The Hindu Right cannot debate me because it rejects critical thought: Audrey Truschke

Courtesy Audrey Truschke
19 March, 2021

Audrey Truschke is an associate professor of South Asian history at the Rutgers University in New Jersey, in the United States. Truschke’s research focuses on the history of early and modern India. She has written three books on the subject—Culture of Encounters, on Sanskrit in the Mughal courts; Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth which argues for a reassessment of the Mughal king; and the recently published Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim rule.

 Truschke has regularly come under severe criticism from Hindu right-wing nationalists, who see her academic research into India’s complex multicultural past and religious history as an affront to their beliefs. Beginning with the release of her first book, Truschke has faced a constant barrage of online harassment, hate mail, co-ordinated attacks on social media, and in some cases, even censure—in August 2018, a lecture she was due to give in Hyderabad was cancelled due to security threats, after the police received letters of opposition. The same year, she faced an outpouring of threats and abuse after she tweeted that according to one loosely translated verse in Valmiki’s mythological epic Ramayana, Sita called Ram a “misogynistic pig.” Truschke discussed this interpretation and the misogynistic response from the Hindu right-wing, in an article in this publication.

 In early March this year, Truschke began facing a spike in vicious threats and abuse on her various social-media profiles, including threats of rape and murder, as well as anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic slurs. The abuse referred primarily to her scholarship on India. On 9 March, Truschke tweeted that in recent days, she had faced an “avalanche of hate speech” and threats endangering her family. She said she had blocked 5,750 accounts “and counting.” A few days earlier, an anonymous Twitter account “@hinduoncampus,” which claimed to be run by Hindu students in US universities, circulated an open letter to the Rutgers administration, describing Truschke’s work as “bigotry against Hindus.” In a statement issued on 9 March, Rutgers University called for an end to the trolling, and backed Truschke’s academic freedom to pursue “controversial” scholarship. It also promised to begin a dialogue with the Hindu students on campus.

 Surabhi Kanga, the web editor at The Caravan, spoke to Truschke over email about the harassment she is facing. They discussed the recent spike in attacks, accusations of “bias” against her, and the perils of being a historian of the Mughal empire at a time when Hindu nationalists rule India. 

 Surabhi Kanga: How did this latest wave of attacks and online abuse against you begin? Why do you think that happened?
Audrey Truschke: So far as I can tell, the trigger was the banal reality that I teach South Asian history without ideological restraints or political interference. Some of the bad-faith allegations and smears have been aired in the past, so much of the attack was not novel. I think the lack of a specific catalyst has rightly alarmed many academics. It appears that I am the case study for whether a prejudiced ideology can shut down reasoned academic discourse, education, and even the sharing of basic facts.

 SK: You have posted links and screenshots of some of the vitriol and threats you have received. What has the targeted attack been like? How is it impacting you?
AT: The last few weeks have been horrific and terrifying. I have received hundreds of hateful messages every single day that run the gamut from insane to bigoted to violent. This has prompted a series of conversations about security and safety that, frankly, I never imagined I would need as an academic who works on pre-modern India. I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy.

 This sort of attack would impact anyone. If the goal was to make me feel unsafe and upset, then I would say it has been successful. If there is a silver-lining, it is this—the vile nature of the attacks has revealed the character of the attackers.

 SK: This is not the first time that you have been the target of vicious trolling and even censure by Hindu right-wing groups. Why do you think they take such umbrage with you?
AT: I teach in northern New Jersey, and my scholarship is compelling. That is not to say that I am always correct, but my colleagues generally find my ideas thoughtful and thought-provoking. This makes me dangerous to the Hindu right-wing because I can and do undercut their mythology about the Indian past. Also, in their view, I am the wrong colour and the wrong sex. Among other sins, Hindu nationalism is deeply misogynist. At the end of the day, however, they are not just coming after me. They are attacking me first. Next in their line of sight are all academics who work on South Asia and refuse to allow a hateful ideology to compromise their scholarship.

 SK: Do you think that the fact that your scholarship includes working on Mughal history triggers these attacks? Your book on Aurangzeb became, and continues to, be the subject of criticism and abuse against you.
AT: Mughal history is an increasing target for political rewritings of the past in India. Specifically, Hindu nationalists try to rework Mughal history in an attempt to justify the oppression and violence they wield against Muslim communities today. This modern-day aggression is an atrocious trend that is costing lives, livelihoods, and freedoms in India. It has no justification in the present, and so Hindu nationalists try, in bad faith, to find their justification in the past by inventing atrocities, repeating colonial-era prejudices, and so forth. Historians do not lie about the past, which makes us a liability to the Hindu nationalist project.

 SK: Among the people criticising you on social media, the “hinduoncampus” Twitter account has been particularly active. The account is alleging that your lectures are “Hinduphobic” and misrepresent the Hindu faith. How do you respond?
AT: I have no evidence of who is behind that handle. At times, they appear to not be in full possession of knowledge of events at Rutgers. So far as I know, no student who has taken my classes has lodged a complaint, now or ever. I have taught hundreds of Hindu students at five universities over the past fifteen years. In short, these allegations lack substance.

 SK: The account has also alleged that your teaching makes the Rutgers campus unsafe for Hindus. It has shared anonymous accounts of supposed students who have taken issue with your teachings and writings. What do you make of this?
AT: I have no evidence of who wrote those statements. Also, so far as I have heard, the small group of objecting students are primarily enrolled at Rutgers-New Brunswick. I teach at Rutgers-Newark, a separate campus in a separate city. These allegations, also, lack substance.

 SK: One of the other accusations against you is that your teaching takes a “colonial” approach to Hindu history. While this may be simply based on your critique of Hindutva, at the same time, there have been long-standing concerns about Western scholarship of colonised nations. How do you view this as a historian? How do you respond to the accusation?
AT: I think that it is important to learn about colonial approaches (and they are plural) to studying South Asian history and Hinduism. I teach about this, and I invite interested Rutgers-Newark students to enrol in my classes. For example, colonial-era scholars talked about “Hindu history,” a phrase we no longer use because of the problematic assumptions about the primacy of religious identity, among other things, which played into communal tensions. An unsavoury reality is that many of the attacks on me invoke Hindu nationalist rhetoric that repeats—rather than dismantles—colonial-era prejudices, especially regarding the prominence and nature of religious identities and conflict in premodern Indian history.

 SK: More controversies have arisen regarding South Asian history in the past few years than ever before, often due to objections from the Hindu Right. Do you think that US universities have what could be called a “Hindu Right” problem?
AT: It is a known issue that Hindu nationalist groups recruit and attempt to radicalise students on US university campuses. I have provided research on this subject to elected officials in New Jersey who are concerned about the spread of intolerance and hate in our state. One of the more heartening developments of the past few years has been grassroots, student-led pushback against such trends with the establishment, for instance, of Students Against Hindutva Ideology.

 SK: In its statement, Rutgers promised to engage with your critics and the Hindu students on campus. Does this worry you? Do you feel the university is lending credibility to your critics by doing so?
AT: The Rutgers administration should listen to student concerns across the board. They should also communicate to students when their demands are inappropriate, ill-worded, and harmful to others. College is a learning experience, and the administration and I are here to help students learn how to express themselves, think critically, question their assumptions, and find their own voices.

 SK: You are a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi administration and the rising tide of Hindutva in India. Do you think that is the reason for the attacks on you? Is it different for you than, say, a male historian?
AT: Hindutva advocates have always relied on attacks, including the threat and reality of violence, to promote their ideology. This dates back to early articulations of Hindutva by Nazi-sympathetic thinkers, runs through the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist, and comes out today in accelerating assaults on Muslims in Modi’s India. I describe this history in unvarnished terms, in both peer-reviewed scholarship and public-facing work. Hindutva followers rarely like what they see in the mirror. And so, yes, I think that this earns me hate.

 As a woman, I am subjected to particularly virulent attacks, both because of Hindutva’s misogyny and also a more widely shared grammar of anti-women discourse in our society. I stand in solidarity with the many Indian women, including Hindus who stand against Hindutva, who are subjected to similar assaults.

 SK: There is a perception that historians should be “apolitical,” or “neutral.” Do you think it is right for a historian to have political views? Why?
AT: Historians teach people to think critically about real-world issues and that includes politics. We strive to be as objective as possible in our academic work and that means that we do not consider all views to be equal. This is a crucial point. Historical arguments about the past and political arguments about the past are fundamentally unequal in their weight. I advance the former. This is why the Hindu Right cannot debate with me. They refuse to engage on academic terms and instead reject the very basis of critical thought that is essential to inquiry in the humanities. That leaves them with their tried-and-true toolkit of bigotry and maligning.

 SK: History has become a battleground in the Modi era—not just in the United States, but in India as well. Why do you think that is?
AT: Because history matters. I think more people should study it, not on WhatsApp or Twitter or through anonymous petitions but, rather, in the classroom.

This interview has been edited and condensed.