There is a storm raging these days, with a lot of ‘hurt feelings’ on one side pitted against ‘free speech’ advocates on the other. The cause of this conflict is a history book that looks at accounts of ‘Muslim-led rule’ in pre-modern India by commentators who saw it all and wrote about it.
The title says this is a book about ‘language’, and the sources that Audrey Truschke refers to are in Sanskrit. Language also comes into the picture in their descriptions of how the earliest Central Asian or Persian invaders spoke: not in Sanskrit, but in Persian, which one writer found strange, without any ‘retroflexion’. This feature, which is the difference between the words dānt (tooth) and ḍāṇṭ (scolding) in Hindi, is like a genetic tag that marks a language as being South Asian. Retroflexion is an important feature all the languages of Pakistan, of India and Nepal up to the Assam border (excluding two Munda tribal languages in the Indian heartland and all of the Tibetan language zone), and of essentially all the languages of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Andamans.
Seeing her reference here to retroflexion, I was reminded of the Rig Vedic Ārya back in early Vedic times having precisely the opposite reaction: of finding the local people to be speaking with mr̥dhra-vācaḥ – obstructed speech – a comment not only on their bad pronunciation of Sanskrit, but almost certainly on the huge amount of retroflexion in the local languages they spoke and the Prakrits they made. Sanskrit had come a long way!
Truschke also delves into the names coined by the writers of these texts to refer to the newcomers, names like turuṣka and tājika – from Turk and (I’m sure) Tajik – that link to their actual ethnicity, as well as other choice epithets like cāṇḍala, rākṣasa and mleccha. Her central argument, she says, is that these writers do not see the conflict between the invaders and the locals in terms of the Hindu-Muslim binary familiar to today’s Indian politics. This is not surprising: when the Ghurids reached South Asia, terms like ‘Hindu’ and even ‘Rajput’ did not yet exist. ‘Hindu’ is, in fact, a Persian word, based on Sanskrit ‘Sindhu’. Today’s political cohesion was a long way off, and the battles in the Sanskrit accounts she refers to were seen as very local events.
The invaders were definitely viewed as different—men prone to slaughtering cows—but what was missing at the start was the word ‘Muslim’. The first writer Truschke spotlights is Jayanaka, who seems to be a brahmin attached to Prithviraj Chauhan’s court. Jayanaka is more disturbed about the Ghurids’ desecration of a pilgrimage destination like Pushkar than the threat they might pose to Ajmer, the royal capital, which speaks of brahmins shaken by the arrival of a group that clearly did not respect the age-old bond between brahmins and kings.
A brahmin worried about the possible collapse of a social order that puts him on top! This, to me, smacks of religion in a sense very similar to present-day political Hindutva. The absence of the familiar words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ looks like a mere detail. I actually wish Truschke had not boldly given a mission statement that she was going to show how irrelevant these modern divisions were, because by putting on these blinkers, and not allowing the story to build out of a very diverse narrative, she diminishes and dates what is actually a serious scholarly look at a part of our past using source material that has up to now not been tapped for its historical value.
Why does she do this? Why does she bring the word ‘Muslim’ into the sub-title on the cover of the book even as she asserts that this is not how they were seen? And why does a book that brings Sanskrit sources to life have to start off like this:
In August 2018, violent nationalists prevented me from delivering an academic lecture on premodern Indian history in Hyderabad in southern India. A few weeks before the scheduled event, self-described members of Hindu nationalist groups—including the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)—wrote letters to the police, threatening violence if I were to take the stage.
An opening like that to a book about premodern Indian history is a heads-up for any bhakt with ‘hurt feelings’ and not planning to go beyond the first few pages. I was reminded of Wendy Doniger who used the first chapter of The Hindus: An Alternative History to bait her trolls and guess at what they were going to say about her book.
Once we get past the earliest days, the sense of diversity in the writers’ perspectives grows. These are not just brahmins worried about losing their place, but also Jains who have grown used to the new political order. Truschke touches briefly on early Buddhists too who, in their Kālachakra texts, do show curiosity about the newcomers’ religious beliefs. I have a quibble about her choice of the term ‘Indo-Persian’, because the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire were not ‘Persian’ except in what they chose as their language of power. They were, in most cases, of Central Asian Turkic origin, and came from what is now called Uzbekistan, where the local language is Turkic, though Persian then had the status that English now has in independent India. Babar’s memoirs, Tuzk-e Babri, were written in Chaghtai, and he is still seen in Uzbekistan more as their ‘greatest writer’ than as the first Mughal emperor of India.
The Persians had no military presence outside of Iran during this era. In my writing about the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, in the context of language, I found myself labeling this group as ‘the Central Asians’, a term that covers Uzbeks and Tajiks, and only bring in the label ‘Muslim’ late in the day, when the British had begun the game of ‘Divide and Rule’.
What I found the most interesting part of Truschke’s book is how the era of the greatest ‘plurality’ of writers’ views coincides, in 15th century Gujarat, and elsewhere in the 16th and 17th centuries, with texts beginning to come out not only in Sanskrit, but in vernaculars too. The emergence of vernaculars in the written record is always a sign of a new age dawning, with new players with different stakes in the game getting to leave their mark on history. We see something similar in the Deccan when ghazals begin to be written in Rekhta instead of Persian during the reign of Aurangzeb, the last strong Mughal emperor. With this shift to a mix of vernacular and Sanskrit we begin to see something close to… indifference to the religious background of the rulers. It is tempting to imagine that these new texts could reflect the perspective of the ‘little people’, who had been speaking their thoughts in the vernaculars all along.
So, is Truschke ‘Hinduphobic’, as some have alleged? I would hardly think so, if one takes ‘Hindu’ to mean the vast and diverse community that makes up most of India. The book is not about Hinduism in that sense at all. Truschke is simply fighting mad at being spotlighted by supporters of the new thing we call ‘political Hindutva’, and by those who do not read far into her books. If this anger was her spur to shape her findings into a book, and to take up cudgels against the excesses of modern Hindutva, then her starting off with what was actually her conclusion is not surprising. It has turned what could have been just another history book into something that wants to join a present-day brawl. And that is the real reason why so many of us are talking about it.
Peggy Mohan is a linguist and writer who lives in Delhi. Her most recent book is Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages, to be released by Penguin Viking in April 2021.