Book review

Audrey Truschke’s ‘Aurangzeb’ engages with (and demolishes) WhatsApp history

Her book on the Mughal emperor is thorough, readable and engages with popular narratives, a welcome change from inkhorn history written by academics.

Indian English uses the word “politics” in a curiously pejorative way. One such popular usage is in the phrase “politicisation of history”. Of course, as Mani Shankar Aiyer once snapped in a television debate, “If not in history, where else will politics be? Biology?”

Aiyer’s peevishness here is well placed. History is joined at the hip with politics. It, for example, shapes modern political identities. Can one even begin to imagine nationalism without the discipline of history? A shared – if imagined – past is more important to the creation of a nation-state than an army. History then is, truly a public discipline.

Yet, in the recent past, academic history has withdrawn from its role of informing the public, retreating into a university echo chamber. The fact that academics are terrible writers isn’t a coincidence – in many cases, academic work simply isn’t written to be read. A system that Harvard historian Jill Lepore memorably described as having “produced a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose”.

History in the social media age

Of course, people still have a need for history. And in the age of the internet, the lack of readable academic history is easily overcome. In India, specifically, the past few years have seen an explosion of what I like to call Oakist history, after the prolific writer PN Oak. Oak has written about how almost everything one can imagine – from the Taj Mahal, to the Kaaba to the Vatican – has Hindu roots. Pseudo-history such as this has spread like wildfire on social media, pushed by that most powerful of mediums: the WhatsApp group.

In this, Audrey Truschke’s history of Aurangzeb, titled, well, Aurangzeb, comes as a welcome change, a work written explicitly for the popular sphere. Truschke teaches South Asian history at Rutgers University in the US. In this book, she takes on the incredible amount of pseudo history on the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb floating about on the internet. So effective has this demonisation been that an “Aurangzeb Road” in New Delhi – named by the British Raj – was renamed in 2015.

Aurangzeb wasn’t a bigot?

Truschke is quite clear that hers is not a simple history of the emperor. It is a rebuttal of this pseudo history around Aurangzeb. The subtitle of the book itself – “The man and the myth”– makes that clear. She does what she sets out to do rather successfully, writing a remarkably lucid book that takes Hindutva history head on. And as one might imagine, when faced with the full onslaught of a trained historian, these myths crumble rather easily.

Reaching into a rich range of Persian language sources, Trushke produces this gem of a quote. Faced with a petition to put in a religious test for Mughal service, Aurangzeb replies thus:

“What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry? For you is your religion and for me is mine. If this rule [suggested by you] were established, it would be my duty to extirpate all the (Hindu) Rajahs and their followers. Wise men disapprove of the removal from office of able officers.”

While it is unfair – and in fact a bit silly – to expect any cogent concept of secularism in the seventeenth century, Aurangzeb’s letter quoted above, it might be noted, would hold up even in modern India.

A fleshed-out emperor

Truschke also produces a range of sources to show how simply reducing Aurangzeb to his religion is inaccurate. Why was the Mughal state under Aurangzeb unable to absorb the rising Maratha power under Shivaji? Pop history focuses on faith, ignoring the fact that Hindu employment in the Mughal state rose to its highest ever level under Aurangzeb.

Truschke points to more banal reasons: Shivaji was singled out not for his religion but for his lack of courtly Persian culture, then shared by much of the Mughal elite, Hindu and Muslim. Rajputs serving in the Deccan also had many unkind things to say about the local Deccani population, Truschke points out. Moreover, Aurangzeb’s general in the Maratha wars was a Hindu Rajput: Jai Singh. A Hindu-Muslim binary, so common to contemporary India, is therefore difficult to draw.

Was Aurangzeb a fanatic, a seventeenth century version of a modern communalist? Truschke, in fact, shows that he conducted intellectual discussions with Bairagi Hindus and showered them with gifts. “[Ellora] is one of the finely crafted marvels of the real, transcendent Artisan [i.e God],” remarked Aurangzeb. The Mughal state under him would donate land to Hindu and Jain temples and protect religious leaders, leading to one Jain work praising Aurangzeb as a “brave and powerful king”.

Temple destruction is one of the most popular ways to attack Aurangzeb (and any other Muslim ruler). Truschke builds on the scholarship of Richard Eaton to show how misleading the charge is. Temples under Mughal dominion were rarely touched and the few that were attacked were done so for political not religious reasons.

Academia versus social media

Truschke makes no bones about the fact that her book is responding to popular demonisation of Aurangzeb – an admirable endeavour in today’s rather vitiated climate. “The Aurangzeb of popular memory bears only a faint resemblance to the historical emperor,” the book remarks understatedly. “Be sceptical of communal visions of Aurangzeb that flood the popular sphere,” Truschke warns going on to point out – with, one imagines, a bit of her tongue in cheek – that India’s social media historians have no training in reading premodern Persian.

In the interest of readability, Truschke’s book even does away with footnotes, preferring to include 24 pages of notes for the more intrepid reader.

Aurangzeb isn’t Truschke’s only foray into shaping debate around Mughal India. She has a regular presence on social media, where she patiently rebuts the trolls, making her somewhat of a hate figure for India’s Hindutva wing on social media.

Between her book and her social media presence, Truschke’s model of engagement is something that other academics and, especially, historians would do well to emulate. There’s too much going on in the world to be cooped up in an ivory tower. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, professors, and wade into the muck.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, Audrey Truschke, Viking, Penguin Random House India.

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