Did you know that Vatican City, the Kaaba, Westminster Abbey and the Taj Mahal were once temples to the Hindu god Shiva?
These are not the views of a lunatic few. Students attending more than 20,000 religious schools run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India have been taught these “facts” for years. Given that the RSS, which advocates Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) is essentially the farm team for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in India, it’s no surprise history has now become a battleground for the identity and future of the nation.
This has been an old priority of the BJP. In fact, within four days of its federal election victory in 2014, the Hindu right-wing government announced plans to rewrite public school textbooks on a larger scale, known as saffronization because of the saffron-coloured robes worn by Hindu priests. States where it has its strongest foothold have already seen drastic changes. Gujarat, for example, has so far introduced nine new textbooks for Grades 1 to 12, authored by Hindu ideologues.
Among the pearls of wisdom imparted, for instance, is the “fact” the first airplane was invented in India when Hindu god Ram flew from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya. Eight of the books are authored by Dina Batra, founder of a group who had three publishers withdraw books deemed “hurtfult to Hindu religious sentiments.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi (then chief minister of Gujarat), from whom history is clearly not a forte, wrote forewards for Batra’s books. Modi has, for instance, said genetic science existed in ancient India.
The magnitude of the project can only be appreciated when one notes that prominent historians have resigned or been terminated from state agencies, protesters are being arrested, people have been attacked and the changes have significant support from outside the country.
Earlier this month in Rajasthan, 10 students from the national student union were injured and 12 were arrested for protesting changes, including deletion of references to former PM Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi from history books. Last year other groups protested in Karnataka against textbook changes it deemed marginalized women, lower casts and reinforced stereotypes against Christians and Muslims.
The saffron brigade is using history as a tool for mythmaking and Hindu nationalism. Earlier this year, it launched a campaign to remove the Mughal Empire from Indian history books. Last week, Ram Shankar Katheria, the junior minister in Smriti Irani’s education ministry said Hindu-centric rewriting of history “is for the benefit of the country and whatever is good for the country … will be done.”
Disturbingly, the project has significant support from outside. In fact, according to the Times of India, the movement survives in part thanks to wealthy and well placed Non Resident Indians (NRIs). Indeed, glowing book reviews of these revisionist texts have been written by prominent NRI academics at Western universities.
Hindutva supporters and marginalized people battled over the curriculum and state textbooks in California last month, reports Salon. Lower caste Hindus and other religious minorities oppose changes proposed by upper caste Hindus. Salon reported: “Hindutva’s political ideology calls for an exclusively Hindu nation with Dalits, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims either being assimilated or expelled. A key part of this project is the construction of India as a historically Hindu nation, disenfranchising Dalits, making Sikhs and Buddhists invisible, and identifying Christians and Muslims as “foreigners.”
In addition to working at the grassroots by changing school curriculum, the BJP has also been busy stacking the once respected Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR] with Hindutva supporters.
Additionally, critics contend various other educational bodies, including the prestigious Indian Historical Review and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the body responsible for school curriculum, are being infiltrated by Hindutva advocates.
The fact historical evidence does not back many of the claims appears not to stand in the way of these “historians.” After all, what does evidence have to do with anything when “facts” can be created and more rigorous historians can be dismissed as anti-Hindu or ignorant of the caste system.
The not-so-hidden Hindutva agenda appears to be the minimization and mischaracterization of minority contribution and the whitewashing of the treatment of the lower caste Hindus. Obviously, marginalized communities are easier to alienate or cleanse.
This story first appeared on thestar.com