NEW DELHI -- Narendra Modi rose from his chair and walked briskly towards the podium to deliver another nighttime address to the nation. It was expected the speech would include a rare message of interfaith harmony in the country where religious tensions have risen under his rule.
The Indian prime minister was speaking from the historic Mughal-era Red Fort in New Delhi, and the event marked the 400th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru who is remembered for championing religious freedoms for all.
The occasion and the venue, in many ways, were appropriate.
Instead, Modi chose the April event to turn back the clock and remind people of India’s most despised Muslim ruler who has been dead for more than 300 years.
“Aurangzeb severed many heads, but he could not shake our faith,” Modi said during his address.
His invocation of the 17th century Mughal emperor was not a mere blip.
Aurangzeb Alamgir remained buried deep in the annals of India’s complex history. The country's modern rulers are now resurrecting him as a brutal oppressor of Hindus and a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists who believe India must be salvaged from the taint of the so-called Muslim invaders.
As tensions between Hindus and Muslims have mounted, the scorn for Aurangzeb has grown, and politicians from India’s right have invoked him like never before. It often comes with a cautionary warning: India’s Muslims should disassociate themselves from him as retribution for his alleged crimes.
“For today’s Hindu nationalists, Aurangzeb is a dog whistle for hating all Indian Muslims,” said Audrey Truschke, historian and author of the book “Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth.”
Hating and disparaging Muslim rulers, particularly Mughals, is distinctive to India’s Hindu nationalists, who for decades have strived to recreate officially secular India into a Hindu nation.
They argue that Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb destroyed Hindu culture, forced religious conversions, desecrated temples and imposed harsh taxes on non-Muslims, even though some historians say such stories are exaggerated. Popular thought among nationalists traces the origin of Hindu-Muslim tensions back to medieval times, when seven successive Muslim dynasties made India their home, until each were swept aside when their time passed.
This belief had led them on a quest to redeem India’s Hindu past, to right the perceived wrongs suffered over centuries. And Aurangzeb is central to this sentiment.
Aurangzeb was the last powerful Mughal emperor who ascended to the throne in the mid-17th century after imprisoning his father and having his older brother killed. Unlike other Mughals, who ruled over a vast empire in South Asia for more than 300 years and enjoy a relatively uncontested legacy, Aurangzeb is, almost undoubtedly, one of the most hated men in Indian history.
Richard Eaton, a professor at the University of Arizona, who is widely regarded as an authority on pre-modern India, said that even though Aurangzeb destroyed temples, available records show it was a little more than a dozen and not thousands, as has been widely believed. This was done for political, not religious reasons, Eaton said, adding that the Muslim emperor also extended safety and security to people from all religions.
“In a word, he was a man of his own time, not of ours,” said Eaton, adding that the Mughal emperor has been reduced to “a comic book villain.”
But for Aurangzeb's detractors, he embodied evil and was nothing but a religious bigot.
Right-wing historian Makkhan Lal, whose books on Indian history have been read by millions of high school students, said ascribing political motives alone to Aurangzeb’s acts is akin to the “betrayal of India’s glorious past.”
It is a claim made by many historians who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, also known as the BJP, or its ideological mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a radical Hindu movement that has been widely accused of stoking religious hatred with aggressively anti-Muslim views. They say India’s history has been systematically whitewashed by far-left distortionists, mainly to cut off Indians — mostly Hindus — from their civilizational past.
“Aurangzeb razed down temples and it only shows his hate for Hindus and Hinduism,” said Lal.
The debate has spilled over from academia to angry social media posts and noisy TV shows, where India’s modern Muslims have often been insulted and called the “progeny of Aurangzeb.”
Last month, when a Muslim lawmaker visited Aurangzeb's tomb to offer prayers, a senior leader from Modi’s party questioned his parentage.
“Why would you visit the grave of Aurangzeb who destroyed this country," Hemanta Biswa Sarma, northeastern Assam state’s top elected official, thundered during a television interview. Referring to the lawmaker, he said: “If Aurangzeb is your father, then I won’t object.”
The insults have led to more anxieties among the country’s significant Muslim minority who in recent years have been at the receiving end of violence from Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has mostly stayed mum on such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.
Modi’s party denies using the Mughal emperor's name to denigrate Muslims. It also says it is merely trying to out the truth.
“India’s history has been manipulated and distorted to appease minorities. We are dismantling that ecosystem of lies," said Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a spokesman of the BJP.
The dislike for Aurangzeb extends far beyond Hindu nationalists. Many Sikhs remember him as a man who ordered the execution of their ninth guru in 1675. The commonly held belief is that the religious leader was executed for not converting to Islam.
Some argue that Modi’s invocation of Aurangzeb’s name at the Sikh guru’s birth anniversary in April serves only one purpose: to further widen anti-Muslim sentiments.
“In so doing, the Hindu right advances one of their key goals, namely maligning India’s Muslim minority population in order to try to justify majoritarian oppression and violence against them,” said Truschke, the historian.
Despite referencing Aurangzeb routinely, Hindu nationalists have simultaneously tried to erase him from the public sphere.
In 2015, New Delhi’s famous Aurangzeb Road was renamed after protests from Modi's party leaders. Since then, some Indian state governments have rewritten school textbooks to deemphasize him. Last month, the mayor of northern Agra city described Aurangzeb as a “terrorist,” whose traces should be expunged from all public places. A politician called for his tomb to be levelled, prompting authorities to shut it to the public.
A senior administration official, who didn’t want to be named because of government policy, compared efforts to erase Aurangzeb’s name to the removal of Confederate symbols and statues — viewed as racist relics — in the United States.
“What is wrong if people want to talk about the past and right historical wrongs? In fact, why should there be places named after a zealot who left behind a bitter legacy?” the official asked.
This sentiment, fast resonating across India, has already touched a raw nerve.
A 17th-century mosque in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, has emerged as the latest flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims. A court case will decide whether the site would be given to Hindus, who claim it was built on a temple destroyed on the orders of Aurangzeb.
For decades, Hindu nationalists have laid claim to several famous mosques, arguing they are built on the ruins of prominent temples. Many such cases are pending in courts.
Critics say it could lead to long legal battles, like that of the Babri mosque, which was ripped apart by Hindu mobs with spades, crowbars and bare hands in 1992. The demolition set off massive violence across India and left more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. In 2019, India's Supreme Court gave the site of the mosque to Hindus.
Such worries are also felt by historians like Truschke.
She said the “demonization” of Aurangzeb and India’s Muslim kings is in “bad faith” and promotes “historical revisionism,” which is often backed by threats and violence.
“Hindu nationalists do not think about the real historical Aurangzeb," said Truschke. “Rather, they invent the villain that they want to hate.”