Why India Is Erasing Parts of its Own History

Why India Is Erasing Parts of its Own History
It has been an age-old practice of colonisers to erase the history of the people they conquer. If they had no history, the conquered people would have no impetus to reclaim their identity and seek independence. When European powers discovered Africa and carved up the continent, they pretended that its history started from the day they occupied the land.

Something analogous in going on internally in India, although clearly India is not under any foreign occupation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Government has embarked on purifying and rewriting the school textbooks to remove selective segments of their history in order to advance their Hindutva mission. Their plan is to indoctrinate the coming generations and keep them ignorant of what the ruling party does not want them to know. In a recent Op Ed in the Washington Post, Anumita Kaur noted that millions of students across India would one day read about the Taj Mahal, the greatest tourist attraction in the country, without learning about the splendor of the Mughal Empire and the identity of the Mughal emperor who built it.

The textbooks based on a new curriculum, prepared by India’s Council of Educational Research, have been cleansed of most references of Muslim rulers, especially the Mughals. The chapter named Kings and Chronicles: The Moghul Courts, in the new textbook for 12th-grade history has been removed. Similarly gone are all mentions of Gujrat riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed and any hints of Modi’s involvement in it.

It is paradoxical that BJP and Hindu nationalists are especially hostile to the Mughal Empire, since India at that time had become the wealthiest country in the world. Furthermore, among all the medieval Muslim rulers, Mughals were the most assimilated, tolerant and Indianised sovereigns. Starting from Akbar, they married Rajput princesses, and would now be classified as genetically far more Rajput than Mughals. The Mughal courts had adopted many of the Hindu customs and etiquettes, and Hindu nobles rose to powerful positions of leadership, commanding armies and heading civilian ministries. The sacred Hindu texts, Ramayana and Mahabharata, were rendered into Persian during Akbar’s reign.

Some evidence of popularity of the pluralistic, inclusive, and syncretistic nature of Mughal rule is provided by the fact that India’s war of independence in 1857 was launched in the name of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, acknowledging him as the sovereign ruler of India by both Muslims and Hindus. In the twilight of the Mughal Empire, Marathas had become the most powerful force and provided protection to the kings in Delhi and issued royal proclamations in their names.

The current Hindu nationalist agenda is not limited to erasing the history of Muslim rule; it has a much wider goal. The contributions of India’s founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the iconic leaders of freedom movement, are being minimised or undermined. References to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu militant, and Gandhi’s message of communal harmony and peace has been deemphasised or removed. The prominent Indian newspaper, the Indian Express reported that four chapters, introduction of the working of democracy and critical elements needed for its success, have been found too threatening and removed from middle school textbooks.

Prime Minister Nehru especially has become the prime target of Modi followers and is often vilified by the rightwing media. His unrivaled historic stature and the international respect he commanded in his time remains a challenge to Modi, as Bhartiya Junta Party (BJP) believes that Nehru must be toppled from the pedestal and replaced by Modi. In the current environment, Muslim Congressional leaders, such as Maulana Abul Kamal Azad and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, who spent years in jails fighting for Indian independence, do not merit any mention.

The path which Gandhi and Nehru followed to become iconic, luminous figures is very different than that which catapulted Modi to powerful celebrity status. The former leaders were exponents of secularism and a pluralistic society, while Modi and his Hindu Nationalist Party has promoted division, unabashedly promoting the ascendency of Hindu culture and suppression of minorities, particularly the Muslims. Nehru and Modi are thus antithesis of each other.

The Harrow and Cambridge educated Nehru, deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment movement, was brought up in an aristocratic household heavily steeped in the Mughal culture and ways. His father and grandfather, Kashmiri Pundits, were well versed in Urdu and Persian languages. Nehru fondly recollects in his autobiography that as a child, whenever distraught or unhappy, he would run to and find solace and comfort in the lap of his father’s old accountant, Munshi Mubarak Ali, who would relate alluring stories from the Arabian Nights to pacify him. Alas, Mubarak Ali from a respected family of Budaun did not live long enough to see Nehru’s ascent to national leadership. Years later, Nehru wrote wistfully that he would treasure Munshi Ji’s memory for the rest of his life.

Modi’s upbringing could not have been more different from Nehru’s. Brought up in a modest, conservative household in Gujarat, he joined the right-wing militant Hindu organisation, Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at an early age and later became an active members of BJP, another Hindu organisation. He has never been exposed to ideals of humanitarianism, or pluralistic or human rights values. He was the chief minister when anti Muslim riots broke out in 2002 in Gujrat, and many blame him for doing nothing to stop the carnage. His trajectory to success has been through the narrow path of Hindu nationalism.

For a long time, India has been touted as the world’s largest democracy, but lately has come under severe criticism for its abandonment of many democratic norms. For example, the showing of a two-part documentary prepared by the BBC, based on some new information about the Gujrat riots and Modi’s potential culpability, was blocked in India and the BBC offices in Delhi and Bombay raided by the Indian tax collectors. Biden administration has refrained from criticizing India for its retreat from democratic practices as it views the country as a counterweight to China. It is reported that the Indian prime minister may pay a state visit to the US in June this year, a sharp reversal of the policy that denied him a visitor’s visa for many years.

What is happening in India today should be a lesson to Pakistan, especially the feuding Pakistani politicians who are fiercely vying for power and glory, unconcerned about the fate of the country. It is worth contemplating that the state of Pakistani Muslims could easily have been the same as that of 200 million Indian Muslims, but for the farsighted leaders who fought for a separate Muslim homeland in pre-independence India.

The survival of any country ultimately depends on how diligently its people safeguard their independence. On the last day of the US Constitution convention on September 18, 1778, in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, the American politician known for drafting the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution made the historic observation addressed to the people “we have given you a republic if you can keep it.”

The two-and-a-half-centuries-old advice given by Franklin could have come equally well from Pakistan’s founding fathers in 1947.