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Hindutva’s Dangerous Rewriting of History as a Means of Advancing Modern Political Goals of the BJP

Hindutva’s Dangerous Rewriting of History as a Means of Advancing Modern Political Goals of the BJP

  • Hindu nationalists are heavily invested in rewriting Indian history to advance their modern and unrepentantly hateful political agenda. Hindu nationalism or Hindutva is a political ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, specifically over Muslims who comprise around fourteen percent of modern India’s population.

These are excerpts from an essay published in South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

In January 2019, the Indian Science Congress convened for its 106th annual meeting, which turned out to feature not science so much as science fiction. Presenters told attendees that ancient Indians were proficient in stem cell technology and built aircrafts, among other fantasies. This was hardly the first time this forum had suffered from such antics. The 2015 Indian Science Congress meeting included a presentation on how ancient Indians had planes capable of interplanetary travel. Claims abound more broadly among Hindutva supporters about ancient India boasting everything from the internet to modern medicine. 

Hindu nationalism or Hindutva—a fascist ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, especially over Muslims—champions an outlandish vision of how scientific modernity flourished in early India; this is part of a larger agenda to rewrite the Indian past to serve present-day political interests. The overarching aim of Hindutva is to transform India from a secular into an ethno-nationalist state, dubbed the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). Hindutva ideologues chart their path to this fascist future, in part, by making a series of wrong assertions about the past. Hindutva has a fact problem in that the vast majority of their claims about premodern India are incorrect. But their falsehoods about history—many of which center around an imagined Hindu golden age of scientific progress interrupted by Muslim invaders who sought to crush Hindu culture and peoples—serve clear political goals of projecting a modern Hindutva identity as an ancient bulwark of Indian culture and maligning Muslims as the ultimate Other. …Hindutva ahistoricity has accelerated since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over India’s central government in 2014. The championing of Hindutva myths about the past has also expanded out from social media and political environments into academic circles. Hindu nationalists have become more brazen in introducing ahistorical claims into school textbooks. They have targeted traditionally academic spaces, a prime example being the Indian Science Congress, discussed above. …As Hindutva ideology exerts increasing influence, it becomes more pressing for academics to document, and analyze harmful Hindutva approaches to remolding Indian history and distinguish these political uses of the past from academic approaches to history.

Denying Change Over Time

There is more than a touch of irony in the investment of many modern-day Hindu nationalists in the past, given that they often deny their own movement’s unsavory history. Early Hindutva ideologues were inspired by fascist movements in early twentieth-century Europe. A key early Hindutva thinker, V.D. Savarkar, spoke of India as the Fatherland and also shared with Nazis a concern with the purity of bloodlines. Savarkar and others found Hitler’s treatment of the Jews a useful model for how to deal with India’s Muslim minority. For instance, M.S. Golwalkar, second leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the largest Hindu nationalist organization), wrote that Germany’s “purging the country of the Semitic Race—the Jews” was “a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”The RSS, which serves as the chief organizer for a range of Hindu nationalist groups and shapes BJP policy, was founded as and remains today a paramilitary organization. The RSS’s most well-known contribution to Indian history is that one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

Hindutva ideologues also care about the past because they think it can provide them with a rich heritage that informs what it means to be Hindu today. [Historians] part ways with Hindutva ideologues on several scores. First, whereas historians strive for accuracy and to understand the past on its own terms, followers of Hindutva forefront their modern identity and seek to invent a past that justifies it. In terms of specifics, Hindutva followers conceive of Hindu identity as having little to do with faith Rather, in Hindutva thought, Hindu-ness (the literal meaning of Hindutva) is a sort of martial machismo rooted in a shared cultural background that stretches back to time immemorial. Historians study change over time, whereas Hindutva ideologues deny that such change exists, vis-à-vis Hindu identity in particular. Hindutva thinkers reject cultural change as a desirable process, and so they find political value in the originally Orientalist proposition that India and Indians (for them, Hindus) possess a timeless, changeless essence.

The Oxymoron of Hindutva History

For Hindutva followers, one critical aspect of what it means to be “Hindu,” in the peculiar way that they define that term, is to be indigenous to India …. if one goes back far enough, no group is originally from India. The first humans likely migrated, at the earliest, around 120,000 years ago as homo sapiens spread beyond Africa. A later migration to the subcontinent—which Hindutva followers judge as especially damning to their ideology—occurred about 4,000 to 3,500 years ago, when a pastoralist group arrived in the northwestern part of the subcontinent. These people probably came from Central Asia, called themselves Aryans, and revered the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit texts. This event, known today as the Aryan migration, is backed by nearly ironclad linguistic evidence and further buttressed by recent genetic research But, for Hindutva thinkers, the Aryan Migration Theory threatens to overthrow their entire worldview because it means, to them, that Hindus are not indigenous to India. 

In an attempt to navigate around the formidable roadblocks of linguistic, genetic, and material evidence for early migrations to India, especially by the Aryans, Hindu nationalists resort to specious arguments and fraud. Hindutva thinkers propagate an Out of India theory, which stipulates that Sanskrit-speaking Aryans originated in India and from there traveled to the rest of the world. As Tony Joseph has pointed out, the Out of India theory lacks support from even “a single, peer-reviewed scientific paper” and is best considered nothing “more than a kind of clever and angry retort.” …Hindutva ideologues want Hindus alone to be indigenous to India so that this one social group can define what it means to be Indian and can exclude others from this category. They exclude as non-Indian many groups who have long been part of life and society on the subcontinent, above all Muslims. In Hindutva history premodern India had two major phases: a glorious Hindu golden age followed by an era of Muslim oppression of Hindus. When describing the latter, Hindu nationalists like Narendra Modi speak of “1,200 years of slavery”. Indo-Muslim rulers were no more or less violent, as a broad group, than Hindu rulers, and they generally targeted political enemies, not broad religious groups. But, as Supriya Gandhi explains in a recent article “Hindu nationalism centers around grievance and the desire to correct—or avenge — past wrongs.” In historical terms, the list of grievances brandished by Hindu nationalists dates back primarily to the British colonial period (1757–1947). Hindutva advocates have little to say about British colonialism, a brutal period of Indian history, because doing so does not serve their political purposes today. Hindutva’s early ideologues were sometimes British sympathizers, and overall, Hindu nationalists sat out India’s struggle for independence.  

While giving the British a pass, Hindu nationalists blame seemingly all wrongs in Indian history on Muslims. Hindu nationalists rarely distinguish between groups of Muslims, whether past versus present, or those with political power versus those without. Since Hindutva ideology seeks Hindu supremacy, the enemy that serves as their foil must be constructed as equally flat and politically homogenous in its identity. Hindu nationalists avenge their imagined grievances through very real oppression of present-day Indian Muslims, who have been the victims of increasing government-led and extrajudicial violence since 2014

According to Hindutva ideologues, before Muslim baddies showed up on the subcontinent, India was a paradise of scientific progress. Hindu nationalists seem to feel deep anxiety about the truism that ancient India was not the modern West. Historians escape the clutches of such inappropriate views by naming, analyzing, and ultimately replacing them. But that avenue of critical thought is not open to Hindu nationalists, who are invested in both denying historical change and avoiding their own ideology’s history. One result is that Hindu nationalists are still shackled by Orientalist shame, which lurks just beneath the surface when they seek to co-opt scientific discoveries made in the modern West—such as airplanes and genetic therapy—as the work of their own ancestors.

Hindu nationalists also sometimes claim that premodern Indian practices are superior to anything in the West, either in the past or the present. Positioning ancient Indian practices as superlative to all others in the world has some eye-catching outcomes. For instance, in March 2020, days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha organized a party at which attendees consumed cow urine as preventative medicine against the virus. Cow urine (gaumutra) is a recurrent cure in Hindu nationalist lore for all manner of health problems—including cancer, thyroid issues, and infections. The coronavirus gaumutra was part of a larger recent push towards “traditional” medicine, endorsed by the BJP, that predates the coronavirus pandemic. The Modi government has devoted significant resources to AYUSH (Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy), a government ministry of homeopathy with a troubling history of undercutting scientifically-backed cures. In this course of action, then, there is clear harm on a systemic level to medical care in modern India.

Hindutva thinkers mine the past for symbols at times, with a prime example being their curious attachment to Sanskrit as an affective cultural marker coupled with disinterest in reading premodern Sanskrit texts. Sanskrit is the premier literary and intellectual language of premodern India; it also serves ritual functions in Hinduism. Savarkar viewed Sanskrit as part of the cultural glue that could bind together all Hindus dubbing it “a common inheritance” and “a common treasure” (p. 35). It did not appear to bother Savarkar that very few modern people know Sanskrit, aside from ritual specialists and scholars. More recently, the BJP has devoted state resources to Sanskrit education in primary and secondary schools in India, but even then, their goal does not appear to be actually teaching students Sanskrit). In fact, Hindutva ideologues frequently become irate when people try to read premodern Sanskrit works…Rejecting Sanskrit as a medium for a wide range of premodern texts, Hindu nationalists instead seek to instill an emotion-soaked reverence for Sanskrit as a focal point of modern Hindutva.

Despite Hindutva’s non-religious background, its twenty-first century development has leaned decisively towards a divine figure: Ram. Ram (also spelled Rama) is a character in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, where he is depicted as a just king and an incarnation of Vishnu. Many Hindus around the world consider themselves devotees of Lord Ram today. But, the Hindutva Ram is different; he is a rallying cry for right-wing Hindus to express an identity as a strong, martial race. The Hindutva Ram who is featured on posters even looks markedly different, notably far more aggressive as compared to standard religious depictions of Ram. In August 2020, the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups celebrated breaking ground for a new temple to the Hindutva Ram, known popularly as Ram Mandir, in Ayodhya. 

Ayodhya already has many Ram temples, but this new one is special because it sits on what has been claimed to be Ram’s birthplace since the mid-nineteenth century, a period of time when British colonial policies and attitudes were stoking Hindu-Muslim conflict. Crucially, the temple is being built atop the remains of a premodern Indian mosque that was torn down—illegally—by a Hindu mob in 1992. That event sparked violence across northern India in which a few thousand people were killed, mainly Muslims. The new Ram Mandir in Ayodhya celebrates this violent exercise of Hindu supremacy. Appropriately, Narendra Modi showed up for the Ram Mandir groundbreaking ceremony appearing as an incarnation of a martial Ram, complete with a crown. In the kaleidoscope of ways in which Hindu nationalists imagine the past, they rarely glimpse actual Indian history. They consider Indian history and, by extension, historians, to be threats that might unravel their elaborate tapestry of propaganda. 

Hindutva Tactics

What Hindutva ideologues lack in historical grounding, they compensate for in hateful and sometimes inchoate screaming, both literal and metaphorical. Hindutva followers often self-identify as an “army” or, to use other martial terms, are ruthless against those they perceive as enemies. They disseminate bad-faith ideas and perpetrate odious attacks in many venues, including WhatsApp, propaganda websites, email chains, and so forth. The most visible arena that Hindu nationalists treat as a battleground is social media, where they smear, dox, and threaten people with great regularity.  As someone who has been the target of a coordinated Hindu Right attack, it is both unmistakable and distressing. For many scholars, the fear that this might one day happen to them provides enough incentive to keep their historical arguments squarely within academic publications, which few people read.

See Also

In India, ad hominem attacks are coupled with threats to personal safety from both the police and Hindu Right mobs, two groups that increasingly work together in Modi’s India. For scholars abroad, the Indian state holds the ability to bar travel to India using a variety of mechanisms. For both, the threat of lawsuits in India encourages self-censorship of published work.

Hindu nationalists seek to displace scholarly knowledge and scholars by undermining academic institutions. JNU in Delhi has been a notable target. For example, in 2017 the Modi government slashed funding for JNU students pursuing PhDs, cutting down the number of seats by more than eighty percent. Since then, BJP allies have taken further aggressive steps, including decimating the library budget, attempting to prevent archival research, and, in January 2020, facilitating a violent attack on students led by a right-wing mob. 

Hindu nationalists have also turned their attention to broader perceptions of history in primary and secondary school textbooks, in India and in the United States. In discrete textbook controversies, Hindutva ideologues have sought to hide or eliminate altogether aspects of Hindu traditions over time that they find distasteful, most notably the caste system and practices of untouchability. In India they have sought to erase Muslim figures (like Akbar) and leaders of secular independent India (like Nehru) from textbooks, replacing them with historical individuals they imagine (falsely) to have been seeking to establish a Hindu Rashtra in premodernity, like Shivaji. In an embrace of Hindutva’s own roots, some Indian textbooks openly praise Hitler and Mussolini. .

Hindutva ideologues cannot change what actually happened in the Indian past, but they can control what people know about it, especially within India. Currently, the price of doing historical work is far too high for many academics. In short, Hindu nationalists have succeeded in constricting discourse about the Indian past.

Conclusion

Historians have limited options about how to proceed given the current Indian political environment where Hindutva dominates, none of which are appealing. We can stay the course and do our jobs, trying to reconstruct and understand the past on its own terms, but then some of us will be publicly smeared, have our safety threatened, be unable to travel to India, face punitive lawsuits, and potentially far worse. Any debate with Hindutva ideologues features sophistry more than substance, and the ethics of historians prevent us from copying their dishonesty and bellicose demeanor. But, if we bow to political pressure and do not continue the pursuit of history or do so only within the ivory tower, then we cede entirely the realm of public-facing historical work and fail to help people understand the perverse nature of Hindutva approaches to the past. That is too high of a price to pay for some of us. 


Audrey Truschke is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of “Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King.”

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