What if Dara Shikoh became the Mughal Emperor instead of Aurangzeb?

Sometimes, history hinges on a bullet.

Okay, so this is a question that’s always intrigued me, and is especially relevant since Delhi is at it again with renaming historic roads willy-nilly.

(A little background first — I have another very serious blog and this is a more casual thing where I intend to jot down random thoughts. Also, pardon me if my conclusions seem idealistic- I am, after all, a dreamer.)

So what if Aurangzeb never graced the Peacock Throne with his pious behind?

Dara Shikoh literally means “Equal of Darius”. Darius was among the greatest of early Persian emperors.

Aurangzeb was never Shah Jahan’s favourite son — the heir-apparent was Dara Shikoh, a gentle and scholarly prince much beloved by the emperor as well as by the vastly Hindu majority of the Mughal’s subjects. He’s best known for translating the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian and generally giving the conservative ulema clerics sleepless nights. Out of love, or a need for his advice, Shah Jahan kept him at court in Agra and Delhi. Aurangzeb was the militant son — he was constantly being dispatched to the Deccan as viceroy to deal with the unruly princes there, which had the added effect of making him a wily and indeed ruthless commander.

Shah Jahan embraces his son at his accession to the throne

As Shah Jahan aged, his sons jockeyed for power. Dara was appointed as regent when the emperor suddenly fell ill. Aurangzeb immediately saw his chance and announced his intention to support the claim of another one of his brothers to “rescue” his aged father from the “usurpation” of Dara. One thing led to another, Aurangzeb betrayed all his brothers, defeated Dara in battle, and served his head on a silver platter to Shah Jahan, whom he then imprisoned, and whose legendary Peacock Throne he finally usurped.

So what if Dara Shikoh had won the Battle of Samugarh? What if, of all the infinite possible outcomes, a stray musket-ball had killed Aurangzeb, leaving Dara as the undisputed successor? Well, the obvious conclusion is that he would have succeeded Shah Jahan as Mughal Emperor. He would have inherited an empire that was already beginning to show signs of overextension and whose court expenditure was already exceeding its sources of income.

But what would Dara have been like as a ruler? Popular, no doubt. He would have been universally adored, and would possibly have stopped the Mughals’ expensive expansion into the Deccan. He was a great patron of the arts and is widely considered to represent the pinnacle of Indo-Islamic cultural assimilation. We can reasonably argue that he would have continued the tradition of monument-building and religious tolerance inaugurated by his great-grandfather Akbar the Great. There would have been little cause for religious strife — Dara was a close friend of the Sikh Guru Har Rai, he was about as much of a Hindu as he was a Muslim (literally — his blood was 50% Rajput). To us in the 21st century, this sort of tolerance seems like a very good thing.

In the eyes of the powerful Islamic clergy, it would have been a disaster.

Even Shah Jahan had been forced to concede their demands to put the Hindus in their place once in a while. Only Akbar the Great, of all the Mughal emperors, had truly been popular and powerful enough to ignore them. Would Dara have been strong enough to cling to the throne without their support? Would his Hindu subjects have defended him against orthodox backlash?

The provinces of the Mughal Empire- what if Dara halted expansion and reformed the administration instead?

I’ve thought a lot about this and I’ve concluded that yes, Dara could indeed have retained power. If the Mughals had withdrawn from the Deccan and reformed their finances in the North, with the support of the Rajput princes (who were very much loyal participants in the Mughal imperial project), and broad popular support, Dara could indeed have succeeded in his attempt to create a new Indian spiritualism to bind the subcontinent together. With this, his son Suleiman Shikoh could have used the prestige of the Mughal throne to extend a loose hegemony over the prosperous economy of the Deccan (an Indian “Suleiman the Magnificent”, perhaps?); the Marathas would not have had a power vacuum to expand in (Aurangzeb’s overthrowal of the Deccan Sultans is a major factor for the rapid conquests of the Maratha Confederacy in the 18th century).

The Nizam of Hyderabad pays homage to King-Emperor George V. The scar of colonial rule is ever-present.

Indo-Islamic culture would have continued to bloom; without fragmentation, it would have been easier to resist British attempts at colonialism. (Aurangzeb crushed them like bugs when they attempted to cajole him — there’s no reason why a relatively united India could not have done the same). We would not have been impoverished by colonial rule. We probably wouldn’t have ridiculous racial and religious insecurities and complexes. The Deccan, always at the forefront of subcontinental trade, might even have Westernized, and a loose confederation of Indian states, loyal to the Great Mughal on his Peaccok Throne, might have been established. Without India, Britain wouldn’t have become the greatest of world powers. European imperialism would have been very different — who knows if the World Wars would even have happened? Partition most certainly would not have taken place — the socio-economic conditions for radical Islam and Hinduism would not exist. India might have continued to shine as a beacon of Islamic tolerance and sophistication — so would there even be such a thing as “Islamist terrorism”?

Extending the timeline, the Mughal Empire might well have ended as the Ottoman Empire did — overthrown in a democratic Indian Revolution, and remembered as a Golden Age for all Indians.

There may have even been a statue to Emperor Dara the Great in Shahjahanabad, instead of merely a road being renamed from the colonial conqueror Dalhousie in the former British capital of New Delhi. Though he never ruled, Dara stands as a testimonial to the fact that yes, tolerance and pluralism is something worth fighting for in the Indian Subcontinent. He deserves to be better remembered by all Indians — not just when we need to rename an old British road!