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May 31, 2016

India: Akbar and Aurangzeb are not two sides of the same coin . . .

The Times of India - May 31, 2016

Where V K Singh errs: Akbar and Aurangzeb are not two sides of the same coin, they are opposites
by Tarek Fatah in TOI Edit Page | Edit Page, India | TOI


Just over a year ago while giving a lecture in Delhi on the threat posed by the Islamic State globally, i suggested to Muslim Indians they should take the initiative and be in the frontlines of the ideological war against the doctrine of armed jihad.

Young Muslim men in the audience asked me to be specific. What could they do as individuals without being seen as traitors to the Muslim community?

Pressed for an answer, i suggested that as a start they launch a petition asking the Indian and Delhi governments to rename the city’s ‘Aurangzeb Road’ and henceforth call it ‘Dara Shikoh Road’ after the poet prince who was beheaded by younger brother Aurangzeb. There was scattered laughter followed by silence.

An Indian born in Pakistan in 1949, i first visited India in 2013. I was shocked to see the name Aurangzeb adorning one of the most majestic streets of India’s capital. Aurangzeb had killed his elder brother to stage a palace coup, imprisoned his own father for life, had several Muslim leaders hanged to death, among them the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims of Gujarat. There is no greater testimony to the cruelty and bigotry of Aurangzeb than the executions of the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, and the Muslim Sufi mystic Sarmad Kashani.

Nothing came of my suggestion. Then came the news in June of the death of perhaps India’s most loved President, A P J Abdul Kalam. Kalam lived in a state of Islam, not the Islamic State.

On June 29, i took to Twitter and urged Indians to ask their government to change the name from Aurangzeb Road to A P J Abdul Kalam Road. On August 28, i was woken in Toronto by phone calls from friends in India, with the news that the New Delhi Municipal Corporation had decided to change the name of Aurangzeb Road to A P J Abdul Kalam Road.

Fortunately, it was a Muslim who had asked for ending the celebration of a Muslim tyrant and replacing him with another Muslim who was India’s hero. Those who live off communal tensions probably felt deprived of an opportunity to exploit the name change to their advantage.

But less than a year later it seems just such an attempt is being made.

Attempting to make the Aurangzeb Road name change a template, minister of state for external affairs V K Singh has asked the government to rename Akbar Road as Maharana Pratap Road because the Rajput king “has not been given his due” despite being “truly secular and a man of masses”.

It should be remembered that the reason for removing Aurangzeb’s name from the streets of Delhi was that he had slaughtered the secular and liberal ethos of India, which Akbar had cultivated. By the time he died in 1710, Aurangzeb had managed to wipe out the liberal, pluralistic and tolerant variant of Islam introduced by Akbar the Great. Now that very Akbar is being placed under the hatchet by pedestrian and ill-conceived communal bigotry.

No sooner had V K Singh made his proposal, one right-wing Hindu commentator compared Akbar to Hitler while Haryana chief minister M L Khattar threw his support behind Singh. Gen Singh’s initiative has taken on an anti-Muslim communal colour at the very time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was building bridges with Iran and Afghanistan as a counter to Pakistan’s Islamist agenda against India.

It is tragic that Singh has lost sight of the difference between black and white; good and evil; Akbar and Aurangzeb! Akbar is the one Mughal emperor who is despised in Pakistan and the larger Islamist movement. Singh, an Indian general, is doing exactly what a Pakistani general would have done if he could – erase Akbar from the subcontinent’s consciousness.

“Of decided significance for Akbar’s success,” Richard von Garbe wrote in his book ‘Akbar, Emperor of India’, “was his patronage of the native population”. Garbe wrote in great detail about how Akbar won over Hindu masses by granting them not only freedom to their faith but even adopted some of their practices out of respect and for the unity of his subjects.

As writer Mridula Chari reminds us, it was also Mughal Emperor Akbar who embarked on a grand project to translate and transliterate the definitive Brahminical version of the Ramayana epic of 24,000 verses from Sanskrit into Persian. Completed in 1584, Akbar’s Ramayana was the first time the grand Hindu epic became available to the outside world.

Almost a hundred years later one of Akbar’s great grandsons, Prince Dara Shikoh would translate the Upanishads into Persian, translations which would reach France and from there to all of Europe. For this supposed transgression against Islam, Dara Shikoh was declared an apostate by his younger brother Aurangzeb and later beheaded.

Removing Akbar’s name from a road would amount to carrying out a posthumous beheading of Emperor Akbar the Great. He along with Asoka is our hero – of Hindus and Muslims as well as Sikhs. It cannot be that India is even considering erasing the name of one of its greatest heroes from its capital. Erasing the name of Akbar will amount to honouring the tyrant Aurangzeb, all over again.