Open Letter to Audrey Truschke: The Ultimate Provocateur and Troll

Open Letter to Audrey Truschke: The Ultimate Provocateur and Troll

Image Credit: Manushi

*Editor’s Note: This essay/letter does not mention the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie by a knife-wielding twenty-four-year-old Muslim, Hadi Matar, on August 12, 2022. Rushdie had been invited to speak at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York.

This letter was originally published in Manushi on July 24, 2022, and as a blog post by Koenraad Elst on August, 28, 2022. We need to note, in context, that Audrey Truschke is working on a history of India with the support of a $60,000 grant from National Endowment for the Humanities. She is also said to be conducting research into the “US-based Hindu Right”. The second piece of information shows how conveniently this project fits into Ms. Truschke’s programmatic and systematic demonization of Hindus, and the first piece of information goes to show how much the academic establishment in the US supports Ms. Truschke’s avowed project to cast us Hindus as evil.

Dear Audrey Truschke,

Welcome to the club. Welcome among those who bear the consequences of uttering their opinions.

In a paper posted on and published in the “woke” New York University magazine The Revealer (July 14, 2020), you tell us of your own suffering at the hands of Hindu male Twitterati. You have titled your essay, Hate Male, a rather predictable pun on “hate mail”.

About what happens at your own Twitter account I don’t know much, as you have excluded me from it, exclusively because of my unwelcome opinions (and not because of foul language); but I do know through numerous other channels that you are indeed hated in Hindu circles. Ever since your whitewash of the rock-solid and first-hand evidence of Aurangzeb’s numerous temple destructions (Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, Viking/Penguin, Gurgaon 2017), and additionally your recent denial of the rock-solid evidence for Islam’s extermination of Buddhism in South Asia, you are now among the proverbial hate figures for Hindu activists, up there with Wendy Doniger, Michael Witzel, and Sheldon Pollock.

The effect is not limited to the people who have actually read your book: they are only few and hardly overlap with those who send you hate mail and other criticism. But all of them know about a few of your tweets, a quicker way to get to know your thoughts. So, they know that you have tried to make Sita call Rama a “misogynistic pig”. They also know that when challenged, you attributed this to the American Sanskritist Robert Goldman’s Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa translation. Goldman himself, though not a friend of political Hinduism, had to intervene and rebuke your self-serving claim, clarifying that he had neither used the slur “pig” nor the anachronism “misogynistic”. You will understand that neither your lie about the Ramayana nor your heartfelt insult to Rama endears you to the Hindus.

Your Victimhood

Then again, don’t complain too much about that atrocious victimhood of yours. Compare your situation with the world around you: at the present rate of exclusion for dissidents, with even Nobel Prize winners sacked from their posts for “wrong-think,” you are very fortunate to have a secure US university chair and the support from your institution. Your enemies are not among the power-wielders whose actions have consequences for your career; they only consist of people you already looked down on, and who have no power to hurt you in any way. They only have foul but impotent words to trade, not good enough for turning your colleagues against you, let alone force your employer to sack you or all other employers to shun you. Even their so-called “death threats” are but verbal outbursts, ten a penny, and not the kind of warning that would be given by a genuine revenge killer who means business.

There are quite a few people who face direr consequences for what they have said. The Satanic Verses affair in 1989 with death threats against Salman Rushdie and effective assaults on his translators and supporters (including a non-lethal knife attack on a Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz), assaults on the Danish Muhammad cartoonists and the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo editorial board in 2015 showed that the West is not immune from the repression against candid freethinkers*. But the problem is far more tangible in the erstwhile Third World. Assuming you are not racist, you won’t look down on those cases just because the “offending” writers weren’t white, right? Recent murders of dissident writers took place in Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, and other countries.

On Krishna Janmashtami, a Muslim thought it funny to lampoon Krishna in a cartoon, bad in taste but not illegal. (This part you may not find in the general media, where an iron rule is that reporting of Hindu-Muslim confrontations must hide away any Muslim initiative and only start when Hindus react, as if a history of WW-II were to start on D-Day with the Anglo-American “aggression” against Nazi-defended Europe.) A Dalit Hindu reacted in a civilized way: not with rioting but with a counter-cartoon, viz. on Muhammad. Since the local Muslim grievance brigade couldn’t find the ad hoc cartoonist at once, they hit him in the next best way: they attacked the house of his relatives, including a Congress MLA, and set it on fire. To top it all, as punishment for being the target of a murder attempt, not the criminal attackers but the “offending” Hindu was arrested and jailed for “triggering” violence, and in the secularist media he was denounced and lampooned rather than becoming the beneficiary of solidarity. Now, if all that had happened to you, with your family home set on fire and you yourself rewarded with jail time, then you would be in a position to complain. So, before you start drama-queening and throwing allegations around, I suggest you imagine going through the Dalit Hindu’s ordeal. What a privilege, merely having to imagine it.

[Postscript August 27, 2022: The last three months has seen seven Jihadi murders of Hindus who had merely tweeted their support for Nupur Sharma, ex-BJP spokeswoman who had been sacked by the Islam-appeasing BJP for truthfully quoting Islamic scripture. This was the implementation of an Urdu slogan faithfully summarizing Islamic law: Gustāx-i-rasūl kī ek hī sazā: sar tan se judā, “Insulting the Prophet has only one punishment: separating head from trunk”. Time to face up to your privilege that you don’t have to face such a fate.]

Yours is a luxury problem, and your fury about it will come across as quite pubescent among those who have suffered real exclusion, real cancel culture, real death threats, and in some cases actual attempts on their lives, failed or successful. Thus, you end your paper waxing indignant about having to censor your acknowledgments section in order to protect your informers from reprisals by vigilantes. Well, for thirty years now it’s been routine for me to consider whom to acknowledge, as I have found out that your Hindu-bashing tribe is very vindictive and unforgiving of dissidence, and this not through impotent tweets (or through the ephemeral blackfacing of a victim you mention, an informer of James Laine’s anti-hagiography Shivaji), but through very consequential exclusions, seconded by a non-committed but intimidated and therefore compliant bourgeoisie.

Why They Have an Aversion for You

But alright, let’s commiserate, for it is no fun being the target of hate mail. Before evaluating it as morally wrong, or at least contrary to the gentlemanly behaviour that I was taught, let us first note that for a Hindu nationalist, it is also strategically wrong. Your camp can get away with all kinds of misbehaviour, for you will always be shielded by the establishment and the mainstream media. Hindus, by contrast, are in the middle of an uphill battle; they cannot afford mistakes, or anything that could be used against them.

It is also very counterproductive: instead of a debate on your Aurangzeb thesis, which for their camp is eminently winnable, they have only provoked a wave of renewed indignation against Hindu nationalism, especially after the public has absorbed your version of their position. Whereas the Aurangzeb skeptics merely uphold an eminently reasonable account confirmed already by prominent historians like Jadunath Sarkar and RC Majumdar, now they find themselves criminalized in the dominant account as ill-behaved trolls.

So, hate mail. This is, of course, assuming that it is genuine. Those who follow the news closely know by now that the most conspicuous hate crimes are self-inflicted and fake. Those who follow it only vaguely are taken in by the initial scandal: front-page news and the ensuing, grimly serious panel discussions to burn the indignation against the alleged hate group into the minds of the audience. But when the truth next comes out, it is only a little article tucked away on page 13, if at all that.

Some of the hate mail you cite, especially your opening shot with a Holocaust photograph, is just too good to be true. In contemporary Western culture, Adolf Hitler is the hate figure par excellence, without competition, and so haters on both sides have their discourse full of him. But that is mostly to paint their enemies with the Hitler brush (the so-called Godwin’s Law), and thus criminalize them as deeply as possible, as indeed you yourself try to do in The Revealer article and on other occasions, but not to identify themselves with him. And then of all the hateful things a Hindu could have thought up against you, your critic would have chosen to identify himself with Hitler and you with his victims? I hope you don’t mind some skepticism here.

But then again, it is not altogether impossible: there are indeed some rare Hindu conspiracy theorists who used to think up their own stories but who, ever since the internet, are swallowing Western intrigues about the 9/11 false flag operation (which actually exonerates Aurangzeb’s religion as the culprit), the illuminati-controlled “deep state,” or indeed “the Zionist world conspiracy”. So, lacking any more direct evidence, I will assume for now that your story is true.

But it remains a strange aspect of your story that this troll called you a Jew. There are some Hindus who know of your Jewish descent, if only because you yourself regularly bring it up. Among American white Christians, with their vicarious guilt trip, it would immunize you from criticism (though not among your woke African-American and Muslim companions, many of whom are brazenly anti-Semitic themselves), and we know how sensitive you are to criticism. But most Hindus situate you in another group, and unlike the Jews, this is a group all of them do mistrust: the Christian missionaries.

Indeed, in a Twitter debate about you, someone cursorily called you a Jew, and someone else restated the Hindu consensus: “She is not a Jew at all. Through marriage she belongs to a Baptist missionary family.” The subtlety of ethnic Jewry being distinct from religious Judaism, so that there are Jewish-born Christians, is lost on most Hindus. For them, your ethnic provenance is not important (though you wish you could have blamed their “hate” on that), but your subscribing to the missionary project is.

Your actual religious adherence is unknown to me, but among Hindus, you ought to know you are reputed to be part of the Christian missionary lobby. Hindus often are not very clear about these Western denominational issues: for example, Wendy Doniger was also often accused of Christian missionary links even after she had clarified that she is Jewish. Unlike your ethnic origins, with which Hindus have no quarrel (as Israeli ambassadors to India keep repeating: “the only country where the Jews were never persecuted”), your religious adherence amounts for them to a declaration of war. What have the Baptist missionaries done in the Northeast and other parts of India? Simple: they have destroyed the native religion to make way for Christianity. This is, of course, the obverse side of the coin in which all Christian missionaries take pride and which they gladly communicate to their home sponsors: that they have turned a village or a community Christian.

[Postscript 27 August 2022: Once in the business of history denial, you have chosen to extend it to your own tribe, the Christian missionaries and their atrocities against Hindus — “After whitewashing Aurangzeb, Audrey Truschke moves on to downplay the Portuguese Inquisition of Goa and atrocities committed against Hindus”, OpIndia, August 6, 2022]

As our King Clovis was told by his baptism father upon his conversion from Paganism to Christianity in 496: “Burn what you worshiped and worship what you burned.” (This was actually Christian self-flattery playing at victimhood, viz., implying that the Pagans had tried to destroy Christianity the way Christianity had been busy destroying Paganism: though not true, this was a common psychological mechanism, viz., projection.) Similarly, Christian missionaries have gone to India to burn every sign of Hinduism: in the past literally, today figuratively, but at any rate to destroy the native religion and replace it with their own. This is really a declaration of war issued by the Christian camp, no way around it, and nothing even-handed about it. If the natives react, as the Odisha tribals did after the murder of the conversion-hindering Swami Lakshmananda and his four assistants in 2008, this is not “hate” but self-defence.

But let us return to your Hitler anecdote, where we have assumed for now that what you claim is true. Even then there is not only what you say but also what you hide. Having had a ringside view of the Aurangzeb debate and the rhetorical habits of the Hindu nationalists for thirty years, I know it is a hundred times more common in this debate to hear Hitler mentioned to a very different effect than the one you bring up. The Hindu activists don’t equate themselves to Hitler, as you would like us to retain; on the contrary, they denounce Aurangzeb as a proto-Hitler, and consequently his whitewashers as Holocaust deniers avant la lettre. You do your best to keep your American audience in the dark about this well-attested fact, but in India, the likening of the Muslim atrocities on Hindus to the Holocaust is very common, and so is the likening of Aurangzeb to Hitler. Imagine one of your colleagues defending Hitler in all seriousness, and the indignation you would feel; well, that is what you look like to numerous Hindus.

You allege that “Aurangzeb serves as a dog whistle for Hindu nationalists who invoke him to rile up anti-Muslim sentiments and violence”. The name Hitler definitely serves as a dog whistle in many situations, viz., as a call to hate every “new Hitler” of the moment. The hatred against Saddam Hussein or Moammar al-Qadhafi was powered by the indignation about Adolf Hitler’s crimes and it justified invasions, occupations, and mass bombings; any doubt about these disastrous policies was derided as a “New Munich”. The regular likening of Narendra Modi to Hitler by the Indian and American Left is not so innocent either. When you regularly make Nazi comparisons, it is to spew hatred and add the extra force of the Nazi reference to it.

But the fact that you are a certified hater doesn’t annul Hitler’s crimes; the Holocaust did take place. While your use of that historical reference is malafide, it nonetheless refers to real events. Likewise, whatever motives you ascribe to Hindus, the reference to Aurangzeb’s crimes is and remains correct. And denying them is like denying the Nazi crimes. You are a negationist.

Why you Don’t Convince Them

To be sure, Aurangzeb was not all bad. By saying that, I break ranks with these numerous Hindus who tend to lose all nuance when his name is dropped. About Aurangzeb’s character, not much negative can be said. Alright, he dethroned his father and killed his elder brother, but so many rulers have done similar things (for example, the Buddhist emperor Ashoka also killed his brother and many other relatives, generals, and ministers to grab the throne for himself) that we will look the other way for now. But unlike his hedonistic and drug-addicted father and grandfather, he was a pious and ascetic man, qualities which Hindus tend to applaud. He chided his father for wasting taxpayers’ money on what Aldous Huxley was to call the “expensive vulgarity” of the Taj Mahal and gave the good example by earning his own living with making skullcaps and calligraphing copies of the Quran. He also did charity, even in his last will, for his hunger-stricken subjects, or at least the Muslims among them.

In his own mind, he was a do-gooder in the good sense of the term. Far too often, Hindus attack his character as the reason for his thousandfold temple destructions and his atrocities against the Sikh Gurus. But there is no reason for personalizing the issue, not in the demonizing sense nor in the psychobabble sense of: “Oh, what a paradox: he was a pious man, but also a bigot.” No, his asceticism and his bigotry were not contrasting tendencies, for they could be traced to one and the same trait: his commitment to his religion. If that religion had been Hinduism, a pious man like he would still have been inclined to tyaj, to renunciation, but he would have had no reason for intolerance. By contrast, now that his religion was Islam, which, for example, encouraged the inter-Muslim charity that he practised, he was also bigoted and actively intolerant against “unbelievers,” at least as soon as he “got religion”.

I support attempts by historians to question the received wisdom: historiography in practice is an ongoing revision of the past. You could for example distinguish between different phases of Aurangzeb’s life. In his last years (he died at 91) he had become frail, introspective, and full of doubts about his own record; gone was his self-righteousness. Not that he had started feeling for the Hindus, but he repented an unforeseen consequence of his anti-Infidel policies: they had provoked rebellions and thus shaken a hitherto stable Muslim empire. Even towards the Hindus, he was no longer as fierce as he used to be: his invitation to Guru Govind Singh for talks at the court, if not a trap, was more conciliatory than what he had done to the Guru in earlier years.

So, there is nothing wrong in principle with your second look at Aurangzeb’s record. Only, an inspection of the data fails to support your whitewash. These unflattering data have not gone away ever since historians Jadunath Sarkar and RC Majumdar drew their less Aurangzeb-friendly conclusions.

The Hindu Reaction

Some of your fans ask why, four years after the Aurangzeb publication, no scholarly refutation has been written yet. My position is that, in spite of the reasons that follow, a booklet in refutation is worth being written as a source of ready reference. It need not be bulky for, contrary to what your friends assume, there is little hard evidence in your book, nor even attempts thereto. It is mostly bluff about how generous Aurangzeb was, and exercises in avoiding the extant hard evidence of the opposite. Nor are your rhetorical tricks very sophisticated: whoever has followed the earlier Ayodhya debate can see through this standard secularist rhetoric right away. (Editor’s note: see this refutation of Truschke’s thesis which appeared in the now very Hindu unfriendly newspaper, ironically still carrying the title “The Hindu” in its masthead).

Admittedly, many of your critics are equally unsophisticated. Yet, there is a simple remedy for this problem. Hotheads are not leaders: militant types, instead of staging their own impotent and counterproductive verbal attacks on you and your ideological tribe, would rather have rallied around their champion — if there had been one. That champion in this case is whoever takes the trouble of refuting your thesis in a scholarly book, full of proper quotes and references. This is what Vishal Agarwal did against Wendy Doniger’s unjustly famous book The Hindus, An Alternative History — write an equally hefty book detailing Doniger’s numerous errors of fact and symptoms of bias: The New Stereotypes of Hindus In Western Indology (CreateSpace 2015).

Hindu historians qualified to refute your work are just not sufficiently impressed with it, having seen variations on it before. I am not going to do it either, because in my life I don’t want to spend much time anymore on a simple topic like Islam. Everything about its theology and a lot about its history has already been said (partly by me), I leave it to a younger generation of historians to earn their spurs by filling the gaps remaining in Islamic history, before graduating to more interesting topics in their turn.

Scanning your book, genuine historians would quickly notice that its claim of giving a fresh look into primary sources and thus overturning the extant consensus on Aurangzeb’s fanaticism is only bluff. They know that primary sources attest thousands of demolitions. They now see only rhetoric in your book that cannot possibly be a match for them. There is no more direct documentary evidence than Aurangzeb’s own firmāns (decrees) for temple demolitions, and no more direct evidence in archaeology than the extant temple ruins resulting from these firmāns. Your bluff cannot possibly overrule them.

Thus, of Saqi Mustaid Khan’s chronicle Ma’asīr-i Ālamgīrī, you randomly claim “a noted tendency to exaggerate the number of temples demolished by Aurangzeb” (p.108), but you carefully hide that number, which is thousands upon thousands, since it is so extremely different from your own “at most a few dozen” (p. 100) or even “just over a dozen” (p. 107, following Richard Eaton); readers might get suspicious about your cavalier treatment of primary sources.

So, a few publications refuting your thesis have finally seen the light of day. VS Bhatnagar’s book Emperor Aurangzeb and Destruction of Temples, Conversions and Jizya (Literary Circle, Jaipur 2017) was written before your name became a household name in India and published almost simultaneously with your book. It does not address your specific claims, but it addresses Aurangzeb’s record that you make claims about. And from Aurangzeb’s own Court Chronicles, it cites many more temple destructions than you would even acknowledge as possible. It wipes your book away without even mentioning it.

A long list of certified temple destructions and other acts of persecution was promptly given by Dimple Kaul and TrueIndology: “Aurangzeb’s tyranny and bigotry cannot be whitewashed. A counterview,” First Post, May 6, 2017. You had no answer.

Therefore, you were challenged on Twitter on historical specifics by TrueIndology. You blocked him, then claimed that he had run away from the debate. You pulled academic rank. Like a sophomore, and unlike an accomplished scholar, you avoided the actual controversy by merely boasting about your having (and he not having) an academic post. A real scholar would have developed a healthy skepticism of his colleague’s pretences and of his own knowledge’s limitations. You added insult to injury by alleging that he did not have the academic level to meet you in the debate from which you had blocked him. Details in “5 Cases where TrueIndology exposed Audrey Truschke”, MyVoice/OpIndia, April 18, 2018. Not about the evidence itself but about your highly colonial attitude during the debate, Pawan Pandey wrote: “Dr. Audrey Truschke, Western Indologists and their Hidden Motives,” Hindu Post, September 23, 2020. In your woke circles this ought to carry some weight. It is indeed remarkable that the heralds of “decolonization” evince a completely colonial attitude to Hindus who take their own decolonization seriously — busy-body, know-it-all, telling them what is best for themselves, even teaching them how to decolonize.

Among Western Indologists, you may be not as controversial a person as you fear (“Many of my colleagues associate me with public controversy, and I must now contend with my reputation as a troublemaker”), but at least as an anti-Hindu campaigner, you have enjoyed a lot of sympathy, the guaranteed reward for any position that irritates Hindus. But even there no one could help you with supportive documents that simply weren’t to be found in the Aurangzeb files.

[Postscript, August 27, 2022: Specifically in reaction to your work are some of the following]:

  • François Gautier, “Why the fascination for Aurangzeb?” Sangam Channel, 2020; plus, the Aurangzeb exhibitions at his Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum in Pune.
  • “Aurangzeb Destroyed 1000s of Hindu temples; No, he didn’t Rebuild Any”, MyIndiaMyGlory, January 15, 2021.
  • Neeraj Atri, “Aurangzeb: Sufi or tyrant,” Sangam Channel, April 15, 2021.
  • Aabhas Maldahiyar, “Audrey Truschke, stop glorifying killers of Hindus”, Australia Today, August 5, 2021.
  • Aditya Kuvalekar (Prof., Univ. Essex), Interview on Aurangzeb by Arihant Pawariya, Vaad Channel, August 28, 2021.
  • Sandeep Balakrishna, “How Acharya Jadunath Sarkar wrote the majestic volumes of the History of Aurangzeb,” Dharma Dispatch, April 23, 2022.
  • Sandeep Balakrishna, “Here it is: A ready reckoner of Aurangzeb’s industrial-scale temple destructions. A partial list of Hindu temples destroyed by the Mughal king Aurangzeb,” Dharma Dispatch, May 23, 2022.
  • Saurabh D Lohogaonkar, “Whitewashing Tyrant, Distorting Narrative,” EvencePub, Delhi, July 2022.
  • Saurabh D Lohogaonkar, “Whitewashing tyrant, distorting narrative”, Sangam Channel, July 2022.
  • Saurabh D Lohogaonkar, “‘Aurangzeb – Whitewashing Tyrant, Distorting Narrative’: New book debunks distortions around the Mughal tyrant Aurangzeb”, OpIndia, August 7, 2022.

The Dhimma

Seeing through your twisting of history does not even require a thorough investigation of primary sources, as the distortions can be of a general nature, immediately recognizable: for example, “Beginning in 1669, Aurangzeb levied the jizya on most non-Muslims in the empire in lieu of military service” (p.88). This is a very common refrain among apologists: that non-Muslims were not really discriminated against, since Muslims had to render military service just as non-Muslims had to pay jizya.

No, serving in the army was prized, because it meant being part of the ruling group, and gave access to the spoils of war. Often it also wasn’t mandatory military service but volunteer armies, with the common characteristic of excluding non-Muslims. In many societies, bearing arms is a privilege of the in-group, forbidden to oppressed groups. Later, Muslim regimes also induced non-Muslims into their armies, most notably the Christian-born Janissaries in the Ottoman empire, but only after converting and indoctrinating them.

Your attempt to whitewash this exclusion of non-Muslims from the army is not so innocent, certainly not for a historian. Under the Dhimma rules for non-Muslims, a non-negotiable rule was that it was forbidden to them to bear arms: this was not a favour to them, a relief from military service, but an element of their exclusion from power. Yours is a projection of modern equations, with conscripts unable to hope for more than to come home alive from the war, therefore trying to dodge the draft, whereas Islamic law provided the soldiers with the right to plunder. As you certainly know (though the trolls besieging you may not), the projection of modern states of affairs onto an ancient world where they didn’t obtain, is the cardinal sin in historiography. Let me remind you: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Anyway, the importance of this passage is that you yourself indicate a cut-off year, 1669. Until then, Aurangzeb largely abided by the compromise instituted by Akbar: the Moghul empire would be a Muslim empire, but less Muslim than empire, avoiding sources of fractiousness such as an all too open oppression that would provoke revolts. It had been decided on because Akbar wanted to get ethnic and sectarian lobbies within the Muslim ruling class off his back by attracting Hindu cooperation; this then had more or less been continued by Jahangir and Shah Jahan. They profited from it, for instead of suppressing rebellions they could invest in the economy and in luxuries.

Initially, Aurangzeb also continued this policy, and when he later strayed from it, aggrieved parties would remind him of it. But by 1669, he “got religion,” started to observe the Islamic rules more strictly, and therefore got harsher on the Pagans and their idolatry. As proof of his non-fanaticism, you cite a firman from 1659 prohibiting his men from further harassing the Brahmins of Benares. True, but that was still the period of Akbar’s compromise, not yet affected by Aurangzeb’s later Islamic radicalization. It cannot serve as refutation of his later iconoclastic commands.

You write about this early period, when Aurangzeb resolved to walk in the footsteps of his “great ancestors”: “In Aurangzeb’s eyes Islamic teachings and the Mughal tradition enjoined him to protect Hindu temples, pilgrimage destinations, and holy men” (p.102). It is only in your own words that the Moghul practice of turning a blind eye to the flourishing of idolatry, the single worst sin according to Islam, is “Islamic”; you never manage to quote any Moghul as saying this. And indeed, tolerating Hindu practices was part of Akbar’s compromise, not of Islamic teachings; orthodox figures like Ahmad al-Sirhindi saw through it and condemned it. But it was a success formula, it allowed for a peaceful prosperous empire, so Akbar’s successors didn’t really question it, until Aurangzeb did, not provoked by anything the Hindus had done, but convinced by Islamic teachings that wouldn’t be side-lined forever.

At the end of his life, Aurangzeb also admitted the mistake which you try so hard to deny, viz. his anti-Hindu policies. This was not because he had suddenly developed pro-Hindu feelings, but because he realized that he had thereby provoked rebellions and thus destabilized a hitherto successful Muslim empire. On balance, he had rendered a disservice to Islam, not because he had disobeyed Islam (as apologists would like us to conclude, arguing that negative features like terrorism and iconoclasm “aren’t the real Islam”) but because in the real world, Islam has to co-exist with other forces, which ended up punishing a too principled loyalty to Islamic precepts.

The Sikh Gurus and Aurangzeb

Another significant fact about your Aurangzeb book that your more literate critics have noticed, is the absence of any mention of the Sikh Gurus contemporaneous with him: Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Govind Singh. When you ask common Hindus what the name Aurangzeb means to them, it is usually two things: his massive destruction of temples, among which they will notably mention the Krishna Janmabhumi and the Kashi Vishvanath, and his cruelty to the Gurus. He had Guru Tegh Bahadur tortured to death for his refusal to convert to Islam, and he had all four of Guru Govind Singh’s sons killed. Your cosy presentation is simply irreconcilable with what the Gurus suffered at Aurangzeb’s hands.

But maybe you mean that those narrations, so inconvenient to your own thesis, are untrue? Your name as a bold historian, without fear of controversy, would really have been made if you had chosen to refute these common narratives about the Gurus, and succeeded in doing so convincingly. It would have made you even more hated, but if your refutation were true, the historians’ admiration would have been assured. However, that is not what you chose to do. Instead, your entire Aurangzeb book does not mention the Gurus at all. It mentions the Sikhs as such, the Sikh rebellions and Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, but strangely not those among them who had to deal directly with Aurangzeb. You can only make your thesis persuasive by being very selective in the primary material you consider, and you simply leave out what doesn’t suit you.

Very indirectly, though, you do mention Govind Singh. On p.152, you thank Heidi Pauwels (whom I personally knew in the 1980s when we were students at Leuven University) for organizing “the panels on Aurangzeb at the 2014 European Association for South-Asian Studies Conference, held in Zürich, Switzerland”. I attended those panels. They discussed several Hindi poets as writing in praise of Aurangzeb. Of course, many Soviet poets wrote in praise of Josef Stalin, and they’d better. (Your own case can be compared with the foreign poets like Louis Aragon who, under no compulsion but through ideological blindness, equally wrote in praise of Stalin.) But their crowning exhibit in Aurangzeb’s favour was Guru Govind Singh’s letter to him, the Zafar Nama.

In spite of its name, “victory letter,” this letter is here and there quite toadyish in content. Thus, in order to get away with his message of refusing the emperor’s invitation to the court (calculating the risk of a trap involved), the Guru had to also include some diplomatic flattery: six verses out of a hundred and eleven. So yes, he praises Aurangzeb a bit. But it takes an Islamophile Indologist to read this as a genuine expression of what Govind thought about Aurangzeb. Any normal human being would, when told of what had transpired between those two in real life, have concluded that very obviously, for the Guru, Aurangzeb was the most hated man in the world. This was, after all, the killer of his father and all his four sons.

Temple Destructions

Aurangzeb gave “two orders to destroy the Somanatha Temple in 1659 and 1706 (the existence of a second order suggests that the first was never carried out)” (p.107). In the first year he was not so fired up with anti-infidel zeal yet. He did get it destroyed, though, even at the fag end of his life when he supposedly regretted his anti-Hindu policies.

“In 1672 Aurangzeb issued an order recalling all endowed lands given to Hindus and reserving all such future land grants for Muslims, possibly as a concession to the ulama. If strictly enforced, this move would have been a significant blow to Hindu and Jain religious communities, but historical evidence suggests otherwise. The new policy on land grants lacked implementation, especially in the more far-flung areas of the kingdom” (p.105).

In those days, distances counted for something. Officials in far-flung areas calculated that they could get away with taking bribes in return for a blind eye to the continuation of idolatry. Thus, the Jagannath temple in Puri survived a commandment for demolition in exchange for a huge bribe to the Moghul Governor, and when Aurangzeb insisted, it was closed down but still not destroyed. Plus, a military crisis in the Deccan with the Marathas distracted his attention to more pressing matters. That Islamic policies were not fully carried out as decreed by Aurangzeb, does not mean that there is a milder Islam, nor that he had moments of increased tolerance, merely that there exist other factors in the world except ideology.

To sum up, you admit that “Aurangzeb also oversaw temple desecrations” and that “there were probably more temples destroyed under Aurangzeb than we can confirm”, adding an estimate: “perhaps a few dozen in total?” (p.107). That’s not what the sources suggest, but for humorous purposes it’s a cute proposal.

You really set a new record in apologetics by repeatedly asserting that Aurangzeb not only did not destroy temples, but also protected many. From whom did they need protection? No one else is known to have raided Hindu temples under his reign than he or his lieutenants. Anyway, your reasoning is a great hint for trial lawyers: “Yes, Your Honour, the facts have been proven, my client did indeed commit these murders. But, given the far larger number of people he left alive, all those people he could have murdered if he’d really had the murderer’s nature in him, you will consider his case benevolently.”

The figures in historian Sita Ram Goel’s provisional list of nearly two thousand demolished temples in India (Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, part 1, 1990) has been around for more than thirty years already, a standing challenge to your negationist school. No attempt is in evidence to falsify even a single one of all those straightforward claims, not in others’ work nor in yours. By contrast, your claims about Aurangzeb have been challenged, both before you made them, and after.

The Ayodhya Debate and Indology

The success of genuine scholarship in the Ayodhya debate, with the humiliating implosion of the anti-temple “Eminent Historians” on the witness stand during the Ayodhya trial (documented by Meenakshi Jain in her two Ayodhya books, and by Anuradha Dutt and S. Kumar: The Restoration of Ayodhya, 2020), has made Hindu activists more self-confident. Around 1990, these “eminences” rode a very high horse, making Ayodhya into the last stronghold of secularism and themselves its brave defenders. They already bit the dust in the government-organized scholars’ debate of 1991 but were secure in the knowledge that, thanks to their captive media’s monopoly on the bottleneck of the information-flow from India, the India-watchers worldwide would never hear about it, and that the few possible exceptions would not be willing or able to strike a discordant note. In India they continued to dominate the opinion sphere for more than a decade, forcing the political class to toe their line.

Yet, their bluff against the evidence brought together by the scholars (only one of whom, archaeologist SP Gupta, was linked to the Sangh) in 1991, gradually added to later and grandly confirmed by the court-ordered ASI excavations of 2003, was scrutinized by the Uttar Pradesh High Court. On the witness stand, each of them (well, the really big names managed to avoid questioning) collapsed and had to admit that their anti-temple posturing was based on no evidence at all. This is what will happen to you too in an authoritative scrutiny of your claims in favour of Aurangzeb and belittling the central passion of his life, the uprooting of idolatry.

The significance of the Ayodhya debate for the larger job of Indology and India-watching has so far been cleverly hidden. Here was a situation where practically the entire professional class was loudly proclaiming that there had never been a temple, lambasting little me for peddling a “Hindutva concoction”, yet being proven collectively wrong. After the High Court verdict of 2010 confirming the temple, two American professors privately congratulated me at the next Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion; but nobody publicly apologized for misinforming the public on the basis of mere hearsay in their principal field of expertise.

You also prove to be a worthy representative of Western Indology with your introductory sketch of India’s political landscape: “The BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, has controlled India’s central government since May 2014, and they have pursued an aggressive agenda of transforming India from a secular democracy welcoming of all faiths into a fascist state meant for martial-minded Hindus alone. During the last six years, anti-Muslim violence has risen sharply, freedom of the press has declined ruinously, and universities have been subjected to relentless assaults. History is a primary battleground for Hindu nationalists who want to rewrite India’s diverse past to justify their present-day oppression and violence, and historians like me get in their way.”

This is indeed representative for the counterfactual image of India spread abroad by India-watchers and the media in the West. It is simply not true that the BJP has made India less secular or democratic, let alone “fascist”. While anti-Hindu violence has indeed risen (even more in Bangladesh, Pakistan and marginally the USA), the figures show that there has been no rise in anti-Muslim violence, on the contrary. In Indira Gandhi’s time there were street riots with thousands of victims; the Khalistani violence in the 1980s and early 1990s killed many thousands of Hindus (rarely mentioned in overviews of Indian communalism), many more than the death toll in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom by Congress Party secularists; Muslims committed an anti-Hindu pogrom in Godhra killing 59 Ayodhya pilgrims, thus triggering street riots killing some 200 Hindus and 900 Muslims. In recent street confrontations, like over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019, such a death toll would have become unimaginable: it was a total of 27.

The press is much freer than it was under Indira Gandhi or under any of the Congress Party prime ministers, and it continues its age-old number of attacking the Hindutva forces unfettered, then getting copied by The New York Times, the BBC, and other media you take as Gospel. And no, the Bharatiya Janata Party had never rewritten history textbooks. Indeed, the Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, a dyed-in-the-wool RSS man, declared on this question in 2018 that he was proud of never having changed a single chapter (“Not rewritten a single history chapter in 4 years: Javadekar”, India Today, September 27, 2018) — an expression of the presently dominant ideology that your class has not even noticed: BJP secularism, distinctly focusing on burying its historical Hindu associations.

This complete contrast between India’s reality and the fantasy world of the Indological analysis of the “communal” landscape could be laid at your door and summed up as mendaciousness, and that’s what many of your Hindu critics will certainly do. But I rather have the impression that, in spite of your self-flattery of being an attractor of controversy, you are essentially a herd animal merely swallowing and reproducing the dominant narrative peddled in your academic circles. Your performance as a university professor specialized in Indian communal episodes is dismal, but far from unique.

To Hindu polemicists, I often have to point out that their view of the West suffers from anachronism: for example, they explain the phenomenon of Hindu-bashing (with an infelicitous term: “Hinduphobia”) through the woke category of racism, flattering themselves as bold anti-colonial warriors. In reality, though racism was indeed very strong in the colonial period, anti-racism has meanwhile become the state religion in the West, and Hindu-bashing has other grounds than race. Proof: it does not extend to Indian Muslims or Christians, though they are of the same race. The reasons for Hindu-bashing are more complex than race, but lazy or conformist minds will prefer the racial explanation.

The India-watchers suffer from a similar anachronism. Numerous papers and books keep on appearing that explain the BJP’s policies in the 2020s through some quotes from RSS leader MS Golwalkar’s book We, Our Nationhood Defined, written in 1938. In 1948 the police impounded all Hindutva publications (after the Mahatma Gandhi murder), and Golwalkar himself forbade its republication afterwards. So, 99,9 percent of Hindutva men have never read it (in publishing Golwalkar’s Collected Works in 2006, the RSS even left this book out, on the mendacious ground that Golwalkar had not been its writer). It is never quoted in BJP documents, yet your tribe pompously derives BJP policies from it. By contrast, the BJP’s real ideology, in which party members receive training, is called Integral Humanism (°1964). Because this sounds too innocuous, it is never even mentioned in most of the expert literature on Hindutva; as if the Labour Party were discussed without mentioning socialism.

More generally, we could say that academic and media talk about the BJP has at its core of truth the Hindu party founded by Syama Prasad Mukherjee in 1951, the way it was until his death in 1953. Back then it still aimed for a Hindū Rāṣṭra, but the Hindu content of its politics soon started decreasing. When party leader Deendayal Upadhyaya launched Integral Humanism, this was a correct move, presenting a kind of modern translation of the Hindu concept Dharma; but its main value for new leaders like Nana Deshmukh and AB Vajpayee was that it did not contain the word “Hindu”. Former party president Balraj Madhok protested against the party’s socialist and Nehruvian drift and was thrown out. In 1977 the party merged into the new Janata Party, and when it was reconstituted in 1980 as the Bharatiya Janata Party, it shed its Hindu roots and the goal of Hindū Rāṣṭra. Significantly, it added a green strip to the party flag, an act of Muslim appeasement, the very thing the Jan Sangh had chided the Congress Party for.

Then what about the Ayodhya movement, Hindu par excellence? This movement had been started by politicians of the Hindū Mahāsabhā and the Congress Party, and Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi worked towards the building of a new temple. But in 1989 the “Eminent Historians” came out with an Ayodhya statement that gave cold feet to middle-of-the-road politicians, and for two years the BJP captured the issue, using it to win the 1989 and 1991 elections, and then dropping it. The truth of the relation between the BJP and Hindu agitation was laid out clearly by BJP Justice Minister Arun Jaitley to the American Ambassador in 2004, when he dismissed it as merely an electoral ploy, immediately shelved after the elections. That is why (with the exception of Murli Manohar Joshi’s clumsy rewriting of the history textbooks in 2002) neither Vajpayee nor Narendra Modi have fulfilled any item of the Hindu agenda.

The seeming exception of the abolition of Kashmir’s privileged status (Art. 370) was only possible because this was formally not a religious issue, never mentioning the words Hindu and Muslim. Moreover, on the ground little has changed, contrary to promises, and stray Hindus are still being murdered there. You can check on social media that Hindus express their criticism of, or anger at, the Modi Government for its persistent betrayal of the Hindu cause.

The Future

The political power equation that facilitates the partisan anti-scholarly conduct of your camp will not last forever. One day it will become feasible to do academic research on the strange phenomenon that an entire academic and mediatic guild has systematically disinformed the public about the communal situation in India, consistently for decades. Your own whitewash of Aurangzeb will serve as a significant piece of evidence.

But don’t worry. It’ll take some more time (the BJP is not working on it), so you’ll have enjoyed your career and all the perks of your office. Nobody will be interested anymore in the yellowed pages of your negationist books. The dissertation about the India-watchers’ collective decades-spanning disinformation campaign will be read by the jury members and the fresh PhD’s mother, and then gather dust. After all, this is what has already happened: the false claim that the Ayodhya temple was a Hindutva concoction got exploded, yet the entire guild that ought to have been reduced to blushing and apologizing, managed to keep the news of its massive failure out of the information circuit.

Conversely, the few of us who were proven right, will never be compensated for the slander, boycotts, and cancelings we suffered. And speaking for myself, I also don’t believe in the retributive karma theory: no punishment in the next life for the negationists, no reward for those who held on to the historical truth against all odds. We’ll have to be satisfied with Benedict de Spinoza’s dictum: “Virtue is its own reward.”

I certainly wouldn’t want to be in your shoes right now. But let’s not dramatize it. As an ex-Christian, I join you in your Christian belief in conversion. You can leave your negationism behind, it’s easy. From a sinner against the principles of historiography, you can redeem yourself. There will be lots of joy in heaven!


Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.