(This piece was first published in Business Standard.)

What is the role of professional historians when narratives about historical figures are being circulated through social media, pre-election speeches, and that unusual genre of primetime television which blurs the boundaries between fiction and reportage? Publishing houses seem to be on a commissioning spree as far as books on the Mughal empire are concerned. While these tend to focus on the life of a single individual, they also broaden our understanding of who the Mughals were.

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“The Mughal nobility did not hail from a single group or clan. It was an ethnically diverse aristocracy, claiming members with Indian Muslim, Rajput, Maratha, Afghan, Iranian, and Turani (i.e., Central Asian) backgrounds,” writes Supriya Gandhi in her book The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (Harvard University Press, 2020) She is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Yale University. Would this scholar’s research put to rest the divisive rhetoric of WhatsApp University?

According to Gandhi, Mughal royals such as Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh have metamorphosed into myths in the popular imagination. They are depicted as polar opposites: Dara Shukoh emerges as the model of the ‘moderate Muslim’ set against his brother ‘Aurangzeb’ who is portrayed as the ‘extremist Muslim’. The former is imagined as being in conversation with Sufis, naked ascetics and Hindu pandits; the latter with hardened Muslim clerics who are intolerant of religious diversity. Dara Shukoh is painted as a failed statesman; Aurangzeb as shrewd, astute and successful.

“Dara Shukoh was not a misfit in the Mughal court. He tapped ingredients of political authority — asceticism and piety — that sovereigns in the subcontinent had long used,” writes Gandhi, showing that Dara Shukoh viewed his spiritual activities as an integral part of his role as a royal. She cautions against calling him a liberal or assuming that he promoted interfaith harmony in the modern senses of the term.

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A few years ago, Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, wrote Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (Penguin, 2017). She is unhappy with Aurangzeb’s detractors who hold him accountable for destroying certain temples but fail to acknowledge that he issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and gave stipends and land to Brahmins. She thinks it is unreasonable to denounce Aurangzeb for restricting Holi celebrations without mentioning that he clamped down on Muharram and Eid festivities.

Will all this information, sourced by a historian through rigorous methods, help to change Aurganzeb’s image in a public discourse that views him as a tyrant? Truschke writes, “In reality, Aurangzeb pursued no overarching agenda vis a vis Hindus within his state. ‘Hindus’ of the day often did not even label themselves as such and rather prioritized a medley of regional, sectarian and caste identities (for example, Rajput, Maratha, Brahmin, Vaishnava). As many scholars have pointed out, the word ‘Hindu’ is Persian, not Sanskrit, and only became commonly used self-referentially during British colonialism.”

Should historians try to make sense of historical figures as products of their own time and place, or explain them in the context of contemporary political vocabulary? Ruby Lal, who teaches at Emory University, wrote Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (Penguin, 2018) as part of her mandate to tell the stories of women and girls, which are largely missing from the precolonial history of South Asia. Her book is about “the favourite wife of Emperor Jahangir” who was well known for her shooting skills and for being his co-sovereign — “a position in the empire never before filled by a woman.”

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Lal finds that Nur Jahan was successful in “navigating the labyrinth of feudal courtly politics and the male-centered culture of the Mughal world.” The signs of her sovereignty are gleaned from the imperial orders she issued, and the coins that bore her name along with her husband’s. According to Lal, her male contemporaries could not stomach a woman’s rising to power on account of her own talents, so they portrayed her as a conniving person who won “the indulgence of a love-blind emperor.”

Lal deconstructs the world of the Mughal harem, which is framed through an orientalist gaze. She places Nur Jahan in a tradition of “strong and prominent elder women — assertive royal wives, influential mothers and aunts whose opinions were valued.” Nur Jahan donated money to the poor, and helped organize marriages for destitute orphan girls. This generosity earned her goodwill and admiration from many. Will this feminist recovery of Mughal history change contemporary ideas about women in Islamic societies? Let us wait and watch.

(Note: I find it interesting that my editor chose to use the word ‘eras’ instead of ‘era’ in the headline because it implies that diverse currents were running through this period that is usually understood as a monolith.)

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