12 July 2021

The Indologist Audrey Truschke

I always come across interesting articles in Scroll.in - perhaps I should support the journal. On Saturday I read a series of articles about the indologist, self-described activist and anti-fascist Audrey Truschke. She is also a Sanskritist and a Persianist. Besides reading the articles I listened to a long interview on YouTube.

I wish I were a more serious person - like Audrey - and would read books instead of articles, but I will have to accept how I am. In reading and listening to her, I was trying to get a sense of the woman and what she stands up for. She has elicited a lot of attention because of her position on hindutva - she recently helped to write a "Hindutva Harassment Field Manual", which is intended to defend American academics from attacks by Indian right wing students, who attempt to frame the writings of academics they don't like as a general attack on their religion. In India, it's much easier to stifle freedom of speech in academic writings under the law.

The whole controversy reminded me of the way Jewish right-wing students in the US and other places manage to wage war on voices critical of Israel using the claim of anti-semitism. The analogy is not exact, but the issue and the passions are similar. Wherever ethno-nationalism rears its ugly head, there are bound to be problems. You cannot talk to its proponents in any reasonable voice. They see the world from a black-and-white, us-against-them perspective, whereas their opponents tend to see everything as much more nuanced and equivocal. So one can only really converse with people who are similar - which means speaking with more reasonable people in the mainstream. Unfortunately, also there, everyone tends to be reasonable on all issues except that one. That's what I see with many Jewish-Israelis (or Palestinians, for that matter). Perspectives that are based on emotions create sometimes impenentrable blindfolds. Light gets in only from the sides, or through the cracks as Leonard Cohen would say.

If I were an American academic interested in medieval Sanskrit texts, I would avoid picking a fight with hindutva activists on social media. I haven't read the field manual, but I do know that you cannot argue with people blinded by passions. And I am completely outgunned in that battle. Why would I want to engage with thousands of screaming fanatics sending death threats and abuse? From the perspective of a researcher on past periods, whatever is happening in modern India is extraneous to the scope of my research. Ethno-nationalism of the kind we see today, was born in a more recent period, and addresses more recent needs.

One can take the example of the indologist David Shulman. At home, he is an activist, a vocal criticism of ethno-nationalism in the Israeli context, an anti-fascist. But he is quiet with regard to India. He stays out of Indian politics. It's a question of choosing which battles to fight.

There is, certainly, the question of book banning - books such as Hinduism, an Alternative History Wendy Doniger have been banned in India, and other authors, like Truschke, have to make changes before they will appear there. But so what? Again, it's an Indian issue. No books can really be banned today. They can be made freely available online. Doniger herself says:

The flak about that book made it much more popular; thousands of people who had never heard of the book got hold of a copy and read it. In that way, Batra (The petitioner who made Penguin India take the book off the shelves) did me a great favour. I was then invited to write about the crisis in Indian publishing in more popular public newspapers and journals that I had not written for earlier.

Finally, what academics provide, in their research on ancient periods, by translation of old texts, by shedding light on the society, thinking, values and concerns of earlier periods, adds layers of richness to the cultural history and identity of their modern forebears. Once it is out there, it can help to undermine simplistic notions of that same culture that are the hallmark of ethno-nationalists. Especially in the case of foreigners, with no natural side in the politics of modern India, their research appears to come from an impartial source. Whereas as soon as foreign researchers themselves become involved in Indian politics, it will appear that they too have an axe to grind.

Historian Audrey Truschke explains why she helped write a ‘Hindutva Harassment Field Manual’ - Scroll

Interview: Audrey Truschke on Sanskrit histories of the Mughal era and Hindutva trolls - Scroll

Hindutva Harassment Field Manual - Scroll

Interview: Manan Asif Ahmed on the ‘loss of Hindustan’ and how colonialism altered our past - Scroll

The curious case of Audrey Truschke - Vikram Zutshi, The Hindu

The main problem with Truschke’s work lies not in its elisions and omissions but the implications it has for the entire body of Western scholarship on India. A number of renowned academics writing about pre-modern India have come under attack by nativists and political actors for not toeing the Hindutva line. Irresponsible and non-reflexive scholarship only reinforces right-wing prejudices about Western Indology.

Audrey Truschke and the Blitzkrieg from the Hindu Right

The writer Vikram Zutshi has also been a critic of Truschke, in ways that overlap with the smear campaign. In a recent opinion piece in The Hindu, he made a facile attempt to degrade her peer-reviewed scholarship. His social media comments a few days earlier, however, show this attempt to be in bad faith: He made inflammatory allegations, not against her, but against her unnamed students. We will not repeat those unsubstantiated claims here, but we will note that they lack evidence.

Further, Zutshi launches a broadside against India scholars: “White scholars with ambitions of being the ‘voice’ for India in the West would be well advised to cultivate a sense of humility and a genuine desire to learn.”

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

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

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

Death of activist Stan Swamy

Fr. Stan tirelessly fought for jal, jungle and zameen - The Hindu

I speak as a writer who is in mourning. Fr. Stan Swamy did not die, he was killed. He was killed because he spent his life working for the poor and the deprived. Today, the jails are filled with those who dared to fight for human rights. We are living in an endless state of mourning for the dead who are deliberately killed. The spirit of Fr. Stan lives on and the love and compassion that inspired him, will inspire us.

Linux vs Windows

A Sombre Goodbye To Linux - Kev Quirk
Kev Quirk runs Fosstodon, the Mastodon instance that I use.
He says:

The TL;DR is that I became sick of the many little issues with Linux. I just want my OS to get out of the way so I can crack on and get shit done.

My biggest frustration with pretty much all of the distributions I had run was the sheer number of ways to install applications. I had some that were DEBs, others were Snaps, a couple of Flatpaks and an AppImage to finish it all off.

I agree with him there, as would many others. The Linux world is responsible for creating its divisions, though it is kind of natural in a free software environment to want to do so. As for me, wherever possible I use the Debian repositories. Actually, the quiet that he is seeking is the reason I originally turned away from Windows. In Linux I found a place where the operating system didn't bug me with commercial messages, such as bloatware and antivirus software that comes with the purchase of most computer. Even now, my wife is being hounded (haunted) by McAfee, on her new computer. But it's a personal use case. For the most part, Linux has what I need, and where tinkering is necessary, it's enjoyable, most of the time. It's about taking control and setting things up as I want it to. I never really felt at home in Windows, and I can't afford the fancy software like Adobe suites, that make it worthwhile to be there.

In many ways, things have improved in Windows, since the time that I made the switch. But in other ways, they have gotten worse - there are greater privacy and security issues now than there were twenty years back. Meanwhile, the Linux environment has improved so much too. I love my current distro, MX. I can do everything I need to do there. But certainly there are things that I could do better on Windows. I think I could make better videos for the office, and better graphic designs for our publications. But these are not functions that I need for myself.

Ursula von der Leyen says EU has reached Covid vaccine target - The Guardian