Aurangzeb's villainisation bad history, but good storyline

Historian Audrey Truschke tells Upala Sen she is not suffering trolls without reason; it is part of a larger mission

By Upala Sen
  • Published 12.08.18
  • a few seconds read
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Picture Credit: SUMANCH.

No sooner than the phone pings - "I am here" - I look up and see her standing at one end of the Shamiana in south Calcutta's Tollygunge Club. And that minute I know what I had suspected all along, from her Twitter timeline - Audrey Truschke wears armour, carries a sword - in scabbard, of course.

Even in an alien setting, looking hither-tither to identify her interviewer, she looks purposeful. I raise a hand and she glides over, finely slicing the leisurely club ambience that rainy afternoon.

Truschke is a historian, currently assistant professor in the department of History at Rutgers University in the US. Her specialisation is South Asian history and in recent times, after her 2017 book Aurangzeb: The Man And The Myth was published, she has come to be known as she who has attempted to "rehabilitate Aurangzeb", "whitewash his sins". If you haven't seen her Twitter timeline yet, it is a battlefield. There are the trolls frothing at the mouth, piling threats and abuses, laying bare different shades of their own bigotry most of the time. But then, she is no victim.

She is in Calcutta for the History for Peace conference organised by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. The theme is "The Idea of Culture" and this is her second visit to the city and first stop in India. Hereafter, she is supposed to move to Delhi, Hyderabad, Aligarh. (The Hyderabad talk is eventually cancelled; Right-wing groups and their long shadows.)

Her talk, which happened that morning in Calcutta, was titled "The Shape of Culture Through History - 2nd Millennium AD". And did the current scenario come up? It did. "And it was, of course, there just under the surface," she says. "Professional historians are facing serious challenges from Hindu nationalists. Do we respond? How do we respond? There seems to be a battle over popular perceptions of the past that historians are currently not winning."

Truschke is, of course, speaking in broad terms, but I am stuck on Aurangzeb and the book. And I am thinking aloud of the reaction it elicited. This outright rejection of an academic work, this refusal to accept anything other than the stereotypical, does it not reflect poorly on a people's sense of history? Why so bloodthirsty to have a long-dead emperor vilified or erased?

But Truschke is a fair swordswoman. No, she wouldn't blame a people and certainly not all Indians. She says there is something special in how much Indians care about history. She continues, "The virtue of it is that historians are relevant and people care about the past. You can talk to your chaiwala about what happened a thousand years ago. As a professional historian I find that exciting. The non-virtue of it is that everyone fancies himself or herself an expert on Indian history and makes up what he or she wanted to happen in the past, call it history and move on. And that is used to oppress minorities and serve Hindu nationalist purposes in the modern day." She strikes the table with her hand - thwack - and gives her salt and pepper bob a toss.

In her book on Aurangzeb, Truschke states that the period of Aurangzeb's reign was very well documented. Aurangzeb and his expansionist thirst, Aurangzeb as a pious Muslim, Aurangzeb the able administrator under whose reign the number of Hindus in the bureaucracy increased, Aurangzeb who protected temples and also destroyed them, Aurangzeb who loved music and mangoes, the same Aurangzeb who is hailed in certain Jain works - for issuing orders to stop the harassment of a Jain religious leader. Aurangzeb who fought a bloody secessionist battle. Aurangzeb who inspired John Dryden, the poet laureate of England, to write the 17th century tragedy, Aureng-zebe.

My point is this: Isn't it strange that such bountiful information notwithstanding, the man's portraiture should be a certain way; less king, more caricature? Even Nehru, in The Discovery of India, calls him the "last of the so-called 'Grand Mughals'" and one who tried to put back the clock and instead "stopped it and broke it up".

In response, Truschke says, "Nehru was reading colonial era history." She elaborates, "And the reason people believe it is because it [this representation of Aurangzeb] does have a scholarly basis. But a major point of that [scholarship] was to make the British look better. The other reason is - it serves modern-day purposes. The villainisation of Aurangzeb, projecting him to be this Islamic bigot, is bad history but it is a good storyline if you are trying to achieve Hindu rashtra."

The history gupshup gets thicker. I bring up the Mughal emperor's Gujarat connection. I had no idea. Truschke helps me along with the facts - yes, he was born in Dohad, spent some time administering in the region as a prince, tricked his brother Murad out of that geography - but no more. Not even a muscle twitch.

A sliver of Truschke's own Aurangzeb corrective had actually appeared in her first book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit At The Mughal Court (2016). Why is then everyone mad with you now, I ask her. She sets aside the fresh lime soda and laughs out loud.

She does not wade too deep into the why, merely points out that most of her detractors most likely never even picked up the book. And though she says she anticipated the pushback, the points of contention sometimes baffle her. She says, "People say how dare you write a book about Aurangzeb and not mention that he destroyed temples. Or that he resorted to a lot of violence and so on. To which I say, read my book on those subjects."

And all this negative backlash seems to be coming out of India. What about Pakistan? Truschke says she doesn't hear as much from Pakistanis on social media. "I am not sure why that is. But at the Lahore Lit Fest [earlier this year], I found a learned audience who asked precise questions. They were bringing to the table knowledge about Aurangzeb that was not there in my book." Such as? "Such as his treatment of different Shia groups, details about the war of succession."

The book also talks about Persian translations of the Ramayana produced during Aurangzeb's reign, a practice that began during Akbar's time. I am curious about the translations of those and other Hindu texts that Mughal emperors commissioned. Were there interpretations, attempts to write in ideas? "Of course," says Truschke. Apparently, in some versions of the Ramayana the love story was played up, in some others it was just a martial story, and then again in some the concept of Khuda was introduced. "The Hindu god pantheon is there, but Khuda is there with them. In the Persian Mahabharata, Khuda has a lotus coming out of his forehead."

While we are on the subject of surprises, I ask her what the big surprises were during the course of her research. "Akbar," she replies.

She makes the point that Akbar was not quite the liberal, secular, tolerant person people think he is and cites his treatment of Jain monks in his court. How he was all congeniality till some Brahmins whispered in his ear that Jainism was not monotheistic. She says, "Akbar was irate and he hauled up these monks and asked for an explanation."

Truschke goes on to explain how the monks went out of their way to defend themselves and say that they do have a monotheistic faith. She says, "To me this shows the limits of tolerance. Akbar was happy to have a cross-cultural exchange, happy to hear about Jain astrological ideas, do a couple of Jain ceremonies, but at the end of the day he was saying - 'You got to be a monotheist or you have to leave my court'."

And that's what the trolls seem to be telling Ms Truschke too - no place for alternate histories; our way, or the highway. That she should come out in social media to defend her book is understandable, but why does she engage in discussions about India's politics? Yogi Adityanath, Kathua... Why this open invitation to the trolls? Her first response is emotional. She says, "I do not comment on social media for the benefit of the trolls... I care about India a lot, and my training as a scholar positions me to make certain kinds of arguments that may interest some people."

She is talking and I am thinking - is the armour coming off? And just then she says, "I started this social media stuff because it is good for my career. I am sticking it out, partly, because I have a very thick skin. But my big reason for continuing is the middle ground. There is a middle ground in India that is listening. I don't need to talk to the liberals and I don't want to talk to the haters. I am hoping to reach those who are still open to alternative ideas." Swipe. Slash. Swipe. Swoosh.

Knightess, unmistakably.