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India: The War Over History

History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and Index of Errors

by Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal, and Aditya Mukherjee
Kolkata: Indian History Congress, 129 pp., 50 rupees


In India, and among the Indian diaspora, a passionately contested battle is taking place over the interpretation of Indian history. Debates about rival versions of Indian prehistory or the struggles among the religions of medieval South Asia—the sort of arguments that anywhere else would be heard at scholarly conferences—have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots. Parallel with this there has been a concerted attempt by politicians of the Hindu far right to rewrite the history textbooks used in Indian schools and to bring historians and the writing of history under their direct control.1

On January 5, 2004, an incident at one of India’s leading centers of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town of Pune, southeast of Bombay, demonstrated how serious things had become. Just after 10 AM, as the staff were opening up the library, a cavalcade of more than twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around two hundred Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the telephone lines. Then they began to tear the place apart.

The militants overturned the library shelves, and for the next few hours they kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging an estimated 18,000 volumes before the police arrived. More seriously still, they severely damaged a first-century manuscript of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, as well as a set of palm leaf inscriptions, some important relics from the prehistoric site of Mohenjodaro, and a very early copy of the Rig Veda—the world’s oldest sacred text—once used by the great German scholar Max Mueller.

The cause of this violence was a brief mention of the institute in the acknowledgments of a short scholarly book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota. The book, which had been praised by scholars when it appeared in the spring of 2003, was a study of Shivaji Bhonsle (1627–1680), the Hindu guerrilla leader from western India who successfully challenged the Mughal Empire and eventually had himself crowned as Chatrapati (“Lord of the Umbrella”) of an independent Maratha state. Shivaji is now regarded as a near-divine figure by many Hindu nationalists. He is also the particular folk hero of Maharashtra, the region around Pune and Bombay, whose airport, station, and museum have all been renamed in his honor.

In his book, Laine wrote that Shivaji’s parents “lived apart for most if not all of Shivaji’s life,” adding that “Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father.” This was interpreted as a suggestion by Laine that Shivaji was illegitimate; after a horrified review was published in a Marathi weekly magazine, a series of protests began. In October an elderly Sanskrit scholar whom Laine had thanked in his acknowledgments was beaten up and had his face smeared with tar. To forestall further violence, in November the book was withdrawn from the Indian market by Oxford University Press, and an apology for causing offense was issued by the author.

The Indian newsmagazine Outlook ran its story of the attack on the institute across two pages under the banner headline “A Taste of Bamiyan,” and most of the leading Indian papers carried editorials attacking what one referred to as the “Talibanization” of India. “We cannot have the mob write our history for us,” said Indian Express.

Unluckily for Professor Laine, the attack took place in the months leading up to India’s general election and the book soon became an election issue. The militants who carried out the attack held public meetings announcing that they wanted every Indian named in the book’s acknowledgments to be arrested, questioned, and tried. Opening his campaign in Maharashtra, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, issued a “warning to all foreign authors that they must not play with our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign author [Laine] in case the state government fails to do so.”

Leaders of the normally moderate Congress Party, which was in power in Maharashtra, not wishing to be outflanked on the issue, took an even harder line, and announced that they had instructed the CBI (the Indian equivalent of the FBI) “to arrest Laine through Interpol,” adding: “Do you think the government will tolerate insults to national figures like Shivaji?”

Yet in the land of Mahatma Gandhi and the tradition of nonviolence, this was not the only case in which an obscure scholarly work on Indian history and religion has produced violent responses from India’s Hindu nationalists. An increasing number of scholars both in India and abroad have found themselves the targets of hate campaigns from Hindu extremists and the “cybernationalists” of the Indian diaspora.

When an Indian edition of Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings2 by Paul Courtright, professor of religion at Emory University, was published in 2003, its cover—which Courtright had neither seen nor approved—showed a nude image of the elephant-headed god. Courtright promptly found himself the target of an e-mail petition that was signed by seven thousand people in one week as well as sixty threats of violence. One person wrote that the professor should be burned, another suggested that hanging might be more appropriate, and a third wrote that he would like to “kill the bastard…shoot him in the head.” As with the Shivaji book, Ganesha was promptly withdrawn by its Indian publisher and an apology issued.

In November 2003, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I was acting as moderator of a lecture on the great Hindu epic the Ramayana given by the celebrated Sanskrit scholar Professor Wendy Doniger, who was once Courtright’s teacher. Midway through the lecture, a man stood up, walked threateningly toward the podium, and threw an egg at Doniger, which narrowly missed her. During the questions that followed the lecture, Doniger faced a barrage of insults from a group who had come with the egg-thrower, and who maintained that as a non-Hindu she was unqualified to comment on their religion. Other lectures on India have since been broken up in similar circumstances. Within India, mobs mobilized by the Hindu right have occasionally attacked art exhibitions, libraries, publishers, and movie houses for their alleged unpatriotic and anti-Hindu bias; but for the first time the campaign now seemed to be spreading onto campuses worldwide.

Nor is it just foreign scholars who have been targeted. The historian D.N. Jha, who wrote The Myth of the Holy Cow, which pointed out the considerable historical and archaeological evidence that beef was routinely eaten during the Vedic period in the first millennium BC, received many death threats; his book was withdrawn in India. “This is terrorism,” he told the press after he heard about the plan to arrest Laine. “The entire community of scholars and liberals have to fight it together. People have been frightened into silence—and politicians seem to encourage it.” Romila Thapar, the most celebrated historian of early India, who has also received death threats for her historical work, was equally incensed: “The scope for a dispassionate look at history and scholarship is growing less in the country,” she said. “It is frightening.”


The roots of the current conflict can be traced back to two rival conceptions of Indian history that began to diverge in the 1930s, during the struggle for freedom from the British Raj. While the Indian Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, tended to emphasize national unity and sought to minimize historical differences between Hindus and Muslims in order to form a united front against the British, a rather different line was taken by India’s more extreme Hindu nationalists. Some of these formed a neofascist paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the Association of National Volunteers.

Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still sponsors daily parades in khaki uniforms and requires militaristic salutes; in fact, the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest. The RSS aims to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what it sees as the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party which ruled India from 1999 until last May, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organizations. The BJP is certainly much more moderate than the RSS—like the Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party which embraces a wide spectrum of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers to raving ultra-nationalists. But both organizations believe, as the centerpiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

Madhav Golwalkar, the early RSS leader still known simply as “the Guru,” was the man who first formulated what later became the official RSS/BJP position on Indian history. He broke with conventional Indian views and the consensus of scholars in two ways. One was in his understanding of Indian prehistory. Most archaeologists, then as now, took the view that India had been settled during the second millennium BC by a group of peoples who spoke Indo-European—or Aryan—languages, and who arrived in India in an eastward migration from Iran.3 Golwalkar disagreed. He believed that the Aryan ancestors of the Hindus were indigenous to India—in contrast to India’s Muslims, who invaded India and still looked to Mecca as the center of their faith.4 As he wrote in We, or Our Nationhood Defined: “The Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always, from times immemorial.”5

Golwalkar also diverged from the usual Indian consensus about India’s successive medieval Muslim conquerors. The invasion of Hindu and Buddhist India by Central Asian Muslim Turks and Mughals between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries tended to be seen by historians associated with the British Raj essentially as a long sequence of pillage, in clear contrast, so the British liked to imagine, to the law and order that the British colonizing mission allegedly brought to India in the nineteenth century. In reaction to this British view, the Congress Party tended to emphasize that Hindus and Muslims were one people, ethnically indistinguishable from each other, whose culture had come to fuse over centuries of coexistence; any differences between the two were said to be the result of colonial policies of divide and rule. Golwalkar took a different line. The real enemy according to him was Islam: “Ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindusthan, right up to the present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting to shake off the despoilers.”

  1. 1

    An excellent essay by Sumit Sarkar, “Hindutva and History,” examines exactly why control over the writing of history is so central to Hindu nationalism. See Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History.

  2. 2

    Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1985. The book sees Oedipal overtones in the story of Ganesha’s fight with his father Lord Shiva, when Shiva beheads his son who refuses to let him see Ganesha’s bathing mother, Parvati. Courtright also speculates about the possible phallic symbolism of Ganesha’s trunk. This application of Freudian psychology to Hindu mythology is strongly resented by some practicing Hindus who see it as both culturally inappropriate and blasphemous.

  3. 3

    In the 1930s scholars such as Sir Mortimer Wheeler envisaged the invasion of India by chariot-borne “Aryan” tribes sweeping through the passes of the Hindu Kush. Modern scholars instead envisage a slow seepage of pastoralists speaking Indo-Aryan languages and believe that there was no such people as “the Aryans,” just tribes of ethnically diverse speakers of several related languages who migrated to India from the Levant, where the earliest inscriptions in these tongues can be found in northern Syria.

  4. 4

    Ideas which the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul developed in his most recent nonfiction book on Islam, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Random House, 1998). Naipaul’s views on Indian Muslim history have contained many parallels with those of Golwalkar.

  5. 5

    Nagpur: Bharat Publications, 1939, p. 37.

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