DELHI – On June 11 afternoon, the Navi Mumbai police booked 29-year-old Ali Mohd Hussain who worked at a mobile shop. He was detained and later released with a notice to be available for questioning.
The police booked him for using a picture of 17th-century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as his WhatsApp profile picture after the complaint was made by a Hindu organisation. A First Information Report (FIR) was registered against him under sections 298 and 153-A of the Indian Penal Code, which deal with intentionally causing religious offense and promoting hostility between different groups based on religion or race.
The police said that they booked Hussain following the complaint from Hindu organisations Sakar Hindu Samaj and Bhagwa Morcha.
This is not the only case. On June 5, a 16-year-old boy of Sadar Bazar area of Kolhapur district of Maharashtra shared a friend’s post on Instagram. The post was a short video of a man holding posters of Aurangzeb at a rally.
The boy’s father told Decode that he had shared the post because he had liked the background music of the post – a Haryanvi song called “Baap to Baap Rahega.” “He had no understanding about who Aurangzeb is and why his post was considered a crime,” he said.
The 16-year-old is currently detained in a juvenile home in Kolhapur. During their last meeting on Friday, he expressed his longing to come home, repeatedly asking, "When will I be out? I feel scared here."
The boy's father, an auto driver, is meanwhile, struggling to secure bail for his son.
So, why is Aurangzeb so dangerous and offensive? Decode asked Shashikant Chandekar, senior inspector of Vashi police station, who said, “We took action based on the complaint and the matter is in court now. Let the court decide about the complaint."
Geeta Sheshu, a journalist, condemned the actions of the police. She called it a violation of “freedom of expression.” “He has the freedom to use any profile picture on his WhatsApp. I don't see why it is offensive?” Sheshu questioned the rationale behind invoking Section 153A for a mere WhatsApp profile picture.
"The police should take decisive action against organisations and leaders, such as the Sakar Hindu Samaj or Bhagwa Morcha, who exploit sensitive issues for their own agenda instead of penalising individuals who exercise their freedom of expression,” she told Decode.
She said that WhatsApp is a distinct social media platform where profile pictures are visible only to contacts, unlike Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Therefore, it should not be treated as a public space. “The police have really overreached themselves in filing the case against the individual.”
“Targeting individuals like this shows that the police are playing into their agenda rather than actually taking clear action against them,” she added.
Sheshu said that the police should be investigating the motive and intent of provocative messages on social media rather than arbitrarily singling out one individual as an example.
“The law enforcement's primary role is to maintain order and prevent situations from escalating, rather than criminalising expressions of freedom and imprisoning individuals,” she added.
The incidents, she said, are not isolated but rather part of a broader pattern of eroding freedom of expression, distorting historical facts, and demonising figures without reasoned evaluation or room for debate.
What Does The Law Say?
Senior advocate Tanveer Ahmad Mir told Decode that there is no law that prohibits a person from sharing a picture of any historical person including Mughal king Aurangzeb. He called the police action "executive overreach". “It shows policemen are working at the behest of the government in power. This case has no legal sanctity,” he told Decode.
“This is a despicable act. Every police officer and law enforcement agency has to work within the parameters of the law. So, how does uploading a picture of a Mughal emperor become an offense under 153 A?” he asked, adding that Aurangzeb’s pictures have been in history books.
Advocate Wills Mathews expressed his opinion that uploading a picture alone, without causing harm, should not be considered an offense. “It is not necessarily what I think can always be right, but at the same time, any kind of restrictions unless it is directly in conflict with the interest of the state and in working article, any invoking of such section is unfair,” the lawyer explained.
On March 17, a bunch of men from Kolhapur was booked for posting Aurangazeb's photo as their WhatsApp status. A few days later, a third complaint was filed at the same police station against 21-year-old Kudrat Jamadar, a resident of Khochi village, for a similar WhatsApp status.
Last week, two more arrests took place in Nashik. In Ghoti district, Shoaib Maniyar, was the first in the area to get arrested for sharing a Facebook post about Aurangzeb, leading to calls for his arrest on charges of hurting religious sentiments. Salim Kazi, a resident of Sinnar, was also arrested for sharing a video about Aurangzeb.
What Does History Tell?
Sohail Hashmi, a prominent historian and author said that the image of Aurangzeb in India was shaped by Anglo-Saxon, English, and British art historians who after arriving in India discovered the presence of the Muslim community, constituting around 10 or 11% of the population.
The historian said that the British administration, with a motive to sow religious divisions, selectively chose Aurangzeb and Shivaji as contrasting figures—one glorified as a hero and the other depicted as a villain.
This pattern continued with the villainous portrayal of Tipu Sultan in the southern region, he said.
A deeper analysis of historical evidence challenges these oversimplified narratives, Hashmi said. For example, he said, Aurangzeb had a considerable number of Hindu nobles in his court and provided more grants for temple construction compared to any previous Mughal ruler.
The historian further said that Shivaji's arrest was facilitated by a Rajput noble, and both their armies comprised people from diverse religious backgrounds.
Prior to his clash with Shivaji's army, Aurangzeb had defeated numerous Muslim rulers to consolidate his power. The ascension of Babur and the capture of India involved battles against both Hindu kings and Muslim rulers. This pattern persisted throughout the reigns of subsequent Mughal emperors such as Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan.
Tipu Sultan, likewise, defeated the British in the first, second, and third Maratha wars. The forces aligned against Tipu Sultan included the Nizam of Hyderabad, Maharaja Wadiyar of Mysore, the Peshwas of Maharashtra, and the British.
The historian said Tipu Sultan's army fought against this coalition but certain selective aspects of his life were highlighted to portray him as anti-Hindu.
Hashmi acknowledges that Aurangzeb, like all other feudal rulers, did make ruthless decisions to maintain his power. However, he said that his actions were not driven by religious factors, as he did not discriminate against individuals based on their faith. “The polarisation perpetuated by these historical narratives serves the interests of those seeking to consolidate power, similar to how fascist governments used similar strategies.”
“There have been attempts to portray Aurangzeb as a villain. Muslim fundamentalists, on the other hand, present him as a devout Muslim, disregarding the fact that he did not govern according to Sharia law,” Hashmi said.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an author and political expert said that the anger has been directed towards kings who happened to be Muslims, despite many of them being born in India.
The expert argued that the historical understanding of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party is limited to North and Western India, rooted in the belief that Islam was brought by invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries. This perspective excludes the regions where Islam arrived earlier, such as coastal Kerala, home to India's oldest mosque.
Mukhopadhyay criticised the tendency to blame historical figures like Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan. “They (BJP and RSS) sustain themselves in North and Western India by constantly blaming these easy characters,” he said.
He is of the opinion that this campaign will intensify as the next parliamentary elections approach, with events like the launch of the Ram Temple strategically coinciding with significant anniversaries like 75th year of India’s Independence. The expert expressed concern over the damaging impact of presenting Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan as an enemy from history and associating today's Muslims with them.
For him, even if hypothetically, Aurangzeb was a terrible character, “How are today's Muslims responsible for it?”
Both Mukhopadhyay and Hashmi acknowledge that Aurangzeb was not without fault. Like feudal lords across the world, he too had ruled ruthlessly.
However, his actions were primarily driven by the desire to maintain his rule rather than targeting individuals based on religion. “He did not pardon criminals simply because they were Muslim or punish innocent individuals solely because they were Hindu,” Hashmi said.