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.”

Golwalkar looked for inspiration to the Nazi thinkers of the 1930s. He believed an independent India should emulate Hitler’s treatment of religious minorities, which he thoroughly approved of: “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging of its Semitic Race, the Jews,” he wrote admiringly soon after Kristallnacht:

Race pride at its highest has been manifested there. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by…. The foreign races in Hindusthan [i.e., the Muslims] must adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture […and] may [only] stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing—not even citizen’s rights.

During Partition in 1947, the RSS was responsible for many horrifying atrocities against India’s Muslims, and it was a former RSS member, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for (in RSS eyes) “pandering” to the Muslims. In the aftermath of this murder, Nehru decided to deal with the threat he believed the Hindu Nationalists posed to the nation and denounced the RSS as a “private army…which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines.”6

Partly as a result of Nehru’s firm action, the Hindu nationalists were an insignificant political force during the first decades of Indian independence. With the RSS in disgrace, the triumphant Congress Party was able to disseminate its view of history without any interference. From the early 1960s, government-issued history textbooks accepted that the Hindus’ ancestors had come to India from West Asia and that they arrived as migrants. The textbooks also emphasized the creation in medieval India of a “composite culture.”7

The coming together of the great civilizations of the Middle East and South Asia under Muslim rule produced new hybrids in all spheres of life, and this was something that the textbooks concentrated on. In both Urdu and Hindi languages of great beauty mixed the Persian and Arabic words of the Muslim new incomers with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of northern India. In music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar. In architecture the monumental buildings of the Mughals—such as the Taj Mahal—reconciled the indigenous styles of the Hindus with the arch and dome of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either.

The Nehru-era school textbooks were the work of the greatest historians of their day, among them Professor Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma, who tended to come from the left-leaning elite. Their work emphasized that Islam was spread in India not by the sword—there is no evidence of forced mass conversions—but by the example of the mystical Muslim Sufis, the holy men of Islam, some of whose teachings fused with those of the Hindu devotional Bhakti movement. They also emphasized the religious tolerance of many of the Mughal emperors, especially Akbar (1542–1605), who patronized Hindu temples and visited Hindu holy men. The same was also true of his great-grandson, Dara Shukoh, who had the Gita translated into Persian and who wrote The Mingling of Two Oceans, a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasized the compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine revelations. Many other great Mughal writers showed similarly syncretic tendencies: Mirza Ghalib, a Muslim and the greatest of all Urdu poets, wrote praising the Hindu holy city Benares as the Mecca of India, saying that he sometimes wished that he could “renounce the faith, take the Hindu rosary in hand, and tie a sacred thread over my shoulder.”8

Such examples of tolerant collaboration were impressive. Yet they were only one aspect of a more complex picture. Large-scale desecration of Hindu monuments had undoubtedly taken place when Turkish warlords first swept into India in the twelfth century. Indeed several of the first Muslim sultans were energetic iconoclasts and made a point of building their mosques from the rubble of destroyed temples, in some of which you can still see the defaced sculptures of their Hindu predecessors. This iconoclasm continued intermittently as regional sultanates sprang up across India during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.9

In slightly overstating the case for Hindu–Muslim amity the Nehruvian textbooks gave the Hindu nationalists an opening as they began to gather strength during the 1970s. The first stirring against the existing orthodoxy was felt in the aftermath of India’s Emergency of 1975, during which elections were postponed and civil liberties were suspended. When the Congress Party was defeated in the elec-tion that followed, losing power for the first time since Independence, Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was replaced by Moraji Desai, who famously used to begin his day by drinking a glass filled with his own urine. The RSS found Desai’s government more receptive to their ideas than Congress had ever been, and Desai indicated that he was prepared to withdraw from circulation several history textbooks that the RSS objected to—though his government fell before it could do so.10

During the 1980s, the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of a dispute that focused attention on the destruction of a temple. The argument turned on whether Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483–1530), had built his mosque at Ayodhya over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram. Although there was no evidence to confirm either the existence of the temple or even the identification of the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organizations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple. Finally, during the 1992 rally, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped into a frenzy by BJP leaders and shouting “Death to the Muslims!” attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, as if they were symbols of India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy, and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.

Over the next month violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs, or knifed in the streets. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people, almost all of them Muslims, had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarized things had become in India that this violence apparently augmented the BJP’s appeal to the electorate. In 1992, the BJP won 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, they were finally able to take power.

The new BJP government moved quickly to take on India’s historical establishment, and lost no time removing left-leaning historians from positions of power. On November 31, 1999, less than three months after the election victory, Romila Thapar was blocked from reelection to the Indian Council for Historical Research, which sponsors the work of scholars. Soon afterward she and several colleagues were removed from the Prasar Bharati, a group charged with reviewing the historical content of what is broadcast on the state-run Indian radio and television. They were replaced by political appointees, nonhistorians from the ultra-nationalist far right, who also took over India’s major academic funding bodies. One of the appointees, K.S. Lal, was quoted as saying, “People who were labeled communalist are now in power. Now it’s our turn to write the history.”11

From the mid-1980s, BJP-ruled states had begun to issue, in regional languages, new textbooks that followed the party line on India’s history and generally demonized Muslim rulers. The RSS also issued “saffronized” textbooks (saffron being the holy color of Hinduism) for use in its own nationwide network of schools, the Shishu Mandirs.12 When the BJP came to power nationally, they extended this pattern across the country. In 2000, as an interim measure, numerous deletions were made from the existing history textbooks. A passage pointing out that cows were eaten in the Vedic period was, for example, removed from Thapar’s Ancient India without her permission. Any suggestion that medieval Indian civilization might have developed its extraordinary richness specifically because of its multiethnic, multireligious character was suppressed.

The following year the syllabus was modified and several million copies of a new set of history textbooks were distributed nationally. They were all written by right-wingers who were not known as serious historians. As Romila Thapar pointed out in the Hindustan Times, the fact that the BJP failed to recruit any reputable historians from within Indian universities showed that the confrontation was not “between Leftist and Rightist historians but between professional historians and politicians sympathetic to the Hindutva persuasion [Golwalkar’s term for Hindu nationalism].”13

Academic historians were horrified, and the organization representing them, the Indian History Congress, passed motions calling for the withdrawal of the textbooks. They also produced a booklet listing over one thousand errors, typos, and illiterate statements in the new books14 : a textbook on modern India, for example, omitted any mention of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, allegedly because of “space constraints.”15

Most controversial of all, however, was the medieval textbook by Meenakshi Jain. Her work was strongly criticized for depicting medieval South Asia as a paradise laid waste by barbarous Muslim invaders. Page after page is filled with atrocities as a succession of Hindu kingdoms engaged in “yet another glorious chapter of struggle” to resist the “Turkish yoke” before succumbing in a bloodbath of corpses and desecrated temples:

Everywhere [the Muslim ruler] ravaged temples, pillaged cities and collected untold wealth…. The defenseless residents fled to the temples for refuge. The city was taken, its temples destroyed and denuded of their treasures and great numbers of the fleeing inhabitants slain.16

While some of the massacres and desecrations described in the book undoubtedly did take place, others seem far-fetched. Just as the writers of the Old Testament thought it appropriate that their patriarchs should live for several hundred years, so medieval chroniclers tended to flatter the rulers for whom they wrote by exaggerating their potency in battle. Professor Narayani Gupta of Jamia Milia University in Delhi, who has vigorously campaigned against the new textbooks, told me:

Reading Jain’s work, you get the impression that there is one homogeneous group called Muslims who ride around India doing terrible things, looting, pillaging, and building piles of skulls, and another group called Hindus who suffer silently under the Muslim yoke. It’s totally unhistorical. The word “Hindu” was not used as a religious term until the nineteenth century, and in medieval sources there is no one term for Muslims. There are over thirty pages of temples being destroyed, and no sense at any point that Hindus and Muslims were living side by side, interacting on a daily basis, on every level. The book is deeply and distastefully anti-Muslim.

It is not just that the textbooks are historically invalid: in the aftermath of state-sponsored pogroms in Gujarat in April 2002, when over two thousand Muslims were hunted down and murdered, Indian historians fear that the propagation of such divisive myths can only lead to yet more violence; and they point out that it was in Gujarat that the state’s history textbooks were first rewritten.17 Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University has written that the new textbooks are so inaccurate that they represent nothing less than

declarations of war against academic history itself, against the craft of the historian, against practices that authenticate historical knowledge…. When history is mobilized for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a politics of hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end.18

In May 2004, to the amazement of everyone, and in defiance of every opinion poll, the BJP-led coalition was narrowly voted out of office, and the Congress returned to power for the first time in six years.

One of the first actions of the new government was to fire J.S. Rajput, the man who had supervised the preparation of the BJP’s textbooks, and to authorize schools to return to the old textbooks if they wished, pending a full review of the entire question. In the meantime, government schools are allowed to use their own judgment in choosing between the two sets of books which give, in many cases, mutually contradictory accounts of the same events. This seems a very Indian compromise.

At the moment, following Congress’s surprise election victory, the BJP is in disarray. But there can be little doubt that this only a temporary truce: both sides are passionate about their cause and believe that the other is guilty of deliberately distorting the truth. The last election result was more about the economic complaints of the rural poor than a referendum on Hindutva, and the BJP has recently shown every sign of hardening its position on such religious matters.

Exacerbating the problem in the long term is the absence of accessible, well-written, and balanced histories of India.19 The most widely available introductions to the subject—the two Penguin histories, one covering the period up to the arrival of the Muslims by Romila Thapar, the other by Percival Spear, who takes the story up to Indian Independence—are both fine scholarly works, but somewhat dull and hard-going.20 This as much as anything else has allowed myths to replace history among the members of India’s middle class, who are keen consumers of fiction, but have surprisingly little home-grown nonfiction to interest them. One of the remarkable features of the recent spectacular burst of creativity among Indian writers has been that few writers are drawn either to serious biography or narrative history. Though Indian historians produce many excellent specialist essays and numerous learned journals, it is impossible, for example, to buy an up-to-date and accessible biography of any of India’s pre-colonial rulers.

Here perhaps lies one of the central causes of the current impasse. It is not just up to the politicians to improve the fairness and quality of India’s history. Unless Indian historians learn to make their work intelligible and attractive to a wider audience, and especially to their own voraciously literate middle class, unhistorical myths will continue to flourish.

This Issue

April 7, 2005