Saturday, August 8

I would not say Pakistan is any less right-wing than India, shares Audrey Truschke

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The historian shared her thoughts on Mughal rule, Pakistan, India and violence that exists on both sides of the border

Mughal historian Audrey Truschke is one of the few academics who gets trolled for commenting on her own area of expertise —South Asian history and present.
But the Rutgers professor, who has authored two award-winning books, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, and Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, remains unfazed by her critics, including right-wing Hindutva ideologues.

Truschke was recently invited to the Lahore Literary Festival as part of a panel that discussed the current situation in India, its violent protests and space for dissent.

Fortunate enough to have had a short encounter with Truschke, Images sat down with her and gained insight into her opinions on India and Pakistan —and if we can find clues in the past hinting at what we see today.

Where do you see India and Pakistan in the future, individually and as neighbours? Especially after the rise of the right-wing?
Audrey: In India right now, we’re seeing the rise of right-wing ideologies very strongly and that appears to be resulting in a seismic shift. That’s something that perhaps we saw in certain ways in Pakistan a long time ago and that’s why we’re all talking about India a lot at the moment because the big changes are there. I don’t know where this goes exactly.

I do take heart in the ongoing protests in India and that many Indians aren’t happy with the direction of their nation and are making that known and are resisting. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. I would not say Pakistan is any less right-wing than India.

In many ways, Pakistan is more oppressive; your blasphemy laws are much more robust, Pakistan has been intolerant of its religious minorities for decades, now often dealing with them very severely. I applaud the recent attempts to restore a couple of temples, but that doesn’t make up for the ongoing persecution of religious minorities here.
A problem with that is the history of India and Pakistan was identical until 1947. So, modern-day Pakistan just doesn’t deal with the overwhelming majority of its actual history, which includes aspects that are Hindu, Buddhist, and far more. I find that very frustrating.

Truschke’s book is a reassessment of the controversial king, Aurangzeb

I don’t see major change on this front right now. Pakistan seems to care about the oppression of religious minorities when it’s across their border.

Did you foresee India going down this path?
Audrey: As historians, we often don’t make precise political predictions, so in that sense, I had no special insight into the exact way it happened, such as election outcomes and the unveiling of specific legislation.

However, in terms of being aware of Hindutva ideology and its general trends likely ramifications, yes, much of what has happened has been predictable.

Like other scholars who work, among other things, on modern South Asia, I read and teach about Savarkar, the history of the RSS, the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid and more.

There have been attempts in the recent past, both in India and Pakistan, to rename historical monuments or other reminders of Mughal history in India and, separately, British and/or Hindu history in Pakistan. How do you see this?
Audrey: The Mughals represent everything that Hindutva ideologues say should have never been able to exist. They were a large-scale Muslim-led empire that, for its times, was notably tolerant of religious minorities; they did not try to convert Hindus en masse.

These facts go against the BJP’s entire narrative of Muslim invaders and oppressors, and that narrative is crucial to justifying Hindutva violence and hatred today. The attacks on the Mughal monuments that we are seeing in India are, economically speaking, completely ludicrous.

Among monuments controlled by the central Indian government, the top five most visited bring in slightly more than half of all revenue from all centrally owned monuments; all of those five were built by Muslim dynasties, four of them by Mughals.

The Taj Mahal, in particular, is a cash cow for the modern Indian state and yet you have BJP politicians running around saying it was Tejo Mahalaya. First of all, no one’s going to go visit Tejo Mahalaya and secondly, it’s historically insane.

This line of mythological thinking, especially given the potential financial cost, is only explainable according to extreme Islamophobic sentiments. About similar sentiments in Pakistan, as I see it, because of the strong Muslim identity embedded in how Pakistan has been formulated over the last 70 plus years, the whole Pakistani state narrative has to do with Muslim history.

A problem with that is the history of India and Pakistan was identical until 1947. So, modern-day Pakistan just doesn’t deal with the overwhelming majority of its actual history, which includes aspects that are Hindu, Buddhist, and far more. I find that very frustrating.

I think dealing with the rich, diverse history of the subcontinent, as Pakistan’s past as much as it is India’s past, might well change the nature of Pakistani national identity.

History lessons in both countries are said to be distorted, at least on the school level. To what degree do you think they’re distorted and how does the new generation deal with it?
Audrey: There are projects that compare Indian and Pakistani textbooks on similar subjects. Yes, there are distortions on both sides. It’s not always the same subject, although sometimes it is.

For instance, Aurangzeb is mutilated on both sides of the border, in different ways, and individuals who want a more accurate story can deal with that by doing their own research, reading professionally trained historians, and learning to think critically.

You may look around Lahore and see beautiful old buildings, but to understand them in their historical contexts you need to learn the historical method, where they came from, and who built them and why.

That knowledge is not necessarily available to everyone on the same level as for a professional historian, but a lot of us do write for popular audiences, at least from time to time, and we do try to make basic information available for anyone who’s willing to do a bit of reading and a bit of thinking.

Why write about Aurangzeb specifically?
Audrey: Well, I wrote about Aurangzeb because I realised I had been thinking about him for nearly a decade and had written almost nothing, so I had a wealth of knowledge. And I also wrote about him because of the response to an interview to an Indian newspaper in 2015.
The Hindu right-wing feel much more empowered to speak their views openly than they did before the Modi Sarkar. And I also think that views are rapidly changing in India, which partly explains why the opposition to somebody like me has accelerated in India over the last few years, despite the fact that I haven’t published another book since Aurangzeb.

Audrey Truschke and art historian F.S. Aijazuddin at the Lahore Literary Festival

In that interview, I said all of this stuff I thought was controversial about Akbar, and nobody cared. I said two lines I thought were non-controversial about Aurangzeb, essentially how he is a misunderstood king, and I felt like the world exploded at me in anger.
I realised by the vehement response coming largely from India and from Indians who emigrated to the US that a couple of decades of historical thinking about Aurangzeb Alamgir had not been translated to a popular audience. So, I thought someone has to write a book about Aurangzeb communicating a basic historian’s viewpoint to everyone else.
What was the response to the book like in Pakistan?
Audrey: Quite positive. For many Pakistanis, the fact that I wrote about Aurangzeb and didn’t just bash him is enough. I think there are many people in Pakistan who disagree with my interpretation of certain things, especially I poke a bunch of holes in the idea that Aurangzeb was this super pious, orthodox, Sunni guy.

I talk about his tolerance of Shias and intolerance at different points. I talk about how he was talismanic, how he was into Sufis to the extent of being buried in a Sufi shrine. I think that has been a little bit challenging for some Pakistanis, but the response has generally been “Oh that’s interesting. Oh, I’m not sure about that, so let’s have tea and talk about it.” This is very different from the screaming and death threats that I’ve received from India.

Why do you think the response was so?
Audrey: The Hindu right-wing feel much more empowered to speak their views openly than they did before the Modi Sarkar. And I also think that views are rapidly changing in India, which partly explains why the opposition to somebody like me has accelerated in India over the last few years, despite the fact that I haven’t published another book since Aurangzeb.
What are you writing next?
Audrey: I just finished a book, which is coming out in January 2021 and it’s about Sanskrit histories of Indo-Muslim rule. We usually talk about the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Deccani Sultanates by using Persian-medium sources.

Instead, I’m using about three dozen Sanskrit-medium sources and trying to figure out what pre-modern India’s Hindu and Jain elites thought about the Muslim Other. And as it turns out, they didn’t think of them as Muslim very often, and they didn’t always think of them as the Other either.

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