NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.
The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.
Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.
Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.
The committee’s chairman, K.N. Dikshit, told Reuters, “I have been asked to present a report that will help the government rewrite certain aspects of ancient history.” The committee’s creator, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, confirmed in an interview that the group’s work was part of larger plans to revise India’s history.
For India’s Muslims, who have pointed to incidents of religious violence and discrimination since Modi took office in 2014, the development is ominous. The head of Muslim party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, said his people had “never felt so marginalised in the independent history of India.”
“The government,” he said, “wants Muslims to live in India as second-class citizens.”
Modi did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
INTO THE CLASSROOM
Helping to drive the debate over Indian history is an ideological, nationalist Hindu group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It helped sweep Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and now counts among its members the ministers in charge of agriculture, highways and internal security.
The RSS asserts that ancestors of all people of Indian origin – including 172 million Muslims – were Hindu and that they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India. Modi has been a member of the RSS since childhood. An official biography of Culture Minister Sharma says he too has been a “dedicated follower” of the RSS for many years.
Referring to the emblematic colour of the Hindu nationalist movement, RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya told Reuters that “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history.”
Balmukund Pandey, the head of the historical research wing of the RSS, said he meets regularly with Culture Minister Sharma. “The time is now,” Pandey said, to restore India’s past glory by establishing that ancient Hindu texts are fact not myth.
Sharma told Reuters he expects the conclusions of the committee to find their way into school textbooks and academic research. The panel is referred to in government documents as the committee for “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world.”
Sharma said this “Hindu first” version of Indian history will be added to a school curriculum which has long taught that people from central Asia arrived in India much more recently, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and transformed the population.
Hindu nationalists and senior figures in Modi’s party reject the idea that India was forged from a mass migration. They believe that today’s Hindu population is directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants. Historian Romila Thapar said the question of who first stood on the soil was important to nationalists because “if the Hindus are to have primacy as citizens in a Hindu Rashtra (kingdom), their foundational religion cannot be an imported one.” To assert that primacy, nationalists need to claim descent from ancestors and a religion that were indigenous, said Thapar, 86, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for decades and has authored books on ancient Indian history.
The theory of an influx of people from central Asia 3,000 to 4,000 years ago was embraced during British rule.
India’s first post-independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, who promoted a secular state and tolerance of India’s Muslims, said it was “entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture.” That outlook informed the way India was governed by Nehru and then by his Congress party for more than half a century. The rights of minorities – including the prohibition of discrimination based on religion – are enshrined in India’s constitution, of which Nehru was a signatory in 1950.
Shashi Tharoor, a prominent member of the Congress party, said right wing Hindus are “leading a political campaign over Indian history that seeks to reinvent the idea of India itself.”
“For seven decades after independence, Indianness rested on faith in the country’s pluralism,” Tharoor said, but the rise of Hindu nationalism had brought with it a “sense of cultural superiority.”
RISING TIDE: Shashi Tharoor, above, a parliamentary deputy from India’s main opposition Congress party, said the rise of Hindu nationalism had brought with it a “sense of cultural superiority.” REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
A HISTORY FOUNDED ON HINDU TEXTS
The history committee met in the offices of the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, a federal body that oversees archaeological research. Among the committee’s 14 members are bureaucrats and academics. The chairman, Dikshit, is a former senior official with the Archaeological Survey.
Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he will present the committee’s final report to parliament and lobby the nation’s Ministry of Human Resource Development to write the findings into school textbooks. That ministry, which is responsible for education and literacy programmes, is also headed by an adherent of the RSS, Prakash Javadekar.
“We will take every recommendation made by the Culture Ministry seriously,” Javadekar said. “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges.”
According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.
The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.
“Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges.”
Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.
Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.
In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.
Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.
Nine of 12 history committee members interviewed by Reuters said they have been tasked with matching archaeological and other evidence with ancient Indian scriptures, or establishing that Indian civilization is much older than is widely known. The others confirmed their membership but declined to discuss the group’s activities. The committee includes a geologist, archaeologists, scholars of the ancient Sanskrit language and two bureaucrats.
One of the Sanskrit scholars, Santosh Kumar Shukla, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Reuters he believes India’s Hindu culture is millions of years old. Another committee member, Ramesh Chand Sharma, former head of the linguistics department at the University of Delhi, said he would take a strictly scientific approach. “I don’t subscribe to any ideology,” he said.
FOUNDING FATHER: A visitor stands next to a portrait of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inside the Nehru memorial museum and library in New Delhi in Sept. 2015. Nehru promoted tolerance of India’s Muslims and said it was misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
With an annual budget of about $400 million – an important source of federal funding for historical research, archaeology and the arts – the Culture Ministry is an influential place to start a campaign of historical revision.
After he was named culture minister in 2014 following Modi’s victory, Sharma, a doctor and chairman of a chain of hospitals, said he received guidance from the RSS. Sharma, a genial man with a wide smile, has a portrait of Bharat Mata, or Mother India, hanging above the doorway of a meeting room in his bungalow in central Delhi. Below it are portraits of past RSS leaders.
During the last three years, Sharma said, his ministry has organized hundreds of workshops and seminars across the country “to prove the supremacy of our glorious past.” The aim, he said, is to build a fresh narrative to balance the liberal and secular philosophy espoused by India’s first prime minister, Nehru, and furthered by successive governments for most of the nation’s post-independence history.
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, now controlled by Sharma’s ministry, these days mixes in sessions about right wing Hindu leaders and causes. At one such event in 2016, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, took the opportunity to lambast Nehru as a man influenced by the western world. “We have always believed that our policies should have the smell of Indian soil,” Shah said. It was time for a history of India that concentrates on “facts about our great past.”
Additional reporting by Krishna N. Das, Aditya Kalra and Vipin Das M in New Delhi, Jatindra Das in Bhubaneswar and Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata
By Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter
Graphics: Weiyi Cai
Photo editing: Thomas White
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet McBride and Peter Hirschberg