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4 Months, 10 FIRs, Violent Protests: Aurangzeb's Ghost Back to Haunt Maharashtra

Why are people in Maharashtra being booked for sharing social media posts featuring a 17th century Mughal emperor?

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(*Names changed to protect identity)

Hussain*, 14, a resident of Maharashtra's Beed district, recently deleted his Instagram account.

"I never imagined that an Instagram story will one day turn into my worst nightmare," he said, as he vowed to never return to the social networking site.

On 8 June, Hussain's post featuring 17th century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb landed him in trouble after an FIR was registered against him under sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 505B (intention to incite offence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

"Since when did sharing images of historic figures become a crime in this country? We had to spend a lot of money to get our child out on bail," Hussain's uncle told The Quint.

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The FIR was registered against the minor following a complaint by a 23-year-old social worker and member of a right-wing group called the Hindu Ekta Samiti.

Why are people in Maharashtra being booked for sharing social media posts featuring a 17th century Mughal emperor?

The purported social media post which led Shubham Lokhande to register the complaint against Hussain. 

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

"We are devotees of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Aurangzeb was his enemy. He destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples. This boy, who I know personally because we live in the same colony, had shared a picture of Aurangzeb with a status that said 'baap baap hota hai' which hurt my religious sentiments. That is why I registered the complaint," the complainant told The Quint.

For Hussain and his family, the FIR meant multiple visits to the police station, the juvenile court, a public apology in the form of a 15 second long video, and a change of school. "His father works as a tailor. The family doesn't have a lot of money... Due to the FIR, we had to withdraw him from his current school and seek admission in a new one. They (Hindutva activists) also asked him to issue a public apology, and then circulated it all over social media," said the minor's uncle.

This is not an isolated case. Since March this year, at least 10 similar FIRs have been registered against people who allegedly shared social media posts "glorifying" the 17th century Mughal emperor in districts across Maharashtra such as Kolhapur, Aurangabad, Nashik, Beed, Mumbai, and Buldhana.

Earlier in June, BJP leader and Maharashtra's Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, while reacting to protests in Kolhapur over social media posts related to Aurangzeb, said, "Maharashtra me achanak Aurangzeb ki auladien paida hui hain (In some districts of Maharashtra, some children of Aurangzeb have suddenly appeared). They are posting pictures and status on social media of Aurangzeb, which is causing ill-will in society."

The Quint went through the 10 FIRs, spoke to legal and political experts, and historians to understand why Aurangzeb’s legacy has become a bone of contention in the state.

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What Do the FIRs Say?

The Quint accessed 10 FIRs across districts and all were registered under the following IPC sections:

  • 298 (hurting religious feelings)

  • 505B (intention to incite offence)

  • 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs

  • 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, and language.)

The complainants, in most of these cases, were affiliated either with a right-leaning political party such as Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) or were a part of Hindutva outfits such as the Hindu Ekta Samiti and Sakal Hindu Samaj.

For instance, an FIR was registered on 10 June against one Ataur Rehman, who is supposedly a resident of Aurangabad, at the city's CIDCO police station for uploading a social media post asking people to gather and celebrate Aurangzeb's coronation anniversary.

The complainant Chandrakant Navpute, an MNS member, alleged that Rehman's post "hurt his religious feelings."

"Early morning, on 9 June, my MNS colleague Ganesh Salunkhe and I came across a Facebook post asking people to gather and celebrate the 364th coronation anniversary of Aurangzeb. This post by Ataur Rehman hurt the religious feelings of people who respect and worship Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, who was killed by Aurangzeb. Legal action should be initiated against this person for trying to disturb peace in the society," Navpute said in his complaint.

The case is under investigation and Aurangabad police is trying to ascertain the identity of the accused. "So far, we only have the Facebook username of the accused. The screenshot has been sent to our cyber crime unit and we will proceed with the investigation once the accused is identified," said Sambhaji Pawar, officer in-charge at the CIDCO police station.

Another case was registered in Navi Mumbai's Vashi on 12 June against 29-year-old Mohammed Ali Mohammed Hussain for sharing a WhatsApp status with the photo of Aurangzeb.

Hussain was served a notice under section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) after members of the Sakal Hindu Samaj (a group of right-wing organisations from across Maharashtra) approached the police station, raised slogans, and pressured the police to take cognisance.

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"After serving him the notice, the accused came in for a brief interrogation. The WhatsApp status had a photo of Aurangzeb without any text. The case is still under investigation," an officer at the Vashi police station told The Quint.

According to Aniket Nikam, advocate at the Bombay High Court, the sections of IPC invoked in these cases can only be invoked if the law enforcement agencies establish mens rea or criminal intent. "If there's a lot of tension in a particular locality over an issue and the said social media post is capable of creating unrest, then the police or court can presume that the accused did have a criminal intent," Nikam said.

"Most of these sections such as 298, 295A, and 153A of the IPC fall under the hate speech laws. These laws are broadly worded but to prevent their misuse, the Supreme Court has on multiple occasions laid several guidelines. It is the job of the police and local law enforcement bodies to ensure that these guidelines are followed and these sections are not misused."
Aniket Nikam, Advocate at the Bombay High Court

"What should ideally happen in these cases is that before invoking these sections, the police should seek clear legal opinion of a high ranking judicial officer appointed by the government. This will ensure that before lodging an FIR, the police is aware of its sustainability. But the police in small villages and towns are not equipped to do this. We should, however, understand that sustainable or not lodging an FIR has consequences," Advocate Nikam said.

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Lives Uprooted, Families Forced to Flee

In March 2022, an FIR against 19-year-old Mohammed Momin over a WhatsApp video of Aurangzeb, led to his entire family being forced to flee from their native village Savarde in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district.

They are yet to return home.

The FIR was registered under IPC sections 298 (wounding religious feelings) and 505(2) (promoting enmity between classes) of Indian Penal Code (IPC) after locals and Hindutva activists affiliated with Sambhaji Bhide-led Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan protested against the WhatsApp status.

The 45-second-long video had an image of Aurangzeb with a background voice which said, "Tum naam toh badal loge, lekin itihaas nahi badal paaoge. Woh pahaad aaj bhi gawah hai, iss shahr ka badshah kaun tha aur kaun hai. Aurangzeb Alamgir (You can change the name but you can't change history. That mountain stands witness to who was and is the king of the city. Aurangzeb Alamgir)"

The video was uploaded with a status that read, "Aurangabad will always belong to Aurangzeb."

It was around the same time that the Centre had approved the renaming of Aurangabad city as 'Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar' and that of Osmanabad city as 'Dharashiv'.

Why are people in Maharashtra being booked for sharing social media posts featuring a 17th century Mughal emperor?

The video was uploaded with a status that read, "Aurangabad will always belong to Aurangzeb."

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

The police complaint against Momin was filed by Parshuram Chavan, a BJP member in Hatkanangale taluka.

Speaking to The Quint on condition of anonymity, a person known to Momin alleged that the police advised the family to leave the village and wait for the situation to calm down.

A police officer familiar with the investigation, however, said that the "family left the village of their own accord."

Why are people in Maharashtra being booked for sharing social media posts featuring a 17th century Mughal emperor?

People gathered to protest against social media posts 'glorifying' Aurangzeb in Kolhapur.

(Photo: PTI)

'Design to Polarise the State Ahead of 2024'

The most recent FIR involving the 17th century Mughal emperor was registered on 25 June at the Malkapur City police station in Buldhana district against unidentified persons for allegedly raising pro-Aurangzeb slogans at a rally addressed by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi.

"Police took cognisance of the video and audio clips doing rounds on social media and registered a case based on a complaint lodged by a police officer present at the rally. The clips have been sent to the cyber crime unit and we will take action soon," Ashok Ratnaparkhi, officer in-charge at the Malkapur City police station told The Quint.

Soon after the FIR was registered, Owaisi threatened to sue television channels for spreading misinformation. "You have been broadcasting lies. The Muslims of Maharashtra and all of India are not descendants of Aurangzeb," he said.

AIMIM MP Imtiaz Jaleel also claimed that no such slogans were raised and the FIR is an attempt to stoke communal tensions in Maharashtra ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

"It was a high security rally. How is it possible that the clips only surfaced one day after the incident? This is not an isolated case. Muslim youth across the state are being booked over social media posts related to Aurangzeb," Jaleel told The Quint.

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There is a broad consensus around Aurangzeb across party lines in Maharashtra. While Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji is worshipped by people across the state, Aurangzeb is looked at as his arch-enemy. No political party in the state including the Shiv Sena, NCP, BJP, or the Congress has ever displayed public sympathy for Aurangzeb.

In 1995, it was the Bal Thackeray-Shiv Sena that had first raised the demand for the renaming of Aurangabad city to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar.

27 years on, in June 2022, Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in its last cabinet meeting announced the renaming of Aurangabad to 'Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar' — after Chhatrapati Shivaji's elder son Chhatrapati Sambhaji.

The spate of FIRs against people and violence in parts of the state over Aurangzeb signify a hardening communal divide.

"This is straight out of the BJP's playbook to polarise people along religious lines ahead of the elections. Why is Aurangzeb being promoted as an icon for Muslims? I am not saying he was good or bad. He is a historical figure and must be read in context," said Jaleel.

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'Simplistic to Look at Aurangzeb as a Muslim King'

Author and historian Manu Pillai highlighted how Aurangzeb became the face of Mughal imperialism in the Deccan. "The Mughals in general were not a popular force in the Deccan. They came here as conquerors and were resisted for nearly a century by local powers. This period, besides political instability, also saw famine and economic suffering, making memories of that phase worse," he told The Quint.

"Although a total of four emperors were involved in the century-long conquest of the Deccan, Aurangzeb has become the face of Mughal imperialism because he spent the longest stretch here personally in subjugating the Deccan."
Mannu Pillai, Author and Historian

Pillai added that looking at Aurangzeb only as a Muslim king is a "simplistic and imperfect way" to analyse his actions and motivations.

In fact, the Maratha resistance against the Mughals, two generations before Shivaji was led by Malik Ambar of Ahmednagar sultanate.

"Remember that the three big kingdoms the Mughals conquered between 1630 and 1690 were Muslim states. Of these, the Nizam Shahi in Ahmednagar fell in Shahjahan's time, while the Adil Shahi of Bijapur and Qutb Shahi of Golconda were annexed by Aurangzeb. So what we have here is a so-called 'Muslim emperor' defeating other Muslim kings. Just as the Marathas opposed Aurangzeb, these Muslim powers also resisted Mughal encroachments."
Manu Pillai, Author and Historian

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