Betwa Sharma

NEW DELHI — A day after Audrey Truschke’s lecture on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was canceled in Hyderabad, the American historian, who is despised by the Hindu right for challenging the popular perception about the 17th century Muslim ruler, received an overwhelming response in New Delhi.

“You cherrypick instances from the past because your loyalties are to the present,” Truschke, author of Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, told a packed auditorium at the Indian Habitat Centre, last week.

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Truschke, currently assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, talked about Aurangzeb, why he may not have been a religious bigot with a penchant for destroying temples, and how the Hindu right has become more aggressive in its attacks against those who oppose their worldview.

Your work has been controversial for a few years now. Is there anything new about the nature of the pushback on this visit?

Yes, I think it is more voracious and I think it is being taken much more seriously by people. I think we’ve moved from the situation several years back in India where the Hindu right and even extremists within the Hindu right, who would protest against someone like me, were seen as extremists. Now, I think they are increasingly not. They have greater sway and greater deference in Indian society.

Why do you say that?

So, thinking about something like the cancellation of my lecture in Hyderabad. Somebody wrote a letter of protest to the police. I have been told that there were multiple letters. I have only seen one letter. It’s available. The individual posted it on Twitter. To me, it’s not worth taking it all that seriously. It’s one person who is protesting and doesn’t want me to speak. I think we should have ignored that and gone ahead. Yet that is not the decision that the organizers took. It’s that sort of thing that is leading me to this conclusion. If it was just me, one person, one lecture, you can’t draw too much from that, but I think we are seeing a rash of canceled lectures, and more people who are not stepping forward to speak out of fear.

Do you know who is protesting against your lecture?

These are self-identified members of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)and the Bajrang Dal.

Why did you choose to write on Aurangzeb?

I’ve been studying Aurangzeb for slightly over a decade at this point. I decided to write a biography of him partly because no one had written a biography in several decades. I felt he was needing some scholarly attention. Partly because he is the most important political figure in 17th century India and he is critical to explaining certain things that happened during that period of time. And to explaining what happened in India in the 18th century as well because he helped to lay the foundation of much of that. I also think that Aurangzeb is the most misunderstood of the Mughal kings. I don’t mean that in some kind of psychoanalytical, we should like this guy, sense. I mean misunderstood in causal, historical terms. I wanted to offer to popular readers, non-academics, a better way and a better framework of thinking about this complicated king.

“I also think that Aurangzeb is the most misunderstood of the Mughal kings.”

What happened in the 18th century that he helped lay the foundation for?

The long eighteenth century in India is characterized, politically, by the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the rise of regional kingdoms, and the introduction of British colonial rule. Did Aurangzeb position the Mughal Empire to fracture into pieces, and if so, how? Historians have yet to exhaust these questions.

Many in India grow up believing that Aurangzeb was a tyrant who destroyed temples. In your lecture, you say that there is evidence that he destroyed 12-15 temples. Does it matter if it was five or 50 temples?

Does it matter for what?

To think of him as a man intolerant of other religions.

Yes, it matters. If you want to argue that Aurangzeb was intolerant of Hindus as a general disposition, then I think you have a very difficult time explaining why he didn’t destroy more Hindu temples. Aurangzeb controlled a vast section of India, he controlled an immense amount of land and there were tens of thousands of temples within his domains. So, if he really hated Hindus, if one of his main agendas was really to destroy temples, then why didn’t he hit more of them? You can’t explain that with the proposition that he was a Hindu-hating bigot. So, as a historian, when you have a set of facts that your current framework doesn’t make sense of, you come up with a new framework.

ust because he did not destroy more temples does not mean he was tolerant.

I do not argue that Aurangzeb was tolerant. I don’t use that language. There are historical facts that show that some Hindus benefitted from his rule. For instance, Aurangzeb employed a greater percentage of Hindus in the Mughal nobility than any other prior ruler by a significant margin, including Akbar. He issued land grants to temples, he issued orders protecting Brahmins, he issued orders saying that his officials should not interfere in local temple affairs and as a historian I have to explain those things. I do not have to issue a value judgment and I don’t want to issue a value judgment. Was he tolerant or intolerant is not a question that has much purchase with me. Rather, I want to say how do we take this jumble of facts and make sense of it. How can we explain his complicated actions as emperor, which seem contradictory to us, but did not seem so to him?

“I do not argue that Aurangzeb was tolerant. I don’t use that language.”

We do judge historical figures.

But we should judge them by their standards and not by ours.

There are some values and standards of right and wrong, which transcend time, and that is why we like some historical figures like say, Buddha, and we don’t like some others.

I do not agree with that there are general standards. There are no idealized pie in the sky values in existence in general in the world. There are only values as far as we express them at particular points in time and so we need to be cognizant of that. When we are judging figures of the past, we are judging by our standards in 2018, not by generalized standards that people throughout history have held. I think we should own up to that and the implications thereof.

How does Aurangzeb compare to Akbar?

You can certainly compare Aurangzeb to Akbar. They were both Mughal emperors and I think that comparison is fruitful in many ways and it lends itself to a mixed bag of things. Akbar rescinded the jizya tax and Aurangzeb reinstituted it. That is a mark against Aurangzeb if you are thinking about prejudiced polices, but Aurangzeb employed more Hindus in his administration than Akbar. So, if you were Hindu in the 16th and 17th century, and you were thinking of feeding your family, you may well have preferred Aurangzeb’s reign. Both kings engaged in mass use of state violence. People like to talk about the Din-el-Ilahi under Akbar but they don’t like to talk about Chittor very much and the tens of thousands, including civilians, who were massacred by the Mughal armies there.

I argue in my Aurangzeb book that Aurangzeb and Akbar are actually more similar than most people would like to admit. I think they were both Mughal kings and they both put their stamp on Mughal kingship, but the interesting thing for me is in the details of that. What did Akbar do and why? What did Aurangzeb do and why? What explains them in terms of their own day rather than comparing them to say one was better than the other. My general advice to those who want to think about whether they like historical figures is to stop at the word premodern.

“So, if you were Hindu in the 16th and 17th century, and you were thinking of feeding your family, you may well have preferred Aurangzeb’s reign.”

Why did Aurangzeb destroy the 12 to 15 temples?

In the book, I deal with two specific temples as case studies and I argue that in both these cases, Aurangzeb targeted these temples for political reasons. There were people associated with those temples, in those areas, who had taken up arms against the Mughal state or had otherwise subverted Mughal state interest. Aurangzeb was very clear if you went against Mughal state interest, you were a legitimate target for state violence. It didn’t matter if it was a temple, it didn’t matter if you were a Brahmin, it didn’t matter if you were a Sikh guru. Anybody, who went against the Mughal state, you could be eliminated.

I also argue that there may have been some religious reasons at play – though not the anti-Hindu religious reasons that people tend to think of. I argue that Aurangzeb believed that Brahmins were misleading people and giving false teachings at Banaras at the Vishwanath temple and that may have, in part, motivated the targeting of that specific temple.

Have you studied all the 12 to 15 confirmed temple destructions?

I have done research on all of them. There is not great historical information on all of them. I think political reasons are our best bet for explaining this policy overall. I would be open to contestations in terms of specific temples. Historical causality is rarely singular. There are often multiple things at play.

How did this myth about Aurangzeb destroying thousands of temples come about?

In the modern day, it is often just an exaggeration. It is an exaggeration fueled by certain political interests. For some people, it does have a perceived historical basis and this is basically an error of historical method. There are histories from Aurangzeb’s period that exaggerate the number of temples that were destroyed. We can show that when we read text in complex ways, but some people, usually for modern political reasons, prefer to just take snippets and say that this must be true. As I remind my students, ad nauseam, just because someone wrote it down, 300-400 years ago, does not mean it is true. You have to think critically about these things.

“It is an exaggeration fueled by certain political interests.”

Are there historical texts that say he destroyed thousands of temples?

Thousands, no, but certainly far more than the 12 to 15. There are texts that will say that he went in, he destroyed 80 temples, or he destroyed all the temples in the city, and we can prove historically that this is inaccurate. But something that is difficult for people to understand today is that bragging about temple destruction for a pretty major strand of thought in the Mughal empire was a positive thing. It was viewed as a virtue and not a vice and there was a tendency to exaggerate on the part of certain individuals.

How do you know these 12-15 temples are confirmed destructions?

In some cases, we can go and see that there is not a temple there anymore and there is now a mosque like the Vishwanath temple in Banaras. In other cases, it is collating different sources and putting it together. I would direct you to Professor Richard Eaton’s work on this. He has done the most work confirming these temple destructions.

What did it mean to destroy a temple and then build a mosque in its place as opposed to just to destroying a temple?

That depends on the circumstances. We need to ask who is destroying the temple, and who is building the mosque? These are not always the same actors. The timing also matters, such as whether a mosque was built immediately after destroying a temple or rather some time passed.

How did British historians view Aurangzeb?

In general, they wanted him to be the baddie of Mughal history and they had a vested interest in doing that. They had a political agenda of justifying British colonialism and I think that is really what undergirds a great amount of colonial-era scholarship on Aurangzeb. That does not mean that there was no serious scholarship being done at the same time, often by the same individuals, and I’m thinking of someone like Jadunath Sarkar. So, it is always a complicated mixed bag, but there was a tendency to exaggerate the communalism, or, in some ways, imagine and create the communalism of Aurangzeb as a corollary to justifying British rule.

“It is always a complicated mixed bag, but there was a tendency to exaggerate the communalism.”

Why pick on Aurangzeb out of all the Mughal rulers?

He controlled the most territory. He was the biggest and the best of the Mughal emperors. There are certain facts about his reign that lent themselves to that. It is true that he destroyed more temples than Akbar did. That is true fact. And again, we should seek to explain that, not to judge it by modern day standards. But if you are looking to assign a value judgment to Mughal history and twist it for your own political interests, then you go for Aurangzeb, not for Akbar.

When were the British historians writing about Aurangzeb? 19th century? What were the motivations?

Right, mainly in the 19th century into the early part of the 20th. A bit earlier, going back to the 18th century, the focus was more on Sanskrit texts.

I would underscore two motivations. One was to say that they, the British, were better rulers than the Mughals. The British were pretty abhorrent rulers over India from an Indian perspective and I think it helped their very difficult case of being here – to say we are better than the guys before us. And then there was a divide and rule agenda, dividing Hindus and Muslims immensely served British interests, and arguably that is the case even today.

“One was to say that they, the British, were better rulers than the Mughals.”

What is the most interesting thing you have come across about Aurangzeb.

I would hate to have to pick a single thing. His late life letters are very haunting. He says things like I’ve disappointed God and I’m not going to heaven and that I came as a stranger into this world and I’ll leave as a stranger. And he seemed genuinely in fear of the state of his soul and what he had done on earth. He seemed to sort of doubt the future of the Mughal kingdom. Those letters are very haunting to read.

He is buried in an ordinary tomb compared to grand tombs of some other Mughal rulers.

It’s true that he broke with prior Mughal practices in such a simple burial, but he did not break with larger Indian practices. He was buried in a Chishti shrine, in a Sufi shrine. I think, even at that time, there was something quintessentially Indian about that.

“He was buried in a Chishti shrine, in a Sufi shrine.”

Do you feel safe as an academic in India?

I think I could feel safer. I think it’s unfortunate that I have to discuss things such as safety arrangements and how many police will be present. How many security personnel will be in uniform and how many in plain clothes. Even in the West now, at some of my more prominent talks, I do have to have security. I wish that were not the case. But that said I’m here and I’m speaking and I hope to continue doing so.

What are the strands of abuse that you are facing?

I get a lot of abuse as a woman. That is a very common fallback, the sexist language, the misogynist language. I get a certain kind of abuse based on my nationality, my skin colour, that I’m a foreigner and I’m white. And then I get a lot of abuse based on my perceptions of my religious identity and my religious sympathies. My perceived religious identities include being Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and atheist. And then my perceived sympathies also extend to Islam and Muslims, and I get attacked on all of those grounds.

Do you get attacked by groups other than the Hindu right?

I also get attacked by certain Sikh groups, and that has to do with my take on the killing of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Aurangzeb in 1675. I discount the evidence as being a bit too late for me to be certain that there was a sort of conversion offer to Tegh Bahadur – convert to Islam and I’ll save your life. I think the evidence points more strongly to the fact that as soon as he was captured by Mughal forces, he was a dead man. I go against the internal Sikh narrative that Sikhs were being oppressed because of their religion, and I present it more as an armed struggle against the Mughal state, and that is why Aurangzeb struck so hard against Sikhs and their leaders and their communities. So, I do face opposition from Sikh groups for going against some of their narratives. I also get attacked from Islamophobic groups, which includes Islamophobic groups in the United States that are not particularly interested in the Hindu right, but are interested in hating on all Muslims.

” I also get attacked by certain Sikh groups, and that has to do with my take on the killing of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Aurangzeb in 1675.”

Do you see India as an intrinsically secular and pluralistic country, going through a phase of Hindu majoritarianism? Or has the Hindu right given vent to latent feelings of Hindu majoritarianism which have always been there?

As a historian, I tend to look at a long view of things. I can tell you that India has not always been majority Hindu, nor has it always been a country. I think both of these things changed in particular points in time. I think the vehemence, the political clout and the appeal of the Hindu right, these things are new, and rapidly changing in India today. There was a long stretch of time in independent India that few respectable Indians would like to be affiliated with a group like the RSS. We have moved from that to the Hindu right defining the mainstream in India. I think we are basically on that tipping point or very close to it. That is a major shift. It is something that worries me and worries many observers. I don’t know if it is surprising. I think India is part of some worldwide trends here in terms of the rise of hateful conservative ideas and the invocation of religion-based nationalism. It is worrisome, nonetheless.

I think resentment can be manufactured. Something to keep in mind is that nobody knew that Hindus were a majority in numerical terms until the 1870s. That is when the first census of India is conducted. So, when Aurangzeb was ruling over India, nobody knew the percentage of Hindus versus how many Muslims. People certainly knew there were a lot of Hindus, but it makes a difference to know things in statistical terms. It is very hard to us in the 21st century to imagine a world in which we don’t have numbers and statistics, but I do think it shapes our views in particular ways.

“Nobody knew that Hindus were a majority in numerical terms until the 1870s.”

Are you doing any more work on Aurangzeb?

I’m done with Aurangzeb for the moment. I’m working on a third book project, which is on Sanskrit literary histories of Indo-Islamic rule, where I’m looking at Sanskrit texts from the 1190s until the 1720s, basically the entirety of the Indo-Muslim period, as we sometimes refer to it. And these are works in Sanskrit by Brahmins and Jains primarily that talk sometimes about Muslim-led incursions and military assaults and other times about cross-cultural encounters between Muslims and other Indians.

If you were to write on another Mughal ruler?

If I were to write another biography, and I’m not saying I will, it would be on Akbar.

You don’t see him as a secular leader nor as someone who tried to come up with a new religion – Din-el-Ilahi.

He was definitely not secular. That is a very modern idea. The question is was this an independent religion and I’m not convinced that it was and most scholars aren’t. This again is a gap between scholarship and popular understanding. People think that Din-el-Ilahi was an independent religion, but scholars are more cautious. We tend to think that it was a small-scale discipleship program with maybe a few dozen followers and it’s been blown out of proportion in later historiography. So, maybe someday, I will write a biography of Akbar. I must say that if I do, I’m not sure my views on him will be very popular.

“I’m not sure my views on him will be very popular.”

What did you make of renaming Aurangzeb road in Delhi to APJ Adbul Kalam Road?

I thought it was indicative of a larger assault on Indian Muslims both past and present that since 2015 and the renaming we have only seen accelerate.

There are some in the Hindu right who push this narrative of Akbar or the former president as ‘good’ Muslims, and Aurangzeb as a ‘bad’ Muslim?

There are two things to say here. In the ‘good Muslim – bad Muslim’, dichotomy, you have to ask who is deciding, who is the ‘good Muslim’ and who is the ‘bad Muslim’. And in this case, the Hindu right wants to claim the exclusive authority to decide. They want India’s minorities, Muslims and others, to be welcome in India only as far as they conform to standards set by the Hindu right and that is very worrisome. The second to say is that often an intolerant group starts with a limited intolerance but it expands over time. So, maybe they start off coming only for the ‘bad Muslims’, but in time, they will come for the ‘good’ ones as well and other people in India. I think those people who think that we can draw a line and stop the hatred from expanding beyond the ‘bad Muslims’, whoever they might be, are living in a fantasy world. Hate tends to expand, encompassing ever more people.

When were you first attacked over Aurangzeb. Have you gotten used to it?

It started when I started talking about Aurangzeb, and I made my first public comments on him in 2015, well before I wrote the book. It has accelerated since then. Yes, you do get used to it and that in and of itself is a sad thing to have to get used to such vitriol and abuse. I also have very thick skin and that has proved to be a virtue in this situation.

This story first appeared on