By Romila Thapar
May 17, 2019
Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization, celebrating 50 years of its existence at a public meeting in Kolkata, India in 2014.
The election of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or the B.J.P., in 2014 led to renewed efforts to rewrite Indian history so as to legitimize Hindu nationalist ideology. These efforts had begun when the B.J.P. first governed India between 1999 and 2004.
Under Mr. Modi’s government and various state governments run by his party, the attempts to change history have taken many more forms, such as deleting chapters or passages from public school textbooks that contradicted their ideology, while adding their own make-believe versions of the past.
They have peddled myths and stereotypes through pliant media networks — and have been teaching these versions as history in schools run by the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh, the parent body of Mr. Modi’s party, which he served as an outreach worker and organizer for numerous years.
Why Is History So Important To The Hindu Nationalists?
Nationalists are known to construct an acceptable history to identify those they claim constitute the nation; extreme nationalists require their own particular version of the past to legitimize their actions in the present. Rewriting Indian history and teaching their version of it is crucial to justifying the ideology of Hindu nationalists.
Secular anti-colonial nationalism, a primary organization of which was the Indian National Congress led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, won independence for India by basing itself on the equal and inclusive participation of all citizens as constituents of the nation.
This approach was challenged in the 1920s by two specific and at that time relatively minor forms of nationalism: the Muslim League, a party established by Muslim landowners and the educated middle class, which claimed to represent Muslim nationalism; and the Hindu Mahasabha, created by upper-caste, middle-class Hindus, which asserted that it represented Hindu nationalism. It later morphed into the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh, also known as the R.S.S.
The Muslim League spearheaded the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The R.S.S. and its affiliates are still waiting to convert India from a secular democracy into a Hindu religious state. Their ideology, which attempts to legitimize the politics of Hindu majoritarianism, goes by the name of Hindutva (Hindu-ness).
Both Muslim and Hindu nationalisms were rooted in Britain’s colonial understanding of India. Policymakers endorsed the two-nation theory proposed by James Mill, author of the influential “The History of British India,” published in 1817. He maintained that there have always been two separate nations in India — the Hindu and the Muslim — constantly in conflict.
Linked to this idea was Mr. Mill’s division of Indian history into three periods — Hindu, Muslim and British. Both these theories, initially accepted by Indians, were later questioned by historians and discarded half a century ago. However, they remain the bedrock of Hindutva.
To establish a Hindu state, democracy has to be replaced by a state where the fact of Hindus being in a majority in itself gives them priority. The Hindutva definition of the Hindu is that both his ancestral homeland and the Hindu religion’s place of origin are within the boundaries of British India. This makes the Hindu distinctly different from those that came from elsewhere, as well as from those of other religions — Christians, Muslims and Parsis are therefore aliens.
The origin of the Hindus is traced back to Aryan culture. Aryan identifies a language and a culture, not a biological race, whose emergence historians date to the second millennium B.C. But the Hindutva version of history is frantically pushing the date back to include the Indus civilization, a sophisticated urban civilization that preceded the Aryans by a millennium, as part of the Aryan origin of the Hindus.
The word is derived from “arya,” which means “those regarded with respect.” If the Hindus are of Aryan origin, therefore, they feel they can claim superiority over all others. This reflects not just the 19th century European obsession with Aryanism, but also the imprint of German and Italian Fascism of the 1930s on the founding members of the R.S.S., easily found in their writings.
Whereas historians are exploring the obvious interface between various communities and cultures of the second and first millenniums B.C., Hindutva ideologues insist on a single uniform culture of the Aryans, ancestral to the Hindu, as having prevailed in the subcontinent, subsuming all others.
Recent genetic evidence from archaeological sources has pointed to a mixture of populations in northern India at that time, with people of Iranian and Central Asian origin. Historians see this as evidence of migrations into India, but the idea is anathema to the Hindutva construction of early history.
To assert that the pre-Islamic period of Indian history was a golden age, claims are repeatedly made that this “Hindu period” from 1000 B.C. to 1200 A.D. was so scientifically advanced that Hindus were already using many modern scientific inventions, such as airplanes, plastic surgery and stem-cell research. These statements are applied to the activities of gods and men from the ancient past.
The other equally insistent Hindutva argument is that the Hindus were victimized by the Muslims and were slaves for the thousand years of Muslim rule. In demanding a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu state, they claim to be asserting their historical rights and avenging their victimization. The history of the “Muslim period,” the second millennium A.D., is seen solely from this perspective and remains a mechanism for fueling hatred.
Historians find no evidence for such sweeping generalizations, but their views are dismissed. There certainly were conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, just as there had been conflicts between Hindus and Buddhists in pre-Islamic times. Some powerful Muslims did attack Hindu temples, both to loot their riches and to direct aggression against the religion. But this again was known in pre-Islamic times when some Hindu kings looted and destroyed temples to acquire wealth. There was more than religious prejudice involved in such actions.
The claim to victimization is ironic given that the worst form of victimization — declaring the lower castes to be so polluted as to be untouchable — was practiced by upper-caste Hindus for 2,000 years, including through the period when they were supposedly being victimized.
It is striking that remarkable new ideas surfaced in Hinduism during the period of Muslim rule, such as those developed by its many devotional sects, which enriched the religion and gave it a form that is currently observed by some Hindu devotees. But these are treated as isolated incidents. Nor is there reference to some of the most exquisite religious poems in praise of Hindu gods that were composed by Muslim poets, and that continue to be sung in repertoires of classical music. That the higher administrative offices of this period were manned largely by Hindu upper castes is conveniently ignored.
In contemporary India the concerted attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister and a symbol of the anti-colonial movement who understood the centrality of secularism in Indian society, is a covert way of attacking secular democracy. The antipathy and the effort to diminish the achievements of Mr. Nehru also stem from the R.S.S. not being part of India’s anti-colonial struggle.
The most dangerous aspect of the implanting of the Hindutva version of history across Indian society is that the divide between professional history and the version of the past used to legitimize Hindu majoritarianism is increasing. The latter has the patronage of the government, is well financed, and is popularized in a variety of ways. Those critical of this Hindutva history are already being labelled anti-national in an attempt to subvert historical research.
Romila Thapar is a historian and the author of “The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History.”