A petition, circulated by a group called Hindu on Campus, is calling for Dr. Audrey Truschke to no longer teach South Asian studies at Rutgers University-Newark.
The university came out in support of her scholarship.
The petition argues that Truschke, a professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, characterized Hindu texts and deities as violent and misogynistic and “leveraged white privilege to portray POC [People of Color] as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbaric’ to reinforce colonial stereotypes.” It also takes issue with her work on the history of Indo-Muslim rule, which asserts that Muslim rulers, like Mughal King Aurangzeb, did not target Hindus for systemic violence, counter to the popular narrative in India today.
An accompanying open letter was sent to Rutgers University President Dr. Jonathan Holloway, Chancellor Dr. Nancy Cantor and Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch, the senior vice president for equity.
In the aftermath, Truschke has received violent threats to herself and her family on social media from Hindu nationalists, from within and outside of the United States. She tweeted that she blocked “5,750 blocked accounts and counting.”
Rutgers University and the South Asian studies program both released statements in Truschke’s defense:
“Scholarship is sometimes controversial, perhaps especially when it is at the interface of history and religion, but the freedom to pursue such scholarship, as Professor Truschke does rigorously, is at the heart of the academic enterprise,” Branch, Cantor and Arts and Sciences Dean Dr. Jacquie Mattis wrote in a statement.
University leaders also said they were “initiating dialogues to understand the sentiments of our Hindu community.”
In an email to Diverse, Maanya Tandon, a junior at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus, said she’s never taken a class with Truschke but has read her work and finds it “deeply offensive.” She said she signed the petition because she worries that college courses are often students’ first exposure to learning about minority faiths, and she feels hers will be misrepresented.
“Academic freedom is important, but if a professor’s teachings could cause harm to a minority group, then the institution has a responsibility to protect those students,” Tandon said. “… To learn that Rutgers is going to continue to support Professor Truschke and let her spread her prejudice to the students she teaches is deeply disturbing to me, and makes me feel unsafe at my own university.”
Truschke said she’s taught hundreds of Hindu students over the years and has never received a complaint from someone who took her courses. She said that the petition and accompanying social media uproar has brought her “sadness.”
She sees what’s happening as a part of a wider trend since the rise of Hindutva, a right-wing Hindu nationalism espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modhi belongs. It used to be a “fringe” ideology, she said, but its proponents have frequently targeted both foreign and Indian scholars in recent years, a trend she thinks is “accelerating.”
“Hindu nationalism rests many of their modern, political claims on a fabricated past,” she said. “Their vision of the past is largely fabricated, it’s largely mythology, it’s largely untrue. That makes academics, perhaps especially historians … it kind of puts us on the front lines.”
Dr. Johan Mathew, director of Rutgers’ South Asian studies program, agreed that the reaction to Trusckhe’s scholarship seems to be a part of a “broad backlash against scholars in the field,” citing examples like University of Chicago Professor Emerita Dr. Wendy Doniger, Columbia University Professor Dr. Sheldon Pollock and Indian historian Dr. Romila Thapar, who’s work has been censured in India.
“The challenge arises when people only tangentially involved in the university try to mine people’s statements for political gain,” he said.
He sees it as “vital” to “acknowledge and honor the fears and concerns of Hindu students,” as well as all religious minority students, and ensure they feel safe. At the same time, “we try to teach our students that critically engaging with religious texts or political ideologies is a vital part of the process of learning and scholarship,” he said, and the classroom is a “fantastic space” for that, as opposed to social media, which is “terrible at fostering real learning and real conversations.”
To Truschke, there should be no conflict between creating an inclusive environment for religious minorities and protecting academic freedom, including for scholars studying communities to which they don’t belong.
“The humanities teach us to think critically but they also teach us to think with empathy and with respect,” she said. “I make no attempt to hide that I talk about religions and traditions and people of in-groups of which I’m not a member. I talk about that all the time. The study of history isn’t in your blood it’s in your training … At the end of the day, my claims are limited to the realm of history. I never tell students what Hinduism is or is not. I certainly never tell them what it should or should not be.”
She feels like the social media outcry misrepresents her respect for the field.
“The attacks on me are worded, especially online, in such a personal way,” she said. “…[But] none of the attackers know me. If they were actually in my classes, they would know I talk with great admiration about Hindu religious texts. They would know that I’m honestly completely smitten with aspects of Indian history … They would know, above all, my deep and abiding fascination in studying and communicating and exploring all aspects of South Asian history and present-day society.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Dr. Audrey Truschke is a professor of history, not an associate professor of South Asian studies, as the article originally stated.