Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization, celebrating 50 years of its
existence at a public meeting in Kolkata, India in 2014.
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.
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.
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.
Is History So Important To The Hindu 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Romila Thapar is a historian and
the author of “The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through