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Audrey Truschke: The space for dissent has shrunk in India

Audrey Truschke, whose biography of Aurangzeb landed her in a storm, speaks on the place of dissent, pursuit of historical truth and how India has changed over the years

Indians have long loved to argue, but dissent appears to be the issue now, says Audrey Truschke who wrote ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth’. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Indians have long loved to argue, but dissent appears to be the issue now, says Audrey Truschke who wrote ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth’. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: Historian Audrey Trushcke, a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, is best known in India for her short biography of Aurangzeb—one of the most controversial figures of the Mughal era, reviled especially by the Hindu Right for his alleged reputation of a religious bigot, who ordered the demolition of temples.

But the portrait of the emperor that emerges from Truschke’s book is far more nuanced, one of a ruler who acted under compulsions and exigencies peculiar to his time. Having riled the defenders of Hindutva online, where she faces a torrent of abuse and hate every day, Trushcke found herself in a spot in the real world, when a talk by her in Hyderabad, scheduled for 11 August, was cancelled, allegedly due to protests from her detractors. Lounge met her in Delhi to learn more about the incident, her relationship with India, and upcoming book. Edited excerpts:

What exactly transpired in Hyderabad? The organizers seem to suggest that they called off the event due to practical reasons of space and venue.

I was told there were letters of protests written to the police, I only saw one such letter. The individual who wrote it has made it available online. It said I had made certain comments in the past and based on those he would prefer me not to speak. It also argues that as a non-Indian citizen, I do not have the right to freedom of speech, as enshrined in India’s Constitution. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know if that’s true at all.

Tell me about your relationship with India—how it started and evolved over the years? How has India changed since you started coming here?

I first came to India in 2002 as a 20-year-old undergraduate. By then, I had already studied Sanskrit for a couple of years, along with Hinduism and the Sanskrit epics. There was some understandable culture shock.

I do feel the space for dissent has shrunk in India, nationalist ideas seem to be much more powerful now than they used to. The idea of India as a pluralistic democracy that celebrates diversity, which is at the core of the nation state, has lost its appeal to many.

Such changes are happening all over the world now, but at the crux of the problem in India there seems to be a reading—or misreading—of history. What is your take on it as a historian?

In some ways it’s simple: politically based claims about the past are not history, they are mythology. People make up these ‘facts’ not based on what really happened, they don’t care much about arguments and analyses. It’s easy to point this out as a historian as there is no evidentiary foundation for most of Hindutva’s claims about history. But then, actually convincing people to go for history as opposed to mythology about the past appears to be a complicated affair. Historians are not particularly well-positioned to do this. I work in a world of evidence, logic and analyses, while what is increasingly highlighted to me is that the folks on the Hindu Right do not work with the same methodology. How do you use rational thoughts, then, to convince such opponents? It’s a mismatch of ideas and values.

Is this also because history is, to an extent, a hermeneutic discipline, open to interpretations, and not entirely empirical?

In India, I feel, we are increasingly sliding back to arguments about facticity because we have to. We talk about positivist history sometimes—which emphasizes facts rather than the importance of interpretation. Positivism is a dirty word for most historians across the world, but we are being compelled to make a rather back-to-basics argument in India these days. People think they can change the outcome of a battle in the 16th century since they wanted the other guy to win, and the historian is left to argue that bland point that you cannot alter basic facts about the past.

Does the decline of the culture of dissent, which we are now witnessing in India, have historical continuities with other phases of our past?

It doesn’t go all that far beyond British colonial rule. In pre-modern and early-modern India, dissent was celebrated. When Europeans showed up in the 16th or 17th century in the Mughal courts, they were overawed by what they saw. They wrote about the religious freedom people have here, the ways they could disagree publicly. The Europeans didn’t have such unprecedented freedoms back home. To go further back to the pre-modern era, when people wrote Sanskrit treatises thousands of years ago, they often began with their opponent’s argument and demolished it. Built into that model is the idea of giving airspace to both sides.

But when we come to British colonialism, we start having problems with dissent—and I would like to draw a distinction between argument and dissent. Indians have long loved to argue, but dissent appears to be the issue now. The British started instituting racially charged laws to not offend religious sentiments based on the logic that while the British are ‘civilized’ people, Indians being ‘non-civilized’ would not be able to handle them. Even to give voice to that opinion today is distasteful. That’s part of the reason why I am motivated to push back against the continuation of such ideas.

As a public intellectual and historian why do you want to engage with social media and the toxicity it brings in its wake?

Because I think it matters. I agree with those who argue that social media is reductive, it whittles you down and the mere character-count of Twitter is an impediment to proper historical argument, but social media is also shaping people’s opinions in the real world. I respect the choice of those who want to opt out, but if all scholars start to do that, we cede space to irrational voices. We have seen conservative right-leaning groups across the world use social media to their advantage.

Social media also allows me to speak to my audience, which I otherwise won’t be able to do as easily living and working in the United States. I also have very thick skin, that’s a natural feature of my personality that has served me very well in this instance. Like everything else in the world, I set limits and goals for myself to regulate my relationship with social media.

Do you imagine social media shaping your work in any way? Does it ever make you ask questions you would otherwise not?

I’d say there is a very thin silver lining. When life deals you lemon, you make lemonade but don’t you wish you’d gotten chocolate cake instead? I make the best of a bad situation. I publicly talk about the abuse I get on the internet; I’m also working with Amnesty International now to cut down online abuse of women. I’m glad to be doing this but I wish I didn’t have to. Twitter enforcing their anti-hate speech policy would solve many of the problems with misogynistic attacks.

Do you encounter resistance from your south Asian immigrant students to the ideas you bring to the classroom?

It has varied widely, depending on the university I am at. I have encountered mostly neutral-leaning students, though I do one remember one gentleman getting up and screaming at me in the middle of a discussion. After I made him stop, he refused to come to class. But that was many years ago and now that I’m teaching at Rutgers University, the majority of my students are first or second-generation immigrants from South Asia. The Hindu Right is strong in New Jersey, where I and my students live, but at least those who come to my class are hungry for knowledge. They often don’t see the politics of Indian history, on any side of the debate. They have an open mind and contrary to what my detractors think, I don’t indoctrinate them, I teach them to be critical thinkers.

Which Mughal ruler hasn’t been adequately written about, especially who has interesting, unknown facets to his life and rule?

I think Shah Jahan is pretty ripe for analysis, though that’s not going to be by me. He seems so static and flat in much historical writing. There’s so much more to him than Taj Mahal, but it’s harder to get to him because the historical documents of his time are written in a high, formalized style of Persian. They are almost at a remove from reality. One has to get through that to uncover who he was. Since his reigns slides into Aurangzeb’s rule, he is often subsumed into the latter’s ‘bad’ narrative. Some of the Mughal nobility deserve more attention. We talk about Abu Fazl, but less about Asaf Khan or Bairam Khan, even some of the poets like Urfi and Faizi.

What is your next book about?

It is about Sanskrit literary history about Indo-Islamic incursions and rule. Most people think there is no history in Sanskrit and that Sanskrit intellectuals had nothing to say about Islam. The book disputes both these premises and analyses a body of Sanskrit materials, starting from the 1190s to the 1720s, talking about Muslim-led invasions and Indo-Islamic kingdoms. These texts are all over India, from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. Some are histories of extreme violence, while others are narratives of cross-cultural encounters. I want to conceptualize this body of hitherto forgotten works and ask why Sanskrit intellectuals continued to return to Indo-Islamic rule, and what they had to say about it.

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