Review of Books 52,6 (April 7, 2005) India: The War Over History

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New York Review of Books 52,6 (April 7, 2005)

India: The War Over History

By William Dalrymple


Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine; Oxford University Press,144 pp., $39.95

Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings by Paul Courtright; Oxford University Press, 296 pp., $26.95 (paper)

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 by Romila Thapar; University of California Press, 586 pp., $48.00; $18.95 (paper)

Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History by Sumit Sarkar; Indiana University Press, 280 pp., $37.95

A History of India, Volume 2 by Percival Spear; Penguin, 304 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence; University Press of Florida,384 pp., $59.95; $24.95 (paper)

The Myth of the Holy Cow by Dwijendra Narayan Jha; Verso, 120 pp., $14.00 (paper)

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 amongst the Indian diaspora, something approaching a full-scale war has been declared over the ownership of the past: a passionately contested battle over both Sanskrit scholarship and the interpretation of Indian history.

Debates about rival narratives of Indian prehistory or the inter-religious struggles of the Medieval South Asia -- the sort of specialist arguments that anywhere else in the world would be the preserve of learned journals and scholarly conferences -- have in India become the stuff of election 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 the 5th of January this year, an incident took place at one of India’s leading centres of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town of Pune, which demonstrated how serious things had become. It was just after 10 a.m. and the staff were opening up the library when a cavalcade of more than twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around 200 Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the telephone lines. Then they began to beat the place up.
The militants overturned the library shelves, and for the next few hours they kicked and danced upon the books, destroying 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, a set of palm leaf inscriptions, and a very early copy of the Rig Veda- the world’s oldest sacred text -- once used by Max Mueller.
The cause of this violence was a brief mention of the institute in the acknowledgements of a slim scholarly volume, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota2. The book, which had been lauded by scholars when it appeared in spring of 2003, was a study of the literature which accumulated around the figure of Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-1680), the West Indian guerrilla leader who successfully took on 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 honour.
In the course of his book, Laine had noted that Shivaji’s parents “lived apart for most if not all of Shivaji’s life”[p91], adding that “Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father” [p93]. This was interpreted as Laine suggesting that Shivaji was illegitimate, and after a horrified review was published in a Marathi weekly magazine, a succession of protests began. In October an elderly Sanskrit scholar whom Laine had thanked in his acknowledgements, was roughed up and had his face smeared with tar. To forestall further violence, in November the book was withdrawn from the Indian market by the Oxford University Press, and an apology for causing offence was issued by the author.
The Indian newsmagazine Outlook ran the story of the attack on the Institute across two pages under the banner headline “A Taste of Bamiyan ,” and most of the Indian broadsheets carried editorials attacking what one referred to as the “Talibanisation” of India: “We cannot have the mob write our history for us,” thundered the Indian Express.
Unluckily for 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 acknowledgements to be arrested, questioned and tried. Opening his campaign in Maharashtra, the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari 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.”
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 of national figures like Shivaji?”
Yet in the land of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violence, this was not the only case of obscure scholarly works on Indian history and religion generating surprisingly violent responses from India’s resurgent 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 “cyber-nationalists” of the Indian diaspora.
When an Indian edition of Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings 3by Paul Courtright, Professor of Religion at Emory University was published in 2003, its cover– which Courtright had neither seen nor approved -- showed an image of the elephant-headed God nude. Courtright promptly found himself the target of an email petition which was signed by seven thousand people in one week and which contained 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.
Last November, I was chairing a lecture on the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The lecture had been sponsored by a wealthy Hindu philanthropist, and was 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 towards the podium and threw an egg at Doniger, which narrowly missed her. During the questions that followed the lecture, Doniger faced a barrage of heated 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 SOAS lectures on India have since been broken up in similar circumstances.
Within India, mobs mobilised by the Hindu Right have occasionally attacked art exhibitions, libraries, publishers and cinemas for their alleged unpatriotic and anti-Hindu bias, but for the first time the campaign now seems to be spreading onto campuses worldwide. Scholars are now very nervous.
Nor is it just foreign scholars who have been targeted. The historian D.N Jha who wrote The Myth of the Holy Cow, pointing out the considerable historical and archaeological evidence that beef was routinely eaten in Vedic period (1st millennium BC), received many death threats and had his book withdrawn in India. “This is terrorism,” he told the press after hearing 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, India’s most celebrated historian of early India, who has also had 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 diverge in the 1930’s, during the freedom struggle against the British Raj. While the Indian Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, tended to emphasise national unity and sought to minimise 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 whom formed a neo-Fascist paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS), the Association of National Volunteers.
Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS, was founded in direct imitation of European Fascist movements. Like its 1930's models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes (the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest). The idea is to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what the RSS see the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party which ruled India from 1999 until this May, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organisations. Though 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- both organisations believe, as the centrepiece 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 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 in the course of the second millennium BC by a group of peoples who spoke Indo-European -- or Aryan -- languages, and who arrived in India in an Eastwards migration from the Middle East4. Golwalkar disagreed. He believed that Hindus were indigenous to India- in contrast to India’s Muslims who invaded India and still looked to Mecca as the focus of their faith5. 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”6.

Golwalkar’s second divergence from the usual Indian consensus was over the role played by India’s successive mediaeval Muslim conquerors. The invasion of Hindu and Buddhist India by Central Asian Muslim Turks and Mughals between the 12th and the 16th century tended to be seen by historians of the Raj essentially as a long sequence of pillage. This was in stark contrast- so 19th British historians would have it- to the law and order brought by their ‘Civilising Mission’. In reaction to this view, Congress tended to emphasise that Hindus and Muslims were one people, ethnically indistinguishable from each other, whose culture had come to fuse over centuries of co-existence; any differences between the two were 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 1930’s Germany. 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 in We 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 [ie 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.7"
During Partition in 1947, the RSS was responsible for many horrifying atrocities against India's Muslims, and it was a former RSS swayamsevak, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for (in RSS eyes) “pandering” to the Muslims. In the aftermath of this, 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 proceeding on Nazi lines.”8
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 uncontested its Nehruvian view of history. From the early 1960’s, government-issued history textbooks accepted that the Hindus ancestors had come to India from West Asia and that they arrived as conquerors. Its also emphasised the creation in mediaeval India of the ‘composite culture’9.
The coming together of the great civilisations 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 focused upon. They showed how in Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that mixed the Persian and Arabic words of the Muslim 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.
These Nehruvian-era school textbooks were the work of the greatest historians of their day, who tended to come from from the Left-leaning Congress elite: figures like Professors Romila Thapar or R.S Sharma. Their work emphasised that Islam in India was spread 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. They also emphasised the religious tolerance of many of the Mughal Emperors, especially Akbar (1542-1605) who patronised 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 emphasised the compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine revelations. Many other great Mughal writers showed similarly syncretic tendencies: Ghalib, the greatest of all Urdu poets, for example wrote praising 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.' 10
All this was quite true; yet it was however only one side of a more complex picture. Large scale desecration of Hindu monuments had undoubtedly taken place when Turkish warlords first swept into India in the 12th 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 in the course of the 13th and 14th centuries11.
This overstatement of the case for Hindu-Muslim amity in the Nehruvian textbooks gave the Hindu nationalists their opening as they began to gather strength during the 1970’s. The first hints of a stirring against the existing orthodoxy took place in the aftermath of India’s Emergency of 1975. When the Congress Party was defeated in the election that followed, losing power for the first time since Independence, Nehru’s daughter Mrs Gandhi was replaced by Moraji Desai, an old fashioned Brahmin who famously used to begin his day with drinking a glassful of 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.12.
Over the 1980’s, the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of a dispute that focused attention on temple destruction. The argument revolved around the question of 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 organisations 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, stormed the barricades. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" the militants attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, like 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 had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarised things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1992, the BJP took 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 the reigns of power firmly into their hands.
The new 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 renewing her place on the Indian Council for Historical Research (or ICHR). Soon afterwards she and several colleagues were removed from the Prasar Bharati, where they had overseen the historical content of what was broadcast on the state-run Indian media. They were replaced by non-historian political appointees 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 labelled communalist are now in power. Now it's our turn to write the history." 13
From the mid-1980’s, BJP-ruled states had begun to issue new textbooks in regional languages which subscribed to their line on India’s history. The RSS had also issued “saffronised” textbooks for use in its own nationwide network of schools, the Shishu Mandirs14. When 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: the 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 Indian civilisation might have developed its extraordinary richness specifically because of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character was airbrushed from the picture.

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 from outside mainstream academia. As Romila Thapar pointed out in the Hindustan Times, the fact that the BJP failed to recruit any respectable historians from within Indian academia showed that the confrontation was not “between Leftist and Rightist historians but between professional historians and politicians sympathetic to Hindutva.”15

Academic historians were horrified, and the organisation representing them, the Indian History Congress (IHC), passed repeated motions calling for the withdrawal of the books. They also produced a booklet listing over one thousand errors, typos and illiteracies 16: the Modern India textbook, for example, was shown to have omitted any mention of the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi “due to space constraints”17.
Most controversial of all, however, was the mediaeval textbook by Menakshi Jain. Her work came in for particular criticism for its depiction of 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 put up “yet another glorious chapter of struggle” to resist the “Turkish yoke” before succumbing in a bloodbath of corpses and desecrated temples: “Everywhere he ravaged temples, pillaged cities and collected untold wealth… The defenceless 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.”18
While some 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. According to Professor Narayani Gupta of Jamia Milia University in Delhi who has vigorously campaigned against the new textbooks, Jain’s account is deeply flawed: “Reading Jain’s work,” she told me, “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. Yet word ‘Hindu’ was not used as a religious term until the 19th Century, and in mediaeval 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 are 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 the state-sponsored pogroms in Gujarat in April 2002, when over 2000 Muslims were hunted down and murdered, Indian historians fear that the propagation of such divisive myths can only lead to yet more violence 19. Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, has written that so inaccurate are the new textbooks 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.20

* * *
In May this year, to the amazement of everyone, and in defiance of every opinion poll, the BJP were 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 Governments was to sack J. S. Rajput, the man who had supervised the production of the BJP’s textbooks, and to authorise schools to return to the old textbooks if they wished, pending a full review. In the meantime, government schools are allowed to use their own judgement in choosing between the two sets which give, in many cases, mutually contradictory accounts of the same events: 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 case 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 stance on such matters.
Exacerbating the problem in the long term is the absence of genuinely accessible, well-written and balanced histories of India. 21 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 taking the story up to Indian Independence- are both fine scholarly works, but far from light reading22. This as much as anything else has allowed myths to replace history among India's middle class, who are keen consumers of fiction, but have surprisingly little home-grown non-fiction to interest them: one of the remarkable features of the recent spectacular burst of creativity among Indian writers has been the absence of much serious biography or narrative history. Though Indian historians produce many excellent specialist essays and numerous learned journals, and 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. 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.
* * *

1 There is an excellent essay by Sumit Sarkar, “Hindutva and History” which examines exactly why control over the writing of history is so central to the project of Hindu nationalism. See Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva and History. [New Delhi, 2002]

2 James W Laine, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (OUP, 2003)

3 Originally published by OUP 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 his 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.

4 In the 1930’s 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 a group of languages who migrated to India from the Levant, where the earliest inscriptions in these tongues can be found in northern Syria.

5 Ideas which the Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul developed in his most recent non-fiction book on Islam, Beyond Belief. Naipaul’s view on Indian Muslim history tally surprisingly closely with those of Golwalkar, and like him believes that India’s real enemy was not the colonial British but the Muslims.

6 M.S Golwalkar, We, or Our Nationhood Defined.(Nagpur: Bharat publications, 1939), p37.

7 Gowlakar, We (op cit), p35, p62

8 Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers Vol 1, (G Parthasarthi, ed) Delhi: OUP, 1985, p33-4 (letters of 7 December 1947).

9 The phrase was included in the Indian Constitution where the fundamental duties of Indian citizens are said to include valuing and preserving “the rich heritage of our composite culture”.

10An excellent collection of essays- Beyond Turk and Hindu Edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence [University Press of Florida, 2000]- has recently updated the idea of the ‘composite culture’. The book shows the degree to which the richness of medieval Indian culture was the direct result of the inspired cross-fertilisation of Indian and Islamic civilisations. The historians take the view that “there have never been clearly fixed groups, one labelled ‘Hindu’ – and the other both its opposite and rival- labelled ‘Muslim.” Indeed, as one author points out, there is not a single mediaeval Sanskrit inscription that identifies “Indo-Muslim invaders in terms of their religion, as Muslims,” but instead they refer more generally in terms of “linguistic affiliation, most typically as Turk.” The groupings we today identify as ‘Muslim’ were then “construed as but one ethnic community in India amidst many.”

11 An important essay in Beyond Turk and Hindu has attempted to quantify the number of temples that were destroyed. It is a central nostrum of the RSS that fanatical Indo-Muslim states desecrated as many as 60,000 Hindu temples. This claim is examined by Professor Richard Eaton in his essay “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim states” [pp246-281]. Eaton concludes that “such a picture cannot be sustained by evidence from original sources”. Rather than 60,000 looted temples, Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around eighty desecrations, and that these demolitions tended to take place in the specific context of military defeats of Hindu rulers or when “Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served. Otherwise, temples lying within Indo-Muslim domains, viewed as protected state property, were left unmolested”. Eaton’s findings are hotly contested by the Hindu far right, but have been broadly accepted by professional historians.

12 See the account of this incident by Christophe Jaffrelot in his excellent study, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (Columbia University Press, 1993), p287-8 which remains by the far the best and most well-documented account of the rise of Hindu nationalism.

13 In India the word ‘communal’ is used in a negative sense to indicate the stirring up of hatred between different religious communities

14 ‘Saffronisation’ is a reference to saffron being the holy colour of Hinduism. Due to the rise of political Hinduism, the colour has come to be associated with right-wing Hindu organisations such as the RSS. Sagarika Ghose “Rational vs National” Outlook, 22 June 1998 ( gives translations from some of BJP state history textbooks which are full of dubious statements such as “Innumerable Hindus were forcibly made Mussulmans at the point of the sword. The struggle for freedom became a religious war.”

15 ‘Hindutva’, a phrase coined by Golwalkar, is shorthand for Hindu Nationalism. Romila Thapar, “Propaganda as History Won’t Sell” Hindustan Times, 9 December 2001.

16 Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal and Aditya Mukherjee, History in the New NCERT textbooks: A Report and Index of Errors [New Delhi, Indian History Congress 2003].

17 Contemporary India: History Book for Class IX, by Hari Om [NCERT, New Delhi 2002]

18 Medieval India by Jain [op cit], p27 p34 and p62.

19 One of the best accounts of the Gujerat riots was written by Pankaj Mishra in these pages. See “Murder in India”, The New York Review, August 15, 2002.

20Neeladri Bhattacharya, The Problem framing essay in a symposium on the BJP/RSS rewriting of history, reprinted in Seminar 522, February 2003 New Delhi, p18

21 John Keay's excellent India: A History [Harper Collins,1999,] is a notable exception to this.

22 Romila Thapar recently revised her Penguin history of India under the new title: EARLY INDIA: From the Origins to AD 1300 (Penguin Press £21/University of California Press $13). The brilliant culmination of a lifetime of scholarship, she brings her work up to date and directly challenges many of the myths of Hindutva. It is, however, written in fairly dense academese.

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