Politics and Revisionism in India


Ten years ago this week, a Hindu mob destroyed Babri Masjid, a medieval mosque in Ayodhya. The leaders of that mob wanted to liberate the land where some Hindus believe their revered God, Rama, was born, so that they could build a temple on that spot. Despite heated rhetoric at the time, the actual attack took many in India by surprise. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the movement to rebuild the temple, was part of India's political mainstream, and few thought it would defy the courts and step across the line into violence.

From the BJP's point of view, however, its strategy has paid off handsomely. Since then, instead of being punished at the polls, it has emerged as the single largest party in three elections, and today leads the coalition ruling India. The politicians who were in Ayodhya a decade ago are today running the country. Lal Krishna Advani is India's deputy prime minister, threatening to send troops into Pakistan to strike at extremists continuing to infiltrate into India. Next week, Narendra Modi, Mr. Advani's trusted aide, is seeking re-election as chief minister of Gujarat. Under his watch hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, died in riots this March.

Those activists were trying to undo the past and rewrite history in their own way. Now help comes from the federal minister for human resource development, science and technology, Murli Manohar Joshi, who is overseeing efforts to rewrite India's history textbooks, to reflect more accurately the pain caused to Hindu civilization by invading foreigners, usually Muslims.

To be sure, rewriting history is often necessary, as in modern Japan. Successive Japanese governments have not educated children about the horrors of the Imperial Japanese Army in East Asia between 1930s and 1940s. Japanese politicians and business leaders continue to blunder by worshipping at controversial shrines at home and making insensitive remarks in Asia. Japanese history teaches them that Japan was a victim of the Second World War (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), overlooking Japanese aggression -- Japanese forces beheaded Chinese men, enslaved Chinese, Korean and other Southeast Asian women, forced Allied POWs to build railways, and committed untold atrocities in the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Those seeking to rewrite Japanese history want to inject remorse and humility. Mr. Joshi’s intention is quite different: it is to make Hindus more aggressive and proud, by reminding Muslims they must be subservient and apologize for the past. Indian textbooks already mention the horrors of invading Muslim armies that destroyed many temples and killed many Indians. But they also celebrate the heritage of monuments (the Taj Mahal), art (Mogul miniatures), music (sitar) and food (samosa). By overstressing the former and understating the latter, the new history books may not make Hindus feel any prouder, but they will certainly make Indian Muslims insecure.

The Hindu nationalist view is ascendant because its advocates are capitalizing on the failures of modern India. The governing consensus -- liberal democracy, secularism and socialism -- has unraveled in the last quarter century. Liberal democracy suffered with Indira Gandhi's Emergency of 1975-77, when parts of the constitution were rewritten and the judiciary subjugated. Secularism weakened during the Sikh insurgency of early 1980s, which consumed Mrs. Gandhi. Her successor, Rajiv Gandhi, denied Muslim women the right to seek alimony in order to appease fundamentalist Muslims, and later banned Salman Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses." Following rigged elections in Kashmir in 1989, the insurgency there worsened. Corruption worsened, and socialism lost its meaning after Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union became free.

In that period of gloom, the only solace for Indians came from the Hindu epics "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata," which were televised on Sunday mornings and harkened back to a golden age. Those schmaltzy Bollywood serials filled an ideological vacuum. If only India could return to that past! If Nehruvian non-alignment was wrong, if Nehruvian socialism too was wrong, if Nehru's daughter could subvert liberal democracy and her son be accused of corruption, surely Nehruvian secularism had to be wrong too.

The BJP was waiting for just such soul-searching. The BJP is a cadre-based organization, closely linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Voluntary Corps, an organization that was twice banned after independence. Some of the RSS's top leaders have expressed admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Today, they want Hindus to rise and regain pride, and reject Islam and Christianity as alien faiths. The RSS and its associates have been working painstakingly at changing the Indian consensus. Forget the corrupt Congress and the ideologically bankrupt Left, the BJP says. Turn to us; we will bring back Rama Rajya, the golden rule of Rama.

This swagger has received intellectual imprimatur from writers like the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul
and the late Nirad Chaudhuri. Mr. Naipaul has called the Ayodhya mosque's destruction "an inevitable retribution." For too long Hindu nationalism had been cowed; it was now finding its true voice, and this resurgent yearning can only be good, he argued in "India: A Million Mutinies Now." Rewriting history textbooks is part of this exercise. The BJP intends to do this by challenging conventional history, debunking secular historians for depending on colonial interpretations and understating Islamic atrocities and offering a home-grown alternative.

The first challenge is a central building block of Indian history, the Aryan Invasion Theory. Conventional accounts say that around 5,000 years ago Aryans came to India and settled around the Indus Valley, creating the Mohenjo Daro and Harappa civilizations. They later came into contact with Dravidians in the south. Over time the two groups intermingled, creating the complex mosaic of Indian society that has continued to absorb other influences, including Islam and Christianity, creating the multi-everything Indian identity today. The nationalists, by contrast, claim that Hindu civilization was pure and predated everything; invasions occurred when the first Islamic invaders ransacked temples and killed thousands, and later, when Westerners colonized India.

Next, the Islamic invasions. The revisionists blame Indian historians like Romila Thapar, Michael Witzel and Bipan Chandra for understating the violence Islam unleashed when it entered India. They quote from 16th and 17th century accounts by Muslims that recount stories of Islamic rulers destroying temples, taking Hindu slaves and killing women and children.

That may indeed have happened, but what has that to do with Hindus and Muslims in India in 2002? The RSS says that to atone for those atrocities, Muslims should allow Hindus to reclaim temples in the holy cities of Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura; then Muslims can live at peace. The ideologues argue that India has not confronted these issues because of the colonized Indian mind -- the Congress leaders who led India's freedom movement, including Gandhi and Nehru, were educated in England. Thus, nationalists argue, they could hardly be expected to understand the concerns of the real India.

The final target is Mohandas Gandhi. Not necessarily the Gandhi who asked Indians to boycott foreign goods, but the non-violent Gandhi, who doesn't square with the nuclear program, and the Gandhi who went out of his way to accommodate Muslims. While no BJP leader has openly criticized Gandhi, plays and films that attack him have become popular. In his place, the martial and violent heroes of India's freedom struggle, like Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose, are being resurrected.

The BJP is not in a hurry. Like communist ideologues, BJP's leaders think long term; their vision is to transform the way Indians think over a generation or two. That's why rewriting history books, rather than spreading scientific or English education or removing mass illiteracy, is a priority for Mr. Joshi, whose responsibilities include science and technology.

If this strategy succeeds, it would make India a Hindu Pakistan. When India and Pakistan became independent, Pakistan chose to be a religious state, with Islam as its identity. India chose secularism and democracy. By championing Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist ideology, the BJP is convincing Indians to identify with their narrower identities. The BJP's goal is not to win only the next election, but the next generation. It can't get more ominous than that.

Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London.