This month saw India organise one of the most pivotal global events in the form of the G-20 summit. But the show soured when some grins, smirks and hushed sniggers from various foreign delegates were caught at the top of the wind. Their unlikely source, the official booklets about India, circulated to them during the G-20 summit.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a maverick by all intents, India has revelled in the success of hosting a global event of the scale of the G-20 summit for the first time since Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Commonwealth (CWHGM) summits in 1983.
Modi's government used the event to rechristen India as 'Bharat'. Even though this name exists as an alternate name for the country in the Indian Constitution, it was stressed that it should now be granted priority. On September 1, 2023, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the ultra-Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), told a gathering in the northeastern city of Guwahati that the people and government should now start calling the country "Bharat" instead of the anglicised "India".
This new mantra was soon lapped up by the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a political offshoot of the RSS. Subsequently, all official documents related to G-20 referred to the country as 'Bharat'. All government documents since the summit have also started referring to the country by its ancient name 'Bharat'.
The document trailing in their hands traced India's democratic traditions dating back to 6,000 BC, carefully predating its advent elsewhere
Among the summit's agenda, visiting delegates were introduced to India's effort to promote its indigenous identity as 'Bharat'. The Indian government spared no effort to highlight India's ancient democratic roots and rich historical heritage, leaving many intrigued. In particular, each delegate's folder contained two specially crafted, informative booklets showcasing India's storied past and vast cultural wealth.
One of these booklets was titled 'Bharat - Mother of Democracy', while the other was 'Bharat - Ancient Culture'. They detailed how India's rich democratic traditions were an ancient practice. What both these documents glossed over was 1,000 years of Muslim rule over India.
The visiting dignitaries, though, took the opportunity provided by the summit to explore and appreciate the rich architectural legacy of the Muslim era, visiting landmarks such as Jama Masjid, Qutub Minar, and Humayun's Tomb.
The document trailing in their hands traced India's democratic traditions dating back to 6,000 BC, carefully predating its advent elsewhere.
This narrative, forwarded by Hindutva ideologies, has always faced criticism from historians. They refer to evidence which points to Greece as the cradle of democratic principles. India, they highlight, only formally adopted democratic governance post-independence.
Unsurprising then that the booklets' emphasis on ancient democratic traditions in epic tales such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata has sparked debates among academics.
Additionally, the traditional narrative of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been recast as the Sindhu Saraswati Civilization, an era which academics agree was where rulers upheld caste hierarchy, were depicted as champions of democracy.
Its lofty claims became the talk of the town. Many delegates were found quietly laughing and grinning while parsing through its contents.
The booklets present Shivaji and Maharana Pratap as true Indian heroes and rightful rulers, while the Delhi Sultanate was depicted as usurpers and invaders.
"These booklets are not a work of any historian, but that of a storyteller," said Professor Ratan Lal, who teaches history at the Hindu College in Delhi University. "The government's failure to mention the rule of the Mughals clearly shows the inferiority complex this majority government has from those who ruled more than five centuries ago."
Lal, who was arrested last year by the cyber cell of the Delhi police for his comments on social media regarding the Gyanvapi Mosque issue, goes on to ask if the Mughals were so autocratic, how could the majority of Hindus survive.
"It was during the rule of the Muslim kings that the Hindus got jagirs (estate), funds to construct temples. Hindus enjoyed high positions and rank in the court of Mughal emperors, and these facts can't be denied by any student of history," he asserts.
It gets even better in the other document quietly distributed amongst G20 delegates. Its lofty claims became the talk of the town. Many delegates were found quietly laughing and grinning while parsing through its contents. That it even clouded India's scientific achievements in relatively recent decades was the cause of merriment and confusion amongst any and all who chanced upon it.
It informed G-20 delegates that ancient India had contributed to space and science when the the world was yet to discover iron and build the wheel. This document includes claims such as the discovery of atoms by scientists of ancient India and the existence of aircraft and space technologies in the Vedic times.
It suggested that many globally acknowledged Western findings had Indian precursors. Claims such as water on Mars being identified by ancient Indian astronomers or the conceptualisation of gravitational force by ancient Indian scientists have all been included in the booklet.
Seventy-five years after attaining independence, India today reminds one of the works of English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley on India's emerging pseudo-historical tendencies in the 1940s
Critics have suggested adopting a more evidence-based approach to these claims, emphasising the need to differentiate between mythological tales and verified historical facts.
The booklet carries a page which, instead of recognising Galileo, Newton and Dalton for their accredited discoveries, claims that Indian scientists such as Aryabhatta, Kanad and Brahamgupta should be given credit for their contributions in the field of science.
Going by this newly-circulated Indian narrative, water on the surface of Mars was first discovered by Indian astronomer Varaha Mihira in the first century BCE. The Kauaravs in the Mahabharata era were test tube babies, and Lord Krishna's elder brother Balram was born through surrogacy.
Indian scientists, it added, had developed the design and the model of the first spacecraft much before the Wright Brothers could get their design for the first artificially powered aircraft to take to the skies.
This list of claims goes on and on in the booklet. It is not that the information should not have been shared, but to do it without substantial proof that it is scientifically acceptable is where it definitively pushed the boundaries of what this world currently accepts as reality.
"It is unfortunate that we have reached an era where superstition has taken over science and history. All historical and scientific announcements should be backed by experiments and evidence and not imagination. These books not just discredit all great scientific works worldwide, but also our own recent mission to the moon," remarked another historian.
Seventy-five years after attaining independence, India today reminds one of the works of English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley on India's emerging pseudo-historical tendencies in the 1940s.
"In the course of last 30 or 40 years, a huge pseudo-historical literature has sprung up in India, the melancholy product of a subject people's inferiority complex. Industrious and intelligent men have wasted their time and their ability in trying to prove that the ancient Hindus were superior to every other people in every activity of life," Huxley wrote.
"Thus, each time the West announced a new scientific discovery, misguided scholars ransacked Sanskrit to find a phrase that might be interpreted as a Hindu anticipation of it."