Rutgers Professor Dr. Audrey Trushke a `Hinduphobic’?
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By Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Edited by Adam Rizvi, N.J., TIO: Giving a devilish twist to history is one of the major agendas of the Hindu nationalists, headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and all its umbrella organizations active in India and in the US, even before India got its independence from colonial rule. In an effort to realize their dream of a `Hindu Rashtra (nation), and justify their violent attacks on the minorities, they have tried to paint Mughal rulers as bloodthirsty evil monsters, reducing India’s past to merely a Hindu/Muslim conflict, however with little success before 2014.
After May 2014, following a change of leadership in India, Hindu supremacy or Hindutva (a political ideology not to be confused with Hinduism, the religion) got a fillip under prime minister Narendra Modi, both in India and the US. From a contented, peaceful, non-controversial existence, the Indian diaspora started echoing the factually flimsy narrative that Hindus are a targeted minority in many countries including the US.
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The Hindu organizations in the US which in the last couple of decades focussed on spreading information on Hinduism, overnight have been turned into foot soldiers for the Hindutva ideology, supposedly fighting for Hindu rights with distorted facts. After attacking the school textbooks in the US, claiming that they misrepresent the Hindu culture, especially the caste system, they have progressed to now attacking academicians and historians.
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Aggressive attempts by Hindu nationalists to impose ideological and religious restrictions on professors in the US, therefore, comes as a shock, something which they had not been bold enough to attempt in the US, until recently.
One of their targeted attacks has been on Dr. Audrey Trushke, historian and professor at Rutgers University, Newark, for her book on the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, who died in 1707. “I knew I was stepping into hot water when I decided to write about Aurangzeb, a historical Indian Muslim many love to hate. Aurangzeb serves as a dog whistle for Hindu nationalists who invoke him to rile up anti-Muslim sentiments and violence,” stated Dr. Trushke in an interview.
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Her scholarship, which is primarily on the 16th century and 17th-century India and her tendency to comment on modern Indian politics based on her knowledge of South Asian history, sharing her insights about India’s diverse, multicultural past has aroused the ire of Hindu nationalists. The attacks are often coordinated, using paid troll accounts, bots, and right-wing networks in India and the US
“I try to educate myself and others about the stomach-churning stream of anti-Muslim hate directed at modern-day Muslims, including Indian Muslims who comprise about 14% of India’s population. I’m not going to be silenced, when you see increasing violence against religious minorities This is a point of personal and scholarly ethics” according to Dr. Trushke
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“In August 2018, violent nationalists prevented me from delivering an academic lecture on pre-modern Indian history in Hyderabad in southern India. A few weeks before the scheduled event, self-described members of Hindu nationalist groups, including the RSS, Bajrang Dal, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wrote letters to the police, threatening violence if I were to take the stage”, she wrote in an article, detailing the threats and hate mail that she has been subjected to since she wrote her second book on Aurangzeb.
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When she spoke in New York City in April 2018, the hate mail had escalated into death threats and so an armed security officer stood outside the room while she spoke about a twelfth-century Sanskrit text. In Chennai in January 2019, following an outburst by a visibly upset man regarding her scholarship on a 17th-century Indian king, an armed guard had to be stationed outside the lecture hall. And in Delhi in August 2018, metal detectors were used to screen all those entering the auditorium, with plainclothes policemen everywhere spread out in the venue.
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As a historian, Dr. Trushke attempts to bridge the gap between historical facts and the popular image of the man and the emperor and intervenes to minimize this difference without being an apologist for either the man or the emperor. “The multifaceted king had a complex relationship with Islam, but even so he is not reducible to his religion. In fact, little is simple about him. Aurangzeb was an emperor devoted to power, his vision of justice, and expansion. He was an administrator with streaks of brilliance and scores of faults. He grew the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent and may also have positioned it to break apart. No single characteristic or action can encapsulate Aurangzeb Alamgir.”
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Hindu nationalists make a big deal of Aurangzeb’s war with his brother and rival Dara Shukoh, spreading false information for decades that Aurangzeb killed millions of Hindus and destroyed 1000’s of temples, eliminating his brother too to grab power. Historian M. Athar Ali had established in his book ‘Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb’, published in 1966 that Aurangzeb had the support of 21 Hindu nobles of high ranks, including the legendary Rajputs Jai Singh and Jaswant Singh, and Dara had 24 on his side, none as grand as the two.
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Aurangzeb did not throw out all the Hindus and Shias from his court and administration on his accession either. Instead, the number of Hindus in his nobility was the highest in Mughal history. Though he ordered the demolition of a dozen or so temples, including those at Kashi and Mathura, and built mosques there instead, he also handed outlands and money to other temples and maths and to Brahmins. This is well recorded in history. Aurangzeb had even composed a poem in Hindi in which he invokes the blessings of Vishnu, Brahma, and Mahesh on his accession.
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There is no historical account of Aurangzeb being perceived as a religious zealot, even by Hindu historians such as Bhim Sen and Ishwar Das.
An aggressive and false portrayal of Aurangzeb as “evil” and “demonic”, in today’s times, is only meant to serve the “divide and rule” strategy of the RSS and the ruling party BJP. Therefore attempts to correct this popular perception of Aurangzeb are being countered viciously. Any mention of the plunder by the Marathas, even of Hindu rajas in Rajasthan, is sacrilege now. Dr. Truschke’s book, “Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King”, is for those interested in historical facts and not swayed by the RSS web of lies.
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Her controversial tweet on Lord Ram in April 2018, stating that Sita had called him a “misogynist pig” and “uncouth”, before her trial by fire, based on a “loose translation” of a Sanskrit verse by Valmiki, triggered intense criticism against her and her works, branding her a “white supremacist”. Interestingly a similar interpretation can be seen in the Hindi film ‘Lajja’, which was also severely criticized by the Hindutva brigade.
What followed was a hate campaign, hardly seen against academics. Several Hindu nationalist organizations, in a petition by ‘Hindu students’ to the university recently termed her Hinduphobic, following it up with vile messages and even death threats on social media and in emails. None of the petitions are however by any of the 1000’s of students, including Hindus who have passed through her classes in the last 15 years.
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The petition mentioned, “reputable sources have demonstrated that the 17th-century Mughal emperor Aurangazeb had enslaved and murdered 4.6 million Hindus.” The link for “reputable sources”, mentioned in the petition turned out to be a New York Times infographic, based on The Great Big Book of Horrible Things by Matthew White, a librarian who does not have any degree or formal training in history or statistics.
The petition claimed that India is foremost a country of Hindus and that Muslims and Christians are outsiders, a claim often used by Hindu nationalists to justify violence against these minorities. Dr. Truschke’s advocacy against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a citizenship law designed to strip many Indian Muslims of citizenship, too seems to have triggered the backlash against her.
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The petition also stated that Dr. Truschke’s claims of perpetrators at the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. included Hindus, “is a lie.” In contrary to reports published worldwide that one of the perpetrators, Krishna Gudipati, is associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), an aﬃliate of the VHP in India. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had classified VHP as a ‘religious militant organization’ in 2018, for its violence against Muslims and Christians.
Though it is her book on Aurangzeb which garnered a lot of hate for her, her first book,’ Culture of Encounters’, and her third book, ‘The Language of History’ to have been subject to attacks by Hindu nationalists, though it’s all part of her academic work, as a Sanskrit and Persian scholar.
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The Rutgers administration tweeted their unequivocal support for Dr. Trushke, with supportive statements from the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers and faculty of South Asian origin at Rutgers and other universities. None in academia are fooled that this is an isolated attack on the freedom of just one professor and are well aware that the threat would extend to others as well.
Dismissing accusations that she is a ‘Hinduphobic’, she recalls she fell in love with a Hindu text, when she was just 18 years old. At Chicago University, she had intended to originally study only Christianity and Judaism. And then she saw a class being offered on the Mahabharata, which she enrolled in as part of her major in religious studies and was “blown away”.
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She took more classes on Sanskrit and Hindu texts and the fascination only grew over the next 20 years, as she became a tenured professor in the history department, combining history and religion. Though her interest in engaging with Hindu nationalists is limited to correcting popular perceptions, they have swamped her with hate mails, over the last five years. She has pointed out on various platforms that as historians, “we don’t makeup stuff about the past. We really try to understand it, reconstruct it, work on facts and critically read texts, of all these things. To tell good stories of the past, which are compelling, accurate, as evidence-based as possible and well-written too.”
Some basic historical facts include that ”the use of violent bloody imagery was well worn in the Sanskrit tradition, long before there were Muslims on the face of the earth, and certainly long before they got to India. Also, there’s political reality. When rulers who happen to be Muslim showed up on the subcontinent, like all of the rulers within India, they engage in bloody battles and conquest. Sometimes it’s a “Hindu” dynasty wiping out a “Muslim” dynasty, sometimes it’s the reverse”.
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Though Dr Trushke’s books have not faced any censure in the US, the Indian edition of her books goes through a legal comb to make it more palatable.
“I reworded some of the Maratha stuff, especially concerning Shivaji’s caste status, because people just see red on that stuff. I had to omit the map because the current Indian government is extraordinarily thin-skinned about maps,” she stated in an interview.
Dr. Trushke has stated that over 4000 Twitter accounts, after being called “a bitch, whore, prostitute, and presstitute (an Indian English term that combines “press” and “prostitute”). “Some people even revel in imagining me in sexually compromising positions, usually with Indian emperors who have been dead for centuries!”
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In countering Hindutva aggression and violence with her words, ideas, and analysis, Dr. Trushke has made her intention clear to use every platform available to her to draw attention to the series of worsening situations in India. “South Asian history is suddenly hot and attracting attention all over the world. Why would I keep myself away from it? Other academicians too need to take advantage of the sudden interest. By doing so myself, has made me a better scholar, and more articulate my insights”.
And by attacking her, Hindutva has “primed a lot of interest in South Asian history, primarily Indian history, and its modern context, building a substantial audience and then someone like me comes along to shave off some of that audience !”
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