Last week, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao was appointed head of the Indian Council of Historical Research. He is also president of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bharateeya Itihaasa Sankalana Samithi, an organisation that seeks to write history from an Indian nationalist perspective from “the beginning of kaliyuga onwards”.
Rao, though, goes further back than the kaliyuga: one of his current projects involves affixing a definitive date to the Mahabharata war. His other interests include Vedic literature, bharateeya sanskriti (Indian culture) and Indian mythology (the use of the word “mythology”, given his literalist interpretation of the Mahabharata, is an interesting choice).
This was inevitable. Politics has always used history as a tool and agent. The move is reminiscent of the appointment of Murli Manohar Joshi as human resources development minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. Joshi made a number of appointments in crucial academic positions that were criticised by academic historians at the time as attempts to saffronise the curriculum and position Hindu scriptural dicta as academic thought.
Yet, the contest between these narratives of Indian history is not new. A look at five areas where Hindutva historians have sought to rewrite accepted histories.
1. The Medieval Period as India’s Dark Ages
The medieval period saw a succession of Muslim rulers establish empires, especially in north India. When prime minister Narendra Modi mentioned India’s “slave mentality of 1,200 years” in the Lok Sabha, he was asserting that it was not only during the 200 years of British dominion that Indians were enslaved, but in the preceding 1,000 years of Muslim-rule as well. The 1,000-year number is incorrect in any case; Muslim monarchs of various dynasties controlled Delhi for about 600 years, and even less in other parts of the subcontinent.
Indian historiography does not consider the medieval period foreign rule, primarily because the Muslim kings engaged with Indian culture meaningfully as they ruled, and were not economically extractionary like the British colonists. Historians associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have long sought to challenge this, painting the years of Muslim rule as foreign.
In January, Hindutva adherents on Twitter created a furore over Tipu Sultan being featured on Karnataka’s Republic Day float. A number of Indian historians have championed Sultan as one of the few kings who refused to submit to England’s military advantage.
An extreme version of the efforts to delegitimise rulers of this age is found in the works of historian PN Oak (quoted often by a member of the BJP, Subramanian Swamy). Oak claims that the Taj Mahal was once a Shiva temple named “Tejo Mahalaya” that the Mughals simply took over, changing the name slightly.
2. The Golden Hindu Age
Looking past the many advances India made in the medieval period, Hindutva historians often look to ancient India for a sense of historical sustenance. Ironically, the preferred morality of the RSS is modeled more on 19th-century European sensibilities than the mores prevalent in ancient India. Historians such as DN Jha, who have showed that some people in ancient India ate beef, are therefore attacked.
In an interview with TheTelegraph, Rao bluntly confirms that his aim is to “rewrite ancient history”.
It is worth noting that the Hindutva imagining of history resembles many other fundamentalist movements. As one satirical tweet on Iraq’s ISIS read: “The ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means. In Baghdad, it’d involve booze, odes to wine, science… and a gay court poet.”
3. Scholarship around Hinduism
Religious history, in itself, is a useful field given how society is shaped by faith. Archaeologists like BB Lal and SR Rao have even sought to determine the truth of events related in the Mahabharata through their research.
Unfortunately, much of this work has been literalist in approach, reminiscent of the Biblical archaeology movement. This perception is reinforced by the treatment that Wendy Doniger’s work on Hinduism has received. Dinanath Batra, the senior RSS member who ensured Doniger’s publishers pulped her book, advised the previous BJP government on education policy.
4. Out-of-India Theory
Hindutva historians such as the Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst explain the linguistic links between India and Europe through a theory in which Europeans are the modern descendants of people who migrated out of India, spreading their language in the process. This is crucial given how Hinduism is defined as completely indigenous to India by the RSS.
But this theory has little credibility in linguistics and historical research. The Kurgan Hypothesis (or the Aryan Migration Theory) is the mostly widely-accepted model.
5. Re-interpreting the Freedom Movement
Though each period of Indian history has become a source of contest, the freedom movement is possibly the most politicised segment of Indian history. The Congress has its own band of historians who have interpreted the period as per its needs. Surprisingly, the BJP agenda here is the least contentious and comprises what are basically petty turf wars involving individuals.
When the BJP was last in power, bitter squabbles arose over whether Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar’s picture should go up in Parliament or not. Nehru – a fond target of the Hindutva right – will probably come under more attack, and his more conservative contemporary Vallabhbhai Patel will be championed.
Yet, even as the RSS makes strenuous efforts to refashion history to suit its own needs, it must be pointed out to anybody excessively alarmed (or pleased) by this, that official histories have a pretty small role to play in today’s world. For example, the current set of history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training are truly well-written, with little political interference and featuring the latest research. Most politically aware Indians, though, simply ignore them and pick such history off the Internet, that best fits their preconceived notions.
Moreover, most of the primary research is now done outside India. More academics in India seem to be keeping away from the hard grind of primary-source research, an attitude that American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as “cultural genocide”. That, perhaps, is something we should be worrying about more.