tyranny’s wake.

Why Was This Hyped?’ is #bpbSpine’s occasional series criticising other people’s taste in literature. If you’d like to contribute, send an email to guide@bpbweekend.com.

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