The main chapter of how Hindutva sees the past

The revival of history as a contested terrain in India is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the Hindutva movement

June 27, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 01:08 pm IST

‘In the Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion-based binaries’

‘In the Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion-based binaries’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The revived contestations over history — from the Gyanvapi mosque case to the renewed demonisation of Aurangzeb — confirm that Hindutva conflates its ideas of religion and culture with those of nation and state. Nationalism and statehood are by definition indivisible, whereas religion and culture take on multiple manifestations. Culture of course contributes to national identity; yet, culture alone cannot mould the nationalism of a country, leave alone that of a plural land such as India. Indeed, an India confident in its own diversity could celebrate multiple expressions of its culture.

A ‘ground zero’

Hindutva sees culture differently. As the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s longest-serving chief M.S. Golwalkar wrote, culture “is but a product of our all-comprehensive religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it”. For the Hindutvavadis, India’s national culture is Hindu religious culture, and cultural nationalism cloaks plural India in a mantle of Hindu identity. Since Hindutva’s conception of nationalism is rooted in the primacy of culture over politics, the Hindutva effort is to create an idea of the Indian nation in which the Hindu religious identity coincides with the cultural. In this process, Indian history, following the Muslim conquests of north India, has become “ground zero” in the battle of narratives between the Hindutvavadis and the pluralists.

When, with the publication of my book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, I spoke critically of 200 years of foreign rule, the voices of Hindutva, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, condemned 1,200 years of foreign rule. To them, the Muslim rulers of India, whether the Delhi Sultans, the Deccani Sultans or the Mughals (or the hundreds of other Muslims who occupied thrones of greater or lesser importance for several hundred years across the country) were all foreigners. I responded that while the founder of a Muslim dynasty may well have come to India from abroad, he and his descendants stayed and assimilated in this country, married Hindu women, and immersed themselves in the fortunes of this land; each Mughal Emperor after Babar had less and less connection of blood or allegiance to a foreign country. If they looted or exploited India and Indians, they spent the proceeds of their loot in India, and did not send it off to enrich a foreign land as the British did. The Mughals received travellers from the Fergana Valley politely, enquired about the well-being of the people there and perhaps even gave some money for the upkeep of the graves of their Chingizid ancestors, but they stopped seeing their original homeland as home. By the third generation, let alone the fifth or sixth, they were as “Indian” as any Hindu.

The intellectual terrain

This challenge of authenticity, however, cuts across a wide intellectual terrain. It emerges from those Hindus who share V.S. Naipaul’s view of theirs as a “wounded civilisation”, a pristine Hindu land that was subjected to repeated defeats and conquests over the centuries at the hands of rapacious Muslim invaders and was enfeebled and subjugated in the process. To them, Independence is not merely freedom from British rule but an opportunity to restore the glory of Hindu culture and religion, wounded by Muslim conquerors. Historians such as Audrey Truschke, author of a sympathetic biography of Aurangzeb, have argued that this account of Muslims despoiling the Hindu homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor based on accurate records of the past. But one cannot underestimate the emotional content of the Hindutva view: it is for them a matter of faith that India is a Hindu nation, which Muslim rulers attacked, looted and sought to destroy, and documented historical facts that refute this view are at best an inconvenience, at worst an irrelevance. Indeed, Professor Truschke has remarked on the widespread belief in India that Aurangzeb was a Muslim fanatic who destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. None of these propositions, she demonstrates in her work, was true, least of all the claim (made by many of those who fought successfully to remove his name from a prominent road in Delhi) that his ultimate aim was to eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.

Historical evidence suggests that Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples, as is claimed, and that the ones he did destroy were largely for political reasons; that he did little to promote conversions, as evidenced by the relatively modest number of Hindus who adopted Islam during Aurangzeb’s rule; that he gave patronage to Hindu and Jain temples and liberally donated land to Brahmins; and that millions of Hindus thrived unmolested in his empire. Like many rulers of his time, whether Muslim or Hindu, Aurangzeb attacked Hindus and Muslims alike. But such nuanced accounts of Aurangzeb enjoy little traction amongst those who prefer their history in unambiguous shades of black and white. Aurangzeb is controversial not because of what he did in the historical past but rather because he serves a useful purpose in the present as an emblem of Muslim oppression.

In the Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion-based binaries, in which all Muslim rulers are evil and all Hindus are valiant resisters, embodiments of incipient Hindu nationalism. The Hindutvavadis seem unaware of the Muslim generals who fought on the side of Hindu rajas and vice-versa. Indeed, few who extol Maharana Pratap as the “victor” in the Battle of Haldighati against Akbar’s Mughal army realise that Akbar’s forces were in fact commanded by a Hindu, Raja Man Singh of Amber, and that Rana Pratap’s resistance was led principally by a Muslim, Hakim Khan Sur. Similarly, liberal and tolerant rulers such as Ashoka, Akbar, Jai Singh and Wajid Ali Shah do not figure in Hindutva’s list of national heroes. Indeed, where many nationalist historians extolled Akbar as the liberal, tolerant counterpart to the Islamist Aurangzeb, Hindutvavadis have begun to attack him too, principally because he was Muslim, and like most medieval monarchs, killed princes who stood in his way, many of whom happened to be Hindu.

The recent past is not spared too

Communal history colours even the more recent past. Among those Indians who revolted against the British, Bahadur Shah, Zeenat Mahal, Maulavi Ahmadullah and General Bakht Khan, all Muslims, are conspicuous by their absence from Hindutva histories. And syncretic traditions such as the Bhakti movement, and universalist religious reformers such as Rammohan Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen, do not receive much attention from the Hindutva orthodoxy. What does is the uncritical veneration of “Hindu heroes” such as Maharana Pratap and of course Chhatrapati Shivaji, the intrepid Maratha warrior whose battles against the Mughals have now replaced accounts of Mughal kings in Maharashtra’s textbooks. As the recent National Council of Educational Research and Training controversy has again reminded us, the educational system is the chosen battlefield for the Hindutva warriors, and curriculum revision their preferred weapon.

History has often been contested terrain in India, but its revival in the context of 21st century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the Hindutva movement in the present. While the Mughals will be demonised as a way of delegitimising Indian Muslims (who are stigmatised as “Aurangzeb ke aulad”, the sons of Aurangzeb), the appropriation of Sardar Patel, Madan Mohan Malaviya and other nationalists by Hindutva confirm that the heroes of the freedom struggle will be hijacked to the ruling party’s attempts to appropriate a halo of nationalism that none of its forebears has done anything to earn.

Shashi Tharoor is third-term Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (Congress) from Thiruvananthapuram, is the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author of ‘An Era of Darkness’ and of ‘The Battle of Belonging’. His most recent book is ‘Ambedkar: A Life’

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