The fortunes of India had irrevocably changed on May 29, 1658 when two Indian armies clashed on the dusty fields of Samugarh, near Agra. India’s history changed forever. Aurangzeb’s victory over his brother Dara Shikoh marked the beginning of Islamic bigotry in India that not only alienated the 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 Wahabis of Saudi Arabia sponsored the fanatics of the Taliban and the 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. But the seeds of India’s collapse were sowed.
In 1620 India had the world’s greatest national income, over a third of it, and was its greatest military power as well. It was the envy of Europe. The European traders came to seek Indian goods for their markets. But no sooner was the iron hand of Aurangzeb no more that his imperial India began to disintegrate. 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. But for Aurangzeb, Shivaji Bhonsle might have remained a minor western Indian feudatory? There are important lessons to be learnt from all this for those who rule and seek to rule India.
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 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 got established. The Anglo-French wars of the Carnatic were fought by Indian armies beefed up by trading company levies. The East India Company of the British ultimately prevailed and the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish got reduced to pockets.
A hundred years later, in 1757, the era of total foreign supremacy over India began when the East India Company’s troops drawn from South India and officered by English company executives defeated the army of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey (Palashi) in Bengal, 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 the then Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, granting the dewani of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to the Company. A Muslim contemporary indignantly exclaims that so great a “transaction was done and finished in less time than would have been taken up in the sale of a jackass”. By this deed the Company became the real sovereign ruler of 30 million people, yielding a revenue of four million sterling. The John Company grew from strength to strength, and by 1857 the Grand Mughal was reduced to his fort conducting poetry soirees. It was the golden age of Urdu poetry.
The events of 1857 led to the formal establishment of India as a directly ruled colony of the British empire. It was yet another epochal event. India changed, for the better and for the worse. Once again India absorbed from outsiders, as it absorbed from the Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Kushans, Afghans, Uzbeks and all those who came to seek their fortunes here. 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 in England.
From then to another epochal year ending with seven took ninety years. In 1947, India became independent. Its GDP is now the world’s third-biggest. In a few decades, it could conceivably become its biggest. But have we learned any lessons from history?
Given its abject failures on the economic front, the BJP/RSS regime in New Delhi is now pushing India towards a Hindutva nationhood, by seeking to victimise a minority for the 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 empire that India had seen 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.
The BJP under Narendra Modi might keep gaining electoral dominion over all or most of India. But has he learned any lessons from history? Does he want to become the Hindu Aurangzeb? What is worrisome is that we know well that history is not Narendra Modi’s forte....