The curious case of controversial historian Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke’s work is problematic not for its elisions and omissions but for the implications it holds for Western scholarship on India

Published - March 12, 2021 12:26 pm IST

A watercolour showing Emperor Aurangzeb on a palanquin, 1705-20. Photo: Wiki Commons

A watercolour showing Emperor Aurangzeb on a palanquin, 1705-20. Photo: Wiki Commons

A little over five years ago, Audrey Truschke was on the verge of releasing her first book, Culture of Encounters , which examined the cultural and literary interactions between Hindus, Jains and their Mughal patrons. It was a topic I wanted to know more about, and I reached out to Truschke for an interview. Like most junior academics just starting out, she was eager to get her work in front of a wider audience. As far as I know, it was one of her very first interviews.

I forgot all about it until a few years later when I stumbled on an Internet clip of her fulminating about India’s ruling party and its leader Narendra Modi. This was a very different Audrey Truschke from the person I remembered. In the interim, she had published a controversial book on Aurangzeb that was largely seen as an unconvincing attempt to rationalise the atrocities attributed to him by a number of Indian and Western historians.

Audrey Truschke. Photo: Special arrangement

Audrey Truschke. Photo: Special arrangement

As a foreigner, one has to be prepared for backlash when one takes a highly provocative stance in the hotbed of warring ideologies that is present-day India. It seems Truschke was counting on just that to propel her from academic obscurity to speaking engagements at prestigious forums in India.

‘Her own reading’

From her online activities, it would appear that Truschke relishes taking on people of faith. In one tweet, Truschke referred to Rama as a “misogynist” and used a slur after the word. When asked to justify this claim, she cited a translation of the Ramayana by Robert Goldman. When Prof. Goldman was contacted, he said: “I find it extremely disturbing but perhaps not unexpected to learn that AT (Audrey Trushcke) has used such inappropriate language and passed it off as coming from Valmiki. Neither the great poet nor we used such a vulgar diction and certainly Sita would never have used such language to her husband even in the midst of emotional distress. Nowhere in our translation of the passage do we use words you mention AT as using… she is in no way quoting our translation but giving her own reading of the passage in her own highly inappropriate language.”

Emperor Aurangzeb in his old age. Photo: Wiki Commons

Emperor Aurangzeb in his old age. Photo: Wiki Commons

About Aurangzeb, Truschke’s main thesis can be boiled down to this passage from her book, an argument she repeats often: “It is not difficult to identify specific actions taken by Aurangzeb that fail to meet modern democratic, egalitarian, and human rights standards. Aurangzeb ruled in a pre-modern world of kingdoms and empires, and his ideas about violence, state authority, and everything else were conditioned by the time.”

It is this very premise, however, that is flawed (or falsified) as Girish Shahane pointed out in a critique published in Scroll : “The problem with the actions specified above is not just that they seem abhorrent to modern individuals, but that they undercut the liberal policies of previous Mughal rulers, something Truschke herself admits. Bringing up modern morality is a red herring, because the namazi , as his eldest brother Dara Shikoh contemptuously called him, was a bigot not just by our standards but by those of his predecessors and peers.”

Instead of responding with reasoned argument, Truschke trotted out a litany of the “mean tweets” and hate mail she has received. While these can be harsh, they are in no way a licence to tar all critics with the same brush.

I too have been subjected to threats when I published a series of trenchant articles critical of Hindutva politics, but I would be wary of using the toxic utterances of Internet trolls to deflect from genuine shortcomings in my work or, worse, label everyone who disagreed with me as an irredeemable bigot.

Her latest work, The Language of History , is simply old wine in a new bottle. She aims to establish that modern-day tensions between Hindus and Muslims are not grounded in historical reality and that the present should not be seen through the lens of the past.

It is no doubt a noble endeavour to attempt to defuse sectarian tensions in South Asia, but Truschke goes about it in a ham-fisted and even malicious way. How is it possible to bring about amity between two communities riven by centuries of conflict by sprinkling salt on festering wounds?

Prejudice again

True to form, she targets the Kashmiri Pandit community, tarring them with shop-worn tropes such as “Brahminical privilege”. It’s hard to see how privilege can be invoked when demagogues such as Sikander Butshikan destroyed Hindu temples, imposed the Jaziya tax for non-Muslim subjects, banned art, entertainment, music, poetry and dance, and administered numerous other humiliations well documented by subsequent historians. One saw this prejudice again not so long ago when Pandits were driven out of the Valley en masse.

The main problem with Truschke’s work lies not in its elisions and omissions but the implications it has for the entire body of Western scholarship on India. A number of renowned academics writing about pre-modern India have come under attack by nativists and political actors for not toeing the Hindutva line. Irresponsible and non-reflexive scholarship only reinforces right-wing prejudices about Western Indology.

I am reminded of what Philip Lutgendorf, former head of American Institute of Indian Studies, said to me in an earlier interview, published in these pages: “Like most U.S.-based academic scholars who work on various aspects of South Asian culture, I don’t much care for the term ‘Indology’, which smacks of the ‘orientalist’ pretension that a Western scholar can ‘master’ all-around, expedient knowledge of another civilisation.”

Indeed, book smarts can only take us so far. White scholars with ambitions of being the “voice” for India in the West would be well advised to cultivate a sense of humility and a genuine desire to learn — outside of the classroom. As the English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

The cultural critic, author and filmmaker likes to hang out with his cats, toucan and pet iguana.

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