Interview | List of Things We Can Talk About Is Shrinking Every Day: Audrey Truschke

In conversation with the historian about her work on Aurangzeb and Mughal history, self-censorship, her cancelled event in Hyderabad and more.

Jahnavi Sen: Hello and welcome, I am Jahnavi from The Wire, and with me today is Audrey Truschke. She’s assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in the US. Today, she’s going to tell us a little bit about her work, and also some recent experiences she’s had in India.

So to begin with, a little bit about your work. One question I’ve had while reading it is that a lot of it seems to be about dispelling popular – well, I wouldn’t say popular necessarily – but certain myths about medieval Indian history, whether that’s your book on Aurangzeb, or also when you’ve talked about the exchange between Persian and Sanskrit scholars in the Mughal court. So I wanted to ask, what drew you to this kind of history? Why did you think these are certain myths that need to be addressed? Did you mean it like that, or did that just happen as a by-product?

Audrey Truschke: So first off, thank you for having me Jahnavi, it’s really my pleasure to be here and talk with you today. So, how did I come to choose my topic? So, you know, in some sense this is an uninteresting story, I became interested in India-related things in college, and I learnt Sanskrit, and then I started learning a little bit of Persian, and sort of when I sat down and thought, “Okay, I’ll go to grad school,” because what else are you going to do with Sanskrit and Persian in 21st century America?

I thought about the topics in which I could use these language skills, where I could use my background, which was at that point largely in Hinduism – what could I use all of that to do? And some sort of cross-cultural, Hindu-Muslim, Sanskrit-Persian encounters in the Indo-Islamic period made sense, made good use of my skills up until that point. And then as I went on with my studies at Columbia University where I got my PhD, I sort of narrowed it down, to Sanskrit at the Mughal courts of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

Now, all of that said, once I became a Sanskritist and a Persianist and a Mughal historian, then when I thought about writing on Aurangzeb, I think that that decision was guided a bit more directly by modern politics and what’s going on today. Because nobody exists outside of their own context, right? Because I’m a person in 2018, just like everyone else. And when I was a person in 2015, and thought, “Should I write a biography of a Mughal king?” – the idea was suggested to me – it was so obvious to do Aurangzeb. For personal reasons, because I had been thinking about him for nearly a decade at that point in time, and yet I had written almost nothing on Aurangzeb, there’s only five pages or so on him in Culture of Encounters, the first book. And then, from a sort of broader perspective, I felt that there was a real gap between scholarly advances on Aurangzeb Alamgir and what everyday people had access to in South Asia and elsewhere, and so I thought, “Why not see if I can, you know, make some small contribution to bridging that divide?”

JS: You’ve mentioned how you were learning these languages, and that’s how you became interested in Mughal courts, and in Indian history in general. But a lot of people have had this idea that since you’re a Western scholar, you probably don’t speak Sanskrit, don’t read the text, don’t maybe know enough about the context, and that’s something you’ve had to reiterate several times. Why do you think you’ve had to justify being a scholar of Indian history?

AT: So, I think that the charitable reading here is that I think that there is some misunderstanding. People look at me, they see a white American woman, that’s all true, and they think, “How could she possibly know Sanskrit? How could she possibly read Farsi? How could she possibly speak any Hindi or Urdu?” Right? And so I think that for some people, it is an understandable, obvious challenge right, why would this sort of a person be able to do this.

For other people, I think that it is more insidious, and I think they use the colour of my skin and which passport I carry, and frankly, my gender, my sex, the fact that I am a woman plays a huge role in this. Many of my colleagues are white Western men, and they do not face the same basic challenges about their ability to read their research languages. And at the end of the day, I invite people to judge my scholarship, and I invite them to actually read it in order to do that. And if you read Culture of Encounters, it’s impossible for anyone to write that book without access to the Sanskrit and Persian literature.

JS: You were talking a bit before about your book on Aurangzeb, and one of the things you’ve said before while talking about that book, is that now when people look at that era in Mughal history, in the history of the subcontinent, they’re looking at certain decisions that were probably politically motivated, as more for theological reasons. So could you tell us a little bit about that, maybe give us an example of what are these decisions, why you think they were political and why you think that misinterpretation is happening?

AT: So, I think people look at things like – for example, Aurangzeb re-instituted the jizya tax right, a bigoted tax that targets Hindus, a prejudiced tax in 1679. They look at the fact that he destroyed some Hindu temples – not the thousands that people go on about today, but certainly some, a few dozen perhaps. And they look at these things and they say, “How do we explain it?” Here’s this anti-Hindu guy, right? This sort of anti-Hindu, genocidal maniac, who just wanted to ground Hindus into the dirt of India, as it were. So the problem with that is that it’s bad history, it’s bad history because that causality, it doesn’t come out of the Mughal context, it comes out of our modern context, and so we’re sort of reading back in time, and it doesn’t allow us to make sense of other aspects of Aurangzeb’s reign, and this is the sort of key point of historical method.

People who read the past through the lens of politics can cherry-pick evidence, but as a historian I cannot do that, I have to take all of the evidence. And so yes, Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples, but he protected more temples than he destroyed, right? And I can’t make sense of those twinned facts using this sort of assumption of the theological anti-Hindu bias motivation, right? It’s true that he instituted the jizya. Upon ascending the throne, he also cancelled several taxes on Hindu pilgrimage sites along with various other taxes. And so, we have to make sense of those facts together, and what emerges is a more complex picture that is more honest to the past and draws upon the categories and ideas of Aurangzeb’s time, less than ours, and perhaps for that reason is not as satisfying to many popular readers.

JS: While you have these two books that we’ve been talking about and numerous articles to your name, you also talk about your work quite openly on social media, your insights and your articles, and you share them quite widely, do you think that’s important for academics today? Particularly when they’re talking about things that are relevant to politics, even if it’s historical, but relevant to contemporary discussions?

AT: So I think that it’s a choice for academics, and it’s a choice that I have made. And I make that choice because I want to engage publicly, and I don’t want to cede the space of social media. I get a lot of pushback for doing this from my colleagues. And you know, they think that something as basic as the character limit on Twitter sort of flattens historical research, and historical arguments. I don’t disagree with them, my argument is simply that if you cede that territory, someone else is going to come along and talk about the past and historians have no presence and no voice, I think that that’s a problem.

I certainly don’t think that it’s incumbent upon other scholars to engage on social media or even to engage with the public. I wish more scholars would do it, but I think everyone has to make that choice themselves. I would say that I get very fierce pushback for doing this, right – I’m trolled regularly, up to and including death and rape threats against me and against members of my family. And I think it’s understandable why other scholars don’t want to put themselves out there like that.

JS: Speaking of this pushback, one of the things that at least I have noticed is that you often take it on quite directly – where there’s a threat, you say, “This is a threat, I have reported this”. Often, you even speak to them in a response. Why do you think that’s important to do?

AT: So first I would say that I only do this with a very small fraction of the hate mail that I receive. So why do I do it? I do it in part because I think that everyone should be forced to look at it. Because I don’t think we should hide and just say, “Oh, this is just other people, this is just one part of India”, right? I mean, this is a reality that has been brought to my doorstep, that I have been forced to face. And I think that everyone else should look at it as well, and take a good hard look around, and think, “How did we get here and what can we do to stop it?”

The other reason that I do it is not to engage with the trolls, because you cannot reason with irrational people. I do it for the middle ground that’s listening. And I think that often, trolls will ask sorts of questions or make sorts of accusations that allow me to give an answer or make a point that I would like to make, that someone in the middle would actually like to hear. They might have asked the question far more respectfully, right? You know, but why not answer it? Why not speak to doubts that may sort of linger in people’s minds? So that’s really what I’m trying to accomplish when I talk back.

JS: Speaking of this trip to India, we’ve been talking about your work and the kind of pushback you’ve received, and some people have decided that now this work is “controversial”. And recently you were supposed to speak at an event in Hyderabad that was cancelled last minute, apparently because there were some threats to the organisers, there were possible protests at the site.

AT: So my understanding is that there were not threats, there were protests, specifically letters of protest. I have only seen one such letter, but I do think that is an important distinction, that there were no threats of violence. And so, when the organisers are defending themselves saying, “Oh, we got threats,” right, that is not true.

JS: Right, yes. But speaking of this event being cancelled and also the kind of pushback you receive on social media, do you think that self-censorship for academics is going to be a real threat here? And also, do you think that it’s going to affect the kind of academic work that happens in and on India?

AT: Absolutely, I think it already is. So I have censored both of my books in Indian editions. In both of them, the Indian editions are slightly different than the worldwide editions. And I know a lot of academics who choose their research projects differently, we openly advise students to do this actually in the United States, right? There are certain topics that it is just not worth it to work on, because you won’t get a visa to come to India, if you have family here, there could be problems. You know, you have to make these decisions in the real world with your eyes wide open.

Many of my colleagues are declining to publish their books in India, for those of us that live and work in the United States or elsewhere in the Western world, we need the publications there for career reasons, we don’t need them here for career reasons. And so, they’re choosing to simply shrink the market of interested readers rather than risk problems. And I think that all of this is a problem, because it means that the Indian people are not getting the full story, they don’t have access to the same scholarship that we do in the United States or the United Kingdom. This is contributing to the sort of constriction of space in the air all around us, and the list of topics that we can talk about seems to grow shorter every day.

JS: And do you think that this is something that is increasing, something that has been happening for a while, or would you say it’s recent?

AT: I mean, certainly something like censorship of books, I mean India’s been banning books since the British were here, so that’s not new in a sense. It is certainly accelerating, and that has to do with the BJP, and with the Sangh parivar, and with the sort of rise of the Hindu right, and the transition of Hindu nationalism from an extremist ideology to basically defining the mainstream of India right now.

JS: This talk at Hyderabad that people didn’t want you to give, could you tell us a little bit about what you were going to say?

AT: So the title was ‘Unpopular Stories’, and the protests or threats of protest as it were I suppose, proved my point. I was going to talk on three topics: I was going to talk about Aurangzeb, and specifically the assault on Golconda in the late 1680s, that was sort of spatially appropriate to Hyderabad. I was then going to talk about the end of Indian Buddhism in the 12th century of the common era, and the allegations that Islam was responsible for basically slaughtering the remaining Indian Buddhists. I have some quibbles with that storyline, and I’ve published an article on that subject, I was going to talk about that. And then, the third and final unpopular story was going to be drawn from my ongoing research on Sanskrit, narratives of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal periods, and what Sanskrit intellectuals were saying about Muslim-led and Indo-Muslim rule in India.

JS: Just that last point when you’re talking about your future research, could you tell us a little more about it? What were they saying, and why do you think it’s important for India today to read that? Do you think it could change our understanding of how historically, different communities in India spoke of each other?

AT: So I certainly think that it can do that, and I’m hopeful that it will. So these texts that I’m working on, they date from the late 12th to the early 18th century, they are all in Sanskrit, and they are all about Indo-Muslim rule, or Muslim-led rule in some regard. Some of them are histories of cross-cultural encounters, and some are histories of extreme violence. And I think that, especially the histories of extreme violence, there’s a real question there of when one side is slaughtering the other side – how do you use that to increase understanding of today? And I think that one way you do that is by looking at the terms of otherness, right? When you have two sides meeting on a battlefield, there is no doubt that there is an “us versus them”. But who is the “us”, and who is the “them”?

Whereas today, we talk about the Hindu-Muslim conflict very freely and all the time, back then, people weren’t talking about Hindus in Sanskrit, right? ‘Hindu’ is not even a Sanskrit word, doesn’t enter Sanskrit until a little bit later. And people weren’t talking about Muslims either, so they were identifying themselves differently. That’s sort of one thing I want to focus on in this project were the terms of that difference, and how can that sort of settle and even displace our easy assumption of the primacy of religious identity now.

JS: Thank you so much for joining us.

AT: Thank you Jahnavi, my pleasure.