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

1.

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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.