Audrey Truschke. Photo: Shome Basu

By Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath

The assault on Dr Audrey Truschke, associate professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University-Newark, has crossed all bounds of decency recently. It is now clear that the vicious campaign against her since 2018 has a lot more to do with her opposition to Hindutva ideology than about her scholarship or style. They bear all the hallmarks of similar attacks by the Hindu Right in recent years against intellectuals in India, some of whom have been shot dead in broad daylight and many more are in jail under trumped-up charges.

Fortunately, unlike in BJP-ruled India, academic freedom and the right to dissent are still alive in the United States. Rutgers University was quick to reiterate its support for Truschke, while also giving a patient hearing to Hindu student groups. Her colleagues as well as scholars from across the country have written in her support. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Dalit and secular groups have united to stand in solidarity with her and they are continuing to organise international events in support of her.

To her great credit, despite being the target of extreme hate and threats of bodily harm, Truschke continues to actively engage with her supporters and critics. That must not be easy for her, but the fact that she continues to speak with academic confidence and integrity must surely be infuriating to those who are seeking to silence her.

It is notable that the epicentre of the attacks on her is the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, where Truschke does not even teach; but where groups that advocate Hindutva ideology and are considered part of the Sangh parivar, such as the Hindu Students Council (HSC) and the Hindu YUVA, are active.

Those groups, having failed in their attempts to discredit her with the Rutgers administration, are now trying to double down by organising a conference on their preposterous narrative that there is widespread ‘Hinduphobia’ in the US.

Vikram Zutshi, a writer and a critic of Truschke, offers a window into their well-coordinated smear campaign.

He makes a series of facile attempts to degrade her peer-reviewed scholarship in a recent opinion piece in The Hindu. His social media comments a few days earlier make it clear that his attacks are in bad faith. He makes inflammatory allegations, not against her, but against her unnamed students. We will not repeat those unsubstantiated allegations here but we will note that they lack evidence.

Not all allegations of harassment of Rutgers students are so uncorroborated, however. In November 2019, the HSC at Rutgers-New Brunswick hosted Vivek Agnihotri. At the event, a Kashmiri American and recent Rutgers-Newark alum was verbally and physically assaulted. The HSC never apologised or even publicly recognised their role in creating such a hostile, dangerous environment.

In support of his accusation that Truschke has animosity against Hinduism, Zutshi, like her other detractors, criticises her perspectives on Aurangzeb and Kashmir, but focuses almost exclusively on relitigating her 2018 tweet on Sita and Rama that has been endlessly debated and responded to by Truschke.

That Rama’s actions are sometimes described as misogynistic in today’s world, isn’t something new. Many in our own family circles dislike the Ramayana just as much as they love the Mahabharata for its sophisticated treatment of many a life’s dilemma. Draupadi’s actions are often juxtaposed with those of Sita. Karna’s complex character has been the subject of many religious discourses and debates. Such debates and even criticisms of epic figures are well-known within Hinduism, going back to Valmiki and Vyasa. Truschke too often talks about how it is her fascination with the Mahabharata that got her into the study of Hinduism and Sanskrit.

In a whiff of his own misogyny, Zutshi callously dismisses the serious personal threats faced by Truschke: “the woman is clearly vitiating an already volatile situation between communities” and “trotting out a few messages”.

Finally, Zutshi launches a broadside against India scholars: “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.”

So far as we know, none of the western scholars who opened the doors of Hindu religious writings and Indian history to a non-Indian audience over the last two centuries, has ever pretended to be the ‘voice’ for India – least of all Truschke. Only one group today falsely claims to speak for all Indians: Hindu nationalists. Everybody else respects the plurality of Indian voices.

Zutshi’s condescending advice to scholars brings to mind how the Sangh parivar selectively venerates western writers sympathetic to their cause: Koenraad Elst, David Frawley, Michel Danino, Francois Gautier, to name a few. To some of these ‘white scholars,’ secular-minded Hindus are but slaves to western scholarship and are not Hindu enough. So they are constantly on a mission to educate us on how we should think and act as better Hindus, thereby exhibiting the very superiority that Zutshi projects onto Truschke.

Why are the views of people like Zutshi important?

Despite their attempts to portray themselves as independent of Hindu nationalists, they echo all their talking points against intellectuals and historians. As Zutshi lets on, attacks on Truschke are but a small part of a broader, well-coordinated, and well-timed project of the Hindu Right in the United States, in service of their masters in India. Unfortunately for Truschke, she is their latest chosen victim.

Just what is their endgame?

To continually relive and reinvent stories of real or imagined Hindu persecution over the centuries, as if they were happening now, as justification for the mounting violence and disenfranchisement of India’s minorities. Any historian or activist who stands in the way of that project is labelled ‘Hinduphobic’ and relentlessly attacked.

As a recent statement by student groups at Oxford noted in another case of a false narrative by the Hindu Right said so eloquently, “claiming to be the victim of bigotry and bias when one is, in fact, wielding such horrors against others, undermines real experiences of racism of students at the University”.

We imagine that not all the Truschke critics subscribe to Hindutva ideology. Some may only be reacting to her high visibility and style on social media. Among Rutgers students, we would hope that they have knowledge of the deep connections between the attacks on her and the ruling class in India, who are rapidly destroying Indian democracy – which has recently been downgraded by several international organisations.

Recruiting young voices is one of the tools of the Hindu Right in the United States. Ultimately, though, the students must take responsibility for their own missteps and the hatefulness of which they are now part. It is not too late for them to change course and refuse to be part of a lynch mob that claims to be speaking for all Hindus. They can instead seek out and join fellow Hindus who speak for an inclusive Hinduism, consistent with how we have been welcomed as a religious minority in the United States.

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