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The Last Emperor

Anirudh Deshpande

Edited by Sri Ram Sharma
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 196, Rs. 495.00


The year 2007 was celebrated in India as the 150th anniversary of the Great Uprising of 1857 by the state and the community of Indian historians with much fanfare. Seminars were held all over the country to celebrate the event. While William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal was released in time and received a good press in the Economic and Political Weekly published a special issue on 1857 carrying various articles on the subject. These articles, highlighting varying aspects of that memorable event, have now appeared in a volume edited by the noted historian Sekhar Bandopadhyay. All this is understandable because the Revolt of 1857 symbolizes a Hindu-Muslim unity essential to the history and contemporary functioning of the secular Indian republic. It is also seen as an important moment of subaltern resistance to British imperialism. But, in general, 2007 revealed that 1857 remains firmly rooted in popular memory as India’s First War of Independence thanks, largely, to the abiding influence of nationalist historiography on the historical imagination of the great majority of Indians. The year 2007 also marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Muhayuddin Mohammad Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir’, the last Great Mughal. The year 1707 is important to the study of Indian history because after Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal Empire rapidly fell apart and the historiographically problematic 18th century began.   How far were Aurangzeb’s policies responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire? This question remains important to most historians of early modern India even today. Compared with the reign of Akbar it is difficult to arrive at a consensus in judgement on the reign of Aurangzeb (1658–1707). However, Aurangzeb is always remembered in collective Indian memory as a religious bigot and political tyrant. We owe this portrait of Aurangzeb to the voluminous work of Jadunath Sarkar and his British predecessors. After all it was in the interest of both colonial and nationalist historiography to paint Aurangzeb in dark colours. The former wanted to justify the establishment of British rule, and the latter desired a scapegoat to take the blame for the rise of colonialism, in India. Hence Aurangzeb became the villain of medieval India. The book under review is a reprint of the ‘original’ modern historical account of Aurangzeb’s reign. A lot has been written about the Mughal Empire since the 19th and early 20th century but it is always fruitful to read older texts such as these to examine what they really ...

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