What Narendra Modi can learn from similarities with Aurangzeb

The iron hand that ruled by dividing rather than uniting gave rise to much discordance. There are important lessons for those who rule and seek to rule India in this, writes Mohan Guruswamy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File photo)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File photo)

Mohan Guruswamy

The fortunes of India irrevocably changed on May 29, 1658 when two Indian armies clashed on the dusty fields of Samugarh near Agra. Aurangzeb’s victory over his brother Dara Shikoh marked the beginning of Islamic bigotry in India that not only alienated Hindus but also the much more moderate Sufis and Shias as well. Aurangzeb’s narrow Sunni beliefs were to make India the hotbed of Muslim fundamentalists, long before the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia sponsored the fanatics of Taliban and Islamic State. It was not only a battle for the Mughal throne, but also a battle for the very soul of India.

Aurangzeb’s victory here and other successful campaigns resulted in the creation of the greatest and biggest Imperial India till then. His empire spanned from Kabul to Calicut in the south and Kamrup in the east. He ruled almost 20% of the world’s population. He ruled with an iron hand and killed his enemies with extreme cruelty. He had Dara Shikoh killed in front of his son, and Guru Tegh Bahadur decapitated in front of a large crowd in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area. If emperors were to be judged by territory, population and wealth he was verily the greatest of the Mughals. But the seeds of India’s collapse were sown.

In 1620 India had the world’s highest national income, over a third of it, and was its greatest military power also. According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in 1700 India accounted for 27% of world GDP. It was the envy of Europe. European traders came to seek Indian goods for their markets.

But no sooner the iron hand of Aurangzeb was no more, his imperial India began disintegrating. The iron hand that ruled by dividing rather than uniting and that sought to impose a hierarchy by theological preferences gave rise to much discordance. There are important lessons for those who rule and seek to rule India in this.

The weakening central rule and profit seeking peripheral kingdoms allowed European trading posts to be established. Weakening regimes led to the trading posts raising armed guards. Soon the overseas trading companies began warring with each other and with so many minor states now free to make their destinies joining hands with one or the other it was the Europeans who got gradually established.

A hundred years later in 1757, the era of total foreign supremacy over India began when East India Company troops drawn from South India and officered by English company executives defeated the army of Nawab Siraj-ud-Dowlah at Plassey (Palashi), with the now usual mix of superior drilling, resolute leadership and a bit of treachery. At a crucial time, Mir Jaffar and his troops crossed over. India lay prostrate before Robert Clive.

Within a decade, on August 12, 1765, Clive obtained a firman from Emperor Shah Alam, granting the ‘dewany’ of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to the Company. By this deed the Company became the real sovereign ruler of 30 million people, yielding a revenue of four million sterling.

The events of 1857 led to the formal establishment of India as a directly ruled colony. It was yet another epochal event. The English established the greatest dominion in India ever. It spanned from Peshawar in today’s Pakistan to Pagan in Burma; and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari India came under one sway for the first time in its history. Even Aurngzeb didn’t go down very much beyond the River Krishna.

India changed, for the better and for the worse. All through its long history India absorbed the waves of immigrants and their dynasties, as it absorbed from the Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Kushans, Afghans, Uzbeks and all those who came to seek their fortunes here. They built on India’s fortunes. The British were the only ones who came to take away its vast wealth in a systematic manner. The wealth taken from India to a great extent financed the Industrial Revolution.

Renowned economist Utsa Patnaik who taught at JNU wrote a seminal paper on how much Britain profited by from India. Patnaik concluded that Britain plundered almost $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938, based on nearly two centuries of precise tax and trade data.

In 1947 India became independent. In that year India’s GDP was only 3.8% of world GDP. It’s 2022 now. India’s GDP is the world’s third biggest. In a few decades it could conceivably become its biggest.

Given its failures on the economic front, the BJP/RSS regime in New Delhi is now pushing India towards Hindutva nationhood, by seeking to victimize a minority for perceived wrongs and slights of the past.

An intolerant religion can never be the basis of nationhood and national unity in India. The legacy of Aurangzeb tells us that. Aurangzeb had created the greatest imperial India since Ashoka the Great. But it didn’t take very long for it to dissipate. In the hundred years that followed a foreign mercantile company gained control over all of India.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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