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The Indian Republic is haunted by the ghosts of monarchs. It has been so for quite some time now, from even before India became a republic: in the era of colonial subjugation, dreams of becoming a democracy were frequently inspired by mythic and historical royal figures. To become a sovereign nation was to inherit the mystical undying bodies of dead kings and queens. Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, the theorist on European monarchic political theology and its contribution to the birth of the modern (nation-) state, would have appreciated this trajectory. If Gandhi is the pacific father of the nation, there are other, more ambivalent, ancestors - to use the Indian term, Pitris - who rouse the masses and demand remembrance, oblation, and sacrifice, mocking the futurism of the republic. Historians have at last started writing about these afterlives: examples include Ramya Sreenivasan's The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India, c. 1500-1900 (2007), Harleen Singh's The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India (2014), Cynthia Talbots's The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 (2016), and my The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (2018). Audrey Truschke's Aurangzeb is a splendid addition to this genre. It begins and ends with Aurangzeb's modern life - certainly this provides the ethical energy behind her scholarship - even if the bulk of the book portrays the monarch's reign in its historical context.
Truschke's laudable objective is to criticize Hindu nationalism, which makes the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) into a metonym for the Muslim community, and vilifies the emperor in order to vilify the community almost in its entirety. She describes the pejorative use of the term "Aurangzeb ki aulad" (Aurangzeb's progeny) - along with "Babur ki aulad" (Babur's progeny) - in this chauvinistic discourse. She demonstrates how Indian nationalism, in its more sectarian aspects (emblematized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) as well as its more 'secular' manifestations (as in Jawaharlal Nehru), demonized Aurangzeb as a Muslim ruler whose religious fanaticism supposedly destroyed the fabric of cultural and political - in Indian nationalist view, proto-national - unity nurtured by his ancestors, and notably by Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). The Akbar / Aurangzeb binary translates, in this gaze, into a good Muslim / bad Muslim polarity too. Truschke discusses the genealogies of this vision in British imperial strategies of legitimation - 'good' British rescuing Indians from Muslim 'despots' - and its indigenization at the hands of Indian historians like Jadunath Sarkar. Truschke underlines how many Pakistani intellectuals also demonize Aurangzeb. She also discusses Sikh animus against the emperor for the latter's persecution of the religious community.
This discussion on the present leads Truschke to attempt a historicist recuperation of the emperor's image. She argues: "It offers little insight to condemn Aurangzeb according to modern standards concerning state violence, individual liberties, and tolerance." (105) She suggests that "it makes little sense to assess the past by contemporary criteria." (9) She wishes "to fulfil a core guideline of history: understanding historical figures on their own terms" (13). It is assumed that there is a fundamental dissonance between modern standards and past values; the duty of the historian is to describe a historical figure according to the latter rather than the former. One may differ from this optics. Generations of historians - in South Asianist academia, especially Marxist, Subaltern Studies, feminist, and postcolonial scholarship - have alerted us to the importance of analysing past social formations through the prism of the present. Since social iniquities of earlier centuries still structure our modern societies, it is imperative to critique the past, as a precondition for creating a more democratic future. Hence Marxist historians like Irfan Habib have denounced oppression of the common people by Mughal ruling classes, and have shown how anti-Mughal rebellions were fuelled by peasant / agrarian grievances against particular regimes of elite domination. The difference between this lens and a Hindu nationalist lens is that the former does not differentiate between 'good' Hindu monarchs and 'bad' Muslim despots: the goal is to critique all incidence of exploitation and subjugation, no matter who the perpetrator is.
Such judgments do not necessarily require a modernist lens. Truschke admirably shows how contemporaries of Aurangzeb themselves frequently condemned the emperor. These included the Chief Qazi of the Mughal Empire, the Sharif of Mecca, and the Safavid ruler of Iran who alike denounced Aurangzeb's deposition and incarceration of his father Shah Jahan. These opponents also included Maratha, Rajput, and Sikh actors in South Asia who articulated socio-economic and political grievances through ideologized attacks on Aurangzeb's rulership. Truschke builds on the work of earlier scholars like Allison Busch, Purnima Dhavan, Louis Fenech, and James Laine, who have described the conceptual vocabularies through which public opposition to Mughal rule, beginning from the time of Aurangzeb, was framed, combining appeals to broad-based norms of justice with sectarian theologies.
Truschke demonstrates with superb precision that the political-theological fault lines in Aurangzeb's reign did not run along simple Muslim versus Hindu / Sikh binaries. Certain Hindu actors justified Aurangzeb's imperial project: thus "Ishvaradasa, a Hindu astrologer, wrote about Aurangzeb in Sanskrit in 1663 and called the king righteous (dharmya) and even noted that his tax policies were lawful (vidhivat)." (39) Other Hindus dedicated Persian Ramayanas to the emperor. Aurangzeb sometimes supported Hindu temples. Truschke's acclaimed research on the intersections between Sanskritic and Persianate worlds in the Mughal polity (Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, 2016) enables her to describe these transcultural imperial theologies. Simultaneously, Aurangzeb persecuted multitudes of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims (like the Mahdavis and the Ismaili Bohras) who ran afoul of his authority and political theology, and possibly destroyed "a few dozen" (84) temples. Opposition to the monarch drew on trans-sectarian genealogies, with precedents in the subcontinent's history. Truschke's quotation of a late-fifteenth / early-sixteenth century advice given by Muslim jurists, condemning the destruction of Hindu temples as illegal, as well as reference to late seventeenth century Muslim theologians who denounced Aurangzeb's conquest of Bijapur and Golconda and slaughter of local populations, offer proof that one need not be 'modern' to castigate Aurangzeb's violence.
I shall conclude with a philosophical point. The Hindu nationalist condemnation of Muslims through equating them with Aurangzeb cannot be successfully ethically combated through a positive recuperation of Aurangzeb. Rather, one should ask: how is it that entire populations are metonymized by past monarchs? Why are nationalisms so dependent on good and bad sovereign figures? I have elsewhere argued that in many nationalist discourses across nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and Asia (and beyond), the sovereignty of the monocentric nation-state has been carved in the image of the monistic authority of a human or divine monarch. (The logic of continuity between human or divine monarchic authority and the political leadership of the monocentric modern state, as Carl Schmitt noted long back for European history, is sovereignty.) Hence nations, even ostensibly republican ones, search for regal ancestors and substitutes. In India, these regal shades include 'good' ancestors (Rama, Ashoka, Akbar, Shivaji) as well as 'bad' ones (Aurangzeb). In general, majoritarian nationalisms often present themselves as heirs of sovereigns and exclude disempowered minorities as children of demonic others. There is an authoritarian monarchic logic within the grammar of monocentric nationalist sovereignty. To exorcise this logic, this "patrimonial logic of the generations of ghosts" (to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida, commenting in Specters of Marx on The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) which even haunts republics, we need to critique the regal manes which conjure our fantasies of sovereignty. We need to stop nourishing the pitris with violent oblations. The ever-incomplete work of democracy necessitates a dialectical forgetting and unforgetting of spirits.