What Explains RSS’ Love For Dara Shikoh? He’s A ‘Good Muslim’
The RSS narrative on Dara Shikoh is an oversimplified reading of history.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Sah Sarkaryavah or Joint General Secretary, Krishna Gopal's laudatory reference to the Mughal prince and elder brother of Emperor Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh, is a continuation of the sangh parivar's strategy to create a binary among Muslims – the 'good Muslim' and the 'bad Muslim'.
His contention on Dara Shikoh is nothing new, writers sympathetic to the sangh parivar have for decades projected Shah Jahan's eldest son as an amiable and embracing person, in contrast to the fanatic and brutal Aurangzeb. It merits recalling that the Bharatiya Janata Party government in February 2017 renamed Dalhousie Road in the Indian capital as Dara Shikoh.
The decision was taken by the Centre-controlled New Delhi Municipal Corporation and the proposal was put forward by the party lawmaker, Meenakshi Lekhi. She said that the decision was taken to honour the prince for "bringing Hindus and Muslims together". The initial proposal in 2014 was to rename Aurangzeb Road after Dara Shikoh but this plan was altered after the death of former President APJ Abdul Kalam.
RSS Efforts to Appear Reasonable on the Issue of Muslims
Despite it not being an original argument, Krishna Gopal's intervention assumes significance in the backdrop of the RSS’ efforts since 2017 to appear reasonable on the issue of Muslims. In September that year, Mohan Bhagwat made his frequently quoted statement that Hindutva minus Muslims is meaningless.
The organisation has for the past several years made a bid to engage with Muslims through its affiliate, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch.
As part of its reach out to the alienated community, Bhagwat recently held a well-publicised exchange of ideas with the president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Maulana Arshad Madani.
The glowing references to the prince – slain by Aurangzeb – is an attempt on part of the RSS to create a template of the ideal Muslim.
Dara Shikoh, presented by the Hindu right wing as a model Muslim is depicted chiefly as a pluralistic religious scholar, philosopher and rightful heir-apparent to the Mughal throne. The assertion runs that in the mid 17th century, at the height of that empire, Shikoh was denied his due by the sectarian Aurangzeb only because he disliked his eldest brother's embrace of religious syncretism.
Inadequate Knowledge, Subjective Perception
But like in the past, Krishna Gopal has come up with an argument which displays inadequate knowledge of history and is based more on subjective perception. The sangh parivar, like the Congress prior to it, requires to enlist Muslim public figures from the past and present in order to display its secular credentials.
While this may sound incongruous, leaders of the sangh parivar still feel the need to showcase themselves as 'secular' even though they have acquired the gumption to display their Hindu nationalism.
Dara Shikoh is thus necessary, just as many contemporary public figures – Arif Mohammed Khan and the odd party leaders and spokespersons – are required to demonstrate that the sangh parivar admits Muslims in their fold.
But the RSS narrative on Dara Shikoh is an oversimplified reading of history.
The noted scholar of medieval history, Harbans Mukhia, noted that the idea to present the contest between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh as a conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and liberalism does not explain why two outstanding generals, Jaswant Singh and Jai Singh were on Aurangzeb's side and not with the elder brother. (Mukhia also pointed out that the prince's name is Dara Shukoh, not Shikoh. The former word in Persian means glory, the latter terror!)
Common Cause, Different Purposes
Undoubtedly, Dara Shikoh lost at the end of a bitter power struggle within the most important and powerful family in the Mughal kingdom. In their struggle with minority fundamentalism, secularists have in the past showcased him as a genteel soul who was wrongly accused of apostasy.
It may appear odd, but the RSS has made common cause with radicals and liberals in their portrayal of the slain prince as a secular Muslim, but for different purposes.
While radicals and liberals have used this narrative to counter Islamists, the Hindu right wing has used Dara Shikoh's image as a role model for contemporary Muslims.
For RSS, survival of the extreme fringe among Muslims is necessary to consolidate its support among Hindus. If there is no 'bad Muslim' there will be no 'political Hindu' who supports the sangh parivar.
Many interpretations of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb's lives depict them as having been brought up in a dysfunctional family, and the latter's hatred for the former actually stemming from being the less favoured child while "Emperor Shah Jahan dotes on Dara". The argument being that Aurangzeb's religious and political intolerance was more a result of accumulated anger through childhood for his neglect and not for reasons of conviction.
Reading Present Into the Past
But even for a moment if one discards these layered interpretations and sticks to the linear reconstruction of their lives, would RSS be comfortable with Dara Shikoh's unabashed Muslimness?
After all, even by the uni-dimensional storyline, it is Dara Shikoh's understanding of Islam which goads him to seek the ultimate truth on other spiritual avenues and makes him a more embracing person.
It is Dara Shikoh’s faith which makes him see reason but for the sangh parivar, faith or religious belief is as much a political device as it was for Aurangzeb.
Furthermore, a natural poser for Krishna Gopal and his colleagues would be if they are willing to extend their 'graciousness' to other 'good Muslims' in the past – Emperor Akbar for instance? Or has Dara Shikoh been picked at random because of the compulsion of being in power in India?
Reading the past into the present is an important device for the lessons that history holds. The sangh parivar, however, appears to be reading the present into the past. And altering what has gone before is the worst disservice that can be done to history.
Romanticising Dara Shikoh is as wrong as demonising Aurangzeb. As historian Audrey Truschke has affirmed, Dara Shikoh as emperor would have been “disastrous” and every bit as “cruel and prone to violence” as Aurangzeb.
The RSS also indulges in supposition, a game the saffron fold loves playing: If Dara had been Badshah, "Islam could have flourished more in India". This reasoning is like the other favourite claim – if Sardar Patel had been India's first prime minister in place of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's situation would have been better.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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