History revisited

‘Some of the hate mail is chilling’: Historian Audrey Truschke on the backlash to her Aurangzeb book

The Mughal emperor is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present.

In 1700, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was arguably the richest, most powerful man in the world. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, over a vast empire in South Asia that boasted a population exceeding the entirety of contemporary Europe. Today, he has been forgotten in the West.

In modern-day India, however, Aurangzeb is alive in public debates, national politics, and people’s imaginations. From Mumbai to Delhi to Hyderabad, Indians debate his legacy and, overwhelmingly, condemn him as the cruelest king in Indian history. The list of charges against Aurangzeb is severe and, if they were all true, shocking. Aurangzeb, a Muslim, is widely thought to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. As I am reminded daily on Twitter, many Indians sincerely believe that Aurangzeb was Hitler and ISIS rolled into one with a single objective: To eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.

My narrative of Aurangzeb in Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King – based on extensive research and relying on primary source documents – does not match his current reputation. Accordingly, much of the response to Aurangzeb in India, published in February under the title Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth, has been fierce. I am the target of daily, sometimes hourly, hate speech on social media. I am regularly attacked on the basis of my gender, nationality, race, and perceived religion. I have even faced (so far, limited) calls to ban Aurangzeb and even to ban me from India.

In this blog post, I explore the roots of the controversy over Aurangzeb, my role therein as a historian, and the harsh realities of producing historical analysis in a world where many privilege politically expedient falsehoods.

 Aurangzeb in a Shaft of Light, from the St Petersburg Album, attributed to Hunhar, c. 1660. Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase: Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1996.1
Aurangzeb in a Shaft of Light, from the St Petersburg Album, attributed to Hunhar, c. 1660. Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase: Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1996.1

Aurangzeb as a lightning rod for controversy

Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present. Twenty-first-century India is plagued by religious-based conflict, especially between Hindus and Muslims, India’s religious majority and its largest religious minority, respectively. As the minority, Indian Muslim communities are in the weaker position. They are often demonised as anti-national, less Indian than Hindus, and tend to bear the brunt of religious-based clashes in terms of the loss of human life and livelihood.

Among the charges leveled against modern-day Indian Muslims are that they are literal and figurative descendants of people like Aurangzeb, who allegedly destroyed India and crushed Hindus. Such ideas rest heavy on VS Naipaul’s idea of a “wounded civilisation”, the theory that India was subjected to repeated defeats over the centuries, including by generations of Muslim conquerors that enfeebled the people and their land. The belief – shared by many in India – that Muslim invaders destroyed their culture, religion, and homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor is it based on accurate records of the past. But, for those who subscribe to this view, it is laden with real emotional investment. Many in India feel injured by the Indo-Muslim past, and their sentiments – often undergirded by modern anti-Muslim sentiments – drive the current controversy surrounding Aurangzeb.

Modern (historically inaccurate) propaganda about Indo-Muslim history.
Modern (historically inaccurate) propaganda about Indo-Muslim history.

A historian’s role in India’s culture wars

As a historian, I strive to accurately reconstruct and understand the past. This agenda puts me at odds with Aurangzeb’s modern detractors on several counts. For starters, I ask different questions. I want to understand Aurangzeb as a product and shaper of his times. Accordingly, I ask about historical causality instead of, say, whether Aurangzeb’s reign was good or bad according to modern, egalitarian, democratic norms. Moreover, I seek explanations for Aurangzeb’s behaviour grounded in the terms of his day, not ours.

Part of a historian’s job is to set the record straight, and here I enrage many. As I explore in my book some of the most serious charges against Aurangzeb have been exaggerated or misconstrued from the historical record. For instance, evidence suggests that he destroyed a few dozen Hindu temples at most (not thousands) and largely for political reasons. Moreover, he was wary of conversions, and relatively few Hindus adopted Islam in Aurangzeb’s empire. The small number of conversions is indicated, for example, by contemporary news bulletins that listed individual converts, often by name.

Aurangzeb warred a lot and so killed many. However, he attacked Hindus and Muslims alike (to the great chagrin of other Muslim polities in India) and did not try to exterminate Hindus. But many who condemn Aurangzeb cannot be convinced on such matters because they base their ideas on an ideology of India as a Hindu nation, in which Muslim rulers are inherently destructive and illegitimate, rather than on documented historical facts. I cannot convince those who espouse faith in a vision of the past that is not open to interrogation.

As a historian, I critically read premodern sources, and here I infuriate some people and confuse others. Many contemporary readers think that if somebody alive during Aurangzeb’s reign or shortly thereafter wrote that a particular event happened then it must be true. In reality, Mughal sources frequently present what we might now term “alternative facts”. For example, some Mughal texts brag about temple destructions, including temple destructions that were not carried out. Aurangzeb’s modern detractors cite such sources at face value because these narratives feed into their image of a bigoted, Islamist fanatic; they ignore sources – sometimes the same sources – that talk about Aurangzeb’s patronage to Hindu and Jain temples. In contrast, I read premodern sources holistically and in context, embracing Aurangzeb’s complexity and sifting state mythology from historical reality where possible.

I also analyse the modern politics of Aurangzeb. My biography of the king opens with the erasure of his name from a well-known road in Delhi in 2015. I argue that the narrative of Aurangzeb the Bigot, which crops up largely in polarising debates about Indian national identity, has more to do with modern politics than premodern history and is a byproduct and catalyst of growing intolerance in India.

The perils of publishing on premodern Indian history

India lacks the freedom of speech protections of the United States. The Indian government bans books, on both federal and state levels. In addition, in the last few decades, American scholars have been subjected to lawsuits on the basis of their academic work and vigilante campaigns of violence. A chief concern, legally, is section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises insults to religious feelings done with deliberate and malicious intent. As Wendy Doniger, a leading scholar of Hinduism, has pointed out, this law, in theory, criminalises even accurate statements about Indian history if such sentiments offend any religious community in India, a diverse country of over 1.3 billion people.

Both authors and publishers are rightly wary of running afoul of Indian laws, and so some Indian publishers perform legal reads of potentially controversial books such as Aurangzeb. The goal of a legal read, conducted by an Indian attorney, is to identify passages that could – in good or bad faith – be used as the basis for a costly lawsuit.

For Aurangzeb, the legal read flagged several passages concerning Shivaji, a military opponent of Aurangzeb who is lauded today, ahistorically, as a champion of Hinduism who fought against big bad Muslim despots. In accordance with legal advice, I censored parts of the Shivaji chapter in the Indian edition of Aurangzeb.

Beyond the legal restrictions on publishing in India, there is the hate mail. Most of the vitriolic messages and trolling are forgettable, but some of it is chilling. I still remember the first time somebody wished for my death on Twitter: The individual tweeted a picture of piled-up Holocaust victims at me along with the hope that another Hitler comes back and does the same to me. I am wearied, too, by the sexist language. I have been called a b***h, whore, and c**t more times than I can recall, because I dare to write on Aurangzeb, a 17th-century Indian king.

As unpleasant as personal insults can be, this abysmal level of discourse attests to how vital historians are today. One point on which I agree with my detractors is this: Aurangzeb matters in the modern world. My biography of India’s most despised king seeks to enliven the historical emperor – in all of his complexities and contradictions – and thereby enrich our grasp of the past and our ability to live in the present.

Audrey Truschke is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court and, most recently, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King.

This article first appeared on the Stanford University Press blog.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.