Eminent American historian and expert on Indian history Prof Audrey Truschke has been the target of Hindutva ire ever since her book and articles on Aurangzeb punctured the idea of the Mughal emperor as a mass murderer and Hindu-hater. The trolling and threats are now becoming more desperate, with RSS supporters complaining to Rutgers University against her while also launching an online petition calling on Prime Minister Modi to revoke her Indian visa
ABDULLAH MOMIN | Special to Caravan Daily
“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”― Nelson Mandela
Amid the din of Hindutva’s relentless drive at historical revisionism, one of the most formidable sources of intellectual resistance comes not from India, but from an American academic at Rutgers University, New Jersey. The resistance is reflected in the work of Dr. Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. One of the few living scholars who reads pre-modern Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi, and a leading authority on South Asian cultural and intellectual history, Truschke is the author of a book on Aurangzeb, another on Sanskrit at the Mughal court, and now quickly turning into Hindutva’s latest bugbear.
Truschke has been the target of Hindutva ire ever since her book and articles on Aurangzeb punctured the idea of the Mughal emperor as a mass religious murderer and Hindu-hater. She has long been denounced by Hindutva diehards as “anti-Hindu,” an ill-informed slur somehow intended to be an adequate rebuttal of her scholarship and erudition. However, the trolling and threats are now becoming more desperate, with deeply upset RSS enthusiasts complaining to Rutgers University against her while also launching an online petition calling on India’s Prime Minister Modi to revoke her Indian visa.
What exactly has Truschke done to earn such opprobrium? It is an intriguing story of what happens when Hindutva rage meets facts, and when the purveyors of hate and division are left resorting to threats and intimidation, on seeing their carefully crafted myths demolished by uncompromising scholarship.
Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb, by no means an eulogy of the controversial emperor, did dismantle the myths surrounding his religiosity. The smearing of Aurangzeb as a religious tyrant has been repeated so many times that it has become a pillar of Hindutva reading of Indian history. The truth is that Aurangzeb had thousands of Hindu temples within his domain that were left untouched. He did order the demolishing of some temples and other religious institutions, but for reasons that were specific to those locales.
As Truschke argues, “state interests constrained religious freedom in Mughal India, and Aurangzeb did not hesitate to strike hard against religious institutions and leaders that he deemed seditious or immoral.” In fact, in a princely order, Aurangzeb condemned any king “who resorted to bigotry (taassub)” as guilty of “razing God’s prosperous creations and destroying divine foundations.”
In an imperial order early in his reign, Aurangzeb directed Mughal officials at Benares to halt any interference in the affairs of local temples. As Truschke notes, the Emperor actually “issued dozens of orders that directed officials to shield temples from unwanted interference, granted land to Hindu communities, and provided stipends to Hindu spiritual figures.”
This balanced view of Aurangzeb has touched a hornets’ nest in Hindutva circles, long accustomed to relying on the butchering of Indian history in order to rile up Hindu masses against “invader” Muslims.
However, it is not Truschke’s views on Aurangzeb alone that have the Hindutva foot soldiers up in arms against her. Instead, it is her recent public pronouncement on Hindutva as having roots in Nazism and Fascism. This reminder of Hindutva’s antecedents has created a serious problem for the saffron devotees everywhere, especially in the United States.
Although the RSS founders openly expressed their admiration for Nazism, particularly Hitler’s extermination of Jews, these are not things Hindutva aficionados can openly acknowledge in polite company. The result? A shameless and no-holds-barred campaign against Truschke that seeks to question her intellectual integrity, to instill fear through harassment and ultimately to silence her. The irony of such tactics actually proving Truschke’s point of Hindutva being a close cousin of Nazism, seems not to strike the fanatical within the Hindutva fold.
True to its reputation as a premier research institution, Rutgers University has firmly defended Truschke, citing her long track record of welcoming “reasoned debate,” about the cultural, imperial and intellectual history of early-modern and modern India.
Even worse for those baying for her blood, a letter of support for Truschke circulated by the Alliance for Justice and Accountability was signed by well-known civil rights organisations like Amnesty International (Houston), Advocates for Human Rights (Minnesota), the Council for American-Islamic Relations (Dallas-Fort Worth) as well as renowned academics like Dr Martha Nussbaum and Dr Yasmin Saikia.
The letter lauded Rutgers for having stood by Truschke in the face of the “assault on her scholarship,” while reaffirming the accuracy of her statement about Hindutva’s roots. “The practical implications of this fixation on race purity and ultra-nationalism has been devastating for India’s religious minorities. The ideology that spurred the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is moving fast to establish India as an upper caste hegemony,” the letter boldly asserted.
A striking aspect of this letter, is that it makes a chilling but pertinent comparison of the terrorising tactics used against Dr Truschke, to those used to silence scholars, journalists and intellectuals in India who refuse to the toe the Hindutva line. Indeed the crude campaign of vilification and harassment against the eminent historian, run by Modi “devotees” in the US, is an indication that Hindutva thuggery is thriving in America. That Truschke’s work represents a major roadblock to Hindutva revisionism is obvious, something the academics have seen fit to call out openly.
“Hate breeds anger, and anger is fed by misinformation and false historical narratives. The same is true of Hindutva supremacists, who are desperate in their attempts at historical revisionism. This revisionism feeds the majoritarian agenda of treating Muslims, Christians and other minorities as outsiders that need to be purged…” the letter states.
Clearly, Sangh activists in the US are borrowing tactics from their counterparts in India. Scholars, intellectuals and independent journalists in India are facing unprecedented censorship and intimidation. India now ranks 140th on the World Press Freedom Index. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, found an alarming rate of coordinated hate campaigns against journalists who dare to challenge the Hindutva narrative.
“The campaigns are particularly virulent when the targets are women,” noted the report.
Despite the threats and boorish attempts to refute her work, Dr Audrey Truschke is largely unfazed. Her decision to stay on course with her “public facing scholarship,” is remarkable, given Hindutva’s track record of dealing with dissent.
She labours on, through her academic work and research, public appearances and social media presence. In her tenacity, her unflinching devotion to research and her natural inclination to speak up in the face of state-sponsored misinformation in India, she has raised the standard for scholars and intellectuals everywhere. Her work has the potential to bring sanity to the discourse on India’s history, and to help pull the country back from the abyss.
Abdullah Momin is a US-based author and activist. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect or share the editorial stance of Caravan Daily